Cliff Williams Department of Philosophy Trinity College Deerfield, IL 60015
In PH 182 Ethics this past week, the question was, “Is the best secular ethics as good as Christian ethics?” The first thing we had to do was to decide what the best secular ethics is. Since Trinity College is a Christian college, nearly all of the students are Christians. I have found that they often have an “us” versus “them” mentality. Secular ways of living are morally corrupt, whereas Christian ways are decidedly superior. How can you get a good discussion going on secular ethics versus Christian ethics with that mentality, I asked myself as I walked into class. The only way to do that would be to appoint some of the students to be real, live secularists. But could they play that role? Can anyone play a role that differs markedly from their own mindset? The only thing to do was to try it out.
I asked for volunteers. A couple of hands went up. Then one more. Ah! I didn’t have to appoint. Three in a class of eight was a good number. Sometimes when I ask for people to be real-live skeptics, everyone in class just sits quietly, staring at me and wondering what I am talking about. But not Andy, Jon, and Iain. They knew.
Jon went first. We went straight to the big question: What are you living for? “Myself,” said Jon.
That jolted me. I had expected him to say something like, “To make the world a better place” or “ To reduce human suffering,” something lofty and grand, something that would easily compete with Christian ethics. But it was just “myself.”
The other secularists said “compassion,” “honesty,” the Golden Rule. When Jon was asked about those, he said, “Yes, I believe in compassion and honesty, so long as it serves myself.”
The Christians in the class also put compassion and honesty on their list. But now the question arose, How can we decide which is better—the secular ethics or the Christian ethics? We forgot about the “best,” as we could not settle that. And someone wondered whether “best” should also be applied to Christian ethics, as there didn’t seem to be any such thing as the Christian ethics.
In the end, we couldn’t decide between the secularists and the Christians, because we could not come up with a criterion that would settle the issue between them. If we used intuition, Jon replied that his intuition told him that the only thing worth living for was himself. The Christians, of course, had different intuitions, but they couldn’t get Jon to have theirs. If we used happiness as a criterion, Jon replied that he was perfectly happy living for himself. Again, the Christians claimed that he would be happier if he adopted the best Christian ethics, but Jon was perfectly content living for himself.