introduce idea of fairness

Moral Reasoning

Moral Reasoning is Complicated

Moral reasoning is often complicated. Sure, many people claim to have a moral center which guides their actions, but is this really so? Perhaps a prior question would be, where do we learn our moral reasoning? Some might say, we learn moral reasoning in our religious community. Others will decide that their basic moral reasoning grew out of their education. Still others may point to several examples which show moral reasoning is inborn.

That’s Not Fair!

image of child crying, it's not fair
Boy, been there, heard that

One does not need to look too far afield to see that children have a certain sense of justice very early in their lives. For example, a youngster whose parents may not have tried teaching moral reasoning discover that their child is doing just that. At a “play date,” little Jenny and her friend Ava get into a squabble over the toy truck they both desire to play with.  Ava comes running to her Daddy with these words, “Jenny’s not fair.”

“Jenny’s not fair” is the result of basic moral reasoning. Fair dealing in our relations with others is a sound moral principle. But where did Ava get that idea and how does she arrive at Jenny’s fairness failure? Daddy Michael looks over at the other parent (Melissa)  and asks why Jenny is not sharing with Ava?  At that point both Michael and Melissa are confronted with the question, what is fair? That question is at the heart of most discussions of justice. And that question undergirds much of moral reasoning. The two children are forcing the parents to grapple with a question that has confronted humanity since the dawn of time.

Where does that concept come from?

One could spin this scenario out much further to include the thoughts racing through Melissa’s mind that this will be the last play date with the bully Ava who has previously fought with Jenny.  Also, how does the idea of what is fair or not fair arise in a child’s mind?

Now, I do not claim to be a person who can answer this question directly from research into the brain development side of things. Instead, I begin from the theological idea that humanity is created in God’s image. One aspect of that is our ability to know the difference between good and evil. We know what it means to be obedient to the divine order of the world, its moral structure. And we know what it is to disregard that moral order.

Is moral reasoning instinctive?

Instinct is defined as “a natural tendency to behave in a particular way that people and animals are born with and that they obey without knowing why. For example the maternal instinct is a woman’s natural tendency to behave like a mother.”

image of moral reasoning

The significant element in this is the idea that one does something but does not know why. When a child is exclaiming over the lack of fairness in another, it seems to arise from an instinctive knowledge of fairness. It is born into us.

To be human means …

Again, this becomes a philosophical issue when we try to define what it is to be human. Are we born as the so-called blank slate or do we have instincts? Since anyone who has witnessed a new-born immediately begin to nurse at the mother’s breast, it is difficult to deny at least some instinctual patterns. Yet we also know from easy observation that we instinctively know very little about how to survive in the world we live in.

These are topics for further investigation as we engage in an examination of moral reasoning. What do you think? Where does Ava’s insistence that Jenny is not playing fairly come from? Any thoughts?

Running The Country

Some History

Great Seal of the United States

Back in the days following Richard Nixon’s resignation, there was a lot of discussion about whether Gerald Ford should or should not grant Nixon a pardon. Once that pardon became a fact, the consensus among news reporters went something like this: The Nation has been traumatized by the Watergate scandal, and needs to stop obsessing over it. Therefore, Ford has done the right thing. Instead of focusing on past wrongs, the Presidency is now free to get back to running the country. (Italics added) For an idea on how pervasive this phrase is, google the phrase “running the country” and see how many places those words appear.

It’s the last phrase of that opinion I want to call attention to, because it has recently surfaced again. In his interview with George Stephanopoulos last week, President Trump said: “I do a good job running the country.

Not the same as the Nation

What I’m about to say about that expression should not be taken as mere carping about words. The words phrasing a belief reflect how we think about it. The inaccurate phrase alters the belief itself over time when not phrased accurately . So the first thing I point to is that the Federal Government is not the same thing as our nation. The nation is made up of individuals who are members of many types of social communities, in addition to being citizen-participants in its government. For example, the nation includes marriages, families, schools, and churches. It also includes businesses, charity and artistic organizations, as well as unions, political parties, and clubs of various kinds.

We also point to the fact that the President does not even run the entire Federal Government. Whoever holds that office is the chief of the executive branch of the Federal Government, but does not “run” its two other components: the legislature (Congress) and the courts. And those limitations don’t yet include the fact that each state in the US also has its own government, which the President also doesn’t “run.”

Limits on Government

Limits on running the government
Is the Federal Government Limited?

The idea of limits to executive power goes back a long way in the history of the US and of its ancestry in British common law. For centuries, a King or Queen of England was under legal restraints concerning entering a private home, for example. A King of England could knock at the door of a family’s dwelling, but needed permission to enter. The monarch is the head of the government. However, families (and other social communities) are not parts of the government. That is a fact even though these communities are surely included in the nation.

Abraham Kuyper

It was the Christian political thinker Abraham Kuyper who gave this idea its most cogent development in the early 20th century. Kuyper noticed that the scriptures recognize a number of different kinds of authority in social life. He pointed to the authority of the parents in a family or the owners in a business. The teachers in a school and the clergy in a church have a delimited sphere. This holds as well for the elected officials in government. He spoke of each distinct kind of authority as a “sphere” of life. He taught that each authority proper to a particular sphere had a God-given immunity from interference from authorities in other spheres. No one sphere can claim to be running the country.

Sphere Sovereignty

We call this “sphere sovereignty.” It’s the reasoning behind our sense that something is wrong in certain situation. For example, when the government rather than parents tries to say what sort of education their children should have. Or when the government tries to require membership in a particular church. It’s also a violation of sphere sovereignty when special interest groups attempt to influence a government legislature in their favor,. Why? The task of the legislature is to achieve the common good. (for more on this, click here and here) As I put the point in The Myth of Religious Neutrality: “The Christian view of [government] is that [the government] should not favor Christianity…  [It] requires that government… concentrate on the goal of bringing about a maximally just society for all people, whether they believe in God or not” (p. 319).

God is in Charge

This is why it’s so important not to let the expression “runs the country” get off without being called up short. On the Christian view, “there is no single social institution or [human] authority that is supreme over all the rest. And assigning such a status to any community is to have it usurp a status that belongs only to God” (p. 298).

there is no app for a moral compass

My Moral Ethical Musings

Ethics and History

There is no app you can download top your phone which will function as your moral compass

In our consideration of the place of ethics and our understanding of ethics, I have been playing around with some considerations from history.  I would like to turn now to see how the Word of God addresses ethical issues. I’m going to call these next several blog entries my moral musings. (just to have some alliteration!)

Micah 6:8

In one of my earlier ponderings on ethics, I stated that, for me, a central text for my own understanding of what is ethical and moral arises from the prophet Micah’s declaration (in chapter 6:8),

He has told you, O man, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

Chinese Exclusion Act 1882

I pondered this precept from God for many years already. I came to the realization that many who might quote this as their moral center, have failed to put it into practice.  Too many of us have come to the point, along with much of Western culture, that if you are not caught and punished for some deed, it must be “OK.” The result? The laws of one’s land are the arbiter of what is good, moral, and just.   

Celebrating the Chines Exclusion Act

Here is one example that occurred in my country, the USA. In 1882, the Congress of the United States passed a law. It was called the Chinese Exclusion Act. The law suspended all immigration into the United States from China. It was only supposed to be in effect for 10 years, but actually remained in effect for 61 years. It was changed in 1943 when China allied itself with the United States in World War II.

Was that ethical?

Now was the law moral, or ethical, or just? Many in that day thought the law was just. Why? Because, anyone with Asian features aroused deep suspicion among the rest of the population. Chinese people “flooded” into California following the 1849 Gold Rush. The populace already in California said the Chinese were “causing social disruption” to their communities. By 1943, much of the anti-Chinese sentiment had faded. And immigration began again with 105 (yes you read that correctly) Chinese allowed to immigrate every year.

Again, I have to wonder, why did those in authority believe that someone of Asian origin was suspect? How did they manage to listen to sermons on Micah 6? Did they not ask themselves if the laws of the nation in which they lived reflected God’s will for the nation as much as for an individual? Where does the pursuit of what is right: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God stop and the law of a country begin?

Is Morality only Personal?

Let’s ask ourselves, Do the laws of God extend to only me as a single person or are God’s laws also intended for the good of a whole society? As we muse on morality further in posts to come, let’s try to see how and if God’s will extends to counties as well as people.  I hope you will join the discussion.

Virtue Ethics

What is virtue ethics is the subject of this blog entry.

Aristotle has influenced people down to our very day. He lived about 2500 years ago in Greece. His works on ethics have been used to challenge people over the centuries to discover the virtuous life. His approach is called the ethics of virtue.  In virtue ethics the goal is not so much to follow one’s duties as given by God – the deontological ethic.  Nor to examine the teleological effects or the outcomes of various actions as the basis for deciding the best course of action today – the teleological ethic. Virtue ethics are something different.

So we take a look today at the concept of virtue based ethics. The ancient

Greek philosopher Aristotle was a proponent of a life of virtue. He taught that a virtuous person was the one who could best live a life of happiness. The excellent person was the person of virtue. Aristotle wanted his students to come to the understanding that the man of virtue was a person who did the right thing, at the right time, and in the right way.

I’m sure that many of you have heard, or possibly used, the phrase, “You have to do the right thing.” Brainyquote.com has this quote from an American politician, “We need to have a purpose in this life. I’m pleading with you, I’m begging with you to do the right thing. And do it not for the sake of how it will impact your own lives, but only for the sake of doing the right thing.”  James McGreevey

Virtue Ethics — Do the Right Thing

Do you notice this person is pleading with us to do the right thing? He gives us the reason for doing the right thing.  It is to do the right thing.  The

Image result for do the right thing ethics

biggest ethical problem that people face in our world today, I think, is knowing what might possibly constitute the right thing.  How can I know if I am doing the right thing? Will the right thing change from day to day? If my conclusion as to what the right thing is conflicts with yours, how do we decide what is the right thing? Is there such a concept as a virtuous action that is right for me, but wrong for you? Here is a quote from a person writing about corporate ethics, “Indeed, much of what is considered moral through the lens of duty ethics looks decidedly immoral through the lens of virtue ethics.”Peter Tunjic

As you can tell, this can go around and around.  But it need not be so. The aim of ethical decision-making is to become a person who lives with excellence. Aristotle teaches excellence as a concept that means I will control my bodily appetites so that I live in moderation. I will work hard at physical toil. AND I will also take time for my mind and my intellect to flourish. It seems to me that Aristotle would look at our Western culture today and remind us that doing the right thing is not all there is. I think he would mourn the empty souls inside of so many of us.

For further study

We need to look at this more.  Because the lives we live before the face of God are lives that (hopefully) model virtue. And our lives will model a soul satisfying dedication to God. We will discover that to live out the words of Jesus just might be a virtuous way of life. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.” Therefore, both the vertical and the horizontal are needed to get life right and to do the right thing. Check in again for more later. Better yet, write up a response and join in our dialogue!

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!