Dealing with the Postmodern Ethic

Much thanks to Wilely Kersh and Tim Hare for help in researching and editing this article:


In the modern age many people within Western society have been moving toward a postmodern/deconstruction ethical system. While this move has taken place predominately in secular society, it has begun to seep into the Christian belief system as well. Through the writings of people like Peter Rollins and John Caputo, the postmodern ethic is becoming mainstream among many within Christianity. This system of thought (though many proponents would deny it is a system) has its roots in the writings of Nietzsche and has been popularized through various cultural mediums. Ultimately, postmodern ethics is an extremely illogical ethical system that is self-contradictory and one that does not fit within the Christian ethical system.


            Before explaining the dangers of postmodern ethics, one must first understand what is meant by the term “postmodern ethics.” The difficulty in such a task, however, is enormous. The reason for this is that postmodernity, by its nature, attempts to avoid any systematic approach to any issue, thus making a systematic definition of postmodernism near impossible. However, there are some traits to postmodern ethics that one can rely upon in order to get a general idea of what the term refers to. J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig have a very short, but accurate description of postmodern ethics, which states, “Postmodernists reject the idea that there are universal, transcultural standards, such as the laws of logic or principles of inductive inference, for determining whether a belief is true or false, rational or irrational, good or bad.”[1] Thus, when one refers to a postmodern ethical system, the first point one must think of is a system that says there is no unified approach to understanding what is and is not ethical.


            The above, however, merely gives one the first part of postmodern ethics; one must also acknowledge that most morals are based upon taste and/or emotions. Friedrich Nietzsche, arguably the founder of postmodern thought, proposed in Beyond Good and Evil that most people attempted to rationalize their ethical codes so as to avoid facing the fact that such ethical codes were merely based upon the people’s taste and preference.[2] When one says, “Murder is wrong,” the person is essentially saying, “Murder is not preferable.” Murder is not actually wrong; it simply does not match up with the person’s likes and dislikes. Alternatively, if the person says, “Homosexuality is morally good,” the person is simply saying that he enjoys the act of homosexuality (though he does not necessarily have to partake in the act). The second part of postmodern ethics, therefore, is that there is no absolute standard for morality, but instead all morals are based upon an individual (or society’s) tastes and preferences.


            There is a third component to postmodern ethics that one must consider in order to adequately understand the term and that is of the periodic shifts within morality. Going back to Nietzsche, he states, “That which an age feels to be evil is usually an untimely after-echo of that which was formerly felt to be good – the atavism of an older ideal.”[3] What he is arguing is that as time changes, so does morality. A modern example is often times when one is told, “premarital sex is wrong,” one responds with, “It might have been wrong one hundred years ago, but today it is acceptable and not wrong.” The person is essentially arguing that morality can and does change throughout time – what is moral today was immoral yesterday and vise versa. Therefore, the third element of postmodern ethics – alongside the rejection of a uniformed approach to determining what is and is not ethical, and all morality being based on preference rather than absolute right and wrong standards – is that ethics can and will change over time.


            Even with this description, it must be understood that there still is no singular definition of postmodern ethics. The best that one can hope for is to describe the overarching idea of postmodern ethics and find what “systems” fit within this description. To make things easier, however, it is best to look to two types of postmodern ethics; the popular type and the academic type. Though neither gives a concise definition of postmodern ethics, both do help to narrow down what does and does not fit within the postmodern ethical code.


Popular Postmodern Ethics


            Popular postmodern ethics is the most notable system because it is the most prevalent in modern Western society, being found promoted in television, music, and just sound bites found on the news. Popular postmodernism is much simpler than its academic cousin in that it hinges upon just two forms of justification; cultural relativism and individual relativism. Both of these views hold to what Peter Singer calls normative moral relativism, which he says, “…holds that it is wrong to pass judgment on others who have substantially different values, or to try to make them conform to one’s own values, for the reason that their values are as valid as one’s own.”[4] In other words, the central aspect of popular relativism is that of tolerance, or holding to personal peace and allowing another person to act as that person wishes. It is difficult to turn on the television or listen to any form of popular entertainment without people arguing that society must tolerate the differences between beliefs.


            One way that popular postmodernity manifests itself is in its view of culture, more specifically that what is ethical for one culture may not be ethical for another culture. Moreland and Craig supply the best description of cultural relativism by saying, “Societies view “right” and “wrong” differently (Put linguistically, the statement ‘X is right’ is shorthand for the statement ‘X is right for society A.’). The very meaning of right (and other moral terms) is relative to the particular culture.”[5] An example is that the ancient Spaniards viewed it as immoral to sacrifice prisoners of war to God, but the Aztecs viewed it as perfectly acceptable to sacrifice prisoners of war to their god. Both cultures looked at the same subject and came to two different conclusions. This, too, is found in Nietzsche’s works when he argued that certain cultures will view different morals in different ways. [6] Popular postmodern ethics teaches that this is acceptable and it should remain this way.


            The second way in which popular postmodernity manifests itself is in the view of individual morality. The best way to summarize the individual ethic is, “What is good for one may not be good for another.” The reason for this is that most people who buy into this system, whether they realize it or not, accept the belief that all ethics derive from taste. Nietzsche, again, argues for such a belief by saying that all ethical systems derive from personal tastes.[7]  Modern adherents to a postmodern system of ethics, then, often follow Nietzsche’s belief that all ethics comes from personal taste and that a person can practice any ethical system so long as those ethics bring no harm to other people.


Academic Postmodern Ethics


            As alluded to earlier, one simply cannot look to postmodern ethics without first appealing to Nietzsche. In both the popular and academic forms of postmodern ethics, Nietzsche supplies the foundation. One of the famous quotes from Nietzsche on ethics is, “There are no moral phenomena at all, only a moral interpretation of phenomena…”[8] With this, Nietzsche argued that everything was just an interpretation. The problem he brought forth is that all the interpretation was filtered through the individual’s passions, as those are the only guaranteed part of reality.[9] Academic postmodernism teaches that because each individual interprets events differently, a unified system of ethics cannot be obtained. This all stems from Nietzsche.


            The biggest form in which academic postmodern ethics has manifested itself is in the deconstructive ethical system. This system is based upon Derrida’s Deconstructionism. It acknowledges Nietzsche’s critique that absolute morality does not exist, but unlike popular postmodernism (and Nietzsche) it still attempts to achieve “goodness.”


            Deconstructive ethics states that justice – the only non-deconstructable term – is the goal of deconstructing ethics. John Caputo, in writing about Jacques Derrida, even states, “Justice in itself, if such a thing exists, outside or beyond law, is not deconstructable. No more than deconstruction itself, if such a thing exists. Deconstruction is justice.”[10] What he means by this is that ethics and laws must constantly change in order to provide justice. Though both he and Derrida avoid explaining what they mean by justice, the connotation is that justice is done when the oppressed are liberated. This comes from Caputo’s use of Rosa Parks as an example of deconstructionism – a people group was oppressed and the laws and ethical codes had to be violated in order to achieve justice.[11] Therefore, according to Caputo, ethics must constantly be broken down and changed if justice is to ever be obtained.


            What is so interesting is that Caputo argues for a constant change in ethical systems, but at the same time states that justice will never be obtained, that it will always be out of reach. Caputo argues that there is no end to deconstruction, that justice will never be achieved.[12] He turns around and argues, however, that even though it will never be achieved; individuals should still continue to pursue justice. Deconstructionism, to Caputo, is the perfection of the law. Justice is that which gives individuals the impulse to change the ethical codes and laws.[13] Deconstructive ethics is interesting because of its call for something (justice), but acknowledgement that the something will never be actualized.


            What makes this form of academic postmodernity superior and different to popular postmodernity is its call for change. Whereas popular postmodernity says tolerance is the only overarching ethical code to which people must adhere, deconstructive ethics calls for intolerance of oppression. Within the academic view of postmodernity there is at least a goal, though unattainable, that is being aimed at. By calling for change and progression, academic postmodernity gives a goal that popular postmodernity does not offer.


Applications of Postmodern Ethics to Christianity


            In recent times, there have been many – both wittingly and unwittingly – who have adopted a postmodern ethical code into their Christian beliefs. This has been manifested in popular Christian writings, Christian theologians and pastors, and Christian theology itself. One of the most notable elements of postmodern Christianity is its low view of sin – it seems that such a relativistic view must sacrifice a view of sin, which requires an absolute standard. This low view of sin, however, has been finding its way across Christianity.


            One of the most prevalent examples of postmodern ethics in popular Christian writing is found in the book The Shack. In The Shack, “God” states, concerning sin, “I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it.” [14] Though this does acknowledge the existence of sin, it makes sin look more like a negative consequence rather than an actual act. One determines what sin is by the negative consequences it brings forth. One could presumably argue that if there are no negative consequences, then the act possibly wasn’t sinful to begin with. Regardless, this postmodern view of sin begets a view of God where His purpose isn’t in judgment, but to cure humans from the consequences of sin. This lowered view of sin found in The Shack exemplifies how postmodern ethics has infiltrated Christianity.


             Popular postmodernity is still difficult to find within Christianity, but the academic/deconstructionist view is making a lot of headway. One of the biggest proponents for accepting deconstructive ethics within Christianity is Peter Rollins. Rollins admitted in a private correspondence that his goal is to make deconstructive ethics more available to the common Christian.[15] The deconstructive ethic that was described above is the one Rollins wishes to apply to Christianity. When asked what he believes Christian ethics is, he states, “I would say that the job of constructing ethics is a human one and can’t be decided by Christianity. Christianity could be described as what drives us (1) to be ethical (2) to work out what it means to be ethical (3) never to think that what we have worked out has fallen from heaven…”[16] Rollins is essentially saying that Christian ethicists should acknowledge that Christian ethics is nothing more than a man-made construct that has not been influenced by God. Rollins, through his books How (Not) to Speak of God and The Fidelity of Betrayal have both aided in promoting this view.


            Another person who has been actively promoting postmodern Christian ethics – and a major influence on Peter Rollins – is John Caputo.[17] Caputo has even stated, “What I have in mind by saying I am against ethics is, unhappily, not a matter of unconcealing something more original than ethics….I have chosen to speak of a deconstruction.”[18] Caputo is advocating exactly what Derrida advocated, namely that the goal of ethics is not to get back to an absolute basis, but instead to move forward toward something, mainly justice (that is the point of chapter four in Caputo’s work Against Ethics). Though Caputo is mainly a philosopher of deconstructionism, his view on ethics has been seeping into Christianity, most notably through his book What Would Jesus Deconstruct.


            One merely needs to look to Christian culture in order to see the results of these deconstructionist adherents. Most church practices in the modern era are devoid of any teachings on actual ethics. Rather, the services are often geared toward what the individual prefers. Is Nietzsche not seen in this mentality? The church aims to please the people by teaching them what they want to hear, by appealing to their preferences, rather than teaching on an absolute that might cause conviction. The best example is how many of the higher church models have come out and embraced homosexuality, saying that it is not a sin and that the Bible is either wrong in its view of homosexuality or that the Bible meant something else (such as promiscuity among homosexuals). Modern Christian culture – at least some elements – is openly embracing the postmodern ethic.


The Logical Fallacies of a Postmodern Ethic


            The biggest problem with a postmodern ethical system is that it is logically unsound. Though some postmodern epistemologists will attempt to say that Western Logic is simply a cultural construct, there is no getting around the fact that logic is factual and outside of culture. Concerning the law of non-contradiction, the Muslim philosopher Avicenna (Ibn Sina) says, “Anyone who denies the law of non-contradiction should be beaten and burned until he admits that to be beaten is not the same as not to be beaten, and to be burned is not the same as not to be burned.”[19] Just as the law of non-contradiction is something that transcends culture (as Avicenna bluntly shows), so to do the laws of logic. With this in mind, if a philosophy is illogical then it means that the philosophy, in some way, is false.


            The biggest problem with popular postmodern ethics, which has its foundation in toleration, is that to impose tolerance upon people is to be intolerant, thus making the belief self-contradictory. As Moreland and Craig state, “Toleration means we must be intolerant of the intolerant, making us intolerant.”[20] What Moreland and Craig are attempting to point out is that postmodern ethics argues against P, saying that P is wrong, and then uses P to prove that P is wrong. To speak out against intolerance is to be intolerant of intolerance, it is to say, “The intolerant do not deserve a voice, they do not deserve to have a say, and they must be silenced.” Thus, such a standard contradicts itself.


            A bigger issue, however, is that it produces an absolute standard for morality. Popularized postmodern ethics falls flat on its face because it states that tolerance is the goal in all cases, making toleration the absolute moral standard. Whether it is toleration for another culture or for an individual’s moral preference, the standard remains absolute. Peter Kreeft even points this out when he says, ““Absolutism is relatively absolutistic, and relativism is absolutely relativistic.”[21] This play on words merely highlights the absoluteness of postmodern ethics; toleration exists as an absolute standard for judging all ethical encounters.


            The above two show how postmodern ethics is simply illogical. By contradictions itself both directly and by turning around and having to establish an absolute standard, it has attempt to negate P by supporting P, which is a contradiction. It is inconsistent and illogical and on these grounds alone it should fail.


            However, if one ignores the logical fallacies that postmodern ethics commits, the ramifications of such an ethic, most notably its affects on the judicial system, would still disturb one. If there is no absolute standard then how can there be justice? Even if one buys into the deconstructive ethic, how can one know that by challenging the law one is moving toward justice? How can one even know what justice is? This is a problem that plagues postmodern judicial theory and one that Kreeft has no problem exploiting. Kreeft points out that the only people who really embrace a postmodern ethics are often found behind bars, the hardened criminals who see no wrong in what they did.[22] The only people that would argue for a postmodern ethic applied to the judicial system are those that have no problem with rape, murder, or brutal crimes against humanity. The reason is to have justice one must have an absolute standard and without an absolute standard justice can never be achieved.


            A postmodernist could come back and say that society serves as the absolute standard of justice, but this is woefully inadequate as it establishes an absolute. Such a standard teaches that society is what determines what is and is not moral and it is absolutely so in every case. If this were the case, however, then one could not argue for a moral reformer to come in and change brutal laws. If one argued for a moral reformer, it would mean one believed that society could be wrong in its standard of justice, placing an absolute outside of society. After all, anytime one says “X is wrong and Y is right,” one is invoking the language of an absolutist.[23] Therefore, no matter what a postmodern argues in terms of trying to support a judicial system he will inevitably end up establish some type of absolute standard.


Postmodern Ethics Applied to Christianity Revisited


The Bible actually does deal with postmodern ethics, both in its dealings in the Garden and then in the book of Judges. In the Garden of Eden the Bible shows Satan deconstructing what God had said (Genesis 3: 1-5). The Devil, much like Derrida, takes what was said and attempts to apply it to a different context, a more relevant context. He points out an ulterior motive of God’s, one that would leave God unjustified (if Adam and Eve eat of the fruit, they will be exactly like God). Satan doesn’t say, “Rebel against God because you have the right to,” rather he slyly states, “Rebel against God because He has done wrong and justice must be brought upon Him.” Likewise, in Judges the author constantly states that “Everyone did what was right in their eyes.” The book of Judges, some argue, was written to show the dangers of not having a king that could keep Israel focused on the law (Judges 21:25). All of the Judges, in some way, were corrupt. All the leaders were certainly corrupt (with one man even sacrificing his own daughter). The book of the Bible that probably exposes the most corruption in a society is also the one that expresses the postmodern motto the best; everyone does right in their own eyes. Both instances show that the Bible has a very low view of postmodernism.


            The reason for this low view is that Christian ethics has its foundation in God’s Will and His desires. Since God does not change, His desires do not change either, meaning His standard for holiness is absolute and will remain so. There are certain acts that will always offend God; though He might allow these acts to occur for His purposes, ultimately these acts still contradict His glory. The Bible holds a low view – and Christians should hold a low view – of postmodern ethics simply because they contradict a Holy and absolute God.


            A Christian should not accept postmodern ethics. They are ultimately illogical and therefore wrong. Moreover, though, they ruin any hope of justice Christians hope to obtain. Finally, they contradict the absolute decrees of a loving and just God.


[1] J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003), 146.

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (London: Penguin, 2003), 36.

[3] Ibid., 102

[4] Peter Singer, comp., A Companion to Ethics (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 1993), 442.

[5] Moreland and Craig, 412

[6] Beyond Good and Evil, 50

[7] Nietzsche, Friedrich, On the Genealogy of Morality, trans. Carol Diethe (Cambridge: Cambridge Univesrity Press, 2006), 37.

[8] Beyond Good and Evil, 96

[9] Ibid., 47

[10] John Caputo, Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida (New York: Fordham University Press, 1997), 131.

[11] Ibid., 130

[12] Ibid., 131

[13] Ibid., 125

[14] William P. Young, The Shack (Newbury Park: Windblown Media, 2008), 74.

[15] Joel Borofsky, Questions about your newest book, e-mail message to Peter Rollins, July 28, 2008.

[16] Ibid., August 7

[17] Ibid., August 7

[18] John Caputo, Against Ethics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 3.

[19] Metaphysics, I; commenting on Aristotle, Topics I.11.105a4–5

[20] Moreland and Craig, 416

[21] Peter Kreeft, A Refutation of Moral Relativism: Interviews with an Absolutist (Ft. Collins: Ignatius Press, 1999), 29.

[22] Ibid., 95

[23] Alasdair MacIntyre, A Short History of Ethics: A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Century (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1998), 265.