A Place to Stand

I have been a member of North Carolina Yearly Meeting conservative for over twenty years. I am currently the clerk of our small Monthly Meeting. I am a recorded elder and presently serve as the Recording Clerk of our Yearly Meeting's Ministers, Elders and Overseers. My name has been put forward to be the next clerk of North Carolina Yearly Meeting Conservative. By trade I am a philosophy professor.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Legal, the Ethical and the Moral

In the past twenty years many philosophers have been drawing a distinction between ethics and morality. While no two philosophers draw the distinction in exactly the same way this is how I do it. The law represents the minimum that society will tolerate. Fall below the standard set by our laws and we will be forced to hurt you. But communites are not content to identify this minimum. They also establish ethical standards which define what it means to be a good and not merely a decent person. Ethical standards, which communities seek to instill in the young, serve as the social glue that makes the community something tangible and real. The standards are sometimes expressed as rules like the Ten Commandments but more often they are expressed as stories told of exemplary lives. “This is the story of Jesus (Confucius, Achilles, etc.) go and live as he lived.” The standards and stories differ from one community to the next but they also overlap to a much larger degree than one might think. (Is there a hero who does not display courage?) The bar is raised one final time with moral standards. Morality contrasts with Ethics in being at once both more individual and more universal. Some individuals hear a call to standards that are higher than those which bind neighbors together into a community.

The culture wars currently going on in America are a symptom of a serious weakening of standards at the level of ethics. For ethical standards to be real there has to be deep and widespread agreement within the community that certain things are good and other things are bad. These standards are enforced not by police armed with handcuffs but by raised eyebrows and disapproving stares. The consensus necessary to maintain such standards is in serious disarray. Cheating has become pervasive from Enron to the many plagiarism mills available on line. And when cheaters are caught they are frequently unrepentant and dare the rest of us to say anything that would express our disapproval. An ethical vacuum has opened up.

The response of the religious right has been to turn to the power of the state to enforce ethics. This attempt to replace failing ethical standards with harsh legal ones is in one sense understandable but ultimately a tragic mistake. The law cannot be used to heal the damage that has been done to community and trying to fix it that way just causes more damage. Our shared understandings of what is good are unstable at this period of history in part because they are in flux. I do think that the vacuum will not last forever and that a new ethical consensus will gradually emerge which will be different from the old and not necessarily lower or weaker in the long run. In the short run the attempt to use the law to buttress the old standards is doing more harm than good.

Friends, I would venture to suggest, tend to respond to the vacuum in the middle by making the opposite mistake. We hear the call of standards higher and more stringent than those of the community. While the usual ethical standards are content with self-defense and just war theory we are called to pacifism. While ethics enjoins us not to cheat our neighbor, Christ calls us to give him our cloak and walk an extra mile bearing his burden. We hear this higher call and mistake it for ethics. We think that we have the right and obligation to make our neighbors feel guilty about not being pacifists, about not actively working for social justice, about not being vegetarians, etc. I think that we should hold ourselves to the highest moral standards but not confuse these with ethical standards. Holding other people to our moral standards is not what we are called to do. We need to hold firmly to those standards, be the best example that we can be and let God do the rest.


Blogger Mark Wutka said...

I think your final point echoes again the idea of not concentrating on the fruits/works but on the Spirit. If our ethical standards are a result of Christ transforming our hearts, it is that transformation we should seek in others, not the standards themselves. We do that by answering "that of God" in them.
I still find the line between ethics and morality blurry. Jim Wallis suggests that the federal budget is a "moral document" in that it shows what our priorities are (we spend more on war than helping the less fortunate, for example). From the way you use the terms, that sounds more like a question of ethics.
With love,

5:04 AM  
Blogger RichardM said...

The terms "ethical" and "moral" as used in standard English are pretty much interchangeable. But philosophers want to write and think more carefully about these subjects than ordinary people, so we have to make distinctions that other people don't make. Yes, I'd say that the federal budget is an ethical document not a moral document once I've made the distinction between the two.

There is a lot more to say about the distinction between the ethical and the moral and if I went into full philosophy professor mode I'd go on and on until I put everyone to sleep. But I thought I'd just dangle the basic idea out there for people to think about for now. A bit later I may use this ethics/morality distinction to say some things about community, accountability, the peace testimony, and the relation of the society of Friends to society at large. But in keeping with my plan to write short posts these will have to come out in dribs and drabs.

I would hope my final point would echo things I've said previously. Even though I'm writing a bunch of very short essays I think they all reflect one unified coherent point of view. After all, no philosopher likes to think they are inconsistent!

By the way, David Eley came through Greenville this week and has plans to go through your neck of the woods. He said something about visiting a conservative leaning monthly meeting associated with Atlanta. I figure you probably know which one he's talking about. Maybe you could see David when he goes through.

7:51 AM  
Blogger Mark Wutka said...

I'm sure David was referring to Gwinnett Preparative Meeting, which is more conservative-leaning, although it has a number of liberal Friends as well. Maybe we'll see him, Ceal and I will be there this weekend - we try to at least make it there when they have business meetings, and as often as we can otherwise. I feel more at home there, but the grandkids are often with us on the weekend so we end up at Atlanta Friends where there is a good-sized young Friends program.

And I certainly think your final point was very consistent with what you have written in the past. I just noticed the similarity to some recent things I posted because they are still fresh on my mind.

With love,

10:52 AM  
Anonymous Josh P. said...

Could there be another hierarchy of standards? I suggest:

Moral standards are the rules in common with every society because they are necessary for society to exist.

Legal standards are systems of incentive and punishment to enforce these standards.

Ethical standards are non-necessary rules of behavior established through culture and custom.

4:52 PM  
Anonymous Karen Mercer eunen_de@yaho.ca said...

I don't know how active this site is nowadays. It seems nobody has commented in years, so perhaps I will get no response.

I understand what was being referred to with the comments about making the neighbours feel guilty about not being vegans and struggling with a higher calling, but I struggle with pacifism as an absolute.

I have no struggle with the OT/Torah precepts on peace and peacemaking, that we are to pursue justice, but to "Seek peace, and pursue it". That to me sets peace in some ways higher than justice, in that it is a commandment to seek peace where it isn't obviously to be found as well as to pursue it where it's obvious.

On a personal level, I have difficulty with the idea of not intervening on behalf of someone in danger (never have I stood by and watched my brother's blood). Otherwise I am against violence in all it's forms.

It goes deeper than that though. All the people who I have personally known who call themselves pacifists are all violent or exploitive in some other way that they feel quite fine about or justified in. They gossip cruelly, verbally attack others, are deceptive, and in particular are sexually exploitive of others. They seem to feel that anything goes as long as it doesn't involve hitting someone.

This experience has been so universal for me, with both social justice and religious pacifists, that I now cringe at the word. I don't want to become that sort of person who looks down on non-pacifists with smug pride even as they take out their aggression in more subtle ways.

It's the one thing that stops me from Quaker membership....that pacifism has become a sort of creed. An external ritual or symbol instead of a reality. I have had pacifists, including Quaker attenders, Buddhists and Catholics, become furiously angry with me for being anti-abortion and get quite nasty...even though a century ago most Quakers were passionately anti-abortion and both Catholocism and Buddhism are against it.

When my sister was little she once interupted my mother's long guilt-inducing lecture, sobbing, "Why can't you just hit us like Elanor's parents?" I feel the same way about some of the things I've experienced from pacifists (including some affiliated with Quakers). There are worse things you can do to a person than hit them. Why do pacifists act as if that wasn't so?

Why do so many pacifists put Pacifism before Peace?

11:22 AM  
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