The following is a paper I wrote for my ethics class.
Is there a system of ethics that exists apart from any person's opportunity to act in an ethical manner, or does ethics exist for you only when you are called upon to act ethically?
If by ethics we mean, a set of values or ideals about what is right and wrong, then yes, I do believe that there is a system of ethics that exists apart from any person’s opportunity to act in an ethical manner. As a Christian, I believe that God’s law is right and true and is what I am to live by. My ethics are God’s ethics, and God exists outside of me and apart and above all people, eternally; therefore, God’s law is the system of ethics that everyone is to live by.
I cannot understand how ethics could suddenly “exist” when I am called upon to act ethically and then “not exist” the rest of the time. In her book Ethics, Barbara Mackinnon says, “We can think of ethics as a study of the various sets of values that people have.... we can also think of ethics as a critical enterprise. We would then ask whether any particular set of values or beliefs is better than any other. We would compare and evaluate the sets of values and beliefs giving reasons for our evaluations” (p.2).
Now, if a person’s ethics are his or her set of values, do their values disappear when they are not called upon to act in accord with their values or ethics? I do not think so. People’s beliefs do not vacillate between existing and not existing. Everyone believes in some sense of right and wrong at all times. Even those who say that there is no such thing as right and wrong or truth and false have just, by their own standards, made a statement that is neither true or false, right or wrong, good or bad. Yet it is clear that even those who try to deny the existence of truth believe in truth by the very act of denying it. To not believe in the existence of truth, to deny the existence of truth, is to actually state that you do believe in truth, otherwise you would say nothing and have no opinion on anything, because there could be no such thing as opinion. In order to have even an opinion, there must be a presupposition of right and wrong, true and false. So when a person says that there is no such thing as truth, what they are actually saying is, “the truth is, there is no truth.” If one argues that the statement “there is no such thing as truth” is a true statement, then the statement “there is no such thing as truth” cannot be true. To ask the question is to answer it. It is logically impossible to conclude that absolute truth does not exist, and everyone who engages in thinking knows this to be so.
This is very important, because it proves that truth, and therefore values, exist outside of us. Truth exists outside of us, and we cannot help but think in terms of right and wrong, true or false. It is either right or wrong to steal, there is no third option. Everyone develops his or her value system based off right and wrong, good and evil, true and false. This value system, this system of ethics, exists outside of us because truth exists outside of us. If there were no truth outside of us, then there would be no value system outside of us.
Now if we determine truth, in other words, if truth does not come from an outside source, e.g., God, then there would be no system of ethics outside of us, because ethics and values is based on what is and is not true. Now I believe that truth by definition is absolute, otherwise you are just saying what you think and feel to be true. If truth is not absolute, if it is self-determined, then it has no real meaning except that it is your own personal conviction. But the very fact that we believe in a standard of truth and often try to persuade others to see the reason and logic and truth of our position and our ethics indicates that we believe in a truth that is outside of ourselves. If logic and reasoning can be trusted as truth, then the question becomes, from where did we get logic and reasoning? This again leads us outside of ourselves to an absolute, eternal truth and system of ethics that reigns over us.
Further, if a system of ethics only existed when duty called to act ethically, where did it go the rest of the time? A person may not act according to their own standard of ethics except in extreme situations, but this does not mean that the people’s ethical convictions have disappeared and ceased to exist. I believe that lust is wrong, yet I still lust all the time. I do this not because, apart from the opportunity to lust I have ceased to believe that lusting is wrong, but because I do not live up to my own ethical standards. That standard of ethics that I have set for myself is always there, and this is true for everyone whether they realize it or not.
I should make clear that I believe God is truth. In other words, I do not believe that truth exists apart from God, and God Himself is trying to live up to or conform His beliefs and standard of ethics around this mysterious “law of truth” that is outside and thusly sovereign over God. If God has to submit to truth and is not truth, then God is not God, truth is. So I believe that truth, like God, is eternal, and God is truth. There is no difference between God and truth or truth and God. All of God’s attributes, His self existence, His power of being and self-existence, His power to create, His love, grace, wrath, justice, mercy, holiness, is all part of Him which makes up truth. I do not believe it makes sense to think of truth existing apart from God Himself. In fact, it is impossibility. Whatever eternal, absolute truth is, it is God, because absolute truth is the highest conceivable authority.
Therefore, because I believe in God, and I believe that God is of necessity absolute eternal truth, I believe that a system of ethics exists outside for all of us, because God has all given us logic, reason, and intellect to ascertain and discern truth from error, right from wrong. We make judgments and discernments and have our own ethical standards all the time, even when we are not called upon to act ethically, although we often do not live up to our own ethical standards.