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Ethics on their own

Death Wish 2. The Inevitable Fate of Stand-Alone Ethics.

I’m reminded of an old TV comedy sketch (Marty Feldman?), in which a couple are determined to go to the Edinburgh Festival, but refuse to travel to Edinburgh.

Judging by a recent article in The Guardian (UK) (transcribed onto the Anglican Mainstream site), there are various moves afoot to revive the old chestnut (if that’s not a mixed metaphor) of dogma-free ethics.

In past times (say, the late-19thcentury) it may have been reasonable and credible to suppose society could have the benefits of the high ideals and ethical values conferred and urged by religious faith, and the Judeo-Christian tradition in particular, after it had ceased to believe in the reality of the source of those ethics.

Atheists and Humanists of the period were serious, earnest people who believed that the highest kinds of behaviour and conduct, and belief in the highest goods, were possible (indeed, might only be fully possible) after Judeo-Christian “myths”, and more importantly the role and powers of the ecclesiastical bodies, had been removed.

The events of the 20th century (particularly its first half) destroyed the rational basis of that, and the whole Victorian belief in “Progress”. By the post-war decades, the leader of the Humanist Society in Britain was apparently commending Humanism as a source of happiness, and recently we’ve had the message of the atheist bus (“There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”) establishing clearly (if unintentionally?) that atheism/Humanism is really about the pursuit of pleasure; atheism in reality – like it or not – leads to hedonism, and thence amoralism, chaos, and death.

But what about the “new stand-alone ethics” (since labelling it is almost unavoidable)? Apparently Karen Armstrong believes that the truth of religion is not assent to “propositions”, but consists of “love”, “commitment”, “loyalty” and “compassion”, and she plans to draft, and launch, a “global Charter on Compassion for all faiths (and none)”.

Likewise Alain de Botton, an atheist philosopher, has founded a School of Life, in London, which runs courses including one given by former priest and atheist Mark Vernon, which “advocates a principled agnosticism rooted in an understanding of the limits of human knowledge”.

Never explained satisfactorily (to me), however, is why materialists might want to have high ethics such as “love”, “commitment”, “loyalty” and “compassion”. Of course I know that the life we all have to live is much easier, or would be, if we all tried to have more of these things.

But my suspicion is that these particular advocates have something more in mind. Above all (unlike religious people) they hold a materialist world-view, i.e. that we exist temporarily as the accidental by-products of undirected processes.

In this circumstance, however, they try to believe that this life/world can be made an end or objective in itself, indeed, that it should be made so. But the fact that it can’t is what always trips up their fine intentions, and, at best produces simple failure; utopia turns to misery, time and time again.

It has been said (rightly in my view) that once you believe that your life, and hence the lives of everybody else, will and can only be a temporary affair, then anything you may choose to do, or work towards, becomes futile, and that you know this, even if you do not fully admit it to yourself.
After all, we know (even the “stand-alone ethics” people will be forced to acknowledge – why else are their programmes necessary?) that the acquisition of moral progress cannot be passed from person to person, generation to generation, unlike knowledge.

A person may acquire it, as the result of a life of discipline, prayer, meditation, study, etc.; but it all dies with them, and the next person/generation starts from zero.

No doubt the acquisition of love, loyalty, compassion and the rest would make life very good and pleasant – but what, actually, would be its end or purpose, since extinction waits for all (including, eventually, the world, and all of life)? Good/pleasant living – and love, loyalty, compassion, peace and justice – can only fail if they are not a means towards something else; the life of any one person, if it is ultimately purposeless, eventually ceases to be good, since “good” can, in that circumstance, only mean pleasure (does not Buddhism teach that all human experience is ultimately non-satisfying?).

The desire to live independent of one’s creator, totally for oneself, ultimately must produce death, eternal death. But a life devoted to love, loyalty, compassion and suchlike, when pursued totally for themselves – our life lived just for itself – eventually leads in precisely the same direction. Even the good things in this life, if not pursued as a means to an end which is (currently) beyond us, will turn to dust.