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Ethics and Morality

See also Ethics & Equality Law


Ethics comes from the Greek word 'ethos', meaning 'what ought to be'. Is there 'right' and 'wrong' in a particular scenario? It implies a set of rules. Morality is similarly defined and so we will use ethics and morality interchangeably. Examples of ethical dilemmas are:

  • Busines ethics: is globalisation defensible and do human rights enter the equation?
  • Medical ethics: can abortion be justified, and should euthanasia be legalised?
  • Biological ethics: is genetic engineering or animal testing acceptable?
  • Sexual ethics: is homosexuality morally acceptable?
  • Political ethics: is it sometimes correct to be 'politically incorrect'?

Are there absolute rules or fixed reference points when it comes to such issues? Postmodernist thinking (the realm of atheists and humanists) says an emphatic "no". They maintain that ethics are culturally and socially defined and so have few if any universal (absolute) values. Pantheism (New Age thinking) holds that there is no real distinction between good and evil and so the ethical concept is irrelevant. On the other hand, monotheistic faiths such as Christianity and Islam maintain that there are indeed absolute reference points.

Worldviews on Ethics

The Ethics of Postmodernism

Postmodernism argues that, since there is no God, our actions are the result of our genetic make-up or our social and cultural environment. We are only influenced by the material world around us. Is this view tenable?

Consider the Bonobo apes found in Africa. These are ‘smart primates’ who share a piece of their DNA with humans. They show care and emotion, and, in contrast to chimpanzees, they live peacefully. Also, Bonobo society accepts free-sex (frequent and varied partners), this being used almost as a friendly greeting, like kissing for humans.

Because of their DNA and human-like behaviour, Postmodernists and evolutionists might argue that these primates are our cousins, and therefore we should not expect our social behaviour to be radically different to that of Bonobo society.

Frans de Waal has studied the Bonobo and maintains that morality has evolved. In his 2006 book he explains how we evolved from a long line of animals that care for the weak and build cooperation with reciprocal transactions. Drawing on both Darwin and recent scientific advances, de Waal demonstrates a strong continuity between human and animal behavior. Others similarly argue that the moral/ethical behaviour exhibited by humans must also exist at some level within non-human species - from ants to primates - and that human moral/ethical behaviour evolved from these primitive roots.

Does this conflict with the traditional Christian worldview? In part, no. According to Genesis 1, all creation was 'good' before the Fall - and this presumably includes ants and primates. Even these creatures initially must have been endowed with some form of primitive morality and this is still seen today. Where traditional Christianity diverges is in the concept that man's morality evolved from primitive morality and without the intervention of a Creator. The Bible maintains that man is made in God’s image (Gen 1.26) and so is capable of reflecting His attributes, such as patience, forgiveness, creativity and wisdom. In particular, man reflects the morality of a moral God and has not obtained this by evolution from some primitive morality. He also has the ability to worship his Creator - something that must be notably absent in the Bonobo. We therefore expect our society to follow a morality far in excess of that of the Bonobo!

A consequence of the weak and fuzzy ethical view of Postmodernism must be a fuzzy ape-like culture where almost anything goes. Justice must suffer in such a culture. T.H. Huxley stated that, although evolution is true, (on its own) it leads to bad ethics. So even evolutionists choose not to live in such a world and, instead, quietly smuggle Christian ethics into their system. Consequently, not many truly live by natural ethics, since it is human nature to appeal to some standard of justice when wronged. We have in-built ethical or moral values.

The Ethics of Power

Another ethical source is that of 'Power Ethics'. This form of ethics assumes 'might makes right'. An individual or group sets up an arbitrary set of values and uses force to maintain them – the totalitarian society. Hitler used power to try and establish the Third Reich. Lenin called any action useful to the party ‘moral’ action, and action harmful to the party he called ‘immoral’. Clearly, both Hitler and Lenin created great injustice. Clearly, a weakness of such ethics is that they are determined by the whim of an individual or group, and so may well be corrupt. Recall,

‘Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’

The power of Rome brought persecution to those who did not agree with the ethics of Rome e.g. to early Christians. Similarly, Soviet Russia was ruthlessly governed by a Central Committee and enforced by the KGB. Both Rome and Soviet Russia established legal rules, but these were not necessarily moral. In this sense, such ethical systems were corrupt and unjust when compared to the standard of Christian ethics. Note that abortion is legal in many societies, but it is not necessarily moral. It is therefore important to establish a balance of power in any democracy in order to avoid power abuse and consequential ethical error. Examples of such balance are found in the US Constitution and in the British Parliament. But it is debatable whether real democratic balance is found in the European Union!

The Ethics of a Majority

A third source of ethics is very common: Majority and Cultural Ethics. This is probably the main ethical group in Western society. Here, whatever a cultural group approves of is deemed right, and whatever the group disapproves of is wrong. At the Nuremberg Trials of WW2, the accused appealed on the grounds that they were only obeying the laws of their culture. They maintained that they were not legally responsible to anyone else. This is cultural relativism; the ethic is set by a majority of citizens accepting that something is right or wrong. A quick way of determining the current majority or cultural ethic on some matter is to carry out an opinion poll. Unfortunately, opinion polls only tell us what a society is currently thinking, not what it should be thinking! This can lead to corruption. If 51% of the poll is in favour of abortion, the ethic is determined, but it is not necessarily correct. Clearly, ethics determined by cultural relativism are subject to change as society changes. For instance, in 1859, slavery was socially acceptable in the USA and abortion was illegal (and immoral). Today, the reverse is true. Most importantly, if there is no absolute reference point, the trends of cultural relativism can be dangerous and no one is safe. This applies particularly to the handicapped, elderly, and unborn. There is no certain justice.

The Absolute Ethics of Christianity

Christianity maintains that universal good cannot come from man, a finite and fallible being. It must come from a transcendent source (from beyond mankind). As the philosopher Wittgenstein said:

‘The sense of the world must lie outside the world … ethics is transcendental’

Christian ethics are therefore based upon the nature of God, and in particular on:

  • The statement of Jesus; ‘I am the way, and the truth …’ (Jn 14.6)
  • An authority higher than man, as revealed in Jesus and the inspired scriptures
  • The absolute moral standard of a Creator God
  • The belief that God’s moral standard is timeless and is for man's well-being

This ethical view escapes the problems of cultural relativism. It presupposes that God exists and has revealed absolute standards. It maintains that these standards are compatible with His creation and are true and correct. They are the handbook for life. An obvious example is the Ten Commandments. Prior to the mid 19th century it was generally accepted that absolute truth (with a capital ‘T’ ) existed and that this was indeed transcendent. During the 20th century this belief was largely replaced by truth with a small ‘t’, as determined by man himself (Naturalism). This is rationalism and empiricism i.e. man’s ability to reason and conduct scientific investigation. This ‘information’ approach is limited since it cannot tell us what to do - it simply collects facts and tries to establish laws fitting the facts. Postmodernism then emerged after WW2 and claimed that there is no truth, and that all we can hope to do is to instil meaning into life through our own interpretation.

Western society tends to be intolerant of fundamentalist Christian statements claiming that truth and absolutes are knowable through God's word and His Spirit. It has chosen to cast these moral principles aside (Ps 2.1-3). For example, the Constitution of the European Union (EU) does not directly appeal to the Bible for its moral and ethical principles. Like past societies, the EU is one more system that is attempting to run without a transcendental ethics basis, and hence is doomed to collapse. As C.S. Lewis commented:

“Terrific energy is expounded – civilisations are built up – excellent institutions devised, but each time something goes wrong. Some fatal flaw always brings the selfish and cruel people to the top and it all slides back to misery and ruin … They are trying to run it on the wrong juice.”

Situational Ethics

Statistics for the United States show that 64% of adults and 83% of teenagers believe moral truth depends upon the situation you are in [Barna Research Group]. This could be construed as a ‘situational ethic’, where the ethic ‘bends’ to the situation. In reality it simply means that the majority of the US public follows majority or cultural ethics rather than absolute ethics.

True situational ethics is a form of ‘graded absolutism’. There are situations in life when there seems to be both a 'higher' and a 'lower' ethic. Let us paraphrase one of Jesus' sayings: Jesus said, "if John divorces his wife Mary, except for the reason of unchastity, he makes her commit adultery ..." (Matthew 5.32). What is modern society to make of that? Let's read it in context. The statement is made alongside statements on anger, lust, vows, retaliation and how you treat your enemy (Matthew 5.21-48). Each time Jesus is emphasizing a better, more perfect way compared to the OT Law on the matter, so 'fulfilling' the Law (Matthew 5.17). In the case of divorce, Jesus is proclaiming an absolute, timeless truth, namely, that God's ideal is for John and Mary to work hard at their marriage and not to treat divorce as an easy option. But if John doesn't believe in the Bible or Jesus' sayings, Mary has a biblical way out. If John insists that the marriage is irretrievable and wishes to leave, then Mary is not under any absolute law. Rather, she is called to peace (1 Corinthians 7.15). Here we have an example where a great ethic (the importance of the marriage bond) is replaced by a lesser ethic, namely, that the partners are called to peace. It is an example of a situational ethic or graded absolutism. It is not moral relativism.

The Acid Test

A major test of any ethical system is its potential to provide justice. Christianity scores relatively well here. After the Reformation the Church spearheaded many social reform movements. For example, the repeal of slavery in England, prison reform, child labour laws, the founding of the British Labour Party, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and Christian Aid. British law has been based on Christian moral law for 1,000 years, but is now being replaced by humanistic law from the EU. An example is the potential replacement of habeas corpus with the European legal system of corpus juris.


Real-life Ethics

Having examined ethics from an apologetic standpoint, we can now briefly examine practical, everyday situations.

Business Ethics

It has been said that globalization tends to be 'enterprise without values', and that 'shareholder interests often rule over the interests of workers or customers'. Globalization has resulted in the poorest people of the world having just 1.4% of the global income [BBC]. Put another way, half of the world's population lives on less than $2 a day! Bhopal (India) is a well-known example of the effects of globalization. The chemical companies concerned deny responsiblity and survivors still await compensation. Toxic waste still pollutes the environment. What can be done to combat the bad ethical effects of globalization? We could:

  • Campaign for a global human rights framework for business based on the UN Norms for Business [Amnesty International]
  • Campaign for responsible lending and unconditional debt cancellation [WCC]
  • Campaign against the imposed privatisation of public services - particularly that of water [WCC]
  • Campaign for ecological farming practices and stand in solidarity with peasant communities [WCC]

The last word rests with the Bible and God's moral law on the subject. Jesus said:

"You canot serve God and wealth." (Mat 6.24)

This appears to question whether a capitialist society can ever adhere to Biblical ethics!

Medical Ethics and Sexual Morality

Abortion is a contentious issue and is defended strongly by humanistic law. For example, an EU advisory panel says:

'Doctors should be forced to perform abortions, or refer women for abortion even if they have a conscientious objection - it is an international human right.' [Pro-Life Care]

But are we aborting an embryo or foetus, or are we aborting a person? The Bible says that we are people known by God before our birth. God said to Jeremiah the prophet

"Before you were born I consecrated you." (Jer 1.5)

With regard to sexual morality, Western society lives by 'moral relativism'. It says morals are determined by culture and society and that there are no moral absolutes. For example, UK law says: [ www.brook.org.uk]

  • 16-year olds can have sex; either male-female or same-sex
  • under certain conditions, doctors can provide contraceptive advice and treatment without parental consent to people under 16

What are the consequences of such liberal law? It can only increase promiscuity and hence sexually transmitted infections (STI). For example, the UK saw a dramatic increase in STI between 1995 and 2004: [Royal Institute of Public Health, 2006]

  • Chlamydia: a rise of 222% (104,000 cases in 2004)
  • Gonorrhoea: a rise of 111%
  • Syphilis: a rise of 1497%

Similarly, HIV cases worldwide have increased dramatically, from 8 million in 1990 to nearly 39 million in 2005 [UNAIDS/WHO]. And "men who have sex with men remain the group at greatest risk of getting HIV in the UK" [AVERT 2006]. Liberal, humanistic law is failing society despite generous funding for sex promotion schemes. In contrast, the Biblical ideal is to abstain from fornication and to save sex for marriage:

"A man shall ... be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh." (Gen 2.24)

Politics

We could ask several open questions about ethical issues in politics:

  • Is it right for Christians to campaign for national government to maintain (or even impose) Christian values when society is mainly secular?
  • A century ago, Western society (British, American, Australian etc.) tended to follow Absolute ethics in that they were essentially Christian nations. Are these societies now moving more towards Power or Majority ethics, or a mix of these?
  • Is the European Union emerging as a system based more on Postmodernist ethics than Absolute ethics (bear in mind the strong Catholic background)?

Also, is it ever correct to be politically incorrect? Some would argue never. On the other hand, if we maintain that absolute truth exists (see Defining Truth) then sometimes an ethic, or statement, or situation has to be challenged if it is perceived as conflicting with the truth. If the challenge is against the norm of society then it could be seen as being politically incorrect, whilst the challenger could see political correctness as blurring or conceiling the truth.

Genetic Engineering (GE)

GE is the manipulation or alteration of the genetic structure of a single cell or organism. Often it involves the transfer of a gene from one organism to another. Some claimed benefits of GE for humans are newborn screening, gene therapy e.g. Cystic Fibrosis, the combating of genetic diseases, and the production of human organs. Some more points made in GE's favour:

  • GE is simply using God-given building blocks to help solve problems, and so it can be justified
  • GE can help infertile people, and that must be good

But there are ethical questions too:

  • If society has no firm, God-given ethics, isn’t it dangerous to ‘play God’?
  • In terms of human GE experiments, human embryos will be sacrificed. How can this be right?

Homosexuality

Western culture has legalised private homosexual acts between consenting adults (as in the UK Sexual Offences Act 1967). There is a drive to make this the cultural norm through, for example, Civil Partnerships. The ethics of Postmodernism follows this line of thought and maintains that:

  • What is, is OK
  • Homosexual feelings are normal. Youth are advised “there is nothing wrong with you”
  • All homosexual activity is a viable choice, and there is no guilt

Scientific research on the causes of homosexuality is conflicting, but the overall consensus is that homosexuality is not caused by a normal genetic variation:

"No researcher has found provable biological or genetic differences between heterosexuals and homosexuals that weren’t caused by their behaviour ... no one has found a single heredible genetic, hormonal or physical difference between heterosexuals and homosexuals." [Family Research Institute, Colorado Springs]

Studies conclude that homosexuality is learned; that the root cause is psychological rather than biological; and that the problem is relational rather than genetic [Family Research Institute, Colorado Springs]. Homosexual feelings are not 'normal' in the usual definition of normality. The scientific consensus therefore conflicts with the Postmodern ethic on homosexuality.

In contrast, the Bible gives an absolute ethic on the subject. According to the Bible, God created 'kinds' (including man), and instructed them to 'multiply' (Gen 1). In order to multiply the 'kinds' had male and female gender. Moreover, everything that was created 'was good'. So the natural state of things before the Fall of Man was for a male and female of a kind to procreate. Then came the Fall and man wandered from God's ideal. One consequence was sexual sin in the sight of God, and that includes homosexual acts; in the sight of God these are "an abomination". The biblical case against the act of homosexuality is found in Lev 18.22, 20.13; Deut 23.18, Mat 5.17-19; Rom 1.18-27; 1 Cor 6.9-11 and Rev 21.27, and God underscored His word by destroying the sodomy of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19.5,24). As to the future, those who deliberately live immoral, unclean lives in the sight of God are excluded from the heavenly city (Rev 21.27, 22.15), the New Jerusalem. Revelation 22.15 uses a term similar to that in Deut 23.18, which implies 'male prostitute' or 'somodite'. Based on such scriptures, the Bible maintains that:

  • Human nature has been warped by the Fall
  • Homosexual feelings are abnormal
  • All homosexual activity (sexual acts) is sin in God's sight, but Jesus offers forgiveness for such sin

The Christian should have Christ's love, humility and compassion for those caught up in homosexuality, without compromising the moral principles in scripture. For a more comprehensive discussion see Homosexuality.


Bible quotations are from the New American Standard Bible