Is there a foundation for public ethics? (Ethics chapter 3)

Despite all of our attempts at creating a society that is ethical, we seem to slip further and further from that goal. We can’t even agree on how to be an ethical person in our communities. Why can’t we at least be a better society than we currently are? In chapter 3 of Ethics, Bonhoeffer turns his attention to failed ethical foundations. He says that the failure of our ethics is not primarily a failure of action but a failure of foundations.
First, he says that reason fails as a foundation for public ethics because reasonable people fail to “perceive either the depths of evil or the depths of the holy.” The result is that when the reasonable person tries to build society he finds disappointment because of the unreasonable world.
Second, he says that moral fanaticism fails as a foundation for public ethics. The fanatic “believes that he can oppose the power of evil with the purity of his will and of his principle.” But in his fanaticism, the fanatic fails to see the width and depth and breadth of evil. In the end, the fanatic burns out because he is fighting a never-ending battle.
Third, he says conscience fails as a foundation for public ethics. This is because the man of conscience “fights a lonely battle against the overwhelming forces of inescapable situations which demand decisions. He is torn apart by the extent of the conflicts in which he has to make his choice.” The conscience becomes timid and unsure the more it is tested and stretched and pulled in so many directions.
Fourth, Bonhoeffer says duty fails as a foundation for public ethics. Bonhoeffer says duty sounds good because we simply have to do what is commanded. But if we are obeying the orders of others, we are not making the decisions, someone else is. And there may come a time when duty requires fulfilling an obligation that is evil. “The man of duty will end by having to fulfill his obligation even to the devil.”
Fifth, Bonhoeffer says freedom fails as a foundation for public ethics. By freedom, Bonhoeffer means the one who can do whatever is necessary in the moment. This person is not bound by any kind of system. He will simply do what is right in the moment. Whatever is most fruitful will be the right thing to do. If he must do the bad in order to avoid the worse, he will do so. But, Bonhoeffer points out that often we do not know which is the lesser of two evils. And what we think is better can wind up being the worse.
Sixth, Bonhoeffer says private virtuousness fails as a foundation for public ethics. Just be a good person privately and that is all you can do. However, withdrawing from the world makes one privately evil even as he wishes to be privately good. He will not take a stand against the evils of society and therefore he turns a blind eye and a deaf ear to those in need.
Those these all fail, Bonhoeffer says this is the best societies can do because it is all they can rest on. This is why the theme that Bonhoeffer addresses in more than one of his books is such a powerful principle. We cannot handle the knowledge of good and evil. No matter what we try to do, we do not have the ability to live right individually or as a society.
As a result, we need something outside of ourselves to transform our ethical problem.


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