The Endurance of Ethics

September 9, 2013 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Judge G. Todd Baugh Credit:

Judge G. Todd Baugh

I’m not quite sure if she really believes what she wrote, or if she is just trying to make a name for herself.

When a Montana high school teacher was found guilty of raping one of his 14-year-old students who, two years later, committed suicide, the judge in the case shocked the victim’s family and all those following the trial when he handed down a sentence of a paltry thirty days in prison.  The outrage was quick and hot.  “I don’t believe in justice anymore,” the victim’s mother said in a statement. “She wasn’t even old enough to get a driver’s license.”  A protest organizer against the judge’s verdict noted, “Judges should be protecting our most vulnerable children … not enabling rapists by placing blame on victims.”[1]  It seemed the public disdain for what had transpired – both in the relationship between the teacher and his student and in the sentence that was passed down – was universal.

Except that it wasn’t.

Leave it to Betsy Karasik of the Washington Post to outline – and incite outrage with – an alternative view:

As protesters decry the leniency of Rambold’s sentence – he will spend 30 days in prison after pleading guilty to raping 14-year-old Cherice Morales, who committed suicide at age 16 – I find myself troubled for the opposite reason. I don’t believe that all sexual conduct between underage students and teachers should necessarily be classified as rape, and I believe that absent extenuating circumstances, consensual sexual activity between teachers and students should not be criminalized … There is a vast and extremely nuanced continuum of sexual interactions involving teachers and students, ranging from flirtation to mutual lust to harassment to predatory behavior. Painting all of these behaviors with the same brush sends a damaging message to students and sets the stage for hypocrisy and distortion of the truth.[2]

As I noted at the beginning of this post, I’m not quite sure if Karasik really believes what she wrote, or if she is just trying to make a name for herself.  If it’s the latter, she has certainly succeeded.  Her words have caused a big stir, as a perusal of the Washington Post’s comments section will readily reveal.  Words like “disgusting,” “sick,” and “ridiculous” pepper the comments section of her article.

So why all the outrage over a woman who argues for the legality of teacher-student sexual relations?  The answer is traditional ethics.  And, more specifically, traditional sexual ethics.  In a culture that sanctions all sorts of sexual shenanigans, our ethical compass on statutory rape stands strong.  And this is good – not only for the victims of these crimes, but for society at large.  Though I do not always agree with the way in which some express outrage at immorality, it is nevertheless important to note how our society’s occasional bursts of ethical outrage indicate that, despite our culture’s best attempts at relativizing and minimizing all sorts of ethical standards, traditional ethical standards just won’t die.  They are here to stay.

The nihilist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously sought to replace traditional ethical standards with one ethical standard – that of power.  “What is good?” Nietzsche asked, “All that heightens the feeling of power in man, the will to power, power itself.  What is bad?  All that is born of weakness.  What is happiness?  The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome.”[3]  For Nietzsche, traditional notions of good and evil, right and wrong, needed to be discarded in favor of whatever gained a person the most power.  This is why Nietzsche so vehemently railed against Christianity.  He regarded Christianity as the font and foundation of a fundamentally broken ethic that favored servility over supremacy.  Nietzsche wrote of Christianity:

I regard Christianity as the most fatal and seductive lie that has ever yet existed – as the greatest and most impious lie: I can discern the last sprouts and branches of its ideal beneath every form of disguise, I decline to enter into any compromise or false position in reference to it – I urge people to declare open war with it.[4]

According to Nietzsche, Christianity’s ethics had to be destroyed so an ethic of power might prevail.  But here’s the funny thing about Nietzsche’s quest to destroy Christian ethics:  in his quest to destroy Christian ethics, he appeals to a Christian ethic – that of truthfulness.  He calls Christianity a “fatal and seductive lie.”  Using Nietzsche’s own ethical standard, I am compelled to ask, “So what?  If this fatal and seductive lie has led to the ascendency of Christian power, and power is the ultimate good, what’s the problem?”

Yes, traditional ethics – even in a Nietzschean nihilist worldview – stubbornly rear their heads.  Yes, traditional ethics – even in our sexually saturated civilization – continue to inform our moral outrages.  Traditional ethics just won’t die.

But why won’t they die, despite our most valiant efforts to vanquish them?

Maybe, just maybe, it’s because traditional ethics are true.  And maybe, just maybe, truth has a pull on the human heart that can be clouded by lies of relativism and nihilism, but never eclipsed.  And for that, I thank God.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

[1] Christine Mai-Duc, “Judge in rape case criticized for light sentence, remarks about victim,” Los Angeles Times (8.28.2013).

[2] Betsy Karasik, “The unintended consequences of laws addressing sex between teachers and students,” Washington Post (8.30.2013).

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist, H.L. Mencken, trans. (New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1920), 42-43.

[4] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will To Power, 2 vols., Anthony M. Ludovici, trans. ( Publishing, 2010), 82.

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