2. Birth of a new ethics
Certainly a new prospect that we are facing, which is demanding a response, is the contemporary birth of a new ethics.(4) In the last 20 years, in many countries of the Western world, a whole new series of ethical concepts has appeared, expressing a certain moral awareness and a perception of moral dilemmas, but at the same manifesting a fundamental epistemological flaw.
Crossing boundaries of nations and states, the media are using the same new concepts which express attitudes and preconceptions that are assessed either positively or negatively. We read about a global ethics, about cultural liberty, dialogue between civilizations, the quality of life, informed choice, gender equality, single-parenting, sexual orientation, bodily integrity, same-sex marriage, right of choice, reproductive rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, the right to die, transparency, holism, inclusiveness, nondiscrimination, ecological awareness, solidarity, openness and tolerance, and we read also about new vices such as exclusiveness, apartheid, homophobia, sexual molestation, populism, ultra-Catholicism.
At the same time traditional moral concepts such as truth, conscience, moral law, reason, moral virtue, perseverance, fidelity, parents, spouses, virginity, chastity, authority, commandments, sin, and nature are disappearing.
This is coupled with profound social and moral changes. The number of those who in their lives will never have the chance to use such words like father, brother, sister, aunt or uncle is increasing, while new terms like partner, or former wife are becoming more common.
The appearance of these new moral concepts is coupled with an immediate normative qualification, the foundations of which are not philosophical, but political and ideological.
No serious ethical reflection has attempted to define precisely the new terms, which remain, as if purposely vague, while their application or the rejection of previous terms is decided by politicians and by media empires. It is they who decide about the meaning or the change of meaning of such words as marriage, or family, which tragic events may be described as genocide and which may not, what is an expression of a justified liberty of interpretation and what is unacceptable dogmatism, or that homosexual activity may not be defined as a psychic disorder or as a sin.
The new ethical terms are interconnected and mutually supportive, while at the same time they are blurred. Some of them can be interpreted in a traditional way, but they are mostly used in a deconstructive manner, weakening the attachment to moral values and replacing it with an approval of blatantly immoral behavior, caused by the underlying cognitive skepticism of the new ethic.
This new ethic is at the same time individualistic and global, but never personalistic or universal. It witnesses the screening out of the family and of the nation-state, and the growth of supranational, global institutions, pressure groups and ideologies. The new ethic has a direct impact on education, on social welfare and health care, on taxation systems, on codes of behavior in institutions and enterprises, and on public, national and global policies. This new global ethic has appeared in a silent way, with no revolution and no social upheavals. It is engineered in a soft way, and it has succeeded in influencing not only policies, but above all the mentalities of people.
In itself, the appearance of new virtues is not anything new. The names of virtues express a moral awareness, which is always culturally conditioned. St. Thomas Aquinas, in his magisterial study of the virtues, came across some moral sensibilities for which he did not have an appropriate Latin term, and so he held on to their Greek terms, writing about the virtues of “epikeia,” “synesis” and “gnome.”(5)
The modern appearance of positive terms such as solidarity or tolerance, or of negative terms such as egoism, which do not appear in the classical catalogue of virtues and vices, manifests the development of moral awareness and the formulation of terms to describe it. The understanding of how to live out a virtuous life is always socially conditioned, and cultural expectations and their verbal formulations have an impact on moral sensibility.
The present greater social interaction of a globalized world accounts for the migration of moral perceptions. What in one period of history or culture was seen as shocking, in another culture is marginalized, while attentiveness to other injustices is sharpened. The present problem lies however, not in the fact that new moral concepts have been formulated that express new virtues, but in the fact that these concepts are not clear and precise, even as they function, and so this presents a challenge for ethicists to study them in the light of the objective, nature-based moral order, and to ensure that their meaning will become clear and purified of moral relativism.