image courtesy of reverendmom
[Continued from rahab’s exchange: the lie]
Rahab lied to the king’s men in order to save the lives of two Israelite spies. We find her faith commended in Hebrews and her actions applauded in James — though neither writer explicitly states that Rahab was correct to lie.
Is it ever right to lie? Do we ever find ourselves in situations in which we’re forced to choose between two evils? Or between two sins? How do we make sense of situations like these?
Now we’re firmly in the realm of ethics. I’m no expert, but I’m going to offer the three most accepted options — and dispose of the first two:
The moral value of an action is based on happiness and pleasure for the largest number of people. While vastly popular today — and the underlying theme of many an action-suspense thriller — utilitarianism denies the presence of absolute good or evil. Rather, the nebulous “greater happiness” is considered (and often referred to as the “greater good”).
My problems with utilitarianism (aka consequentialism) are many. In the first place, it would seem quite difficult to calculate and quantify “happiness.” I also have serious problems with the idea that a majority is allowed to simply decide what is right and wrong based on what they happen to enjoy. Utilitarianism also ignores the individual’s motive and intention, and places all importance on an outcome which (in most situations) could never have been known.
- If an affair between a married woman and a single man brings the two great happiness — and only the one husband is hurt — they have done the right thing. But if the married couple has two children, what they’ve done suddenly becomes wrong.
- If a very large nation can grow its economy and bring great happiness to its citizens by conquering a smaller country and using its inhabitants as slaves, this is good, fair, and right by utilitarianism.
[One note of interest, pointed out to me yesterday by Teammate Carson, is that the first example above is generally accepted to be true in modern America — even among Christians. Then the evil done is attributed to God himself, with cries of, “But I’m certain God wants me to be happy.”]
2. Virtue Ethics
The emphasis here is not placed on results or actions, but rather on virtues. In virtue ethics, there are particular character traits that are viewed as inherently good or evil, and morals are determined based on “being” rather than “doing.” While I appreciate the question practitioners are forced to ask — “What kind of person should I be?” — I believe virtue ethics falls short as a complete ethical theory.
First, virtue ethics gives no clear guidance as to how to act in a specific situation. This doesn’t seem useful to me as far as ethics go. Is courage more important than compassion today and in this place? What if our cultures disagree as to whether pride or humility is the higher virtue? What about virtues that change over time within a given culture; is a woman to be reserved, submissive, and modest — or outgoing, independent, and self-assured?
More problematic, though, is that, in order for virtue ethics to be a complete ethical theory, it requires the use of another theory; it cannot stand on its own. Virtue ethics (like utilitarianism) requires that there be no absolute rules — yet there are believed to be absolute virtues. There is no absolute rule concerning telling lies, yet honesty is revered as a virtue. That makes no sense.
I believe virtue ethics to be useful, but only because there do exist underlying rules which are absolute. Virtue ethics has no way of determining what are and are not virtues without an underlying theory of absolute rules. I am of the mindset that, at their core, virtue ethics and deontological ethics (see below) are quite similar — and make a useful theory when viewed side by side. However, I would argue that “doing” is what creates “being,” and such should be acknowledged.
The ethical theory which I find most compelling is this one:
3. Deontological Ethics
There exist moral rules, and it is our duty or obligation to adhere to these rules. There is an intrinsic good, and we are obligated to act in accordance with this good. Our motivations, then, are taken into account and are more important than the consequences themselves (which can rarely be known in full).
Deontological ethics differs from utilitarianism in that a right action might not bring happiness to the greatest number of people (happiness is not deemed to be intrinsically good, as it is possible for humanity to derive happiness from that which is actually evil — see Roman gladiator entertainment). An action may very well be right and good because the individual acted in accordance with moral rules, fulfilling his obligation to do what was right — even if the result was lessened happiness for many.
In most deontological systems, these moral rules, duties, and obligations are determined by a higher being, and doing what is right is a matter of obedience to that being. I would argue that God has determined what is right and wrong based on his own nature. And that, when we are obedient to him, our nature becomes more like his.
There is a strong correlation here, in my mind, between deontological ethics and virtue ethics. I might argue that God’s virtues are what we seek to embody, and that we do this based on a God-given system of moral rules. The more obedient we are, the more virtuous we become. So I see these two theories as a sort of puzzle… of the “which-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg” type.
I believe the virtues came first (in the nature of God), but that these virtues are incapable of guiding our everyday decision-making processes until we actually possess them. I am able to embody these virtues, though, through continued obedience to moral rules and by the transformation of the Holy Spirit in my life. Over time I actually become an honest person, rather than an individual who merely follows the rules of honesty. The rules are necessary, but the importance of the ethical system begins to diminish as I am transformed to be more like God. [One of my major problems with virtue-based ethics theories is that if I don’t possess a particular virtue, it is impossible for me to act in keeping with that virtue without first extrapolating (a) rule(s) from that virtue.]
As with any ethical theory, there are problems with deontological ethics. Many. For instance, what do we do when we are faced with a situation such as Rahab’s? There is a moral rule not to lie. But it conflicts with the moral rule to revere and save lives. Many would at that point choose the “lesser evil.” And they would then be employing utilitarianism (or something like it) to determine what is right (or less wrong). Also, was Jesus ever faced with a situation in which he had to choose the “lesser evil?” And yet he remained sinless?
In my next post, I intend to divide deontological ethics into three categories. And, of course, I’ve chosen to support one of these three sub-theories.