The Paroikos Bible Blog exists as a resource to those interested in Biblical studies and Koine Greek. It is hoped that this blog will simultaneously provide food-for-thought to the reader while pointing him or her in the direction of valuable resources, both in print and on the internet, that will further help his or her studies in the Word.

Apr 14, 2011

Ethics, WMDs, and the Ultimate Basis of Morality: A Discussion of L. E. Modesitt Jr.'s novel The Ethos Effect

Note: this post has been modified from the original posting since I unfairly equated L. E. Modesitt's viewpoints with those of the protagonists in The Ethos Effect. I apologize to Mr. Modesitt and to the readers of the original post. My critique, then, should be viewed as interacting with the views and actions of the characters in The Ethos Effect rather than those of Mr. Modesitt himself.

This week’s post consists of a Christian interaction and critique of a piece of literature. I believe a Christian may enjoy culture to the extent that it represents the character of God; when it does not, it is the Christian’s duty to critique it from a biblical perspective. For those completely bored by science fiction but still interested in the ethical discussion, please skip to the discussion proper (marked with bold font)

         Credit where credit is due: although I do not cite him in this essay, much of my own thinking on this topic was stimulated from having read Mark D. Leiderbach, “The Gospel and War,” Faith and Mission vol. 22 (Fall 2004)

       I’ll have to confess that I’m something of a science fiction nut, and greatly value a quiet weekend evening curled up on a the couch with a wholesome book that tells a great story. While, granted, I’m sure there are more profitable ways to spend my time, one of the benefits of reading sci-fi is that every writer has a philosophical worldview (some more apparent than others), and the best sci-fi writers will challenge you to think about your own worldview and its practical application via ethics and morality (whether you agree with them or not).
         Within the sci-fi genre, writers generally reflect a variety of views on religion, some neutral, some criticial to various degrees (e.g. Isaac Asimov to Jack McDevitt), occasionally sympathetic (e.g. Timothy Zhan), while others seem to write from a religious worldview (e.g. C. S. Lewis, Dianne Thonley, and Orson Scott Card, who has an LDS background). L. E. Modesitt, Jr., seems to belong in the second group in that the themes reflected in his books are somewhat critical of organized religions, especially those of the more radical variety
         Yet Modesitt is not content to simply engage in “religion-bashing,” as is the case with some authors. Rather, his protagonists genuinely grapple with complex social and philosophical concepts while developing the narrative. The Ethos Effect is a well-written book and forces the reader to struggle through the issues along with the main protagonist.
      In The Ethos Effect (New York: Tor, 2003), the protagonist, Van C. Albert, a soldier by trade, struggles with ethics and morality all throughout the book. After foiling an assassination attempt yet being subsequently retired by his superiors, he joins a private organization (the “Echo-Tech Coalition”) that is secretly manipulating the human race. Three quarters of the way through the book, Albert watches in horror as his mentor-of-sorts, Trystan, uses alien technology to complete destroy an entire sun, wiping out the homeworld of the “Revenants,” an extremely aggressive and murderous religious society that was, in the minds of the Coalition, hindering the progress of the human race.
         The ethical struggle Albert goes through is evidenced a little later in an discussion between him and the alien Farhkan:
         F: "That culture [the Revenant society] is predicated on the existence of a deity. Rules of conduct are ascribed to that deity. Those rules preclude free choice. No deity can preclude free choice. The society developed under the ascription of those rules is fatally flawed . . . rues that are  imposed in the name of a deity are always flawed. They are flawed because they are inflexible. The universe changes. Even the laws of the universe are not inflexible" (453).
         At the end of the book, Albert mimics his mentor’s actions and decimates another entire solar system, this time the seat of power of a secular state that was acting in the same aggressive manner as the Revenants. When confronted about his actions by a subordinate, the following exchange ensues (p. 535): “How can killing seven hundred million people ever be right?” [Albert]: “How about when it prevents killing millions more? Especially millions of innocents?”
         At one point, a fictional source cited at the beginning of the chapter states,
         "There is indeed an ethical absolute for any situation in which an individual may find himself (or herself), but each of those absolutes exists only for that individual and that time and situation. This individual ‘absolutism’ is not the same thing as cultural relativism, because cultures can be, and often have been, totally unethical and immoral, even by their own professed standards" (348).
         This same “source” also argues that "in practice, what is necessary for a society is a secular legal structure that affirms basic ethical principles” while allowing  nevertheless allowing anyone accused of  wrongdoing to argue that their actions were, under the circumstance, “as moral as   the situation allowed” (349).
         Yet the protagonists do not clearly lay down the foundational basis for “basic ethical principles,” let alone a means of determining when exactly one’s actions may justifiably go against those principles
The case in point is the use of weapons of mass destruction and/or the total obliteration of a particular culture. The characters Albert and Trystan seem to believe that one can completely wipe out a particular society (be it religious or secular), if such action was done for the benefit of the human race as a whole. Christians, of course, may initially think themselves to be on shaky ground in the debate, since God in the Old Testament did indeed command his people to wipe out various cultures.
Yet herein lies the issue. Albert, the protagonist in The Ethos Effect, holds up the welfare of the human race as the standard. In other words, his is a truely humanistic outlook. Actions may be justified if done for the stability and/or betterment of humanity as a whole. For Albert, then, the morality of the annihilation of a planet depends on the goal that is hoped to be attained by such an action.
Now let’s bring the matter a little bit closer to home: is it morally acceptable to [deliberately] bomb civilians in war, or to annihilate an entire city à la Hiroshima or Nagasaki? For many, the answer would be “yes” if such an action would bring to close a brutal war against an evil (however “evil” is defined) enemy. Many Christians (including myself in the past) have thought along the same lines. Since the use of atomic bombs in World War II brought about the end of the war and most likely saved lives in the long run (a reasonable suggestion, in light of the bloodshed an invasion of Japan would have brought), then the bombs were justifiable.
Yet I’d like to propose an alternative way of thinking, based on a few key (in my opinion, Biblical) principles. [Digression] I am not discussing here the matter of warfare in general; I would tentatively suggest that serving in the military may be acceptable for Christians in light of the fact that Christians were not forbidden from serving in the military in the New Testament (see especially Luke 3:14; Acts 10). I would also suggest that a Christian man has a duty to protect his family and the weak from violence, but that’s a discussion for a different time. Yet even so, Christians at all times have an obligation to demonstrate the nature of Christ by being merciful to their enemies, always speaking the truth, etc. Some so-called military activities, then, are clearly off-limits, though I do not necessarily believe shooting a gun is one of them. I will suggest, however, that the idea of “just-war theory” is ultimately irrelevant to the Christian life; a Christian may fight in a so-called “just-war” and still behave in an un-Christ-like manner by torturing his enemies, delighting in their destruction, cursing, lying, etc. [end of digression]
         First of all, Christian ethics are God-centered rather than man-centered. In other words, my first question in any activity is not “how will this benefit humanity” or even “how many lives will this save” but rather “what would God have me to do?” I must stress at this point that to a certain degree God’s desire for his people may differ at different times. There is a difference between pre-exile Israel and Christians of this dispensation. The former often acted as God’s executioners during the conquest, while we, the latter, are commanded to pursue peace with all men (Hebrews 12:14).
         Secondly, Christian ethics presume upon the sovereignty of God in this regard: it is not up to us to determine the outcome of wars or the future of the human race. That lies solely in the hands of God. Thus, my responsibility is not necessarily to determine what will save the most lives in the long run. That is ultimately in the hands of God. My responsibility is to do right in the here and now (especially towards my neighbor) and trust that ultimately God holds sovereign control over both the minutia (who lives and dies) and the larger parts of history (war, etc.)
         Indeed, in light of this, it is ultimately arrogant to suggest that the end justifies the means, for that assumes that my “means” is what determines the “end,” when in reality only God determines the end.
         Thirdly, in light of points 1 and 2, above, I would suggest that my responsibility to God trumps any future consequences of my action or my inaction. In other words, if dropping an atomic bomb would seem to contradict a Christian ethic, than I have a responsibility to refrain from doing so no matter what the cost later on. For the Christian, the means is just as important as the end. Since the end is the glory of God, the means must reflect the end at all times. If the means deviates at any time from obeying God’s Word, then I cannot possibly attain the end of glorifying God.
         As far as WMDs are concerned, my argument depends on the following progression of thought: 1. killing an innocent person is murder; 2. the term ‘innocent’ includes civilians during wartime [at a minimum those not actively involved with the war effort, which certainly would include at least some people in any given city or town]; 3. Thus killing civilians in wartime is murder; 4. Thus WMDs dropped on civilian targets constitutes murder.”
Edmund Burke may certainly be correct by declaring that inactivity on our part may result in the “triumph of evil” (indeed, this seems to be a major theme of Ethos Effect). Nevertheless, if my activity to prevent an evil is, in of itself, by God’s definition, an evil activity, then my inactivity (or a different activity) would be more in keeping with God’s glory than my activity. Of course, this must be balanced by the fact that my inactivity in of itself may be evil. The resident of Nazi Germany who knew that his or her Jewish neighbors were in danger yet did nothing to help them is guilty of sin (Proverbs 24:11-12). Such a person is under a holy obligation to help innocent victims escape, yet the means of helping them escape must, as with everything else in our lives, be determined by asking “what does God's Word command?”
To conclude, then: what about the protagonist, Commander Van C. Albert? Did he do well to wipe out an entire planet? If there is no god, there what he did was “right” to the extent that we can determine what’s “right” from a purely humanistic foundation. Yet if there is a God, specifically the biblical God, Albert did wrong in that he presumed to act in the place of God by taking innocent lives.

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