Sunday, March 17, 2019

Is Christian ethics unnatural?

1. Christian ethics has the damaging reputation for being unnatural. For making demands that run contrary to human nature. I expect many men never give the Christian faith serious consideration because they think it's so unnatural. But it's my contention that Christian ethics is natural, rational, and liberating. 

2. That's not entirely a stereotype. Some Christian ethical traditions are quite unnatural. The pacifist tradition is quite unnatural. Thankfully, that never caught on. 

In addition, Catholic moral theology has some unnatural taboos (about lying, masturbation, divorce, artificial contraception). Now, if you're Catholic or Anabaptist, then you have to make a virtue of necessity. You argue for how radical and praiseworthy that is. 

Since, however, I disagree with Catholic and Anabaptist ethics in those respects, I don't think Christian ethics is unnatural in that regard. I've discussed those issues in detail, so I won't repeat myself here. If need be, I could give some links.

3. But if we discount those examples, is Christian ethics unnatural in other respects? Let's begin with a few general observations:

Psychologically speaking, animals seem to live in the present. By contrast, humans live in the past, present, and future. We remember the past while we anticipate or imagine the future. 

In addition, humans have a capacity for abstract thought. That includes a capacity to entertain hypothetical scenarios. This is part of our creativity. And it's essential to moral and rational deliberation, as we compare and contrast the likely consequences of different choices. 

At a purely physical or emotional level, delayed gratification is unnatural. But at an intellectual level, delayed gratification is not unnatural. It is natural for human beings to consider the consequences, for good or ill, of certain actions. 

Wading in a river on a hot day is a natural impulse. If, however, I see a crocodile sunning itself on the opposite bank, I'd be suicidally foolhardy to prioritize instant gratification over delayed gratification. It's natural to avoid self-destructive behavior. 

Unfortunately, human agents frequently fail to take advantage of their capacity for abstract thought. So they often suffer the dire results of impetuous, shortsighted actions. However, the point remains: it's not unnatural for humans to distinguish between short-term and long-term goals. 

An athlete who's training for a competition may engage in a certain amount of self-denial to be at peak performance for the competition. In one sense that's unnatural, but in another sense that's consistent with human rationality. We are goal-oriented agents. And we sometimes make short-term sacrifices to achieve the larger objective. 

In that regard, Christian ethics doesn't make special demands. It's not different than deferred gratification generally. 

4. If this life was all there is, then Christian ethics would be unnatural or irrational in some respects. If this life was all there is, then it would be natural to be highly risk-averse. So, for instance, if someone is in danger, you might dearly wish that you could rescue him, but if you must enter the danger zone to do so, you have too much too lose, so you let him die. You watch him die from the safety of the sidelines. You feel bad about it.

If, on the other hand, you believe in the afterlife, then you can afford to risk your life for a good cause. That illustrates how Christian ethics is liberating. It frees you to do something you wanted to do. Something commendable. In that regard, it's the opposite of an unnatural duty. 

5. Apropos (4), if this life is all there is, then resisting the impulse to get even is unnatural. This is your only chance. 

If, however, God is the judge, then you can leave it in God's hands to right certain wrongs. Although that may be emotionally or psychologically unnatural, it's not intellectually unnatural. If you know they will get their comeuppance, then it can be rational to forego personal vengeance. It relieves you of that responsibility. You can move on with your life. The alternative is to be consumed by rage. And that's unhealthy. 

6. It's my impression that women are more naturally compassionate than men. At least, emotionally speaking. Mind you, women can become very callous, but I'm discussing natural impulses.

However, there's a sense in which it's natural for men to be compassionate. At least, intellectually speaking. What I mean is this: the basis of compassion is projecting yourself into the situation of another. If you wouldn't want that to happen to you, and if that did happen to you, you'd be grateful to someone to help you out of that predicament, then it's natural for men to be compassionate. It's only psychopaths and sociopaths that lack that vicarious imagination. 

Likewise, I think men have a natural instinct to rescue people in distress. They volunteer for jobs like that. And there's an aspect of compassion to that. 

7. Let's apply these general principles to some specific examples. Let's examine two of the most obvious examples of apparently unnatural Christian duties: forgiveness and sexual monogamy. 

On the face of it, delayed sexual gratification is unnatural. That's true at a physical and emotional level. 

But as I already noted, there's a certain tension between short-term and long-term goals. If promiscuity has unpleasant consequences, then sexual self-control is reasonable and even necessary. Promiscuity is not a ticket to happiness. Many sexual libertines lead unhappy lives. They leave a trail of emotional destruction. 

It's not unnatural for humans to exercise prudence. We often avoid actions that expose us to gratuitous harm. And that applies to the sexual sphere as well.

If a teenage boy is having premarital sexual intercourse with a teenage girl, it would be very unnatural for him to stop in the middle of the process and say to himself, "On second thought, maybe this is a bad idea. Maybe I shouldn't go through with it!" At that stage it will be nearly impossible for him to resist the overwhelming impulse to achieve sexual climax. 

But of course there are many steps prior to that irresistible stage in which it's much easier for him to go in a different direction. If you wait until the impulse is overpowering, it's too late to stop. But it's not unnatural to take precautions or avoid a trajectory if the action has detrimental consequences. What is irreversible at a later stage may be easily avoidable at an earlier stage. 

8. To take a different, but related example, both men and women range along a continuum of sex appeal. Some men have enormous sex appeal for most women; some women have enormous sex appeal for most men. They are rarely turned down. Indeed, they rarely have to ask. 

Take two boys in high school. One of them has magnetic sex appeal. Maybe he's the handsome rich kid or the hunky quarterback. All the girls pine for his amorous attention. Let's call him Jake. 

Then there's an ordinary boy who doesn't have that magnetic sex appeal. He's not homely. He has average looks. Let's say he has a good heart. He'd make a devoted father and husband. Any girl would be lucky to have him. Let's call him Caleb. 

Now Caleb has his heart set on Debbie. She's pretty and vivacious. She's a bit out of his league, but she's not unattainable. She's fond of Caleb. He's a marital candidate in her mind. He's on the short list. 

Suppose Jake seduces Debbie. He does it just because he can. She's nothing special to him. Just another conquest. 

Yet she wasn't just another girl to Caleb. But because she slept with Jake, Caleb is hurt that she gave herself to Jake. Even when Jake discards her for the next conquest, Caleb doesn't want her back because it makes him feel like second best. And after having her fling with Jake, she feels like Caleb would be a comedown, too. 

Jake had many choices while Caleb had just one. It meant nothing to Jake and everything to Caleb. He took from Caleb the one thing Caleb was counting on. He took what he didn't need from someone who had that particular, irreplaceable need. His promiscuity depleted the available stock of eligible brides for ordinary guys who don't have Jake's drawing power. 

So why should Jake care? Obviously he doesn't. It wouldn't occur to him to think in those terms. 

That said, it wouldn't be unnatural for him to be more generous. That's because men have a natural capacity for compassion. It may be something they have to cultivate, but the potential is there. Jakes promiscuity is gratuitously harmful to male classmates who don't have his sex appeal. 

And it wouldn't be unnatural for him to be a better friend to his male classmates. Male friendship is natural. 

How many girlfriends does he need, anyway? While he may desire ever so many, he only needs one. So, in a more thoughtful sense, sexual monogamy isn't unnatural.

Of course, it's unlikely that any guy who's not a Christian (or Orthodox Jew) will give it that much thought. yet if you think about it, Christian sexual morality isn't onerous but rational and compassionate. 

9. What about forgiveness?

i) There's a sense in which forgiveness is unnatural. Emotionally or psychologically unnatural. Forgiving someone we don't feel like forgiving. Forgiving someone we dislike or even detest. 

ii) But intellectually speaking, forgiveness may be the natural thing to do. For one thing, forgiveness flows from compassion. If compassion is natural, so is forgiveness. That logic is exemplified in the parable of the unforgiving servant (Mt 18:23-35). The principle is transparently straightforward: those who've been forgiven should be forgiving. We should want for others what we what for ourselves. We should want for others what we what from others. If I've been forgiven for wronging others, I ought to be forgiving towards those who wrong me. (I'm not claiming that's an unconditional obligation. I'm just discussing what's natural or unnatural.)

There's a sense in which that's natural because it taps into our capacity to relate to the situation of others. While it may cut against the grain emotionally, it's natural in another respect inasmuch as we have the rational aptitude to identify with plight of other human beings. That's an essential element of what makes us social creatures. So it's natural in a reflective sense. 

iii) In addition, there's a doctrine of eschatological punishment. Suppose you refrain from exacting retribution to give the wrongdoer a chance to repent. But if he remains defiantly impenitent, that doesn't mean he eludes punishment. If anything, he will face worse judgment than whatever you might mete out. It's not exactly that you forgave him. Rather, you delegated any punishment to God. That's thinking long-term. 

iv) Social life would disintegrate if everyone consistently refused to forgive each other. If resentments festered and accumulated. Since human beings are social creatures, forgiveness is necessary in many situations.  

10. Finally, let's consider one more example: the Jim Crow laws made it hard for Southern whites and blacks to be friends. It penalized venues where social bonding occurs. Striking down the Jim Crow laws didn't impose on blacks and whites an artificial duty to be friendly. Rather, it liberated them to become friends. The potential was there all along. Striking down the Jim Crow laws didn't suppress natural feelings but released natural feelings. Likewise, Christian ethics doesn't generally impose artificial restrictions and obligations on believers. Rather, it frees us to act in our own best interests as well as the best interests of others. 

1 comment:

  1. Great post. A million times better than, say, Jordan Peterson.