What Would Jesus Do? – An Ethics Primer

Here’s a classic questions, but one that I think is going to become increasingly important here in Houston over the next couple of weeks. As the immediate needs of the folks most affected by the storm give way to more reflection, it is inevitable that some will begin to ask tough questions about how and why certain decisions were made. These questions about the ways in which decisions and actions in the real world mate-up with deeply held beliefs and commitments are the heart of the academic study of Ethics. They should not, however, remain the exclusive purview of professional thinkers. A good command of Ethical Thinking is essential to the life of faith.

So, let’s begin with the basics: Morals, Values and Ethics. News sources and casual commentators tend to use these word’s interchangeably and have a bad habit of applying them more for their emotional punch than their more nuanced meanings. I don’t know if there is a strict hierarchy. But it seems to me that it is better to be “ethical” than to simply have “good values.” Likewise, I would rather be accused of being “unethical” than “amoral” . . . But that’s just me. Suffice it to say that such commentary usually does more to muddy the waters of quality reflection on difficult decisions than it does to define who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.

For today, some definitions:

Morals

Morals are the basic rules that we live by. They principals rooted, usually, in some kind of religious or philosophical framework. As such, they typically come from the distant or idyllic past and are frequently slightly more archaic than they are immediately helpful. The 10 Commandments are a type of moral code, as are The Beatitudes. Jesus’ “double love” Commandment to “Love God . . . And love your neighbor as yourself,” is a highly condensed and stylized moral code. Moral codes tend to operative within and among the societies that created them and they also tend to be wildly mis-understood between cultures that don’t share religious and historical backgrounds.

When speaking of morals, one must be careful to fully account for cultural underpinning. To say some one is “moral” suggests that they act in accordance with their own moral code (and, further that you understand it). Accusing someone of “immorality” suggests that they (and you) know their moral code and that they are acting counter to it. Being “amoral” calls forth the unlikely case that someone is operating without a moral code.

Values

Values are a little simpler. Values are things that you place value on. It could be an item, or a class of items, or something like that. It could also be a trait or a concept or something more abstract. Most people value money, some more than others. Most value friendship or loyalty or even life itself. Some don’t

Like Morals, Values are largely culturally defined, but they tend to be a little more personal. As such, they are even more difficult to criticize. It is very unlikely that anyone has “no values”. Most of the time they simply value other things than you do. Likewise, in a certain number of cases even those who act very differently may share the same values. The thief who broke into my house evidently valued some of the same things I did. Right?

Ethics

Ethics are the decision making processes that people use to combine their Morals and their Values into real actions in the world. They are the rules of thumb and deeper discernments that allow us to take abstract values and ancient values and apply them to complex, concrete examples. From whether or not to obey the speed limit to whether or not to participate in an armed conflict, nearly every decision we make is ethical in nature. Thus the ethics of decisions are most open to criticism and analysis, but perhaps not in the way that you would think.

The most basic, but perhaps least helpful mode of ethical critique is measuring how well a specific choice complies to an agreed-upon ethical framework. What would Jesus do? Did this person do the “right” thing. Unfortunately, these types of analyses are held up by the same contextual problems that critiques of Morals and Values are. Such questions require both that we fully understand our own ethics and that the person we are critiquing both understands and accepts our chosen framework. It’s a slippery slope.

A more helpful, but perhaps less well understood or appreciated modality is to look at whether or not the application of an ethical framework remains consistent across a number of decisions. Did the person or group show integrity in working with their Morals and Values? Was there prejudice? Was their justice?

As I said at the outset, there will probably be a lot of questions about decisions made during Hurricane Harvey in the coming days and weeks. There will probably be a lot of questions about other things as well. As we try to make sense of all the questions, let us commit ourselves to think through each of these ethical reflections with the clear heads of those who are not hunting for witches or looking for scapegoats, but with the hope that by understanding both the decisions and the people that made them we can be more faithful participants in the community.

Make Good Choices, friends.

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