Monday, April 25, 2005

Towards a New Trinity

Last week, I went a couple of blocks away from my house on Capitol Hill to play some basketball at the local Baptist Church. Within the gates of the Church's parking lot sits a portable hoop with a forgiving rim. When I arrived this evening, there was already a game in progress between congregates and those who worked for the Church. I stood there awhile dribbling, until two guys from the sidelines introduced themselves. They were extremely cordial and it was the basic questions endemic to DC, "Where do you work?" "What do you do?"

As we were talking, the game ended and three of the four on the court left along with one of the guys from the sidelines. The other guy and me and the straggler from the previous game decided to play "21," which is essentially just every man for himself. Somehow metaphysical questions started to rear their ugly head during the game, all revolving around the King of Kings. When I identified myself as an atheist they looked a bit perplexed and interested and the necessary question, "Why?," followed. I said something to the sort of I've never experienced the divine nor read a convincing argument for the existence of a supreme being. Being a genuinely curious and skeptical person, believing in God would be a gigantic leap of faith for me. "Where's the evidence," I said. Besides, I don't need the consolation of looking up at the night sky and feeling a figment of my imagination stare back at me.

As the discussion progressed, the older guy, the leftover from the first game, asked how we know the difference between right and wrong and whether there's an absolute, divinely-revealed morality. I responded to the first question as I always do, something along the line that we use reason, tradition, and our gut feeling to judge right from wrong and therefore I answered logically to the next question, "No." I also added that morality or ethics was probably an evolutionary addition to ensure the survival of a species that was totally reliance on the group to survive. Who knows if I'm correct on any of this. Certainly I don't.

But the more I think of it, I think there's a crude trinity to human moral decisions that doesn't need an authoritative God handing out dictates to believers. I'll label them reason, empathetic emotion, and intuition. At best, all three should work as an integrated whole to arrive at moral judgements, but I think each works independently as a check upon the other. Moreover, in snap decisions, where action or non-action must be taken immediately, intuition should take precedent. I'll use a rather vulgar example to prove a point.

When I was eighteen I couldn't drink, but one rather adult area I could experience were strip clubs. The first time this option was dropped by a friend of mine, it only took a moment to decide I wouldn't go and I owe it to my gut reaction. I was uneasy about it instantly, and a major deciding factor was my girlfriend - how would she feel? Now, girlfriendless, I've dipped my toe in those waters three times now and I'm still frigid about it. I'm not a puritan in anyway, but when I use my moral trinity I'm convinced I want to stay away from those places. Using reason, I don't know why I want to drop a hundred bucks looking at girls who pay attention to me only so I unload dollar bills on them, especially since it gives me no pleasure (and I assume, no pleasure to them as well). Next, empathetic emotion comes inextricably into play. I think about the girl's feelings, whether she has kids or is in college, which leads me to ask rationally why she's in this line of work to begin with. Usually the answer doesn't equate to freely chosen hedonism, which I can respect, but deeper and darker problems. Lastly, whatever reasonable objections I can make, " She likes her work" or "I shouldn't judge her," I still have a deep distaste for it. And therefore I decide those experiences aren't for me, although in the right conditions they can be morally fine for others.

I use this calculus in all other areas of morality as well. I'll use a more controversial example, abortion. Using powers of reason, I'm confronted with a conflict: Although I want to respect the integrity and value of human life, I'm faced with all manners of complicating situations like rape, incest, severe mental and physical deficiencies, and those rare circumstances where only one person -- mother or child -- can survive the birth. Here empathetic emotion comes into play, because I can put myself in that women's position where abortion is a fateful choice that could essentially give her back her life. How can I judge a woman who got pregnant not do to any irresponsibility of her own, but because she was violated? How can I judge a woman or a couple who decide that when life pits life against each other, the mother's life wins out because the fire of an intelligent, conscious life and all its myriad personal connections is more valuable than a life not yet begun. Intuitively, I respond negatively to abortion, but reason and empathy check that initial impulse.

So, sure, morality functions like a crapshoot, but one can put parameters around it and use those human faculties we're endowed with to make responsible, albeit possibly wrong, moral decisions. To be a happy, productive, and morally responsible adult, one has to become comfortable with such uncertainty. Some place their faith in God to help them along, I rely on myself and argument to help navigate those murky areas where uncertainty is the only certainty.

Besides, I don't know why Christians appeal to a higher authority when their savior put it in such simple, human terms: "In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you..."
(Matthew, 7:12)