Are ethics natural to us?
Are ethics intrinsic or imbibed?
Realized or revealed?
Natured or nurtured?
I believe that there are natural, rational reasons to avoid wrong and to do what is right… mostly. I believe that we do have an innate sense of ‘ought,’ even while we deny doing what we ought much of the time. There is a natural law… or a guiding code of ethics which God has instilled into the very being of men. This is why sociopaths and psychopaths, why depression and suicidal individuals are considered ill—they are behaving against the natural order of life and living. And yet, I believe there are primarily two ‘ethical standards’ that are unnatural to fallen man. (There may be more, but I’m still developing this line of reasoning.)
Before the two unnatural ethics… let’s take the most well-known code of ethical conduct: the Ten Commandments (Decalogue).
Commandment 10: You shall not covet.
Envy is an undesirable quality in those we befriend; interacting with someone who is jealous for your assets is exhausting. Even our own desires are checked by the recognition that we ought not desire and feel entitled to things we have not. Consider such proverbs as “The grass is always greener on the other side” or “Be thankful for what you have.”
Coveting will make you dissatisfied with life; it will suck the joy and peace out of you, causing you to live a life of regret, unfulfillment, and bitterness. Psychiatrists warn about this frequently.
Commandment 9: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
Deceit and insidious testimony is likewise unenjoyable in a friend; since when has Benedict Arnold been treated as a complimentary nickname? True, there have been cultures when sly betrayal is looked at with honor, but even such instances had bounds. And our consciences bear witness that we are to behave with integrity toward our covenanted friendships: “BFFs”; “I got your back.”
But if you bring yourself to betray your friend with false witness and deceit, you will no longer have that friend. And you will likely not have the friends with whom he was connected. The rumor weed gets plucked; the little birdy gets shot. Gossip and falsehood may be fun or empower you for a moment, but eventually you will be alone in the world.
Commandment 8: You shall not steal.
This one seems to be like #10 acted out (given that some believe #10 is actually a summary of all of them), and as such seems obvious: don’t steal… you wouldn’t want your things being taken by another. Don’t take somebody else’s things. Even writing that sentence feels clunky and pointless… and yet thieving is common: but with each illegitimate gain comes a sense of shame.
Stealing brings threat of imprisonment and punitive retribution whether from a legal system or from the affected party. The more you steal, the more likely you are to get caught, and the more you steal, the more obvious it becomes to those around you with a similar paygrade who cannot accumulate the wealth you have. Can you imagine a world in which everything you own was stolen from another—never having the satisfaction of a wage or payoff?
Commandment 7: You shall not commit adultery.
Where to go with this commandment? It’s easy to play the ‘imagine’ game with this one. We could discuss how it’s a direct jettison of covenant vows. We could discuss how much you attempt to keep the act secret because it’s shameful, you know it’s wrong, and you don’t want to deal with the repercussions.
Committing adultery causes distanciation in marriage, lack of intimacy, mistrust, distrust, anger, self-hatred, broken families, fatherless/motherless children, broken property, thousands in court costs. There is absolutely nothing good which comes from adultery.
Commandment 6: You shall not murder.
Life is sacred, and everybody knows this to an extent… particularly those in a Western world influenced by the Bible. Remember again that suicidal thoughts are treated as an illness. Or simply consider the many school and public shootings that shock and shatter the world. Murder is evil.
If you do murder, you will be imprisoned. You will serve a life sentence or be executed. You will be reviled by countless people whom you have never met; but who associate your name with hell itself. A choice to murder is the end of your life as you know it. “Live, laugh, love.”
Commandment 5: Honor your father and mother.
While you are young, your parents are the source of income, food, and everything else you need to survive. You ought to respect them. The Ten Commandments were primarily given to adults, though, and even adult children should honor their parents. Most simply it is an appropriate response for their previous care of you. In the Hebrew culture, age is determinant of influence and honor: disregarding your parents would be to incite the wrath of the community. In our modern day, youth is king, but we can easily assent to the idea of honoring parents. Very simply: if you respect your parents even in your adult years, it will go well with you: simply turn on a sit-com to see this played out.
Some common parental proverbs: “Because I said so”; “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out.”
Now this is where things become difficult. In the Ancient Near East, recognizing a Sabbath day made no sense. That is commandment 4. Today we say, “everybody needs rest.” But is that what Exodus 20 is saying? Probably not. So how do I reconcile this commandment with my prior statement that there are primarily two ethical codes which are unnatural? The easy way is to say Sabbath is not a matter of ethics. But I don’t think that’s true. The second is to say that Sabbath is one of the two, but (perhaps simply for arrogance’ sake) I don’t want to do that. I believe that Commandment 4 fits into a larger ethical code: Commandment 1: “I am YHWH your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” In fact, the first four commandments are all tied together under proper covenant worship of YHWH. And sure, you can say that number 3 (name of God in vain) makes sense as long as you recognize deity, but then such is the case with all four.
Worshiping YHWH and loving him alone is unnatural to man. Is it rational… is there a sense in which it is natural to man’s being? Yes, I believe so. Hence Augustine’s “Know thyself,” etc. and even Descartes’ unconvincing cogito ergo sum with its conclusion of divine existence. And yet! At the same time it is most unnatural. We cannot bring ourselves to worship the one and only supreme God simply by means of considering what is natural to us and our desires. Did philosopher reason unto a singular being? Yes. But did they do so by what examining what is natural to us? I’m willing to be educated, but I think they did not.
Are ethics natural? Kind of… we can reason to them, and yet they do not naturally flow into our daily actions. Covet… that might as well be our surname. But even more than this… it is unnatural to love God. We are by nature haters of God. The love of God as ethical compulsion must be revealed to us. That’s why God speaks with redemptive-history as the backdrop: “I am YHWH your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”
So what’s the other unnatural ethic?
There is no rational reason, logical explanation, pragmatic payoff, or anything of the like which demands that we forgive. Justice would caution and advise against it. Would we want others to forgive us? Sure, but beyond that we have no human urge toward forgiving others: it is unnatural to the natural man. But it is the primary ethical command of those who worship the Triune God who has loved us in Christ.