Jesus, Pioneer of Post-Modern Ethics

A reply to Bob Harrison by Michael Williams.

In his article, ‘Virtue Ethics and the New Testament’, (Philosophy Now, Issue 21) Bob Harrison argues that the insights of Jesus and Paul help us to find a way through the conflict between act based ethics and agent based ethics. He suggests that the two can be held together by understanding that the work of the Spirit within the agent so transforms the agent that s/he lives out a fulfilment of the act/rule based ethic of the Old Testament. He puts it like this, “Act in the way that exhibits the virtues which the Holy Spirit develops in you, the way of love, and you will find yourself fulfilling the ideals of the Old Testament.”

There are two things wrong with this argument. Firstly, it represents a refusal to move from Aristotelian and Kantian ethics to a properly post-modern ethic.

From Modernity to Post-Modernity

All ethics based on duty, such as those of Kant or Butler, are act based. They suggest that the fundamental question of the moral life is, “What ought I to do?” This is also true of all consequence-based ethics, such as those of Epicurus or Mill. Both of these forms of ethics look at life as if it were a sequence of moral situations in which we constantly had to ask the question, “What ought I/we to do?” Some forms of these types of ethics suggest that we can relieve this constant need to analyse every act by working out some rules of thumb which saves us from this very wearying work but, in the end, every act has to be judged right or wrong on its own merits.

In contrast virtue ethics, such as the ethics of Aristotle, avoids this constant need to evaluate our actions by suggesting that the fundamental question in ethics is not, “What ought I to do?” but rather, “What kind of person should I be?” As a result the person living by a virtue ethic does not constantly have to make every action subject to a moral calculation, rather s/he aims at growing into a person of character or integrity so that right actions will follow almost without thinking about it. This move towards becoming a good person takes time and training but, it is claimed, this is of much deeper moral significance than simply taking life one act at a time.

We therefore have a fundamental contrast here between being and doing. On the one side we have the champions of doing, on the other we have the champions of being, and much of our western philosophy could be seen as the battle between these two primary categories. In technical language we could say it is the battle between deontology (the ethics of doing one’s duty) and ontology (philosophy of being).

But in post-modern ethics both of these categories are called into question. Writers such as Emmanuel Levinas and Zygmunt Bauman want to suggest that the reason why the battle between these two fundamental schools of thought is so unfruitful is that neither of them is fundamental. They suggest that underlying them both is a much deeper category which represents a much more profound moral life. They call this category ‘Being for’. For Bauman morality cannot be derived from reason or ontology. I am for comes before I am. I am I in the sole measure that I am responsible, when I rise above and transcend myself. In other words Descartes’ cogito, “I think therefore I am”, does not take us to the foundation of the matter. It is not the self-evident truth upon which all other truths must be based. There is a much more foundational truth lurking below the “I am”. It is the “I am for” which comes into play when, before reasoning things out or before working towards being a good character, I live towards another as neighbour.

An Archeology Analogy

An analogy might help us to understand this post-modern contention. It is rather like the archeologist who first unearths one city, the city of doing, but then finds another city below it, the city of being, but, when s/he scratches the earth again finds yet another city below that, the city of being for. There is therefore a kind of layering:

below which is

below which is
Being For

What is Being For?

Being for is not merely one of the virtues which we can develop and use in our everyday interaction with other people. Nor is Being for a way of life which we aspire to, a kind of ideal which we set for ourselves, something we try to live up to. Being for is much more immediate than this. It is a way life which precedes all thinking about our actions, it is a way of life which precedes all forms of calculation about what our actions might lead to, and it is a way of life which doesn’t come more easily to us as we strive to learn more about it . The reason is that thinking about our actions puts the ‘I’ at the centre of the discussion: “What am I to do?” Training ourselves or letting ourselves be trained in the virtues also puts the ‘I’ at the centre: “What kind of person am I to become?” What Being for does is to transcend the I and look towards the Other. It comes in the form of a paradox: We cannot be fully ourselves, we cannot discover our true identity, we cannot find the ‘I’, until we forget the ‘I’. The ethics of Being for is then not an exercise in learning but an exercise in forgetting, letting go, taking the risk.

Jesus’ Ethic as Being For

The second reason why Bob Harrison is wrong in his article is that he misunderstands the ethics of Jesus in the New Testament. Jesus’ ethic is not a virtue ethic.

Jesus does, it is true, in the Sermon on the Mount, build an ethic where something like the virtues are appealed to. The sermon could be read as exchanging the Greek virtues of courage and temperance and so on, for the virtues of meekness, mercy, purity of heart etc. 

But this is to miss the radical nature of Jesus’ proposal. He is not saying that with the additional help of God’s grace we could fulfil all the traditional Jewish laws, the Ten Commandments for instance; rather he is asking us to think of the moral life in a completely new way. We must learn that to find life we have to lose it. We must learn that the fundamental qualification for rightness is precisely to let go of any claim to it. This is what “blessed are the poor in spirit” means. And this is why, when Jesus says that he is among his disciples as one who serves, he is calling for a totally radical new way of being in the world. It is only when we forget ourselves that we can live for others. It is only when we forget ourselves that we can genuinely be said to love the Other. Dying for someone is usually thought to be the pinnacle of moral sacrifice, but as Paul says in Corinthians I., even if I give my body to be burned if I have not love, it is of no value. This radical ethic calls into question all our calculation, all our premeditation, all our attempts to live our lives contractually and rationally. Emmanuel Levinas, writing from his philosophical and Jewish heritage, comes to a similar conclusion. He suggests that what lies at the heart of being human is what he calls ‘diacony’. For him this word diacony, which comes from the Greek word meaning service, sums up what Being for means. He says, “Men are not only and in their ultimate essence ‘for self’ but ‘for others’, and this ‘for others’ must be probed deeply… Israel would teach that the greatest intimacy of me to myself consists in being at every moment responsible for others, the hostage of others.”(Nine Talmudic Readings p.85) This implies a willingness to take on responsibility for others even when no one would say I had such a responsibility. It means taking to myself the distress of others even though they have no call upon me. He also realises that if anyone is prepared to live this Being For to its radical conclusion it will mean taking on responsibility even for my enemies and persecutors. His radical conclusion is, “Ultimate responsibility can only be the fact of an absolutely persecuted man, having no right to a speech that would disengage him from his responsibility.” (Nine Talmudic Readings p.115)

This stress on living diaconally (the life of service for those to whom you do not owe service) is precisely what Jesus calls our attention to in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Being for is the deep foundation of our lives which alone can call us to cross the boundaries of race, gender, culture and creed, and simply ‘be for’ another, be neighbour to another. To take responsibility for a neighbour is a staggering monumental vocation because it has no bounds. There are no roads which it can refuse to cross, no oceans which it can decline to navigate.

The Final Judgement

That Jesus offers us a truly post-modern ethic is born out by the story he tells of the final judgement. At the judgement the judge separates the people into the just, who are placed at his right hand, and the unjust who are placed at his left. The unjust are condemned because they have not fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, or visited those in prison. But the just are not praised because they have done all these things but because they have done them without being conscious or aware of themselves doing it

Their goodness is an innocent pre-reflective goodness. They are good precisely because they don’t know that they are good. Their goodness is an original kind of goodness with absolutely no taint of calculation, reflection, or education. This is what makes Jesus’ ethic post-modern. Both Bauman and Levinas agree that an essential mark of ‘being for’ is that it is pre-rational. It must transcend all our attempts to get a grip of it, categorize it, train it, quantify it. It is a face-to-face encounter with the Other before whom we stand naked.

The ethic of Jesus is neither an act-based or an agent-based ethic in the ordinary sense of those terms. Act-based ethics, both duty-based and consequences-based, demands a high level of rational reflection before being implemented. So does virtue ethics. They are both forms of self-awareness that Jesus bids us leave behind. It is not that his ethic is antirational; rather it is pre-rational. His ethic is one of an immediate justice which takes us across the road to the injured neighbour before we have begun the process of rational calculation and evaluation. It is an immediate engagement with the neighbour as Other.

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