ThoughtShades FrameWork

Essays, Themes, Opinions

Constructs, Practical Ideas, Applications

Poetry, Impression Writing

Sermons, Devotions

Personal Revelations, Illustrations

Viewpoint: Politics, Contemporary Issues, Editorials


Choice Offerings by Others

Powered by Squarespace
« New Corporate Buzz Words for the 21st Millennium | Main | Good and Bad, Right and Wrong (Part Two) »

Good and Bad, Right and Wrong (Part One)

Searching for Ethical Clarity in Contemporary Confusion

Do you know the difference between right and wrong? Of course you do---or do you? Maybe not. Too many variables, too many difficult judgments and too many opinions in trying to determine the difference between the two present profound dilemmas to citizens in a civil society. A sampling of cases in which monumental struggles continue to plague twenty-first century people include abortion, capital punishment, racial justice, illegal immigration, right to privacy, national health care, gun ownership and environmental law. Anyone who possesses even basic familiarity with arguments on both sides of these issues understands that neither the problems nor the solutions are simple.

People who dismiss ethical struggles with a wave of the hand will, in all probability, confront the complexity of right and wrong soon enough. It may come in the form of “pulling the plug” on a loved one. It may involve knowing how to treat the child of an unmarried son or daughter, whether or not one will accept the interracial marriage of a relative, or what to do about a close friend or relative who has just confessed to moral failure. It may come with deciding if he or she should file for bankruptcy, whether or not to prosecute a relative who has forged his or her name on bad checks, what do to about a suspected case of child abuse in one’s own family. Modern life has presented us with a host of new ethical questions that we have never had to consider, or that have exacerbated old questions we thought were resolved long ago.

In fact, the judgment between right and wrong lies at the heart of most human acts and relationships. Virtually everything in the human realm—birth, courtship, marriage, schooling, employment, buying, selling, living, dying—goes by a written or unwritten code. Arguments, feuds and wars erupt because some person or group thinks that a wrong has been perpetrated and must be avenged. While we exempt infants and very small children from this burden, we demand that able-minded persons in society reach an “age of accountability”, or an age at which they know right from wrong. Judges, lawyers, mediators and arbitration experts all find gainful employment in the search for right and wrong. Government entities either determine or enforce what is right or wrong---something we call law. Enormous complexities spawned by technological advances like cloning, genome mapping and fetal tissue research occupy much of the time of ethicists and legal counsel for medical laboratories and hospitals. Regardless of the field of study, the policies in question or the people involved, no one can afford to ignore ethical considerations.

In the past, life was much simpler. Iron-fisted tribal patriarchs decided what was right or wrong. Strong families, guided by either wise or at least domineering leaders ruled many people. Kings, prime ministers and presidents often arbitrarily set the standards for ethical behavior. Today, in democratic societies, we have largely relegated this decision-making process to the legislative and judicial branches of government. Ultimately, the highest court in the land hands down decisions on the most difficult cases.

Those of us who believe in God and accept the Bible as the Word of God, find the ethical dilemmas that confound secular society much more manageable. We seriously strive to follow the precepts and instructions that we find in scripture. This gives us a background, a starting point, and a set of clear and divinely prescribed laws from which we govern all human relationships. In our quest for truth in ethical dilemmas, we always appeal first to the Word of God. If we do not find a specific word or verse that applies to the problem, we search for a larger principle that includes the problem in its scope. In the absence of a clearly defined larger principle, we study the behaviors of those people in scripture who had the blessing and approval of God on their lives. In some way, either by direct chapter and verse or by deductive reasoning from scripture, we can arrive at an understanding of essential rightness or wrongness of a situation.

The process may not be easy. Sometimes it is so difficult that several schools of thought have evolved on particular issues. I submit, therefore, an outline to help guide our thinking about the moral and ethical questions that we confront as we live our lives for God. What I say will not matter to the person who does not believe in God, or who does not accept the Bible as the Word of God. But, I do believe that we can apply the scriptures to our problems, even to modern ethical questions made possible by new technologies, and find a peace about troubling issues.

Ethics and philosophy have intrigued thinking man from the earliest times. Zeno, Democritus, Socrates and other ancient Greek philosophers approached the subject in surprisingly sophisticated ways. They concerned themselves with the nature of man and matter, and searched for the elusive quality of good. Many of them believed in a spiritual aspect to ethics, a belief we now call metaphysics. The philosophical systems of Plato and Aristotle were based on idealism and logic, but both tend toward the idea that man discovers true ethical behavior in a quest for his most virtuous and best self. Augustine, probably the most renowned early Christian philosopher, dealt largely with the concept of good and evil, and made man responsible for his moral choices. Many other philosophers offered similar theories and ideas about ethics.

Until the Renaissance Period, most theories about ethical behavior were based upon a belief in God. But by the mid-1400’s, the influence of the church had already begun to decline with the rise of universities and statism. Secular philosophies such as humanism, scientific inquiry and political/social interpretations gradually gained prominence. These ideas denied the intervention of God in the activities of man on the basis that God could not be quantified in rational, observable experiments. Thinking about ethics, therefore, took a new direction. Nicolo Machiavelli, in his book, The Prince, developed the notion that the end justifies the means. Sir Thomas More wrote about Utopia, a fantasy island in which communism, uniformity of the sexes and peace were practiced. Anything that undermined these ideals was considered unlawful.

René Descartes, a French philosopher, broke new ground in rationalism of ethical behavior. He believed that a person should stand by the convictions he has formed within himself and adapt to his environment. He meant that one should judge his behavior on the terms of his own rational thought about himself and his personal convictions, not from any ideas imposed upon him from the outside. Even though Descartes was a devout Catholic, his writings illustrated a definite departure from Christian thought. This deviation continued in others. John Stewart Mill promoted a concept first espoused by Jeremy Bentham, called utilitarianism. In his own words, Mill believed that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” In other words, actions are not intrinsically right or wrong; they may only be so judged after one examines their end result. Further, Mill said that actions must be based upon what will do the most good for the most people.

Given the evacuation of faith from these later developments, it should not be surprising to detect nascent post-modern views. Jean de Lamarck, Charles Darwin, and Herbert Spencer contradicted, or at least questioned, the generally accepted belief that man’s origin was a Creator God. Philosophically, this paved the way for Friedrich Nietzsche to openly reject a system of ethics based upon God. According to Nietzsche, the Judeo-Christian system of moral ideals should be replaced by returning to nature’s values. He believed, as Darwin postulated in his survival of the fittest, that “might makes right”. Thomas Henry Huxley coined the term agnosticism, claiming that genuine knowledge consists only of facts verifiable by the natural sciences. Of ethical matters, Huxley said we have no right to assert the truth or falsity of any assertion without sufficient relevant evidence and certainly should not require others to accept our unsubstantiated beliefs.

Today, many theorists have attracted widespread followings, and since we encounter their views throughout our cultural experience, we would do well to know about them. Søren Kierkegaard’s name is associated with existentialism, a belief that individual existence, freedom and choice are of the highest significance in the human context. Paul Tillich, also an existentialist, believed that people should have the courage to be themselves. Jean-Paul Sartre, an atheist and playwright and a leading exponent of existentialism, believed in the notion of individual responsibility independently of religion. John Dewey constructed another philosophical school of thought called instrumentalism in which he believed that philosophy was dynamic and always adapting itself to its environment. This is especially relevant because John Dewey, often called the Father of Progressive Education, has had a profound effect upon education in America.

In terms of ethics, all of these ideas form the underpinnings of today’s evaluation of right and wrong. Whenever we express shock and disbelief at the lack of Biblical or even traditional ethics in our world, we can search the writings of these philosophers and their contemporaries and discover the reason. This brief synopsis omits much of the historical record, but it serves to show that the trends in ethical standards presently derives, for the most part, from whatever an individual believes, with no interference from God, the Bible or other people.

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>