Ethics

In my previous post, Caveats and Biases, I described my approach to conversation, relationships, and conflict. This post was supposed to explain why any of this matters – why I do not “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” But it turned out as more of a big question-mark, a list of things I’m still trying to figure out.

I’ve really been thinking about this out for a few months now, and I’m not done. I started, naturally, from Christian deontology. I’ve never agreed with Calvinism or proper divine command theory, but I believed that we knew fundamental axioms of ethics from the Bible and our consciences. Conclusions such as murder being wrong while capital punishment would be okay were explained by what I understood to be utilitarianism. That always seemed awkward, considering the generally low opinion of utilitarianism among Christians, but I never looked much into ethical theory until recently. Currently, non-absolutist deontology seems the best fit for my beliefs. I don’t yet understand how an absolutist would justify war and self-defense; wouldn’t he be forced into the Society of Friends by his beliefs? Nor do I understand the logic that allows deontology to be non-absolutist.

I consider the best possible welfare for the most possible people as the self-evident goal of ethics, and I believe each person has a duty to promote it. However, I also believe that the naive pursuit of that goal can undermine itself. If a person is in a catch-22 such that he must either violate his fundamental principles or allow havoc to transpire, he must allow the havoc rather than betray his principles, because by betraying principles he weakens his discipline and causes himself to be unprincipled. (The only way out would be to find a good reason to adopt different principles, but I couldn’t trust myself to judge that in the moment.)  Some ends justify some means under some circumstances; more precisely, principles must be prioritized and the higher must always determine action.

But why does duty matter? Why not shirk it and do what I want? I could never be proud of that; I need to believe that I have done well and done right. Additionally, I do believe in grace, faith, and works as they are explained in the Christian Bible, and I believe in Heaven and a hell which annihilates its inhabitants (because I disagree about how to translate Jesus’ words on the subject). I don’t think of the hell part often, but I suppose it’s a subconscious motivator – to desire to do good rather than to do good begrudgingly. That desire is the faith which, without works, is dead; without faith, works are pointless. More about my theology is forthcoming, within a few seconds in fact.

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