What do you do when you are alone that you would never do in the presence of another?
Is there anything you do when you are alone that would horrify you if significant others in your life were to know?
Why is the moral force of unethical behavior seemingly diminished when not done in the presence of others?
Who are we when no one sees?
The gold ring of Gyges is a mythical artifact used for illustration by the philosopher Plato in his Socratic dialogue, The Republic. The ring granted its owner the power to become invisible at will. With this idea, Plato considers whether an intelligent person would be moral if he or she did not have to fear being caught or punished. The question is posed whether anyone would be so virtuous that he or she could actually resist the temptation of being able to perform any act without being known or discovered. The assumption of the illustration is that morality is only a social construct. The desire to maintain one’s reputation for virtue and justice is the real source of morality. If social sanction were removed, one’s moral character would evaporate. Justice as a personal virtue would disappear.
“Imagine now that there were two such magic rings,” contends Glaucon, one of The Republic’s characters, “and the just person put on one of them and the unjust the other; no one can be imagined to be of such an iron will that he would stick to what is right and keep his hands from taking other people’s property. He could safely take whatever he liked out of the market, or go into any house and lie with anyone at his pleasure. He could kill or release from prison anyone he wanted to. In all respects, he would be like a god having supernatural powers among human beings. In all this the just person would differ in no way from the unjust, but both would follow the same course. This, it would be claimed, is great proof that a person is not moral, not willingly or because he thinks that doing right is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever anyone thinks that he can safely be unethical, there he is immoral. For all men believe in their hearts that unethical behavior is far more profitable to the individual than doing what is right. Thus, those who argue as I have been supposing will say that they are right. If you could imagine anyone obtaining this power of becoming invisible and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought of by onlookers to be a most wretched idiot—although they would praise him to one another, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice.”2
In the ensuing debate, Socrates challenges this notion. He argues that moral behavior does not derive from this kind of social construct. In his opinion, the one who abuses the power of the ring of Gyges has in fact enslaved himself to his own appetites, while the man who chose not to abuse it remained rationally in control of self and was therefore happy.3 Why do we do things “behind the seen,” where no one knows—things we would never do in the open? Does this moral phenomenon reflect fallen human nature? Does it reflect the very nature of moral evil? Does it reflect our internal moral values? Does it reveal an inadequate grasp of a given ethical principle or action—its ethical implications or moral nature, its consequence in terms of our own being in relation to self, others, and God? Does it mean that something morally significant has not been adequately internalized—in terms of our reason, value, or character?
The distinction between morality and ethics is an important one. Morals generally refer to our awareness of right and wrong and our commitment toward right behavior. We may choose what is right but may not know clearly what makes the activity right or why we should do that right. By contrast, ethics deals with how to distinguish right from wrong and why we should do the right. Two people can share the same moral convictions or behavior, but they could easily have very different ethics. How? Because ethics explains the answer to the question, Why is that wrong?
What is it about the nature of moral evil that leads us to do things secretly? What is it about human nature that causes us to do things in secret? What is it about moral vision that says we are not wrong—and don’t experience shame and guilt—unless we are seen? Who are we when we do so? What is our ethics?
The Question of Being
Is there internal versus external moral perception, initiative, and restraint? Does invisibility—human behavior expressed without the knowledge or observation of other moral beings, i.e., anonymity, secrecy, privacy—provide a platform for moral evil? Are we who we are in the presence of others only? Or are we who we are when we are alone? Who are we really—in terms of our moral being?
In these questions, three entwined matters emerge: (1) moral being; (2) ethical principles and action; and (3) the nature of individual personhood—character and conscience—in relation to the ethos of one’s community.
Ethics is a matter of the heart. It is about who we are at the core of our being—before God. Character is what we are when no one sees but God. Internally, character is part gyroscope, part brake that provides our deepest source of bearings and strongest source of restraint. “In many instances the first prompting to do good and the last barrier against doing wrong are the same—character.”4 The possession of moral principles does not necessarily, by itself, lead to their observance. Unlike principles or rules or social restraint, character is always with us, always immediately present in any situation. Weakness of character can thwart or distort the application of the highest set of principles. Strength of character can carry us through situations in which we cannot remember a principle. Externally, character provides the point of trust that links us with others—as siblings, parents, leaders, spouses, citizens, members of the body of Christ.
Shame and Honor Contexts
The question of internal versus external moral initiative and restraint in honor and shame contexts is illustrative. In honor and shame contexts, individuals tend to avoid doing wrong, not because they are necessarily concerned about right or wrong (or even understand right from wrong), but because others are watching. Likewise, they do what is right not because it is right, but because doing so brings (or maintains) honor. Maintaining honor becomes the highest value. It is a tacit ethics. In other words, in shame and honor contexts, one is who he or she is when in the presence of others. Actions that might be considered right or wrong are not attached directly to honor or shame. Nor are they internalized as part of personhood or conscience.5
“Another dimension of this internal/external question in honor and shame contexts is the view of human nature which assumes human beings cannot do what is right unless they are externally controlled. They do right, not only because others are watching, but because they are constrained to do so. . . . The community thus offers protection and establishes social convention to help the individual stay within expected moral boundaries.”6
This reflects a view of human nature that assumes that humans do right only if others are watching. It is also a tacit statement that ethics is a social construction.
In shame and honor contexts, one can observe a spectrum of internal/external references with respect to moral orientation and agency. This spectrum reflects a matrix of organically linked positrons on a scale between contrasting points (see Figure 1). These contrasting points include the spectrum one finds him or herself on between: (1) “being” and “doing”—who one is deep down in his or her inner world and how much he or she authentically expresses that outwardly in behavior; (2) individual moral ethos, perception, initiative, and restraint as opposed to community group ethos/restraint; (3) internal moral perception and agency and externally articulated/enforced morally as opposed to how one outwardly behaves morally (see Figure 1); (4) how one is internally oriented morally as opposed to how one outwardly behaves morally; (5) whether or not there is substantive inner moral vision or whether one relates merely on a routine moral surface level—moralism, legalism, culture, habit; (6) personal openness (transparency) and self-disclosure as opposed to concealment, secrecy, facelessness; (7) integrity and duplicity; (8) visibility (seen) and invisibility (unseen, anonymity); and (9) purposive accountability as opposed to determined individuality and independence.
One’s personal spectrum blend on this matrix offers critical insight into his or her moral orientation and agency. Positioning oneself between the contrasting points can help highlight our moral being and action when no one sees. It reminds us of the issues involved in ethics for the invisible.
Invisibility and Moral Darkness
What of the relationship between invisibility and moral evil? Are they linked? Does it reveal something about human nature? Does invisibility provide a platform for unethical behavior?
Scripture describes darkness and light as spheres of moral influence and orientation. We take on or reflect the character of the sphere in which we live—darkness or light: “You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness. . . . It is light that makes everything visible. This is why it is said: ‘Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’ Be very careful, then, how you live” (Eph. 5:8–15).
This passage does not say that we used to be in darkness, but now are in light. It says rather, that we ourselves as followers of Christ are now actually light in the world (vs. 8). Our life—not just our environment—has been changed from darkness to light.
The above-mentioned “deeds of darkness” (vs. 11) not only have their origin in darkness and are characterized by darkness, but also by their very nature reflect the invisibility and anonymity that evil covets, and so often operates within and emerges from. Darkness implies invisibility. The text raises issues of secrecy, visibility, anonymity, and exposure: “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for it is light that makes everything visible” (vss. 11–13).
Invisibility, then, is a hallmark of moral darkness: “‘This is the judgment, that the Light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light; for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light, lest his deeds should be exposed’” (John 3:19, 20, NASB); “Woe to those who deeply hide their plans from the Lord, and whose deeds are done in a dark place, and they say, ‘Who sees us?’ or ‘Who knows us?’” (Isa. 29:15, NASB); “Then He said to me, ‘Son of man, do you see what the elders of the house of Israel are committing in the dark, each man in the room of his carved images?’ For they say, ‘The Lord does not see us; the Lord has forsaken the land’” (Ezek. 8:12, NASB); “He says to himself, ‘God has forgotten; He has hidden His face; He will never see it’” (Ps. 10:11, NASB).
In contrast, visibility is a hallmark of the sphere of light characterized by integrity, goodness, righteousness and truth (Eph. 5:9): “‘Whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God’” (John 3:21); “Everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for it is light that makes everything visible” (Eph. 5:13). The biblical phenomenon of conversion is in view here, but so also its moral and ethical implications. It points to how the light of gospel truth so radically transforms one inwardly that invisibility, secrecy, concealment, and anonymity—darkness—are no longer one’s point of reference or sphere of moral vision and action.
More important, this sphere of light reflects the moral character and ways of God: “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). Any hiddenness of God in no way exhibits deceit, unethical purpose or being, but relates to divine providence, sovereignty, and redemptive purpose. God does not and cannot lie, but is always true to who He really is as our holy Covenant Creator and Redeemer (Heb. 6:13, 18). God’s being and His ways, while displaying a paradox of transparency and hiddenness, are nevertheless morally coherent and consistent in terms of motive, righteousness, and justice (Rev. 15:3, 4). Jesus lived this ethical paradox of the hidden/transparent when, on the one hand He spoke openly to the world and said nothing in secret (John 18:20), and on the other hand, He would not fully disclose Himself and would sometimes travel in secret when challenged to show His true colors (John 7:4, 10). He often engaged hypocrisy as a moral phenomenon where outward life did not cohere with a person’s true self (Matt. 23:28). For Jesus, hypocrites were actors under an assumed character performing to an audience—thus externally oriented morally. He asserts that it is from the heart, from within, that moral action for good or bad emanates (Mark 7:21–23; Luke 6:45). It is to the heart that He directs His redemptive appeal and power of the Holy Spirit (Heb. 4:12; Prov. 23:26; 2 Cor. 3:2, 3).
Visibility—and the authenticity, transparency, and inner integrity that it assumes—were the hallmark of the apostle Paul’s life and leadership ethos. Paul’s heart, motives, and behavior were consistently transparent after his conversion (2 Cor. 6:11–13; 1 Thess. 2:3–10; Acts 20:18–21, 33, 34, 2 Cor. 1:12; 4:2). He linked his transparency to his own person, character, and conscience (Acts 24:16; Rom. 9:1; 1 Cor. 4:4; Heb. 13:18).
The moral transparency this kind of visibility both demands and exhibits comes from within a person and reflects the conscious presence of God: “You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. . . . You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. . . . Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? . . . Even the darkness will not be dark to you. . . Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps. 139:1, 3, 7, 12, 23, 24).
With God, there is no secrecy, no darkened place, no anonymity that would allow “deeds of darkness.”
When No One Sees
The running premise here is that character has to do with who we are when no one sees but God. Character is what and who we are—whether people are watching or not—but God is. My character is the “kind of person I am” no matter where I am or who sees or does not see. As implied already, the possession of moral principles does not necessarily, by itself, lead to their observance. Unlike principles or rules or social restraint, character is always with us, always immediately present in any situation. Weakness of character can thwart or distort the application of the highest set of principles. Strength of character can carry us through situations in which we cannot remember a principle. Nowhere is this exhibited most clearly than invisibility—when we are alone, where no one sees.
Joseph’s response to the sexual overtures from Potiphar’s wife is illustrative (Gen. 39:7–12). The witness of his moral vision and action demonstrate: (1) how as individual persons we can secure our honor through right behavior in relation to God no matter the circumstances, consequences, or cultural valuation of honor and shame; (2) how as an individual we can nurture the awareness of God’s presence and the idea that it matters what God sees; (3) how human personhood includes self-awareness (conscience) and a sense of self-honor when faced with any moral dilemma; (4) how we can choose God-honoring, other-honoring, and self-honoring behavior when there is no community to protect, constrain, or enforce—moral protection comes from within us, not from without; and (5) how even in honor and shame contexts, the individual can remain captain of his or her own soul. These must be understood of course in the context of a relationship with the living God who empowers the individual toward moral excellence and honor. Willpower alone is inadequate protection in a biblically informed ethics. God will honor the man or woman who chooses to honor Him through moral choice and action with internal empowerment to do so.
How Joseph’s experience narrates an awareness of God in relation to our own person and inner moral self is profoundly significant. As David would say, “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer” (Ps. 19:14). And, as already referred to above, “O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. . . . You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. . . . Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? . . . Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts” (139:1, 3, 7, 23).
One senses that perhaps it is invisibility more than visibility that expresses the nature of ethics and moral excellence. Maybe invisibility and ethics cohere more than invisibility and moral evil or fallen human nature do. Whichever, it is clear that character is truly expressed either way in the greys and blacks, anonymity and solitude, of invisibility. The same phenomenon—invisibility—is the context for both moral excellence and moral failure. Joseph give witness of the former biblical ethics for the invisible.
An ethics for the invisible would be incomplete without at least a brief discussion or understanding of conscience. The Greek word for conscience means, “to know with, to see together, to agree with.” This “knowing with,” this “agreeing with,” is fundamental self-awareness and inner agreement with one’s self. Conscience has to do with our relationship to our own self. Conscience is when we speak as a moral being to ourselves. It comes from a depth that lies beyond our own will, and our own reason, and it makes itself heard as the call for inner unity within our inner private world—our very self. Conscience is a call of our self to maintain some consistency within its impulses, its ideals, its values, and its perceptions. Conscience judges: our words (what we say and how), our thoughts (recurring and persistent), our attitudes (inner feelings and opinions), our motives (reasons that we do what we do), and our actions (what we do and how we do it). Scripture gives witness of a weak conscience (1 Cor. 8:10–12), a seared conscience (1 Tim. 4:1, 2), a cleansed conscience (Heb. 9:14), a clear conscience (1 Peter 3:15, 16), and a good conscience (Acts 23:1).
Conscience comes as an indictment of the loss of this inner unity and as a warning against the loss of one’s self. That’s why it is never advisable to act against one’s own conscience. Disregarding conscience will necessarily entail the destruction of one’s own being. Abuse of conscience can be destructive (1 Tim. 1:18, 19; 4:2; 1 Cor. 8:7, 10, 12; Rom. 2:15).
There is need for our moral senses and faculties to be trained sufficiently through practice and habit to discriminate and distinguish between what is morally good and noble, and what is evil and contrary to divine or human law—and then to live by this gyroscope/brake (Heb. 5:14, paraphrase).
Internal Moral Restraint
As suggested in the “spectrum of moral reference” (see Figure 1), the dynamic of a biblically informed internal moral restraint/initiative is multifaceted. It includes: (1) moral orientation—our inclination, attitude, moral alignment, and identity; (2) moral vision—our moral imagination, moral frames of reference, spheres of moral alignments, and cultivated capacity; (3) moral being—our character in relation to consistency of the habits of our heart (thought, value, desire, self-honesty, self-transparency); (4) moral compass—our conscience in relation to external objective moral principles, norms, standards, and authority of Scripture and God; (5) moral valuation—the understanding our own value system in relation to patterns in our choice and action, value formation, ultimate values, values in relation to God, self, others, objects, and what pleases God; (6) moral accountability—to God, to others, to oneself; (7) moral discipline—our thinking, attitudes, self-contextualization, personal or community boundaries, self-control, moral innocence or naiveté, and practice (habit or developed thought or behavioral patterns); (8) moral reorientation—our experience of conversion, inner transformation, and renewal; and (9) moral dependence—Holy Spirit strength in our inner self.
The dynamic nature of each facet of internal moral restraint begs for more than mere listing as above. Their implications demand our personal attention and thoughtful expansion in keeping with a biblically informed ethics. Doing so would be in keeping with the pregnant exhortation: “God would have His servants become acquainted with the moral machinery of their own hearts.”7 This is what ethics for the invisible is about: understanding the moral machinery of our own hearts—who we are when no one sees but self and God.
Here we are reminded: “All true obedience comes from the heart. It was heart work with Christ. And if we consent, He will so identify Himself with our thoughts and aims, so blend our hearts and minds into conformity to His will, that when obeying Him we shall be but carrying out our own impulses.”8
In the end, and in every moment of invisibility, “The greatest want of the world is the want of men—men who will not be bought or sold, men who in their inmost souls are true and honest, men who do not fear to call sin by its right name, men whose conscience is as true to duty as the needle to the pole, men who will stand for the right though the heavens fall.”9
Larry Lichtenwalter, Ph.D., is Dean of Theology and Chair of the Department of Islamic and Arabic Studies, Middle East University, Beirut, Lebanon.
NOTES AND REFERENCES