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

Three Types of Ethical Thinking

When one is faced with the task of making decisions, it is important to have some grasp of the basis for making that decision. In the tradition of ethical thinking, there are several main approaches to this question.  The three most prominent have been deontological theories of ethics, teleological theories of ethics, and virtue based theories of ethics.

My ethical checklist

  Deontological Ethics

Deontological theories begin with the idea that there is a law-giver to whose will we as individuals must conform if we are to live justly. “When God speaks, people are to listen” is one way we could over-simplify this position. Therefore, the basis for living the life that is ethically good is the laws and duties which are laid out in God’s revealed will. There follows from this that justice is when we live according to the mandates of God in our relationships with other people and the world which God created. In this model, I teach and train a youth to discern God’s will and to follow that in making decisions.

Teleological Ethics

What will my decision result in?

Teleological theories ask us to look at the consequences of an action we are about to undertake.  If I am to live justly, I need to be aware of the effects of my decision making on the future.  A common form of this appears in any story which features time-travel. If I were to go back in time, I should not interfere in what is going to happen in the future.  It follows that I could mess up the trajectory of history by doing the wrong thing when visiting the past. 

The Back to the Future movie is a good example of how delicate is the trajectory of history and how my decisions always affect what is going to happen in the future. Teleological theories of ethics require that I think of the ultimate trajectory of history that will result from my actions today. In this model, youths are trained to think of what is going to happen if you do this or that. “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime!”

Virtue Ethics

A mishmash of virtues which form the basis for ethical decisions

Virtue ethics are based on the idea of a person pursuing  what is virtuous in one’s decision-making. For example, the decision maker is to pursue being kind and compassionate and consciously avoid being mean and greedy. Therefore, my ethical choices focus on being a good and virtuous person. It is up to the community in which we find ourselves to educate and train a youth in the pursuit of virtue, which includes, of course, deciding what is virtuous for this society.

My Starting Point

As we continue to ponder these types of ethical thinking, I will be focusing on the deontological type.  I believe that God has spoken.  Therefore, I am to carefully consider  my decisions based on his will. 

I will conclude with this excerpt from a website that is based at Brown University. It is from the school of science and technology. Take a look:

The Divine Command Approach
As its name suggests, this approach sees what is right as the same as what God commands, and ethical standards are the creation of God’s will. Following God’s will is seen as the very definition what is ethical. Because God is seen as omnipotent and possessed of free will, God could change what is now considered ethical, and God is not bound by any standard of right or wrong short of logical contradiction. The Medieval Christian philosopher William of Ockham (1285-1349) was one of the most influential thinkers in this tradition, and his writings served as a guide for Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther (1483-1546) and Jean Calvin (1509-1564). The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), in praising the biblical Patriarch Abraham’s willingness to kill his son Isaac at God’s command, claimed that truly right action must ultimately go beyond everyday morality to what he called the “teleological suspension of the ethical,” ……

Hmm. The teleological suspension of the ethical. We will need to be thinking further on this.

Declaration of Independence: Justice

Introduction

Roy Clouser is my friend and partner (I’m the junior partner, just to be clear) in this effort to create a blog that addresses the issues facing philosophy. In the past couple of posts, I have began thinking on the subject of justice. Recently, I found a transcript of Roy’s lecture at Harvard Law School in October of 2007. He presents many insights into what our western culture considers to be justice and how to address this culture philosophically. A very short excerpt follows in which he speaks of the Declaration of Independence. Also, just to be clear, I believe it is rare for someone to be invited to give a lecture on justice at Harvard Law School!

I must hasten to say that this excerpt begins right after the introduction in which Dr. Clouser lays out his format for the content of the lecture.

A THIRD VIEW OF RIGHTS AND LAW: A critique of assumptions behind the Declaration and the Constitution The 13th Annual Kuyper Lecture for 2007, Harvard Law School 18th October 2007

natural law theory illustrated
This illustration does not necessarily reflect Dr Clouser’s description of natural law theory, but it does show something of how it is developed.

The Declaration’s Source for Rights

Let’s start with the Declaration’s version of natural law theory. The truth behind the words of that document may, I think, be summarized as follows. The truth is that all humans have a sense of justice. Every people, tribe, tongue, civilization, and culture that has ever existed recognized that it is a norm for life that people should “give to all their due” and be treated likewise by others. So I think it’s correct. Humans are “endowed by their Creator” with an awareness of this norm. And neither their awareness of it nor the norm itself are human inventions or anything they can make go away. Both seem instead to be “natural” and to generate obligations on people’s thoughts and actions whether they wish it or not. That is the element of truth I think the Declaration came close to getting right.

Is There A Universal Ought the Declaration Recognizes?

      But the Declaration doesn’t quite put the point the way I just did. It doesn’t say there is a norm for justice built into created reality, which all people have the ability to recognize. Nor does it identify that norm as the source of the obligation they feel to obey the statutes government enacts. The Declaration does not appeal to a universal norm that obliges all humans simply because they’re human. Rather, it skips the norm for justice and speaks only of rights.

This is a serious omission because such rights as it envisions could only result from the norm of justice. So as I see it, the Declaration gets things backwards. It assumes that people have rights and that those rights are the basis for justice. In fact unless people first recognized the norm of justice the whole notion of rights would make no sense. For a right can be nothing other than: a benefit or immunity that cannot be denied someone without injustice.

  Do Women and African Americans Have Rights?

   By getting the relation between the norm and rights backwards, the Declaration bases the authority for human law-codes on the subjective condition of individuals rather than on a universal norm. It was this significant distortion that led to arguments over exactly who is and isn’t born with rights. For example, in early US history political leaders actually debated whether women or African-Americans had rights. But such a debate would make no sense if rights were the result of a universal norm; in that case all people would have rights because the norm of justice holds for all people. But the Declaration reversed this and tried to make the rights of individuals the basis for knowing what is just. Then – sadly enough – it did make sense to argue over who was and was not born with those rights.

Does the Declaration Think Social Organizations Have Duties?

     The individualism of the Declaration is also deficient in yet another way. By making rights the possessions only of individuals, it fails to see that social organizations have rights (and obligations) as well. It is not only individuals who have rights and obligations vis a vis government. But so do marriages, families, churches, schools, businesses, and so on. For are not they, too, recipients of free speech and press? Are they not also to enjoy freedom from search and seizure? Should not each be guaranteed the freedom to conduct its own internal affairs rather than be dictated to by government? And do they not also have an obligation to obey the laws government enacts?

By speaking only of individuals and government, the Declaration has bequeathed to America a habit of thinking in a truncated way that misses an important point. That point stems from the universality of the norm of justice. That is, justice requires that there be rights and obligations not just between individuals and government but between individuals, between individuals and all types of organizations, and among the various organizations as well.

I hope this gives you some grist for your mill. We will continue this in my next post.

Ethics: Justice

Ethics

When someone in the Judeo-Christian tradition writes on ethics, they often begin by defining what is moral or immoral. To put it differently, the ethicist begins by outlining what the central focus of integrity ought to be. Now the Judeo-Christian ethicist is one who desires to be consistent with the canonical Scriptures. 

Logo for Center for Public Justice concerning ethics
Logo for Center for Public Justice

It is especially significant to understand that the prophets, as the spokespeople for the Lord, often addressed ethics.   A statement from the prophet Micah comes to mind,

 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,[a]
    and to walk humbly with your God?  (6:8 ESV)

The Central Question

As I noted in the last entry here, Moore and Bruder contend the central inquiry of all philosophy focuses on this question, “What does it mean to do good?” Even the definition of a word like good is difficult to pin down. The thesaurus says that good can be replaced by decent. A Google search for the definition of good gets us this on this site

          that which is morally right; righteousness.

Synonyms are:

     virtue, righteousness, virtuousness, goodness, morality,  ethicalness, uprightness,  upstandingness, integrity, principle,  dignity, rectitude, rightness; honesty, truth, truthfulness, honor, incorruptibility, probity, propriety, worthiness, worth, merit;  irreproachableness,    blamelessness, purity, pureness, lack of corruption, justice, justness, fairness

The Prophet Micah

Since ethics is the study (or perhaps better, the pursuit) of what is good when speaking of the actions of a human being, we do well to ponder what the prophet Micah has laid out for us.  Do Justice. Love Kindness. Walk Humbly With Your God. OK, so that sums it up.

Greek and Jewish Ideas

The issues immediately begin to pop up, however, because already in ancient Greece, there was no common understanding of what justice means. As Plato considered what would make an ideal state, he rejected the usual answers which said that justice is giving another what they have coming to them. If we look again at the series of synonyms above, we see that they imply that in our relations with others, we are giving others their due.

When I read some Jewish writers as they describe what justice is, they are careful to differentiate it from charity. Giving people their due sounds like it is an action of grace on our part. Realizing that justice is a duty recognized and so pursued is a different idea. Deuteronomy 16 has this, “Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”  

Til next time

When we pick this up again, we will need to dig a little more into the Scriptural concept of justice so that we may gain understanding of what it is God has shown us in the good.