Normative Standard of Ethics

Mr. Apologist wrote: For judgements like good and evil cannot be subjective, but must proceed from a standard, that by the very nature of ethics is required to fulfill three criteria: the normative standard of ethics must be transcendent, personal, and absolute.

Here Mr. Apologist identifies three cardinal criteria which a “normative standard of ethics” should fulfill, according to his worldview. We shall examine each in turn. But at this time, we should notice

the following significant omissions: nowhere does he

  1. define ‘ethics’ for the record,
  2. explain why, if at all, man needs ethics, or
  3. explain what ethics is supposed to accomplish for him (if indeed anything).

Without addressing or clarifying these preliminary concerns before he begins to discuss the identity of the proper standard of ethics (or morality), he might as well be “speaking in tongues” which none of his readers can understand. The meaning of his primary terms is taken completely for granted and thus unclear, and consequently any secondary terms he should now discuss float in the air with no philosophical basis, with no tie to reality, no objective reference. This failure to define his terms will only haunt his argument from here forward, in spite of his efforts to posture as an authority in these matters.

Mr. Apologist wrote: Transcendent and absolute are actually two sides of the same issue: any ethical standard must be ultimate, for if we say that ethical norms proceed from a finite individual (subjectivism) or a group of individuals (conventionalism) the man or culture that has been set up as a standard is capable of corruption.

Mr. Apologist nowhere defines what he means by ‘transcendent’, nor does he explain what he means by the term in reference to the matter at hand (e.g., what does the thing which is said to be ‘transcendent’ transcend?). Thus, he provides little or no direct context to his assertion that the standard of ethics must be ‘transcendent’ in nature. Furthermore, we do not find this term ‘transcendent’ or any of its cognates defined in the Bible (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance does not even give an entry for this word, going from ‘tranquility’ to ‘transferred’, giving ‘transcendent’ a complete miss). Thus, the above statement is vague and open to various interpretation, and unfortunately allows for an indefinite latitude of ambiguity amenable to the influence of mystical (i.e., irrational) bias. Given the frailty of indicators for his intended meaning, we cannot rule out the possibility that Mr. Apologist uses the term simply for its sound effect or emotional charge rather than to identify a genuine moral need.

William L. Reese, in his Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion notes the following in regard to the term ‘transcendent’:

From the Latin transcendere meaning “to cross a boundary.” This term, along with its other forms, “transcendental,” “transcendence,” and “transcendentalism,” has been used in a number of ways, and with a number of distinct interpretations, in the history of philosophy.

In his Dictionary, Reese lists eight separate definitions and uses for the term in question. However, I will not try to coordinate from Mr. Apologist’s statements which of Reese’s definitions for ‘transcendent’ he has in mind when he uses the term (since this may only multiply any guesswork on

my part). Instead, I will rely more on the context of Mr. Apologist’s statements (what little there is) in order to draw out what he means. I can only work with this by attempting to provide my own interpretation of what is meant here, though because of its imprecision of thought, my effort to do so may not yield a product of certainty. However, the point of this exercise, which shall thread its way through the next few sections, will be to demonstrate that these criteria, supposing they were by themselves justified, do not warrant the leap to the supernatural or to the notion of a deity unless such notions are built into the criteria implicitly, i.e., only if the supernatural or deity is presupposed and smuggled into the theist’s criteria. With this in mind, let us proceed.

By the term ‘transcendent’, he seems to be wanting to say that an ethical standard must be in some way “beyond” that for which it serves as an ethical standard. In other words, the ethical standard for man must be “beyond” him in some way, specifically, outside his influence to change. If this is what Mr. Apologist means here, I think there is a hint of truth here. This is what appears to be meant by his statement that “Transcendent and absolute are actually two sides of the same issue.” Something that is absolute is not open to man’s revision; it is stable and fixed. Likewise something that is ‘transcendent’ is beyond man’s influence to change. But I am not convinced that my translation of Mr. Apologist’s statement here (primarily because of its insufficiencies) is very accurate because at this point the two terms seem redundant. If we posit something that is absolute, what new legitimate information or stipulation are we given by describing what is absolute as also ‘transcendent’? Something that is absolute is equally “beyond” man’s influence to change as well, so what need is there for this term ‘transcendent’, which at this point seems problematic, and even suspicious? Mr. Apologist, of course, does not elaborate.

If the ‘boundary’ to be crossed is assumed to be that delimiting reality, thus pointing to a standard “outside reality” (i.e., non-reality), we are justified in rejecting Mr. Apologist’s criterion ‘transcendent’ from the very beginning of our inquiry. The non-real has no application to the real, and the standard of real values does not find its source in the non-real. If Mr. Apologist & co. want to say that their standard of ethics is genuinely real (i.e., that it actually exists), why the need to ‘transcend’ reality? Such supposed criteria, from an objective point of view, can only be considered as a gateway to the arbitrary.

However, assuming any accuracy to my interpretation, this approach to moral norms appears to be built on a logical reversal. What appears to be happening is that the ethical standard is being described after the ethical system itself has been framed and developed rather than first asking what an ethical system is, what it should accomplish, and why, if at all, anyone needs it. (See my points above.) Mr. Apologist’s preferred course is not a rational (i.e., scientific) approach to the subject of ethics, but a means of rationalizing a system of ethics which one has accepted without first addressing these important questions. His aim here, so it appears, is to give the primitive nature of religious confessional investments an air of modern credibility.

By a rational or scientific means of approaching the issue of ethics, we should be willing at minimum to address questions such as the following:

  1. What is ethics or morality? (I use the two terms at this point interchangeably; since Mr. Apologist does not define either or distinguish the two, I see no reason why he would object to this.)
  2. Does man need ethics (or morality)?
  3. If it is the case that man does need ethics (or morality), then we have three principal questions:a. Why does he need ethics? b. If man does need ethics, what gives rise to this need, and what is its nature? c. Does that which gives rise to man’s need for ethics change, or can it change? (I.e., is that which gives rise to man’s need for ethics open to his influence to change? Is it absolute?)

Religious ethics in general, and Mr. Apologist’s considerations of ethics in particular, do not proceed according to this course of inquiry, an approach which seeks to discover and identify man’s needs based on evidences in reality. Instead, religious ethical teachings reverse this approach, preferring one which begins with non-negotiable, predetermined conceptions of what constitutes the practical expression of ethics (namely self-sacrifice compelled by unargued commandments), and then rationalizing why ethical standards might be needed by man and inferring from these presuppositions what supposedly constitutes those standards. Then, after all this, some definition of ethics may be provided, but one which must be retrofitted to accommodate preconceived notions of right and wrong. Theists who intend to defend their religious programs against the criticisms of non-believers should take note: “Definitions are the guardians of rationality, the first line of defense against the chaos of mental disintegration.” Instead of discovering what are man’s objective moral needs and identifying a code of values which conforms to his meeting those needs, man is to be conformed – by force, if necessary – to ethical norms which do not stem from his objective moral needs, and thus meeting those needs is at best taken for granted or simply deemed irrelevant to his moral nature and conduct. This is worse than simply a sloppy approach to the issue of ethics, an issue far too important to man to be left to the hazards such evasions and omissions can only produce; it is a view of morality which, if taken seriously and applied consistently, dramatically undercuts man’s potential to live and enjoy his life on rational terms.

The Bible, to my knowledge, nowhere defines the concepts ‘ethics’ or ‘morality’. Indeed, my concordance does not even have entries for these two crucial concepts. This failure to define crucial terms suggests two things,

  1. that the ancients who wrote the books of the Bible did not approach the issue of man’s need for ethics as if it were a genuine philosophical need (which is perhaps due to the facts that philosophy at this point in time was primitive and unscientific and bound by theological commitments, and that the ancients who authored the books of the Bible did not have a very developed concept of rationality and consequently did not have a very developed code of applying rationality to the problems of man’s life), and
  2. that we must infer from the statements contained in those books what constitutes the view of ethics which those ancients may have had in mind.

Because of this latter point, that we must infer an ethical code from the primitive writings of the Bible, theologians will constantly be at risk of interpolating modern definitions, views and prejudices into their inferences, thus shaping their resulting conclusions, definitions and doctrines according to the image of ethics they already have in mind. The passages in the Bible which offer moral tenets or inferential cues (e.g., direct commandments, maxims, parables, etc.) are not only often ambiguous, they are also often couched in poetic imagery which may be taken literally or figuratively by particular theologians and commentators, allowing their own biases more sway than may initially be perceived. This is one reason why there are not only numerous incompatible interpretations on the meaning of various passages among Christians, but also why Christianity as a whole is splintered into dozens of rival denominations, sects and conferences. In addition to this, theologians are at risk of assuming at the outset of such an enterprise that the ethical inferences which they derive from the books of the Bible can integrate all the many precepts, injunctions, and illustrations of ethical principles contained therein into a consistent, non-contradictory whole.

If such a consistent integration of ideas is presupposed by theologians at the outset of coordinating into a systematic whole, a set of genetically unrelated maxims, injunctions, and inferences, all of which are assembled together in what amounts to popular vote among an elite group of priests, a process which seems wildly presumptuous (particularly because of the many different authors contributing to the books of the Bible, the great span of time in which they were composed, edited, redacted and assembled – on the verge of 1500 years! – and thee broad-ranging circumstances from which these inferences must be derived), it is difficult to see how the assemblage produced by such an effort can be objective and suitable for man. This resembles more of a cut-and-paste approach to philosophy than an effort of reason. Man’s needs are certainly not the fundamental concern in such a task, but preserving a confessional investment which is unfit for man. And this they call morality!

I submit that it is because of the astounding enormity of such a task as the attempt to derive an integrated, systematic and non-contradictory code of ethics from the murky writings contained in the Bible, that Mr. Apologist and others like him are so typically silent when it comes to defining their views on ethics in terms of essentials. The bases of their principles are not the facts of reality which we discover objectively, but arbitrary, predetermined conclusions guided by confessional commitments which are not open to negotiation. The result cannot be objective, for the facts of reality do not provide the standard, nor will they magically rearrange themselves in order to become irrelevant to man’s life needs. The result can only be arbitrary, for the standard amounts to nothing more than the religious precommitments of whichever theologian is assembling these inferences and calling them a consistent whole.

Mr. Apologist wrote: The normative standard must be higher than any human institution, because human institutions are all capable of corruption.”

The explicit meaning of such statements is that the standard of a proper moral code is absolute and not subject to revision by whim. The implicit meaning, however, is that that standard should be something other than man, something which man must serve.

Mr. Apologist’s chief concern here appears to be identifying a system of morality whose standard successfully averts the threat of corruption, either from inside or outside the system. If it is true that “human institutions are all capable of corruption,” this is nowhere more explicit than in the case of churches, which are human institutions whose aim is to interpret and filter the teachings of the Bible.

The assumption implicit in Mr. Apologist’s positions, however, is that, since man should not (for whatever reason) be allowed to think for himself and use his capacity to reason in order to determine what his values are and what is the proper course of action needed to achieve and protect those values, man must be controlled by commandments and injunctions which enslave his life to an existence of self-denial, self-sacrifice, and self-immolation. Faith, not reason, is to be man’s moral guide. In other words, man’s entire life is to be governed by his mystical beliefs in the supernatural (“Do as I say, not as I do,” saith the Lord thy God) rather than by the facts of reality. This ignores the fact that man’s moral choices and actions are goal-oriented (i.e., values-oriented) and that his goal-oriented choices and actions must be based on reason, not faith, if those choices and actions are to have any value and meaning to his life.

Mr. Apologist wrote: Further, the standard must be personal — it is inconceivable that ethical standards could proceed from an impersonal source — an inanimate object could not possibly provide a standard against which the volitional choices of moral agents can be judged.

This is a blatant argument from ignorance, or worse, a blind appeal to emotion. Neither ignorance nor emotions can substitute for reason, even if that ignorance is the form of a believer’s worship of the supernatural, or if his emotions are the result of irrational fears stimulated by an over-reacting imagination. Mr. Apologist gives no argument for his assertions here, even though one may be

available. This man mistakes himself for Jesus, who uttered moral tenets bereft of reason.

Now that we have reviewed them, let’s suppose we accept Mr. Apologist’s three criteria, which a proper ethical standard should purportedly fulfill, as valid, and ask why they necessitate a theistic basis, as he obviously assumes. It is not at all clear why one would need to posit a theistic standard, unless of course Mr. Apologist’s use of terms like ‘transcendental’ are to be understood to have chiefly theistic references already built into them. However, if we do not assume this, but instead assume the essential interpretation I derive from the context of his statements above, it would not take much to see that they do not necessarily point to a theistic basis, but may in fact be construed as compatible with non-theistic presumptions.

Below I show how each of Mr. Apologist’s criteria can be shown to point to an ethical standard which is compatible with non-belief:

‘Transcendent’: Since the fact that man must meet certain needs in order to live is beyond his control (e.g., man cannot change the fact that he needs food, water and shelter), we could say that man’s life as his standard of ethical value is ‘transcendent’ in the sense that such a standard ‘transcends’ man’s ability to influence or revise. Thus, in man’s life as such, which is natural, we have a moral standard that is ‘transcendent’.

‘Absolute’: The very fact that man’s life requires that he meet certain needs through goal-oriented

action guided by a system of thought which identifies and integrates the facts of reality (i.e., by reason), a fact which can be called ‘transcendent’, is also an absolute fact (as Mr. Apologist himself stated: “Transcendent and absolute are actually two sides of the same issue…”). It is an absolute fact, for instance, that man is an organism and lives by consuming other organisms for nutrients. This fact is not negotiable, it cannot be changed. Man’s life has objective needs and consequently, in order to live, he must recognize those his objective values and govern his choices and actions accordingly. Thus, in man’s life as such we have a moral standard that is ‘absolute’.

‘Personal’: Since man is a person, his life is also therefore personal, since it has everything to do with man’s person. One’s own needs, for instance, are his personal business. Thus, in man’s life as such we have a moral standard that is ‘personal’.

Neither of Mr. Apologist’s own criteria necessitate a jump beyond reality to a ‘super-reality’ or some realm which one can never know or discover, but must accept by virtue of the fact that mystics claim it exists. Neither of his criteria necessitate the assumption or assertion of supernaturalism in order to explain or “account for.” Man’s life is a natural phenomenon, not the product of supernatural musing.

Furthermore, when we attempt to integrate Mr. Apologist’s criteria for a moral standard with the teachings of the Bible, we find that those teachings are ‘transcendent’ in the sense that they ‘transcend’ rationality and comprehensibility, and therefore cannot be said to be either rational or comprehensible. We also find that the Bible as a standard for ethics is ‘absolute’ in the sense that it is absolute nonsense, and therefore cannot be said to be either rational or comprehensible. And finally, when we look at the Bible and consider it for the role of providing an ethical standard for man’s life, we find that it is completely impersonal, for it spares no means in attacking man, his reason and his ability to value himself.

Make no mistake: my reinvestment of Mr. Apologist’s three criteria with applications which more or less keep them anchored to objective reality, is not offered in lieu of better reasons for recognizing the fact that man’s own life is the objective basis and standard of his values, and therefore of morality as such. Arguments for this position have been offered by Ayn Rand in the development of her moral philosophy and numerous subsequent thinkers. Apologists like Mr. Apologist are only doing themselves a disservice by sheltering their evasions from the light of reason and objectivity.

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