Monday, December 08, 2008

Ethics: Where's your focus?

At lunch today a group of us were talking about ethics.  One guy has taught an ethics course to students, and he was struck by how little they understand about basic ethics.  I mentioned that as I have sat through ethics courses at the university, I've been amazed at the lack of force in the arguments to be ethical.  Without a solid foundation for morality, all this ethics talk comes down to utilitarianism.  But that dissolves as soon as unethical behaviour becomes beneficial to me.  (And what's the defintion of beneficial, anyway?  What is "good"?  If everything is relative, then who are you to define what my ethical behavior looks like?!) 
   Later today, I came across the following passage.  I think it continues some of the thoughts we were talking about at lunch today, on ethics.  Of course, Chesterton's not talking about teaching students' ethics courses -- he's talking about ethics in literature -- but he makes a point that applies to a lot of different situations.  (It's from chapter two, "On the Negative Spirit," of G.K. Chesterton's book Heretics.  It was written in 1905!)  Compare it to Philippians 4:7-9 "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.")
"Much has been said, and said truly, of the monkish morbidity, of the hysteria which has often gone with the visions of hermits or nuns.  But let us never forget that this visionary religion is, in one sense, necessarily more wholesome than our modern and reasonable morality.  It is more wholesome for this reason, that it can contemplate the idea of success or triumph in the hopeless fight toward the ethical ideal, in what Stevenson called, with his usual startling felicity, 'the lost fight of virtue.'  A modern morality, on the other hand, can only point with absolute conviction to the horrors that follow breaches of law; its only certainty is a certainty of ill.  It can only point to imperfection.  It has no perfection to point to.  But the monk meditating upon Christ or Buddha has in his mind an image of perfect health, a thing of clear colours and clean air.  He may contemplate this ideal wholeness and happiness far more than he ought; he may contemplate it to the neglect or exclusion of essential THINGS; he may contemplate it until he has become a dreamer or a driveller; but still it is wholeness and happiness that he is contemplating.  He may even go mad; but he is going mad for the love of sanity.  But the modern student of ethics, even if he remains sane, remains sane from an insane dread of insanity..."
(He mentions an article written by a Mr. Foote, who explains how he thinks alcohol should be dealt with).
"...Mr. Foote dismissed very contemptously any attempts to deal with the problem of strong drink by religious offices or intercessions, and said that a picture of a drunkard's liver would be more efficacious in the matter of temperance than any prayer or praise.  In that picturesque expression, it seems to me, is perfectly emobodied the inscrutable morbidity of modern ethics.  In that temple the lights are low, the crowds kneel, the solemn anthems are uplifted.  But that upon the altar to which all men kneel is no longer the perfect flesh, the body and substance of the perfect man; it is still flesh, but it is diseased.  It is the drunkard's liver of the New Testament that is marred for us, which we take in remembrance of him.
     "Now, it is this great gap in modern ethics, the absence of vivid pictures of purity and spiritual triumph, which lies at the back of the real objection felt by so many sane men to the realistic literature of the nineteenth century...  The thing which is resented, and, as I think, rightly resented, in that great modern literature of which Ibsen is typical, is that while the eye that can perceive what are the wrong things increases in an uncanny and devouring clarity, the eye which sees what things are right is growing mistier and mistier every moment, till it goes almost blind with doubt..."
    "...My meaning is that Ibsen has throughout, and does not disguise, a certain vagueness and a changing attitutde as well as a doubting attitutde towards what is really wisdom and virtue in this life -- a vaguness which contrasts very remarkably with the decisiveness with which he pounces on something which he perceives to be a root of evil, some convention, some deception, some ignorance...  There are no cardinal virtues in Ibsenism.  There is no ideal man in Ibsen... Mr. Shaw sums up Ibsen's teaching in the phrase 'The golden rule is that there is no golden rule.'  In his eyes this absence of an enduring and positive ideal, this absence of a permanent key to virtue, is the one great Ibsen merit.  I am not discussing now with any fullness whether this is so or not.  All I venture to point out, with an increased firmness, is that this omission, good or bad, does leave us face to face with the problem of a human consciousness filled with very definite images of evil, and with no definite image of good.  To us light must be henceforward the dark thing -- the thing of which we cannot speak.  To us, as to Milton's devils in Pandemonium, it is darkness that is visible.  The human race, according to religion, fell once, and in falling gained knowledge of good and evil.  Now we have fallen a second time, and only the knowledge of evil remains to us.
     "A great silent collapse, an enormous unspoken disappointment, has in our time fallen on our Northern civilization.  All previous ages have sweated and been crucified in an attempt to realize what is really the right life, what was really the good man.  A definite part of the modern world has come beyond question to the conclusion that the most we can do is to set up a few notice-boards at places of obvious danger, to warn men, for instance, against drinking themselves to death, or ignoring the mere existence of their neighbours.  Ibsen is the first to return from the baffled hunt to bring us the tidings of great failure.
    "Every one of the popular modern phrases and ideals is a dodge in order to shirk the problem of what is good.  We are fond of talking about 'liberty'; that, as we talk of it, is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.  We are fond of talking about 'progress'; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.  We are fond of talking about 'education'; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.  The modern man says, 'Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty.'  This is, logically rendered, 'Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.'  He says, 'Away with your old moral formulae; I am for progress.'  This, logically stated, means, 'Let us not settle what is good; but let us settle whether we are getting more of it.'  He says, 'Neither in religion nor morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education.'  This, clearly expressed, means, 'We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children.'" 

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