Saturday, March 22, 2014

A Brief History of Morality

The concept of good and evil is one that has undergone quite a few changes over the past couple centuries.  I have recently been reflecting on how it has changed over my lifetime.  I wonder where it is going, but before we can learn that, we must look at where it has been.


For the majority of the 20th century, good and evil were subject to a way of thinking called modernism.  Modernism, briefly described, is the idea that there are absolute truths, and that these truths can be determined by reason.  There were certain advantages to modernism.  Scientific thought flourished as people looked to break down everything into rational concepts.

Yet there were also great disadvantages.  For one thing, not every concept can be rationally proven, including the very concept of rationality itself.  One cannot, using just reason, come up with an argument why reason is sound.  One cannot use physics to determine how the laws of physics came into being.  There are limits to a purely scientific world.

Yet despite these flaws, modern thought controlled much of the last century.  Nearly everything came under rational evaluation.  The concept of good and evil was also rationally scrutinized, and there were dire consequences.  The Theory of Evolution was used to justify racism and the Nazi holocaust.  The good of the state was used to justify the murder of millions in the Soviet Union.  National security was given as a reason to suspend the liberties of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War.  When pure reason was made the ultimate determiner of right and wrong, we found all kinds of ways to reason our way into doing evil.


As the flaws of the modern world became more evident, Western Civilization turned to a new paradigm.  It was called “postmodernism.”  In this era, existentialism and the idea that there is no absolute truth ruled.  Thoughts like, “It’s not about the destination.  It’s about the journey,” and “What is right for you may not be right for me,” became popular.

There were some great advantages in this philosophy.  Legalistic thinking was discouraged.  People tended to be slower to judge others.  It just felt good.  In fact, it was during this era that the term “I feel . . .” replaced “I think . . .”  For example, one might say today, “I feel that Johnston would be a better president than Smith.”  Where as in times gone by one would say, “I think that Johnston would be a better president than Smith.”  The nice thing about feelings is that they are all equally valid.  One cannot argue that your feelings are incorrect in the way one can argue that your thoughts are incorrect.

However, there were some serious problems with postmodernism.  For one thing, one cannot hold that there are no absolute truths, because the statement “There are no absolute truths,” is an absolute statement.  If absolutely true, than it is an absolute truth and disproves itself.

For another thing, the destination does matter more than the journey.  No one cares if they are flying first class if they are flying to the wrong city.  We all knew this, but we tended to ignore it during the postmodern era because it was too worrisome to really think about where we were going.

The concept of good and evil had a rough time during the postmodern era.  In the modern era people disagreed on right and wrong and had wars about it.  This was not good, but at least they agreed that good and evil existed.  In the postmodern era, there was no concept of good and evil.  Or at least that is what people said.  The philosophy broke down when something evil was done to you.

One of the greatest defeats of postmodern thought on good and evil came on September 11, 2001 when 19 men hijacked airplanes and flew them into three buildings and one field, killing thousands of people.  They all thought they were doing something good.  Americans (for the most part) thought they did evil.  On that day, no one said, “good and evil don’t really exist.”  Everyone had an opinion.  Either they rejoiced with shouts of “praise Allah,” or the decried the actions of these men as evil.  On that day, the postmodern view of good and evil was mortally wounded.

So where is the concept of good and evil today?  Where is it going?  Modernism did not work because of vast disagreements on what is good and what is evil.  Postmodernism did not work because it denied the existence of good and evil and that denial does not conform to reality.
We still want the freedom to determine good and evil for ourselves like the postmodernist did.  Yet we also want the right to say that something is wrong like the modernist did.  Where are we going from here?


It seems more and more there is a new determining factor of what is good and what is evil.  That factor is what I call Me.  The doctrine of “Me-ism” holds that “I am the decider of good and evil.  What I feel to be good is good.  What I experience to be evil is evil.”  This differs from postmodernism in that postmodernism would not allow us to judge others because there was no standard.  This differs from modernism because modernism required a rational argument to determine what is good and evil.

Me-ism preserves the right to condemn others for evil actions because they do not conform to My idea of good and evil.  It also protects Me ever being condemned for My actions, because you are not Me and cannot tell Me what is right and wrong.  None of your rational arguments can dent the reality of life as experienced by and seen through the leans of Me.

This may sound like a joke, but stop and listen to those around you from time to time.  Judgment of others happens on a regular basis, yet personal responsibility is seldom taken for one’s own actions.  How often do you hear someone say “I’m sorry if you were offended,” or “I’m sorry if you were bothered by this?”  Listen carefully to what is being said.  Such a person is sorry for something that you did, not for something that he did.  It is not an apology.  It is condescension.  Such statements are essentially saying, “You are the one who is flawed.  I am not.  You don’t understand the moral realty set by Me, and that is why you were offended.  I feel pity for your inability to understand moral reality as set by Me.”

The beauty of Me-ism is that anyone can be condemned for anything except Me.  What is most important to a Me-ist is what makes Me comfortable.  This leads to some interesting results when combined with religion.  I heard a story once of Muslim man who slept with anyone he wanted, but insisted that his future wife be a virgin.  I once met a pastor who was generally opposed to gossip, but freely admitted that he used it as a pastoral tool.  I recently had a conversation with a devout Christian woman who fully admitted that she planned to commit adultery and justified it by saying that God just wants her to be happy.  Me-ism makes for very comfortable religious beliefs.  God always accepts the actions of a Me-ist because to a Me-ist, god is Me.

One can recognize a Me-ist by how they talk.  A Me-ist apologizes for your actions.  When a Me-ist wrongs you, you are the one at fault, or you are the one who does not understand true right and wrong.  A Me-ist will use arguments like, “That is not what I experienced,” as if their experience is an ironclad argument that cannot be contradicted.  A Me-ist blames others, but never blames him-self.  A Me-ist has a massive ego, and cannot be convinced that he is wrong.

Modernism, postmodernism, and Me-ism all have one thing in common.  All of them try to avoid holding themselves to a true moral standard.  A modernist justifies his evil actions by reasoning that they are actually good.  A postmodernist justifies his evil actions by stating that evil and good do not exist.  A Me-ist justifies his evil actions by redefining good and evil by his own terms.  There seems to be a common thread throughout human history of mankind making evil acceptable by attempting to redefine good and evil.  The fact that we keep failing to do so seems to indicate that some authority higher than mankind is the true determiner of good and evil.

Why are we not seeking this true moral law?  Why are we not seeking the true moral Lawgiver?  I think we all know the reason why.  We are afraid to learn the true moral law because we know we all fall short.  We are afraid to meet the true moral Lawgiver because we fear what will happen to us when we do.  We fear judgment for our actions, and with good reason.  In our hearts, we all know that we are evil.  How could we possibly stand before He who is really good?

To answer this question, we have to venture outside of our comfort zone.  We have to seek the true moral Lawgiver.  But to do that, we must first seek the true moral law.

The journey is not for the timid, but it is open to all.  If you are a modernist, you will like it because it the road is paved with rational thought.  If you are postmodernist, you will like it because the journey is incredible.  If you are a Me-ist, you will hate it because it will force you to give up yourself.

If you are brave enough to seek that which might destroy you, check out the next blog.