Basic Concepts in the Theory of Ethics

As this seminar opens, the Professor is just sitting down. Already present in the room are Nellie, Johanna, Dorcas, and Ellen. Alicia's speaker is also in evidence. There are two empty chairs.

Professor: Ah, attendance is at a peak today; I'm glad you all made it, because we have a new member of the group to introduce.

Dorcas: Someone from my time?

Professor: (enjoying a little mystery) No, not someone out of time at all. You have heard of the alternate worlds theory?

Ellen: The what?

Nellie: It's a common theme in science fiction, but I suppose you don't read that kind of literature.

Ellen: Sounds like comic books for kids. Aren't we past that stage?

Professor: Alicia, why don't you explain.

Alicia: Certainly, Professor. Such theories hold that our universe is not unique; that other universes exist in parallel to it, and that in those others history has not followed the same track as it has in ours.

Dorcas: Nellie told me yesterday about a man called Hitler. Might there be a universe in which he never was or, from my perspective, never will be born?

Alicia: Most assuredly. Indeed, the Professor and I have identified several such alternate universes already, and Hitler existed only in this one.

Nellie: Are the Physicists right then--every decision ever made down to the particle level creates a new universe parallel to ours in which only minor details differ, so that the number of alternates grows without bound?

Alicia: Apparently not. There seem to be certain historical crisis points, called "nexi" at which the Earth literally divides in two, and two Earths, each with their own subsequent history, appear where there was only one before. It seems that other decisions are too insignificant, and the worlds created "flow" back together.

Johanna: Are Ellen and I always the only skeptics? This sounds like pure fantasy. What's the point?

Nellie: I think the point is that one of these empty chairs is for someone from an alternate Earth.

Professor: Quite so. (standing) Would you welcome Eider to our class. She is a specialist in medical technology and ethical issues.

Eider now enters and takes a seat after greeting the Professor. There are introductions all around.

Nellie: Are we allowed to talk about what you just told us?

Professor: One question only, then we get on with today's study.

Nellie: Eider, how is your Earth different from ours; I mean, how did it become different? Or, do you know?

Eider: (smiling) That's three questions. Our world is called Meta Earth, or more popularly the Builder's World, and it was the first to divide from yours.

Nellie: When?

Eider: When Cain killed Abel, back at the very beginning of things, he was confronted by God with what he had done. He wavered. Should he confess his deed and ask forgiveness, or lie and try to cover up what he had done? My world and yours result from the two different moral decisions--in yours he became the father of liars and evildoers, and in mine an object lesson for the mercy of God.

At this point both Ellen and Johanna make disgusted noises, but the Professor quiets them, and Eider continues.

Eider: Things were never as bad there as here, so God never sent a flood to destroy the Earth. Consequently, our society has developed from a completely different base than yours.

Johanna: I don't know where the Professor really got you from, dearie, but I've heard enough world making myths for one day. Let's get on with things.

Nellie: Wait--what technologies do you pursue?

Eider: We have highly developed the arts of healing, of the understanding of the mind, of human behaviour and of relationships. In our world...

Professor: (interrupting) That will do. Nellie you can grill Eider all you want after class. I just wanted to establish that you came from a society with a different history and set of cultural assumptions than ours. We want to discuss ethics today, and it seemed good to have a different cultural viewpoint represented.

Ellen: (unable to contain herself) If this fairy tale is consistent, it has implications that interest me. Let me go along with it for a moment. A different beginning implies a completely different history. Tell me, was there someone called Jesus Christ in your world?

Eider: No.

Ellen: Aha! That puts the lie to Christianity. You don't deny the existence of what Christians here call sin, do you?

Eider: No.

Ellen: (turning to Dorcas) Don't you see? If the Christian God is real, he would have had to make the same provision for what you call sin in every one of the alternate Earths, and he did not in theirs. Thus, Christ was just a man, an interesting teacher, and nothing more ...

Eider: (interrupting her) No, he wasn't just a man.

Ellen: But you said...

Eider: I said he was not part of the history of our world. I did not say that we were unaware of the history of yours, nor of the significance of Christ in that history. We--that is, most of us--hold that his death, though suffered only on one of the Earths, sufficed for salvation on all of them.

Ellen: O bother, another one.

Professor: Back on track, children. We are supposed to be discussing the existence and universality of ethical and moral principles.

Dorcas: I thought we were doing rather well there, myself.

Ellen: Despite this clever little fiction on behalf of the outdated religious fairy tales some of you cling to, I still maintain that moral principles are just convenient rules that a society decides to use because it perceives them to benefit the majority of the members.

Nellie: On the contrary--they are principles built into the very fabric of the universe. We agree to them because we are all capable of discovering them, in the same way that we discover scientific principles.

Johanna: How do you account for the fact that different societies have different moral values?

Eider: In general, they don't.

Ellen: They certainly do. Consider the private ownership of property. In the decadent West, this is upheld as an important principle. In better societies, it is realized that no one can claim ownership over the land or other property, and it is all held in common. Why, this was the case even in your Christian Bible.

Dorcas: But, the phenomenon you have just mentioned is not at all moral or ethical, but a practical application, and only one possible application at that. Moreover, it was practised in the form you describe only in a single local Church and for a short time.

Ellen: Nonsense. Greed is a principle held dear by most of the capitalist West, and they got it from Christianity.

Nellie: Dorcas is right. The related moral principle could be: "It is good not to be greedy" or, perhaps "You shall not covet". I don't see any problem with agreeing to disagree on how such a moral principle is worked out in political practice--two systems for controlling or regulating greed could be very different on the surface, but both might work well in their own cultural context.

Dorcas: Moreover, even if various cultures do decide on different ethical norms, that fact does not mean they are all equally correct. One or more of them could simply be wrong.

Professor: More to the point, what does the word "good" mean in the context you have just used it, Nellie?

Nellie: It means, "morally upright", "correct", "proper and best" ...

Johanna: Meaningless words.

Nellie: What?

Johanna: You can't define the concept of goodness in terms of mere synonyms for the word.

Nellie: Why not?

Ellen: Because you have just traded words around; you have not explained the concept in terms of simpler ideas or words. Since you can't do that, the concept of "good" is meaningless. It is a word that has no underlying content except what a given society chooses to assign it.

Dorcas: "Good" is what pleases God--he has not left us ignorant of what things do that.

Nellie: Well, I'm not so sure that is all there is to it. Aren't ethical principles by and large just self-evident? Don't people generally have a sense of what is good and evil, that's more or less reliable?

Ellen: Let me illustrate otherwise. Do you agree that it is good to tell the truth?

Nellie: Yes, I do.

Ellen: Very well then. Suppose telling the truth would hurt someone. For instance, suppose someone you loved very much had cancer, and you knew that if that person found out the truth, knowing it would kill her. Would you still tell the truth, or would you lie?

Eider: Let me answer that one. Your example is flawed, Ellen. There is no way to "know" in advance what the effect on the person would be. You cannot say that you know that telling her would result in her death. I have seen this sort of thing many times. The gnawing uncertainty and suspicion is, in my experience, much worse. There is no doubt in my mind that the truth is superior. It has to be told carefully and gently, but told nonetheless.

Dorcas: Isn't what you are calling the sense of good and evil just conscience?

Ellen: Whatever you call it, it does not work. By my conscience, nuclear bombs were evil, but some people claim by their conscience that those bombs were good. I organize workers into unions because it is right for them to unite against their oppressors, but some people refuse to join, citing conscience as a reason. Some are just capitalist lackeys or liars, but not all, so I have to conclude that conscience is inconsistent, and therefore unreliable.

Dorcas: But, you are not willing to deny it exists, are you?

Ellen: Too many people think it's there for that. I'll go with the majority to that extent.

Nellie: Generous of a Marxist.

Eider: Conscience was given as the "knowledge of good and evil" at the fall of Adam and Eve, and it has therefore always been flawed, even corrupted. Moreover, even when people know what is the right thing to do, they may still choose to do what is wrong.

Johanna: I think ethics is just a name for doing the best thing in whatever situation you are in.

Nellie: So, how do you know the best thing when you're in the situation? If there are no rules to go by, how do you make the calculation of what's "right" or "good?" It seems to me that situation ethics reduces to "If it feels good, do it."

Dorcas: I have heard students here say "Just do it."

Nellie: Or even "Do it!" without the hesitation of "just".

Ellen: Yeah, that's not enough. There have to be rules, even if there is no God to make them.

Nellie: Who makes the rules then?

Ellen: What benefits the mass of people as a whole is put into effect as law by their government and this determines right behaviour.

Nellie: How do you decide who the government will be and how does it decide what are the best laws?

Ellen: The strongest and best are fit to lead and to tell others what is morally right. The average person has to be told.

Johanna: But that's statism--totalitarian rule by an elite. You can't decide morals that way; it's the same philosophy Hitler and Stalin used.

Ellen: Don't change the subject. It's just survival of the fittest. We got here that way, and we have no choice but to continue to go along with evolution toward our destiny.

Dorcas: It is precisely the fact that human beings have an ethical impulse that distinguishes us absolutely from animals. We have a different nature, and part of that nature is the ability to choose between right and wrong.

Nellie: The ethical impulse looks out for others. It is exactly the opposite of "survival of the fittest."

Ellen: Your ethics is a denial of your destiny.

Alicia: Could someone define the word ethics?

Several People at once: Duty!

Nellie: We've read this book, Alicia. After all, we're in it.

Alicia: Very well. Duty to whom?

Johanna: To oneself alone. Everyone's primary duty is self-realization, self-actualization, and self-fulfillment.

Eider: (looking puzzled) You belong to the three self movement?

Nellie: Wrong modern culture, wrong reference. I'll explain later, Eider.

Ellen: Everyone's duty is to people as a whole; that is to the state. The primary duty is to serve the collective cause and advance its evolution.

Nellie: I'll say it is to people as individuals.

Dorcas: Yes, to promote other people's welfare as more important than our own.

Eider: To God. To serve His perfect will. Within that, I agree with Nellie and Dorcas.

Alicia: And, how do you know what your duty is? Where do you find out?

Johanna: You do what is best to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, first for yourself, then for others--in which case, it's the most loving thing that you ought to do.

Ellen: In the ideal state, you obey the collective will of the people in all matters, including ethics.

Nellie: But you don't think much of a democratic state, do you?

Ellen: I don't mind a democracy, it's imperialism disguised as a democracy that I can't stand.

Alicia: And the rest of you?

Eider: Conscience exists and works fairly well, even though it is flawed.

Dorcas: As to what's right and wrong, these are things God has told us in the law and the prophets. There are moral standards that describe Him and tell us how far short we fall of Him. Ultimately, goodness is something only God can give to us.

Eider: Not only that, but believing in Jesus Christ is the means by which the gift of decreed goodness in God's eyes is given, along with the ability to do what is right.

Ellen: Wait, I have the question for you Christians. What about homosexuality?

Nellie: (indignant) It's wrong, period.

Johanna: Now just a minute. I find the idea unpleasant personally, but who are you to impose your morality on someone else, just because you don't like theirs?

Nellie: The Bible says...

Ellen: Who cares what the Bible says? People who are gay or lesbian were born that way; they can't help what they are. If there were a God, she must have made them like that, but in any case, you can't condemn them for being what they are.

Nellie: But...

Dorcas: Ellen is right, Nellie--at least about the last part. We are all born sinners, so none of us can condemn anyone else. Some people are more inclined to one sin, some to another. What matters is whether we give in to those inclinations to sin or, with the power of God in us as his people, we resist them.

Nellie: (settling back in her seat) If it is the action of sin and not the inclination to it that the Bible condemns, then it is not being a homosexual that is the problem, because that's just being a sinner, which we all are.

Dorcas: Right. We are all the same thing; what we do is the subject of ethics.

Ellen: (angrily) I don't accept that distinction.

Professor: (interrupting) Well, we've got the various views of ethics staked out quite nicely. Your assignment for next week is to consider the positions with which you most disagree and write a 2,000 word paper, with references, of course)...

Nellie: ... (gleefully interrupting) ripping the other side to shreds.

Professor: (mildly) Why, no--defending it to the best of your ability.

(There is general outrage at this, but the professor insists, and with a sly smile and a slight shrug, packs up, and leaves.)

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises