This article looks at the process of how we make ethical decisions. It describes the principles and different methods that are used to reach a solution to an ethical problem, and evaluates these in order to determine a balanced approach to Christian ethics.
Every generation throughout history has faced difficult ethical questions. However, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, ethical issues are becoming increasingly complex and technical. This is particularly due to the dramatic advances in science and technology over the last few decades, especially in the areas of genetics and bio-technology. Also, with increasing globalization, ethical questions in one nation have a wider impact on a larger number of people, and have greater effect in different areas of life very quickly throughout the world. Ethical questions are faced by everyone, but are a particular concern to Christians, because we attempt to obey God's commandments, and apply his principles to our lives and to the world around us, where they are often in opposition to the world's belief systems.
When facing ethical questions it is essential that we know all the facts of the issue before we jump to simplistic conclusions. It is all too easy to react against something emotionally, unknowingly basing our reaction on our cultural pre-conceptions. Before making an ethical judgement, it is necessary to gather as much information about the issue as possible, noting the different arguments for and against, and investigating the possible implications and results of the decision. For example, it is not sufficient to oppose joining the European single currency (Euro) merely because of an emotional desire to keep the Pound Sterling. To make an adequate decision, it is necessary to make careful consideration of many issues, including the effect on national sovereignty, and potential loss of political decision-making to Europe, as well as economic advantages and disadvantages.
As Christians, we believe that we have God's revealed truth in the Bible, from which we should be able to discern ultimate right and wrong, and find answers to our ethical dilemmas. The Bible gives us a definition of what is good, based on God's character; and what is right, based on God's will and commands; and he calls us to be imitators of him. However, the majority of modern ethical controversies are not specifically addressed in the Bible. Also, many modern ethical issues are very complex, so the average Christian often feels that they are too ignorant to enter into the arguments, and would rather leave decisions on these issues to the so-called experts.
One persistant weakness in the Evangelical Church has often been an over-simplistic use of the Scriptures, quoting one verse or proof-text to end the discussion on the particular ethical issue. They say, "The Bible says ...", and close the subject. This can give a sense of safety and security for the Christian, but is not a satisfactory method of solving ethical questions, as it can lead to a conclusion which is not really in line with the full Biblical revelation. It also confirms the impressions of the unbeliever that Christians are intolerant and unthinking. It is really a misuse of the Bible. To avoid an incorrect application of the Bible, it is essential that we take account of both the context of the verse in the passage, as well as its literary, cultural and historical context. The conclusion we come to has to be true to the overall revelation of God's character given through the whole Bible, and there needs to be a consistent teaching on the issue in a number of different places in the Scriptures. When considering issues not immediately addressed in the Bible we need to look for wider principles of God's revelation which are relevant to the issue. For example, because neither abortion nor euthanasia are specifically mentioned in the Bible, we need to apply the creation principle that man is made in God's image, and therefore human life has a special quality, which is different from the animals.
For all people, whether Christian or non-Christian, there are three main approaches that are used in making ethical decisions, examples of all of which are found in the Bible, but they each have their strengths and weaknesses.
1. Ethics based on rules
The first approach to ethics is based on rules. These rules can be derived from different sources, including the law of the land, or particularly from a religious book. The advantage of a rules-based approach to ethical issues is that it seems simple, merely needing obedience to a written rule. However it is totally impossible to have a book which contains relevant rules for every conceivable ethical situation, even though the modern legal system increasingly attempts to do this. There is support for this approach, in that the Bible does contain many rules for living. However, it does not attempt to cover every possible situation, but instead gives principles to apply when specific rules are not given. One of the jobs of the priests in the Old Testament was to listen to peoples' grievances and then interpret and apply the law to these specific cases. We need to develop the bible-study skills to be able to so the same.
The use of the rules-based approach on its own is insufficient, as it does not take account of the motives or results of the actions. It is all too possible to obey rules, but with the wrong motives, and even achieve results opposite to those intended. The exclusive use of the rules-based approach can quickly lead to legalism, when keeping the rules becomes a source of pride, and care for the individual becomes secondary to obedience to the rules. Sometimes the original intended purpose of the rule becomes lost in scrupulous adherence to the details of the rules. A clear example is in Jesus’ dealings with the Pharisees, particularly when he came into conflict with their Sabbath regulations. In their dedication to be obedient to every detail of the law, they missed the main point of the law, that "the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" (Mk 2:27). It was intended to be a blessing, not a heavy burden! They opposed Jesus healing people on the Sabbath, saying that healing was work, missing the fact that God loved people and that his primary motive was to do good to them. His desire was to bless his people with a special day of rest and fellowship with God and one another each week.
2. Ethics based on motives
The second approach looks at motives, taking into consideration the purpose for the action, and recognising that it is possible to perform the right action with the wrong motives (like the Pharisees above), and that it is also possible have good motives to do a wrong action. An example of this would be whether it would be right to break the speed limit in order to rush an injured person to hospital. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus showed great interest in people's motives, saying that prayers and religious activity motivated by pride and a desire to impress others would not be heard by God (Mt 6:7-8). The disadvantage with the motives approach is that it becomes possible to make up some excuse for any action, however evil, with the result that all decisions become relative, with no absolute standards. This is the problem with much of modern secular ethics, and it is not an adequate approach on its own.
3. Ethics based on results
The third approach is more concerned with results. A choice is made by looking at the consequences of each possible choice. If the result is generally good for the majority of the people, then the choice is thought to be the right one. The legal system of most nations is based on this approach, emphasising the negative consequences of a particular action: "If you do this, you will be punished". Jesus certainly used this approach when he taught about the eternal consequences of people's lifestyle, promising eternal bliss for those who love and obey him, and eternal judgement for those who remain in a life of sin.
There are some significant benefits of considering results, as it compels people to consider seriously the consequences of their actions. Most young people today will probably not be impressed with rules quoted from the Bible saying that having sex with their boy or girl friend is wrong, saying, "We love each other, it cannot be wrong". In the past the threat of eternal judgement would have had some effect, when there was a far higher level of the fear of the Lord in society generally. Today they will probably be more influenced by stories and testimonies showing the negative effects of promiscuity on health and future relationships, and statistics showing that people who abstained from pre-marital sex have better marriages. This argument is effective because there are good reasons for the rules. God's commandments are right because he made us and therefore knows the best way for us to live.
The great danger with focussing exclusively on results is the mentality easily develops into the "end justifies the means". Rules and principles can be laid aside to get an apparently beneficial result and any negative consequences for the minority are ignored, to benefit the majority.
It is necessary to use a balance of all three approaches, as there are dangers in the exclusive use of any one of them. Jesus used all three in his teaching. He gave rules, was deeply concerned with people's motives, and frequently spoke about eternal results.
Another, more intangible and controversial basis of decision making is from what is called natural law. This is something that most people use without realising it. People often say, "This is wrong", or "This is right", but they could not necessarily say why, apart from saying "It is obvious!". People are making ethical decisions from their own sense of right and wrong, based on reason and intuition, rather than on divine revelation.
Paul alluded to natural law in Romans chapter two, when he declared that Gentiles who do not have the Old Testament law actually unknowingly keep the law because, "what the law requires is written on their hearts" (Rom 2:15). Because humans are made in the image of God, they have moral standards stamped on their nature because God has put them there, whether the individuals believe in God or not. Natural law says that God's law will match the knowledge of right and wrong that people already have within them. Thomas Aquinas wrote extensively about this, and through him, the theory of natural law became the foundation of much of Catholic theology. He taught that God's government of the world is revealed through three sets of laws which should work together without contradiction These are: natural law - the universal moral principles of the universe, human law in the law codes of nations, and divine law given by revelation in the Scriptures.
There are several criticisms of the use of natural law as a basis of Christian ethics. One is that it does not sufficiently acknowledge the effect of the Fall on human nature. All humans now have a sinful nature, which distorts and blurs the image of God within them, but without totally obscuring it. Because of this, people have very different opinions of what is right and wrong, and do not naturally follow God's standards of behaviour. Therefore, it is dangerous to rely exclusively on natural law, without also submitting to divine revelation. Another criticism is that there is no globally recognised standard of right and wrong. Different peoples and cultures around the world often have very different moral standards, although some anthropologists emphasise the similarities between cultures more than the differences.
God has also placed in each of us a conscience, an in-built sense of right and wrong, which can also be used as a basis of making ethical decisions. There are different views of what the conscience actually is. God can speak to us personally through our consciences (if we listen!). But this is very subjective, and therefore not totally reliable, and therefore needs to be tested against an objective reading of the Scriptures. A more secular view is that the conscience is merely human emotion, and develops from our childhood. However people experience great changes in conscience, particular after conversion to Christ.
The conscience is very sensitive and is easily damaged by sin. When a person first commits a particular sin, they may experience strong feelings of guilt, but if the sin is repeated, there are progressively weaker guilty feelings, until none are felt at all. At this point the conscience has become seared (1 Tim 4:2). Ignorance also makes the conscience ineffective. Even though ignorance of the law is no excuse, we will not feel guilty about breaking a law we do not know about. For example, a person who has been brought up in a situation where sexual promiscuity is normal will not have feelings of guilt when they follow the example given by their parents. Other people have an over-sensitive conscience and will feel guilty about doing something which is not actually sinful, normally because they have been taught particular religious observances, which may be considered to be legalisms by others, like standards of dress and what they are allowed to do on Sunday.
As each of these approaches to ethical decisions has its strengths and weaknesses, we need to make use of a combination of them to come to satisfactory decisions. There is a great need for Christians to gain confidence in using these methods to wrestle with today's complex ethical issues and bring the truth of God's word to a world which is crying out for answers.