It appears to me that in the modernity and fashion of our glorious twenty-first century, most people talk about ethics as if they’re an emotivist. Emotivism, broadly speaking, is the theory that ethical and value statements are merely expressions of attitudes or feelings towards a certain moral opinion; there are no foundations to morality above a mere shouting match of opinions. To say of justice, “Justice is good,” and of injustice, “Injustice is bad,” is simply to say, “hurrah” to justice, and “boo” to injustice, no more, no less.
It plays out like this: any talk of objective ideals is meaningless in our discussions. Everyone has a view about what is good, and what is good for that person is, on the whole, respected as equally good as what anyone else prefers. It is an old dilemma: “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25b). As Doestoevsky writes, if one rejects God, then “all things are permitted.”
To me, this smacks of moral laziness. Our ethical discussions seem to me to revolve around how far we can justify neglecting issues of justice, of altruism, and of benevolence, before it gets embarrassing. How far we can throw out the rules to serve our own ends before we need to look the other way. When morality as a system of ideals is rejected as having any objective base, the law boils down to one single rule: “What seems good for me, is good for me to do.” And they all did what was right in their own eyes.
In response, some of them resorted to legalism. If modern morality has been tainted by the dismissal of morality itself, then the moralists must needs take up the letter of the law in defence, to reclaim it. But this results in action without heart, intention without motive, virtue without heroism, goodness without love. Legalism promises an answer to cultural relativism but hangs herself in the noose of apathy.
So, the subjectivists and the emotivists strike out against the Bible-bashing, scripture wielding fanatics who push that law of works down their throats, without a hint of sugar to sweeten it. And so our ethics collapses into the vicious cycle of debate, law and nihilism. Without God, no reason for ethics. With no eternity, no obligation to others. For the lazy ethicist, subjectivism feels like a field day in how to excuse yourself from the love-thy-neighbour or look-outside-yourself way of doing life.
But is all lost? All is not lost. Amidst the shouting match, there are the idealists. Those, who in seeing a world in the entropy of social chaos, of moral negligence, start to notice certain self-evident truths. Those who recognise that the “world of me” is not the world in her entirety. The dreamers and the activists. Can we prove that these ideals exist? Not by the feelingless, failing systems of philosophy and morality. The skeptics and the morally lazy will see the idealists as fanatical loons, dreamers without reason or believers without basis.
But, can we show that, with idealism in our minds, the world starts to change? Yes, that is clear. Idealism, pragmatically speaking, shows us quite clearly that the world moves to a new rhythm when the mind is set to something greater than oneself. Ideals mean sacrifice, and maybe that’s why the skeptic will keep her skeptic’s heart, and the legalist will keep his nose in the lawbook. But our eyes would be set too low and our hearts too heavy to count ourselves among their ranks.
Because, the “world of me” is far too small a fish-tank to contain hearts made for higher things. Ideals mean sacrifice for the universal good of others, yes – but they mean this also: freedom, freedom from the law, and transcendence from selfishness and meaninglessness.
The sit-on-your-ass ethicist might be able to philosophically justify why, without ideals, there is no merit nor rational explanation for why it is better to feed the hungry or care for the widow or mother the orphan. But there he will sit, getting nothing higher in life than a few citations in some academic journals and a payslip through the door.
But for the idealist? There is truth in life. And with truth, risk. With goodness, sin, and with virtue, vice. A life of spirit, not works. Above the squalor of a world permeated by indifferent voices, we can set our eyes to a “holy mountain, beautiful in elevation…the joy of all the earth” (Ps. 48:1b,2a).
The idealist may never know, via the rigorous grounds of the empiricist or the rationalist, that they’ve hit the right ideas or lived for the right ideals in every circumstance. Yet, in every instance, I’d rather live corum deo, knowing that I might have fallen flat totally, than have never lived for anything at all.
“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” Aldous Huxley, Brave New World