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Shifting Moral Ground:

The Dilemma of Ethics in an
Out-of-Control World

by Elizabeth A. Debold

Has God abandoned us? Left us on our own now that we've reached up and grasped the secrets of creation—cracked the genetic code, split the atom, invented new forms of intelligence and life, woven neural-like networks to connect us across the globe? I really wonder. We're constantly pushing the boundaries of the miraculous, expanding the limits of the possible. Did you hear about the paralyzed man who has his brain wired directly to a computer and can now move the cursor with his thoughts? That's a miracle. But then, so many things we now take for granted—like flying, or moving pictures coming through the air into your living room, or heart attack victims being brought back to life—were once miracles reserved for God alone. That's one of the thrilling and chilling things about being human: we're always pushing the edge, daring to know, tempting fate—and testing any limits that have been imposed upon us.

But can we go too far? Recently, I read an article that matter-of-factly noted that fairly soon, the wealthy will be able to genetically engineer their own children. The author wasn't even questioning this; he was simply wondering about its potential impact on the educational system! It really made me wonder: What will happen if we end up with two different human species—one that is enhanced by genetic engineering and nanotech robotics, and another that becomes increasingly obsolete or even disposable? And that's not even the least of the frightening futures that may be on the horizon. A friend shocked me the other day by pointing out that very soon we may have to make moral choices that, in the last century, would have been considered unfathomable crimes. What if we realize that the earth cannot support us all, and we have to choose who has to go? No one's talking about these kinds of things, he said. No one's looking at the real moral issues facing us.

It's true, isn't it? There are so many things in our rapidly changing, out-of-control world that make me uncomfortable, that I don't know what to do with, and that raise profound moral questions. Even in seemingly small day-to-day encounters with the fact of our global interconnectedness, I don't feel confident that I am alert to the implications that spin out from my actions. Do I take thirty seconds to respond to an email petition about the woman being stoned in Afghanistan? Do I stop long enough to think about what it means that the new sheets I just bought with the tag, “Made in Pakistan,” were so unbelievably cheap? I often guiltily wonder: Does being concerned about these things really make a difference—or is this an avoidance of the deeper moral implications of being a privileged Westerner in a globalizing world?

I see how easy it is to skim the surfaces of the many fleeting images that surround us. Clicking from one thing to another on the internet, the bizarre and the poignant and the horrible create one smooth, nearly impenetrable veneer. Today's top story concerns the sensational rape trial of a popular athlete; tomorrow it's Iraqi retaliation against U.S. troops; the next day it's J.Lo's breakup with her latest. Everything is equivalent, equally important or unimportant—what matters depends on what you want. Something difficult or unpleasant pops up on the screen in front of me—one click and it's gone. Why not just go shop on eBay? So I become the center of it all, picking and choosing what is significant and what is not. It's so easy for the human power of choice, the ground for moral action, to become worn out by its constant use as a mechanism to fulfill desire. What happens to us when everything that gives meaning and significance—our principles, our purpose, our relationships—becomes one more set of choices that we make? Gradually what is true and right gets reduced to our own subjective preferences, a hall of mirrors where everything reflects back on us and exists for us.

But this is a lie, a strangely lulling and narcissistically numbing lie. And no matter how lost I may become in that world of my own creation, there is always a nagging sense that can never be quelled by shopping or the next new experience, a sense that knows that how we all are living is not right, that it is urgent that something changes—and changes fast. Because beneath or behind these self-reflective surfaces, something really big is happening. We're reaching a critical choice point. Indeed, humanity may only have a fifty-fifty chance of making it through this next century, according to one of England's most distinguished scientists, the Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees, in his most recent book, Our Final Hour. Many of the new technologies that scientists are experimenting with not only have extraordinary potential to improve human life, but they also might cause devastation to a degree that we have never seen before. Rees feels we are too often cavalier about the power we have and ethically unprepared to use it responsibly. We have no ethical framework to prevent new forms of increasingly destructive terrorism, to stop environmental devastation, or to restrain the hubris of a scientific culture willing to take unbelievable risks with life itself.

We're at an impasse. Our moral frameworks, which are our guidelines for distinguishing right from wrong, are woefully inadequate for a world that is becoming more technologically sophisticated and more globally interdependent. The effect of these technological, economic, social, and political changes has been completely unpredictable and unprecedented—bringing us face-to-face with different life circumstances and conflicting worldviews around the globe. In the process, almost without being aware of it, we've come to the point where the moral teachings of the great religious traditions, which have guided humanity for centuries, no longer seem to have the scope to help us cope with these global complexities. Most of us also recognize that an unquestioned belief in the promise of modernity—the belief that science and technology will fix everything—is not really going to resolve the moral dilemmas we now face. It should be no surprise, then, to realize that the vast majority of us spiritually-minded persons in this postmodern age don't have an ethic to tell us how to do right by an ever-accelerating world in conflict. How could we? Humanity has never been at this point before where we have the power to determine the fate of life itself. The context in which we make choices has become so much bigger, so much more complex; it demands that we develop some new way of determining right from wrong that takes us beyond the safety of tradition, beyond the promise of modernity, and even beyond the hard-won freedoms of our postmodern culture.

How would one even begin to think about creating a new morality? It's not a question that has ever concerned many people. Historically, one's views were either handed down from God (or someone like the Buddha) or were developed through philosophical debate in the dusty halls of the academy. One's moral perspective didn't really exist separately from one's religious, spiritual, or grand philosophical worldview, because they were seen as two sides of the same coin. The sense of what is right or wrong—Is it okay to marry more than one person? Is it ever justified to lie?—came from how God's word or the great philosophy of the time was interpreted and translated into guidelines for daily life. One's moral code was grounded in the belief system of one's culture, cementing the bond of shared understanding within a particular community or group. As a result, moral frameworks both shaped the contours of personal relationship and marked the boundary around a group of people. But in our increasingly secular postmodern age, the spiritual has become divided from the moral. We've pulled the two apart as more and more of us create our own personalized forms of spiritual pursuit.

Where does that leave us with morality? These days, the very word seems outdated, a leftover from a more rigid and uptight time. Probably for most of us, morality still means nuns with rulers—all of those “shoulds” and “shouldn'ts” about our personal lives, particularly our sex lives, that we have struggled to free ourselves from. Our first moral lessons most likely came from memorizing and internalizing sets of rules like the Ten Commandments. And that can certainly conjure up some rather unpleasant memories—the “time out” corner, priests and confession, all of the ways that adult society tried to get us to conform when we were children. The point was to bring us into alignment with something larger than our childish impulses. We were being taught to distinguish between right and wrong so that we could live with other people and be part of our family and community.

But we've outgrown the morality of childhood. Just as each of us has grown up and gone out beyond the snug boundaries of family and schoolyard to a wilder and woollier world, for us collectively, the moral teachings of yesteryear are at least two sizes too small. While they were radically new when Moses first brought those two stone tablets down the mountain, the Ten Commandments' guidelines for human relationship are now as familiar to us as our mothers' faces. Who could really argue with the basic principles of honoring one's parents, being truthful, taking care of one's neighbor, not stealing or killing? The moral codes of the great religious traditions provided a blueprint to guide the development of family and community life, articulating the premises for creating a peaceful, homogeneous enclave. Over time, they became the basis for the legal and social infrastructure of the modern nation by creating a shared morality that made possible a national identity beyond one's religious affiliation.

But we have moved on. The reality of diversity—that one nation needed to be home to many different identity groups—meant that we grew beyond a one-size-fits-all set of values. The experiment in liberation that started in the sixties and launched a new postmodern era has taken us beyond the buttoned-up ethos of traditional morality. This shift into postmodernism woke us from the dream that the ideal was to conform, to create a homogeneous culture. This new view valued the fact that our world is pluralistic, filled with persons who think and act differently than we do. And now, as the boundaries of community and country are disappearing into a larger and more complex global whole, we need a new way to determine right and wrong that can take into account that we live in a world that is a welter of differences and that is in danger of extinction by our own hands.

It's often difficult to see the ground on which we're standing. For many of us interested in spirituality today, the postmodern ground that we tread on is so familiar that we can barely distinguish the salient features of the terrain. But if we take a closer look at how we got here, at the transition from modernity to postmodernity, the ground of our current morality becomes easier to see.

What was it like before the civil rights movement, Vietnam War protests, women's and gay liberation, and environmental and animal rights activism? Perhaps you remember, or you grew up as the transition was happening, as I did, or you have just wondered if the glimpses that you've caught in the weird light of black-and-white television reruns could possibly have any relation to reality. No matter what your vantage point, it doesn't take much to recognize that the first half of the twentieth century was a different world. Think about it: Did you know that television shows only allowed married couples to be seen sleeping in twin beds? Or that a “divorcée” was a woman of very questionable virtue? Not long ago, homosexuality was considered a disease as well as a public menace. Negroes sat at the back of the bus; Chinamen owned hand laundries. This was just how things were—no harm intended. A man's home was his castle. Men wore hats and women wore gloves, girdles, garters, and hose. Trying to buy or sell a condom could get you arrested. And a woman needed her husband's permission to get her own credit. Everyone knew that science was producing wonder drugs that would cure cancer and the common cold, and that it was developing ways to feed the world by getting rid of pests and improving the soil—“better living through chemicals” was the slogan of DuPont, the company that produced DDT. It seemed so obvious that life was getting better and better every day. Science had even improved on mother's milk by inventing infant formula! If you did your fair share, worked hard, and raised your family to reach the promised “good life,” then you were a good and moral person.

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This article is from
Our Morality Issue


February–April 2004