The Case For Renewed Ethical Realism

The Case For Renewed Ethical Realism

Revised Comments by Jay B. Gaskill 7-31-02 {I have written extensively on the twin problems of evil and the foundations of ethics. These remarks are abstracted from those discussions and articles.}

Problem? What Problem?

For many opinion leaders, the authority of God and religion have been fully superseded by science. But science, alone, is not a reliable guide to morality, and many responsible thinkers now recognize this development as the genesis of a serious moral crisis. It has taken us the better part of a century to realize that science itself was never equipped to deal with the deep questions of the human experience, including the question of how to use science ethically, or for that matter, whether to use science ethically. The questions science cannot finally answer are legion. They include: Why are we significant? Why should we care about anything except our own immediate self satisfaction? Is there any larger purpose to our lives?

Over the centuries, all of the major religious traditions have supplied answers to these questions, but in the last hundred years or so the credibility of all underlying religious belief systems has been gravely crippled, especially among the educated elites in the West. We are now living out the malign consequences of the general notion that natural law and natural selection trump religion, that experiment and logic trump moral truth, and that all else consists of unverifiable subjectivism. The new scientist mind set (taken as moral theory) has loosed an intellectual acid that eats deeply into our species ethical wisdom, spiritual insight, and the most noble human aspirations. Scientism, conflated as ethical theory, has given us universal value denial, leaving rules and norms honored by civilizations for millennia demoted to the status of mere “whim.” This suddenly respectable subjectivism cleared the field for world weary cynicism and empty hedonism. The doctrines of positivism (i.e., that we may know nothing that can’t be experimentally proved) and cultural or moral relativism (i.e., that we may hold nothing to be right or wrong, just different than our own cultural/moral perspective) were given immense credibility. As a result, in the last century and in the beginning of the present one, nihilism has acquired “legs.”

The sea change in the larger culture was masked because most of the so called “common” people (usually dismissed by the intelligentsia as “primitive”) have resolutely continued to adhere to the older religious traditions. And because others, influenced by the religious traditions of their parents and grandparents, have continued to behave “as if.” Decency has its own momentum. But any sense of complacency is a temporary condition, like the shipmates who look around after the boat has taken a fatal shot below-decks, then continue as if it is business as usual.

The innate human need for an authoritative grounding of our ethical belief systems cannot be long denied. The new mind set has created anxiety and a sense of drift.

History teaches us that all human societies abhor a moral vacuum. Drift is eventually replaced by authority, chaos by tyranny. As a result many 20th intellectuals sought a substitute for religion. If we no longer have a religious ground for the norms and principles on which civilization is based, then (their argument went) why not find scientific ground? In essence, finding themselves in a mechanical, value-free universe, one in which religious authority was perceived to be dying, they tried to construct for themselves a “mechanical” god.

This was a profound mistake.

The lasting legacy of the 20th century was of the achievement of totalitarian power by the two pseudo-scientific ideologies. Totalitarian socialism was based on the bogus-scientific remodeling of human institutions along fraudulently egalitarian lines. Brutal, national socialism was based on bogus-scientific racism. The landscape of the 20th century is littered with their casualties. In fact, all of the religious persecution of all earlier eras was outdone in the 20th Century by these two “science” inspired tyrannies alone. The murderously destructive consequences of Nazism and totalitarian communism were far worse in absolute numbers of sufferers than any prior recorded time. [In gulags, ditches, gas ovens, labor camps, prisons, torture chambers, and forcible relocations, the last century’s totalitarian regimes between them killed more of their own people than the entire casualty list of the Inquisition, the Crusades, the jihads, and all of the religious wars and oppressions before them combined.]

There have been a number of recent moral challenges that have exposed the hollowness of the universal value denial. The inability of major powers to achieve moral consensus on a range of issues, especially the control of nuclear weapons, and to act accordingly has been painful. The atavistic nihilism of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 in Manhattan was evil incarnate. Neither can effectively be condemned, let alone confronted, without a robust, common moral foundation based on acknowledged universals. The list of issues and problems rendered insoluble without a common moral foundation is long and ongoing. All such immediate political and policy conflicts, and the accompanying social unrest are transient signs of the deeper problem.

Contemporary religious thinking has been little help in the crisis. Among the literalists and ultra orthodox of all faiths, reason itself is often seen as the enemy, and the world is divided into the apostates and those in enfolded in blind faith. Yet, among the most liberal of the religious, a doctrine of easy redemption has migrated from the spiritual realm to prevail in the secular one. Among those whose humanitarian impulses are governed by indiscriminate gentleness of spirit, self defense is too often condemned, evil itself is too often forgiven without the requirement of reform (or its existence is falsely denied), and the toughness of real world humanitarians is often mistaken for callousness.

Without doubt, this culture is in a state of moral confusion, ambivalence, and seemingly irreconcilable conflict. With the retreat or outright collapse of supernatural belief systems supporting ethical foundations among the best educated intelligentsia, our ethical foundations are in an eerie state of suspension, and imminent free fall.

It is as if the present moral order lingers like the form of the bucket which has vanished, leaving the water it once contained momentarily bucket shaped, but quivering in transition.

Reasonable minds will recognize this situation as unstable. Historians will recognize it as dangerous.

The Task of Restoring Ethical Realism

Those of us who share a common sense of objective ethical reality and the concomitant obligation for a gritty, real world level of moral engagement should stand together. I visualize a virtual “Bucket Brigade,” made up of those with a common vision of the ultimate foundations of morality. I invite your comment, your take on the many practical issues that confront us as a people, and your insights and suggestions. Those who would help lead others out of the current situation need to talk to each other.

All who recognize the real world value of civilization, of the need to build civilizations that protect universal ethical values, of the presence of evil as part of the human condition, and of our common obligation to oppose it, need to he heralded, heard and heeded. In this effort, we may encounter individual differences on particular issues, but I am confident that a common voice will arise whenever the facts are clear among those who can agree on the following seven premises:

ONE. Ethical principles are objectively real, and universally relevant to the human condition.

This means that our core reservoir of ethical wisdom is encoded in discrete discoverable principles, rather than consisting of a fragile and transient construct of invented rules or culturally determined mores. The fact that all major world religious traditions and the underlying ethical assumptions of major world civilizations converge around the seven ethical ideas listed below is highly corroborative of the objective status of core normative principles. Here are the seven special ethical propositions common to all major human religions and civilizations:

Stealing is wrong.

Lying is wrong.

Assault is wrong.

Murder is wrong.

Honest and necessary self defense is a general exception to these prohibitions.

Integrity is an essential virtue.

Promise fidelity is an essential virtue.

This short list of seven special proscriptions and prescriptions represent an operative human moral consensus that is the outcome of six thousand years of “field testing.” On deeper analysis, these rules represent a policy of respect for the volitional integrity (i.e., human dignity) of individuals. No civilization of sentient, intelligent beings could long survive without incorporation of these core principles into its “normative architecture.” The perennial arguments about moral differences are issues of scope and circumstance of application. Such disputes typically represent confusion about the scope of the ethical principles, their selective application to the “in group” and the “out group”, coupled with various attempts to define away the humanity (and therefore the protected status) of various members of the human species on parochial religious, tribal, gender, cultural, cabal-membership or other arbitrary grounds.

TWO. Reality-based ethics requires action not just a stance.

For an ethical realist, morality without engagement is gesture. Engagement without practical knowledge is dangerous. The whole matter of application requires careful real world study. More harm has been done by misguided and impractical utopians than cautious incrementalists. Most of what we recognize as good has been accomplished by those among the morally grounded who were willing to “get their hands dirty” by working with reality in all its messy complexities. The world teaches us that not all social conditions and regimes support universal values equally. We require the robust infrastructure of a civilization dedicated to protect universal values. The making and remaking of human civilization is a work in progress. Our work.

THREE. The protection of civilization is an essential part of reality-based ethics.

As practical moral agents, we start with the threshold understanding that our universal values are protected within almost any civilized enclave more than in a brutal state of nature. Civilization is a rational exchange system among people which adjusts power relationships (and therefore resource allocations). It requires and therefor preserves and defends group norms, and acts as a carrier for group memory. The group norms appropriate to civilization exhibit a remarkable cross-cultural correspondence, and the prevalence of the preceding seven norms demonstrates. All such norms, in application, concern the regulation of the relationships between human purposes and human power. Civilization is social technology, akin to software; it represents the single greatest innovation of Homo Sapiens, because it was the seedbed and cradle of all the rest. Above all other technological innovations, civilization is more responsible for the dramatic increase of human freedom and welfare from the typically “nasty, brutish and short” human experience in Neolithic period than any other single human innovation.

FOUR. Reality-based ethics requires the recognition of evil.

The assertion that “evil is real” would have seemed a trivial or redundant observation two hundred years ago, but today it is often dismissed as just another rhetorical excess. Evil is often marginalized as an idea no longer relevant within “science.” But the recognition of evil’s reality and the relevance of our response to it is at the heart of human ethical wisdom. This response is common to religion but by no means is religion’s exclusive prevence. Many thoughtful non-theists who are spiritually enlightened, and all those with a sense of history and a traditionalist’s respect for the common moral foundations of ethics (in effect, those who know the Tao) are readily able to recognize the existence of evil in the world and to formulate a moral response. [My reference to the Tao is intended to go beyond its original usage. For C.S. Lewis, the “Tao” was the intersection of natural and moral law. In the Appendix to the C.S. Lewis’ classic, The Abolition of Man, ISBN 0-02-086790-5 or 0-684-82371-3 (pbk), he sets out 10 pages of illustrations of moral precepts, all representing aspects of the Tao, taken from diverse religious, secular, and philosophical sources.] That said, far, far too many secular non-theists (and most of the morally confused) tend to relegate evil to the dustbin of archaic concepts, or to trivialize it by misidentifying it with the social conditions in which it germinated. Some attempt, inappropriately, to “clinicalize” evil, by calling it mere mental pathology. But evil cannot be defined away. It repeatedly manifests itself in the world in a number of forms, all of them characterized by a fundamental mal-alignment of intent and purpose with respect to core ethical values. Beyond that, evil is coupled with an attraction, a negative force, and a downward tendency; these are seductive qualities that can be experienced in any receptive mind. It is as if evil represents the conscious incarnation of the entropic tendency in the universe, ripped out of its natural context of life process, a tendency to extinguish life, consciousness and creation, become motivation. We may speculate endlessly about its origin, in abuse, alienation, grievance, and crippledness of spirit, but evil is the undertow that – if we but let it – can suck all good things with it into the pit.

FIVE. The confrontation with evil calls us to define and defend the good.

Reasonable minds can share the conviction that there is a universal good that transcends our sectarian perspectives. Beneath the seven special ethical proscriptions that form the human consensus, and the deeper underlying value of human dignity, we can recognize three universals that form the very root affirmations for all authentic ethics: They are life affirmation, respect for the nature and value of conscious being, and reverence for creation. In the context of human experience, life affirmation, leads to affirmation of conscious being, and proceeds to reverence for all creation. Conscious being intrinsically represents the gift of at least three powerful, life enhancing capabilities: compassionate empathy; foresight, and creative innovation. Life affirming consciousness necessarily leads to creation affirmation, through the deep understanding of the universality of the processes of creation, of the roots of life and consciousness in those processes, and of the incarnation of ongoing creation in the human mind. As a matter of simple development, human conscious being starts out by serving the life interests of an individual within the context of exchange relationships with others, then serves the interests of life in the context of civilization, (its most important technology). At the most developed level, conscious being achieves the capacity for value universalization, the extrapolation of the root affirmations, extensions of the common proscriptions and prescriptions as ethical principles that reach beyond tribe and other arbitrary boundaries, and govern the powerful and powerless alike. Thus consciousness gives rise to justice.

SIX . A definition of evil follows from our fundamental understanding of the good.

We can describe evil on the larger, “Edmund Burke” scale, the kind of evil that will triumph if good people do nothing, as follows: Evil is present in any serious, purposeful challenge to the human role in creation, and to all the other universal values on which human civilization rests. Evil incarnates an agenda and conduct that constitute an authentic threat to our life, consciousness and our role in ongoing creation. Evil is the ultimate, purposeful threat to the fundamental good.

SEVEN. Evil, especially on the “Edmund Burke” scale, must be resolutely opposed.

To theists, the Creator and the gifts of creation are to be loved. For all of us, evil represents the conscious and purposeful subversion of the gifts of life, conscious being and creation, an attack on that which we love. Evil attacks realistic ethics at all levels. For the secular and religious alike, evil is the malevolent converse of the core value alignments of life over death, of creation over stasis, of consciousness over mindlessness. The recognition of real evil creates, in the mind of any moral agent, the obligation to oppose it in practical terms, in the specific context where it appears, with such intelligence and resolve that the differences among the non-evil forces become trivial. The same energy and passion, and the same call to courageous intelligent engagement is called for whenever thinking people of good will encounter evil at the Edmund Burke scale. They will find no neutral ground. There are no passive bystanders who are entitled to say, “this is not my struggle.” No brilliant minds entitled to say, “not my problem.” Engagement is the order of the day whether our response is exemplary, declarative, concretely supportive, or heroically active. Human civilization flourishes via cooperative specialization. All are needed.

Nothing less will prevail.

Copyright 2002 by Jay B. Gaskill [Copying for personal use and discussion is authorized with notice and acknowledgment to the copyright holder.]


Jay B. Gaskill, Attorney at Law

Alameda California

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