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Street Corner Ethics
Mark Liederbach, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Christian Ethics
Senior Fellow, L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture
Recently, I was standing on a street corner in Boise, Idaho when I noticed a very strange placement of signs. On one side of the street was a marquee for a "men's club" called the Kit Kat Club that read, "Sports, Beer, Burgers and Hot Women: The Four Basics of Life." Just across the street was a rather large billboard recruiting women for the U.S. Army. On this billboard was the picture of a woman in full combat fatigues looking purposefully through a pair of binoculars with one large bold word printed underneath her picture: RESPECT.
While the irony of these signs being placed across from one another has its humorous side, they also provide a rather remarkable example of what happens to a culture when it rejects the True North marker of its moral compass. To understand how these signs demonstrate this, consider the following idea. In his Poetics, Aristotle suggested the idea that morality or "ethos" requires a narrative story or plot (what he called "mythos") in order to help us understand our world (Poetics 1450a.15-1450b.4). In contemporary discussions we are more familiar with the terminology of"worldview" to describe a similar concept.
What is a world-view? As J.P. Moreland rightly indicates, "a person's worldview contains two important features. First, it includes the set of beliefs the person accepts, especially those about important matters such as reality, God, value, knowledge and so on. But a worldview is more than just a set of beliefs....a worldview includes the rational structure that occurs among the set of beliefs that constitute it." Thus, a worldview can be described as a set of beliefs and the conceptual framework through which each of us perceives, interprets and judges the events, circumstances and choices that confront us in our everyday lives. Like it or not, aware of it or not, everyday decisions and life-direction choices will always be colored by the underlying value system a person holds and through which he or she "sees" the world.
The reason this is so important is that each and every one of us are always seeing or experiencing new things, gathering new facts, and making choices or decisions about what we believe to be important, how to spend our time, how to treat others, etc. The decisions we make ultimately come both from what we believe about the world we live in and from the underlying "plot" in which we are involved. That is, all humans are always making life decisions based on a set of beliefs and a structure of thinking that provides the essential components of the framework of each person's worldview.
It would seem obvious, then, that living a coherent and meaningful life would almost require that each of us become aware of, and analyze the value of, our own worldview assumptions. Sadly, however, most of us drift through life following the currents of culture, content to passively embrace the values ofthe prevailing systems of thought that swirl around us as we "go with the flow"of life.
And this brings us back to our two billboards.
Prevailing ideas of morality in culture are heavily influenced by two systems of thought that shape the dominant worldview and its particular application to real life contexts like those depicted by our two signs. On the one hand, Humean enlightenment ideas that undermined confidence in the existence of God also undermined the foundation for an objective moral point of view. As a result, as Jocques Monod argues in his Chance and Necessity, ultimately the world is "chillingly value free." Thus, who is to say that the treatment of women shouldn't be to objectify them and make them a commodity for men to ogle and lust after?
On the other hand, more recent years have seen the rise of a post-modern perspective (a la Derrida and Foucault) that builds upon the Humean idea that all morality is merely the sentiment of a particular society and further suggest that any view of the self must be constructed by the individual in the context of society. Thus, the idea that a female soldier "commanding respect" just like a man does is fine, as long as that individual is "true to herself"and society recognizes the authenticity of this choice.
Somewhere lost in the midst of these two billboards is the question of whether or not there is a moral standard or guidebook that might help us determine how we ought to understand both the nature of morality and the nature of sexuality.
But as these two signs in Boise indicate, when the True North of our moral compass is rejected and moral standards are unhitched from an objective foundation only to be replaced with the prevailing whims of culture, it should come as no surprise that, on the street level (quite literally in this case), we find ideas that are confusing, contradictory, absurd, or sometimes downright laughable.
J.P. Moreland, Kingdom Triangle: Recover the Christian Mind, Renovate the Soul, Restore the Spirit's Power (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2007), 33.
Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity, trans. Ausryn Wainhouse (London and Glasgow: Collins, Found, 1977), 137.