By David Hegg
If you can remember all the way back to grammar school, you’ll also remember having run into some actual grammar. And while this column is really not all that interested in fighting the grammar wars, I would like to take a page from the English books to illustrate a necessary part of ethical living.
Grammatically speaking, the indicative mood in the English language describes facts as they are. We use the indicative to say, “It is raining outside” and other facts that are presented as true.
The imperative mood, on the other hand, usually speaks about a consequential obligation that arises out of the facts, like, “It is raining outside so take your umbrella.”
And while the English teachers in my reading audience may consider this much too simplistic, it nevertheless does illustrate a point that I intend to make and then unpack in this column: Certain facts give rise to certain obligations in an ethical society.
The indicatives create the necessity for the imperatives, and the imperatives most naturally flow out of the indicatives. And if we want to get even more simplistic for the sake of clarity, it can be said that the whole field of ethics – that soft science given over to the determination of the most valuable individual and societal norms – is all about determining the essential “oughts” that arise from foundational truths.
Today many of the “imperatives” that so long had been accepted as common ethical norms have been eroded or washed away altogether.
Here’s one: Indicative: “That man is an adult.”
Imperative: “Treat him with respect.”
It used to be that age had at least some privileges, including the courtesy to be treated respectfully by children. Today that has pretty much vanished except in households that are intentional about teaching it. Just ask any elementary school teacher and you’ll hear that, by and large, there is little sense of generational respect and honor in our society. Our national sense of “rights” has leveled the hierarchy of age to the place where a 9-year-old views his teacher as an equal, and treats her as such.
But this is just an example. The reality is that the whole subject of imperatives has been turned on its head. The virus of entitlement has so found its way into the operating system of our society that the idea of “obligation” is quickly being drained of any substantive meaning.
No one is obligated anymore, but everyone is entitled. How does that work? It doesn’t; what it does is create a society that is constantly bickering and critiquing and dividing.
What is necessary is for us to regain our hold on the vital connection between the truths we believe and the moral, ethical obligations that naturally arise from them. A healthy society is a well-ordered society. And a well-ordered society is not only a society of laws, but also of ethical norms that form the glue to hold civilized people together.
But ultimately, we have to ask where ethical norms really come from. Who decides if civil obligations like courtesy, respect, honesty, hard work and responsibility should be passed along from generation to generation? What is the baseline for ethical behavior? Or is there no standard, and each generation is free to forge its own system of indicatives and imperatives?
History has shown that the most successful societies have grounded their ethical norms in something higher than the whims of successive generations. Against the ever-shifting desires of the human heart the best defense is to tie our ethics to the rock of God’s truth as detailed and explained in his word, the Bible. For many years this was true of our country, and never has a return to this sure foundation been more necessary than today.
At stake is far more than our national sense of courtesy and public decorum. We’re really fighting to maintain the integrity of our national soul.
David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a Santa Clarita resident.“Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.