An Ethic for the 21st Century

The opening plenary talk at the 1997 UK conference was given by Daphne Hampson, author of After Christianity. Ms Hampson is Senior Lecturer in Divinity at the University of St. Andrews.

Among the questions following her talk was one asking Daphne Hampson how she described her own religious identity. She replied:

I am a Western person, living in a post-Christian age, who has taken something with me from Christian thinkers, but who has rejected the Christian myth. Indeed I want to go a lot further than that. The myth is not neutral; it is highly dangerous. It is a brilliant, subtle, elaborate, male cultural projection, calculated to legitimise a patriarchal world and to enable men to find their way within it. We need to see it for what it is. But for myself I am a spiritual person, not an atheist. I am amazed at this "other dimension of reality" in which there is; which allows healing, extra-sensory perception, and things to fall into place. I am quite clear there is an underlying goodness, beauty and order; that it is powerful, such that we can draw on it, while we are inter-related with it. I call that "God".

For the first time for two and a half millennia, since Aristotle and before, ethics in the twenty-first century will be created by two kinds of people. It will be a revolution. Presumably we shall no longer have an ethic of paternalism, which implies the subordination of some to others. It is interesting how the word "condescension" has changed in connotation (from descending to be with others to its present meaning, paternalism). An ethic of "condescension" is closely bound to the paradigms of Christian theology, whereby God who is good and "above" humanity, condescends to be with humanity. It is not surprising then that my dictionary tells me that the origin of the word is fourteenth century church Latin. Moreover it may well be that women will have a different concept of ethics.

As we see, ethics is culturally specific. An ethic reflects and in turn shapes the society in which it exists. But from the fact that ethics is culturally specific it does not follow—as some seem to assume—that every ethic is equally good. Nazi Germany had an ethic, an ethic of racial purity and the Herrenrasse (master race), by which people were inspired. We do have some criteria by which we can judge an ethic and we must do so. Since the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century we have come to hold that all persons are created equal, irrespective of gender or race, and that is something on which we cannot go back.

In this talk I want to do three things. Firstly I shall speak about the ethics which arose in early modern Europe, of which we are all the inheritors. Secondly I shall consider the way in which feminist theorists have modified that ethic; standing on its shoulders perhaps and taking some things forward, but also having very different emphases. Thirdly—since this is a theological conference—I shall turn to the relationship of ethics to spirituality. I use the word "ethic" here in the broadest sense for the ethos of a society, its structure and political system, as well as for ethics in a narrower sense.

The ethic of early modern Europe, which arose in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was bourgeois, male, and individualistic. A feudalistic and structured society in which everyone had their allotted place was breaking up. It was an ethic which was part and parcel of the rise of parliamentary democracy, and later the beginnings of industrialisation and capitalism. If we look at such writers as Locke or Rousseau, or indeed Hobbes and Hume, what they are concerned about is rights, duties and obligations. There is an extraordinary concern with property and with the boundaries between people—such that people shall not encroach on one another's property. It is propertied males who have these rights and indeed it was they alone in the first place who could vote. When Olympe de Gouges tried to suggest that the "rights of man" also included women she lost her head to the guillotine.

The property of males came even before the right of women to protect their own bodies. If the master of the household got the servant girl pregnant, she would be quietly put away—not uncommonly having to join the local brothel in order to keep alive. It is only in this day and age that we have begun to legislate such that rape within marriage is called "rape". Again, only in our generation has the extent of incest within families (which must always have been there) been uncovered. In such a world woman has largely fallen outside the ethical. Women have been expected to hold certain qualities for the whole of humanity, such as meekness, humility and love, while they have not had rights. Thus Reinhold Niebuhr—perhaps the greatest Christian ethicist of this century—contrasts the public world, in which the most that can be hoped for is justice, and the private world of the family in which something higher, love, should reign. Love, he says, is the calling of martyrs and mothers. Women have been thrown the sop of representing something "higher" while they have lacked basic justice. What we need is more "rights" in the private world, so that there is a fair distribution of tasks and money and the police can prevent a woman from being abused, and more love in the public world. Feminism might well be said to consist in the overcoming of the male idea of "complementarity", whereby woman is "complementary" to man—notice it is always that way around! It is not that woman should hold certain virtues for the whole of humanity. Each person should become most fully themselves. No feminist worth her salt advocates a view of men and women as "complementary".

The ethic of modernity has been abstract and individualistic. Take Kant, who more than any other exemplifies modern ethics. If you want to know what is the right thing to do you consider, in a wholly abstract way, "what if everybody were to do that which I am envisaging?" Only then do you apply what you have decided to the particular case at hand. John Rawls, the most eminent Kantian today, advocates a "substitutionalist" ethic in which issues are decided under a "veil of ignorance", not knowing which person occupies which place within a given scenario. Again the social ethos is profoundly individualistic. It is taken for granted that issues are decided by voting. Each person is a unit. The ethical agent is assumed to be white, able-bodied and male. The public world is based on an assumed likeness: it is a fraternity. A man who is gay should hide this in public.

Feminist theory is advocating a different concept of the self—no less than that. The self is seen as "centred-in-relation". That is to say, we must come "to" ourselves, we must be "centred" in ourselves. But we only come to ourselves through our relations with other people; while it is the person who is "centred" who can be truly available to others. In a well-known book which has been enormously influential, In a Different Voice, Carol Gilligan shows that girls and women tend to think about ethical problems contextually, considering how something will affect everyone involved, including themselves. The study started through the discovery that women and girls scored very low on a scale which represented what I have called a Kantian ethic, whereby the more ethically mature you are the more abstractly you think. Again, note the work of Iris Murdoch (who would not call herself a feminist) and more recently Martha Nussbaum on the notion of attention, or attending. Nussbaum writes that "our highest and our hardest task is to make ourselves persons on whom nothing is lost."

This kind of an ethic and a politics founded on it will involve certain practices which have not been cultivated in a male world. If at the end of the day you are just going to vote against someone, you do not need to really listen to where they are coming from or why they think as they do. The result may be that there is a permanent minority, while the matter may weigh more heavily with those who are the minority. If on the other hand you are working with consensus decision-making, that requires certain virtues. You must be open to the idea that a way forward will be found which is not that which anyone had advocated in the first place. Things which men have found trivial become important, such as that everyone should find voice. Such an ethic requires listening. It involves honesty; stating your position exactly and not distorting what others say. It requires compassion: in the first place I had written "consideration" of other people and then I realised how close these two notions are. All these practices necessitate taking time.

Is such an ethic closer to Aristotle than to that which arose in early modern Europe? An ethic of attention is often called a "virtue" ethic, for the character of the individual agent is involved—unlike in a Kantian ethic, in which the person that you are is irrelevant as long as you conform to the external moral law. On the other hand, if we should pursue a virtue ethic, we can in no way return to the organic society in which everyone has their "place" which Aristotle presupposed. We live the other side of the Enlightenment and must necessarily speak of the rights of individuals. Indeed, first generation feminists worked in the first instance for women to be able to join the male public world. Women chained themselves to railings to get the vote. One must reject the suggestion that we should return to a more conservative type of "virtue ethics".

Does a feminist ethic involve a non-Christian view of the person? In some ways it is very different from what has often been a Christian ethic. It is not an ethic of condescension, in which one should sacrifice self and serve others. Notice when the concept of "kenosis" (following Philippians 2, in which it is said that "Christ emptied himself") had its heyday: among highly privileged Anglican bishops at the end of the Victorian era—the men who (rightly) built settlements in the East End of London. Such an ethic is not appropriate to women, who do not need self-abnegation, but self-affirmation. Again, a Christian ethic tends to be an ethic of extremes: God is wholly good, while we are sinners. "Love so amazing, so divine, demands my life, my soul, my all". I do not think that particularly helpful. With Aristotle, the right thing to do is often the mean. Perhaps we should say that Christianity gave us the concept of love of neighbour. But it has been Ancient Greece, the Enlightenment and the secular twentieth century which have advanced human rights, while ages steeped in Christianity have often induced conformity and known persecution.

Spirituality presupposes ethics. Being a spiritual person requires in the first place ethical practices such as those I have mentioned. How can one be receptive to that dimension of reality which is God if one is not attentive to one's neighbour? If we are to be spiritual persons we must be centred in ourselves, while standing in relation to others. Indeed one notices this to be true of spiritual persons in different traditions as also for example of healers. We need to become integrated, to appropriate ourselves and to flourish. By definition, therefore, we do not need to be centred on a God "out there". Rather should we find God among and between us: God is that which is immediately present to us, onto which we open out. We may have named God inappropriately, but human beings have always been aware of that dimension of reality which is God.

The kind of ethics and of spirituality which people are forming for the twenty-first century are of just this nature. People are thinking contextually. They are interested in environmental issues. They want to honour people, for example in relation to their sexuality. Many appreciate an Eastern spirituality, which again involves being aware, attentive, and taking time each day. Others draw, selectively, on a Western tradition, while changing radically our understanding of God. Ethics and spirituality have sometimes been divorced. People have believed a whole set of propositions and at the same time behaved appallingly. If we have let that myth go and religion has become more interior, then our spirituality will of necessity become much more integrated with our ethics.

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