Saturday, March 20, 2010

Natural and Supernatural Ethics

I got into an interesting discussion yesterday with a couple of friends over lunch. We were talking about what causes inequality, and specifically income inequality between men and women. My friend brought up the oft-quoted statistic that women make, on average, about 77% of what men make, and the discussion took off from there: why this inequality?

My friend took the position that the reason is structural bias, i.e. that women don't have the same options as men. By this he meant that employers don't offer as much money to hire women as they do to hire men, and there aren't as many high-paying jobs available to women as to men.

This he sees as an inherent injustice. He put it like this: "If I told you that people who preferred Pepsi to Coke made more money than people who preferred Coke to Pepsi, wouldn't that make you question the market? Of course it would, and the reason is that such a distinction (Coke vs. Pepsi) is arbitrary."

Thus the assumption here is that the male/female distinction is arbitrary, in the sense that being male or female has nothing to do with having something to contribute to the market. The conclusion is that inequality between the two groups, male and female, makes no sense, and is therefore the result of injustice.

It's interesting to think about what gives us this kind of moral intuition in today's culture. Equality between men and women has by no means been a natural belief for human beings throughout history. Similar statements can be made about things like slavery. Indeed, it's remarkable that most of the world perceives slavery as inherently unjust, when it appears that for most of human history, most civilizations found slavery quite natural.

One way to think about it is that some systems of values arise from looking at nature, and deciding that what's natural is basically right. We look at men, we look at women; we happen to notice men tend to be bigger and stronger. Naturally, then, men were meant to be that way. Naturally speaking, men are supposed to have a more prominent place in society. That's one way that humans seem to have thought about things.

An important application of this is to the question of life after death. You look around at life, and it quickly becomes quite clear that everything dies. Death is natural. So are myths that explain death, and what happens after you die. Whether you believe that your soul leaves the body and travels to the underworld, or that your soul is reincarnated, or that you just simply die and completely cease to exist, you're acknowledging that there's something quite natural about the cycle of life and death. (It'll be clear where I'm going with this in a minute.)

Although many people tend to think of Christianity these days as a backwards religion, holding on to ancient traditions in spite of modern insights, early Christianity was (and, I would argue, is) quite revolutionary on that particular question of life after death. Christians claim that death is not meant to be natural for humans. In fact, we have evidence: Jesus Christ rose from the dead!

That is the claim that early Christians brought to the society around them. And did it inform their ethics? Absolutely. As N. T. Wright (who is totally brilliant in his focus on the resurrection) has pointed out somewhere, ancient Romans knew two things about early Christians that they considered very odd. One was that they believed in resurrection from the dead. The other was that they weren't sexually promiscuous.

Promiscuous sex is another thing that appears quite natural--I don't think I need to explain that in this culture. The Romans didn't need that explained, either. But early Christians practiced a chaste lifestyle. Why? Because they believed the body was holy. They believed that body wasn't meant to be treated in such a "natural" way. They believed in something supernatural.

To tie this back to the conversation I had yesterday, it seems that modern liberal moral intuition actually has a bit of this flavor to it. Rather than surveying nature and assuming that what's natural is right, it critiques nature by appealing to something higher. It has in view some sort of eschatology, really, holding to the belief that it's our destiny as humans to be equal, self-determined, and happy.

In other words, the liberalism being espoused by my friend seems to prefer the supernatural to the natural. I can't help but admire this. Also I can't help but think that it's somewhat inherited. Surely there are echoes of early Christian thought in my friend's concern for equality. I'm not merely speaking of the way Paul declares that in Christ there is no longer male nor female (Gal. 3:28); rather, I'm speaking more of a way of thinking about ethics, based on things to come rather than things present.

But one thing that Christianity has, which I think is essential, is a claim to not only have a vision for the future, but also a vision of the future in the person of Jesus Christ. The Christian claim that Jesus was (and is) a human being who physically walked among us and was physically raised from the dead is significant, because it grounds claims about the future in something already experienced. This in turn means that ethical claims made by Christians are also (at least in theory) tied to that experience, which means we're not just taking shots in the dark.

Liberalism, if it isn't tied to anything in the way that Christianity is tied to the life of Jesus, has the problem of grounding its ethical demands in reality. Not that liberal moral claims are wrong; I'm inclined to agree that equal income between men and women would be a good thing. But finding real grounding for that might be a challenge, especially as liberalism more and more abandons religious claims about the world.

If an atheist wants to argue that we derive our ethics by trial and error, by looking at what "works"--in other words, scientifically--I will reply that this is not what liberalism truly hopes for. This is the old, Roman way of looking at the world. This is the kind of approach that leads to male dominance over women, slavery, and whatever else appears natural to those who have power (and even those that don't).

In other words, an atheist just doesn't have an argument against slavery, nor does he have a legitimate grounding for equal rights. That requires eschatology, that is, a vision of who we are meant to be in the future. And if the universe just doesn't have any purpose for us, then eschatology is meaningless.

So I find that my liberal friends are actually very religious at heart, much like the Athenians with their idol dedicated to an unknown god. And often I'd like to tell them, like Paul in front of the Areopagus, "What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you."

I wonder how they'd take that.

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