The rise of modernity has brought with it a moral shift from the universal laws of good and evil to the taste-based judgment of individuals. Our world grows ever more dizzying with the complexity of the threads of modern contingency, and individuals feel ever more alienated from the happenings around them. The plight of a neighbor is no longer as present in mind, since actions are more divorced from knowable results and meaning. For better or worse, the low-level functions of human beings will naturally lead down the easy path of enjoyment and aversion to non-enjoyment, outside of a moral system dictating that there is a correct way to behave. Of course, people still have ideas of right and wrong. If you ask any given person living in a coastal urban area about what is a good thing for a person to do in life, the results won’t be that startling. Much like the Simpsons after season 10, the concept of “doing the right thing” has been quietly replaced by an impostor with the same name and appearance, aping the mannerisms of the original with middling success. Helping others will probably come out as part of our urban sophisticate’s answer, and everything still seems pretty normal.
When examined, this answer leads to to this conclusion: being a “good person” is a desirable trait because it feels good. Things are getting a little odd in this world of morals – but they’re about to get a whole lot stranger. We are told that being a happy person is the moral imperative. Follow your dreams! Find true love! Have a fulfilling career! See the world! This is definitely an incredible deal — these are all gratifying things that you already wanted to do, and it gives you the added bonus of making a good person. Of course, her moral prescriptions for living the life of a good person don’t even require thinking about right and wrong, meaning you don’t need a moral system to guide you to such behavior. The less easy truth is that while such things are certainly not bad things to want, they aren’t the final boss of moral goodness, either. In the mind of people like our friend, who is actually an intelligent and kind hypothetical person, the moral imperative to do what is objectively right, whether we would otherwise like to or not, has been replaced by the wholly redundant moral imperative to stimulate the enjoyment-seeking and novelty-seeking firmware that is our animal nature.
This modern doctrine’s Achilles’ heel made manifest is the fact that a system of right and wrong based on the feelings of people necessarily inherits the pride, prejudice, and desire for self-gratification that are inherent to the feelings of people. Even assuming the moral conclusions drawn from this relative system are the same as an objective one, the execution is different. As soon an opportunity arises demanding the right thing to be done, a moral relativist will, by the rules inherent to such a system, falter as soon as his egotism or prejudice are challenged. Of course, moral objectivists are prone to the very same human frailty, but not because of the very rules of their moral system. If we are to believe that we ourselves are moral lawgivers, then we are just self-canonized saints in the Church of Me. All experiences start and end with the individual, and absent of a meaning beyond our limits, the unexperienced experience of other beings is beyond our limits. We are the alpha and the omega of our own existence, bounded in a nutshell and counting ourselves kings of infinite space.
A mechanistic system of petty likes and dislikes rules our behavior, and likes often manifest in the form of, sometimes impotent, sympathy for others, for the sake of one’s psychological well-being. The modern state has provided the utility of appearing to exorcise the demons of the wrongs of the world through legislation and the diffused, impersonal obligations they mandate. The cost of seeming to be a good person to yourself and others is now much lower, since all you need to do is support the “good” candidate and maybe go with your friends and hold up a sign at a protest one Saturday. This pleases the enjoyment-vs-non-enjoyment ratio of our lower selves. All of this has led to the replacement of the obligations to one’s fellow man with obligations to the state. The existence of the welfare state has liberated us from the psychological need to do the right thing for others. Any unanswered cry for help is only the failure of the policymakers and bureaucrats — the rest of us are inviolable.
I’m not suggesting that moral relativism will lead a situation of society-wide chaos, since that’s clearly not the case. Let’s take this thought piece to where it seems to be going: since humans are social animals, we can cooperate and make transactions to find mutual good. Without a system of right and wrong separate from our calculations of reward and punishment, there can still indeed be a functional society. A functional society of strangers with no regard for each other outside of their calculus of maximizing one’s own well-being, but otherwise tripping over each other with gnashing teeth for moments of happiness. I am not indicting markets at all; all economic arrangements of society involve individuals doing what they can to maximize their own good. While markets are definitely the best at that, the free market doesn’t answer questions of right and wrong, and has nothing to say about people being righteous or selfish. Socialism isn’t any different. Under socialism, the same agents will seek the same things, only with burdensome and inefficient restraints. A philosophy familiar to us in the West that does in fact provide an objective guide: the story of Christ.
The meaning of the temptations of Christ seems to be misunderstood pretty often. Satan wasn’t giving Christ some clumsy pitch to come to the dark side — if anyone can resist a plain offer of conversion to evil, it’s certainly Jesus. The gambit of the temptations wasn’t to divert Christ away from a path of good; neither party ever doubted that Christ would fulfill his destiny as the messiah. In a ploy, Satan presented alternative types of messianism. Hunger came to JC in the desert, and Satan encouraged to use his miraculous powers to conjure some food. Atop the temple pinnacle, Satan goaded him into jumping off and getting angels to break his fall a la Gandalf where people could see him. Both times he refused.
This foreshadows the narrative of Christ’s sacrifice; during the passion, Christ could have lifted a single eyebrow to call down an angelic Spetsnaz to free him, and perhaps even free the Jews from Roman rule. With his supernatural abilities, Christ could have provided food for all of humanity and ended the harshness of earthly life. Both of these actions would have won over the masses simply due to incredible displays of supernatural power. So why did Christ choose not to be an idealized Chairman Mao, alleviating worldly pains, or a powerful wizard king, undeniably divine in his magical glory? Simply put, because these messianisms are irrelevant for the moral context of humanity. The path chosen was the path of loving self-sacrifice, a path far mightier than any other.
Pope Benedict XVI articulates this in an audience:
However in this period of “wilderness” and of his special encounter with the Father, Jesus is exposed to danger and is assaulted by the temptation and seduction of the Evil One, who proposes a different messianic path to him, far from God’s plan because it passes through power, success and domination rather than the total gift of himself on the Cross. This is the alternative: a messianism of power, of success, or a messianism of love, of the gift of self.
Christ’s unconditional sacrifice affirmed the moral imperative of selfless giving and love for others, not just those you like, as what is outside of tastes and opinions, the correct way.
It’s important to distinguish the relational love of people, such as the love between friends and family, from unconditional, intellectualized love. The former, while absolutely important and good, is distinct from the latter, agape. Unlike most other pursuits, such as eating, working, and enjoying life with friends and family, agape requires high-level cogitation. With that focused awareness of what the right thing to do, the limits of our low-level ego firmware can be transcended. I don’t think it’s an accident that all the great religions of the world teach a suppression of the self. Christianity and Buddhism, for example, are very different religions, but both teach that the truth is not of this world and not of your own ego. Doing what gratifies the ego is the way of this world. Doing the right thing is the way of the transcendent. On the suggestion that devotion to a higher power crowds out service to one’s fellow man, Pope Benedict XVI writes:
In the example of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta we have a clear illustration of the fact that time devoted to God in prayer not only does not detract from effective and loving service to our neighbour but is in fact the inexhaustible source of that service.
I don’t think Pope Benedict gets a fair shake when compared to Francis. He has some great quotes.