I’ve been teaching ethics to 7th and 8th graders this term, and it’s been quite an interesting – and sometimes a disturbing – experience.
Let me preface the rest of this entry by saying that I was raised in a Christian home and kept in constant exposure to the Scriptures for all of my formative years. Consequently, I picked up numerous biblical “modes of thinking” without always critically thinking them through. As I’ve taught these kids this term, I’ve been reminded of one of the most basic lessons I learned when I first started seeing that Chrisitianity has a serious intellectual side: the lesson that that as an adult it is enormously important to think through your faith.
What I’ve seen this term is that I myself “intuitively” know a great deal about biblical ethics, but because I never had occasion in my life to critically think through what I had picked up merely in the process of being raised a Christian, I have sometimes had difficulty making straightforward, rational presentations of ethical principles for the kids.
One issue I’ve had to examine in my own way of thinking is the simple fact that ethics is objective. If you were raised a Christian and kept in constant exposure to the Scriptures, you just know this is true even if you cannot articulate in logical syllogistic form why it is true. If you read and hear the Scriptures enough, it just gets “in your bones,” so to speak, so that the contrary idea (ethical subjectivism) doesn’t even make sense, let alone appear worthy of consideration. But how do you teach this to others, especially to children on the verge of turning toward adulthood?
On the one hand, you could stand up in front of 7th and 8th graders and just bluntly assume the posture of uncorrectability: your word is “law,” so to speak, because you are the teacher. They are the students, and they are there to listen to you because you know the subject. Your goal is to put it out there for their consumption; their goal is to pick it up from you and run with it. Up to a certain age level, you, being the adult, can just simply tell kids what to believe, and they, being wired by God as kids to do so, will simply believe you.
However, this starts to change around Middle School years, as the kids’ reasoning faculties start to develop and their lives become full of physical and emotional changes that make them question everything from their personal identity to the meaning of life to what they ought to be doing with their time and what they ought to be looking forward to in the future.
They start wanting to know why they should believe you. They start coming up with (sometimes unbelievably) sophistical counter-examples to anything and everything that you say, and acting as if they really are quite as knowledgeable as you, if not more knowledgeabe. They start acting as if they are put on this earth to correct all the stupid adults who don’t know anything about the world. They have a very difficult time understanding why something that they feel so deeply within themselves (and so right there on the surface of their consciousness) shouldn’t be the norm for their behavior. If you aren’t ready to rationally articulate what you “just know in your bones” to such kids, you might come across as not really knowing and thereby lose them. Simply assuming a posture of authority doesn’t work on this level. Only demonstration does – and even then, not always.
Anyway, some in my bunch of students are pretty mixed up about some ethical issues. It’s a Christian school, but not all of them are from Christian families – some are “refugees” from atrocious public school systems, and they have little to no biblical character formation. Others are members of rather Liberal churches, where it’s all about “love” and good feelings and (completely unjustifiable) optimism about human nature and activity. (For example, a few days ago I had two 12 year olds start lecturing me – I use that word deliberately – about how the Bible teaches that “love” is the most important thing, so therefore gay marriage is OK with God).
It’s in this context that I’ve had to do what I never had to do before: critically think about my own Christian heritage of ethics, and come up with solid, rational ethical arguments to present these kids so that, hopefully, they can be a little better prepared to face the increasingly ethically-obtuse world we live in.
Now here’s the point of this entry. It occurred to me the other day while I was thinking about how to rationally establish the idea that ethics are objective, not subjective, that one way to do this would be to parallel ethics with reason itself. In particular, reason is a set of principles about correct and incorrect thought. Among these principles is the law of noncontradiction, which states that “a thing cannot be itself and its opposite at the same time in the same way.” This principle is the very basis for the distinction between “true” and false,” for if this principle is itself not true, there is no way to distinguish “true” from “false.” The law of noncontradiction literally defines the distinction between “true” and “false.”
And here’s the kicker – the law cannot be proved or disproved, because all arguments that would attempt to prove it or disprove it would implicitly use it in their own construction. You literally cannot disprove the law of noncontradiction. Any disproof would conclude with the statement “The law of noncontradiction is not true,” but since the law itself defines what “true” is, the disproof would itself be false. The law simply has to be assumed, or we cannot do any thinking at all.
It occurred to me that a similar argument could be made about ethical objectivity. A person who wished to argue for any particular ethical statement would be arguing that that statement expressed an ethical good and forbade an ethical evil. But if one asked “What is good and what is evil?”, the only way to answer the question would be to assume an objective distinction between the two – that is, a distinction that was not merely subjective and thus open to questioning by other people.
The very idea that things called “good” and “evil” exist and that it is possible to meaningfully talk about them simply assumes a mind-independent standard of “goodness” and “evil,” and thus, it simply assumes ethical objectivity. Just as to say that subjectivism is the true ethical position assumes that the law of noncontradiction holds, so too to say that any particular ethical action is “good” or “evil” simply assumes ethical objectivism. If it does not assume objectivism, then the only thing we are left with is an endless regress of skepticism. Why should I believe the ethical subjectivist? Because she says so? If ethics really are subjective, who is she to tell me what is ethically good and act as if I am somehow bound to accept her view?
Ironically then, any argument for ethical subjectivism is fundamentally parasitic on ethical objectivism – and this involves the ethical subjectivist in a formal self-contradiction, which means that his ethical subjectivism is, to put it in one word, false. Trying to argue that ethics are subjective is every bit as vain and foolish a position as trying to disprove the law of noncontradiction in logic. The only conclusion open to the consistent rational mind, then, is that ethics are objective.
Now, I don’t imagine that I could say all of this in just this way to my 7th and 8th graders and expect them to understand it, but working through it for myself has been a very helpful exercise in “faith seeking understanding,” and, if I can somehow reduce it all to 7th and 8th grade levels, perhaps it might somehow help them think more clearly about ethics.