I’ve been thinking a lot about ethics lately.
It’s a subject that comes up pretty often for me, in various contexts. If you’re a regular reader, you might have noticed that I’m a big fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and of the Captain America movies in particular. Ethics is a central concern of Steve Rogers’ story: What is the right thing to do? How best can I do it in my particular circumstances? What if doing the right thing is costly, risky, or just plain dangerous? Steve Rogers doesn’t necessarily respect rules, laws, or orders, but he does have an unshakable commitment to his own personal sense of what is right.
Ethics comes up a lot in magical, pagan, and polytheist circles, too. Is the Wiccan Rede a sufficient guide to moral, ethical behavior? What does “harm” mean in that context? Is hexing or cursing magic ethical? Is there a difference between using magic to attract a lover or persuade an employer and using it to restrain or punish a rapist? If pagan ethics don’t derive from the specific commandments of a deity (as they do in Judaism and Christianity), what do they derive from? These are the sorts of topics I see discussed in the blogosphere and in my Facebook feed.
After over forty years of reading about religion, it’s my observation that ethical training usually starts with the negative. The Ten Commandments have more “shalt nots” than “shalts”. The five core precepts of Buddhism are all negative: no killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct, or using mind-altering substances. The ancient Egyptians listed 42 negative confessions for the soul in the afterlife, an exhaustive list of wrong things which the deceased denies having done.
Most religions share an ethical core. Theft, lying, and murder are wrong behaviors that damage social relationships. Prohibitions against sexual wrongdoing seem to me to be related to vows and covenants. If you have vowed to be celibate, don’t have sex. If you have vowed fidelity to a spouse, don’t fuck around. Even if you are under no vows yourself, don’t cause or help other people to break theirs. Specifics on what constitutes wrongful killing or sexual misconduct certainly vary widely from religion to religion, culture to culture, but there’s a fundamental agreement.
There’s also, I think, a fundamental agreement on what constitutes ethical behavior, starting with the reversal of the negative precepts. Tell the truth instead of lying. Refrain from killing and doing physical harm. Be generous and give to those in need instead of stealing or defrauding your neighbor. Make vows wisely and keep them once made. Welcome friends and strangers into your home and consider them sacrosanct while they are under your roof.
I have seen these ideas in pagan philosophy, in Judaism, in Christianity, in Islam, in Hinduism and in Buddhism. There is no religion or source of ethical teaching that says casual killing is ethical. There is no religion that recommends greed, stinginess, and denial of those in need. There is no ethical system in which generosity and hospitality are not virtues. No sage or philosopher has praised a chronic liar.
Yet here in the United States, right now, I see people who call themselves Christian, devotees of Jesus, who are shooting unarmed African-American citizens, eliminating social supports for the needy, profiting at the expense of the poor, and terrorizing immigrants by taking away their children and interning them (and interning is perhaps the most neutral word I can use). I see these people and others like them defending this unethical and definitely un-Christian behavior on legal or religious grounds. And it hurts to see it, to read it, to hear about it, to know that this is how the teachings of Jesus have been twisted and perverted.
I won’t engage in the “no true Scotsman” fallacy. If someone says they’re a Christian, I’ll assume that, yes, they were baptized, they are communicants in good standing of a parish or congregation, they have some sort of spiritual life based on the Bible. But I will, as a pagan polytheist, as a progressive Episcopalian, as an occasional Buddhist, as an ethical human being, argue that racism, sexism, violence, greed, homophobia, transphobia, nationalism, and terrorism have no place in Christian theology or behavior, no place in ethical behavior, whatsoever. Not if their Christ really is the Jewish teacher and healer who rejected nobody who came to him, disagreed with the religious authorities of his own culture, and was executed as a terrorist by an army of occupation.