decision circle

Public Ethics

Public ethics in court
I swear to tell the truth…

Public Ethics in Question

One of the deepest issues of our culture today is determining which ethical principles apply to our lives and our conduct with one another.  We call these public ethics. This is especially true when we attempt to find an ethical pathway in a landscape which seems to be filled with hidden pitfalls and changing rules.  For example, Nancy Gibbs writing in a recent Time magazine article states,

 We all learned back on the playground that whoever makes the rules of the game stands a better chance of winning it. It’s an uncomfortable lesson, one that requires us to accept that norms are fluid, that expectations shift, that people’s actions are not only judged as right or wrong, but are also measured against the depravity or valor of their peers.

The Fluidity of the Rules

Notice that she does not say that the rules are a given. No, these days the rules are “fluid.”  People’s actions are not only judged or evaluated to determine if those actions are right or wrong. We judge a person’s actions by the depravity or valor of peers. Unfortunately, she gives no definition of either term. An online dictionary gives us a succinct definition of depravity. Depravity goes beyond mere bad behavior — it is a total lack of morals, values, and even regard for other living things.” The same dictionary defines valor as “honor plus dignity. It is gallant bravery and strength. Especially on the battlefield or in the face of danger.”    Just to round out this group of definitions we should note that the word “norms” is given a singular form when defined. “A statistical average is called the norm.”

Public ethics decision circle
Decision Circle

So, we discover that it is the statistical average that dictates the norms for behavior. In a culture of habitual liars, a person who tells the truth is outside the norm. But does that make the truth teller  a morally suspect person?  If the norms are fluid and are determined by someone else’s depravity and still another’s valor, then there is very little that can be called good.

Public Ethics is Fraught With Pitfalls

I define our topic as follows. “Ethics is the motivation to do what is good.” I read a story today of another newsworthy example of this ethical quandary. Google recently set up a public ethics  advisory board of people from outside their company. This board’s task was to give advice on ethics in Artificial Intelligence. Google ran into a stunning event. Thousands of their employees (actually about 2-3 %) decried the membership on the board of a person known to be a “conservative.” The woman engaged in “hate” speech toward some members of society (allegedly). See the article at the link https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/4/4/18295933/google-cancels-ai-ethics-board  So Google hastily disbanded the ethics advisory board. Google hopes that this puts the mistake behind.

Public ethics questions

 This blog entry demonstrates how important the subject of ethics, justice, mercy and moral reasoning has become.  We, as a culture, are unable to even agree on the rules that we attempt to live by.  And as Nancy Gibbs says, the rules are changing and those who make the rules often do well because they made the rules. (Emphasis added) How shall we as a culture interact with each other? Which statistician will come up with the averages accepted as the norm? Whose rules will we agree to live by? More discussion will come!

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