I feel the need to start this little entry with a qualifier…this is totally half-formed and I’m not quite sure what I’m talking about. It’s very possible that I will look back on this in a couple of days/hours and decide that what I wrote was horribly naive and I’ll trash it. But I need to get it out of my head and onto paper just to check.
To start out, I’ve been thinking about ethics lately. I’m signed up to take a class on pastoral and social ethics, required as a part of my MDiv. Because I’m taking a ton of credits in week-long intensives this month, I got a jump on some of the reading over the two-week break. The first thing I read was Can We Be Good Without God by Paul Chamberlain. My opinion: it’s a decent book that totally fails to answer the question of the title. Unpacking this will lead into what I’m thinking about.
Chamberlain’s book is set in the context of a conversation between 5 people that mysteriously meet and chat about ethics. A thrilling narrative framework, to be sure. More accurately, they talk about the theory of ethics: whether there’s such a thing as objective moral standards and how such standards can be substantiated. The “characters” are really just talking heads for philosophical viewpoints, wholly devoid of personality. And, of course, the Christian is the genius that is able to ask quasi-fascinating questions that winsomely convince the other participants that they were complete idiots for ever doubting Biblical monotheism. Yes, the book was that paper-thin. That said, the arguments outlined were very well-constructed and helpful as an apologetic. I just didn’t care.
The point that I found most interesting is the point that all of these ethics books seem to concede from the outset: that we keep failing at being good. Chamberlain’s book is not about the ability to be good, but how do we define and defend an understanding of good. Even then, there is no attempt to be specific about what is good or bad, beyond the obvious and too-oft-cited examples of Mother Theresa and the Nazis (respectively, of course). It’s great to be able to define these things, but somehow I doubt that there was ever that much ambiguity about the good qualities of Mother Theresa and the bad qualities of the Nazis.
But what about a question where there is ambiguity? How do you make an ethical decision about right and wrong, and what’s the difference? Is every decision ultimately a right and a wrong thing, or are there some checklist that moves something from a subjective call to a moral predicament.
Maybe some examples would help… My roommate came home today after making a stop by Wal-Mart. Outside, he ran into a homeless guy that was asking for food. My roommate had just bought a tray of wings, and so he offered some to the guy. The homeless guy brushed off my roommate, refusing the offer. What is that? Is that right, or wrong? Is it one of those “at least you tried”-kind of moments?
Example 2: I got back into town this past Friday only to find out that my car wouldn’t start. The power was working, but the engine would not turn over, and was making a sound like death. The AAA guy came to tow it and gave it a listen, and thought it could be the timing belt. My stomach went into my sneakers. I could have sworn I’d had the timing belt replaced at 90K, and that was only 3 years and 30K ago. In my mind, I vexed myself for being so foolish, for letting this happen. The right thing to do would be to double check and make sure that all my maintenance was up-to-date. (aside: it wasn’t the timing belt, I did have it replaced on schedule; it was a fuel sensor, praise Jesus).
Example 3: I’m passively shopping around for a new MP3 player. Since it’s a pretty big investment (and I’m anal to begin with) I’ve been reading a bunch of user reviews off Amazon, CNet, and other online shops. As anyone who’s ever read these reviews knows, they’re classically unhelpful. Most of them are people who just bought the product 3 days ago screaming about how they either love the pretty colors, or hate that it didn’t come with an AC adapter (or bitter because they got the lemon). They’re always on one side of the spectrum or the other: absolutely loving the thing or hating it. It was either the right decision and they’re uproariously happy, or the wrong decision and they’ve got nothing but regret (and an expensive paperweight). But is that an ethical thing? Most would say no, but how is the exercise of wisdom that much different?
I think what’s tripping me up the most about the nature of ethics has less to do with ethics and more to do with justice. I want to believe that if I or my friends or someone else does the right thing, good things will come of it. If I do the wrong thing, bad things will come. So when good things or bad things come, I can trace them back to some volitional decision I made, because the world is a just place.
But that’s not the way life works. I think of all the different ways that I could associate this to counseling, and my mind boggles and my eyes begin to water. A young healthy couple that tries everything they can think of and can’t conceive. A man who finally breaks his addiction to alcohol only for his marriage to end in divorce. Parents who try to raise their kids in the fear and admonition of the Lord, only to find out they’ve gone wild upon leaving for college. An elderly person watching their body and mind deteriorate from age.
But then I think again about the ways that this lines up with my life. So much of my preoccupation with right and wrong seems really pretty selfish. I want to know that what I’m doing is the right thing primarily so that I can insulate myself, and protect myself from anything going wrong. I want to protect myself from the pain of regret. If I do the right thing, then I can have a degree of certainty that things will work out for me. At very least, I’ll never be the bad guy. Maybe I’ll never have to feel pain. Of course, that also doubles back to mean that when things go wrong, I have no one to blame but myself.
If that sounds familiar, it’s called Karma. It’s a deadly lie that I seem to tell myself every day. The fact is that the world is a lot bigger than me, and God is doing far bigger things than I can imagine – in, around, through, and in spite of me. I don’t have to be in control of this whole thing, because I never was to start. Grace is love’s grand interruption, as Bono and Matt Chandler have pointed out. And I’m holding on to the hope that this promise is still true.
There’s totally a song in there somewhere…