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.