Advancing Toward the Moral Brink

Some social theorists say that in the modern world’s pursuit of hedonism, it has replaced God with science.

What a world! The phrase 21st century is already a yawn, perhaps because all the hype has dulled our senses. Yet at the same time, we feel bewildered and bamboozled by the sheer speed, volume and implications of societal and scientific change.

How can we manage to take it all in or make sense of where it’s taking us? Will we be able to keep our balance—or even rediscover our bearings? Perhaps we sometimes yearn for some kind of personal compass—something secure, accurate and trustworthy that we could rely on in a sea of change.

In particular, the accelerating pace of scientific advances is creating moral dilemmas where potentially immense and far-reaching ethical decisions are required to be made against the blur of warp-speed change. We are forced to contemplate issues that previous generations neither conceived of nor could imagine.

Take, for instance, the recent news that the DNA of a Danish woman—taken from a blood sample she gave in the 1980s—has been introduced into thousands of New Zealand sheep, without her knowledge, by the same British firm that genetically engineered Dolly the sheep. The company says it intends to extract a protein from the genetically modified milk of these sheep—a protein that it claims might help cure diseases such as cystic fibrosis.

Then there’s the even more recent news of an American couple who used advanced fertility technology to select a fertilized ovum in order to produce a boy. Not just any boy, but one who was genetically ideal to be a bone marrow donor to his older sister, who would otherwise die.

The deep ethical considerations in situations such as these are commensurate with the immense biological and medical implications. With the fast-accelerating pace and scope of such efforts to cure diseases and extend longevity—and, it has to be said, to increase profits—the particular ethical paradox of eugenics rears its head (or should we say heads?).

In the name of science, we have reinvented human sacrifice.”

Daniel Johnson, “Whispers of Immortality,” Daily Telegraph, April 8, 2000

How do we handle, for instance, the increasingly sharply focused moral dilemma of whether to abort fetuses that we know will become disabled children or that may not possess the desired qualities—such as the “right” sex or intelligence potential? How do we deal with the fact that experiments on human embryos are required for science and medicine to advance in the field of eugenics? Or that cloned embryos will be required for the human spare-parts industry? “In the name of science, we have reinvented human sacrifice,” proclaims journalist Daniel Johnson. “The sirens of science are usurping the role of priests, dulling our moral sensibilities with the bewitching illusion of immortality,” he says (“Whispers of Immortality,” London Daily Telegraph, April 8, 2000).

This ethical dilemma is heightened by Western society’s moral ambivalence and degradation of traditional and spiritual values. Never before have we so sorely needed a firm moral and spiritual basis by which to make sense of the pace and direction of science. Yet Western culture—especially our political, religious and commercial leadership—is, as a whole, utterly incapable of providing such direction or guidance.

We find ourselves groping in an unfamiliar, fast-changing spiritual wilderness, trying to pin down this elusive issue of ethics, figuratively even debating which way is up. At a time of immense scientific and medical progress, it is ironic that we are perhaps less morally equipped as a society to deal with the issues than at any time in our recent history.

A New Atlantis?

British philosopher Anthony O’Hear, professor of philosophy at the University of Bradford and director of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, believes—in spite of the advances in science and democratic politics over the last three centuries—that our moral losses far outweigh our gains.

Part of the problem is that we have increasingly equated enlightenment with scientific advancement. This has led to a smug belief that the stances we take on moral issues—often very different and even opposed to those of our predecessors—represent real social or moral progress. Those who beg to differ are labeled as Victorian, repressive or discriminatory—and certainly not politically correct.

We have increasingly equated enlightenment with scientific advancement. 

Yet O’Hear attacks the selectivity of “scientific rationality.” The traditional voices that once would have been heeded above the daily fray of business and science—such as those of religious and national leaders—have fallen virtually silent. When they do speak out strongly on moral issues, they are often ignored or ridiculed. Other, more secular voices have taken their place.

O’Hear considers that the utopian vision (or nightmare) of English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561–1626) is upon us. In his 1999 book, After Progress: Finding the Old Way Forward (Bloomsbury Publishing, London), he writes, “In The New Atlantis, the scientists are in effect the rulers. They decide what of their discoveries shall be communicated to the public at large. It is their discoveries that determine what will count as the relief of man’s estate, and what shall be done. Through what they discover we can do, they define the direction of society and human life. It is on their foundations that the reconstruction of science, the arts and humanity itself is based. And this is to be done in conscious rejection of ancient wisdom and prejudice, a state of affairs close to realization in 1999. In 1999 scientific developments, particularly in the fields of genetics and medicine, are laying to waste ancient conceptions of the sacredness of life. . . . Science is pushing the development of our systems of value, and not vice versa. At a deep level, science is not value-free, but itself determines the erosion of value, by what it makes possible and by what it seems to be telling us about ourselves” (pp. 10–11).

At a deep level, science is not value-free, but itself determines the erosion of value.”

Anthony O’Hear, After Progress: Finding the Old Way Forward

O’Hear goes on to burst the bubble of the myth of scientific detachment. “We will see over and over again the way scientific developments and theories have affected our most precious insights and beliefs,” he remarks. “Science does not and cannot leave everything else as it is. In its very pretension to complete unprejudiced objectivity, it dismisses everything that does not fit into its framework as mere superstition. It is here that, if we have a care for the human world, we must begin to resist the imperialism of science, its claim to be able to tell us everything about the world and what we are” (p. 12).

Yet our Western economic system and tradition have also let us down. The flaws have been exposed in the glaring and merciless light of the Enlightenment, of rationalism and of humanism. We cannot pretend that at some vague time in the past, all was well.

Seize the Day

Daniel Bell, who coined the expression “post-industrial society,” points out the ironic moral self-destruction inherent within the dog-eat-dog, competitive system we call capitalism. In an updated edition of his 1973 book, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (Basic Books, New York, 1999), Bell asserts: “Technical mastery [in the Industrial Revolution] was . . . fused with a character structure which accepted the idea of delayed gratification, of compulsive dedication to work, of frugality and sobriety, and which was sanctioned by moral service to God and the proof of self-worth through the idea of respectability.”

He continues, “Ironically, all this was undermined by capitalism itself. Through mass production and mass consumption, it destroyed the Protestant ethic by zealously promoting a hedonistic way of life. By the middle of the twentieth century capitalism sought to justify itself not by work or property, but by the status badges of material possessions and by the promotion of pleasure. The rising standards of living and the relaxation of morals became ends in themselves as the definition of personal freedom.

The result has been a disjunction within the social structure itself. In the organization of production and work, the system demands provident behavior, industriousness and self-control, dedication to a career and success. In the realm of consumption, it fosters the attitude of carpe diem, prodigality and display, and the compulsive search for play. But in both realms the system is completely mundane, for any transcendent ethic has vanished” (pp. 477–478).

Bell goes on to incisively nail the dilemma of the leaders of our liberal society, including those in such fields as government and religion. He persuasively explains why they cannot resist ever more extreme and unrestrained demands “to take the creed of personal freedom, extreme experience, and sexual experimentation into areas where the liberal culture—which would accept such ideas in art and imagination—is not prepared to go. Yet the liberal culture finds itself at a loss to explain its reticence. It approves a basic permissiveness, but cannot with any certainty define the bounds. And it leaves the moral order in a state of confusion and disarray. . . . The value system of capitalism repeats the old pieties, but these are now hollow because they contradict the reality, the hedonistic life-styles promoted by the system itself” (pp. 479–480).

Ethics After Certainty

Charles Handy, British management guru turned writer and philosopher, also laments the morally derelict landscape. He quotes from distinguished philosopher Zygmunt Bauman’s essay “Alone Again: Ethics After Certainty”: “In such a world, it is wise and prudent not to make long-term plans or invest in the distant future; not to get tied down too firmly to any particular place, group or cause, even to an image of oneself, because one might find oneself not just un-anchored and drifting but without an anchor altogether.”

In his own book on the subject, titled The Hungry Spirit (Arrow Books, London, 1998), Handy comments on Bauman’s assessment: “We now belong to, or are committed to, nothing besides ourselves. Even the family can often turn out to be a relationship of convenience, to be discontinued if it doesn’t suit” (pp. 71–72).

We now belong to, or are committed to, nothing besides ourselves.”

Charles Handy, The Hungry Spirit

Handy continues, “Without some commonly accepted agreement on the purpose of life, and on the proper balance between what we can expect and what is expected from us, society becomes a battleground. . . . There is, I believe, a hunger for something else which might be more enduring and more worthwhile” (p. 73). Yet Handy—in humanist vein—balks at the idea of absolute values. Earlier in his book, he states that we must make up our own minds: “Our hearts revolt at the thought that our purposes should be so preordained in one way or another,” he says.

Here we bump up against an inherent contradiction within humanistic and atheistic thought. Can we really come to “some commonly accepted agreement” while maintaining that we must make up our own minds?

Bell is far more sharply focused in his analysis. The lack of an underpinning moral belief system is the greatest survival issue for society, he says. “The historic justifications of bourgeois society—in the realms of religion and character—are gone. . . . Yet one of the deepest human impulses is to sanctify their institutions and beliefs in order to find a meaningful purpose in their lives and to deny the meaninglessness of death. . . . The lack of a rooted moral belief system is the cultural contradiction of the society, the deepest challenge to its survival” (Post-Industrial Society, p. 480).

Twin Masters

Handy, on the other hand, is much occupied by the notion that we are basically decent people who can find the fix by ourselves. “The argument of this book,” he states, “is that, in our hearts, we would all like to find a purpose bigger than ourselves because that will raise us to heights we had not dreamt of. . . . No laws can make this happen, only a release of the human spirit, which I suspect is hungry for it” (Hungry Spirit, p. 9).

O’Hear is rather more searching and pessimistic. Tracing the nemesis of the Enlightenment ideology (which, he says, was “ineluctably materialistic, atheistic and scientific”) he comments: “For all the talk of fraternity, brotherhood and harmony, morality can hardly survive once it is accepted that pleasure and pain are the only determinants of human activity” (After Progress, p. 23).

Here O’Hear hits a very big and protruding moral nail squarely on the head. The elimination of pain and the pursuit of pleasure have become the all-consuming pursuit—and perceived right—of modern man. All else is secondary. And with the perpetuation, extension and enhancement of this physical life as the primary philosophical motivators and drivers of Western values, we are in very deep spiritual trouble.

As a result of the “philosophy” of the elimination of pain and the pursuit of pleasure, O’Hear predicts compulsory euthanasia and embryo nurseries for spare parts. “When guided by utilitarian considerations, the extension of the political into areas such as health, education and welfare is bound to militate against intimations of the sacred,” he says (p. 60). Even more scarily, he remarks that “as a culture, we love the old gods no more. We have no comparable vision or hope. Science has destroyed these edifying and elevating beliefs. . . . We see ourselves as living under the dominion of nothing more exalted than [the] twin masters of pleasure and pain. Under this conception of human nature there is no bar on anything science might do to further pleasure and reduce pain, whatever the cost in terms of human dignity or of the sacredness of human life” (p. 228).

Chilling words—and a sobering warning. The irony here is powerful. By valuing the preservation and enhancement of our own lives above all moral considerations, we actually end up desecrating the very sanctity of life—particularly when that life belongs to one who is less equipped to survive than we are—or, like a human embryo or fetus, is unable to defend itself.

O’Hear again: “[Edmund] Burke was right to insist that neither a democratic majority nor the best of constitutions is any guarantee of rights or liberties. . . . What we need in men is some sense of right and wrong that is prior to agreements, votes, or conventions, and which, in the view of Burke and [Joseph] de Maistre [18th-century philosophers], can come only from God.” He continues, reflecting de Maistre’s viewpoint, “It is only God’s law and our obedience to it that can lift us out of anarchy into a tolerable social existence” (p. 43).

No Space for Walls

It is ironic that an amoral society—bent on nothing more exalted than the physical perpetuation of life, the pursuit of pleasure and the elimination of pain—is actually moving toward the ultimate cheapening of human life through scientific advances, untrammeled by moral restraints.

Are we falling into the same trap that the apostle Paul warned of two millennia ago? “Because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools. . . . And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting” (Romans 1:21–22, 28).

Judge Robert H. Bork, former solicitor general with the U.S. Department of Justice and a 1987 nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, points out the modern parallel in his penetrating and disturbing exposé titled Slouching Towards Gomorrah (Regan Books, New York, 1996). “The mistake the Enlightenment founders of liberalism made about human nature,” he says, “has brought us to this—an increasing number of alienated, restless individuals, individuals without strong ties to others, except in the pursuit of ever more degraded distractions and sensations. And liberalism has no corrective within itself; all it can do is endorse more liberty and demand more rights” (p. 63).

Incisively, he further states: “Our modern, virtually unqualified, enthusiasm for liberty forgets that liberty can only be ‘the space between the walls,’ the walls of morality and law based upon morality. It is sensible to argue about how far apart the walls should be set, but it is cultural suicide to demand all space and no walls” (p. 65).

The Old Way Forward

Is it not time to give earnest heed to a voice that speaks to values that transcend and govern this temporal human existence? The Word of God—the Bible—puts human life in an eternal perspective, yet it has been denigrated and sidelined by both religious and secular movers and shakers throughout history—with very few exceptions.

If we are to be about “finding the old way forward,” to use O’Hear’s phrase, then perhaps we need to look even further back in time than we realize. The moral way forward was laid down well before the establishment of Western religious traditions. Humanity has consistently ignored the Bible and its clearly defined moral code (God’s law) in the mistaken belief that fulfillment lay elsewhere. The words of the prophet Isaiah, as he lamented the moral problems of his own society, resonate with the ethical and moral slide of our modern Western world: “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20).

As never before, humankind desperately needs a moral compass to provide guidance and direction through the turbulent sea of ethical dilemmas. More to the point, each individual human being needs that guidance to make sense of a world increasingly dominated by bewildering scientific advances largely unimpeded by moral considerations. In Vision we endeavor to show that there is a better way ahead—if we are indeed willing to accept our need for a moral compass in an increasingly turbulent and confused world.