my nephew into silence while he attempts to think how to respond to my counter-intuitive view of what Christianity is, viz not about being nice to others, and something public not private.
So while he is thinking, I thought I’d have a go today at responding to my not entirely rhetorical question, how do you decide what is right and wrong, good and evil?
Do good, avoid evil
In my earlier post I mentioned the Golden Rule, which can be summarized as ‘Whatever you wish others would do to you, do to them’. (Mt 7:12).
Aside from the Golden Rule there is another fundamental moral principle embedded in Christianity (and shared with Judaism), namely the principle “Do good and avoid evil’.
But how do we know what good and evil are?
Do we really have to rely on those dusty old passages from Genesis and Leviticus?
The Catholic answer is no. We can actually work out for ourselves what is good and what is evil using our reason. The Catholic view is that the ‘natural law’ is programmed into all of us, and that we can, if we think hard and logically enough about it, work it out for ourselves.
So what are the basic principles of the natural law?
One of the problems we often have in our culture is that we tend to look at things from an individual perspective – what I want to do right now as ‘the good’. But the idea of the natural law is actually rather closer (somewhat ironically) in concept to ideas about ‘the selfish gene’ – they are inclinations in our nature to specific good things that drive the continuation of both our particular culture and the human race.
And the requirement that we obey the natural law rests in large part on the idea of that the ‘common good’ of society as a whole is important, and may require the individual to sacrifice his or her own personal preferences.
There are different formulations around what the natural law consists of, but in essence it is based on the idea that we naturally have three key inclinations: self-preservation, to have and raise children, and to know the truth about God and live in society.
From these three inclinations you can derive most of the fundamental laws that underpin both Biblical morality and secular laws.
From the instinct to self-preservation, for example, comes the commandment not to kill and the laws against suicide (or euthanasia, abortion, etc). From the instinct to marry and have children, and thus continue the race, comes the case against gay marriage.
And there have been no lasting societies (as yet at any rate!) that have managed to completely exclude God from their consideration.
The argument is that God gave us these natural instincts for a reason, enabling us to survive, multiply and be the custodians of the Earth. And if you think about it for a moment, any culture that attempts to run counter to these fundamental instincts in its laws is inevitably doomed to collapse, probably sooner rather than later.
So why aren’t these principles self-evident to us now?
The obvious question then is, if these things are programmed into us, why aren’t they always obvious and why don’t we always do what is right?
The answer is that they generally are – we do tend to instinctively squirm when we see behaviour that runs counter to the natural law.
But humans have an amazing capacity to rationalize what they want to do.
There are several reasons for that. The first is Original Sin – by virtue of the Fall (ie getting kicked out of Eden), we are subject to ignorance and the tendency towards sin. We don’t always think through or even know what is truly good for us in the long term.
Secondly, what we think is right and wrong is conditioned to some degree by what we are taught, and the conscious and unconscious assumptions of our society. And societies can get things very wrong indeed, for surprisingly long periods of time (think of the Aztecs, sacrificing thousands and thousands of people to their gods until the Spanish stopped them).
Thirdly, even when we know objectively what is right or wrong, we can often ignore what we know in favour of what we want to do: think for example of the smoker who knows full well that smoking is bad for your health – but blithely hopes that it won’t affect them.
For all of these reasons, revelation – including in the form of the Bible – is given to us as a backstop, a check on our natural tendency to avoid hard truths. Formulations such as the ten commandments are there to save us the time and effort of reasoning it all out for ourselves, and to confirm clearly what can be obscured by our own and a particular culture's rationalizations.
The other factor is that the crucial difference between us and a computer program is that we have free will – we can choose to disregard these natural inclinations. But doing so has consequences in terms of our relationship to God and the future…
And that is probably enough for now.