destination: ethics

Why Ponder Ethics?

Why Ponder Ethics?

Suppose that I am working in an academic area that most of us believe doesn’t really involve ethics.  Why ponder ethics in my field of endeavor?Let’s say that area is computer science.  Who is to decide what constitutes ethical actions when programming a computer?

Do justice love mercy walk humbly


Don’t most of us simply assume that ethics does not apply when we are talking about programming a website?  Or programming a robot? Or developing the artificial intelligence that will drive a car? Ethical thinking needs to be, I believe, a part of how any of us approach these efforts.

Ethical Training in Higher Education

Here is a quote from an article about the ethical training that Harvard is embedding in its computer courses.

“Stand alone courses [on ethics]can be great, but they can send the message that ethics is something that you think about after you’ve done your ‘real’ computer science work,” … “We want to send the message that ethical reasoning is part of what you do as a computer scientist.”

In our world which is so dependent on computer programs and algorithms to make our work easier and more efficient, we need to think about the implications of what we are creating. That is where one finds the ethical thinker. Even as I write this, it seems as though it is a teleological ethics that might come to bear here.  What will be the consequences of creating a machine which is able to “live” independently of a human being?  We may very well also ask, “What might a deontological ethics say when thinking of artificial intelligence? Has God said anything about these things?”

God Has Something to Say?

Of course, one might scoff and say that God has nothing to do with nor to say to computer science. After all, the computer has just been invented as far as the grand arc of human history is concerned. But we need only read Mary Shelly’s book entitled Frankenstein to give us pause in our eagerness to avoid the duty to ponder ethics in our work of invention and creation. For example,

 In the novel, Frankenstein’s creation is identified by words such as “creature”, “monster”, “daemon”, “wretch”, “abortion”, “fiend” and “it”. Speaking to Victor Frankenstein, the monster says “I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel” 

Humanity’s hubris will always discount the social responsibility we have to others. The admonition from the prophet, “What does God require of you? To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Quote from Peter Kreeft


It’s the humble part that is so dismaying. While doing justice or loving mercy is not so bad, being humble is not a strong suit for anyone.

The reason that doing justice is not so bad is our penchant for writing our own definition of justice and then we follow that. To love mercy is not so bad since we very easily join with the ancients in identifying a very limited group to whom we “ought to” show mercy.

Justice and Mercy

[I]f we simply use the term “mercy” to refer to certain of the demands of justice (e.g., the demand for individuation), then mercy ceases to be an autonomous virtue and instead becomes a part of … justice. It thus becomes obligatory, and all the talk about gifts, acts of grace, supererogation, and compassion becomes quite beside the point. If, on the other hand, mercy is totally different from justice and actually requires (or permits) that justice sometimes be set aside, it then counsels injustice. In short, mercy is either a vice (injustice) or redundant (a part of justice).

See Forgiveness and Mercy

It is the subtle interplay between justice and mercy which forms the thinking of a humble ethical person. That interplay is how we ponder ethics. We will examine that further in a future post.

Ethical Thinking

Ought I to Do This? The Ethical Question

The pursuit of philosophy inevitably leads us to the question of what we ought to do to live a good life. Ethical thinking is the domain for this discussion. For thousands of years, philosophers have debated what constitutes a good life. As a part of that, they have pondered the question, “Is there a universal ought?” How ought I to live? How ought you to live?  Do the same “oughts” apply to both of us? When we speak of these “oughts,” we are discussing ethics or the study of what is moral good.

The Place of Ethics

In their Introduction to Philosophy textbook  (see chapter 10) B.N.Moore and K. Bruder make the following statement:

The most important question of ethics, however, is simply, Which moral judgments are correct? That is, what is good and just and the morally right thing to do? What is the “moral law,” anyway? This question is important because the answer to it tells us how we should conduct our affairs. Perhaps it is the most important question not of ethics but of philosophy. Perhaps it is the most important question, period.


https://docplayer.net/56511170-Philosophy-eighth-edition.html 

What Is Good and Ethical?

This study of ethics is vitally important in our day as we face so many differing ideas of what is good. We have conflicting voices declaring the way people are using carbon based fuels is immoral and others who declare that to ban them is immoral. We have, perhaps closer to our own reality, hackers who are trying to seize control of your computer, maybe even while you are reading this, so that they can demand a ransom. The ethical question is, since the hackers are able to do this, ought they to be doing it?

Ethics is the study of how those decisions get made. What is good? What is the good life? Which option is morally preferable among the many choices there may be?

 A Case In Point

Let’s look at it this way. The ransomware hackers want to have a better life than they currently have. They know that ransomware is generating billions of dollars of income for others who are doing this. So, since thy want a better life, why not join in? It is predicted that businesses will spend over $11 billion this year alone to pay off hackers who place ransomware on their computers.  Every fourteen seconds some business is given a ransom notice.

What is the moral thing to do? Is it to give the hackers our money so they will go away or not? When our culture in North America glorifies money and getting as much as possible, it seems that we are promoting the thought that getting money in whatever way possible is moral. Therefore, the hackers are doing right for themselves as they try to get as much for themselves as possible.

Questions

What are the steps involved in deciding ethical dilemmas? How does anyone go about finding the good, honorable life? Those are questions that we will return to another day. For now, what are you thinking? I’d like to read what you have to say!

Stewardship: A Human Calling

What Is Stewardship?

A Definition

The most basic form of stewardship is also the most encompassing form. It is a requirement of a faithful life that is first found in Genesis 2. When God places humans in charge of his creation he commands them to care for the garden of Eden. How? To leave it better than they found it (see Gen. 2: 15 by clicking here). The scriptures teach this idea in all the writings. The Bible teaches “all creation belongs to God.” Further, we are God’s vice-regents accountable for how we use and care for it. It is a responsibility that all humans bear just by being human. (For a comprehensive statement of this teaching of Scripture, see Our World Belongs to God.)

Our World Belongs to God

What does the Bible say?

The Scriptures teach us about individual accountability. How? We will be accountable for how we use the things that God’s entrusts to us as individuals along life’s way: time, talents, opportunities to serve others, and money. It’s easy to lose track of the fact that these are all gifts from God.

We tend to take time for granted until we get sick or old. We tend to think of our talents as our personal property until they begin to fade. And we tend to think of the source of our income as being our employer until we lose our job. Rightly, in such times we turn to God for help. All along, we knew deep down, “God lent us these gifts.” He did not give them away so that we can use them any way we wish. Rather, God entrusted each of these good things to us. Remember the solemn warning of Jesus, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be required” (Luke 12:48).

The “Bottom Line”

The idea of stewardship boils down to a statement like this. The whole of life is stewardship (and you thought this was all going to be about money!). Our very lives are gifts, as St Paul reminds us: “you are not your own… you have been bought with a price” (I Cor. 6:19,20).

Therefore, we who have the benefit of the worship, preaching, and ministries of our churches are among those who have been given much. Along with these gifts come opportunities to work for God’s kingdom by serving others. That could be simply by inviting them to worship with us. But we also have the opportunity to support such kingdom works as a food cupboard, a soup kitchen, and the mission work of our congregation.  It is also open to us to serve in worship, in the church choir, or in Sunday school, in the care of the sick, or any other of the Church’s other outreach programs.

An Affordable Way to Receive Training

It is to aid with this sort of work that the Christian Leaders Institute offers its courses – free – to anyone who wants to improve their ability to serve their church. For all these reasons, we need to begin to think about stewardship as an ongoing part of our everyday lives rather than as a concern only about pledging of money to our church.  The call to service comes to all, and comes from God Himself. As Jesus once put it: “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”

Roy Clouser, PhD

Prof Emeritus

CLI Philosopher in Residence

Amusing Ourselves: Life Has Changed

New Year’s Musings

Since I wrote a post-Christmas reflection, it seems only right to follow it up with a reflection on the new year. As I pondered the reality of time’s forward march, I decided to take a moment to share with you my reflections. I hope you find these musings amusing.  So here goes.

The first thing is to express my gratitude to God for seeing yet another new year. This makes 81 of them, so the gratitude could hardly be more genuine.

Of course, I don’t actually remember them all. The first new year in my lifetime was 1938, and I was not even 1 year old. But I can recall quite a number of the years since then, and am surprised by the great changes they’ve brought. I don’t mean by that the technology changes – everybody knows about that. I mean the changes in people’s attitudes.

When I Wore a Younger Man’s Clothes

For example, in the 1940’s (my youth), the average person listened to the radio a couple times a week for its entertainment value.  When the day’s work was done, folks would listen to the news (world, then national, very little local), and perhaps a comedian or two. Many comedy shows were on the radio in the 40’s.  Jack Benny, Fred Allan, Fanny Brice, and Jimmy Durante all had weekly shows. There was also Duffy’s Tavern, Blondie, and The Great Gildersleeve.  My parents withheld some shows because they were too scary for a young person like me.  Among them were  The Inner Sanctum and The Shadow. There were kids shows too.  Let’s Pretend, The Lone Ranger, and the Buster Brown show are examples. The shows were all a half hour long, and no one I knew – or knew of – heard them all every week.

In other words, the average person – kid or grown-up – listened to less entertainment in a week than the average kid now sees TV in the average day! There’s something mighty sobering about that.

Did You Know …

Amusing Ourselves to Death

Did you know that the word “amuse” means “not think?”

The kids I see today continually amuse themselves throughout just about every day. My students at the college couldn’t walk from one class to another without plugging in earbuds to hear music or podcasts. The average US home has 2.3 TV sets.  The average person in the US watches over 5 hours of TV per day.

That’s a lot of not thinking.

Maybe worship is not amusing?

We keep hearing that church attendance in the US is in decline, despite the fact that the vast majority of people regard themselves as “spiritual.” No one can say for sure what all the causes of that decline are.  I suspect one of the factors is how much more pleasant it is to be amused and how readily available the sources of amusement are.

compassion for people

Compassion for people

Attending church requires that we think about what we’re doing and to whom our worship is addressed. It requires us to reflect on our lives and attitudes in ways that are often painful. And its message – the gospel – frequently winds up demanding that we change ourselves. On top of that, it constantly reminds us of the needs of others and of our obligations to them.

In short, church worship challenges our culture of amusement. It is, therefore, something that stands in opposition to the general flow of our culture. Just as we can say in the face of any serious question, “Let’s have a drink and forget it,” so too we can avoid being confronted with the gospel’s unpleasant truths about ourselves by simply skipping worship.

A New Year’s Resolution

So how about this for a new year’s resolution? How about a little more church and a little less not-thinking  (amusing ourselves)?

 

Roy Clouser

Public Justice : Affordable Care Act

Admittedly, many controversies have swirled around the Affordable Care Act. Yet, there is a more basic issue, namely public justice. It has not received the attention it deserves. But although the issue of public justice has receded into the background, it still remains a driving motivation behind much of the controversy concerning the Act.

A Basic Issue : The Proper Scope of Government

We should not confuse this issImage result for public justiceue with people’s opinions of the actual provisions of the Act. Just about everyone thinks the Act needs to have been much better. But the issue I’m pointing to is whether it falls within the proper scope of government to pass any act at all to make health care accessible to its citizens. Some opponents of the Act think government has absolutely no responsibility in health matters. Meanwhile, others think that state governments may have such a responsibility but the federal government does not.

First Objection

Let’s consider first the objection against any and all government involvement in health matters.

This issue was actually addressed in one of the founding documents of our nation, the Declaration of Independence. The first of the universal rights it mentions is the right to life, followed by the rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The clause then closes with the assertion “that it is to secure these rights that governments are instituted among men.”

It would be wildly implausible to argue that this clause intends to assign to government the responsibility of protecting life only from threats due to war or crime. The need for government regulation to protect public health was clear to the American colonists early on.  For example, Cotton Mather advocated compulsory inoculations in Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1721. If it isn’t a government responsibility to see to the safety of food, water, air, transportation, and medicines, upon what institution of society does that responsibility fall?

Second Objection

The second objection agrees that the protection of life is a responsibility of government, but maintains that it should fall entirely to state governments rather than to the federal government. Those who hold this position usually do so on the grounds that the Constitution does not specifically delegate any such authority to the federal government.  Furthermore, it specifically requires any power it does not delegate to the federal government to remain with the states. Fox News analyst Andrew Napolitano argues this way, for example. In an article written for the blog  LewRockwell.com, Napolitano says that “the power to regulate for health, safety, welfare, and morality” should be “reposed with the states,” and that there should be “no federal police power” whatever.

But is such a position really tenable or is it a way in which the Constitution has become inadequate for modern life? Can each state reasonably be expected to inspect all roads, buses, trains, elevators, bridges, airplanes, foods, and medicines, as well as deal with epidemics, air pollution, drug enforcement, and forest fires? Is it plausible to have as many as fifty different standards in the same country governing each of these needs?  And does it make sense to say that even where these issues cross state lines the federal government is to have “no police power” as Napolitano asserts?

An Approach to Public Justice that is Almost 500 Years Old

In matters of health and safety, as in so many others, we continue to be hobbled by the way the writers of the Constitution replaced the Calvinist idea of sphere sovereignty with the idea of competing governments as the chief means of forestalling totalitarian governance. And the course of history since has shown just how unworkable it can be to have fifty legislatures and police forces enacting and enforcing contrary laws within the same nation. (As an example, see the American Bar Association’s article regarding the ethics of the marijuana laws now in effect.)

Sphere Sovereignty

“Sphere Sovereignty” is the name Abraham Kuyper gave to John Calvin’s insight that the New Testament recognizes a number of distinct kinds of God-given authorities in human life: the authority of parents in a family, owners in a business, clergy in the church, and officials in the state, for example. Each type of authority relates to a particular aspect of life that is its proper “sphere.” Then each type should enjoy a relative immunity from interference by the other types of authority. Moreover, there is no one type that is supreme over the others or the source of all the others. The reason for that is only God is supreme over them all and the source of them all.

Consequently, government must not do what Calvin called “over leap the prescribed bounds” of its proper authority.  Its proper sphere is recognized to be that of public justice. This means that the way to avoid totalitarian government is by framing our laws so as to restrict governmental power to matters of public justice.  Instead, we have attempted this  by creating competing states within the same body politic. Calvin puts it this way:

Hence, he only who directs his life to [God’s calling] will have it

properly framed; because free from the impulse of rashness, he will

not attempt more than his calling justifies, knowing that it is unlawful

to over leap the prescribed bounds… The magistrate will more willingly

perform his office, and the father of a family confine himself to his

proper sphere… (Inst. III, x, 6)

For though the Lord declares that a ruler to maintain our safety is the

highest gift of His beneficence, and prescribes to rulers themselves

their proper sphere, he at the same time declares, that of whatever

description they may be, they derive their power from none but him.

(Inst. IV, xx, 25)

Conclusion

On this view, the central issue for government is not whether there is one or many or how big a government is, but whether it recognizes its authority as limited to the sphere of public justice. Having one overarching government that recognizes its proper limits beats having fifty little ones that don’t. The central issue for health care is whether it is a public injustice to leave millions of citizens without access to the means of safeguarding the very first right the Declaration guarantees to them. 

Roy Clouser                                        Roy Clouser

Resident Philosopher at Christian Leaders Institute

Professor Emeritus of The College of New Jersey

Former Trustee of the Center for Public Justice.