Saturday, July 05, 2014

ethics pretzels

Sometimes I read puzzled internet commentary about the incomprehensible ethics of religious followers, as if questioning how they can reach and embrace ethical statements which are almost laughable...or palpably loathsome. From my present vantage point, I can sympathize with the bewilderment. But I also can recall the time when my sympathies were switched, and my personal ethics were entangled in my former faith-beliefs.

I cannot justify such a mindset. Nor do I want to justify it. I can try to describe it, though. Like the previous entry, this one has a tighter focus because I'm analyzing my distinct religious history. I don't claim to represent the full diversity of Christianity throughout time and space.

My best qualities weren't substantially different then. I had a lot of the same ethical senses and standards: candor, empathy, fair play, compromise, self-responsibility, creativity. I had a lot of the same abilities to think logically—I couldn't have performed my job if I didn't. The critical factor was more like defective routing. 

My faith-beliefs channeled my judgment through a circuit of deductive loops. That circuit could mimic an impression of logical steps, but the overall path was circular. It twisted and bent back on itself. Its rationales were codependent. It served to provoke feelings of reasonableness purely within the context that it furnished for itself. It was made to be self-isolated and self-reinforced. Its shape wasn't the expected straight line from axiom to conclusion. It was pretzel-shaped. Applying it to ethics baked "ethics pretzels".

Rather than list many examples, I'll cover broad categories. One of those was the ethics lessons that were perplexing, to put it mildly. Even as a child, my concealed first response to some lessons was confusion or distaste. Why would a moral lesson smell so immoral or strange?

Pretzel-shaped logic came to the rescue. Every human sinned, but not necessarily in identical ways. To each of them, a sin could appear to be "doing right in your own eyes". Ergo, every human's native perception of morality was probably not perfectly attuned. If a new lesson smelled immoral to someone, then the lesson wasn't necessarily at fault. Their fallible egocentric conscience could be the explanation. They needed to learn that their moral lenses were too smudged for them to estimate simple ethics for themselves.

To twist the argument further, if not every human was in close agreement with a moral lesson, then their discomfort was proof that the moral lesson wasn't subjective and relative to human preferences. An unlikable reality had more credence simply because of the unlikelihood that anyone had invented it to please themselves. Through this perverse reversal, a moral lesson that didn't smell moral at first was more likely to be objective and absolute, i.e. "genuinely" moral. 

In other cases, the lessons I heard were blatant teachings of the church community's conventional norms. Of course their norms weren't in the Bible, and nobody claimed that God had sent the norms to them via a prophet. Nevertheless, they treated their norms with equivalent sternness. This ethics pretzel relied on the premise that since God never changed, God had to be an incurable traditionalist about virtually everything. It was in favor of outcomes which happened to be part of the status quo. The norms in turn regulated the status quo, so God must have implicitly endorsed the norms, regardless of whether the norms were dogma. A typical pretzel ingredient was the outcome of correct family life. God was "obviously" a major advocate for correct family life. Therefore norms that could be connected tenuously to correct family life were unconditionally backed by God's approval. (Items such as the rampant polygamy of Israelite kings and the Apostle Paul's proud singleness were left out or pronounced exceptional.)

And then some ethics pretzels were more abstract, specifically God's behavior. Given that God had explicitly prescribed lots of mandatory animal sacrifices a long time ago, presumably there weren't any less bloody alternatives to enabling God's toleration of human evildoers. Christ was the designated final sacrifice for this purpose. Left to themselves in the afterlife, the souls of human evildoers still couldn't be tolerated by God, so their default fate was God-forsaken and hellish. Human souls could achieve God's toleration of them by reusing Christ's final sacrifice through spiritual union with it. To someone who has been taught it for years, this ethics pretzel has a peculiar self-consistency.

To everyone else, its thinly stretched complexity is much less credible, and its persuasive value was additionally lowered by the endless technical disagreements among Christian subgroups. God's nature somehow demanded ultimate violence in order to dispel its wrath, yet the sole fully sufficient target of that violence was itself. Its expression of mercy was to throw itself in the path of the bullet which it was also firing. It was loving, but it was incapable of forgiveness without venting its aggression too. It didn't wish to cast out humans, but it certainly would if they weren't shielded by Christ.

No matter its baffling pretzel foundation, this juxtaposition was at minimum an undeniably potent instance of carrot-and-stick motivational strategy. A secondary payoff was the momentous emphasis placed on a malleable nebulous goal. Spiritual union with Christ could be precisely defined in a multitude of concrete methods, and followers were inclined to listen to the all-important goal's details ("...earnest faith in Christ means that you'll care about this and act like that...").

Ethics pretzels were baked for topics outside the faith-beliefs as well. Although the Bible was missing lectures from Christ about supply-side macroeconomics, the most Christian economic regime was synonymous with the least amount of oversight and taxes. The regime's ethically superior economy wasn't intelligently designed, but it naturally evolved from the numerous gradual adaptations of selfish participants who competed over finite resources to survive in various niches. This highly moral regime didn't enforce restrictions on ego or greed, and it was intentionally indifferent about its losers or about intangible and/or long-term side-effects.

The roundabout defense for it rested on incredibly naive shallow comparisons such as moral consequences and wealth. Just as each individual's freely chosen virtuous decisions led to a better world, wealth was an indication that an individual had made virtuous decisions in their economic activities. This comparison wasn't groundless, but it had wildly varying amounts of accuracy. In countless situations, an individual's admirable attributes and deeds were in fact partially responsible for their wealth. They wouldn't be as wealthy without their prudence, conscientiousness, flexibility, diligence, considerateness, self-denial. Hence this ethics pretzel curled wealth into a straightforward reward of a market participant's virtue. As a result, aid to the impoverished curled into undeserved rewards for lack of virtue, and taxing the wealthy at a steeper rate curled into a punishing reduction of their well-earned rewards.

Notwithstanding its popularity among the well-off, it was one huge exercise in overgeneralizing. It was grievously incomplete in its willful ignorance of realities that didn't fit its ideal. Counterexamples to it were legion. Wealth was inherited, not only directly but indirectly through miscellaneous advantages. A worker's virtue was irrelevant if they worked in an outdated occupation. For others, a chance opportunity or accidentally perfect timing were part of the start of their success. Some may have worked very hard and consistently...but due to their unsophisticated skills their job had a minuscule wage. Or maybe income was spectacular...on the condition of performing unethical acts to get it, or sabotaging competitors, or conspiring to subjugate the whole market. On the other hand, some may have accumulated sizable wealth...prior to the unpredictable calamity that demolished the bulk of their assets and/or their ability to work. None of these factual scenarios disturbed or complicated the ethics pretzel. Like the rest, a facet of its appeal was that, despite its winding turns, it's a single unbroken line nonetheless. Its form doesn't include nuances such as disparate pieces or layers mixed together. It's sheer elegance in its simplicity.

A telling flaw in this ethics pretzel was its coexistence with innumerable alternate pretzels, in differing places or times, in which Christianity was woven with equal ease to support managed egalitarian economic regimes. As I conceded before, I recognize that I cannot cover the complete set of alternates, such as speedy annihilation of the unsaved dead in place of lasting separation from God. In general, the great pretzel divergence began almost as soon as the religion did.

The shortsighted reactions were councils and creeds, not to mention heresy trials. But forced uniformity defeats the larger aim of an ethics pretzel, which is to redirect the forces that could potentially goad a follower out of the faith-belief. Like an ant crawling on it, the follower's restlessness is absorbed in traversing across it to nowhere new. In that way, it's a teammate of apologetics: more likely to reassure and cement followers than to entice the resistant unconverted. If a wider selection is available for matching the taste of every follower, then they're more likely to remain satisfied. It averts the oft proven danger of broadening the intellect and sensibility of a follower; they may tire of pretzels. ("I'm sick of searching for convoluted pretexts for ethics that seem too narrow now.")

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