Saturday, April 14, 2007

Ethical Systems and Moral Dilemmas: Part 1

Ethical Systems and Moral Dilemmas: Part 1

This series in three parts covers the three sections of my first project for my “Growing Into Ethical Maturity” class. For my defense, each part may feel like I am racing through, only briefly covering deep issues. That’s because I am. :o) We were given a maximum of nine pages. I could have easily taken fifteen. The third part, application, is especially short changed.

Here are a few notes for all three parts. First, pronouns referring to God are not capitalized, not due to a lack of respect, but because it gets really cumbersome in a longer paper. Second, this is an academic paper, so I’m using my academic voice. There are also references to technical terms that we discussed in class, which is why I did not need to define them in the paper. I’ve tried to anticipate what terms I need to define for someone not in my course, and provided those. Third, the only reference I use is our text book, because this was a synthesis, not a research, paper. Here’s the citation:

Clark, David K. and Robert V. Rakestraw. Readings in Christian Ethics. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994. pp 17-61, 113-137.

For part one, we were to describe our own personal ethical systems. I am including the specific questions that we were to address to give you points to think through as you define your own ethical system.

  • What constitutes an action as right or wrong, good or bad?
  • How does one know what is right or wrong, good or bad?
  • What is the proper motivation for moral action?
  • What role do the following issues have in your system:
  • regard for oneself and for one’s own welfare?
  • others?
  • consequences?
  • duty or universal principles?
  • reason, God, and Scripture?
  • virtue and character?

Personal Ethical System

A coherent ethical system is possible and necessary. In describing my personal ethical system, I affirm that right and wrong, good and bad, do ontologically exist and are epistemologically knowable. Moral absolutes are rooted in God’s own person. God is good, existentially, and there is no good apart from him (Mk10:18). God’s moral commands are not arbitrary, nor is there a moral standard apart from and above God. Rather, they flow from his character; God commands the good because he is good (Lev 19:2). Thus, actions are determined to be right or wrong, good or bad, based on how they line up with God’s commands and character.

Moral absolutes are knowable because God has chosen to reveal himself and his will to us. God reveals himself in his creation (Ps 19, Rom 1), his incarnation (Jn1:1-3, 14), his written word (2 Tim 3:16), and his Holy Spirit (Jn16:7-15; Acts 2:17-18). God is a personal, communicative being. God spoke creation into existence and has continued to speak to his creation. Micah 6:8 affirms that God communicates moral commands: “No, the Lord has told us what is good. What he requires of us is this: to do what is just, to show constant love, and to live in humble fellowship with our God.” (GNB) Living in humble fellowship with God is how one comes to know what is good. Because moral absolutes flow from the character of God, the better I know God, the better equipped I am to live morally.

A coherent ethical system is rooted in a proper relationship with God, which includes growing in understanding of and conformity to all of his revelation. Because moral absolutes come from God’s own character, as I am conformed to his image my character becomes more and more like God’s character, and I am better able to live ethically. I must submit to being and seek to be conformed and transformed to his will and likeness (Rom 8:29, 12:2). I must have knowledge of his written word and I must use my reason to determine how that word is applied. Throughout all I must rely on the Holy Spirit’s help and guidance.

My motivation for ethical behavior also comes from my living in fellowship with God. As I grow in my relationship with God, so too does my motivation for obedience mature. Fear of punishment for not obeying moral absolutes is a valid motivation (e.g. Jonah 3:4-10), as is anticipation of a future reward for acting rightly (e.g., Dt 5:16). A better motivation is obeying God simply because he commanded me to. Fear of punishment or anticipation of reward are future consequences and I may ignore them and act immorally in the face of a great enough immediate gratification. Thus doing my duty for duty’s sake is a better motivation than anticipation of rewards or consequences. But the best motivation for acting rightly is because I love God and seek to please him. Machiavelli was wrong when he maintained that fear is a better motivator for obedience than love. He was correct in observing that fear motivates quicker obedience. However, fear is a short term motivator. Constant long term fear will lead to rebellion. On the other hand, love is a long term motivator. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (Jn14:15) This is both a motivation to, and a promise of, obedience. The more I walk with God, the closer a relationship I will have with him, and the less I will want to grieve him by acting immorally.

When faced with a specific ethical decision, I rely on the modified command theory utilizing a mixed deontology. It is my duty to obey the moral absolutes given by God. This is even if I anticipate that great good will result from my not obeying. (The converse of anticipating great evil resulting from obeying also holds, but will be addressed in greater detail in section two.) However, finding the correct application of God’s moral absolutes will often involve consideration of the results of my actions. Clark describes this well, “In a mixed deontology, it is always my duty to love, but consequences properly help me decide just what that duty requires of me concretely.” (Clark, 21) All things being equal, the action that obeys God’s moral absolutes and produces the greatest good for the greatest number is the action to take. Jesus explains that my greatest priority is to love God with my whole being and then to love my neighbor as I love myself. (Mt 22:35-39) By perfectly obeying these two commandments I then obey all of God’s moral absolutes. (Mt 22:40, Rom 13:8) In this command is the understanding that I will have concern for myself, for I love others in the manner that I love myself. (See also Eph 5:28-29) However, when the choice is between the good of my neighbor or my own good, even to the extreme of my life, I am to sacrifice my own good. (Jn 15:12-13, Ps 15:1, 4)

Some definitions:

Ontologically Ontology deals with the nature and relations of being and existence. Ontology asks, “What makes goodness good? What justifies the right?”

Epistemologically Epistemology deals with the nature and ground of knowledge. It asks, “How can I come to know what is right?” When I say that moral absolutes ontologically exist and are epistemologically knowable, I am making a technical philosophic statement. Moral absolutes really do exist and we really are capable of knowing them. This is completely in contrast with the post-modern, relativistic culture we live in, which affirms everyone has access to their own personal truth, but that objective Truth does not exist. But this is fodder for a completely separate post. :o)

God is good, existentially What I mean is that God, in his very being and existence, is good. Humans can act good and do good things, but goodness is not fundamentally our very being and existence. Again, this is for a completely separate post. :o)

Modified command theory Command theory is that we are to govern our conduct by what God says. God says it, so we do it. The problem with that simple statement is that it makes God seem arbitrary. Could God command rape, and then it becomes a moral good? That flies in the face of reason. To correct this, the idea is posited that God commands things because they are good. But that makes it sound like there is a higher standard of good above God to which he must conform. That doesn’t fit either. So modified command theory is that God is good, and he only acts in accordance with his character, so it is both true that he commands the good and his commandments are good.

Mixed deontology Deontology is an ethic of duty. It is my duty to obey God, is the position I am taking. Saying that it is a mixed deontology is saying that my hierarchy of priority in my ethical system is this:

Modified Command—God said it, out of his nature, so do it.

Deontology—It is my duty to obey God.

Teleological Ethics—After the above are consulted, the results of my action should be considered. Consequences help me properly decide just what duty requires of me concretely.

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