Depending on who you ask, a definition of ethics may differ slightly. But at its core, all historical ethicists agree in principle that the academic field of ethics seeks to define and systematize principles of moral philosophy and recommend behavioral standards of right and wrong. Consequently, ethical behavior is that which conforms to these ethical standards.
But there’s more to the story as it relates to the foundations upon which these principles and standards are built. And for this we must venture into the dark tunnels of another philosophical area known as epistemology. Taken from the Greek word pistis, which means “belief,” this area of study delves into the questions of how and why we believe what we believe. That is, how we can know what is true and believable, while distinguishing truth from untruth.
Here’s my point: Ethical behavior that aligns with moral standards initially arises out of what we believe to be true and right.
Since the time humanity first recognized the presence of good and evil in this world, we have been establishing standards of ethical behavior based on the truths that are undeniable in the world around us. We call this natural law. For example, gravity means what goes up must come down. It is also true that, without food, oxygen and water, humans die. These are true no matter what you want to think or feel.
We also understand the laws of conscience that come preinstalled on the human hard drive. We all intuitively know that, under normal circumstances, taking what doesn’t belong to you is wrong, as is lying, hurting others, and eating your grandmother.
The laws of nature and conscience force us to believe something is true if it aligns with reality. For example, if I have one apple and you give me another apple, I now have two apples, not zero, or three or nine or some other number. And, if I attempt to sell my apples to someone and say, “Here are three apples for you to buy,” I would be engaged in unethical behavior simply because what I am declaring is contrary to reality.
Of course, not every decision about ethical behavior is as easy as counting apples. There are many areas that are not easy to evaluate when it comes to distinguishing between true and false, right and wrong. Historically, such issues have been decided with reference to some other authoritative source. Since humanity, being plagued with myriad moral deficiencies evidenced in our propensity to act immorally, cannot be the standard of what is acceptable, we have always looked to something outside ourselves to determine what constitutes ethical and unethical behavior.
These “outside ourselves” sources have usually been focused on a transcendent being to whom humanity is accountable. In my world, that is the God of the Bible, and the authority on which my ethical system is grounded is the Bible as it is historically, linguistically and properly understood.
So, why all this talk about ethics? Simply because, as we all recognize, regardless of what we pretend in public, the standard test of what is true, and therefore, what must be accepted and applauded as true, has been severely mutilated. We no longer consider truth as aligned with reality. Nor do we, as a society, look to some transcendent source of truth and wisdom for guidance. The consequence of this is that what we once saw as unethical behavior – think evil and, therefore, wrong – is now promulgated as both good and right.
But my point is not simply to call you all back to a biblical ethic. Rather, it is to call attention to the fact that today’s ethical mess is primarily due to our having made ourselves the arbiters of what is true and false, right and wrong. The fox of human feeling and desire is now guarding the chicken coop of ethics… and we’re in the process of killing all the chickens.
Decades ago the New York Times sent out a single-question survey to well-known philosophers and thinkers. Included in the survey was G. K. Chesterton, an accomplished author, columnist and religionist. To the question, “What is wrong with the world today?” Chesterton replied, “I am.” He knew the greatest problem was human sin.
He was right and still is. Look around. We are in the process of severing individual and societal accountability to anything or anyone except our individual, psychologized, sexualized and politicized self. Why? So that our feelings and desires can be our own individual authority and grounds for our own standard of reality, and therefore our own truth and personal ethical system.
When anything can be accepted as morally true and good, then nothing can be seen as morally wrong and evil. That chronicles the end of ethics. That’s where we’re headed and in too many cases, we’re already there. But we can still do something about it. We can declare that the emperor of post-truth ethical thinking has no clothes. I’m in. Are you?
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.