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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!

Wisdom has seven pillars

Wisdom? Folly?

Background

Some years ago I wrote meditations which reflected on how I experienced a pilgrimage to Greece. As I reflected on what we saw and learned, I realized that in Greece, philosophy and the discussion of what constituted wisdom and folly were of great importance. As our resident philosopher, Dr Clouser, is away from our blog this week, I thought I would post one of the meditations I wrote. Enjoy!

A Scripture Text about Wisdom

13 The woman Folly is loud;
she is undisciplined and without knowledge.
14 She sits at the door of her house,
on a seat at the highest point of the city,
:15 calling out to those who pass by,
who go straight on their way.
:16 “Let all who are simple come in here!”
she says to those who lack judgment.
:17 “Stolen water is sweet;
food eaten in secret is delicious!”
:18 But little do they know that the dead are there,
  that her guests are in the depths of the grave.
Proverbs 9:13

The Acropolis in Athens

Wisdom has seven pillars
Wisdom and folly

High on the Acropolis in Athens is the Erechtheum.  A significant feature of this temple dedicated to Athena and the memory of her contest with Poseidon for the allegiance of the Athenians’ hearts is the porch of the Caryatids.  The temple was built in about 400 BC.  It is one of the more intriguing spots on the Acropolis.  Each of the pillars for the roof of this porch is a carved statue of a woman.  And each of them is unique. The ones on the near side all have the same leg moving forward and the three on the far side have the other bent forward.  Each seems to be inviting people to come to enjoy the cool shade of the porch they are providing by holding up the roof.  The statues demonstrate the skill of the artist to create something beautiful. 

You Cannot Go There

Yet, one of the interesting features of this porch was that it was only accessible from the inside.  Authorized religious figures could recline in the shade; and no one else.  It was an inviting place, yet was off limits.  That helps me to understand something of how Solomon’s personification of Folly can be understood.  The woman Folly has gone to the highest point of the city to call out to all the simple people, “Come to me!”  However, the problem is that no one can actually do that. 

The promise could not be carried out.  In reality, the promise was instead an empty invitation.  In fact, as Solomon says, little do the simple know that the dead are there, her guests are in the depths of the grave.   As this porch beckons to us to relax in the shade, little do we know that the dead are buried there.  This porch contains the tomb of an ancient king of Athens according to tradition. 

Seek Wisdom

But I react negatively to that thought. I believe it is good and right to avoid deceptiveness.  Furthermore, I am convinced that is what Solomon was saying as well.  He speaks about wisdom who has also gone to the highest point of the city. Wisdom calls to people to come to her and so to learn how to have understanding in life.  I know this pushes the symbolism in ways that maybe no one else sees, but Solomon’s wisdom has sent out her maidens and hewn out her pillars which are seven in number.  The porch of the Caryatids has only six.  Isn’t that the way it always is with humanity?  We come up short of what God desires us to be. We flounder around in folly, and miss out on wisdom.


Capital Punishment

Capital Punishment: Pros / Cons

Capital Punishment Background

Over the course of the 20th century, almost every industrialized nation has abandoned capital punishment except the US. This arguably points to the conclusion the rest of the western world has taken the moral high road. Meanwhile, the US remains relatively barbaric. “Besides”, we are told over and over, “there is no conclusive evidence that capital punishment (also known popularly as the death penalty) deters murder.” The Christian political activist might address the issue in the following way. (For an extensive review of the current status of the death penalty in the US, click here)

Capital Punishment
Death Row Inmate

            The law of Moses provides the first Scriptural basis for the execution of the convicted person in cases of premeditated murder. The fact that the victim bore the image of God forms the bedrock of this particular law. Further, the doctrine of a human being bears the image of God continues in the New Testament. The Scriptural teaching re the image of God in humanity means all humans have equal rights (Gen. 1:27 –31, Acts 17:26, Gal 3:28). If, as we believe, the image of God in humanity is the ground for equal rights, then how can we ignore it when seeking a Biblical understanding of the issues surrounding first degree murder?

The Need for Deterrence?

I know someone will say that capital punishment deters other would be murderers. However, so long as this doctrine is the basis for capital punishment, the deterrence argument need not be raised. The image of God in humanity makes the reason for execution that this is what the murderer deserves.  The wonder of the image of God in human beings will best deter others from premeditated killing.

            How do we explain the fact that so many nations have abandoned capital punishment? In my opinion, this change demonstrates just one of many shifts among western nations away from broadly biblical assumptions for democracy to broadly humanistic ones. Where God’s Kingdom that is not the highest value, some single aspect of human nature asserts itself. Humanism urges the acceptance of the teaching regarding the greatest good. The single aspect of a human being could be such as rationality, feeling, or will. The problem arises that there is no higher value than human life and execution is itself just another crime.

Whose Life Is Worth More?

Some version of the humanist creed also seems to underlie the compromise view about capital punishment now popular in the US. The compromise urges the avoidance of a death sentence. Humanism reaches a striking conclusion. The argument revolves around who or how many
victims there are. This criterion will or will not warrant the use of the death penalty. On this view, the death penalty is deserved, say, if the Pope or the President or 25 people were murdered. One ordinary person? Then no.

The humanist creed asserts that many victims or a famous victim “contained” more of whatever human quality is being regarded as the highest value. Then the wrong involved in taking the murderer’s life is outweighed on the justice scales by the greater wrong committed by his crime. From the biblical view, however, there are no degrees of being in God’s image; each human life has equal value and should enjoy equal protection. The premeditated destruction of any person should be equally punished. That holds no matter whether it was one person or many, the President or a homeless street person. (These thoughts and more are found here.)

A Safeguard

Perhaps you agree with all I’ve said so far. But you would still object that the danger of executing the wrong person outweighs all else. This is a serious point. It focuses our thoughts on the need for new safeguards in our justice system.

            Presently a death sentence carries an automatic appeal so that a higher court can review the case to make sure there were no errors in legal procedure at the trial. That is not enough.

The first thing we need to add is a review of the facts and evidence. A review board formed in every public defenders’ office (but not limited to only cases defended by that office) will do the review. Evidence tainted by illegal means will not stand in review. I judge this evidential review is as necessary as to catch unfair trial procedures.

            Secondly, we need to impose this penalty only when the evidence is not merely “beyond a reasonable doubt.” It must be beyond all doubt. And there are such cases. The evidence is some cases is irrefutable. These are cases where a defendant is caught on sound, color, videotape, has the victim’s blood on him, and/or is caught in the act. According to this proposal, when the evidence is anything less than completely certain, the sentence may be for life, but the death penalty should not be allowed.

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

Doubt: A Response to William Irwin

Preface

Philosopher William Irwin teaches at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, PA. He recently published a book entitled God Is a Question, Not An Answer.  In this volume Irwin contends one could find companionship with others who struggle with doubt about God. The title comes from a line in a novel, The Meursault Investigation, by Kamel Daoud. Apparently Irwin’s book responds to the statement uttered by an impious man in the novel, “God is a question, not an answer.” In an article in the New York Times in 2016, Irwin makes this statement, “It is impossible to be certain about God.” In this post, Prof. Roy Clouser gives his response to Irwin’s thought.

Some history of “Doubt”

There is a long history in the western intellectual tradition of opposing doubt to certainty.  Ancient skeptics argued that we have no genuinely certain knowledge because there is nothing that cannot be doubted. Further, the father of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes, thought he had to answer the skeptic’s claim in order to rescue the future of both philosophy and science.  His proposal for the one belief that cannot be doubted is each person’s own existence. No one, he said, can doubt his or her own existence so long as he or she is conscious of anything because existence is a precondition for consciousness.  The fact is – and no matter how far-fetched it may seem –  the Buddhist Pali Canon teaches the doctrine of Anatta which rejects the certainty of the self!  The result is that there are Buddhist monks who have cultivated doubt as to their own existence for centuries.

A Delusion?

So does that really mean we have no certainty?  Is it somehow a delusion innate to humans that causes billions of normal people to regard themselves as certain of countless beliefs all day every day?  David Hume, a sceptic, dismissed their certainty when he derisively referred to average folk as “the masses of the ignorant, unlearned, children, and savages”?

My Contention is…

I contend that the real illusion is that there is no good reply to skepticism along with its contention that there is no certainty. The illusion is the product of a category mistake.  The two categories confused are:  1) doubt as a subjective psychological condition, and 2) doubt incurred because of the actual grounds for a belief.  My point is that we can and often do have excellent grounds for a belief so that it deserves to be certain, while at the same time our subjective condition can prevent us from feeling fully confident about it.  What is more, we can be justifiably certain of a belief and doubt it at the same time because doubt is not the denial of certainty, disbelief is.  

We are entitled to be certain of whatever cannot be reasonably disbelieved, not of whatever cannot be doubted.  Thus, the proper reply to the claim that everything can be subjectively doubted is:  So what?

An illustration

Think of it like this. I start across the street and see a bus headed directly at me. I am fully justified in being certain I will be hit by it unless I move out of its way.  The certainty of that belief cannot be affected in the least by the fact that I happen to feel invincible that morning. My feeling gives me the idea, “I doubt the bus will hurt me.” By the same token, if I see a jeep drive over a rope bridge that spans a 1000- foot-deep gorge, I have every reason to believe it will hold me if I walk on it.  All the same, I may be terrified to walk that bridge. In fact, I may find myself in subjective doubt that it will support me with every step I take.

Doubt

Doubt and Belief in God

The same is true with respect to belief in God.  The New Testament speaks of faith as certainty derived from experience, and never as belief without – or beyond – the evidence. In a number of places the New Testament uses language for this experienced certainty. It echoes what mathematicians and philosophers had long called “self-evident” truth. Thus, people experience seeing God’s reality to be a self-evident truth. That belief may very well be fully justified. They are entitled to regard it as certain.

Pascal likened the recognition of the truth of God’s existence to the intuitive recognition of “the first principles of number, time, space, and motion.” Then he added: “Therefore those to whom God has given religion by intuition are blessed and justly convinced.”

Similarly, John Calvin compared seeing the truth about God to normal sense perception. He wrote “scripture bears on the face of it such evidence of its truth as do black and white of their color, sweet and bitter of their taste.” Nevertheless, Calvin also thought the life of the believer in God to be “a constant struggle with doubt.”

Conclusion

Many non-Christian thinkers – Prof Irwin among them – claim that the only beliefs worth having are those we in fact doubt. They assert that doubt renders a belief less than certain. As a result they conclude (quite confidently!) that it is impossible to be certain about God.

But, in fact, they have never given us any good reason to believe either of those claims are true.

Roy A. Clouser                                          

Prof Emeritus   of Philosophy & Religion