Wednesday, March 28, 2012

An Unending Roller Coaster

Ethics is the philosophical study of principled action. A lot of definitions like to say it's got something to do with right and wrong, but really it's about what we think is right and wrong and why we think so.

Usually this question has to do with goals - what is the point of this action? What am I trying to accomplish? These goals are mostly all about the long term. Even when we're intensely focused on an immediate result, it's often a cog in a grander machine. I'm spending Saturday in the library to do well on this paper to get a good grade, to get into a good school, to secure a well-paying job, which will give me greater freedom to enjoy life.

Despite the focus on goals, ethics tells us that every goal comes from a presupposition, a principle we assume to be truth (whether we know it or not) and ultimately determines our actions. Tension in life, what moves us beyond instinct, is the struggle between competing goals. If your presupposition is that happiness comes through fulfilling desires, there might be an ethical struggle between eating that extra plate of nachos today and avoiding an extra half hour on the toilet tomorrow.

It becomes a discussion of ends and means; what means will I use to achieve the ends my principles demand? This becomes more difficult when the decision moves beyond timing to morality itself. Is killing one person right, when it potentially saves the lives of ten or a hundred others? In this case, the goal is saving lives; the means might be to violate this truth for a more complete fulfillment in the long run. This is where we get, "the ends justify the means."

Over the last year, I've come to one interesting realization. As a follower of Christ, this idea of ends and means don't really apply. It's more than simply disagreeing that the ends justify the means, but a disavowal of the whole ends/means system.

If our grounding principle is that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead as a precursor to universal resurrection and eternal life, then there is no "ends" in our equation. This is something that the idea of an afterlife confuses. Biblically, there is no afterlife, there is just life again - resurrection. You don't die in one world and wake up in another, you die in one world and then return to that world (albeit a redeemed version). There are no ends because there is no end.

That leaves followers of Christ with only means. We trust that whatever long term goals exist in life, they are the purview of God. Our task, as God's people is to focus on right action in each moment. We are a means people. Simply put, if we are to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, we are to love, to act selflessly, in each moment. The Christian presupposition is that the ends and means are one and the same.

This realization has an alarming effect. It's both imminently comfortable and deeply challenging. We're trained to be ends and means people; it's ironically instinctual how this internal analysis is so ingrained. Most ethics is simply recognizing these inherent and unconscious principles and prioritizing our goals. With Christ, ethics involves learning an entirely different system; it requires a change in our very nature.

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