In Which I Come Out as an Ethical Foundationalist (Sort of)
When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness (Romans 1:14-15a, NRSV).Imagine this scene, reminiscent of the Mad Max movies: It's a post-apocalyptic time in North America, a few years after some sort of military or ecological catastrophe. A caravan with hundreds of rag-tag vehicles -- beat-up school buses, box trucks with various gang symbols, taxicabs and souped-up motorbikes -- are inching along in convoy through a forlorn southwestern desert on an old U.S. highway. They are headed on a perilous 1000-mile trek toward Denver, which is reported to be the last real city in the former United States that's still standing -- where there is reported to be food and water, shelter and possibly even jobs. It has been years, and most of the travelers scarcely believe the stories are true. But they have no other prospects, so on they trudge, looting abandoned gas stations or siphoning the grease vats from old fast-food restaurants to power their dilapidated vehicles.
Suddenly, one lonely driver, a bald guy in his early forties, who is driving a green pick-up truck remembers something he was told many years ago, but he can't remember when or by whom. Suddenly, he makes a sharp left down a side road, breaking with the convoy. He's not even fully conscious why he's bolting from the tenuous safety of the pack to head down a path that leads to...he's not sure where.
I am that lonely driver. At least, that's how I feel as I write this post.
Denver is the quasi-utopian vision of the peaceful pluralistic commonwealth, a place where individual rights and social responsibilities are balanced, yet also where members of each group can concomitantly fully live out the distinctive moral vision of their own ethnic and religious communities unhindered by onerous compromises with competing groups. Denver is a postmodern dream of what a liberal democracy might look like, and it's something far better than the corrupt, unjust, inequitable and violent plutocracy that some still dare to call a republic. But -- and this is the important part -- Denver is a democratic commonwealth without any objective moral values to hold the variegated whole together. Indeed, not only does it lack some set of core values "set in stone," as it were, like the ridiculous statues of the Decalogue that adorn some courthouses: Rather, this city on a hill somehow manages to work without even the slightest notion of an objective moral order, transcendental or otherwise, that would serve as the condition for the possibility of any ethical discourse whatsoever.
Scarcely any one really believes in Denver anymore, I'm convinced; still, nobody knows what else to do but to keep driving towards it, nonetheless.
Many of you, gentle readers, are perhaps among the drivers. You are culturally sensitive, educated in theology or the humanities. Perhaps in your thinking you draw upon postmodern philosophy, anthropology or cultural studies. You are post-foundationalists, influenced by Barth, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche and their progeny to be (rightly) suspicious of any claims to universality that sidestep the scandal of the particular. Maybe you work out of a post-colonial framework and you (justly) decry the culturally imperialistic aspects of the Enlightenment project -- the attempt to build a commonwealth upon the concord of rational subjects. Maybe you're a neo-pragmatist who thinks I'm out to lunch and just projecting some fantasy for order onto a chaotic world -- that we all would do well to deal practically with contingent realities rather than tromping out some hackneyed old transcendental arguments from Plato or Kant or natural law theory.
Since you're a DET reader, you might be a "post-liberal" or someone who embraces a the sort of confessionalist nonfoundationalism, where ethics is centered exclusively upon God's revelation in Christ and in the praxis of Christian community. Or maybe you're a college student or seminarian who has internalized -- and perhaps taken too literally -- Kierkegaard's dangerous dictum that "subjectivity is truth." Or maybe you're a kind of new age thinker, imagining yourself to be like the deceased artist played by Robin Williams who literally paints his own blessed afterlife from the wellsprings of his memory and imagination.
And why can't I drive along with you? Y'all are, by and large, much better company than the ruffians who populated Mel Gibson's dystopian world. I should like to do so; I share many of your concerns and commitments, but at the end of the day I'm thrown back upon this, my own "here I stand" declaration: I believe in a transcendent, absolute, categorical basis for the good. I just simply must, and I can't help it, no matter how much theory I read (and many of you have read much more than I have). That makes me a foundationalist, of sorts, even if I demur from trying to ground this claim in some sort of epistemology of the disinterested human subject. Now saying that is not the same thing as making a fully fleshed out philosophical argument. It's rather a cry, from the ruins, that somehow, somewhere there is some reason to believe that right and wrong have some sort of basis in what is really real.
Let me be clear: I'm not claiming that any individual or society can fully be in possession of the moral law. Any grasp of the good in this life must needs be partial. And I'm not trying to prove this conviction on the basis of empirical evidence at all, for example, by comparing the moral maxims of great wisdom traditions as C.S. Lewis attempts in The Abolition of Man. I'm not trying to retrieve and defend, necessarily, some version of the Golden Rule or Kant's categorical imperative. Rather, all I'm saying is that all moral and ethical shop-talk strikes me as vain without some notion of a good that's greater than any of us, individually or collectively. Something that is rock solid, not contingent. My claim here is not empirically based but almost purely transcendental. What's more, like Augustine, Luther and Reinhold Niebuhr, I'm a firm believer in the noetic effects of sin -- that, even in our wisest and best moments, all our reasoning processes are blinded and corrupted by individual and class interests. I believe no human being -- with one possible exception - is qualified to stand as judge and jury over the soul of anyone else.
I'm no great political activist, but I try at least to keep up with social justice issues and do something to help if I can. Or barring that I try to befriend and encourage those who are struggling on the front-lines for a more just, equitable and peaceful society by taking risks I'm unable or willing to take. I know that, as a white male, I have no right to claim someone else's suffering and injustice for myself, but I will admit that I was deeply shaken and moved the execution of Troy Davis in 2011 -- a murder case with so many holes in it that even conservative advocates of the death penalty were virtually begging the U.S. Supreme Court to stay the execution. I know that I'm a hypocrite (that's actually a doctrine of my faith) complicit with many awful things and a recipient of privileges that have been forcibly denied to other people and groups. Still, I can at least confess that these events had an effect on how I see the world.
On the eve of the execution, I attended a protest vigil put on by the American Friends Service Committee chapter in Northampton, Massachusetts, where we had just moved. As a result of these events and other events, I started becoming more alert to the effects of racism and classcism that riddle our criminal "justice" system. And then the Occupy Wall Street protests began shortly afterward, and I became more aware of issues of poverty and privilege, the widening income gap and the complicity of our government institutions with a corrupt and rapacious financial service sector. All of these heady events were feeding a certain political agitation within me that had been somewhat suppressed while I studied theology and was exploring various opportunities in lay ministry -- with one foot in the parish, one foot in campus ministry and one foot adjunct teaching. (Any working adjunct out there will tell you that two feet aren't adequate for what they're trying to do.)
Others are much more qualified to write on social justice issues than I, both from the sides of theory and of praxis. But my point here is that my own growing awareness of these myriad issues has heightened for me the need to seriously revisit the question of universal human rights, and how we might do a much better job as a society and world in trying to instantiate, support and defend such ideals. This is a huge topic, and I've only begun to scratch the surface, and that's not to mention the further complications of trying to integrate such a rights framework with my Anglican-reformed-evangelical-dialectical theological commitments. (Hence the quote above, lest one forget that this is a theology blog.) I still have a lot of thinking through to do with these issues.
So where am I headed with this, if not toward Denver? Jersualem? Athens? Königsberg, Germany? I'm not sure yet.