Reasons for Morality - saturday 2003-09-06 1617 last modified 2003-09-10 2004
Categories: Christianity
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As part of my continuing ruminations during unemployment, I thought I'd take up a question on morality. Yes, this is based in large part on one person's observations (I hope you don't mind); if it sounds familiar, I guess you read both our blogs.

Jesus says in Matthew 7:12, "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets." (NIV) This principle is taught around the world in various scriptures and is often referred to as the Golden Rule or the principle of reciprocity. As an ethical standard, it claims that people would quite assuredly do good to one another if they measured their actions towards others by what they themselves desired.

But this is not the entirety of Jesus' teaching. If it "sums up the Law and the prophets," then it fails to encompass all that Jesus has come to do to "fulfill the Law" (Matthew 5:12, NIV). In particular, Jesus tells his audience on the Mount to "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:43-44, NIV) - even if they don't do it back. There should be no limit on our forgiveness; not seven times, not even "seventy times seven" (Matthew 18:21-22, NIV). To top it off, Jesus gives a "new commandment" and instructs His followers to "love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another." Jesus' love brought Him to the cross. To do unto others is a good consideration; to love them unconditionally in the face of unreturned care is crazy, and only by the love of Christ can it be accomplished.

So much for the Golden Rule in Christianity. It's there, but it's not the whole story. The real question is whether or not it can stand on its own.

I see three problems in living out a Golden Rule ethic with no other motivation aside from the Rule on its own. The first is its inherent selfishness, the second is one of human nature, and the last is the difference between a theory and real life. They're really all sides of the same problem.

Selfishness. The Golden Rule is all about satisfying yourself. If there is no reason for adhering to it, then the motivating factor in this self-contained philosophy is really only to improve your own lot in life, and it implies that it's the only thing worth doing, even though the purported emphasis is on how you treat everyone else. People become a means to an end in the system. If this doesn't seem entirely wrong, let me ask: how would you feel if you knew everyone was being nice to you just because they wanted something from you? What if all your interactions were surrounded by a feeling of being used?

Human nature. Five thousand years of recorded history, and nobody's succeeded in building a society without flaws yet. People can achieve wondrous good and horrendous evil. That potential gets exercised both ways in every generation. I believe the general sources of evil begin with pride and a need to satisfy self over anyone else. The Golden Rule doesn't deviate at all from that base need - if human nature doesn't change and grow on its own, the Golden Rule certainly isn't going to help it. Instead of bringing human nature up, human nature will bring the Golden Rule down.

Theory and real life. In basic electric engineering classes, they tell you the base elements of resistors, capacitors, and inductors all work according to a small set of formulas. You put together a nice picture in your mind of how wires and electric elements go together and influence one another. In eletrophysics, they tell you the length of the wire matters. They tell you everything you learned in basic engineering is pretty wrong outside the small-scale world. Theories about real life and real life itself are usually never the same. Once you start trying to impose the theory on life, you find its flaws. The Golden Rule is a beautiful ethical framework, even on its own (humankind can be awfully greedy; might as well turn that selfishness to work towards a greater good) - but it's not an accurate reflection of real life. How can society work towards achieving this utopian state of good? What reason can you possibly give to people whose goals in life don't include making the world a better place? Where does this thing get started?

I move that it can only begin at the foot of the cross of Christ. There's an entirely different topic to delve into another time... (I was told in eighth grade this was a bad way to end an essay, but that was before the web - I'll link off to something later.)

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