Thursday, October 14, 2010

The ZigZag Café

The ZigZag Café

We will be convening here at the ZigZag café, Suisse, on Thursdays for conversation and dialogue. I invite you to stop by every Thursday for the question of the day. Your thoughts and participation are most welcome. Pull up a stool, avec un café, un thé, ou un chocolat chaud, et un croissant, and join in here on Thursday at the ZZ café.

For today:

Do you think that ethics has a sufficient basis without God?


Living Spiritual Rhythms For Today


Anonymous said...

Seems like the best alternative is something along the lines of---We need ethics as a social contract to be functional. It seems shallow.

Greg said...

Thanks. Yes, the social contract seems insufficient. Levinas proposes the face of the other, and while this merits serious consideration, it has to be situated in a context beyond itself.

Sisyphos said...

Do you think that ethics has a sufficient basis with a God?

Greg said...

Thanks for the question. Well, I would say, that a God is a more sufficient basis than other possibilities.

John said...

Hi Greg -
What basis would you say God provides, and what can we say about ethics as rooted in God that does not close down life and lead to a dying spirituality of living?

Greg said...

Hi John,
Thanks. Good questions. If I've understood you correctly, my response would run along these lines. I think God provides ethical limits or boundaries on the one hand, and theological trajectories for the ways we relate to God, self, other, and world - love God, love your neighbor, care for creation - on the other.

It seems to me that the claim that God exists as the One who is - could therefore be a sufficient basis for ethics. In turn, this might mean that these limits and trajectories would open up possibilities for life, as they come to us as given by the author of life. To be preceded by the given means ontology, while not irrelevant to ethics, is secondary to the gift.

In this configuration there might be some closing down of the dying unethical and conversely an opening towards giveness that promotes the ethical and the overarching notion that life triumphs over death.

Nita said...

Dear Greg,
Thanks once again for the profound, edifying insights! I found all the comments and your own reply to John particularly stimulating. The idea that "God provides ethical limits or boundaries" combined with "theological trajectories for the ways we relate to God, self, other, and world" makes a lot of sense to me, both from the standpoint of 1st-person accounts (say, as believers or God-seekers) and for 3rd-person accounts of "observers" or "inquirers" (such as the standpoints of sociology/ psychology of religion, skeptics, atheists, and agnostics). Of course one who is simply studying religious or God-related experiences can be always challenged that she has failed to grasp the ultimate meaning of a "personal experience with God" unless she is actually converted to or has truly embraced God. And yet one may contend that one doesn't have to take drugs in order to realize how harmful they are, or that one doesn't even have to become a Buddhist in order to understand what Buddhism is all about. On the other hand, I can see your point in that personal, ethical commitments do call into question an analytic contentment of so-called "ontological commitments," in Quine's sense of logical-semantic entailments ("what a theory says there is"). After all, the "opening towards giveness" is what makes G-d's being there prior to anything else and primordially an ethical commitment to the Other. Hence the social contract is as insufficient as any idea of God that sounds non-ethical or that fails to account for the otherness of the Other. Shalom!

Greg said...

Thanks for this comment and your helpful insights.

Ultimate meaning, I believe, remains a post-conversion/embrace of God quest for a community relation and distinction of the closest possible configuration, without dissolution.

In terms of drugs and being Buddhist, I concur that there is a source or origin of adequate information that comes to us and therefore does not have to be part of our original experience to be able make justifiable claims about such matters.

Lastly, I wonder if it can be said that God also has an ethical commitment to and for us. In the giveness that always precedes us there is the giver who reveals, and in so doing opens possibilities for new life.

Ben A said...

Ethics seemingly deals with the proper way of creating, enhancing, sustaining, and protecting that which has value. It seems to me that a fuller explanation for the existence of ethics requires an explanation of many distinct realities that make ethics possible, such as the:

1. Existence, or at least perception, of value
2. Ability of persons to act
3. Choice of individuals to determine how they will act

Example: 1. Life is perceived to have value. 2. People have the capability of destroying or saving lives. 3. People also have the ability to choose their actions.
This sets the stage for the creation of personal or social judgments (ethics) which lay out the best way to protect life.

If you accept that the above requirements describe reality and additionally accept the selfishness, or merely self-interest, of man, I do not see why the social contract theory would be an “insufficient” explanation for the creation of ethics. Perhaps the question lies in whether a no-God universe could account for the above numbered requirements.

Side note: In an honest evaluation it seems crucial to avoid the desire to accept the most enchanting philosophical explanation as the true one.

Just my thoughts. I’d love to hear some critique or expounding.

Greg said...

Thanks for these interesting observations.

In regards to your first sentence, might it not be said that ethics does what you say, but that it also does so for that which is seen not to have value, but really does. And surely here's one of the human dilemmas we face; what and who has value, and who decides? Take some of the whites in South Africa, or for that matter the USA, who saw blacks as not having value. Seems like some personal and social judgments are just plain unethical, but unless the ethical barometer has some parameters from another source or origin than our own perceptions, we are harder pressed to say certain actions are unethical because the other 'who' may have another perception.

I'm not sure therefore that I would accept the requirements that you mention describing reality. Some want to protect life and others don't, at least when the some are valued and others are not. Think of what's happening in Sudan.

In your perception, I find it difficult to have a real critique of selfish actions.

Ben A said...


Thank you for your response. Perhaps not everyone believes that life is inherently valuable. My example can only be taken to show how an individual person or society may construct their ethical code of conduct. The preservation of life example cannot be taken as a universally accepted ethical code. The three “requirements” for ethics that I referred to were:

1. The perception of value
2. The ability to act
3. The choice of how to act.

I think that people who don't value life still possess these requirements. People who commit genocide may value a healthy humanity among other things. Killing the sickly may be their attempt to clean up the gene pool and promote a healthier future generation.

Now, correct me if I'm wrong. You seem to be referring to ethics as objective if not universal. For such ethics I suspect that God would be the best explanation. I do believe objective ethics are desirable, but wonder what evidence we have to support the existence of an objective ethical code. Can you think of any evidence?

As for critiquing selfish actions, I think this can be done in at least a couple ways under the social contract theory. 1. A critique can be made of less-informed actions. For example, two people value health. One refuses to promote, receive, or allow his children to receive vaccinations because he understands them to be giving people harmful viruses. The second person might critique his action (or non-action) by informing him that the viruses are weakened and helpful to the body's immune system. 2. A critique can also be made when a person's selfish actions violate the terms of an entered social contract. Punishment described in the contract may serve as a type of critique.

I hope I'm communicating clearly. As always, critique is welcome. I'm especially interested in hearing about any evidence for the existence of objective or universal ethics.

Greg said...

Let's see. I wonder if the criteria for ethics that you have in mind would be neutral enough to be universally subjective; perception, ability, and choice are all ontological, not necessarily ethical characteristics.

A question come to mind. How are you using the terms objective and evidence?

I don't think I'm referring to ethics as universal or entirely objective for humanity, yet they do have an objective dimension. Take for example something like the Geneva convention, human rights statutes, and so forth. But of course a social contract, while carrying some objectivity will not be sufficiently able to address abuses if it is the sole referent for itself. As a result, we have force that dominates and decides, when the real issue has to be a change of heart and mind.

Ben A said...


I'm glad you asked for clarification. I'm using the word objective as something outside, or rather uninfluenced, by a person or persons. In our discussion, I'm referring to ethics or a code of conduct that humans do not create, but that exists as a code that humans ought to live by – a right and a wrong that exist whether or not we acknowledge them. The opposite condition would be subjective ethical codes that individuals or groups determine for themselves –with no greater ethical authority outside the human race.

By “evidence” of a theory's truthfulness, I refer to the ways in which a theory explains reality and/or correctly makes predictions that come true. Many Christians use the existence of morals as evidence for God, saying: All men know right and wrong, and a good and powerful God is the best explanation for this -God has written a moral code on mankind's heart. (Romans 2:14-15) But I wonder if all men really know right and wrong. I wonder if man could create or discover a right and wrong without the existence of God. Can our ideas of good and evil, right and wrong be sufficiently explained by a theory like the social contract theory? What pieces of reality cannot be explained by such non-God theories? Or how is the theory that God is the author of morals a better theory?

Greg said...

Thanks for clarifying the terms. Perhaps, we could say subjective objectivity to not collapse one or the other.

A theory that explains reality of course begs the massive question of what is reality?

Seems like humans can and do create in some measure right and wrong, but this is too limited and therefore insufficient. Maybe each culture has a knowledge of right and wrong within it, but this too would be marked by severe limits. Knowledge, for example, does not take us far enough.

Forgiveness, repentance, love, and mercy are more fully manifest in the economy of gift, than the economy of exchange.