(by Russell Johnson)

The history of ethical philosophy has bestowed to us an inheritance of many theories about the nature of morality. While the “-isms” may be esoteric, the ideas are commonplace in moral discourse. After all, aren’t ethics just:
–the greatest good for the greatest number, or
–treating people as ends rather than means, or
–ways of living that respect others’ innate human rights, or
–pragmatic rules for social cohesion, or
–social norms that have developed to help us propagate our genetic material?
When you get rid of all the theological trappings and folk psychology, it is assumed, you arrive at the essence of morality, and it’s simpler than we thought. There must be some one basic reason why we frown on murder, rape, and intolerance. After all, there has to be some essence to all of these rules and standards, or else they wouldn’t all be categorized as “ethical.”

There are two key problems with this way of thinking. First, this whole search for something common to all ethical rules and standards itself begs the question. We have no reason to believe that all the multifarious ethical truths “boil down to” one essential principle. Thus, the debate between utilitarians and deontologists (or, to oversimplify, “greatest good” advocates and “treat people as ends” advocates) is based on a shared assumption that there is one ethical rule standing behind, as it were, all of the other ethical rules. This is an assumption we do not need to make. I won’t dwell on the point for too long, but I will direct the reader to the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein on what he called “family resemblances.” Just as there is no one common feature we can point to in all things we call “games,” Wittgenstein argues, so there needn’t be one common feature we can point to in all things we call “morals.” Utilitarianism, inviolable human rights, and other attempts to systematize and simplify ethics are examples of reductionism. In an effort to analyze our ethical beliefs down to their least common denominator, we inevitably change their content to make them fit our theory. More could be said on this, but I will focus for the rest of the essay on the second problem.

The second problem with these ethical theories is that they do not ground the least-common-denominator ethical principle they maintain. That is to say, utilitarians can marshal some stunning arguments about how our pre-existing ethical beliefs boil down to “the greatest good for the greatest number,” but utilitarian theory does not explain why we should want the greatest good for the greatest number. Similarly, Immanuel Kant and his successors have tried to show how our varied ethical truths boil down to treating others as means rather than ends, but they leave it a mystery about why we ought to treat people that way in the first place. It’s one thing to show how both murder and theft violate the so-called “golden rule,” but it’s quite another to explain why the golden rule is itself worth following. Similarly, even if one can identify which basic human rights all people have, one is then left to explain why those rights should not be violated. In short, ethics can be analyzed and reduced by these ethical theories, but not justified. They’re like comprehensive rulebooks which can explain how to follow all the rules of rugby but do not in themselves tell you why rugby is worth playing, or its rules worth following. One could agree with every part of utilitarian theory and then say, “Yes, all of the ethical norms people seem to share are ultimately about the greatest good for the greatest number. But since I don’t care whatsoever about the greatest number, I’m going to scrap the whole thing and do what I want.” Now, by this argument I am not necessarily claiming that these theories are all wrong. Merely that they are incomplete. Something else is needed, if morality is to be grounded in such a way that it becomes more than just an arbitrary choice.

Consider the claim, made in various forms by different atheistic thinkers, that the rules and paradigms and aversions we have are the products of naturalistic, evolutionary development. That is to say, our ethical ideas are socially inherited and arose out of pragmatic concerns to carry on our genetic material. Altruism, it has been argued, is seen as a good ultimately because humans are social animals and we figured out millennia ago that cooperation works better than unlimited competition. On this theory, survival of the fittest gives the best account for the emergence and endurance of such norms as “do not murder,” and ethical claims are theoretically traceable to pragmatic, biological claims. Even if this theory could compellingly account for all of our ethical beliefs, it neglects to give a proper justification for behaving morally. As above, if ethics are all ultimately about propagating the species, one could reasonably ask, “Why ought I propagate the species? Why is the continuation and growth of humanity worth working towards?” If survival of the fittest gives the best answer to the question, “how did we get the ethical notions we have?” it nevertheless still fails to answer the question, “why ought those ethical notions be heeded at all?” If we are consistent, we cannot hold others accountable for their decisions. Once we realize that all talk of right and wrong is merely a thin veneer concealing talk of survival and death, our moral judgments become arbitrary. We legally prosecute the arsonist because his behavior is not conducive to human survival, but there is no reason for preferring human survival over its opposite, and thus we are forcing our arbitrary choice on the arsonist. The arsonist could claim humanity’s survival is not a worthwhile cause, and we cannot say he’s wrong but we can only overpower him by brute strength. Rationally speaking, everything is permissible and justice is a facade.

Perhaps no one saw this better than Friedrich Nietzsche. He postulated what someone would act like who saw through the facade: a pure opportunist, amoral, seeking only to exert his or her “will-to-power.” But, at least in theory if not in practice, we can go one step further. Why should we care about our own will to power? Why is getting our way preferable to not getting our way? Nietzsche’s undeceived ubermensch has no rational grounds for choosing between sanguinary domination, nihilistic suicide, or quiet gardening. Thus, of course it does not follow that those with a naturalistic worldview automatically become wicked people. It does follow, however, that those with a naturalistic worldview become people incapable of justifying their actions in such a way that those actions are anything more than mere whims.

The argument above does not necessarily lead to Christianity as the only alternative to moral arbitrariness; someone could reasonably hold to a utilitarian, deontological, or socio-evolutionary model of ethics with a deistic, polytheistic, or atheistic justification. Discerning between the many theories of both the content and ground of morality is a task for another time. But I will say briefly that Christianity provides a grand narrative in which the chain of “whys” does reach a satisfactory end. Christians believe that we live in certain ways because we have a purpose woven in the very fabric of the universe, in communion with a God who is ultimate significance itself. Even when we act immorally, which of course happens quite frequently, we recognize a standard of right and wrong that is higher than capricious will. Those who disagree with Christian ethics, then, can present their arguments but only after they have a firm reason why we ought to be ethical at all.