[Brian Shelley had made some interesting remarks on previous religious posts, and I asked him to elaborate. — RPM]
What Jesus introduces in the Sermon on the Mount and then the Apostle Paul expounds
on in Romans is an exposition on why personal ethics are of limited value and
unnecessary. This is what separates Christianity so dramatically from Judaism and Islam.
Jesus replaces ethics with two concepts:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your
mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your
neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Matthew 22: 37-40
The problem with personal ethics or moral laws is that they are poor at producing the
desired ends. Even though moral attitudes against stealing are pretty universal, it still
happens with frequency. The underlying premise to this moral law is that stealing feels
really good, but you shouldn’t do it because of some altruistic reasoning or supernatural
punishment. As economists know, altruism is a poor motivator. Exhortations
like, “What if everyone stole?” sound nice, but because the idea offers no personal
incentive, it fails to produce the desired result. A far off hell or ethereal cosmic forces of
justice clearly haven’t cured us.
At the core of any ethical system are logical presuppositions. Mises folk like to
say, “Taxation is theft,” and as Gene Callahan likes to say, “Only if you accept the
Rothbardian worldview.” There are no objective ethics, they are chosen to fit our desires.
We want to live, ergo killing people is wrong. Intense desires and emotions can make
us drop our ethics in the blink of an eye. A building gets blown up and suddenly we can
kill foreigners without due process. The stock market plunges so now we can confiscate
private property. We do it as a society and we surely do it as individuals.
It’s unlikely that any man has ever woken up in the morning and thinks to
himself, “Today, I will cheat on my wife.” It’s a slow rationalizing progression. He
meets a pretty woman, decides that it’s okay to flirt, then it’s okay to e-mail, then it’s okay to
go to lunch, then it’s okay to call, then it’s okay to have dinner while his wife’s out of town,
then it’s okay to lie about working late so that he can meet her, and after quite some time he
is finally convinced that it’s okay for him to sleep with her. His mind slowly rationalized
what he wanted to do, while not intending at first to go so far. His ethics might have
slowed him down, but they are no guarantee to stop him. Our minds will change our
ethics to achieve the things we desire.
The Pharisees of ancient Israel recognized this phenomenon and put up extra rules
beyond those that God had given to the Israelites in the Old Testament. Rules-based
religions fall prey to the habit of adding extra rules so you don’t break the “real” rules.
You can’t flirt with a pretty woman if you ban women from working in the same office,
refuse to eat at the same table with them, or hide them with yards of fabric.
What Jesus says is, “…anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed
adultery with her in his heart.” For the Pharisee this is a frighteningly strict expansion of
adultery. What they misunderstand is the overall point that Jesus was making. You don’t
need rules, you need to change your desires. You need redemption. Stop trying not to
cheat, remove the lust from your heart. Paul corroborates the need for redemption over
ethics when he says that the law was powerless to do what was accomplished by Christ’s
redemption of man on the cross.
Jesus also tells us of personal incentives to righteous living, in the form of the Kingdom
of God and eternal life. He could be speaking strictly of heaven, but I doubt it. He told
the woman at the well, “…whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed,
the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
The reward appears to be fulfillment and purposefulness. Paul also speaks of rewards
with, “The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is
life and peace.”
What Jesus is saying is the opposite of what many Christians think today. We often
treat righteousness as an onerous burden of arbitrary rules that we suffer through until
we die and go to heaven. Both Jesus and Paul give clear indication that rewards for
righteousness begin now, not after death. Sin is therefore unmasked as a fraud. If
righteousness yields life, fulfillment and purpose, then sin yields death, emptiness and
This reward is not some ethereal experience, but an outflow of how we and the world
around us were designed. You hate, you suffer. You lust, you suffer. You covet,
you suffer. You love, you feel joy. You follow Christ, you feel joy. We become
disconnected from this truth because we idolize things other than God. In our arrogance
we have decided that we already know the answers and we cloud our minds with
cognitive bias, seeking only the evidence that reinforces the truth we “know.” Until we
submit to Christ’s redemptive power, we will rationalize ourselves away from joy and the
ultimate satisfaction we all long for.