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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!

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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.

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

Belief in God: Does Science Make This Obsolete?

The Issue as We Find It Today

Some scientists have made the assertion that belief in God has become obsolete in our modern world. But let’s ask ourselves, “Does Science Make Belief in God Obsolete?”  That anyone could take this title question seriously betrays the abysmal ignorance concerning the nature of religious belief that is so common nowadays. Simply googling the question returns over two million hits, most of which reply in the affirmative. My assertion is that no matter what some scientists may say, belief in God is not obsolete.

Science, understood as hypotheses about the nature and workings of the cosmos, couldn’t possibly make belief in God obsolete. The fact is belief in God is an answer to another, and very different, question from those which science asks. Science ought to be defined as asking for the nature and workings of the cosmos.  Religion, on the other hand, is centrally focused on the question of the identity of the self-existent reality on which all else depends. That self-existent reality is what we as Christians call God.

What is Self-Existent?

Think of it this way. The sum total of reality must be self-existent either in part or as a whole, because there is nothing else for it to depend on. But any belief as to what is self-existent is a religious belief, because that is the one thing all religions have in common. What is central to all religions is a belief in a divine reality.  The invariable core meaning of “divine” is the self-existent reality that is the Origin of all else, no matter how that divinity is further described. 

        So if some part (or all) of the cosmos itself is held to be that self-existent reality, that is the religion called “Naturalism.” By contrast, belief in God – the transcendent, personal Creator – is called “Theism.” But both, on this definition, are types of divinity beliefs. 

A Brief Historical Review

        The claim that one or another divinity belief is what is common to all religions is based on an extensive survey the official scriptures or traditions of dozens upon dozens of religions of the past and present. Moreover, the surveying has been done by a large number of highly distinguished thinkers over a period of 2650 years. It was held by virtually every Pre-Socratic thinker after Anaximander, who was the first to propose it around 650 BC. It was also endorsed by Plato, Aristotle, and later by virtually every medieval thinker. It was held by John Calvin in the 16th century and Friedrich Schleiermacher in the 19th century – to name but two of its advocates between the middle ages and the 20th century. In the 20th century it was accepted by: Wm James, Norman Kemp Smith, Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, Hans Kung, C.S. Lewis, Herman Dooyeweerd, Paul Chenau, A.C. Bouquet, Mercea Eliade, Joachim Wach, Robert Neville, and Will Herberg – to name but a few![i]

Among other things, this definition makes clear why belief in God and atheism are not exhaustive options. Atheism relates to religious belief as vegetarianism does to eating: if I know you’re a vegetarian I know what you don’t like to eat but not what you do like to eat. Likewise, if I know you’re an atheist I know what you don’t believe is divine, but not what you do believe is divine. But the Naturalist who believes that part or all of the cosmos is self-existent has a divinity belief every bit as much as any Hindu, Buddhist, Jew, Christian, or Muslim. Such a person simply has a different divinity belief, rather than no religious belief at all.

Naturalism’s Religious Basis

Moreover, the fact that what Naturalism regards as divine is also what the sciences study does nothing to make Naturalism itself scientific rather than religious. The claim that Naturalism is somehow supported by science just because Naturalism deifies what science studies, is what is sometimes called in logic a “howler”: a mistake so bad that it provokes laughter and defies being classified as any specific fallacy. In fact, that claim is precisely parallel to claiming that the study of farming must itself be healthy because it studies the production of food.

But no one needs to regard any part of nature as divine in order to study it and/or discover how it works.

There is really no good excuse for missing the religious character of Naturalism, because Naturalist religion has been around for a long time. The belief that matter is the self-existent (divine) reality was widespread in the ancient world, for example. The main difference between modern materialism and its ancient forms (other than the increased sophistication of contemporary physics) seems to be that the ancient materialists admitted it was a religion while their contemporary counterparts claim to oppose all religion. That they are actually opposing all other ideas of divinity in the name of their own divinity seems to go unnoticed.

The Core Misunderstanding

This definition of religious belief, though marginalized in present day religious studies, is exactly what is needed in contemporary discussions of the relation between science and religion. For while there are differences among philosophers and scientists about the nature of the scientific enterprise, there is also a large area of agreement about it. By contrast, there is very little agreement among participants in the science / religion dialogue concerning the nature of religious belief, and the most commonly held ideas about religious belief are patently false. For example, divinity beliefs are not all accompanied by worship, do not all have an ethic associated with them, and do not all result in a cultic organization. Nevertheless, despite the lack of any clear idea of what makes a belief religious, thinkers by the scores plow ahead with their pronouncements about how religion relates to science.

In addition to the prevalent misunderstandings of the nature of divinity beliefs, there also presently persists an equally grievous misunderstanding of the ground on which they are believed. One of the cheapest shots in the entire science/religion discussion is the one that goes: science is matter of observation and reason while religion is blind faith. I call this a cheap shot because it is made in the face of centuries of evidence to the contrary.

Blind Faith Disproved

To cite only Christian thinkers (and only a few of them) it is contradicted by Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Pascal. How anyone could ignore all of them and still claim to have correctly described the Christian idea of the grounds for belief in God, I do not know. But it is done with appalling regularity by people who hold prestigious positions in major universities, some of whom have notable accomplishments in one or another science. All I can say about that, is to note how often success in one area tempts those flushed with such success to proclaim (with great confidence) the most ludicrous mistakes in other areas of which they know next to nothing. So let’s get this much straight right away:

There is not, and never has been on this planet, a religion whose scriptures asked anyone to believe it on blind faith.

Neither have the scriptures of any religion attempted to prove its doctrines as though they were theories. Rather, every religion that has treated the subject of the ground for knowing its doctrines to be true, has insisted that a person must be enlightened to know the truth of its teachings. That is to say, their truth is to be known by experiencing their self-evidence. Put another way, divinity beliefs are not hypotheses in need of proof, but are experience reports.

For that reason, it is doubly absurd first to mis-describe divinity beliefs as based on blind faith, and then dismiss them as bogus claims to truth unless they are proven. That makes no more sense than it would to demand of logic that it either prove its axioms or admit they are blind faith.

Sense Perceptions are not Blind Faith

Moreover, these twin mistakes are usually conjoined to yet another, namely, the inexcusably false claim that if a belief has no proof then the only alternative is that it must be blind faith. Many participants in the science/religion dialog have asserted this position without noticing that it would not only make the axioms of math and logic blind faith, but also all beliefs derived from normal sense perception. None of these are provable, but they are not therefore blind faith!

Nor do sense perceptions need proof. Nothing believed because it is experienced as self-evident needs proof. And please notice that it will not do to reply to this last point by saying that when it comes to logic, math, and normal sense perception everyone agrees as to what is self-evidently true, whereas the disagreements over what is divine render its alleged self-evidence false. That isn’t even close to being correct. There are as intractable, head-butting, long-standing disagreements about axioms of math and logic as there are about divinity beliefs. This fact shows that self-evidence is a proper ground for belief. I will go on to assert that although it is the ground (and often the only ground) for a belief, it is not infallible.

John Calvin and Blaise Pascal

Lest you think my claim that divinity beliefs are held because they are experienced as self-evident is weird and idiosyncratic, let me add that quite a number of Christian thinkers have held it. There is room here to quote only two of them to demonstrate that point. The first is a Protestant theologian, the second a Catholic scientist.

First, John Calvin:

As to the question, How shall we be persuaded that

        [Scripture] came from God?… it is just the same as

if we were asked, How shall we learn to distinguish

light from darkness, white from black, sweet from

bitter? Scripture bears on the face of it as clear

evidence of its truth, as white and black do of their

color, sweet and bitter of their taste.[ii]

They who strive to build up a firm faith in Scripture

Through disputation are doing things backwards…

Even if anyone clears God’s sacred Word from man’s

evil speaking, he will not at once imprint upon their

hearts that certainty which piety requires… unbeliev-

ing men… both wish and demand rational proof that

Moses and the prophets spoke divinely. But I reply

that the testimony of the Spirit is more excellent than

all reason.[iii]

Scripture, carrying its own evidence along with it,

deigns not to submit to proofs and arguments, but

owes the full conviction with which we ought to

receive it to the testimony of the Spirit of God.[iv]

Just to be sure there  is full understanding here: when Calvin speaks of the testimony of God’s Spirit he is referring to the experience of enlightenment. The New Testament consistently speaks of this. He is not speaking of hearing voices or seeing visions, but of the opening of one’s heart and mind to the light (truth) of the gospel.[v] I recognize he doesn’t use the expression “self-evident” in the quotes above. In my opinion he may as well have done since what he says conveys exactly the same idea. So, too, does the following passage from Pascal’s famous work, Pensees:

portrait of blaise pascal

We know truth not only by the reason but

also by the heart, and it is this last way that

we know first principles; and reason which

has no part in it, tries in vain to impugn them…

[For example] we know that we do not

dream… however impossible it is for us to

prove it by reason… the knowledge of first

principles, such as space, time, motion, and

number is as sure as any of those we get from

      reasoning. And reason must trust these intuitions

of the heart, and must base every argument

upon them… it is as useless and absurd for

reason to demand from the heart proofs of her

first principles before admitting them, as it

would be for the heart to demand from reason

an intuition of all demonstrated propositions

before accepting them…Therefore those to

whom God has imparted religion by intuition

are very fortunate, and justly convinced.[vi]

It should be obvious that Pascal also appeals here to the idea of self-evidence, but without using the term.

This is not to say that you can’t find any writer who has ever recommended a divinity belief be taken on blind faith. I was careful to phrase my denial by saying that none of the scriptures of the major world religions ever say this. The study of comparative religion will show that they in fact present a different account of the basis for their divinity belief, an account that is inconsistent with blind trust. So I’ve not denied that you can find, say, a Christian fundamentalist who will all too gladly agree with the Naturalists’ accusation that belief in God rests on blind faith. Nevertheless, that doesn’t make it excusable for participants in the science / religion discussion to accept that as an accurate account of Christian faith. Attacking Theism’s divinity beliefs by attacking Christian fundamentalists is analogous to attacking science by attacking alchemists.

Stay tuned! We will pick this topic up again next time.

Footnotes

[i]           Varieties of Religious Experience (NY: Longmans Green & Co, 1929), 31-34; The Credibility of Divine Existence (NY: St Martins Press, 1967), 396; The Dynamics of Faith (NY: Harper & Bros, 1957), 12; Christianity and the World Religions (Garden City: Doubleday, 1986), xvi; Miracles (NY: MacMillan, 1948), 15-22; A New Critique of Theoretical Thought (Phila: 1953), I, 57; The Reformation (Gloucester: Allan Sutton, 1989), 18; Comparative Religion (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1973), 37; Patterns in Comparative Religion (NY: Sheed & Ward, 1958), 23-25; The Comparative Study of Religions (NY: Columbia University Press, 1961), 30; The Tao and the Daimon (Albany: State University of NY Press, 1982), 117; “The Fundamental Outlook of Hebraic Religion” in The Ways of Religion, ed. R. Eastman (NY: Canfield, 1975), 283.

[ii]           Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.7.2

[iii]          Ibid. 1.7.4

[iv]          Ibid. 1.7.5

[v]           E.g., Cmp. Rom. 1: 21, 25; 2 Cor. 4: 4-6; Eph. 1: 18, 5: 8-13.

[vi]          Trans. A.J. Krailsheimer (London: Penguin, 1966), 58.