Thursday, March 19, 2009

Ethical Language

Here is an interesting piece about ethical language:

What we need is a language of ethics that both the religious and the secular feel easy with. The ethical language of rules, which tells us that certain categories of behaviour (such as killing, lying, and adultery) are always wrong, is one that some Christians favour. But Jesus taught, and Paul consistently confirmed, that rules such as the Ten Command­ments should point us towards developing character — becoming more gentle, trustworthy, and faithful people — rather than just keeping outward regulations. Rules certainly have no attraction for modern secular people.

The ethical language of conse­quences — do whatever has the best outcome for the most people — similarly underestimates the richness of the Christian concept of love, and can easily slip into a sort of hedonism that is of little help in building common values.

THE ethical language that seems best suited for pluralistic democracies is the language of rights. But, for people of faith, this sits uneasily with the idea of the need for detachment from self-centredness, which features prom­inently in the ethics of all the main world religions, and with the idea of a holy sovereign creator, which lies at the heart of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
The language of rights has been hailed as the perfect ethic for modern liberal democracies, where people with different secular and religious world-views live together, and where one of the highest values is the freedom of individuals to live as they choose. But it does seem to have failed us. When virtues such as honesty, faithfulness, and kindness are no longer regarded highly, what we think of as “a good life” starts to slip away.

The language of rights asks us to consider the basic freedoms that people need in order to live well — the freedom to choose when to die, for example, or to publicise one’s own views in the ways one wants to.

These rights have to be balanced with the rights of others, but, in order to live well, we need to know more than this. While, in the language of rights, it may be entirely just to help someone die, or put a potentially offensive play on the stage, in some cases it might also be a cowardly, selfish, unwise, or cruel thing to do: it might be destructive rather than creative of a society where people can flourish.

Many people in the West simply assume that the language of rights is the only valid ethical language there is, and that they must, for the good of humanity, impose it on the rest of the world. Many Muslims, however, see it an alien imposition. If you believe that your sovereign creator has revealed his will for your life, and your only hope of reaching your potential is by humble submission and the reception of his mercy, how can you base your ideas about living well on what people perceive as their rights?

Some Christians come into conflict with this ethical system, too, when the right to equal access to employment clashes with what they see as the Bible’s teaching about gender roles and sexual practices, or when the right to free speech leads to public blasphemy.

There is, however, an emerging language of ethics that is ideally suited for a common discussion about the meaning of a good life and community. This is the language of virtues. This system of ethics, which predates the modern era, focuses not on how to decide which categories of behaviour are not permissible, which actions are right or wrong in a particular situation, or what some- one’s rights may be, but, as so much of the New Testament does, on what a good person is like. Ethics then becomes centred not on good rules or happy outcomes, but on good people.
All that is helpful in the language of rules, consequences, and rights can be turned into the language of virtues. Freedom, justice, and toler­ance can remain on the list of virtues to be promoted in our common life, but to this can be added honesty, gentleness, kindness, gener­osity, pa­tience, faithfulness, responsibility, and care.

If people of faith could stop talk­ing, as Jesus’s most vigorous op­ponents did, about universal moral prohibitions, or, as hedonists do, about love being all you need, and start talking about the virtues their faith traditions endorse, they would find people willing to listen. Although the media often mocks such ideas, I find there is considerable nostalgia for integrity, generosity, patience, faithfulness, gentleness, and humility.

To the discussion about legislation and shared values, people of faith can feed in their common insight that the main ethical project is the over­coming of egoism, and that for this to work there needs to be some element of transcendence — a commitment to something bigger than the self, to inspire and motivate people to live well.

The shrinking world urgently needs a global ethical language that both secular and religious people feel easy with. Sticking with the old languages of rules, consequences, and human rights makes it hard for the wisdom of people of faith to be heard. But, if Christians could begin to see the distinctive ethics of the New Testament in terms of the ethics of virtues, they would find they have something to con­tribute that is both compre­hensible and at­tractive to their fellow citizens.

Claire Disbrey was an Associate Lecturer for the Open University, and is now the Associate Warden of Readers for the Edmonton Area of the diocese of London. She is the author of Living in Grace: Virtue ethics and Christian living (BRF, 2007).

Read it all here.

Note that consequentialist, deontological and virtue ethics are all mentioned. None of them are "new". The writer overlooks the definition of ethical behavior as involving recognition of and respect for God-establish boundaries and binary distinctions. When we fail to recognize these, we trepass against God and against other.

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