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Speaking in Public: Resources for Social Ethics
The Right, The Real and The Good
By Ed Knudson
This article discusses conceptual resources for involvement of Christians in public life. It is presented within the context of the teachings of Martin Luther, which are of interest to all Christians and especially those of the Lutheran heritage. These teachings can be very helpful within the political climate of the current moment. The article will discuss three resources from contemporary philosophy which may serve to illuminate how a Lutheran social ethic may be understood today. These resources are presented within the context of classic categories within which ethical philosophy is debated, "The Right", "The Real", and "The Good". The aim is to place these within the context of the practical act of speaking in public, giving voice to the church's concern for social ethics.
Introduction: Fear of Public Speaking
Social ethics has to do with public speech. The language used within debate of public policy issues has become perhaps the single most important ingredient in both the substance and process of public discussion and policy formation. Particularly important is how language is used to collectively depict human beings. Speaking publicly has to do with how we speak about and with one another as persons within a whole variety of communities within the territory of the United States of America and the world.
Human beings want to be "right" in their speech; they want to speak in such a way as to be accepted in the community of those speaking. But the categories and words for thinking and speaking publicly today have become so confusing and uncertain that large numbers of people are withdrawing from the places where public speech occurs. In fact, fear of public speaking is at the top of the list in surveys of what citizens in this country are afraid of.
Fear of being wrong in the public world affects the lives of people, of course. It isolates them and removes them from that which affects their lives. It seems the level of participation in public activities of all types has decreased substantially in the last years. In spite of the fact that more and more people are receiving a higher education, which is supposed to teach skills for critical thought and is focused on faith in the role of the individual to participate in the community, fewer and fewer people seem to actually participate. What is going on?
At a small tavern in the northeast area of Washington D.C. a bartender was once asked what people talked about in his establishment. The answer came in the negative. People did not talk about three things: politics, sex, and "the man." This was a black community. "The man", white males, were viewed as persons in control of the lives of black people. All three of these non-discussed items are related to power; partisan political struggle over the state power, power in sexual relationships, and power in race relations. These items were not discussed because such debate would lead to fights in the tavern. Without a language of empowerment, without words for perception and interpretation of actual public realities, no group experiencing injustice will be capable of the solidarity necessary to enter the arena of public debate and so change the structure of power relations. In this case, central issues of real power over the lives of these folks in Washington D.C. could not be publicly spoken of in the interests of harmony in the local tavern, a place where people go, apparently, to get away from the conflicts of public as well as family life.
Is this not also the case in local congregations? Pastors and members of local churches hesitate to bring up public issues for discussion because there seems no way to speak rightly about them without generating division and conflict within the speech community called "church." What is feared is not only the public speaking itself but the disorder that could be generated within the believing community. There does not seem to be a way to speak that does not cause conflict on the most pressing issues facing the lives of people. This is a very serious problem for the church, a church especially that looks to the bible as a foundation for the faith.
The bible has been referred to as one of the most revered but unread book there is. It is a book of words around which the community of the church gathers. Yet, when lay persons actually sit down to read the bible through, beginning with the Hebrew Bible, they are often astounded to read about all the history and politics, the wars and public debates, of which the bible is filled. The bible has not only to do with the private lives into which so many modern folks have withdrawn, especially as it relates to matters understood to be "religious." The bible is public speech about public events. A social ethic which emphasizes language is bound to be helpful to pastors and congregations in-so-far-as it would increase a capacity to speak publicly.
Confusion over basic terms leaves people without words to serve as the media of talk. Meanings of words change through time. What used to be "liberal" is now "conservative." What once was "conservative" is now "liberal." The classic meanings of these terms are associated with the change from the hierarchical social structures of the Middle Ages to notions of individual freedom in the modern world. A classic Conservative is one who supported the authority of the social structures of church and state over individual decision and behavior. A classic Liberal was one who supported the modern emphasis on individual freedom. However, in today's political context the terms are exactly reversed. A "liberal" is one who supports a stronger role for the state as a collective body; a "conservative" is one who supports a lesser role for government in favor of individual decision-making.
To speak this way, to look at how words change meanings over time, to speak historically, seems to me to be one of the ways we can try to "speak publicly" about the current situation. Without an historical approach, everything gets focused on momentary ideological fads, power blocs are mounted around ideas that come and go, individuals find themselves tossed to and fro with little experience of themselves as consistent personalities, with particular ideas, through time. To continue the above example, actual persons who identify themselves as liberal or conservative may define their understanding of these terms in very different ways. In fact, a voter may choose to vote for a candidate based on his or her conservative principles, only to discover that the candidate in office acts like a liberal. So one is tempted to vote for the liberal in the hopes that the person will turn out to be conservative.
Richard Nixon, for example, was elected based on a platform of opposition to Communism, centralized government, and crime. But he is best remembered as the president who opened up Communist China, who established federal wage and price controls and the Office of Management and Budget to centralize government, and, of course, as the president whose "law and order" attorney general was kicked out of office along with Nixon himself for breaking the law! Policy ideas and actual policy were not at all the same.
This is one of the matters, I believe, that has led to such wide-spread cynicism about politics. It generates tremendous anger within those who otherwise have tried to be responsible in their public life. It denies people the basic tools, words, for adequate public discussion. Two broad groups, then, that could benefit from an ethics that places emphasis on clear public speaking could be those known as "liberal" and "conservative." A third group, growing all the time, are the "independents" who claim to vote "for the person," as if words and ideas don't count, could also be helped by a better and clear language of ethics for public debate. Clear talk about this matter is needed in our day. There is a need to go the root of what basic terms mean. We must find a way to speak rightly about major political groupings today, a way to speak that makes sense, a way to speak that corresponds to the actual conditions within which real people live.
Lutheran tradition points to two places of public speech, each of a different type. There is a public speaking of the gospel of Jesus Christ; the gathering place for that speaking is called the church. There is also a public speaking outside the church. The gathering for this speech is called the state. For Martin Luther, the basis of Christian involvement in the state is not the gospel, nor even the "law" as if there is a natural law on which is founded the power of the state. For Luther, entry into the public speech of the state is through speaking rationally, the speech of "reason."
This seemingly obvious and simple point is, in fact, a major contribution to thought about the process of public policy formation in our current situation. This is because so often people claim that what is right and real and good is the result of forces other than human moral decision, is the result of automatic or natural processes over which human beings have no control. We will speak of this in the below sections.
What Luther meant by speaking publicly was that people charged with responsibility for ordering life in the total community should use their heads. He was hesitant about Christians who claimed to know what was right, on the basis of special revelation, what God intended, for the princes to do. He stated that he would rather be ruled by a wise Turk (enemies of Germany at the time) than a foolish Christian. Luther had a sense of simple justice; he was concerned with the basic stuff people needed to live their lives; he believed anybody using his head would be able to see what simple justice is. So, how do we "use our heads" today? We may begin by viewing three resources for a Lutheran social ethics under the headings: Speaking Rightly, Speaking Realistically, and Speaking of The Good.
I. Speaking Rightly
How to speak rightly today is a topic of major philosophical discussion outside the church. Following Luther's statement about the wise Turk, Lutherans traditionally have been open to the best thought of the times within which they live. It is therefore legitimate for us to look for and listen to persons, inside and outside the church itself, who are trying to figure out what speaking rightly, speaking rationally, means. If fact, it is interesting that this Lutheran focus is, indeed, a major subject of contemporary philosophical discussion. One of the foremost social thinkers alive today who is doing so is a German philosopher, Jurgen Habermas.
Habermas has made an exhaustive study of social thought. He has come to the conclusion that the social behavior of human beings cannot be known any other way than through "speech acts" that meet certain claims to validity. That is, the language used within human communication, acts of speaking, is the only means of knowing what's right about social behavior. Such speech must meet four "validity claims:" 1) Comprehensibility; the language used be able to be understood by the participants in the speech situation. 2)Truth; the language must be able to adequately describe objective, external conditions; conditions external to the speaking subjects. 3) Rightness; the language must be able to express the norms, and/or the symbolic world of the participants. 4) Truthfulness; the speaker's intentions and inner motivations must be consistent with the other claims; sincerity. Speech that meets these validity claims Habermas would call "speaking rightly." To speak rightly in public then, would mean to use language which is:
The work of Habermas can be helpful in trying to determine what it means to speak rationally in public (or private). His validity claims can be put into one's mind as a guide to how to talk with others. But finally this is what in ethical terms is called a "deontological" approach. It is a set of rules for human behavior; follow the rules and everything will be all right. Habermas justifies (Lutherans should note this important word in philosophical ethics) his validity claims by appeal to what he calls the "ideal speech situation." He recognizes that no human speech can ever fully meet all four criteria perfectly. However, given an opportunity, human beings in an ideal speech situation, trying to decide on what the rules should be for how they will talk with one another to determine their life together, would come up with these four rules. Therefore these rules are universally "justified" and should be applied to all people in all situations. Through this justice can be done in speech and in social life, supposedly.
Well, Lutherans have often been suspicious of rule-oriented ethics. Their traditional emphases have been doctrine (Lutheran Orthodoxy) and emotional/behavioral expressivism (Lutheran pietism). All brands of Lutheranism have questioned legalism, rule-based human interaction, as any kind of absolute over human behavior. Luther had to write special treatises on this problem in order to show that Lutherans don't really reject the Ten Commandments. Of course not. But Luther interpreted the commandments through his understanding of the grace of God; the rule as rule is not the power of ethics. Faith is the power of ethics, and not faith in rules. But, as guides to rational speech, to speaking rightly in the public world, we would do well to consider the work of Jurgen Habermas.
We will return to some of the issues this has raised in the last section of this paper. Now, let us turn to a discussion of The Real.
II. Realistic Speaking
To speak rightly is to speak realistically. Realism has been one of the traditional characteristics of the way Lutherans have viewed the world. When somebody has come along with a set of absolute rules that government should implement or some utopian notion of how social perfection can finally be obtained, a Lutheran would characteristically say: "Be realistic." This comes from several doctrinal tendencies within Lutheranism, including its emphasis on justification through faith in the grace of God alone, a rejection of any role for human effort in the work of salvation. Lutherans have had a strong sense of original sin, a condition within which human nature is basically flawed. "Nature", whether human nature, or the nature of the world, are not, for Lutherans, the source of salvation. Salvation is through the Word alone, received through faith alone, without human works. The realism of Lutherans has been due to its emphasis, precisely, on the grace and mercy of God as the source of salvation. To confess Christ is to confess dependence on the mercy of God, to come to the limits of one's self and anything human or natural. It is unrealistic to believe, as many in the modern world do, that human beings have no limits.
Realism has led many Lutherans to be "quietists," to be quiet in the public sphere, not to engage in public speaking. Public involvement is not important, in this view, because nothing good can come of it. As a group, not many Lutherans serve in public office. Within congregations, there is a strong tradition against both forms of "power" in modernism, money and politics. Neither commercialism nor partisan politics are viewed positively in Lutheran churches traditionally. There is a strong tradition against fund-raising events in Lutheran churches, for example. And pastors that speak of politics in the pulpit will raise many eyebrows, not necessarily by the content of what may be said, but the mere fact that such a topic was raised.
Quietism is often simply viewed by Lutheran social ethicists as a problem. But I suggest the quietist tradition in Lutheranism represents a realistic social ethic. Neither commercial nor political institutions are the source of salvation. But quietism teaches Christians to turn inward as if there is nothing to say about the powers and structures of the world. This is, of course, finally unrealistic. It does not correspond either with Martin Luther's own view nor with what faith can be for Lutherans today. Like it or not, Lutherans, like all other Christians, must live within the world some place. Lutherans, in fact, are fully involved in their communities through places of residence, their work, involvement of children in schools. Lutherans shop in stores, go to hospitals, drive on streets, use the telephone, watch television, and all the other dimensions of life in modern society. Lutherans are not an exclusivistic little group banded together against the world.
There once was some of this feeling due to the fairly recent immigration of many Lutherans from European countries, who shared an immigrant consciousness, a feeling of being different from other North Americans, a feeling of not being accepted in the dominant culture and therefore not responsible for it. This history could be helpfully explored in developing a Lutheran social ethic. Such a history would include the many social service agencies and institutions of higher education Lutherans have begun, which continue to this day.
But the time of immigrant consciousness is now passed. Many Lutherans, if not very heavily involved in the partisan political process, are strongly involved with economic institutions in this country and in positions of decision-making responsibility affecting communities and persons in the public world. Lutherans are so well "integrated" into the dominant culture of the day that the question arises of whether there is, indeed, anything distinctive about its approach to social ethics. Does the Lutheran Church have any responsibility to help its members perceive and interpret social conditions from an ethical perspective? It is unrealistic not to think so. If faith means anything it affects how people live in the world. It has in the past and it does today. The church owes to its people greater help in being able to speak rightly about the issues of the day.
To confess Jesus as Lord is to create a distance between one's self and the state. This confession is the first source of a realistic social ethic. Lutherans do not put faith in social utopias, schemes of perfect justice, or systems of knowledge supposedly producing balance and peace. Jesus died on the cross of the state. The resurrection of Jesus first means that the power of the state is not absolute. Think about this for a moment. Too often we think of the cross of Christ as a "spiritual" symbol, separate from politics. The cross was, in fact, the instrument through which the Roman state brought terror into the hearts of oppressed peoples to force them to obey the Roman law and system of taxation. Crucifixions were done in public to demonstrate the power of the state, to show what happens when others challenge the power of Rome. Remember the inscription on the cross, "Jesus, King of the Jews." The resurrection of Jesus Christ first meant in the hearts and minds of the people that the power of Rome was broken. At the end of gospel of Mark this is portrayed, for example, by the confession of the Roman soldier that Jesus was the son of God. There is something greater and more powerful than the power of the state. Confession of Jesus as Lord immediately frees us from thinking of the state as ultimate power.
This basic meaning of the resurrection is missed by modern Christians only because they have tried to pretend that the cross has to do only with private faith not public realities. Modern Christians who see the work of God as having to do only with the internal, psychological life of the person are what we could call "practical atheists;" they share the view of others in the modern world that there is no "divine" power that acts within or among the powers and structures of the world. And this leaves the public world only the power of the state as the central and dominant institution. Indeed, it can be said that the central and dominant role of the state has grown more than ever before in history precisely due to the fact that large numbers of people in western societies believe there is no actual manifestation of God in the powers and structures of the world. Government directs and controls more aspects of people's lives, even their so-called "private" lives, than ever before in history. And this is true in both socialist and capitalist countries. The very words "private" and "public" are tremendously confusing today. To speak rightly about these words is one of the great needs of our time.
Lutherans who keep in mind their own history know that for Martin Luther the cross of Christ was central in his confession of faith. This was not a private experience. Luther became disturbed when he saw how the church of his time used the cross for its own public enrichment, for its glory, for its own power. Luther's confession of Jesus as Lord came in the midst of tremendous public power conflicts between the church and the state. Luther rejected the notion that the church should seek its own glory when Jesus refused to do so. Luther saw that the power of the church was not the same as the power of the state; the power of the church was a power of the Word of God, it was a speaking power, not a power of the sword. The Word of God breaks through the power of the state in the cross and resurrection. Confession of Jesus is a confession with public implications; it is the only true source of freedom for human beings.
With this understanding, Luther was utterly realistic about the powers of the state. He did not look to them as the source of salvation. But it is important to realize that the confession of Christ is not merely an individual, internal, or psychological event. It occurs precisely in the context of the powers of this world. It is in that sense a "political" event, an event with real political implications. The Christian is free from the power of the state (or the church as a human institution) as an absolute or sovereign power. This means the Christian speaks of the state from a certain distance, then, from the state. The Christian is in but not of the state. The Christian looks at the state from a different perspective than any other citizen and therefore has a different basis from which to speak realistically about the state. Speaking realistically is always to speak critically from this perspective. For there is always the tendency of every state to see itself as the absolute, as the Power above all other powers. And this is continues to be true concerning the modern constitutional democracies.
It is very important to ground the realism of Christian social ethics in the confession of Jesus as Lord rather than the doctrine of original sin. That is, the starting point is freedom in Christ, not a negative judgment about the human condition. I say this in terms of how this language is used within doctrinal formulations. On the level of actual experience, human beings realize their need of Jesus precisely because of their "sin." But the language of sin today has almost lost its usefulness because of how the word "sin" is used in conversation. It has become an archaic word. If it is to be used it needs to be rightly defined.
The realism of Lutheran social ethics is often associated with the doctrine of original sin. Because human beings are basically flawed, it is emphasized by some, they cannot create societies of peace and justice. The next logical step is to believe that any effort to create such societies are worthless efforts. The doctrine of original sin today, used by itself, provides absolutely no motivation for involvement in any aspect of life. It is worthless as a doctrine by itself. It is even untrue within the whole context of faith. It represents a kind of psychological depressive attitude toward human life. I hope I am making myself clear about this. The doctrine of original sin is used too often as an excuse for people to do nothing since human effort is worthless.
There is a positive side to this doctrine for a social ethic, however. Original sin can be thought of as a simple description of the way things are. Honest conversation with others soon enough reveals all that is wrong in human relationships. In fact, the biggest concern raised by people about "god" today is why god would allow so much suffering in the world. (The word "god" is not capitalized when it is used to refer to a false concept of god). Lutherans need not be surprised by suffering; they do not expect a perfect world. In this sense, the doctrine of original sin is a source of healthy skepticism about false promises of glory and harmony in the universe. More emphasis on original sin would have been a good thing among Christians in Germany in the 1930's when so many put their faith in the purity of the German nation as a source of glory and power. One of the results of the experience of World Wars I and II in this century, has, indeed, been to point to the continuing presence of sin and evil in the world despite liberal hopes for an enlightened world.
But original sin by itself is only a depressing doctrine. It leads to no energy for faith and life. Luther was able to refer to his sinful self as merely a "worm," but he knew he was a redeemed worm! That is, sin is not the last word about life. The work of Christ is a work of redemption. And it is not only the individual person who is redeemed. The cross and resurrection of Christ redeems the world for the life of the world, redeems the world for the life of the sinner. Without this redemption, of course, there is only sin and depression. But Christ has won the victory! The powers of death, the powers that put Jesus on the cross are broken. Luther says it in his great hymn, A Mighty Fortress, the third verse:
All threatening to devour us,
We tremble not, unmoved we stand;
They cannot over-power us.
This world's prince may rage,
In fierce war engage.
He is doomed to fail;
God's judgment must prevail!
One little word subdues him.
The word "sin" does not appear in Luther's great hymn. The imagery is not of internal sins, but of external powers. For Luther, sin was giving in to the devil. Luther's faith was a public faith, a faith about the public life of the world. The public life of the world is saved by Christ's victory. This opens us to all others in the world. This draws us into the life of the world. Again, the world is saved for our life and the life of our children. To believe this is to be filled with energy to be involved in this public world. Here is the source of energy for social ethics. A focus on original sin, as if that is all there is, creates an untrue impression of the meaning of the Christian faith. The world is redeemed for us, so that we can live in it, so that we can speak rightly within it. One little word from the cross opens us to care for the world God loves and redeems.
The gospel speaking, done rightly within the church, done biblically, leads to care for speaking rightly and realistically within the world. The world is redeemed for our speaking within the world. This is what true evangelism is. It is not verbal manipulation of others, as is the case in so much that goes for conversion today. To be converted actually is to have one's whole view of the world changed; from being a place of sin and death it becomes a place wherein the gifts of God are celebrated and enjoyed and shared among all. To be converted is to change one's way of speaking, for how we speak makes all the difference in the world, wherever in the world we may be.
God speaks the world into existence. "God said, `Let there be light,' and there was light." (Genesis 1:3). The Lutheran heritage teaches that the church exists where the Word is spoken and the sacraments administered. The latter have been called "visible words," since Luther taught that the water, bread, and wine, mean nothing without the Word. The world and the church are created through the "word." This is a very large hint, then, about how God has chosen to work within the world. God has chosen to speak through people. God has chosen us to speak God's word and to speak it rightly. And God has set it up so that if we don't do it won't happen. The world is not redeemed unless we speak it so, out of faith in God's Word. God's call to biblical figures was always a call to speak, as it is to the church today. God puts faith in human beings, believe it not, and not to believe it is to lose ourselves along with the world.
The Word of God is not abstract, general, out of this world. It is a concrete word: Let there be light. It is an "incarnated" word; it occurs within the reality of human life and history. We have received the Word of God in the first four books of the New Testament, for example, as a narrative, as a series of stories about a real life among real people in real places concerning concrete and pressing human concerns and problems. The Word of God is "realistic" in the sense that it has to do with real human, material, physical life. Any speaking that abstracts beyond this world and suggests some separate "religious" dimension, any speaking that leads people to reject the world God created and redeemed, any speaking that avoids the realities of life, is not speaking rightly according to how the word is spoken in the scriptures. Speaking rightly is speaking concerning social ethics, concerning real life issues and problems that human beings face in their current experience. It is not just speaking of general trends but the real life of persons in towns and villages. Jesus did not come as a ruler, as a rich man, as a government official. He came as a carpenter; he wandered among towns; he spoke to folks he ran into. Jesus lived a very real life.
Within the academic discipline of history, in recent years, there has developed a new emphasis on "social history." That is, rather than just write of the large events, the great figures, the big wars, the over-all forces affecting societies, more historians are writing about the life of common people, what they thought, how they coped with problems. This emphasis in history is more like what we have in the bible. It is not the record of the large important empires of the ancient world; it is the view of life from the perspective of a little nation that emerged from a band of slaves in Egypt. And God chose a carpenter's son through whom to look with human eyes upon the world. It is very important, as we try to understand the bible, to realize from whose perspective it is written. It is written from the perspective of the "underside" of history, to put it plainly. The bible will not be understandable if one does not have some experience with this underside of history; that is why the rich and powerful in every age, or those who identify with or want to be like the rich and powerful, have had trouble understanding the bible. It doesn't make sense to them. It doesn't make sense to think of a common criminal as if he were a King of kings and Lord of lords.
To speak realistically is to speak from this underside of history; this is the position from which God has chosen to reveal God's self, strange as it seems to many. This is the place of realism. It is from this perspective that we can see what is actually occurring. People at other social levels tend to fill their minds with illusions, live by false philosophies; they use their minds and hearts to justify themselves and claim power over others. They even invent religions, or use religious terminology, to justify their position over others. But the speaking rightly of the bible is a speaking realistically from the underside of history.
One historian and philosopher who has done just that is Michel Foucault (died 1984). He himself does not write from an explicitly "Christian" perspective at all. He has been interested in how the modern human sciences have developed. As he studied this history he explored what it meant to be the ones defined as "under" these sciences, the patient, the mentally ill, the criminal, the citizen of the modern state. He has tried to write history from the perspective of those who have been excluded from that history. Since the Enlightenment human beings have placed faith in human rationality and rewarded most those who are rationally able. In order to demonstrate to itself that reason is most important, modern society invented the concept of the insane, the irrational, and began to place the insane in special institutions, the insane asylum, to exclude them from the society. Those able to make the judgment between sane and insane became the health professionals, who became more and more recognized through court proceedings as the "experts" about the human condition, and given power within social relations. So the dominant power in today's society Foucault calls "knowledge/power", or later "bio-power", the power of professionals over others justified by their knowledge. "The doctor knows best." Foucault's writings are worthwhile to Christians in that he demystifies the authority that modern professionals claim for themselves. I think there is something here which is realistic about human endeavor, a speaking realistically about current authorities and powers, which can received by a Lutheran social ethics.
Classic liberal thought presents the world as a neutral field which can simply be known through the application of reason to human affairs. There is a strong confidence in reason's capacities to "know" the world and dominate it by technology. But classic liberal thought is now under severe review from many quarters, as well as from within itself. Foucault is just one of those philosophers placed in what is called the "postmodern" school of thought who are questioning whether it is so easily possible for human beings to "know" reality. Foucault's thought returns to a conceptual framework of "powers". He is often criticized for this among contemporary philosophers, but the idea of the world being a field of reality within which there is a contest going on among opposing powers is an idea not foreign to Martin Luther, as we have seen. Foucault is criticized for not providing any value framework by which this or that power he examines may be identified as "good" or "bad". But he does present a view of what he calls the "specific intellectual." The professional intellectual (philosophers, etc.) may not be able to speak in terms of universal realities, of universal truth, but they are able to bring their talents of observation and analysis to specific peoples in specific circumstances. So he offered his talents to people in prison in France, for example. People of faith can learn from this, it seems, in their effort to follow Jesus' command to care for the imprisoned. Foucault believes "reason" should be used in specific cases to accomplish justice, though he did not elaborate on the nature of justice.
Foucault is a secular philosopher, then, who may be able to assist in the building of a realistic social ethic for Lutherans today, as we try to "speak realistically" into the current public context.
III. Speaking of the Good
In ethics the most common categories are "The Right" and "The Good." The Right refers to moral behavior based on rules or law which have been determined in the past. The Good refers to the consequences of one's action in the future. The Right is a past orientation; The Good is a future orientation.
Usually, when philosophers refer to The Good they have in mind an ethical theory called Utilitarianism which has had strong influence in modern thinking, and is often the source of what is called the liberal ethic today. It assumes that human beings can adequately weigh the consequences of their actions in the future and act in the present to bring about the most "utility" defined mostly in terms of human happiness. It is, perhaps, the most common ethical theory utilized in corporate and government planning processes. It relies on calculations, calculations of costs, of benefits. But utilitarianism has fallen out of favor among philosophers in more recent years because of the uncertainty involved in trying to calculate consequences in increasingly complex societies, and because the values to be calculated, such as the abstract concept of happiness, are variable depending on the beliefs of different social groupings.
I agree with this criticism of utilitarianism and yet believe that one aspect of it merits further consideration, that is its orientation to the The Good in the future. Human beings may not be able to calculate the future with precision, but they are able to act out of hope for a new situation in the future. That hope, I believe, is a key factor in ethics, including a Lutheran social ethic. The Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten has spoken of eschatology and ethics in one of his books. Two contemporary German theologians speak of ethics arising out of an orientation to the future. For Jurgen Moltmann, Christians act based on their hope for that which God has promised from the future. In a sense, one can speak of this as living in the power of God's promise for future fulfillment, which reaches back from the future into the present, to "pull" us, so to speak, into a future other than that determined from the past. The future is filled with new possibility. I believe Martin Luther lived with a very real sense of this; he believed that the end of the world as he knew it was coming soon. This understanding of ethics, that the future can be different from the past through hopeful actions, is an important resource for Lutheran social ethics today.
I think it is especially important to contrast that hope with the sort of narrow deontological legalism that tends to arise from a focus on ethics of The Right, especially when The Right is interpreted in narrow terms of nature or biology. That is, in many ethical debates today, appeal is made to "natural law" which God has implanted in every human being to some degree. The idea is associated with "nature", that God commands obedience to certain laws as revealed absolutely within natural processes. Now, nature is a gift of God, but it is quite another thing to believe that natural processes constitute God's perfect law. This is actually the old liberal concept of nature, incarnated within constitutional processes of western democracies. It is an important aspect of civil life, and Christians should understand it, though questioned many philosophers today. But for Lutherans it is not the basis for determining moral behavior. Luther was hesitant about natural law. As indicated above, Luther believed all human beings are given the gift of reason, but it is not just a rational calculation of consequences nor a mere discovery of laws of nature, or absolute necessity, but that natural reason could aid the human being in acting morally on behalf of the neighbor, to do what was good for the neighbor. These different uses of reason are important to distinguish in moral theory.
It is furthermore very important for Lutherans to recognize that the bible is not an ethical rule book. Rather, the bible is the source of the gospel of God's saving grace; receiving that grace, the Christian is free to act as he or she sees is best for the neighbor. Each person stands responsible before God for his or her actions, finally. One cannot claim to know the absolute truth according to natural or biblical or positive (governmental) law. Positive law exists simply to keep some order, to keep humans from killing one another, and is not a source of salvation in any way; it is based on the "sword", on violence. Law for Luther was not lifted up in the grand way it has been in western constitutional history, of course. Christians will hesitate to expect from positive law more than it can deliver. Both contemporary concepts of natural and positive law face the problem that they are not open to what is new from the future. Exactly what is needed today, in my own thought, is an orientation to the future that is not the same as the idea of liberal progress, based on human ingenuity, but based on God's promises. It is those promises that open a vision of the future of the world as a place of freedom and justice for all. Such envisioning capacity, such imagination, is a gift of God and a key resource for Lutheran social ethics in public life today.
First draft: 1988
Second draft: 4/96
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