Ethicists normally have a bad reputation. They point the finger at your problematic behavior. They tell you what's wrong with your moral conduct. They always look for limitations and prohibitions. “You should stop doing this! Don't go further!” Either that, or they want you to change your life. “Do this and that, you should behave in that way to be a good person,” and so on.
Can you imagine an ethicist encouraging you to enjoy, relax, or give up doing something?
An ethics of relinquishing does just that.
At first glance, “relinquishing” seems to be a negative command as well. And, indeed, relinquishing means “giving up,” “surrendering,” or “waiving a right” you are entitled to. Relinquishing, however, is not asceticism. By giving up, you gain something at the same time. Furthermore, no one commands you what to give up; there is no legal prohibition or moral pressure. In contrast, the act of relinquishing is based on a sovereign and voluntary decision. If something is withheld or stipulated, then the action is no longer an act of relinquishing.
Let's have a closer look at one application of this “ethics of relinquishing”: vegetarianism. In traditional economic ethics, one reads about social justice and sustainability mostly in connection with an ethics of limitations. Here we are back to the ethics of “you should stop doing this!” with all the incumbent emotions and reactions. Do you remember how you felt, for example, when a strict vegetarian told you to stop eating meat? It is the moralist’s trap, which often results in the opposite behavior one intended to encourage.
There are, however, a growing number of people who want to consume vegetarian and vegan food in Germany, and all over the world. Within the frame of a Master’s thesis, which was done in relation to my Enhancing Life project, interviews with several grocers across Germany revealed that there is a large market for “replacement products,” that is, products like veggie burgers and meatless sausage. Although some vegans argue strongly for vegan food without alternative, many people these days—especially young people—are not vegetarians or vegans but like to consume vegetarian or vegan food from time to time. They do this for several reasons: the delicious taste, health benefits, compassion for animals, and so on.
These days, the vast majority of consumers of vegetarian food are not political or idealistic activists. They do not see themselves as following a vegetarian law or living according to a code. There is no agenda of “vegetarian rights” nor a law of justice for animals to be followed. They don't view themselves as ascetics, displaying their struggles. They decide voluntarily to give up eating meat or to eat less meat, but they still want to consume good food. Thus, they surrender and enjoy at the same time.
There are many other replacement products which work the same way, such as alcohol-free beer and e-cigarettes. German economists I am working with call them “Verzichtsprodukte” -“products of relinquishing.” This term may seem paradoxical, but it illustrates an important aspect of the ethics of relinquishing, which I am exploring in my Enhancing Life research project. On my account, an ethics of relinquishing specifically holds together this dynamic of gaining and giving up. The action of surrendering is not done for its own sake, but because it serves a certain goal or greater purpose. Furthermore, the act of relinquishing is based on a voluntary decision. The claim that one relinquishes is not inherently viewed as ethically problematic or evil. Therefore, my working definition is:
A moral agent consciously and voluntarily waives a claim/an option to something on the basis of certain norms and values in order to achieve a particular goal.
As a scholar of the New Testament, I see one source of inspiration for such an ethics of relinquishing in the Bible.
People don’t often think of the Bible as an encouragement for consuming and enjoying. But our impressions of the Bible may be misleading. Within the writings of the Apostle Paul, there is not one single norm that must be followed for all people in all circumstances. Rather, Pauline ethics are pluralistic and appeal to individuals’ decisions. Furthermore, Paul’s ethics include several acts of relinquishing, which are closely linked to further goals and admissions: Paul not only advises to relinquish eating meat (Rom. 14:21; 1 Cor. 9:4), but also encourages to eat meat (1Cor 10:25, 27: eat whatever is sold in the meat market/whatever set before); he gives advice not to marry (1Cor 7:7-8; 7:38), but also to marry (1Cor 7:9) and to have sex with your partner (1Cor 7:3-4). Paul accepts payment from the community of Philippi (Phil 4:10), but relinquishes any support of living costs from the Corinthians (1 Cor. 9:7-15). The apostle often invites his addressees not to lay claim to something to which they were entitled - this include material goods, as well as immaterial goods, such as power, knowledge, and freedom. He even emboldens the community to waive rights in a juridical sense (1 Cor. 6:1-11).
In my work, I analyze these acts of ‘giving up’ against the social context, the norms, the form of reflection - what I call the “implicit ethics” of biblical texts. By doing so we learn a lot about the inner motivation, norms, contexts, and goals of such an “ethics of relinquishing.” In contrast to other New Testament authors, Paul not only stipulates behavior but also shows the problems with existing norms of conduct and seeks to establish new ones. There are recurring guiding norms which hint at a hierarchy of strong and weak values, e.g. love is superior to knowledge, community more valuable than freedom of the individual. Paul presents arguments, but also reflects upon them and, in doing so, utilizes diverse linguistic forms and seeks to involve his audience in the process of his way of thinking. Thus, it is entirely justified to speak of Pauline “ethics.” There is a coherent way of reflection, which includes not only arguments, emotions and bodily aspects of the moral agent, but also beliefs, hopes, and religious existence in general. Therefore, this “ethics” could also be named the “spiritual laws” of Paul. For Paul, however, the ‘law of Christ’ (Gal 6:2), undermines the term “law” in a traditional or common sense, referring to the Jewish Torah or the law in a modern juridical sense. Paul’s “practical ethics” are not normative in a sense of contractual ethics. There are no laws or rules simply to be applied. On the contrary, he only offers building blocks to develop one´s own ethics adequate to new situations in different contexts.
Following this path, the analysis of these texts inspired me to develop a theory of an “ethics of relinquishing,” which is amenable for current ethical debate in different fields. Within the various aspects of such an ethics, I mention only two here:
1) voluntariness: The ethics of relinquishing keeps space for one’s own decisions and integrity. It is an inviting ethic, which offers opportunities, but does not demand allegiance. It is up to a moral agent to what extent he or she is willing to follow this invitation. This flexibility also includes temporal aspects. There is not only a classificatory value system, which categorizes objects as valuable or worthless and leads to oppositions such as “good/bad” or “right/wrong.” Within the ethics of relinquishing, valuable norms are compared with each other in order to determine, e.g., whether one is currently more valuable than another, but this does not lead to an absolute statement.
2) Suspenseful balance: Surrendering can be done for its own sake. However, the ethics of relinquishing is characterized by something else. One relinquishes or waives a claim to something (action, extant desires, legitimate rights), but does not only give up. He or she gains something of similar or even greater value. Giving up and gaining remain in a balance. Indeed, it is painful to give up, but it is joyful to gain. Both actions are in a reciprocal relation: you gain by giving up, you surrender but are enriched by doing so. In that way, both aspects form a suspenseful balance. The ethics of relinquishing differs from the tradition of asceticism (in certain forms). Giving up does not mean you force yourself to do something. That which is given up does not necessarily have a negative connotation, e.g. opulent food, excessive desires.
Having explored the ‘ethics of relinquishing’ in a more abstract way, it can easily be demonstrated that this way of thinking can be applied in different fields in current ethical debates. The introductory example, consuming food, is only one possible field of application. There are many others, in which an ethics of relinquishing can inspire moral conduct, such as bioethics (medical treatment; end-of-life decisions), use of media, use of data, etc.
This leads me to the conclusion that the Bible reveals a spiritual law of an ethics of relinquishing which can be drawn for many situations. The Bible, however, does not offer norms simply to be applied, but may serve as, in Paul Ricoeur’s words, a “first laboratory of moral judgment.”
In sum, my research discovers a moral way of living in Early Christianity, which I have developed towards an “ethics of relinquishing.” The important aspect of this ethics, the inner logic, can be described as follows: We gain when we give up. Life is enhanced by relinquishing. There is no reason to complain about relinquishing. On the contrary: Relinquishing can be enjoyed.