Enlightened Ethics?

Christina Hoff Sommers, who teaches ethics at Clark University, tells a wonderful story—one that exposes the bankruptcy of modern ethics. After Sommers had written an article arguing that a just society begins with individual virtue, one of her colleagues berated her for holding to "an antiquated, Victorian, view of ethics." Modern ethics, her colleague informed her, is social justice. It is concerned not with personal morality but with causes, such as saving Brazilian rain forests and preventing Third World exploitation by multinational corporations. Three months later the same colleague came back sheepishly to Sommers and said: "I have just had a shocking experience in my ethics class. Half of my students cheated on a take-home exam. And this is an ethics course!" The woman confessed she needed to reread Sommers's article about private virtue. When people see how flawed the modern view of ethics is, it opens a grand opportunity for a Christian apologetic. Our modern dilemma in ethics began with the French Enlightenment. Like Sommers's colleague, the Enlightenment thinkers believed that Christians were wrong about individual sin, that people were good, corrupted only by social structures. So reforming social structures would produce a perfect society. For 200 years ethicists have tried to create ethical systems without God. The result has been the dismantling of any objective standard of right and wrong, leaving the individual to act according to his or her own "personal preference." But what happens when someone's "personal preference" happens to be cheating on an exam? Or stealing? Or—for example—collaborating with murderous Nazis? That is exactly what happened in the very homeland of the Enlightenment. During wartime France the Vichy government rounded up Jews and handed them over to the Nazis. Seventy-five thousand French Jews perished in the death camps. French President Jacques Chirac recently acknowledged that shameful chapter of his country's history. "France," he said, "the homeland of the Enlightenment, and of the rights of man . . . committed the irreparable. Breaking its word, it handed over those who were under its protection to their executioners." How did the Enlightenment notion of the "rights of man" break down in wartime France? Well, ethical precepts in themselves have no moral force unless individuals view themselves as responsible to a Supreme Being. The French existentialist Jean Paul Sartre understood very well that ethics had no meaning once God was removed from the equation. "It doesn't matter how you act," Sartre said, "as long as you `authenticate yourself' by an act of the will." Thus, to borrow a trenchant Francis Schaeffer illustration, you can decide to help an old lady across the street—or to push her into the path of an oncoming car. For Sartre, because there is no God, it doesn't matter what one chooses to do. So the next time someone argues that ethics has nothing to do with obedience to God, show him exactly where that logic leads. And remind him that it is precisely because God exists that there is ultimately no getting away with cheating—or, for that matter, murder.


Chuck Colson


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