Where Does Ethics Come From?

It's become big business to predict the future. Businesses and institutions hire people called "futurists" to tell them what changes to expect in society so that they can plan more effectively.   One of the techniques futurists use is to survey students. After all, today's pupils are tomorrow's professionals. In a survey of college business majors, researchers found that, by a ratio of 2 to 1, students feel businesses are generally unethical. What's more, fully half the students said they themselves expect to engage in unethical behavior in their future careers. What has happened? Why do supposedly idealistic students blandly predict they will do things they know are wrong? It is because modern culture has abandoned more than 20 centuries of Western tradition that there exists a transcendent standard of right and wrong. As Christians we believe human laws must be based on divine law. A standard above our own ideas of right and wrong (that's what's transcendent means). A standard to which we can all appeal, whether princes or paupers, presidents or prisoners. But this isn't just a Christian idea. The philosophers of ancient Greece were not Christian, yet they too saw the need for a standard above society's own rules. The great philosopher Plato insisted that we cannot be good without a timeless ideal of Goodness. Aristotle taught that there is an ethical law based upon universal human nature--what came to be called natural law. All through the history of Western civilization, there has been near-universal agreement, among Christians and non-Christians alike, that human laws and behavior must rest on a transcendent standard of truth. In our own day, this consensus has been abandoned. Contemporary non-Christians no longer hold either Plato's timeless ideals or Aristotle's natural law--let alone divine law. They see human nature as undefined and changing. It is up to each individual to decide who he is and what is right for him. Truth is relative. When the hippies in the 1960s insisted on the freedom to do their own thing, it was the beginning of what I believe was the most profound cultural revolution in our history. When the flower children indulged in cheap drugs and free sex, many of us thought they were simply revelling in old-fashioned immorality. But there was something new here. The hippies were not just violating accepted standards of behavior--they were saying there are no accepted standards of behavior. The idea spread like wildfire. Now, in the 1990s, the flower children have traded their jeans for pinstripes. But though they have left their beads and braids behind, they brought with them the ideas and values of the '60s--especially the idea that there are no accepted standards. What are the results? Well, we shouldn't be surprised when business students say they expect to engage in unethical behavior. The students do not feel obligated by any higher sense of right and wrong. They feel accountable only to their own private conscience --which apparently is not a very strong deterrent to unethical behavior. C.S. Lewis once said that when we mock honor, we shouldn't be surprised to find traitors in our midst. Today it might be said that when we mock transcendent ethics, we shouldn't be surprised to find cheats and frauds in our midst. In my next commentary, I'll describe the way Americans think about ethics now that they've given up the Western ethical tradition. This is the thrid in an 11-part series on Christian Ethics


Chuck Colson



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