Foundational Postulates for Ethics

Part Three: Does Consensus Open the Gates of Hell?

To assert ethics as a matter of preference alone certainly should ring the alarm bell of dangerously loose relativity for those who seek to follow religiously derived morals… but should it?

Forming social consensus around individual ethical preferences is something we already do. Consensus means just that, the use of communication to reach a shared outlook or position, in order to shape the field of play and rules of the game for a group or society.

Even in a community made up only of believers of a same faith, some common ground of interpretation must be found to put principle into practice.

If we attempt to force adoption of the ideas of only one man or woman, in any group and regarding any topic, from that point on we get locked into one fallible viewpoint, and faith and/or reason are inhibited from advancing. The history of the major faiths is largely one of this changing understanding.

The evolution of interpretation and guidelines to action, through new knowledge that arises, and of perspective, from examining knowledge in a variety of ways, are the most important mechanisms available to avoid doctrinal error in faith, and to advance scientific progress.

Moving from articles of belief to rules of behavior in society always requires interpretation, and so that any group, secular or religious, can ensure it is never locked into any particular error, consensus around evolving opinion is a good protection against poor practice, and not a threat to moral society.

Protection from Error

Consensus builds up over time as opinions sway, and as small habits or customs become common. This happens all the time in language, which has no fixed meanings to its sounds, only shifting attachments that are shaped by evolving custom. That, perhaps, is the most arbitrary form of how we use consensus. It works.

But communication of ideas with language is goal and value directed. We can argue for new sources of moral reasoning, or argue in favor of traditional values as applied to modern living – which is in itself already an evolved understanding, applying as it does to a new situation.

In science, there are no final truths. Certainly any field can get stuck in an unfortunate perspective and stagnate, but nothing is permanently beyond questioning and reexamination. In faith, we have the articles of canon to guide, but must always find ways to apply them justly in vastly differing situations, while never sure of all the details, only the visible actions of others. A wise man of faith or in science knows that it is what he or she does not see that can be most important. Patience is indeed a virtue.

In a world of constant change and limited understanding, both of our favorite tools for making sense of the world, faith and reason, need evolving consensus to eliminate error in judgment.

The Role of Compromise

Social consensus about ethics does not force any individual to adopt the full beliefs of others, so it is not a method for forcing beliefs on any individual. In fact, with our civil and criminal laws under democracy, this is the case: we agree on a set of standards of behavior, while any one individual can continue to hold specific reasons for or against any particular norm. Further, in a world in which there is no universally held belief regarding spirituality, partial compromise in the form of social consensus is the only option that remains.

This logically implies compromises on acceptable behavior. This is where the beliefs of the religiously extreme exhibit the inability to accept other beliefs, and attempt to impose by fiat. In democracy, persuasion to evolve consensus is the tool to promote one’s own perspective, respectful of individual choice. This is what radical belief refuses to do, and seeks to undermine.

This is the area in which good-faith reasoning and dogmatic imposition clash: how consensus should be formed, and it holds the key for combating extremism of all forms.

We understand this today as a battleground among competing faiths and values, examining the canon of each for clues to stop violence. As we shall see, however, it is how those beliefs are held, not always what they declare, that is the cornerstone supporting violent extreme action.

It is the case that we already determine our actionable ethics as a group via consensus. That does not mean religious beliefs disappear or have no bearing or voice. The separation of church and state in democracy is institutional only; you can always vote your conscience.

Moral reasoning based on preference is still that, reasoning. That is, one can identify a value or criteria and then formulate a progressively more complex argument. The nature and formal validity of an ethical premise differs from hard science greatly, but in general we can move forward in a normal fashion from there. And we can do it together, believers and nonbelievers alike.

Amoral Atheism

For the faithful, there is a fear that atheism opens the door to all manner of evil. After all, some of the most horrible wars and pogroms in history were sponsored by ardent followers of godless beliefs. Unbelievers definitely have some public relations to undertake to repair these impressions, unfounded and unfair as they may be. The aggressive posturing of the “Brights” does little to dispel this concern.

In the next few posts, we will view how it is another aspect altogether regarding any belief that makes it deadly and turns its followers into raging lunatics and cold-blooded murderers of the innocent. It is not always the content of a doctrine, or if it is religious or secular, but it is the nature of its standing in the mind that always opens the Gates of Hell.

Further, there is a little something from science that can and does help to show that, deep down, there is a common source of understanding on which the culture and beliefs of each of us rests: empathy. We cannot make moral laws with science alone, but there is yet hope for homo sapiens sapiens, the quintessential social animal. For believers, defining common values with nonbelievers need not be seen as a pact with the devil, as we shall see.

Coming Up: Part Four: Innate Moral Capacity

Previous: Part Two: Seeking Solid Ground