As regular Revivers and readers will know, I am studying part time while I train for ministry. One of the modules I am taking at the moment is Christian Faith and Ethical Living, and even though I have studied ethics before, I am increasingly aware that it is changing the way I think, not just about particular moral issues but about how we come to make moral decisions in the first place.
We have studied three ethical frameworks, arguably the three we most instinctively fall back on even if we could not name them, and it may help for me to outline them briefly before explaining how studying them has had such an impact on me.
Command ethics is concerned with right actions, holding that behaviours are always right or always wrong, in accordance with a guiding principle. For the philosopher Immanuel Kant, that principle was ‘do as you wish everyone else would’. For many Christians, it is the authority of God as expressed in scriptural commands.
Consequentialism focuses on right outcomes, holding that actions must be judged according to the effects they bring about. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill developed a strand of this ethics called utilitarianism, which argued that the right action was the one that brought the greatest happiness to the greatest number. Joseph Fletcher’s explicitly Christian version of situation ethics made agape the only binding principle, so that the right action was the one which most demonstrated love.
Virtue ethics puts the spotlight on right character, holding that good decisions are the result of the practice of good habits. Aristotle believed that virtue trod the line between deficiency and excess, so for example courage is the balance between cowardice and rashness. For theologians such as Stanley Hauerwas, virtue is located in the life of Christ as practiced by the community of faith.
I’ve not done any of these strands of thought justice by a long shot, but hopefully these brief summaries are enough to give you an idea of how each framework might be applied as a Christian ethic.
So how has all of this started to shape my thinking? And why have I chosen to blog about it?
First of all, I have become more conscious of my thought processes. I instinctively use elements of all three frameworks, but now that I have the language to describe what is going on in my head, I have started to unpick the various threads.
When I was woken up at 2am by a crying baby a few nights ago, I found myself leaning over his cot wondering what each framework would say about the ethics of controlled crying. And my television watching has given me plenty of opportunity to practice this new pastime.
Second, this more deliberate way of thinking has changed some of my decisions. On Monday I had to give a presentation exploring how one of the frameworks would handle a moral dilemma we have faced, and I ended with the conclusion that I would make a different choice if faced with the same dilemma again.
That was partly because I have come to learn more about the issue, entirely separately from my studies, but partly because reflecting on some of the weaknesses of the frameworks led me to realise some of the weaknesses in my own approach, and led me towards a wider and more generous perspective.
And so I guess I’m blogging about this to encourage you to think a little more intentionally about how you make moral choices. Many of the decisions we are faced with are made before we even realise it, but reflecting on the whole process away from a particular crisis may lead to some interesting and influential insights.