Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Ethics and Justice. Part 1: Introduction to the Modes of Moral Reasoning

We, in the western world, live in an age that has been described as “Post-Christian.” In other words, we live in a time when the moral compass of Judeo-Christian values no longer guides people. It is no longer the default mode of human behaviour. We live in a morally confused time.

Here's an example: I am a big James Bond fan. I can name all the movies, in order, and analyze each one, and compare them to the books, and so on - its fascinating stuff. The Bond films follow a successful formula - glamorized violence, drinking, murder and mayhem, nudity, and gratuitous sex scenes. However, when “Die Another Day” was released, one scene in particular caused a firestorm of controversy. In one scene, James Bond lights up a cigar with a Cuban gangster. Anti-smoking groups around the world went hysterical! How dare he glamorize the evil of smoking? Illicit sex, drug use, murder, and theft receive far less condemnation than lighting up a cigar!

Another example of this state of moral confusion is PETA's (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) campaign to fight what they see as the evils of raising and killing chickens for food. Their campaign is called, "A Holocaust on Your Plate." Posters show chickens in a pen on one side, and on the other side is a picture of Jews cramped into a railway boxcar on the way to Auschwitz. When you morally equate the killing of chickens for food with the genocide of Europe's Jews, you are in a state of moral chaos!

Ethics and morality have shifted from the micro to the macro. For example, teenagers who think it perfectly okay to download music and software without paying (stealing) would never think about not recycling! So ethics are whatever is good for the planet, not what I have to do in relation to other people. When values are separated from God moral chaos ensues. Only a set of values independent of God could lead people to believe that people burned alive, slowly frozen to death, medically experimented on, stripped naked and machine-gunned family by family, forced to watch their children die, or slowly suffocated in gas-chambers suffer no more than chickens! This is the state of moral confusion that exists in a world where you and I are called on to make ethical decisions, to choose between right and wrong; good and evil, and then to act on those choices.

Imagine that you are a Senior in college. You are about to graduate. All your hard, diligent work is about to pay off. You are engaged to the prettiest girl in the school, and you’re planning to get married as soon as you graduate – her mother is already planning the wedding. And money is no problem anymore – after four years of Ramen noodles and cold pizza for breakfast, you have a job lined up. An advertising agency has offered you a position in their marketing department with a starting salary of $80 000, and to make the deal really sweet, because you have been such a great student, and because they recognize your potential, they are throwing in a new BMW as your company car. But, of course, all this – the marriage, the job, the money, the car, the respect – depends entirely on your graduating. No graduation, and its all off – a deal breaker.

And so you go in to register for your final semester. You do one final degree audit, and your advisor tells you that you missed a Freshman Literature class that is required, so you’ll need to take it. You reluctantly sign up because you need to graduate. Now understand that this class has nothing to do with your major - business and marketing. You sign up for an American literature class in which you study that great novel – Moby Dick, which you have to read in its entirety. But you’re too busy with other things – really important things, to actually read the book, so what do you do? Well, you watch both movies – the old one, and the new Patrick Stewart one, you read the Cliff notes, but you do not actually read the book. And then comes the final exam, and you are prepared. You know all about Moby Dick. This is going to be an easy A – a great ending to your stellar academic career. However, when you get the exam you notice there is only one question: “Did you read the book?” And it is required that you answer truthfully. The teacher makes a very moving speech about honesty, and integrity, and self-respect, and honour. “Did you read the book?”

Now let’s consider your actions:

1) If you answer truthfully and say, “no,” you will fail the exam, not graduate, lose the job, lose the BMW, and ruin the wedding plans.
2) If you say “yes,” you will be lying, dishonouring yourself; you will be guilty of purposeful deception – something the Bible strongly condemns!

What would you do?

I brought up this scenario to illustrate the kinds of ethical dilemmas we face everyday. Not terribly important, not life or death. Our decisions will not affect millions of people. Do we pay the nickel for the mint at the restaurant checkout, or do we just take it and walk out? Those are the types of ethical decisions most people face everyday.

There are really two modes of moral reasoning that we’re going to explore in this series:

1) Consequentialist moral reasoning. Here morality is located in the consequences of an act. Right or wrong depends on the OUTCOME.
2) Categorical moral reasoning. Here morality is located in certain categorical duties and rights, regardless of the consequences or outcome.

My purpose in this series is for us to look within ourselves and ask, “What kind of person am I?” Moral people, when faced with a decision of right or wrong do not ask, “Now what’s the right thing to do? What rule applies here?” They ask, “What kind of person am I? How has faith in God shaped my character?” Moral people will do the right thing instinctively because they are moral people, and because their value system is grounded in the life and character of God.

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