Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Question of Who

The critical thing is not one’s moral principles: rules, after all, can be interpreted in endless ways; and it requires an excess of metaphysical optimism to believe that there is only one right course of action and that we’re always able to see it. What matters is the point of view taken up by the moral actor. Theological ethics make sense if we think of ourselves as servants or slaves, i.e. individuals whose task is to understand the orders of their masters and faithfully observe them. Kantian ethics, but also many versions of utilitarianism, are the ethics of free individuals who assume that it is their responsibility to make decisions. That’s why such secular ethical systems so offend the religious: the follower of the categorical imperative is guilty of the sin of pride since he takes up the station of the lawgiver that ought to belong to god alone. The religious also imagine that an ethic of autonomy is an invitation to arbitrary and perhaps murderous freedom, the creed of Columbine. Those who have thoroughly thought through the implications of human liberty will disagree: the recognition of one’s freedom is the coldest of cold baths. The dangerous people are those who attain the authority without accepting what goes with it: as the Greeks knew and every age learns again, a tyrant is a slave with too much power.

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