by Philip Yancey
Nietzsche Was Right
A representative of Generation X named Sam told me he had been discovering the strategic advantages of truth. As an experiment, he decided to stop lying. "It helps people picture you and relate to you more reliably," he said. "Truth can be positively beneficial in many ways." I asked what would happen if he found himself in a situation where it would prove more beneficial for him to lie. He said he would have to judge the context, but he was trying to prefer not-lying.
For Sam, the decision to lie or tell the truth involved not morality but a social construct, to be adopted or rejected as a matter of expedience. In essence, the source of moral authority for Sam is himself, and that in a nutshell is the dilemma confronting moral philosophy in the postmodern world.
Something unprecedented in human history is brewing: a rejection of external moral sources altogether. Individuals and societies have always been im-moral to varying degrees. Individuals (never an entire society) have sometimes declared themselves amoral, professing agnosticism about ethical matters. Only recently, however, have serious thinkers entertained the notion of un-morality: that there is no such thing as morality. A trend prefigured by Nietzsche, prophesied by Dostoyevsky, and analyzed presciently by C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man is now coming to fruition. The very concept of morality is undergoing a profound change, led in part by the advance guard of a new science called "evolutionary psychology."
So far, however, the pioneers of unmorality have practiced a blatant contradiction. Following in the style of Jean-Paul Sartre, who declared that meaningful communication is impossible even as he devoted his life to communicating meaningfully, the new moralists first proclaim that morality is capricious, perhaps even a joke, then proceed to use moral categories to condemn their opponents. These new high priests lecture us solemnly about multiculturalism, gender equality, homophobia, and environmental degradation, all the while ignoring the fact that they have systematically destroyed any basis for judging such behavior right or wrong. The emperor so quick to discourse about fashion happens to be stark naked.
For example, George Williams wrote a landmark book in 1966 entitled Adaptation and Natural Selection, which portrayed all behavior as a genetically programmed expression of self-interest. Yet later, after examining some of the grosser examples of animal behavior, he concluded that "Mother Nature is a wicked old witch. … Natural selection really is as bad as it seems and … it should be neither run from nor emulated, but rather combatted."
Williams neglected to explain what allowed him, a product of pure natural selection, to levitate above nature and judge it morally bankrupt. He may understandably disapprove of animal cannibalism and rape, but on what grounds can he judge them "evil"? And how can we—or why should we—combat something programmed into our genes?
Lest I sound like a cranky middle-aged moralist, I should clarify at the beginning that to me the real question is not why modern secularists oppose traditional morality; it is on what grounds they defend any morality.
We hold these truths to be probable enough for pragmatists, that all things looking like men were evolved somehow, being endowed by heredity and environment with no equal rights but very unequal wrongs … Men will more and more realize that there is no meaning in democracy if there is no meaning in anything. And there is no meaning in anything if the universe has not a center of significance and an authority that is the author of our rights.
—G. K. Chesterton
In a great irony, the "politically correct" movement defending the rights of women, minorities, and the environment often positions itself as an enemy of the Christian church when, in historical fact, the church has contributed the very underpinnings that make such a movement possible. Christianity brought an end to slavery, and its crusading fervor also fueled the early labor movement, women's suffrage, human-rights campaigns, and civil rights. According to Robert Bellah, "there has not been a major issue in the history of the United States on which religious bodies did not speak out, publicly and vociferously."
It was no accident that Christians pioneered in the antislavery movement, for their beliefs had a theological impetus. Both slavery and the oppression of women were based, anachronistically, on an embryonic form of Darwinism. Aristotle had observed that
Tame animals are naturally better than wild animals, yet for all tame animals there is an advantage in being under human control, as this secures their survival. And as regards the relationship between male and female, the former is naturally superior, the latter inferior, the former rules and the latter is subject. By analogy, the same must necessarily apply to mankind as a whole. Therefore all men who differ from one another by as much as the soul differs from the body or man from a wild beast (and that is the state of those who work by using their bodies, and for whom that is the best they can do)—these people are slaves by nature, and it is better for them to be subject to this kind of control, as it is better for the other creatures I have mentioned . …It is clear that there are certain people who are free and certain people who are slaves by nature, and it is both to their advantage, and just, for them to be slaves. … From the hour of their birth, some men are marked out for subjection, others for rule.
Cross out the name Aristotle and read the paragraph again as the discovery of a leading evolutionary psychologist. No one is proposing the reimposition of slavery, of course—but why not? If we learn our morality from nature, and if our only rights are those we create for ourselves, why should not the strong exercise their "natural rights" over the weak?
As Alasdair MacIntyre remarks in After Virtue, modern protesters have not abandoned moral argument, though they have abandoned any coherent platform from which to make a moral argument. They keep using moral terminology—it is wrong to own slaves, rape a woman, abuse a child, despoil the environment, discriminate against homosexuals—but they have no "higher authority" to which to appeal to make their moral judgments. MacIntyre concludes,
Hence the utterance of protest is characteristically addressed to those who already share the protestors' premises. The effects of incommensurability ensure that protestors rarely have anyone else to talk to but themselves. This is not to say that protest cannot be effective; it is to say that it cannot be rationally effective and that its dominant modes of expression give evidence of a certain perhaps unconscious awareness of this.
In the United States, we prefer to settle major issues on utilitarian or pragmatic grounds. But philosophers including Aristotle and David Hume argued powerfully in favor of slavery on those very grounds. Hitler pursued his genocidal policies against the Jews and "defective" persons on utilitarian grounds. Unless modern thinkers can locate a source of moral authority somewhere else than in the collective sentiments of human beings, we will always be vulnerable to dangerous swings of moral consensus.
A man who has no assured and ever-present belief in the existence of a personal God or of a future existence with retribution or reward, can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones.
Christina Hoff Sommers tells of a Massachusetts educator attempting to teach values-clarification to her class of sixth-graders. One day her canny students announced that they valued cheating and wanted the freedom to practice it in class. Hoist with her own petard, the teacher could only respond that since it was her class, she insisted on honesty; they would have to exercise their dishonesty in other places. In view of such an approach to morality, should it surprise us to learn from surveys that half of all students cheat? What restrains the other half?
What makes a person good? What is "good" anyway? Moral philosophers such as Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre argue convincingly that many people in the modern world can no longer answer that question coherently.
A friend of mine named Susan, a committed Christian, told me that her husband did not measure up and she was actively looking for other men to meet her needs for intimacy. When Susan mentioned that she rose early each day to "spend an hour with the Father," I asked, "In your meetings with the Father, do any moral issues come up that might influence this pending decision about leaving your husband?"
Susan bristled: "That sounds like the response of a white Anglo-Saxon male. The Father and I are into relationship, not morality. Relationship means being wholly supportive and standing alongside me, not judging." I gently pointed out that we all make judgments in our relationships. Had not she judged her husband incapable of meeting her needs? Susan fended off my arguments, and we moved on to more congenial topics.
Like many moderns, my friend Susan has moved the locus of morality from an external to an internal source, a change that traces back to the Romantic movement and its new celebration of the individual. In his essay "Self-Reliance," Ralph Waldo Emerson proclaimed that everyone should "Trust thyself," for divinity resides in every person. What if your intuitions are evil? Emerson did not back down: "They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the devil's child, I will live then from the devil. No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature."
Rousseau, a grandfather of Romanticism, had followed the dictates of his heart by abandoning five infants born to his illiterate servant-mistress. Of course, one could find many such scandalous incidents before the outbreak of Romanticism. The real change was more subtle and subterranean. From Aristotle onward, the West had always perceived "the good" as an external code, neither mine nor yours. Though one could choose to break the code, it remained an external code above and beyond the reach of any individual. With Romanticism, the code moved inside so as to become radically subjective. The individual self began writing his or her own moral script.
Nearly two centuries after the flowering of Romanticism, we are witnessing the consequences of that unmooring of the moral code. In a strange twist, whereas Augustine viewed evil as a perversion of good, modern ethicists view goodness as a manifestation of selfishness. Everything we do, including every act of nobility or altruism, serves a hidden purpose: to enhance oneself or to perpetuate genetic material. Challenged to explain Mother Teresa's behavior, sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson pointed out that she was secure in the service of Christ and in her belief in immortality; in other words, believing she would get her reward, she acted on that "selfish" basis.
Robertson McQuilkin, a college president who resigned in order to care for his Alzheimer's-afflicted wife, attended a seminar in which a researcher reported that, in her study of 47 couples facing terminal illness, she had predicted with 100 percent accuracy who would die soonest, simply by observing the relationship between husband and wife. "Love helps survival," she concluded. From there, McQuilkin went directly to another session in which an expert listed reasons why families might choose to keep an ailing family member at home rather than in a nursing facility. Noting that the reasons all boiled down to economic necessity or guilt feelings, McQuilkin asked, "What about love?" "Oh," replied the expert, "I put that under guilt."
While redefining goodness, modern society has simultaneously discarded the notion of sin. In the movie Ironweed, Helen, an alcoholic, informs God at a candlelit altar, "You may call them sins; I call them decisions." Increasingly, bad actions are seen as neither sins nor decisions, rather as the outworking of behavior patterns hard-wired into our brains. A murderer goes free on the grounds that eating Twinkies contributed to his mental instability; a national authority excuses political consultant Dick Morris's adultery as the normal biological response to an environment of power and status.
I have already mentioned that scientists who dismantle any notion of good and evil nevertheless must fall back on those categories of judgment. This kind of moral schizophrenia expresses itself at every level of society. We must cling to some form of morality or both person and society will swirl apart. Yet individuals find themselves unable to articulate a code of morality, and even less able to keep any code. Abbie Hoffman, a radical leader in the 1960s, complained, "I've never liked guilt-tripping. I've always left the concept of sin to the Catholic Church. When I was four, my mother said, 'There's millions of people starving in China. Eat your dinner.' I said, 'Ma, name one.' " Yet this rebel against guilt trips ran a distinctively "moral" campaign against a repressive society and an unjust war.
After interviewing average Americans to determine why they behave the way they do, Robert Bellah and his associates came up with a primary ethic of "self-fulfillment." Bellah acknowledges that most people want to be "good" even though few can articulate a reason for it. In their roles as parents, spouses, and citizens, ordinary people demonstrate qualities of sacrifice, fidelity, and altruism. They act, in Bellah's opinion, out of "habits of the heart" rooted primarily in America's Christian heritage. Remove those habits of the heart, and the true pathology of modern times comes to light.
Indeed, psychopaths represent the group that acts most consistently to the new code of "unmorality." Immune to social pressures, these deviants live out the courage of their nonconvictions.
"Character," says Robert Coles, "is how you behave when no one is looking." Coles goes on to suggest that for the conscientious, those with a highly developed moral sense, "someone is always 'looking,' even if we are as solitary as Thoreau at Walden." But for the psychopath or sociopath, the "unmoral" person, no one is ever looking. The unmoral person believes in no outside source of moral authority and inside hears only the "terrible silences of an emotionally abandoned early life or the demonic voices of a tormented childhood."
Prison interviews with two mass murderers, Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy, bear out Coles's observation. Both were asked how they could possibly do the things they did. Both replied that, at the time, they did not believe in God and felt accountable to no one. They started with petty cruelty, then moved to torture of animals and people, and then murder. Nothing internal or external stopped them from making the descent to unmorality—they felt no twinge of guilt. Ironically, both mass murderers followed to logical conclusion the principle laid down by Charles Darwin a century ago—that without a belief in God or afterlife, a person can only follow those impulses and instincts that are the strongest.
We read daily in the newspapers the tragic results of those who follow their strongest impulses. Bill Moyers asked the late Joseph Campbell what results when a society no longer embraces a religion or powerful mythology. "What we've got on our hands," Campbell replied; " … read the New York Times."
Not only for psychopaths, but for everyday sinners, the practice of looking inside for moral guidance is fraught with danger. Woody Allen, a sophisticated, brilliant filmmaker, granted an interview to Time magazine in order to counter his wife's accusations against sexual abuse of her children and to explain his affair with his 21-year-old adopted Korean daughter. "The heart wants what it wants," said Allen. "There's no logic to those things. You meet someone and you fall in love and that's that."
It is easy to see that the moral sense has been bred out of certain sections of the population, like the wings have been bred off certain chickens to produce more white meat on them. This is a generation of wingless chickens.
What happens when an entire society becomes populated with wingless chickens? I need not dwell on the contemporary symptoms of moral illness in the United States: our rate of violent crime has quintupled in my lifetime; a third of all babies are now born out of wedlock; half of all marriages end in divorce; the richest nation on earth has a homeless population larger than the entire population of some nations. These familiar symptoms are just that, symptoms. A diagnosis would look beyond them to our loss of a teleological sense. "Can one be a saint if God does not exist? That is the only concrete problem I know of today," wrote Albert Camus in The Fall.
Civilization holds together when a society learns to place moral values above the human appetites for power, wealth, violence, and pleasure. Historically, it has always relied on religion to provide a source for that moral authority. In fact, according to Will and Ariel Durant, "There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion." They added the foreboding remark, "The greatest question of our time is not communism versus individualism, not Europe versus America, not even the East versus the West; it is whether men can live without God."
Vaclav Havel, a survivor of a civilization that tried to live without God, sees the crisis clearly:
I believe that with the loss of God, man has lost a kind of absolute and universal system of coordinates, to which he could always relate everything, chiefly himself. His world and his personality gradually began to break up into separate, incoherent fragments corresponding to different, relative, coordinates.
On moral issues—social justice, sexuality, marriage and family, definitions of life and death—society badly needs a moral tether, or "system of coordinates" in Havel's phrase. Otherwise, our laws and politics will begin to reflect the same kind of moral schizophrenia already seen in individuals.
On what moral basis do doctrinaire Darwinians, committed to the survival of the fittest, ask us to protect the environment, in effect lending a hand to those we make "unfit"? On what basis do abortionists denounce the gender-based abortion practiced in India, where, in some cities, 99 percent of abortions involve a female fetus? (For this reason, some Indian cities have made it illegal for doctors to reveal to parents a fetus's gender after an ultrasound test.) Increasingly, the schizophrenia of personal morality is being projected onto society at large.
James Davison Hunter recounts watching a segment of the Phil Donahue Show featuring men who left their wives and then had affairs with those wives' mothers. Some of the relationships failed, but some worked out fine, the men reported. A psychologist sitting on the panel concluded, "The important thing to remember is that there is no right or wrong. I hear no wrongdoing. As I listen to their stories, I hear pain."
Hunter speculates where a society might be headed once it loses all moral consensus. "Personally I'm into ritual animal sacrifice," says one citizen. "Oh, really," says another. "I happen to be into man-boy relationships." "That's great," responds a third, "but my preference is … " and so on. The logical end of such thinking, Hunter suggests, can be found in the Marquis de Sade's novel Juliette, which declares, "Nothing is forbidden by nature."
In Sade's novel, Juliette's lover enhances their sexual ecstasy by raping Juliette's daughter and throwing the girl into a fire; wielding a poker, the mother herself prevents the child's escape. A brute accused of raping, sodomizing, and murdering more than two dozen boys, girls, men, and women defends himself by saying that all concepts of virtue and vice are arbitrary; self-interest is the paramount rule:
Justice has no real existence, it is the deity of every passion. … So let us abandon our belief in this fiction, it no more exists than does the God of whom fools believe it the image; there is no God in this world, neither is there virtue, neither is there justice; there is nothing good, useful, or necessary but our passions.
U.S. courts today take pains to decide the merits of a case apart from religion or natural law. New York State passed a law prohibiting the use of children in pornographic films and, in order to protect it from civil libertarians, specified that the law is based not on moral or religious reasons, rather on "mental health" grounds. In earlier times the Supreme Court appealed to the "general consent" of society's moral values in deciding issues such as polygamy. I wonder on what possible grounds the Court might rule against polygamy today (practiced in 84 percent of all recorded cultures)—or incest, or pederasty, for that matter. All these moral taboos derive from a religious base; take away that foundation, and why should the practices be forbidden?
To ask a basic question, What sense does marriage make in a morally neutral society? A friend of mine, though gay, is nevertheless troubled by calls for gay marriages. "What's to keep two brothers from marrying, if they declare a commitment to each other?" he asks. "They could then enjoy the tax breaks and advantages of inheritance and health plans. It seems to me something more should be at stake in an institution like marriage." Yes, but what is at stake in marriage? The authors of Habits of the Heart found that few individuals in their survey except committed Christians could explain why they stayed married to their spouses. Marriage as a social construct is arbitrary, flexible, and open to redefinition. Marriage as a sacrament established by God is another matter entirely.
Feminist thinkers have led the way in questioning the traditional basis of sexual ethics. In The Erotic Silence of the American Wife, Dalma Heyn argues that women unnaturally bind themselves at the marriage altar, abandoning their true needs and desires. Heyn recommends extramarital affairs as the cure for what she sardonically calls "the Donna Reed syndrome." In an essay in Time, Barbara Ehrenreich celebrated the fact that "Sex can finally, after all these centuries, be separated from the all-too-serious business of reproduction. … The only ethic that can work in an overcrowded world is one that insists that … sex—preferably among affectionate and consenting adults—belongs squarely in the realm of play."
Ehrenreich and Heyn are detaching sex from any teleological meaning invested in it by religion. But why limit the experience to affectionate and consenting adults? If sex is a matter of play, why not sanction pederasty, as did the Greeks and Romans? Why choose the age of 18—or 16, or 14, or 12—to mark an arbitrary distinction between child abuse and indulging in play? If sex is mere play, why do we prosecute people for incest? (Indeed, the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States circulated a paper expressing skepticism regarding "moral and religious pronouncements with respect to incest," lamenting that the taboo has hindered scientific investigation.)
The Alice-in-Wonderland world of untethered ethics has little place for traditional morality. When California adopted a sex-education program, the ACLU sent this official memorandum:
The ACLU regrets to inform you of our opposition to SB 2394 concerning sex education in public schools. It is our position that teaching that monogamous, heterosexual intercourse within marriage is a traditional American value is an unconstitutional establishment of religious doctrine in public schools. … We believe SB 2394 violates the First Amendment.
Again I stress, to me the question is not why modern secularists reject traditional morality, but on what grounds they defend any morality. Our legal system vigorously defends a woman's right to choose abortion—but why stop there? Historically, abandonment has been the more common means of disposing of unwanted children. Romans did it, Greeks did it, and during Rousseau's lifetime, one-third of babies in Paris were simply abandoned. Yet today, in the United States, if a mother leaves her baby in a Chicago alley, or two teens deposit their newborn in a Dempsey Dumpster, they are subject to prosecution.
We feel outrage when we hear of a middle-class couple "dumping" an Alzheimer's-afflicted parent when they no longer wish to care for him, or when kids push a five-year-old out the window of a high-rise building, or a ten-year-old is raped in a hallway, or a mother drowns her two children because they interfere with her lifestyle. Why? On what grounds do we feel outrage if we truly believe that morality is self-determined? Evidently the people who committed the crimes felt no compunction. And if morality is not, in the end, self-determined, who determines it? On what basis do we decide?
In the landmark book Faith in the Future, Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the (British) Commonwealth, argues that human society was meant to be a covenant between God and humankind, a collaborative enterprise based on common values and vision. Instead, it has become "an aggregate of individuals pursuing private interest, coming together temporarily and contractually, and leaving the state to resolve their conflicts on value-neutral grounds." In the process, "the individual loses his moorings … and becomes prone to a sense of meaninglessness and despair." Sacks argues that only by restoring the "moral covenant" can we reverse the breakdown in the social fabric of Western civilization.
Or, as the Jewish medical educator David C. Stolinsky put it, "The reason we fear to go out after dark is not that we may be set upon by bands of evangelicals and forced to read the New Testament, but that we may be set upon by gangs of feral young people who have been taught that nothing is superior to their own needs or feelings."
The modern world seems to lack whatever principle it is that discriminates between authority and tyranny and between liberty and license. And without such a principle it appears that one can only oscillate between the two lawless extremes.
Critics of Christianity correctly point out that the church has proved an unreliable carrier of moral values. The church has indeed made mistakes, launching Crusades, censuring scientists, burning witches, trading in slaves, supporting tyrannical regimes. Yet the church also has an inbuilt potential for self-correction because it rests on a platform of transcendent moral authority. When human beings take upon themselves the Luciferian chore of redefining morality, untethered to any transcendent source, all hell breaks loose.
In Nazi Germany, and also in the Soviet Union, China, and Cambodia, the government severed morality from its roots. Nazi propagandists dismissed biblical revelation as "Jewish swindle" and emphasized instead the general revelation they observed in the natural order of creation. Lenin ordered Russians to adopt "the Revolutionary Conscience" as opposed to their natural conscience. Our century is the first in which societies have attempted to form their moral codes without reference to religion. We have had the chance to "take the world in our own hands," in Camus's phrase. Modern humanity, Camus said, "launches the essential undertaking of rebellion, which is that of replacing the reign of grace by the reign of justice." The results are in: perhaps 100 million deaths under Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot attributable to this grand new reign of justice.
Today, of course, apart from China, the threat posed by communism has disappeared. We in the West rest secure, even triumphant. Yet the bats are out of the cage. The spiritual sources that fed both Nazism and communism are still with us.
We look back with horror on the Nazi campaign to exterminate the mentally defective. But not long ago the newsletter of a California chapter of Mensa, the organization for people with high IQs, published an article proposing the elimination of undesirable citizens, including the retarded and the homeless. Modern China requires the abortion of defective fetuses, including those diagnosed with retardation, and kills "unauthorized" babies born to one-child families. And in some states in the Unites States, due largely to pressures from insurance companies, the incidence of Down syndrome children has dropped 60 percent; the rest are aborted before birth.
In his study Morality: Religious and Secular, Basil Mitchell argues that, since the eighteenth century, secular thinkers have attempted to make reason, not religion, the basis of morality. None has successfully found a way to establish an absolute value for the individual human person. Mitchell suggests that secular thinkers can establish a relative value for people, by comparing people to animals, say, or to each other; but the idea that every person has an absolute value came out of Christianity and Judaism before it and is absent from every other ancient philosophy or religion.
The Founding Fathers of the United States, apparently aware of the danger, made a valiant attempt to connect individual rights to a transcendent source. Overruling Thomas Jefferson, who had made only a vague reference to "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God," they insisted instead on including the words "unalienable" and "endowed by their Creator." They did so in order to secure such rights in a transcendent Higher Power, so that no human power could attempt to take them away. Human dignity and worth derive from God's.
Yet if there is no Creator to endow these rights, on what basis can they be considered unalienable? Precisely that question is asked openly today. Robert Jarvik, a scientist and inventor of the artificial human heart, expresses the more modern view:
In reality, there are no basic human rights. Mankind created them. They are conventions we agree to abide by for our mutual protection under law. Are there basic animal rights? Basic plant rights? Basic rights of any kind to protect things on our planet when the sun eventually burns out, or when we block it out with radioactive clouds? Someday, humans will realize that we are a part of nature and not separate from it. We have no more basic rights than viruses, other than those that we create for ourselves through our intellect and our compassion.
Jarvik captures the dilemma: If humans are not made in the image of God, somehow distinct from animals, what gives us any more rights than other species? Some animal rights activists already ask that question, and a writer in the journal Wild Earth even mused about the logical consequences:
If you haven't given voluntary human extinction much thought before, the idea of a world with no people may seem strange. But, if you give the idea a chance I think you might agree that the extinction of Homo sapiens would mean survival for millions, if not billions, of other Earth-dwelling species . …Phasing out the human race will solve every problem on earth, social and environmental.
When representatives from the United States meet with their counterparts from China and Singapore to hammer out an agreement on human rights, not only do they have no common ground, they have no self-coherent ground on which to stand. Our founders made human dignity an irreducible value rooted in creation, a dignity that exists prior to any "public" status as citizen. Eliminate the Creator, and everything is on the negotiating table. By destroying the link between the social and cosmic orders, we have effectively destroyed the validity of the social order.
(Next issue: Philip Yancey on evolutionary psychology.)
Philip Yancey is the author of many books, including most recently What's So Amazing About Grace? (Zondervan).
Copyright © 1997 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture Magazine. For reprint information call 630-260-6200 or e-mail bceditor@BooksAndCulture.com.