We're more technologically sophisticated as ever before, but our ethics have become more primitive than ever. Here are five moral axioms we must recover to save the 21st century.
Even as our technological power to kill, harm, or dominate our fellow man increases, our ethics have grown more primitive. If you think of the moral development of a child, you will see the point: we start as absolute solipsists in the cradle, then slowly come to realize that our mothers are separate human beings. Through patient discipline, we overcome the primal selfishness that marks every two-year-old, and come to recognize the humanity and the rights of our parents and siblings. The next lesson in altruism comes in the classroom, when we are forced to extend this recognition to strangers in our little tribe of schoolmates. As we mature and expand our experiences, we encounter people who look and act quite alien, and must learn to respect them as well – even (this is the last and highest stage of humanism) to feel solidarity with human beings as human beings, though they live in foreign countries and hold opposing views.
The gradual expansion of our human “circle of concern” is one of the great achievements of any civilization – and it is a fragile thing, as we see in every resurgence of nationalism and at the outbreak of every war. Moving from macro- to microcosm, the same fragility holds in our moments of personal crisis, when it is not the national will that is being blocked by a foreign enemy, but our own most treasured desires that are opposed by some intimate obstacle: an inconvenient fetus; a parent who has lingered, clinging to life; or a stubbornly unresponsive reproductive system. Likewise in political life, when our fellow citizens act in ways we find frustrating or expensive, we are tempted to wish away our common humanity and subject them to treatment we’d consider outrageous if it were applied to us. We stockpile offenders in prisons with cruel conditions, we wink and even snigger at the prevalence of prison rape and violence, we shrug at the many injustices in the application of the death penalty. In economic life, we seek the best product at the lowest price, without regard for the well-being of the people who produced it. That is none of our business. The “invisible hand,” we believe, will blindly produce rough justice. Or not. That is someone else’s problem.
At every stage and level of life, if we hope to be civilized, each one of us must fight against the force of gravity that draws our ethics downward, that drops our standards ever closer to the lowest common denominator of narcissism. But even as we gain ever greater power to harm each other, the most powerful forces that have traditionally countered rank selfishness – religious creeds – have begun to lose their power to countervail it. Dogmatic religions have in large part lost their nerve and trimmed their ethics to suit the prevailing winds. Many churches that do cling to traditional biblical tenets underplay the sacrificial aspects of Christianity in favor of a gospel of self-help or success. As if to compensate, other churches despair of mobilizing souls to aid the needy, and instead turn to the mechanism of the government, replacing personal care with soulless bureaucracies and “entitlements” that lock them into poverty and dependency. It is much easier, and cleaner, to hand a homeless person an EBT card than to buy him a meal and hear his story, much less to find him a job.
What we hope to accomplish in The Race to Save Our Century is to lay out the core principles of a true humanism – one that will cut across political lines and speak to believers and skeptics alike, offering a set of fundamental insights about the human person and how people live together that can be broadly agreed upon. It is a glimpse of the “natural law” that thinkers as widely disparate as Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Jefferson, and Martin Luther King, Jr., have appealed to as the criterion by which we can judge any law, policy, or day-to-day decision. With the explosion of human power over other human beings, we need more than ever a common standard of reference, a “bare minimum” of respect we show for our fellow mortals, below which we will not go – whatever the personal cost. We are not trying to impose a particular creed, which one can only accept with a supernatural gift of faith. That lies far beyond the realm of politics, and this is a political book. You might say that we are happy to settle for a lowest-common-denominator morality; all we ask is that we raise the standard to something that accounts for the rights and dignity of every single human being – even (and especially) those whom we find to be the most inconvenient. In ethics, it is the hard cases that make the best law.
To restrain ourselves and each other in order to prepare a livable future, there are certain fundamental axioms we need to accept as the bedrock of human rights and lasting peace. We do not need an infallible authority to reveal them; any honest student of twentieth century history could piece them together by looking at which perennial truths totalitarian movements systematically sought to deny – and brave people who stood up to defend and live out those truths:
II) The existence of a transcendent moral order.
III) Subsidiarity: limited, decentralized government that preserves civil society, instead of trying to usurp its functions.
IV) A free, humane economy that fosters individual enterprise and protects private property rights within the limits imposed by human nature, human rights, and social cohesion.
V) The solidarity of all human beings, regardless of race, class, nation, religion, or other criteria.
We will devote a chapter to each of these. The collapse of Western ethics holds each of us hostage, and these are its demands. They are non-negotiable.
Jason Jones is a producer in Hollywood. His films include Bella, Eyes to See, and Crescendo. Learn more about his human rights initiatives at www.iamwholelife.com.
John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholics Guide to the Catechism. His columns are archived at The Bad Catholics Bingo Hall. This column is from Jones’s and Zmirak’s upcoming book, The Race to Save Our Century (Crossroad, 2014).