Lost Certainties

It is generally agreed that medieval men and women in Western Christendom were firm in their convictions about Good and Evil and the certain fact of reward and punishment in the afterlife. Indeed, theirs was a world filled with suffering and superstition, but none the less solid beneath their feet — and in Heaven above. Carl Jung paints a rosy picture:

“for [medieval man] the earth was eternally fixed and at rest in the center of the universe, encircled by the course of a sun that solicitously bestowed its warmth. Men were all children of God under the loving care of the Most High, who prepared them for eternal blessedness; and all knew exactly what they should do and how they should conduct themselves in order to rise from a corruptible world to an incorruptible and joyous existence.”

But when the church began to question itself, when Luther and then Calvin began to ask question about such things as the fallibility of the Pope in Rome, and the papacy itself experienced a schism in which two men simultaneously claimed to be infallible, the medieval world began to totter. Later, following innumerable plagues, the industrial revolution following closely the revolution in science, the invention of the printing press, and the Protestant Reformation, all of which threw folks back on their own convictions; they began to have serious doubts about former verities — and this accelerated the questioning about the possibility of absolute Good and Evil. In a word, ethical relativism was born and the doubt about moral values became a contagion, especially following the War to End All Wars, fostering considerable fear and uncertainty. Suddenly men and women were cast adrift without the verities that gave them spiritual mooring and helped them make sense out of a bewildering world.

The problem is that this movement away from absolutes is based on a false dichotomy in the minds of so many people: either there is an absolute Good and an absolute Evil fixed forever in the heavens above, or it’s all relative. Good and evil in the latter case become matters of opinion, simply. The fallacy in this dichotomy resides in the fact that there is a middle ground that a great many people have ignored. Good and Evil may not be absolutes, but it does not follow from that that they are merely subjective. The middle ground is an ethics that insists that there are things that are truly good or evil, but we are not in a position to know these things beyond a shadow of a doubt. However, we can assuredly thinks about them and discuss them together.

It has frequently been said that the conviction one has about absolute good and absolute evil invariably leads to intolerance, a sense of superiority among those in the know, whether it be the church and its Authorities or philosophers in their closets. But once one finds the middle ground sketched above, the intolerance disappears, since no one can claim to know with certainty what is good and what is evil — only that some things are truly good and others truly evil. It is possible to discuss the question of whether a specific act is good or evil and for reasonable people to come to agreement about certain things — such as rape and premeditated murder, perhaps, and the exploitation of workers by wealthy CEOs who make 400 times as much money as the people they employ. But even these claims are not absolute: they are contextual. One must take every case one at a time and consider all the ramifications. This is why debate and discussion is essential in ethics; two or three minds are better able to see the various aspects of complex issues than one mind alone in its closet — or on its throne. The rejection of absolutism in ethics does not imply the acceptance of relativism or subjectivism. It allows for the possibility of what is called “objectivism.”

This is the view sketched above that allows for the resolution of complex moral issues without resorting to despair, on the one hand, or blind, unswerving conviction, on the other. It allows for a sense of assurance that the issue has been examined and discussed and so far as we know at the moment, the act in question is either right or wrong — it cannot be both. The procedure here is much like that of a criminal trial: we proceed by weighing the evidence, listening to the arguments, and then we make the appropriate judgment. The defendant cannot be both guilty and innocent — he must be one or the other. This procedure certainly does not entail intolerance, but it does require judgment and an open mind. And it holds open the possibility of resolving moral conflict amicably which is not possible if we insist that moral judgments are nothing more than matters of opinion. In the latter case people simply stop talking or resort to violence.

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15 thoughts on “Lost Certainties

  1. Hugh, this statement of yours says it all, “The problem is that this movement away from absolutes is based on a false dichotomy in the minds of so many people: either there is an absolute Good and an absolute Evil fixed forever in the heavens above, or it’s all relative.”

    We are all varying shades of gray and when the curtain was pulled back and the wizard (or priests) was revealed to be not perfect, then all bets were off. One of the hardest lessons as a young boy was when I learned my parents were fallible and my mother and father were very good people, but not perfect.

    I think we aspire to be good (or the converse), but we often fail to achieve perfection toward this end. So, we should try to do the right thing and when we fail, recognize it, fess up, apologize and try to do better next time. As I mentioned in my last post, even ministers feel less pious on occasion and have to be renewed in their faith.

    Good post, BTG

    • Thanks for the input, BTG. Yes, ethics is all about the shades of gray. The key is that an act cannot possibly be BOTH right and wrong. That’s where relativism goes way too far. It reduces ethics to grunts and hunches.

      • Hugh, I can think of a few examples where an act can be right, but also have some wrongness attached. A domestic violence victim who finally lashes back and kills her abuser. A man defending his home and kills the intruder. A mother defending a child who kills the assailant. All actions are justified and have a rightness about them, but killing someone is wrong. I recognize these are extremes, but there is a lot of gray in our lives.

        In the “Book of Virtues” ironically edited by William Bennett, who ended up with a huge gambling problem, there is a story about a the friar who was asked what he would do when he found a wallet with money. After the first two friars said they would find the owner, he said truthfully, “At first, I would be tempted to keep it. But, then I would realize it was not mine to keep, so I would find the rightful owner.” I have always remembered this, as it shows we are all tempted.

        Again, great post and good discussions. BTG

      • Good examples, but I don’t think they weaken my point. Such acts as you mention are right despite the fact that they involve elements that, under different circumstances, would be regarded as wrong. I simply point out that such acts cannot be BOTH right and wrong at the same time.

      • For a full and exhaustive (exhausting?) discussion of “objectivism” see Chapter Two of my book “Rediscovering Values.” I suggest that values cannot be reduced to personal perspectives, but are “real” and independent of us — though we view them from our own perspective. What a thing is cannot be reduced to how we perceive it; knowing and being are separate, though we approach the latter by way of the former.

  2. The more I travel Latin America and visit the pre-Columbian sites, the more ashamed I become of the torture and slayings of the Indians, and the destruction of their buildings, artifacts and any form of written history. So many churches are built on ancient sites, and though it does not make me deny a loving God, it does make me disgusted with the church leaders and those who represented the church.

    I enjoyed BTG’s comment – when I was young and rambling the fields and backwoods of a neighboring farm, I found a wallet that was crammed with what seemed a lot of money to a young girl’s eyes. Without hesitation, I took it to the land owner, who returned it to the grateful owner. Sometimes I wonder, ‘Was that a Life Test:’ for me?!!

  3. The problem is that Objectivism requires rational and calm minds to weigh in without prejudice. In most ethical questions people seem to be vehemently and subjectively on one or the other side, firmly believing the opposite side to be “evil.” So how does one get the sides to meet and have a genuine discussion?

    • Good point — and an excellent question. It’s not a philosophical problem, however, but a practical one. If it’s possible to allow some time to pass, people usually cool off after a time. Otherwise, it might be possible to get a third party to intervene. But as long as two people or two sides are at one other’s throats, dialogue isn’t possible. This is what is occurring in the U.S. Congress right now: both sides of the aisle suspect one another of duplicity and there is an absence of trust, thus dialogue just isn’t possible. As you say, the respolution of moral conflict requires calm, rational minds and that hardly describes the members of Congress — or most people who are “at” each other, certain that they have the truth and their opponent is out of his or her mind. In a word, each side or person must listen to the other while admitting that he or she might be wrong.

      • I had not thought of trust as one of the bridges that could connect two opposing parties. I see your point, especially as regards politics. My next question would be: how does a third party build this trust between the opposition? It isn’t easy for people, especially politicians to admit they are wrong because it puts them in an untrustworthy position. So, how can both sides “start at the beginning” so to speak and build a debate based on trusting somebody whose belief system is contrary to theirs?

      • I’m not sure. It’s a very good question. I would guess that the only way out of the impasse is to transfer trust to the third party — the mediator. If you and I don’t trust one another dialogue really cannot lead anywhere. But if we agree to listen to a third party and open our minds to the possibility that we might be wrong, dialogue might get a start. But that, too, is difficult. So often people claim to want to discuss issues, but they really just want their point of view to be accepted by the other party. Open-mindedness is a rare commodity – as is the ability to listen to another point of view….really listen.

  4. Hugh, good discussion with Bespoke Traveler. Part of the issue with trust is the cognitive dissonance effect. When someone is presented with real data that counters what people they trusted told them, it creates such disharmony that it is unsettling. What tends to happen in today’s world of truthiness, is they will “go home to papa” for their more comfortable version of the truth. That is one of the dilemmas of being in campaign mode at all times, is the rhetoric is substituted for real facts.

    When I share that the Stimulus Package did not fail, people look at me like I am crazy as that premise, even when supported by data, goes against what they have been told. I have enjoyed this post and the dialogue from commenters and you. Happy holidays, BTG

    • I have heard about “cognitive dissonance.” It’s a fancy term for a closed mind: we hear only what we want to hear. Our belief system gets set in concrete as we grow older and cannot be shaken except with dynamite!

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