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Living in Ethics

Preface: Soil, Planet Earth and Being Good

I like the image of soil when thinking about morality and ethics. Soil is necessary for nurture, growth, and life itself, but if we insist on planting in it, or indeed playing in it, we will inevitable become dirty. It is the same for ethics; while necessary for nurturing a good life, living morally and resolving ethical dilemmas is almost always messy work. We can never get out of it completely clean, and it is an illusion to think we can. There is no universal principle, or theoretical abstraction, or even methodological nicety that will keep us completely free from life's conflicts and contradictions. There is no where to go to escape ethics. No one can spare us its difficulties. If we want to participate in life, we cannot really avoid getting our hands dirty. But while we cannot avoid the effects of soil, we can act and be in ways that will both create and maintain integrity.

The image of soil also keeps us grounded on planet earth when considering how we can best live a moral life. It has never been my desire to understand how ethics is played out in Never-Never-Land. I will leave that to Peter Pan and the Lost Boys. I am, however, very interested in how to live well every day, which is to say, in the very soil of my existence.

While I insist that ethics must be practical, I am not against theoretical ruminations. I am, however, against such ruminations floating off into space, disassociated from our real life problems. It is interesting to say, for example, that a human being should be good because God is good and God's creation is good. But how does such a theological notion of goodness help us when we are knee deep in a decision between two possible actions both of which will cause harm? What does it mean to be good in such a situation?

Theory should be and always remain grounded in the soil of our experience. If it is not, then it becomes a distraction, or worse, a means of avoiding the realities of our living. Each chapter presents a dual track of theoretical considerations and methodological applications. Hopefully in the reading of and participation in the chapters these parallel tracks will continually become intertwined, informing and enhancing each other and, thus, offering a integrated approach to doing ethics.  

Narrative and Liberation are of paramount importance to my understanding of ethics. As a result, I do not only examine the importance of Narrative in ethics and theology, but also use particular narratives to ground theory. I turn to film, drama, and novels to help us deepen our understanding of philosophical and theological abstractions. It is in and through fictious and historic narratives that we explore our deepest human desires and make meaning of our often times confusing, if not turbulent, experiences. Also, through the use of narratives I single that individual and community experience are an important authority in our lives. When experience is in conflict with principle, the former cannot simply be ignored. In other words, experience should not be subordinated to principle. My commitment to Liberation as the ultimate telos of ethics singals that I am interested in a praxis approach to doing theology and ethics, and that what we do has ultimate moral value. Ethics is not simply an academic exercise, but an intellectual and experiential process that enhances or undermines the lives of individuals and communities.

It is important that we can see our way through emotive, confusing, and difficult situations, and through it all pursue lives of integrity. If at the end of this week you are able to better do that, but not quote a particular school of thought with confidence, I would be satisfied. It seems important to me that we first understand the language, history, and concepts of ethics before we can speak meaningfully of Christian ethics, biblical ethics, and how theological concepts apply to ethics. I begin therefore with practical necessities.

We begin with a popular narrative of a fictitious ethical dilemma, which addresses many of the ethical issues we will explore in later chapters. I use an episode from Star Trek: Voyager  to introduce the basic language and concepts of ethics in Ethics in Star Trek's Delta Quadrant, what I hope, is a more enjoyable and engaging way. Next The Language of Ethics presents more detailed definitions of ethical language and concepts. While not the most exciting of chapters, I would suggest you use the chapter as a reference point as you continue your reading.

A Method of Doing Ethics introduces a method for doing ethics. It is not the only way to do ethics, but one I have found useful and effective. It is a praxis approach to ethics reflecting on concrete ethical dilemmas. The method offers a practical five step process which includes a narrative of the situation, narrative analysis of the situation, identification of the dilemma, analysis of the dilemma, and the resolution of the dilemma. The practical methodology is placed within a theoretical framework which explores the situation in light of narrative interpretation, revelation, appropriation, and liberation.

I have chosen to speak about Narrative, Revelation, Appropriation, and Liberation in not because they are the only categories worthy of consideration, but because in my experience they have been important in peoples' struggle to be good, and because the proved to be very useful in the teaching of ethics. Within these broad categories we will talk about how we interpret experience, goodness, responsibility, freedom, justice, and liberation. Again there are other issues one could address in a course on ethics.

Narrative and Ethics explores the nature of narrative in general and its place in doing ethics in particular. Revelation and Ethics introduces the theological notions of goodness and human value and how these ideas affect moral decision making and action. Appropriation and Ethics  looks at the appropriation of ethics and in particular the notions of responsibility and freedom. Liberation and Ethics examines the requirements of liberation and ethics, speaking particularly to ideas of postmodernity and liberation theologies. Finally, in Living With Ethics I bring to resolution the ethical dilemmas we have been studying throughout the week.

Copyright © 2000 Dale Rominger


Ethics in Star Trek's Delta Quadrant

The Starship Voyager of the Federation of Planets and her crew have been mysteriously transported 70,000 light years against their will from the Alpha Quadrant of the universe to the uncharted space of the Delta Quadrant. A wrong has been committed against them and as result their primary mission has become to return home. If they can find no means of an equally affective transportation, the return will take them seventy years, which is to say, the crew will live out their lives on the journey. The "metaphor of the journey" is the underlying meta-narrative of Star Trek: Voyager. Behind them they have left love ones, their careers, and the hopes and dreams of their lives. With them they have brought their traditions and stories, principles and laws, morality and ethics. Before them is an unknown and difficult future.

The crew has no means of communicating with Starfleet or family and friends in the Alpha Quadrant. In a very real sense they are isolated and on their own. No decision or action can be verified or approved by Starfleet, and yet the ethos, procedures, and principles of Starfleet remain with them. However, they also find themselves in a completely new and unique situation which continually challenges that same ethos and those same procedures and principles. Captain Kathyrn Janeway and her crew are time and time again asked to reevaluate the most fundamental beliefs and principles to which they have committed their careers and lives in the face of new situations and their deep desire to return home.

In the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Prime Factors" (Product number ST:VOY 810 first screened on 20 March 1995) the ethical dilemma of holding true to their foundational principles as Starfleet officers and crew members or bending and even breaking those principles comes into full focus.

  • Ethics is knowing what virtues are good and why certain actions are right.
  • Morality is being a good person and doing what is right.
  • An ethical dilemma involves two or more moral issues in conflict.

Captain Janeway and her crew must face their moral moment and are confronted with an ethical crisis. Any decision and subsequent action will have its benefits and costs and ultimately affect their integrity of being. Decisions are ultimately taken for particular situations. Actions undertaken as the result of particular decisions do determine the character of the moral agent. For Captain Janeway, the crisis is intensified because of her particular role and the effects her decisions will have on others. She is not just deciding for herself, but for her entire crew as well. As a result her authority as Captain and her relationships will be affected.

On an apparently routine day, Voyager is contacted by Gathborel Labin (called Gath), a magistrate of Sikaris, who invites Captain Janeway and her crew to his home world. They are offered welcome, gifts, and, most notably, hospitality, apparently and simply because the crew of Voyager are lost, alone, and struggling to make there way home. In essence they are offered a holiday.

We quickly learn, as Janeway and her officers enjoy Sikarian hospitality, that their hosts are a pleasure oriented people. As Gath says, it gives Sikarians pleasure to give pleasure. We also learn they are a narrative sensitive, or narrative dependent, people.

As the Voyager crew are each finding their own form of pleasure, Harry Kim, the Operations Officer, sits with an attractive Sikarian named Eudana telling the story of how Voyager was transported to the Delta Quadrant. She is obviously impressed and respectful saying Kim's is noble story. She says there are whimsical, frightening, melancholy and many other kinds of stories, but that noble stories are the "ones that can most affect our lives." She than asks permission to retell the story to others.

Kim is surprised and with a laugh says, "Sure, it is no secret." She explains that noble stories "are an essential part of every person's being. I would never share one without permission." For the Sikarians, character development is narrative dependent.

Eudana desires to hear more of Kim's stories and decides to take him to a quiet and private place. They go to a transporter platform and are transported to a beautiful woods. Upon looking at the sunrise, Kim realized that they have transported to a different planet and learns that it is some 40,000 light years from Sikaris.

Kim and Eudana return to Sikaris where they find Captain Janeway talking with Gath. Kim, very excited, tells Janeway of the transportation technology and what it could mean for their voyage home. Janeway turns to Gath and asks if the technology could not be modified to send Voyager home. Gath explains, that while her request is technically possible, Sikarians cannot share their technology, that to do so could mean it would fall into the hands of those who might abuse it, and that Sikarian canon laws strictly forbid the taking of such a risk.

Kim responds with understandable emotion, insisting they would never abuse the technology and pleads with the magistrate to understand what it would mean to the crew to return home. Gath asks Kim not to make it more difficult for him than it already is, that it does not give him pleasure to deny his request. He continues:

Our canon laws have determined our entire system of values. To break one of its precepts would undermine everything we believe in. I'm sorry, for there can be no exceptions to the law.

We have learned that Sikarians are well known for their hospitality, a virtue and practice well known in many cultures and certainly in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

  • Virtues are traits of Character.
  • Character is the nature of who we are.
  • Doing ethics affects who we are and will become.

We know too that they have a very high regard for storytelling, seeing narratives not simply as entertainment, but "as an essential part of a person's being." We can surmise from the reference to "a person's being" that character and the understanding of virtue are intimately associated with the telling and hearing of stories. For the Sikarians, the category of narrative is epistemologically important, if not necessary, for the development and nurturing of a moral life. In a sense, the Sikarians learn of the virtues that are necessary for a good character by hearing and telling stories which illustrate and illumine those very virtues. If goodness is valued, then the "noble" stories that tell of goodness are valuable.

We also know that Sikarians are a pleasure oriented people, hedonist at heart, perhaps with a utilitarian bent. But we know one more thing of importance. They are also a people who respect, indeed insist upon, the duty of law. As Gath says, their canon law determine their value system and to break one law is to undermine the entire canon.

  • Utilitarianism is doing greatest good for the greatest number.

At first glance it may seems that there is, or should be, a tension among the necessity for stories to enable and ennoble being, the (utilitarian) principle of giving and seeking pleasure, and the nonsituationalism reliance on canon laws as the foundation of values. Can a people be virtue centred and pleasure oriented and still have a uncompromising obedience to law. Virtue/character ethics is commonly seen as teleological, while duty/law ethics is seen as deontological in nature. However, it is possible that living a life of virtue can be realized through adherence to deontological principles. For the Sikarians the pursuit of pleasure and the virtuous life depend on the ultimate duty to canon law that determines their value system and coaless them into a community. The Sikarians are not situationalists.

  • Teleology considers the basis of ethics to be the end (telos) sought or the outcome hoped for; actions are based on possible consequences.
  • Deontology considers the basis of ethics to be the compliance with or obedience to duty; actions are based on what we ought to do rather than what we hope to accomplish.

A very simple definition of hedonism would be: the principle that moral value can be defined in terms of pleasure; or that moral good can be realized through the pursuit of pleasure; or that the pursuit of pleasure is the highest moral good (thus its association with utilitarianism). It almost goes without saying that in the Christian tradition as understood today hedonism has a bad name. And yet, the Sikarians do not seem like bad and irresponsible people. While they are pleasure oriented, they also have a strong sense of duty to law. They are known and praised far and wide for their hospitality. In the narrative, their desire to give and receive pleasure has an almost aesthetic flavour or quality. It may not be stretching it to say that for the Sikarians pleasure is a quality of character, and perhaps can be considered a virtue.

  • Situation Ethics aims to discern what is fitting in any given situation. Only one rule or law is absolute: the maximizing of good consequences. Any other rule or law can be compromised.

Below I will discuss ethics as an aesthetic enterprise. Essentially I will argue that the ethical is beautiful, or that Beauty is an essential aspect of ethical being. I will do so for two main reasons. First, the Sikarians remind me that Jesus defined human nature as Ecstatic and not tragic. Ecstasy can be viewed theologically as having moral quality. Second, ethicists have been discussing for some time the aesthetic quality of morality, or "the Beauty of the Soul," where "soul" is also understood as "character." Suffice it to say at this point, goodness and badness have been associated with aesthetic qualities of the person, and I would add, the community. Colin McGinn in Ethics, Evil and Fiction says that for persons to be virtuous demands that they possess certain aesthetic qualities of soul and that these qualities are necessary for goodness. He further argues that when speaking of soul, or character, aesthetic qualities are indeed ethical and that the relationship of aesthetic quality and the soul speaks of beauty. In other words, virtue equals beauty when associated with matters of the soul. Or as McGinn says, it is not possible for a person to be good and possess no beauty of soul (or stated in the negative, a person cannot be bad and have a completely beautiful soul). The opposite of goodness is badness and it seems logical that the opposite of beauty is ugliness. While that is true, I will suggest that as the negation of being virtuous is being vicious, ethically we can understand the negation of the beauty of the soul as a violent soul.

Captain Janeway meets with her Bridge Crew in the Conference Room of Voyager. Around the table with Janeway are Chakotay the First Officer, Tuvok the Security and Second Officer (and Janeway's closest friend and most trusted advisor), B'Elanna Torres the Chief Engineer, Tom Paris the Helmsman, and Harry Kim.

They are struggling with the knowledge that both a technology exists to send them home and a law that prevents their using it. Kim expresses moral frustration when he says of the Sikarian refusal to let them use the transportation technology, "I can't believe they're not going to help us. Some kind of hospitality." For Kim there actually is no ethical dilemma. The demands of hospitality and the Voyager's deparate situation of being so far from home are override the duty to law. He is frustrated because for the Sikarians the virtue of hospitality and their guests' situation do not override the demands of duty and law.

A conversation ensues around the table. Torres states the obvious when she says that 40,000 light years will take them half way home. Chakotay adds that once jumping that distance, they may be able to reconfigure the technology and travel 30,000 more light years to Federation space; in other words, home. Tuvok, ever the logical Vulcan, reminds them all that since the Sikarians have refused their request, further speculation will only make them feel worse.

The conversation continue:

JANEWAY: It's the first time we've been on the other side of the fence.

PARIS: What fence?

JANEWAY: The one that's made of binding principles. We have our own set of rules which includes the Prime Directive.

The Prime Directive is the supreme rule that dictates the Federation will not interfere with the normal development and evolution of cultures encountered on its missions of exploration. Janeway, who has been sitting at the head of the table, gets up and walks to the large observation window as she reminds them all that they too have refused others in tragic situations.

JANEWAY: I'm sure many of them think the Prime Directive is a lousy idea.

PARIS: Even we think so sometimes.

CHAKOTAY: I know of many times when Starfleet personnel had decided on strong ethical grounds to ignore it.

KIM: Still, there's a reason why it's Starfleet's order number one. On the whole it does a lot more good than harm.

The above conversation is ethically interesting. Kim's frustration speaks of the moral and ethical differences between peoples and cultures. These differences matter when we are in conflict with others. At this point, it is tempting to confess that morality is relative. However, later we will learn differently.

Janeway's comments regarding the Prime Directive acknowledges Kim's concerns, but from "the other side of the fence." She, perhaps for the first time, is seeing her primary law from another's perspective. The Prime Directive is a prima facie duty for members of Starfleet. Once the Prime Directive has been introduced into the conversation, things become ethically complicated still further.

  • Prima Facie Duties are those norms and acts that tend to be right given the very nature of the norms and acts themselves.

Paris and Chakotay point out that even if the Prime Directive is a prima facie duty it has been "ignored" when in conflict with other "strong ethical" considerations. In other words, when faced with an ethical dilemma, and balanced against other significant ethical factors, adherence to the Prime Directive is not the only possibility. In any such decision where ethical principles, laws, rules, and/or virtues, are in conflict, the situation and morally relevant factors therein are more than taken into account.

  • Those aspects of a situation that make a difference in the resolution of an ethical dilemma are morally relevant factors.

Kim continues the conversation with echoes of utilitarian considerations. He points out that the reason the Prime Directive is a prima facie duty is that, overall, it does more good than harm. The aim of the Directive is to assure the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

At this point an interesting shift in the crews discussion takes place.

Tuvok, speaking directly to the Captain, says they know very little of the Sikarians and that it is possible their refusal to help might be in actuality a prelude to negotiation; suggesting, or hoping, that the Sikarians have a bit of the situationalist in them after all. It is suggested that they might bargain. The obvious question is then: what do they possess that could be offered in exchange for the transportation technology.

From the moment Captain Janeway leaves the table to stand by the window, her back is to her Bridge crew around the table. The camera views the scene from in front of Janeway and slowly moves to a close up on her face. As this is happening, even as the others converse, they fade from focus as we witness the ethical dilemma being played out on Janeway's face. After the question of what they might have to offer is asked, there is a pause until Kim simply says, "Stories." Janeway's eyes open wide and she turns back to the table.

Kim continues to explain how important stories are to the Sikarians, how different kinds of narratives act as a kind of "measuring rod" for their values and beliefs. Janeway agrees that, indeed, the Voyager's extensive library of literature might be an enticement for the Sikarians and that she will meet with Gath to suggest an exchange.

Torres, with a sly smile, says that while the Captain is bargaining, she will begin studying the transportation platform. Janeway reacts with force saying they will not "do anything that might violate their [Sikarian] canon law as we understand it."

At this point in the story, their ethical deliberations move from considerations of conflicting principles to negotiation. It seems an ethics of principle is being replace with an ethics of exchange. We might wonder: if they honour Sikarian laws and their right to have laws, why the Voyager crew would want to tempt them with an offer of literature. It clearly is not the case that Janeway sees Sikarian law as something to be disrespected. Her admonishment of Torres suggests Janeway respects another's laws even if they present her with a problem. She refuses to violet their canon law, as they understand that law. The decision to "bargain" may simply be seen as a means of increasing that understanding. If the Sikarians value narratives as a morally relevant factor, it may be that the exchange of literature for technology will so change the situation that the Sikarians will decide that more good is gained through the gift of stories than the bad done by "ignoring" their law concerning the sharing of technology.

Two further concerns rise to the surface, the first in the form of a question. Is doing ethics simply a moral calculus. Is it a purely rational enterprise. For now, let it suffice to note that the conversation around the table is not devoid of emotions. The stakes are very high for Janeway and her crew. Their decisions will not be made in the absence of emotional commitment and turmoil.

  • Consequence and Duty ethics understands morality as the weighing of consequences and the adherence to particular duties in a particular situation. The idea that ethics is a moral calculus implies that moral judgment is a matter of calculating consequences of good and bad actions.

Second, is the nature and value of narrative. The Bridge officers are surprised at the notion that stories are so utterly important to the Sikarians, as was Kim when he first learned of the fact from Eudana. The stories are important, at least in part, because they are essential for the ethical integrity of each person and, thus, for the community at large. Later we will explore the idea that narrative is, in fact, a primary concern for ethical and theological deliberation.

We see Janeway and Gath eating pecan pie aboard the Voyager. Gath is very impressed with the pleasurable taste of the pie and asks for the recipe. Janeway begins her bargaining by promising to destroy the transportation technology once they have used it. She asks if her "word" is not enough to satisfy Gath. It is not. Undeterred, she says she has a proposal that will both enable him to obey his laws and for her to get at least half way home. She proposes that Gath send Voyager 40,000 light years on its way in exchange for their complete library of literature. With eyes full of wonder she describes the vast library of stories stored in Voyager's central computer. Gath is interested, indeed tempted, as he himself says. The scene ends when he tells Janeway that her request is "certainly a possibility," but that he will have to discuss it with the other magistrates before a decision can be made.

Scenes shift as important decisions are made and the ethical climate becomes more complicated. First we are with Torres as she speaks with Seska, a member of her Engineering team. Seska speaks of a promise she made to her brother to met him for his next birthday, grieving she will break her promise and realizing he might assume she is dead. Torres turns to a consul and begins to manipulate the screen as she talks rapidly about her thoughts concerning the Sikarian technology. In that moment, she agrees with Seska to disobey her captains orders and begin searching for the Sikarian secret.

Quickly, we are back on Sikaris where Kim is being lead, being urged, by Eudana to meet with Jaret Otel. We remember that Otel was present with Gath when the Voyager crew first visited the planet and that Gath referred to him as "my associate." In fact, Otel offers Kim the technology he and his friends so strongly desire in exchange for the library. Kim sensibly asks Otel if he has been authorized to make the offer. Otel responds:

Officially, no, but many people believe that rules should be flexible enough to meet the needs of the moment. There is a great desire here for new stories and I want to be the one to supply them.

We can conjecture that Kim would appreciate such an ethical approach which both honours rules and situations. He says, however, that he, Otel, would gain from such an exchange, thus exploring the motives underlying the offer. Otel in turn points out that they both would gain: Kim 40,000 light years and Otel prestige.

The scene takes place in the shadows of a confined space. We see Kim and Otel in profile facing each other. Centred between them, in the background, is Eudana standing quietly. Then we see that Otel holds something in his hands. He lifts the object and hands it to Kim. It is the needed technology, the matrix interface which will enable Voyager to jump forty years towards home. We can assume the moment is fairly intense for the Operation Officers. Ethical pondering suddenly become very concrete. He holds in his hands the means of getting over half way home, and perhaps with some ingenuity, all the way home. Home to his family, his career, his lover. Nonetheless, he tells Otel that Captain Janeway is asking the Magistrate to send Voyager 40,000 light years, indicating that he needs to wait on his Captain. But Otel complicates the issue when he says of Gath, "He won't. He never had any intention in helping you leave here."

We can assume Otel, being an associate of Gath, knows what he is talking about. Kim, however, hesitates and suddenly Eudana urges from the background, "Jaret is right. I know how much it means to you to get home. Please. Listen to him."

The scene ends and we find ourselves in the Mess Hall where Kim is telling Seska, Tom Paris, and B'Elanna Torres of his encounter with Jaret Otel. He struggles with the desire to get closer to home and the knowledge that Janeway will not accept an unofficial offer of help. Torres suggests the Captain might accept the offer since it is coming from a Sikarian, but Paris agrees with Kim that the offer is not "above board" and the Captain will only deal with an "official representative." Kim receives a communication telling him that Janeway is now available to meet with him. Paris advises him to tell her everything that has happened and leave the decision with her. Kim and Paris leave the scene.

Torres and Seska remain sitting close together drinking from small cups.

TORRES: Somehow…I have a bad feeling about this. It's just not going to work out.

SESKA: Don't you think that it's up to us?

TORRES: What does that mean?

SESKA: It means we can sit here and let some one make the decision for us or we can take matters into our own hands. We've been offered the grand prize. All we have to do is step up and claim it.

TORRES: Take the technology. Without permission.

SESKA: Since when do you talk like that? Do you think permission is more important than getting us half way home?

Seska continues, suggesting that the Captain may not be trustworthy, that she is infatuated with Gath and may not be able to make the best decision for the crew. She pauses, then says they will have to work in Engineering and that she, Torres, is needed.

SESKA: We need you.

TORRES: I'm a senior officer now. I have responsibilities.

SESKA: And the main responsibility of everyone on the ship is to try to find a way home. Captain Janeway made that clear from the beginning. That's our primary mission. Just think about it. That's all.

Torres and Seska are not simply individuals trying to make a difficult decision. They belong to a particular structure - Starfleet and the ship Voyager - with defined roles, authorities, and responsibilities. Ethical decisions are rarely if ever made in isolation. For the first time the issue of virtue is directly introduced. Seska is asking if Janeway can still be considered a trustworthy trustee of the crews best interests. If she is not, than the question of who acts and when becomes vital for the resolution of their dilemma.

  • Ethics is done within social structures and institutional contexts made up of laws, social norms, role expectations, codes of morality, etc. which affect our assessment of morally relevant factors, choice of rules, and character development. Especially important when considering social structures are issues of power, authority and justice.

Torres is not convinced the Captain has acted in a way that disallows her to make the decision. She still recognizes the structures in which she lives and acts. In addition, Torres recognizes that she is part of the command structure when she says she is now a senior officers with particular responsibilities. Her responsibilities do not simply include those found in her job description, however, but also include those she accepts as being part of a social structure that in turn defines her role. Roles are detemined both by the particular responsibilities of position and by the more general demands and implicaitions of the social setting in which the position exists. Thus, in most ethical dilemmas we are not only confronted with conflicting principles, but also with conflicting roles and responsibilities.

  • Roles are associated with particular identities and responsibilities. Roles exempt us from some duties and impose others.

Seska pushes the issue to the limits when she reminds Torres that the primary mission of the crew is to get home and that that mission was so defined by the Captain at the beginning of their journey. Even as Seska is questioning the present authority of the Captain she also uses that authority to emphasize the credibility and importance of the primary mission and each crew members responsibility to see that mission through successfully. In this regard, Seska is not stepping outside the structures but saying instead that the Captain's situation has changed substantially enough to question her abilities to act responsibly. And importantly she is also questioning the affect of a person's emotional state on the process of making ethical decisions.

  • Authority is legitimised power granted by other individuals and/or a community.

If Seska's argument is valid, than acting in a way that would secure their primary mission would out weigh the duty of obedience to their Captain. We can surmise from Torres' facial expression that Seska's argument has had some impact.

We see Janeway in her Ready Room facing Kim, thanking him for his information. Janeway agrees Gath's honesty is suspect, but what leads her to this conclusion is not obvious. She does, however, states the obvious when she says to Kim that the new twist of events have muddied the situation somewhat. Kim is dismissed.

Tuvok, who has been standing quietly next to Kim, now moves with Janeway to a seat by the window. She asks Tuvok, with an heart-felt earning in her voice, what she should do. As he turns to sit beside his old friend, Tuvok says he sees two options: first, to continue to negotiate with a man who may have an hidden agenda, and second, to deal with a man who is willing to defy his own laws.

JANEWAY: Not very pretty choices.

TUVOK: At least if you deal with Jaret it is his laws that are being compromised and not ours.

JANEWAY: But does that matter? I told the crew when we started this journey that we'd be a Starfleet crew…behaving as Starfleet would expect us to. That means there's a certain standard I have to uphold…Principles. Principles. That's what it comes down to. Do I compromise my own mighty principles? But how do I not compromise them, if it involves the chance to get the crew half way home. How do I tell them…my principles are so important…I would deny them that opportunity?

As she speaks with genuine emotion and intelligence, Tuvok looks intensely at her. He shares in her struggle. He finally suggests Janeway must first determine if Gath is in actuality willing to use the technology to help them, that if the possibility does exist, it must be explored.

Janeway was right when she said her options were less than "pretty" and it reminds us that ethics is often a messy business. When confronted with an ethical dilemma, it is often true that there will be a price to pay no matter what you decide and do. And her choices are not simply deciding which of two people to deal with. Each person represents a different ethical approach: Gath a deontological approach and Otel a teleological approach. Gath understands duty to law as paramount and is therefore less likely to weigh in his ethical pondering the particulars of any given situation. Otel, on the other hand, respects laws but wishes to apply them with flexibility in light of the situation in which they are being utilized.

The question of trust does, however, come to the fore. Two questions arise. First, what is a person's ethical obligations toward another person who acts dishonestly, and second, what is a person's ethical obligations toward a another person who is willing to deny his own laws for self-improvement (things are further complicated when we realize that self-improvement is a prima facie duty)?

It is in this conversation between Janeway and Tuvok that the ethical dilemma is more clearly defined, at least the dilemma facing the Captain. In conflict are her principles and her primary mission of getting her crew home. Given the Prime Directive she must honour Sikarian law. Given her responsibilities as Captain she must do all she can to get her crew home. At least two prima facie duties are in conflict: respect of liberty and self-determination of others verses beneficence (doing good) and Non-maleficence (avoiding harm). She must respect Sikarian law and care for her crew. The first prima facie duty is also in conflict with her role and responsibilities as Captain and, thus, her own sense of character. As a captain in a particular command structure she must weigh her obligation to duty against her obligation to do good and avoid harm. She might also be asking herself what it would mean to the person she is and the person she is becoming to break Sikarian law and the Prime Directive and to betray her primary mission and her crew.

Tuvok has begun to help her analyses the situation and to identify morally relevant factors. We can list some of them here: the trustworthiness of those she is dealing with; the differing ethical approaches being practices in the persons of Gath and Otel; the fact that she and her crew find themselves stranded in the Delta Quadrant; the length of time it will take to get home (they will die on the journey); the stress of the journey on the crew, of being cut off from home; the very fact that she is captain and makes decision for the entire crew; the fact that they are members of Starfleet and thus a particular command structure and social community defined by particular rules and virtues. It is no wonder that as she sits with Tuvok we see in her face and hear in her voice the burden of the situation in which she finds herself.

Upon returning to the planet, Janeway discovers that Gath has not presented her offer to the other magistrates. They sit in a pleasant area surrounded by plants and beauty. The mood of the encounter, however, does not match the peacefulness of the surroundings.

Janeway says that the crew are eager to continue their journey and Gath, exasperated, asks why they desire so strongly to get home. He offers a third choice to resolve the dilemma: the crew can make Sikaris their new home where they can pass the time extracting pleasure from every moment. Janeway suggest that they would eventually get weary of pleasure, that even for Gath himself most pleasure is fleeting, that he must move from one pleasure to the next whether it is the latest clothing style or personal relationship. She tries to explains that as humans they value permanence over new pleasures. Gath becomes angry, accusing Janeway of refusing their gift of hospitality, of attacking their beliefs, and judging them harshly.

JANEWAY: I'm sorry. I was just trying to illustrate the differences between us.

GATH: I don't enjoy being judged like this, it's very upsetting. Not at all pleasurable.

JANEWAY: That's all you really care about, isn't it? Your pleasure. All your hospitality, your graciousness. It was never about giving us pleasure. It's all been to gratify yourselves. We're nothing more than the latest novelty.

GATH: You're hostile and vicious. You would infect the joyousness of our lives. You must leave immediately.

JANEWAY: You never had any intention of helping us, did you?

GATH: Of course I did. I did everything in my power to persuade you to stay here.

She realizes for the first time that it is not her pleasure that motivates Gath. Janeway hits her communicator and says, "One to beam up."

Again we are confronted with the apparent relative nature of moral systems. Here hedonism is contrasted to permanence, or in actuality, responsibility. In our culture being pleasure oriented is interpreted as being irresponsible.

However, of more importance at the moment is the issue of motivation. Janeway is upset when she realizes that Sikarian hospitality is motivated not by the desire to give pleasure to others, but to experience pleasure through the act of giving pleasure. The question of motivation has been, and still is, a burning issue in ethics, perhaps particularly in theological ethics. Put simply, duty/consequence ethicists would say that the motivation of the moral agent is irrelevant as long as he or she does the right thing. Virtue/character ethicists say instead that internal motivation speaks to the integrity of character and thus leads to good or bad actions by the moral agent. Gath might be considered a duty/consequence adherent while Janeway a virtue/character ethicist.

It is possible Janeway struggles so much with compromising her "enlightened" principles precisely because she is also struggling with her own motivations, even as she contemplates the consequences of her actions. Could it be that it is the issue of character that influences Janeway's final decision? Once she has determined Gath cannot be trusted, she could have taken up Otel's offer. Just because Otel desires personal gain is no reason to reject his offer. After all, the entire point behind the suggested exchange is that the entire Voyager crew will gain substantially. Their motivation for exchange is as selfish as Otel's. It is also clear that Gath was disingenuous and Eudana considered Otel's offer to be genuine. And Otel does represent at least a portion of Sikarian society that would like to see their canon law applied with greater flexibility.

Captain Janeway will decide to leave orbit without the transportation technology. Why? There are more than one possibilities. She lives, operates and finds meaning in a command structure so perhaps cannot bring herself to deal with an unofficial offer of help. Gath is a magistrate while Otel is not. While both men have power, Gath has authority, Otel does not. The manner in which Otel made his offer reflects this difference between possessing power and being given authority. He approached a Bridge Officer and not the Captain, and he made his approach in some secrecy. Janeway is influenced by a duty to law, particularly the Prime Directive. It is possible she simply could not "live with herself" if she broke both Sikarian canon law and the her own Prime Directive. The question that can fairly be asked is, who would she become if she broke the law?

At this point in the story, events pass rapidly. An upset Janeway tells Tuvok on the Bridge that Gath never intended to help them and they cannot accept Otel's offer. She gives orders to have the crew on the surface to return to the ship and to leave orbit as soon as possible. In Engineering Seska and Torres again speak of getting home. Seska believes, but does not actually know, that by using the Sikarian's technology they can be home tomorrow! Torres agrees to download the ship's library to make the exchange with Otel. Tuvok enters Engineering, catches them in the act, and, to their utter surprise, hear him say he will make the exchange of literature for the transportation interface. The importance of Tuvok's decision is not lost on Seska and Torres, nor is it lost on us. Not only is this logical Vulcan defying his captain's orders, he is betraying a close friend.

Tuvok returns to Engineering with the matrix and tell Torres and Seska to do nothing until after he has spoken with the Captain. He leaves and Seska and Torres decide to install the interface and run simulations. While making simulated test run they discover that the transportation devise is interconnect with the planet's gravitational field and cannot work outside of orbit. The order to leave orbit comes from the Captain.

They are confronted with a decision. If they leave orbit as their Captain is commanding them to do, the matrix will become useless. On the other hand, they can activate the matrix while in orbit, thus defying the Captain's orders. Events rush in on them, time running away from them. In an almost frantic state they know they have to do something!

Torres lies to the Captain about why they have not left orbit. They activate the matrix which malfunctions. The malfunctioning matrix effects the warp core of Voyager, threatening a core breach (an explosion that would completely destroy the ship). The matrix becomes fused to the engineering console and cannot be released. With the breach immanent, Torres destroys the matrix with her phaser.

As things settle down, Seska begins to erase the logs:

TORRES: No, we're not going to cover this up.

SESKA: Are you crazy? We don't have to take the blame for this.

TORRES: But we're going to. We disobeyed orders gambling it would pay off. It didn't. And now we just can't pretend that nothing happened.

SESKA: I don't understand. There's no need for this.

TORRES: I'm sorry if you don't get this, Seska. But it has something to do with…with being able to live with yourself.

SESKA: That doesn't sound like you. You're changed.

TORRES: If that's true, I take it as a compliment.

The dilemma Torres and Seska faced was acute and demanded immediate decisions and actions. On one side of the moral coin was the choice of breaking the prima facie duty of truthtelling and of violating their specific role responsibilities in the command structure (their duties in the social structure). On the other side of the coin was the choice to fulfill the prima facie duties of Beneficence and self-improvement (doing good for the crew and themselves) and promise keeping (the promise to adhere to the primary mission of getting home. Both sides of the coin could not be honoured at the same time. To act on one, violated the other. They chose to lie and violate their responsibilities. Their subsequent action did not result in fulfilling their duty to the primary mission and almost caused harm to the entire crew. As Torres said, their gamble, or ethical calculation, failed.

Seska's response to the failure is to avoid further difficulty by erasing the memory logs. She reasons that since morality is a calculation of duties and consequences there is no reason for her to personally suffer if the calculations go wrong. For Seska, her sense of being, her character, are not affected by her decisions and actions. Torres, on the other hand, responds differently. She decides not to cover up what happened simply and precisely because she needs to be able to "live with herself." Ethical decisions and actions are not for her just a matter of calculating consequences, but are also about virtue and character. She has learned on the journey that who she is and who she will become is/will be determined by what she decides and does. In a very simplified way, the narrative plays out the tension between duty/consequence and virtue/character ethics.

We are in the Captain's Ready Room. Captain Janeway is angry and distressed. With her is B'Elanna Torres and Tuvok. Torres, as the senior officer involved, takes full responsibility for disobeying orders and the subsequent events which endangered the ship. She does not implicate Seska. Tuvok corrects Torres, telling Janeway that in actuality he was the senior officer involved and made the exchange of the library for the matrix. Janeway is visibly shocked by this confession and says, with a quiet and intense voice, that she will deal with Tuvok in a moment. She turns back to Torres and says how "deeply disappointed" she is in Torres and puts her Chief Engineer on notice. Under normal circumstances such a breach of standards by Torres would have lost her her commission. But these are not normal circumstances. However, the situation overwhelmns the normal application of rules. Janeway, saying she needs everybody to get them home, refrains from punishing Torres further. Torres is harshly dismissed.

The Captain turns to Tuvok.

JANEWAY: I don't even no where to start. I want you to explain to me how you of all people could be involved in this.

TUVOK: It is quite simple Captain. You made it clear on many occasions that your highest goal is to get the crew home. But in this instance, you're standards would not allow you to violate Sikarian law. Someone had to spare you the ethical dilemma. I was the logical choice and so I chose to act.

JANEWAY: You did it for me, because you knew I couldn't.

TUVOK: I accept the consequences of my actions. I expect to lose my commission and to be court marshaled when we return to Federation space.

Janeway shakes her head even more distressed. She walks up to Tuvok and looks him in the eyes.

JANEWAY: You are my most valued officer. And you are my friend. It is vital that you understand me here. I need you. But I also need to know that I can count on you. You are my counsel. The one I turn to when I need my moral compass checked. We have forged this relationship for years and I depend on it.

Janeway turns and walks away, then continues.

JANEWAY: I realize you made a sacrifice for me, but it's not one I would have allowed you to make. You can use logic to justify almost anything. That's its power. And its flaw. From now on…bring you logic to me. Don't act on it behind my back.

TUVOK: You have my word. My logic was not in error, but I was.

JANEWAY: Dismissed.

This is a moving and painful closing scene because it reminds us of how intimately ethics and moral behaviour are tied to relationships. Tuvok understood Janeway's dilemma and tired to spare her from its difficulties and resultant after affects. He acted more out of friendship then duty. He knew that his decision and action, no matter what the ultimate outcome, would lead to punishment. Tuvok made a sacrifice for a friend, a noble jester which speaks to his character and the depth of his relationship with his captain. Janeway is so upset because she knows how very important relationship is to and for the moral agent. I would suggest, that while she is speaking of her personal relationship with Tuvok, we can extend her awareness and conclude that community is also vital for individual and corporate ethical action and being. After all, all her Bridge Officers were involved in the dilemma, as was, to a certain degree, the entire crew.

When watching this closing scene we also become aware that, not only is morality deeply connected to relationship, but that relationships are just as deeply affected by moral decisions and actions. Janeway is not only disappointed in Torres' behaviour but in Torres as a person. She is not simply angry at Tuvok for disobeying orders, but troubled because a vitally important relationship has been damaged. Things will never be the same. Ethics is often times less than pretty. It is a messy business.

Finally, Janeway suggests that logic, or rationality, is not the only element in ethical deliberations. Logic can, as she said, justify anything. Ethics is also a matter of, not just dealing with our emotions and relationships, but acting in ways that honour and respect both. On the other hand, Janeway would never suggest that ethics is primarily a matter of responding to emotional and relational demands. Doing ethics well is both a rational and emotional process.

Copyright © 2000 Dale Rominger


The Language of Ethics

Ethics has its own specialised language and concepts. It is more useful to obtain at least a basic understanding of ethical language before addressing Christian ethics in particular.

In Chapter I you were introduced to ethical language through the metaphor of the journey as portrayed in a Star Trek: Voyager episode. In this chapter, I hope you will become somewhat more acquainted with the language of ethics through the reading of more detailed definitions. A chapter of definitions does not offer the most exciting reading! However, while most books on ethics define ethical terms, these definitions are usually buried within the text, making them difficult to access. To avoid frustration, therefore, this chapter is in outline form for easy reference. Use the chapter as a source, returning to it as you read on in the book.

What follows will serve you well for the reading of this book. However, for those of you who would like to study ethical concepts in greater depth, there are numerous books you can turn to. A basic and long standing text is Ethics by William F. Frankena. Peter Vardy's and Paul Grosch's The Puzzle of Ethics, David Cook's The Moral Maze, Karen Lebacqz's Professional Ethics: Power and Paradox are popular, good, and perhaps more readable books than the Frankena. I have referred to each of these books for the defining of ethical terms below. Further resources can be found in the Bibliography.

The Language of Ethics

Morality: Put simply, morality is the quality of being moral. Being moral is being a good person and doing what is right. Thus, a good person would be, for example, a person who can be trusted and acts in trustworthy ways. We would expect such a person to tell the truth and avoid lying, or to act in ways that would benefit and not harm others. As we shall see, being a moral person and acting morally depends on an awareness and understanding of particular rules, duties, virtues, situations, and social structures.

Ethics: The study of moral value: what virtues (traits of character) are good and why certain actions are right. Ethics asks why virtues and rule/duties are in principle good at all. Thus, while the moral position is that telling the truth is right, the ethical question asks why truthtelling good. Or, while it is agreed that the act of killing is immoral, ethics explores the inherent moral value of the rule that we should not kill. 

Metaethics: The study of abstract philosophical and/or theological issues about the very nature of ethics. While normative ethics (see below) speaks to concrete situations hoping to articulate acceptable standards of morality, metaethics attempts to express theories of meaning and justification for the judgments of moral obligations and values (Frankena 1973:11). Thus, in metaethical studies questions of ultimate ethical authority are addressed. For example, methaethics asks: is ethics grounded in, or founded by, divine revelation or human rationality?

Normative Ethics: Asks what is right to do in concrete situations. Normative ethics addresses practical questions with the ultimate aim of discovering or constructing acceptable judgments regarding moral obligations and values.

Situation Ethics: Aims to ascertain, not simply what is good and right, but what is fitting (Fletcher 1974:28). In situation ethics, no rule or law is absolute and all must be applied in a concrete situation. While all ethical norms of a community are respected, the situation ethicist is prepared to compromise them, or actually set them aside, in any particular situation (Fletcher 1974:26). There is only one ethical rule that is absolute: the maximizing of good consequences. Situation ethics also maintains that nothing is good in and of itself, except for love (agape). Thus, any rule can be compromised if the demands of love will be better served. If, for example, the rule of love is upheld by lying in a particular situation, then breaking the rule of truthtelling is acceptable, if not obligatory. Situation ethics stresses the importance of reason in moral judgment and revelation as the source of the ultimate moral norm, namely love (Cook 1983:69).

Hedonism: Asserts that morality is the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. In general, a hedonist holds that the good is pleasure, or that pleasure is the good. While such a statement seems simple and straightforward enough, the matter is a bit more complicated. The word "pleasure" is ambiguous, and a hedonist speaking of the good may not necessarily define what the good is. Also, while a hedonist may assert that moral judgment is the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, and that all people should embrace hedonism as their ultimate goal, a hedonist of the good may not be a hedonist about the right. An hedonist suggesting that the right action promotes the greater balance of pleasure over pain would hold a teleological (see below) position. Or an hedonist about the good can be deontological (see below) about the right (Frankena 1973:83).

Utilitarianism: Morality is realized in the greatest pleasure (or happiness) for the greatest number, or the greatest possible balance of good and evil. The Greatest Happiness Principle implies that what is good and bad can be measured and that moral judgment is a matter of calculating the one against the other. The utility calculus attempts to measure the amount of pleasure and pain in light of seven criteria: intensity (how intense is the pleasure); duration (how long will the pleasure last); certainty (how sure can we be that the pleasure will be realized); propinquity (how near is the pleasure); fecundity (how much will it lead to more pleasure); purity (how free from pain is the pleasure); and extent (how widely does the pleasure cover) (Cook 1994:32). Moral judgments are may by calculating the pleasure or pain, the good or bad consequences, that would result from the subsequent action.

Act-Utilitarianism: Determines, where practicable, what specific actions in a particular situation will result in the greatest pleasure or good or happiness for the greatest number of people, and then deduces general moral rules from those actions. If actions are seen as producing the greatest happiness, then a general rule can be  articulated that justifies those actions (Frankena 1973:35). So, if the act of telling the truth leads to the greatest pleasure, or good, for the greatest number of people, then the general rule that truthtelling is right and good can be deduced. However, the rule cannot force us to tell the truth if, in a particular situation, the act goes against the greatest good. If telling the truth in a particular situation causes greater pain than pleasure, then we cannot tell the truth. Act-utilitarianism moves from specific situations and actions to general principles (Vardy & Grosh 1994:81), but it is important to remember that a rule is more a useful guide, then a binding principle.

Rule-Utilitarianism: Determines general rules, or principles, that promote the greatest general good and derives specific actions in particular situations based on these rules. Here, the rule is central and so we ask, not what action will result in the greatest good, but what rule will promote the greatest good. While act-utilitarianism states that telling the truth generally leads to the greatest good, rule-utilitarianism insists that always telling the truth results in the greatest good; or put another way, for the greatest good we must always tell the truth (Frankena 1973:39). Rule-utilitarianism moves from general principles to specific actions in specific cases, and the rule is absolute (Vardy & Grosch 1994:81).

Moral Issues: Include Rules and Situations, Consequences and Duties, Prima Facie Duties, the Character and Virtue of the person making the decision, the Social Situation, and the use of Power.

Situations and Rules: Rules guide us or tell us what to do, but all rules exist in, or must be applied to, a particular situation (Lebacqz 1985:23). Actions previously prohibited by rules (lying, adultery, etc.) might be acceptable depending on the situation; which is to say, an action might be acceptable given the consequences of that action. For example, if lying does more good then harm, then it is acceptable; or if telling the truth does more harm than good, than it is unacceptable.

In any given situation no rule and subsequent action are intrinsically right or wrong. On the other hand, no rule or action is completely value-free. All rules apply to a particular situation and a situation cannot be understood without reference to a particular moral notion. As Lebacqz points out, the rule prohibiting adultery is only meaningful in a situation where fidelity is a moral value. And the situation describing an act of unfaithfulness can only be understood in light of the moral notion of adultery (1985:24).

All this is to say, it is not merely a question of whether rules are more important than situations, or vice versa, but how rules and situations are related. Both situations and rules are involved in every ethical decision. All rules are written for situations and all rules are only meaningful in particular situations. Thus, it is important to consider:

  • What is the situation;
  • How is the situation defined;
  • What rules (norms, duties) are appropriately understood to apply in the situation.      

Consequences and Duty: If the value of all rules is determined or overridden by the consequences of actions, then situation ethics threatens all rules. However, most people are uncomfortable determining moral behaviour by simply calculating consequences. People also have a sense of what is good and have a loyalty to certain authorities. The very nature of being human in community demands that certain behaviours are necessary to keep us human. Morality is, in part, weighing consequences in a particular situation, but is also adhering to particular duties. Thus, promise keeping is both a duty and a calculated risk of balancing good and bad consequences (Lebacqz 1985:21-22).

It is natural that we should ask how we weigh the consequences of our actions against recognized duties and what prima facie duties (see below) are relevant to our situation. Teleology and deontology are two main approaches to addressing these questions.

  • Teleology:The basis of the ethical process is the end (telos) sought or outcome hoped for. Thus, our actions are based on either the consequence sought or hoped for, or the rule we wish to uphold.
  • Deontology: The basis of the ethical process is compliance with or obedience to an external authority. Ethics is a matter of what we ought to do rather than what we hope to accomplish. Thus, decisions are based on compliance with or obedience to an authoritative rule or action.

Prima Facie Duties: Those acts and/or norms that tend to be right given the nature of the acts themselves. Different ethicists identify different prima facie duties, but in general they include:

  • Promise Keeping;
  • Making reparations for wrongs done;
  • Duties of gratitude;
  • Beneficence - doing good;
  • Non-maleficence - avoiding doing harm;
  • Justice - the equitable distribution of goods and evils;
  • Duty of Self-Improvement in virtue and intelligence;
  • Respect for the liberty and self-determination of others - sometimes called the Duty of Autonomy or the Principle of Respect of Persons; and
  • Truth Telling (Lebacqz 1985:25).

Character and Action: Faced with an ethical dilemma we all seek the appropriate action, but also want to be, and to be seen to be, a good person. Ethics helps us to understand what it is to be a virtuous person and to clarify how to choose the right action.

Character: Ethics not only helps us to decide what to do, but also affects who we will be. For example, we are not only expected to tell the truth, but to be truthful people. Thus, it is important to explore what it means to be a good person, what it means to maintain integrity, to have vision, and to possess virtue (fidelity, trustworthiness, etc.). When considering issues of character, we ask in what ways our actions reflect who we think we are and who we will become. Likewise, we ask how character and virtue affect our actions, what virtues are relevant for any particular situation, and whether or not our actions "fit" our "life stories."

In the very act of living, in our making decisions and taking actions, we are forever creating and recreating ourselves. Telling one lie does not make us a liar, but continuing in a pattern of lying does. Also, character, or the notion of character, is a source of continuity from one action to the next. While each act is specific, the person we are as a moral agent continues through each action. If, then, character gives to us a sense of continuity and identity, it follows that our actions must ultimately "fit" the person we are and desire to become (Lebacqz 1985:81).

Virtue: Traits of character which reflect and/or influence the motivations from which we act. To act from a sense of good motives (such as helping someone) does not necessarily mean we will do the right thing, nor does doing the right thing necessarily stem from good motives. Thus, we need to explore the relationship between being a good or virtuous person and doing the right thing. We need to ask what the link is between action and virtue, which is to say we must judge good and bad by looking at action. We cannot just be, but can only be by doing. And yet, what we do does not always reflect the person we actually are or hope to be. We can legitimately ask, therefore, when does a truthful person who tells an occasional lie become a liar? Patterns of action over time form the basis for our judgments about a person's character and virtue. And the person we are, and/or hope to become, can and does influence the actions we undertake.

Ethicists define two types of virtues.

  • Actional Virtues are traits of character that respond to the concrete demands of a situation and are fitting for that situation (Lebacqz 1985:94). Such virtues are actions in accord with the objective demands of a situation. For example, rushing into the street to save a child who has stepped in front of a lorry exhibits the virtue of courage. However, you may not have acted out of any feeling particular feeling or motivation (e.g. the feeling of love or the desire to be courageous). You may not have even thought through your action, saying to yourself: "I will demonstrate the virtue of courage by saving this child." You may have simply acted virtuously because of the demands of that particular situation. The child, of course, will not care in the least whether or not your virtuous act was motivated from a desire to demonstrate love or courage.
  • Dispositional Virtues are traits of  character that reflect our tendency to see the world in a certain way (Lebacqz 1985:94). Such traits do not necessarily take the from of concrete actions. The child, saved from the on coming lorry, may feel gratitude toward you but do or say nothing. The child can feel gratitude without even thanking you.
  • Actional Virtues have to do with responding to the concrete demands of a situation, which is to say acting virtuously. Dispositional virtues reflect our perception of those demands, or having a particular disposition towards the situation.    

Roles and Morality: Particular roles are associated with certain identities and responsibilities. Being a minister is to possess and claim a certain identity and to be held accountable to particular responsibilities associated with that identity. The same is true of being a parent or friend. Any one person can have, and usually does have, numerous roles. What is important is to be aware that our roles significantly influence how we define certain situations, which rules and duties apply in that situation, who we are as people, and how we relate to others involved.

Certain roles exempt us from some duties and impose others. We must always ask what are the role expectations, both professional and personal, that we have of ourselves and others have of us.

Structure: We live our lives and practice our professions in an institutional context, comprised of laws, social norms, role expectations, codes of morality, etc. The institutional character of our existence affects our assessment of morally relevant differences, the rules we apply to our situation, and our personal character development. Especially important when considering social structure are issues of power, authority, and justice as exercised in their institutional setting.

Put quite simply, having power is having the ability or capacity to do something and to influence others. We all have power of different kinds. While acting as a minister and a parent we exhibit differing degrees and kinds of power. Authority is having legitimised power: all authority is given by other individuals and/or a community. The manner in which we use our power and authority can have a profound affect on our relationships, our personal and community integrity, and the doing of justice and the liberation or oppression of others.

The Meaning of Ethical Dilemmas

Ethical Dilemma: Human beings are moral beings. Without ever reading a book, most people have an intuitive sense of what is right and wrong. And yet when confronted with a dilemma it can be difficult to choose the right action.

Oftentimes we find ourselves in situations that are difficult and emotive, but are not in fact ethical dilemmas. In such situations we may not want to act in a particular way, or may avoid action, even when we know what should be done.

An ethical dilemma involves two or more moral issues in conflict. If there are no moral principles, rules, duties and/or actions and/or possible decisions in conflict there is no ethical dilemma. A dilemma usually involves two or more prima facie duties being in conflict. A dilemma can also include the conflict of minor duties, rules, role expectations, virtues, and institutional demands.

Morally Relevant Factors: Not all aspects of a given situation are important for resolving a dilemma. Those aspects that count because they make a difference in the resolution of an ethical dilemma, are morally relevant. For example, the fact that one person has blond hair and another black hair should make no difference in deciding what action each person should take (unless we live in a society that places moral and social value on hair colour). However, differences in age, sex, or position may indeed be relevant. Also, no two situations are the same and different situations may involve morally relevant differences (Lebacqz 1985:27).

Different morally relevant factors will justify different moral decisions. While there are no standard guidelines for determining morally relevant factors, there is a good chance that they are linked with prima facie duties. For example, it is important to consider the fact that someone told a lie in a given situation because of the prima facie duty of truthtelling. Sometimes the link between morally relevant factors and prima facie duties is quite clear and sometimes it is not. Thus, it is always important to establish the  relationship between relevant factor and duties (Lebacqz 1985:28).

Copyright © 2000 Dale Rominger


A Method of Doing Ethics

Returning to the Case

Before the 17th Century the study of ethics was more a field involved in "case ethics" and less an exercise in providing universal resolutions to various moral problems. Ethics was a field not for theoretical analysis, but for practical wisdom. Aristotle in writing about ethics and poetics said it was not our goal to ascertain certainty, necessity and generality beyond "the nature of the case". In other words, he encouraged us to match our expectations to the nature of the case and to avoid demanding irrelevant kinds of "certainty" and "necessity". Aristotle knew the difference between the grasp of intellectual theory and the wisdom needed to put techniques to work in concrete situations dealing with actual problems. Like Plato, he hoped we would eventually discover truths that held generally (that is, "on the whole") for human beings, but he saw also that our ability to act wisely in a concrete situation depends on are willingness, not just to calculate timeless universals, but to take decisions "as the occasion requires".

In time (particularly after the 1650's) ethics became more a field of searching for general abstract theory, and actually became separated from concrete problems. That is to say, morality was decontextualized (as also was theology).

While we should not, and cannot, return to the days of Aristotle, case study ethics is back. And while we are continually concerned with discerning, as best we can, general "truths", we are also unashamedly concerned with techniques, or methods, for actually doing ethics in concert situations involving real moral problems. Ethics is being re-contextualized.

Ethical dilemmas do not arise from vacuums but from our life and work experiences. As a result we are emotionally involved in the doing of ethics. Though it may be difficult for you to contemplate a real ethical dilemma as you read this book, such difficulty will more accurately reflect the doing of ethics in your life and ministry. We are often times emotionally involved with the people in and situations of our ministry. It would be inappropriate to be overwhelmed by our involvement or to become so objective as to lack sensitivity. Thus, while naturally being involved, we need to be able to make responsible and caring ethical decisions. The following methodology can aid us in balancing objectivity and sensitivity, while being emotionally involved in the situation ourselves.

As you read the following methodological guidelines for doing ethics remember that following all these steps and considering all these factors will not "produce" the right action, as if you were involved in some kind of ethical calculus; that is, put in the right data, get out the right answer. It will, however, present a process by which you can tackle ethical dilemmas you encounter in ministry. 

These guidelines may seem far removed from that of a Christian ethic, however, they provide a simply skeleton which has yet to find life. As we proceed through the week, issues of biblical understanding, theological insights, and personal and communal faith will be apply to the methodology.

Dealing with Dilemmas

Step 1: Narrative of the Situation

We begin by telling the story of the experience. While we will discuss narrative below, suffice it to say now that the narrative of the situation is more than a simple description. While it gives detail, it also speaks of feelings, spirit, and the passions involved in most difficult situations. Thus, you should tell the story of the dilemma in detail, describing every aspect of the encounter you can remember; i.e., feelings, thoughts, conversations, setting, people involved, relationships, and so on. No detail is too small during this initial stage.

Step 2: Analysis of the Narrative

Return to the description of your ethical dilemma, now asking what features of your story seem morally relevant. For example, where did the encounter take place? In an office? In a home? Does it matter? Who was involved? How old? Male or female? Does it matter? Identify prima facie duties and their consequences. Ask what rules apply and if there is something in the situation that would cause you to override a rule? Why? Identify any role specific duties you need to take into consideration?

It is most useful, if not necessary, write the story down, that is to say, textualize the experience.

Step 3: Identification of the Dilemma

Attempt to "name" the dilemma; is it a dilemma involving confidentiality, truth telling, justice, etc. Most of us have a "common sense knowledge" of what is right and wrong behavior, of what a dilemma involves, though we may have difficulty in articulating precisely the important elements involved. Use your common sense and your knowledge.

Step 4: Analysis the Dilemma

What are the role expectations you should consider? As a human being and a minister what issues of virtue and character are important in your dilemma? How do the structures, that is the institutional settings, involved in your situation influence your ethical dilemma? How is power being used and/or abused. In what ways is justice being sought or undermined? How are the issues of freedom and liberation being addressed?

Step 5: Resolution of the Dilemma

This is, of course, the heart of the matter, choosing the right action; i.e. what is right for all involved, or as right as possible. You should consider the morally relevant factors, the relationship between rules and your  situation, the consequences and duties (especially prima facie duties), role expectations which come into play, and how any course of action affects your character. Finally, apply your  understanding of virtue, consider the institutional settings and how your action uses or abuses power.

Living the Methodology

Step 1: Narrative Situation
Text: Telling the Story

Narrative: The Croquet Game

Ruth is an associate minister serving her first appointment in a suburban church. Like many 'associate' ministers, her primary responsibility is the youth group.

A fifteen-year-old high school junior from the group appears at Ruth's office door one day. Obviously upset, the young women blurts out, 'I need to talk to somebody, but you mustn't share this with anyone.'

Sensing her deep distress, Ruth replies,

'Kathy, what happens here in this office is just between us. Please tell me what's troubling you.'

Kathy bursts into tears. 'I'm pregnant, and I've got to have an abortion. My parents would kill me if they knew. My boyfriend doesn't know and I don't ever want to see him again. I've missed two periods and I don't have enough money to pay for the abortion. Please help me.' (Lebacqz 1985:9)

Copyright © 2000 Dale Rominger


Narrative and Ethics

Human beings tell the stories of their lives in many different ways. Often times, if not most times, the narration of life is a means of creating moral meaning. In this chapter we will explore the nature of narrative imagination and its relationship to theology, ethics, and Bible. In particular, we will consider in what ways (methods) the Bible addresses ethical concerns and present a methodology (a way) for dealing with our own ethical dilemma.

It is exciting to some and amazing to others that Christian theologians and ethicists spend time proclaiming that human beings love to tell stories and that there are fundamental reasons for that love. We spend hours remembering that the Bible is mostly narrative in form, that Jesus spoke of the Kingdom in parables, and that the Church recorded its history in narrative. When taken in its whole (there has also been a revival of interest in narrative in philosophical, history, Christian ethics, etc.), the emergence of narrative over the past decade or so is greater than the rebirth of storytelling. It is an indication of a paradigmatic shift in the way we understand.

Narrative Imagination

The development of a Narrative Hermeneutic has been taking place for many years. It is therefore possible to lump the justifications for this hermeneutic into three basic categories.

Ontological Justifications: The ontological argument asserts that narrative is basic to the very nature of being human. The reasons human beings tell stories are not due to historical accident, or simple entertainment, but can be found in the spiritual and physical nature of what it is to be human. In other words, narrative is not and artificial expression of human nature, but is instead, a natural expression of that nature. Thus, in Truthfulness and Tragedy, Stanley Hauerwas claims that both individual and community life are best understood in and through narrative interpretations and that story gives rhyme and reason to existence (1977:78). While narrative is an interpretation of existence, existence precedes the interpretative narrative; that is to say, the spiritual and physical predilection to interpret existence narratively actually exists before the narrative is expressed. Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue says, "The unity of human life is the unity of a narrative quest" (1984:203). Some thinkers, such as Claude Levi-Strauss, assert that the narrative expression is a result of brain anatomy and is, thus, the natural means of interpretation of experience.

Structural Justifications: The structural accounts insist that narrative is the most appropriate means of interpreting reality because of the very nature of reality itself. Specifically, reality is narrative in structure and, therefore, storytelling is a reflection of that structure. Thus, MacIntyre says, "Narrative is not the work of poets, dramatists and novelists reflecting upon events which had no narrative order before one was imposed by the singer or the writer; narrative form is neither disguised nor decoration" (1981:197). In other words, narrative is more than a convenient expression of reality, but is the most appropriate means of interpreting and understanding experience given its narrative structure.

Michael Goldberg says that the "shape of story and the shape of experience go hand in hand" (1982:164); George Stroup says that personal identity is an "hermeneutical concept" and necessarily assumes the form of narrative (1981:105,111), and in Stories of God by John Shea we read that storytelling is a way of seeing how we are "inescapably related to Mystery" (1978:13). What these and other authors are saying is that narrative is a natural hermeneutic for reality and indispensable for understanding that reality. Thus, we hear many say that Jesus used parables to speak of the Kingdom of God, not because he simply enjoyed telling parables, but because of the nature of the Kingdom demanded it.

Ethical Justifications: Ethical justifications for the place of narrative in Christian thought argue that the moral life is narrative-dependent. That is, the soil for the nurturing of character and the context for deciding what is the right and good action are found in and through the narrative tradition. Again, Hauerwas insists that narrative must be included in "any account of moral rationality" as stories determine what kind of character we will embrace and what kind of moral considerations we will ponder (1977:20); and MacIntyre says that virtue is narratively ordered, moral tradition is articulated in narrative history, and that story is the basic and essential genre for the characterisation of human action" (1981:194). In theological/ethical terms, the Christian turns to the story of Jesus to obtain insight into the virtuous character he or she wished to be or become.

The Characteristics of Narrative: Given that narrative may be essential to our understanding of reality and our interpretation of its meaning, it is important to speak briefly of the characteristics of narrative.

Narrative can be empirical or fictitious. Empirical narratives, in turn, can be historical, concerned with the truth of facts, measurement of time, and the past; or mimetic, concerned with the truth of sensation, observation of environment, and with the present. Plot is defined as a chronological connection among elements, that is, characters, actions, events and situations. It must have a beginning, middle and end, and it must be selective and particular. Selectivity implies that matters irrelevant to the plot are ignored or cut out of the history for the sake of the narrative and its meaning. The plot also demonstrates movement, its sequence of events being neither necessarily logical or predictable. There is also always an element of surprise in the plot. Thus, the plot is designed to move our understanding through a sequential unfolding of agents and events.

Hauerwas maintains that character in narrative is "not a theoretical notion, but merely the name we give to the cumulative source of human actions" (1977:29). In fact, Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg believe that if character is distinguishable at all from incident, it must be "in terms of the inner life" (1966:151). The inner life is accessible through direct narrative statements or through interior monologue. Character is not an explanation of the narrative, and is not independent of the narrative, but plays a role in the narrative, being both moved by and mover of the plot.

Narrative is usually concrete and realistic. It deals with the everydayness of life. Walter Brueggemann says the story does not "flinch from the scandal of specificity" (1982:23). Yet while it is very concrete and specific, it is holistic (avoids reductionism) and analogical in nature. It seeks not so much to explain and describe but to evoke imagination and participation. The meaning of the narrative is embodied in the narrative itself. And while it evokes participation, it does not encourage neutrality, but demands a response. The story is what Walter Brueggemann calls a "bottom line": "The listener has freedom to hear and decide, and is expected to decide" (1982:24).

While historical narrative may deal with past events, it is nonetheless a living genre that must effect the present. In a real way, the story is alive and directs the storyteller more than he or she directs the story. The listener too, is taken by the story. As we claim a story as ours, it too claims us. This claim is evident in the power of stories to mold and change our individual and communal life.

To  say a story "claims" us is also to say that it is re-creative and transcends the self. It can move people (sometimes with a jolt) to new awareness, self-identity, actions and relationships. John Dunne in Time and Myth, says that when a person is only self-concerned, he/she become fixed in his/her own "standpoint." When one is claimed by a story, and responds to it by embracing the meaning of the story, he/she is, according to Dunne, able to express "care which allows him to pass over to the standpoint of another human being, the first step toward passing over to the standpoint of God" (1973:59).

However, to say that a story can claim us is not to say that all stories do so. Robert McAfee Brown points out that the story must be similar enough to us to provide a point of contact, and yet dissimilar enough to fend off the boredom of predictability. "A story, in other words, must reach me on some level to which I can respond, but it must also 'stretch' me, pull me beyond where I now am, open some new doors of my mind or heart, so that, wanting to explore further, I become an increasingly willing listener" (1975:167). Thus, to be claimed by a story is to become an adventurer who is at great risk of being changed in character and in behavior.

 Ethics and The Bible

Krister Stendahl articulated one of the fundamental tension found in biblical theology and ethics. He said there exists a tension between the twin goals of understanding what a biblical text meant in the situation of its origins, to its original author and readers, and what it now means to us in our contemporary situation. Stendahl insists that the historical descriptive task (what it meant) is fundamentally different from the current theological/ethical task (what it means).

While this distinction may be helpful, it is near impossible to maintain in actual practice. No historian can approach biblical studies totally divorced from his or her cultural, theological, ethical, sociological, political, etc. understanding of reality. Complete objectivity is impossible. On the other hand, even if such an objective descriptive task were possible, the relevance of the exegesis for contemporary theology and ethics would still to be determined.

The truth is, ethics as understood today plays a minimal role in the world of the New Testament. And yet, Christians today do have a genuine concern for the world as God's creation and gift, and do see the Bible as a theological and ethical authority. And while Christians today embrace an understanding of ethics that has a much more individualistic and autonomous concern for human aims and conduct (that is to say, is much more utilitarian) then New Testament ethics, we should not despair. According to Paul Nelson,

"Christians today should not look to the New Testament for direct guidance. Rather, they should approach moral problems by asking, 'On the basis of what we know of God through Christ, what should we do?' This approach is warranted, not only with respect to problems on which scripture is silent (e.g. genetic engineering), but also where the Bible seems to speak with ongoing relevance, as in the command to love our neighbors as ourselves" (1987:89).

Nelson goes on to say that while scripture may not provide a "static moral code," it does remind contemporary Christians that "morality pertains to human existence as it stands in relation to God" (1987:90.)

If we accept that the world and the ethics of the Bible are far removed from our contemporary understanding of reality and morality, but that the Bible "reminds" us that morality is related to the desires and intentions of God, it is legitimate to ask how the Bible actually does the reminding. James Gustafson in Theology and Christian Ethics sketches a general typology of the ways the Bible has been appropriated as a revealed morality.

  • The first use of scripture in ethics is the most direct: "Those actions of persons and groups which violate the moral law revealed in scripture are to be judged morally wrong" (1974:130). Here, "the idea of moral law becomes the principle for ethical interpretation" (1974:130).
  • The second use of scripture presents moral ideals that can be used to evaluate human action; that is: "Those actions of persons and groups which fall short of the moral ideals given in scripture are to be judged morally wrong, or at least morally deficient" (1974:131).
  • The third us of scripture is: "Those actions of persons or groups are to be judged morally wrong which are similar to actions that are judged to be wrong or against God's will under similar circumstances in scripture, or are discordant with actions judged to be right or in accord with God's will in scripture" (1974:133).
  • The fourth use of scripture as understood by Gustafson is, as he says, "looser than the first three." It reads: "Scripture witnesses to a great variety of moral values, moral norms and principles through many different kinds of biblical literature: moral law, vision of the future, historical events, moral precepts, paraenetic instruction, parables, dialogues, wisdom sayings, allegories. They are not in a simple way reducible to a single theme; rather, they are directed to a particular historical contexts. The Christian community judges the actions of persons and groups to be morally wrong, or at least deficient, on the basis of reflective discourse about present events in the light of appeals to this variety of material as well as to other principles and experiences. Scripture is one of the informing sources for moral judgments, but it is not sufficient in itself to make any particular judgment authoritative" (1974:134).

From what was said at the beginning of this section, all the above categories of scriptural use in ethics have difficulties. The fourth category, however, leads us to two fundamental questions in the study of Christian and biblical ethics. The first asks whether there is a methodology distinctively Christian, that is to say, different from, for example, philosophical, Jewish, Buddhist, Humanists ethical methodologies. Some would say Christian ethics has a distinct methodology because it is based on revelation rather than reason. Others would disagree. 

The second question asks what the relationship between biblical and non-biblical sources of ethical wisdom actually is, and whether Christians can use non-biblical sources for understanding and doing ethics. In other words, is the content of Christian ethics particularly distinctive. Again, some say yes and some say no. As we will see in Chapter VI, liberationists would be an example of those Christians who say Christians can and should use other sources in our theological and ethical deliberations and activities.

How we answer these question is important. Most agree that scripture plays a significant role for Christians in forming the individual and communal sense of self-understanding. As Paul Nelson says, "Scripture allows us to reflect on who the Christian is and what his attitudes, dispositions, goals, values, norms, and decisions are as they are shaped by the Christian mysteries of creation, sin, incarnation, redemption, and resurrection destiny" (1987:95). Thus, for example, we can relate the Gospels to morality by understanding how they influence the kinds of people we become in a Christian community. Nelson says that the Gospels, "reorient the action, intention, and disposition of persons who attend to them", noting that a Christian's moral sensibilities and creative imaginations are "involved in the movement from gospel paradigms to specific actions in the world" (1987:96).

Stanley Hauerwas, in his many books on Christian theology and ethics, is particularly concerned with scriptural influences on the moral life of individual Christians and Christian communities. He maintains that scriptural authority and Christian community cannot exist without each other. However, he would not say that the Bible is the only authority in the development of Christian Community, nor that there is even a single normative concept of scripture. Still, Hauerwas maintains that the scripture is the classic model for understanding God and what it is to be a community in relationship to God. He says the Bible functions as an authority for the Christian community precisely because by attempting to live, think, and feel faithful to its witness we are more nearly able to live faithful to the truth. And for Hauerwas, it must be noted, the most appropriate way to understand and appropriate scripture is to regard it as a narrative.

Narrative and Biblical Ethics: The Bible is comprised of a variety of literary genres. Even a casual reading of current scholarship makes clear that the exact labeling of genres differs from scholar to scholar. Nonetheless, it safe to say the major biblical genres include:

  • mythology and saga;
  • historic and realistic narrative;
  • poem and song;
  • gospels;
  • parable; and
  • epistle.

While narrative is not the only literary genre used in the Bible, it is central to any understanding of the Scripture. George Stroup says, "The core of Scripture is a set of narratives which serves as the common denominator for the whole Scripture." (1981:136). And Hauerwas asserts that non-narrative material in Scripture "gains intelligibility" by virtue of being a product of a community that lives by a narrative tradition (1981:67).

Erich Auerbach notes that the narratives in Scripture (particularly the gospels) were unlike any antique genre. They were too serious for comedy, too everyday in observation and contemporary in description for tragedy, and lacked the political significance to be considered history. He says in Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, "In the last analysis the differences in style between the writings of antiquity and early Christians are conditioned by the fact that they were composed from a different point of view and for a different people" (1957:40).

In fact, Auerbach contends that the highly educated pagans were "horrified" by the commonness of the Christian narrative style. It was to them "impossibly uncivilized and in total ignorance of the stylistic categories." Auerbach continues to say, however, that the very controversy also indicated the greatness of the style because it "created an entirely new kind of sublimity, in which the everyday and the law were included, not excluded, so that, in style as in content, it directly connected the lowest with the highest (1957:134).

That "different point of view" that distinguished early Christian writing included the fact that Christ came, not as hero and king to the socially  prestigious, but as a humble person to live with a humble people. This fact alone caused a literary scandal. The style in which this story was presented lacked "rhetorical culture in the antique sense," and completely destroyed the "aesthetics of the separation of styles," replacing it with a new style that did not "scorn everyday life...[and was ready to] absorb the sensorial realistic, even the ugly, the undignified, the physically base," and yet did so with the "deepest dignity, more significant than anything else in the world" (1957:63).

The significance of Auerbach's work for the relationship between narrative and Scripture is that the context of the Christian story determined the style of Christian narrative. It is logical to assume, therefore, that the study of narrative is in turn significant in the quest for meaning of the Christian story.

Narrative and Theology

Stanley Hauerwas says, "[T]he most significant claims about God and the moral life take the form of or presuppose a narrative context. Any theological account of narrative, therefore, must involve an attempt to show that this is not just an accidental category but a necessary one for any true knowledge of God and the self" (1981:95).

Some would claim that narrative is not an accidental category and is not simply a propaedeutic to theology, for it illumines our understanding of God and of the Christian faith in ways that cannot be realized without its focus. "Why" this is so is found in the nature of God, Christian convictions, and the faith community. What we seek is an interpretation of meaning, and story is a "well-known pedagogical device" to do just that, at least according to H. Richard Niebuhr (1960:34). The point here is that many have come to believe that the search for the meaning of theological convictions is in itself a confessional activity and a witness of faith. If it is not, it undermines the integrity of the object (e.g. God, Community of faith) being studied. Narrative theologians claim that a "truer" truth is found through the telling and analysis of the Christian story. In fact the story is an irreplaceable telling of the nature of God and the life of Jesus Christ, which is at the heart of any theological task.

The compulsion, as H. Richard Niebuhr says, to express the convictions of faith in story, is due first to the nature of the convictions themselves. They are not "isolatable facts" but are located in a community tradition and life. They are inherently practical, the story giving ways to "be" in the world. Hauerwas says, "A theory is meant to help know the world without changing the world yourself; a story is to help you deal with the world by changing it through changing yourself" (1977:73). In short, any and all theological convictions are rooted in a community tradition and the Christian community has chosen to communicate its conviction through narrative.

Therefore, genre reductionism and norm reductionism is inappropriate given the nature of what is being studied. Walter Brueggemann helps us to understand this when he says that education (and we might add doing theology and ethics) has become "the process of considering alternatives". For example, when asked "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus did not say: "Your neighbor is the one in your family, or the one in your local community, or the one in your synagogue, or the one in your nation, or the one who is a member of the human species. Choose one!" (1982:19). Instead, Jesus told a story about who one's neighbor is and allowed the listener to decide. The concept of neighbor is too expansive and complex to be reduced to one or two normative formulas. Therefore, to be true to such a concept, one can only tell a story that in some way embraces the whole of the concept, demands participation of and response by the listener. Theology can no longer be a task of isolating and deducing principles, but must incorporate narrative as a holistic approach to the study of faith.

Narrative and Christian Ethics

In biblical ethics, of course, the narrative prominence in Scripture is foundational for narrative ethics. Let us briefly note in what ways this narrative paradigm is changing contemporary Christian ethics. In the most general of terms, the change consists of a shift from an emphasis on duty and consequence ethics to an emphasis on character and virtue.

Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue, gives a convincing argument that the reliance on rules and principles for action is based on a misinterpretation of ethics. He says, "Suppose...that in articulating the problems of morality the ordering of evaluative concepts has been misconceived by the spokesmen of modernity and more particularly of liberalism; suppose that we need to attend to virtues in the first place in order to understand the function and authority of rules" (1981:112).

He continues in his argument to say that all morality is, to some degree, connected to a particular community, and that modernity's commitment to the finding of universal objective principles freed from all particularism is an illusion. And further, that any notion of virtue is a part of a tradition. That tradition, which we inherited and is expressed through a community narrative, defines virtue and our understanding of it. MacIntyre says "generally to adopt a stance on the virtues will be to adopt a stance on the narrative character of human life" (1981:135). MacIntyre continues in wonderful detail to develop his thesis, but for now let it suffice to accept that concern for character in ethics can never be independent of narrative.

Perhaps the most popular spokesperson for narrative and character in Christian ethics is Stanley Hauerwas. While his arguments sometimes become circular (how to determine the truthfulness of a narrative) and his use of terms sometimes becomes confused (narrative, story, tradition, history), he must be taken seriously.

For Hauerwas, prior to any decision, is the moral notion. Moral notion is "but the recognition that we never simply know facts, but that we know them for some reason" (1974:16). They are creations of common experience in a particular community. Thus, the language of moral notion is a language of "common sense," and an ethics of vision is an ethics of realism. Moral reflection must begin with our moral notions. Ethics, then, is not simply knowing when it is wrong to lie. Rather, to know "how to use the word 'lie' is in effect to know how the world orders that aspect of human behavior which it is about" (1974:19). To learn of moral notions is to learn how to order the world, and is "more than thinking clearly and making rational choices. It is a way of seeing the world" (1974:36). The moral life is moral reflection (ethics) of moral notions (life's experiences) in the hopes of finding or creating a pattern of life (interrelations of moral notions). Moral behavior is an affair of vision and not of choice; a way of seeing and not just of rationalizing.

Character includes having certain intentions and convictions over others. Those intentions and convictions are displayed in a narrative and, therefore, "narrative must be included in any account of moral rationality that does not unwarrantedly exclude larger aspects of our moral existence, i.e., moral character" (1977:20). Character is narrative-dependent and community-dependent; all our notions are in effect narrative-dependent; narrative provides the context necessary for determining character and decision making. The conversion of character and the integrity of decision making cannot be based on principles. They depend on narrative which provides a life pattern into which they can "fit." Narrative is not arbitrary, indeed, in ethical reflection it is necessary.

The narrative quality of Christian convictions (and therefore of Christian character) helps us to realize that ethics is not "what one does after one has gotten straight on the meaning of the truth of religious beliefs." Rather, it is a means of "exploring the meaning, relation, and truthfulness of Christian convictions" (1981:90). Such a conviction leads Hauerwas to conclude that a narrative ethics of character must be nonreductionistic so that "questions of truth can be rightly asked; and that universalism comes first through particular stories and communities."

For Hauerwas, narrative provides a means of facing the world truthfully. Truthfulness in the Christian story is, of course, connected to the character of God as witnessed by the nation of Israel, the nature of the Kingdom and the life of Jesus Christ. There is no way of knowing the Kingdom separate from knowing the life of Jesus, and one can know that only through narrative. Here, "knowing" does not refer to principles or isolated chronological events, but refers to participating in the narrative, being a character in the ongoing story, living a life of action that imitates the story.

"An ethic of virtue centers on the claim that an agent's being is prior to doing" (1981:113). However, that is not to say decisions are not important or in no way connected to character. Rather it is that making decisions is not the "paradigmatic center of moral reflection" (1981:114). James McClendon explains the relationship between character and actions this way:

To have to enter a new level of the realm of morality, the level at which one's person, with its continuities, its inner connections, its integrity, is intimately involved in one's deeds. By being the person we are, we are able to do what we do, and conversely, by those very deeds we form or re-form our own character. Only a man of (some) generosity will act generously, as a general rule; but also as a general rule a man who acts generously on this occasion is shaping himself along generous lines. Thus, character is paradoxically both the cause and consequence of what we do (1974:30-32).

The moral life is actually a plenitude of convictions and intentions, values and virtues, deeds and character. Narrative provides a paradigm to embrace this potpourri we call life. What is required of us over and above our choices or deeds, is the "formation of character by a narrative that provides a sufficiently truthful account of our existence" (Hauerwas 1981:136). A single moral principle cannot account for the diversity of moral life. A narrative is required, as is the way of knowing a narrative offers.

Issues and Questions for Discussion

If by ethics we mean the process of understanding and reflecting upon the virtues of character and the actions that are conducive for a virtuous character, then biblical ethics must be based on the assumption that the Bible can offer insights or revelations to enlighten that process. To say that there actually is such a thing as a biblical ethics relevant for contemporary situations and issues, and not simply an historically interesting ethic, implies that the Bible has something to say to us today. Thus, our interest is not merely in studying ancient biblical ethical theories as if visiting a living museum, but building bridges between biblical texts and our contemporary situation and particular ethical concerns. Having said that, it is very important that we keep the historical and cultural context of the biblical texts clearly in view. If we fail to do so, we will distort both ethical and theological understandings and how they can inform today's world and our lives.

Keeping the above in mind, consider the following questions:

a) Do you consider the Bible an authority (legitimated and institutionalized power) in your life and moral experiences; in society? Why? In what ways?

b) If you answered yes to that question, do all biblical text exercise the same and/or equal authority in your life; in society? If not, identify some differences. To help, consider your attitudes and approaches to the various biblical genres (mythologies, historical narratives, poems and psalms, wisdom texts, gospel narratives, letters, etc.), biblical issues and themes (justice, sexuality, dietary laws, human relationships, etc.), and biblical voices (Moses, Miriam, Ruth, Jesus, Paul, etc.).

In both the Old and New Testaments ethical considerations and moral experiences are addressed and described in many different ways. Some Christian say the Bible is a 'manual for human behaviour' while others say there is no concrete biblical ethic, but stories, images and symbols that may or may not address our lives today. 

a) What do you think the difference is between Codes of Behaviour and Narratives of Experience? And what do you think is the primary biblical approach to addressing ethical issues? To help, identify an example of an ethical code and a moral narrative in the Bible. Be prepared to share your examples, discuss their differences, and in what ways they contribute, if at all, to contemporary ethics?

b) Can biblical ethics 'stand on its own' as a moral authority in doing ethics today, or must it 'stand next to' other moral authorities? If the latter, what other authorities and/or areas of experience and knowledge should we consider?

The ethical thinking of the Old and New Testaments are both contextual (the various texts were written at different times to particular peoples and/or churches in changing situations) and theological (theological understandings may have been more fundamental to authors than ethical reflection).

Within the context and theology of the Old Testament, many would say that the Old Testament authors did not concern themselves with a establishing rational basis for ethics, as is the case in philosophy. Instead they focused on ethical commands. For them God was the source of all morality and what God commanded was good and good for the community that obeyed. Those commands were expressed in The Law, which if followed could lead to ethical perfection. Consider the following:

a) How do the Old Testament authors tell of these commands and laws?

b) To whom are these commands and laws addressed?

c) Is Old Testament Law primarily deontological or teleological?

d) Is the Old Testament primarily concerned with virtue and character or with duties and consequences?

It is often said that the New Testament is more concerned with Love than Law and that all our understanding of ethics and morality flows directly from a faithfulness to God in and through Christ. No longer is our road to ethical perfection just the adherence to the Law, but is now also through our understanding of a human being and discipleship to that human being.

It must be admitted, however, that the original context of the ethical teachings of Jesus himself is always difficult to discern because of the filters through which it reaches us. Some suggest that the setting of imminent eschatology renders his teachings so alien to our own time that Jesus cannot possibly provide a valid ethic for today. Others suggest that out task is the same as that of the New Testament writers, namely, to interpret what Jesus taught in and for new contexts. Still we can have some confidence about his teachings concerning the Kingdom of God, Love vs. Law, and his use of parables as a pedagogical approach.

Consider the following questions:

a) What is the primary method of teaching ethics and morality in the New Testament? Of Jesus himself?

b) Is New Testament ethics primarily deontological or teleological?

c) Is the New Testament primarily concerned with virtue and character or with duties and consequences?

Living the Methodology

Step 2: Analysis of the Narrative
Situation: Relevance, Duties, and Roles

The Croquet Game

Ruth should describe her encounter with Kathy in detail. She should tell: when the encounter took place; where; what her relationship with Kathy is (minister to parishioner, friend to friend, older woman to younger woman, etc.); what Kathy asked of her; what she promised Kathy and why; Kathy's mental and emotional state; her own mental and emotional state; how the encounter ended; etc.

Ruth should now be asking what are the morally relevant factors in her story. Does it matter that Kathy spoke to her in her office? Is Kathy's age important? Should Kathy's "outburst" in this particular setting, with this particular person, be considered a "confession"? Does the difference in Ruth's and Kathy's age matter in some way? She would also be asking what prima facie duties are involved in her encounter with Kathy.

Copyright © 2000 Dale Rominger


Revelation and Ethics

As Christians we believe that the nature of being human, as individuals and communities, and the nature of morality is not simply a matter of human choice. In this session we will consider divine hopes and intentions that influence our moral choices and the very essence of what it is to be human.

In this chapter we will explore some of the theological issues that affect the way we understand and do ethics and consider how our sense of being and becoming might affect our ethical choices.

The Goodness of Creation

We begin with a question: Are there moral presumptions which can meaningfully be described as "Christian" and which can also serve as helpful guides to moral judgment?

In order to sensibly answer that question we must consider the Bible (which we have already begun in the previous chapter), Christian theologies and traditions, and personal and community experience. Here we begin to consider a possible theological basis for Christian morality.

According to J. Philip Wogaman, the Doctrine of Creation may provide, in theological terms, a foundation for the building of a Christian ethic. Wogaman says, "it is through a doctrine of creation that we express our understanding of how it is that related to the structures and events of this world...Creation expresses our understanding of how God relates to human life in the actual setting of concrete existence" (1976:68).

In all that we say about creation there are the implied assumptions that it is good and that our good God intends good for humankind through the fulfillment of love in the divine-human covenant. It is through terms like covenant and redemption that we attempt to understand and describe how God does indeed relate to human life in the actual situations in which we find ourselves as individuals and communities. Within Christian theology, creation and covenant cannot be separated and each would lose meaning without the other. Without creation, all that we understand through Christian faith would merely exist in the mind of God; that is to say, creation makes real and concrete the convenant God has and continually seeks with humankind. Without covenant, creation is merely a reality void of God's redemptive relationship with humankind. Thus, creation can form a foundation for a Christian ethic while covenant can give that ethic hope.

To speak of reality as created, implies that nature is not self-originating, and that the meaning of nature cannot be fully understood from nature alone. To say nature is created is to say that it has a beginning, source, and intention in something Other; that Other called God by Christians. Thus, a theological interpretation of nature, of human life, and of ethics must always address the question of how in our world God's intentions can be fulfilled in and through human activity. If God has an intention for creation and a covenantal relationship with humankind, which is part of that creation, human character and action become crucial for human existence, the divine-human relationship, and creation itself.

Peter Hodgson says that God is above all else a creative being who not only "calls into being everything that is but also creates a more complex and differentiated world by offering novel possibilities for advancement, thereby luring finite beings forward into new and richer possibilities of being" (1994:175). In this Module one possibility that we are "lured" into is that of seeking ethical "perfection," as implied in and through our biblical tradition (perhaps best described as the possible impossibility). But of importance here is that our possible ethical understandings are grounded in the goodness of creation itself, and that our possible ethical advancement is intimately bonded to God's intentions for creation and humankind. For Christians, the consideration of virtue and character, the actions that insure a virtuous character, the being a good person and doing what is right, should always further God's intentions for creation. In fact, a Christian ethic might assert that if character and action do not further God's intentions for creation, an individual and/or community could not claim to be ethical and moral.

The Value of Being Human

It is a truism to say that to be a human being is to be limited. We have a relatively short life span in which we experience, again relatively speaking, very little. Thus, our best hopes and judgments will never be informed by all the "facts", nor can we even claim that our best understanding of the Christian faith itself will ever be complete.

To say that we are creatures of a infinite and creating God is to first emphasize the limits of our creatureliness. Being created does not also imply we possess the mind of God. Our ability to understand will always be limited. And Wogaman points out that this would be true "even if we could justly claim moral perfection, a point which is emphasized scripturally through the doubts expressed by Jesus on the cross and by the agony of his wrestling in prayer" (1976:107).

It is, therefore, significantly important that we can affirm that the infinite God, who creates and has intentions for creation, has created finite human beings with some divine quality, that is to say, we are created in God's image. It is important to maintain that we as created beings possess significance (an issue of Christian anthropology and the theology of "image") and that God as creator does not condemn his own creation (an issue of incarnational theology). As Wogaman says, unless "it can be affirmed that the infinite God is also capable of limiting himself through self-disclosure and that he has indeed revealed his essential nature in Christ, then there remains little basis for Christian faith" (1976:106), and we might add here, for Christian ethics.

Psalm 8:3-5 reminds and reassures us that our very createdness has significant value:

When I look at the sky, which you have made,

            at the moon and the stars, which you set

            in their places -

what are human beings, that you think of them;

            mere mortals, that you care for them?

You have made human beings a little less

            than God, and you have crowned them with

            glory and honour.

You have appointed them rulers over

            everything you made;

            you placed them over all creation (1994:539-540).

The poem encourages us to, first, believe in the power of creative image. Being created in the image of God indicates that we are not just any beings, but that we were made a little less than God. It is important to remember that God is, as the poem tells us, glorious maker of all and, through love and justice, preserves and sustains all that was made. This is the quality of the being in whose image we were created. And this maker God has entrusted to humans the needs of creation and its preservation.  Or, in other words, being created by a loving and just God, in the image of that God, and existing in a covenant of love with that Creator, speaks to our value as beings. The God of the universe is also the God of our souls. It is in our createdness, in our very nature, that we are created and live in the image of God. Madeleine L'Engle says,

God's image! How much of God may be seen in me, may I see in others? Try as we may, we cannot hide it completely...The words which have taught me most richly come in logical progression: ontology: the word about being, ousia: the essence of being, that which is really real; ananada: that joy in existence without which the universe will fall apart and collapse (1983:19).

Second, we are reminded that in our understanding of incarnational theology is implied the notion that God does not damn creation, but is willing to participate in it; a participation in the world as created, loved, condemned, and reconciled in and through Jesus Christ. In other words, creation is valued by God, to the point where God is willing to make his home in us as we make our home in him (John 15). And if God values creation it is, obviously, valuable.

And third we believe, as many theologians insist, that inherent in our being a part of God's very creation, and being entrusted with that creation, we are also called to a partnership of co-creation with God (Psalm 8:6). Within the notion of partnership theologians note two aspects as significant to our createdness: Our dignity as creatures and our responsibility for creation. 

 Issues and Questions for Discussion

 Consider the following statements and questions:     

a) Does the Doctrine of the Fall speak of the fall of creation or the nature of human freedom?

b) The profoundest struggling with evil is at the point of considering human sin.

c) Because creation is good and God intends good for humankind, our moral presumptions should always lie with judgments and actions that reaffirm that goodness.

Consider then the following: Human beings are not 'the measure of all things.' That is to say, the dignity and worth of human existence cannot be derived from an analysis of human life itself. Christian faith maintains that the worth of human life is established by our relationship with God, precisely because that relationship is created and given by God. It is because we have our being from God and are sustained by God that human life has value. Also, each and every person, as God's creation, is a beneficiary of God's love and forgiveness, which offers both honour and responsibility.

a) Discuss the following ethical presumption: The burden of proof falls against any principle, judgment and/or action that undermines the importance and/or devalues human life; creation.

b) Discuss the following questions: Does contemporary society undermine or support the presumption of the value of human life and/or creation? Bring some examples from newspapers, magazines, etc. to support your answer.

c) Can you think of an example where a judgment and/or action both valued and devalued human life and/or creation at the same time. Again bring examples if possible?

Living the Methodology

Step 3: Identification of the Dilemma
Conflict: Duties, Roles, and Principles

The Croquet Game

Ruth should ask herself what her real ethical dilemma is. There are many problems to be faced in this encounter, but not all of them are ethical dilemmas. The following questions come to mind: How should she help Kathy? Should she secure an abortion for Kathy? Give Kathy the money? Tell Kathy's parents? Consult her senior colleague? Etc.

In actual fact, the dilemma in this case is one of Confidentiality. Kathy asked Ruth not to tell anyone before she "confessed" her problem. Ruth told Kathy that what was said "in this office" was "just between us." Ruth, acting as a minister, promised Kathy confidentiality.

It is important to note that for Ruth this is not a dilemma about the morality of abortion. She has an opinion about the morality of abortion, but it is not her dilemma in this case. Her first concern is whether she should tell anyone else (especially Kathy's parents) that Kathy is pregnant. For some, the prohibition against abortion overrides all other considerations. If that had been so for Ruth, there would have been no ethical dilemma at all. Her rule to prevent abortion would have been more important than her promise to keep confidence, more important than the possible consequences of breaking her promise to Kathy, and she would have gone to Kathy's parent's straight away.

Many things affected Ruth in her decision making about Kathy. Of primary importance was her role as minister. In other words, her role was morally relevant. The importance of role clarity should not be underestimated. As Lebacqz says, the resolution of a dilemma can be "based on the assumption that ethical obligations derive from our roles. If we can achieve clarity about the role or roles involved, and about our movement from one role to another, we will achieve more clarity about our ethical obligations as well...Roles provide an initial link between the situation and appropriate norms for behavior" (1985:58). Lebacqz goes on to explain that roles are defined by "the aims of the profession, the process of professional training and socialization, and the images of the good professional held by society, by the profession, and by the individual practitioner" (1985:58-59).

The question we now ask is does Ruth's professional role, that of ordained minister, make a difference in her deciding what to do. The ethical issue in this situation is one of keeping confidence. In this situation, Kathy came to her minister in the minister's office and requested confidence. Does Ruth's role as minister and setting of office place greater ethical demands on Ruth then might be expected with another person in another environment?

Ruth explicitly promised confidentiality within the confines of her office. Lebacqz points out that this is a "concrete agreement" and is morally relevant and binding (1985:41). Interestingly, however, when ministers were surveyed, most agreed that Ruth as minister would be bound by the moral obligation of confidentiality even if she had not made a specific promise and if the encounter had not taken place in her office. The response indicates that there is something about being a minister, about the professional role, that brings with it certain kinds of obligations. While it is true that Ruth's obligations were reinforced by being in the office, "most agreed that even if it had happened over a cup of coffee in the local cafe, the minister would still be bound to confidentiality as part of the expectations of her role" (1985:42). Indeed, it seems that for ministers "confidentiality or promise keeping is not simply one prima facie duty among others; it has a special place" (1985:42).

Lebacqz reminds us that while situations and dilemmas come and go, our role or roles endure (1985:59). Thus, roles are also linked to the image of whom we are or want to be. Talking about roles quite naturally leads us into considerations concerning character.

Copyright © 2000 Dale Rominger


Appropriation and Ethics

If the meaning of morality is both discovered and created in the narration of our lives and the revelation of the divine, it must also be applied to the situations of our individual and corporate living.

In this session we will explore the nature of appropriating ethical understandings and to what degree we as human beings are free to take responsibility for our appropriation. We will also continue the analysis of your dilemma by addressing issues of institutional structures which affect our freedom and will to act.

Living Responsibility

For Christian (and others) today, the word responsibility is closely associated with words like moral and good. Thus, we speak of being a responsible person, spouse, friend, citizen; of being a responsible church or society; and now, of being a responsible species. What is implicit in the notion that human beings are responsible beings is that we are engaged in a dialogue, or a relationship, with others (other people and things) that demands our response. It is difficult to understand the meaning of responsibility if we conceive of human beings as totally independent, being and acting in the world unconnected to anything or anyone else. If that were the case, we would have little use for the notion of responsibility at all. To embrace the idea of responsibility, in a very real sense, means we acknowledge that as individuals and communities we are in relationships and that all our endeavors toward character and all our decisions leading to actions are a response to being in relationship.

H. Richard Niebuhr was a leading Christian theologian who defined and established the Responsibility school of thought in Christian ethics. Niebuhr spoke of the moral responsibility of an individual and a community as involving response, interpretation, accountability, and social solidarity.

Niebuhr says, "The first element in the theory of responsibility is the idea of response. All action, we now say, including what we rather indeterminately call moral action, is response to action upon us. We do not, however, call the action of a self or moral action unless it is response to interpreted action upon us" (1963:61). In other words, to say that responsibility is response is not enough. We recognize, for example, that many of our physical reactions (from a heartbeat to a sudden fright) are reflexive and thus would not be identified as responsible in an ethical sense. We do not call a responsive attitude or action moral unless it were self-aware and an interpretation of the situation in which we find ourselves.

We can approach the questions "Who shall I (we) be and what shall I (we) do?" in many different ways. If we used a teleological approach we would also ask "What is my (our) goal, ideal, or telos?" If we used a deontological approach we would ask "What is the first law (duty) in my life and what are the laws (duties) that apply here?" If we used a responsibility approach we would first ask "What is going or what it being done to me (us)?" In very general terms, teleology is primarily concerned with the good, deontology with the right, and an ethics of responsibility with what is fitting (1963:60-61). However, many ethicists would say that what is fitting, that is to say a response that, through self-awareness and interpretation, takes account of the wholeness of the situation and fits into the possibilities of interaction, response and counter response, would also be good and right.

But again, Niebuhr insists that response, self-awareness, and interpretation are not enough. The notion of fitting our selves and actions into a larger interactive whole, into a relationship or a network of relationships, points to another important element of responsibility: Accountability. Niebuhr explains accountability in this way:

A third element is accountability -- a word that is frequently defined by recourse to legal thinking but that has a more definite meaning, when we understand it as referring to a part of the response pattern of our self-conduct. Our actions are responsible not only insofar as they are reactions to interpreted actions upon us but also insofar as they are made in anticipation of answers to our answers. An agent's action is like a statement in a dialogue. Such a statement not only seeks to meet, as it were, or to fit into, the previous statement to which it is an answer, but is made in anticipation to reply. It looks forward as well as backward; it anticipates objections, confirmations, and corrections. It is made as part of a total conversation that leads forward and is to have meaning as a whole (1963:63-64).

Accountability implies that our development of character and actions must be aware of the past, interpret the present, and attempt to anticipate the future. We must anticipate the consequences of our selves and our actions, that is to try, as best we can, to anticipate the affect of our actions and responses on others and their choices and actions.

And finally, if accountability is anticipating the reactions of our reactions, Niebuhr would say that responsibility also includes the presumption of social solidarity. He says, "Our action is responsible, it appears, when it is response to action upon us in a continuing discourse or interaction among beings forming a continuing society" (1963:65). We are responsible beings, when we embrace the virtues and actions that, not only benefit ourselves, but also the relationships and the communities in which we live; and as we discussed in the previous section, also embrace God's and intentions for humankind (both as individuals and communities) and all of creation.

By turning to Dietrich Bonhoeffer we can extend our notion of responsibility. Bonhoeffer says the responsible life consists of two factors; "life is bound to man and to God and a man's own life is free. It is a fact that life is bound to man and to God which sets life in the freedom of a man's own life. Without this bond and without this freedom there is no responsibility" (1955:224). For Bonhoeffer responsibility consists primarily of our relationship with God and our freedom.

While some might accuse Niebuhr of being more a secular moral philosopher, no such accusation could be leveled against Bonhoeffer. For him, responsibility and freedom are grounded in our relationship with Christ and are actualised in a world created by God. The world is not isolated or autonomous; which means, if "the world remains the world, that must be because all reality is founded upon Jesus Christ Himself. The world remains the world because it is the world which loved, condemned and reconciled in Christ" (1955:232). If that is so, than human beings have a concrete and thus limited responsibility which finds its meaning in the world that is created, loved, condemned and reconciled by God. For Bonhoeffer, responsibility is, then, virtue and action that understands and acknowledges the world in this way. He makes this clear when he says

The 'world' is thus the sphere of concrete responsibility which is given to us in an through Jesus Christ. It is not some general concept from which it is possible to derive a self-contained system. A man's attitude to the world does not correspond with reality if he sees in the world a good and evil which is good or evil in itself, or if he sees in it a  principle which is compounded of both good and evil and if he acts in accordance with this view; his attitude accords with reality only if he lives and acts in limited responsibility and thereby allows the world ever anew to disclose its essential character to him.

Action which is in accordance with reality is limited by our creatureliness (1955:233).

At this point we begin to sense that when freedom is intimately bonded to relationship, a paradox arises. If we say human beings are limited and bound in relationship, what does it mean to also say human beings are free? Bonhoeffer says, "Responsibility and freedom are corresponding concepts" and that  "responsibility presupposes freedom and freedom can consist only in responsibility. Responsibility is the freedom of men which is given only in the obligation of God and neighbour." (1955:248). So, our freedom (what Bonhoeffer calls "entire freedom") finds its meaning in obligation to God and to each other as understood and challenged in life of Jesus Christ.

Living Freedom

In recent years one of the most dominant concerns occupying ethics has been the notion of freedom. It is easy to say that we have free choice; free choice in the market, in religion, in relationships, etc. It is easy to say we are free to become the person we want to be. It can even be said we are free to choose our morality from a supermarket of selection; indeed, in this Module you have been introduced to a number of ethical schools of thought and moral possibilities - deontology, teleology, situationalism, existentialism, responsibility ethics, Christian ethics, biblical ethics, etc. Is it enough to say that an authentic morality is one that you freely choose and take responsibility for your choice?

Stanley Hauerwas points out that as we fly the flag of freedom, we live in a world where we recognize and accept every increasing areas of determinism. Science has reduced human nature and action to simple matter of genetic, biochemical, environmental, psychological, sociological factors. It has been said that one of the defining characteristics of modernity is that people feel both free and determined. Paradoxically, in a world of every increasing choices (from breakfast cereals to philosophies/theologies of life) the one thing we hold unto is our own autonomy as free selves (1983:7).

Hauerwas quotes the sociologist Peter Berger as saying we are condemned to a concept of freedom where "freedom of choice" becomes a virtue in and of itself. Thus, Hauerwas himself says, "It matters not what we desire, but that we desire. Our task is to become free, not through the acquisition of virtue, but by preventing ourselves from being determined, so that we can always keep our 'options open'" (1983:8). He would suggest that by ignoring the people we want to be and are becoming (that is our character), and by ignoring the fact that morality is retrospective (remembering and accepting), we fall into a trap of individualism and self-deception. As individuals we 'forget' that our freedom of choice and, by necessity, our will impinges on others. This act of forgetting is an act of self-deception. Hauerwas goes so far as to say that "there is no morality that does not require others to suffer for our commitments" (1983:9). Ethically speaking, freedom, like responsibility, is living within relationships, where response, self-awareness, interpretation, and accountability are necessary.

Freedom is normally associated with actions and not character. Such a one-sided assumption implies that if only we have a choice we are free. Berger, however, would remind us that such an understanding of freedom is simply making a virtue out of necessity. Freedom is, rather, an ability to identify with our choices as well as the ability to claim our lives as our own (9183:37,38). But if freedom is more a matter of character, then it is legitimate to ask, as Hauerwas does, "how did I acquire the freedom to acquire character in the first place?" (1983:38)

As we noted above in our discussion of Bonhoeffer's understanding of responsibility and freedom, within a Christian perspective both responsibility and freedom find their meaning when understood in relation to God and God's intention for creation. As such, an ethic of responsibility finds meaning in its relationship to obedience and discipleship. We believe it to be so because we believe that Jesus Christ stood before God as one both obedient and free. Freedom without obedience is merely and expression of self-will and individualistic choice for the sake of choice alone. Obedience without freedom is slavery.

Within the notion of responsibility lives the tension between obedience and freedom, and within the reality of responsibility obedience and freedom find expression. In the Scriptures we find both the intimacy and tension inherent in the relationship of responsibility, obedience, and freedom. In Micah 6:8 we read:

...the Lord has told us what is good. What he requires of us is this: to do what is just, to show constant love, and to live in humble fellowship with our God (1994:903).

And in John 15:10-12:

If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so your joy may be complete. My commandment is this: love one another, just as I love you (1994:138).

An ethic of responsibility would argue that being a person of justice and love, and acting justly and lovingly, is to embrace both fidelity and freedom, which is to say responsibility. A Christian ethic of responsibility would argue that one can only realize a just and loving character, and make just and loving decisions, if our being is grounded in a relationship with God and our neigbhour, and benefits God's intentions for all of creation.

Finally, quoting the Scripture above reminds us that Christian ethics does not begin by "emphasizing rules or principles, but by calling our attention to a narrative that tells of God's dealing with creation" (Hauerwas 1983:24-25). As was mentioned in Session 2, narrative is neither incidental nor accidental to Christian belief. Hauerwas insists that narrative, first "formally displays our existence and that of the world as creatures -- as contingent beings"; second, that narrative "is the characteristic form of our awareness of ourselves as historical beings"; and third, that God has "revealed himself narratively in the history of Israel and in the life of Jesus" (1983:28-29).

With the rise of a scientific understanding and approach to reality the concept of what it is to be human has fundamentally changed. These changes are not easily reconciled with the biblical world nor with most of Church history. Much of the contemporary understanding of human nature would seem to "limit" our freedom and, thus, our responsibility. Below are listed four very brief sketches of contemporary constraints on human freedom and responsibility.

Biological Constraints: If, as Darwin suggests, we are evolved then we, like all animals, will be governed by genetic and bio-chemical realities. It is suggested (and assumed by many) that anger, greed, love, compassion, etc., are evolutionary developments and bio-chemical responses. It is believe today that once we have genetically mapped the human body, human nature will be understood.

Physical Constraints: More recent studies have suggested that much of our behaviour is determined, or affected by diet, exercise, stress, etc.

Psychological Constraints: Psychoanalysis, Behavourism, Self-Actualization, etc., are all attempts to define human behaviour, solve behavioural defects, and assure the well-being and good health of human beings. While these methods differ widely, they all suggest that human behaviour can be explained and understood scientifically. 

Social Constraints: Sociologists and anthropologists have gone some way in describing the effects of socialization on human beings. All human beings live in a social context and are accountable to laws, role expectations, the pressures and protections of conformity, etc.

Issues and Questions for Discussion

How do the theological notions discussed above interact with the contemporary scientific "explanations" of human nature, as just described?

 Given your Christian theological and ethical understandings, and the contemporary understanding human nature, discuss in what ways human beings can be held ethically responsible for their actions.

Given our contemporary understanding of human nature and the moral life, how are we responsible to God and our neighbour? In what ways does our relationship with God as created beings influence your understandings?

God gives the gift of freedom to human beings, including the notion of human radical free will. Consider the ideas of:

Redemption     Atonement     Grace

Living the Methodology

Step 4: Analysis of the Dilemma
Character: Virtue and Self

Consider any role expectations that may affect your ethical dilemma. These expectations will lead you into further considerations of character. What virtues are relevant in your dilemma and how might they affect your choice of actions. In what ways does your professional role affect issues of character and virtue? Anticipating your ordination, does being a minister make a difference in the resolution of your ethical dilemma and to you personally as a human being?

The Croquet Game

Being a minister is just as important as doing ministry; or, in ministry we are not just concerned with what we do, but how we do it. We imagine ourselves as certain kinds of people and the kinds of people we want to become. Thus, a minister is not only expected to tell the truth, but also to be a truthful person. We must be people of integrity. "Character gives continuity from one action to another. While actions may be discrete, the person or moral agent who is the same person. Her or his different actions over time must somehow fit into a whole that makes sense" (Lebacqz 1985:81).

Ruth wanted to be fair, honest, trustworthy. To be trustworthy meant more than just keeping confidence. "The trustworthy person does not simply keep confidence, but is thoughtful about the impact of her decisions on others, sensitive to their needs and claims..." (Lebacqz 1985:79). So, Ruth had to be concerned with the "depth" of her actions. She was also concerned with the "breadth" of her actions, however, or the "continuity over time between this decision and others (Lebacqz 1985:80). Thus, Ruth was interested in considering how any particular decision would impact her situations and relationships in the future. What would it mean to keep confidence if Kathy went ahead with an abortion? What effect would breaking confidence have on her relationship with Kathy and/or other church members?

We must always remember that to act is to create ourselves. As Lebacqz says, "Our actions can reinforce our character, or they can change our character" (1985:85). Integrity of character is determined by the

pattern of actions in our lives. We must always ask if such a pattern makes sense, or fits in with the image, or story, of our life. How do our actions fit the virtues, or character traits, which define us?

"Patterns of action over time form the basis for our judgments about a person's character and virtue" (Lebacqz 1985:93). It is, therefore, important to know what virtues are relevant in any particular situation and thus might lend some guidance to the right action. Thus, though Ruth may have a rule that tells her to keep confidence and be a member of a profession that more tightly binds her to keeping confidence, she must also consider still deeper questions asking what actions "are consonant with the kinds of virtues she wants to develop as a professional" (Lebacqz 1985:106).

Copyright © 2000 Dale Rominger


Liberation and Ethics

The narratives we tell about the meaning of our lives, the interpretations of divine revelation, and the means of appropriating ethical understanding are diverse and rich in expression. In this chapter we will explore some the many voices of ethics within Christianity, including the voices of Postmodernism, and Liberation Theologies.

Postmodernism Soil

Many today claim we are living in an age of significant and fast change described as a shift from "modernism to "postmodernism." We find ourselves in a new and sometimes puzzling situation (actually frightening to many) which implies the end of scientific positivism, enlightenment certitudes, and a particular (yet familiar) political ideological dominance. Citizens have become consumers. The diversity of human sexuality is no longer under covers. CNN takes us to war and puts us besides the starving millions. Genetic engineering is big business, altering the food we buy in the supermarket and suggesting that the ability for human cloning is nearly within our grasp. It is a time of hyperactive living and the loss of familiar securities and of ideologies. The Internet electronically blankets the globe and the promise of virtual reality body suits is just around the corner.

Walter Brueggemann says we are in a new "interpretive situation that constitutes something of an emergency" (1993:1). He claims that postmodernism is not just a theoretical category but a pastoral reality in which we are faced with: The pastoral crisis of social displacement, the theological crisis of respeaking God, and the methodological crisis of how to read (1993:11-12).

The question Brueggemann and many others are asking is: Can the Church respond to the "new situation?" As Brueggemann puts it the Church has a "major piece of work" to do, where it and its pastors "need no longer submit to the dominant modes of power and certitude, and so stand in a place of great freedom, freedom to our confessing selves in a faithful community" (1993:12).  We must ask in what ways this new situation affects how we do theology and ethics today and read the Bible?

Liberation Theology

Liberation has emerged through the years as a respected and powerful expression of faith, affecting the manner in which we think about and do theology and ethics.

While it is true to say that liberation theologies are as rich and varied as our Western theologies, it is possible to summarize the basic method.

Liberation theologians have described there interpretative task as an hermeneutical circle which includes four basic steps:

  • The interpretation of experience, which leads to an ideological suspicion;
  • The application of suspicion to the ideological "superstructure" (our norms for behaving and believing) in general and to theology in particular;
  • The application of an exegetical suspicion (that is, the reexamination of the ways in which we interpret Scripture and the conclusions we reach);
  • New interpretations

Since this hermeneutic actually is circular, the reward of the new interpretation of faith is then directed back to the beginning point which in turn effects our interpretation of contemporary experience. And since the hermeneutical circle presupposes the need for and usefulness of proper tools to lend an accurate interpretation of experience, liberationists rely heavily on the social sciences as an aid for doing theology and ethics. Liberation ethicists are, therefore, among those who believe that Christian ethics does not stand methodologically on its own.

Liberation theologians insist that any theology and ethic, to be valid, must begin in experience and not dogma. Christianity is, essentially, a matter of living faith with commitment in experience. But by experience they do not simply mean the present moment. They see experience as including historical traditions which shape the present. Thus, to insist that we begin in experience, also says we begin in the historical reality of our lives.

The historical and present reality, that is the common experience in which we begin, is the realities of poverty and oppression. Thus, liberation theology and ethics begins in a commitment to liberation in particular situations. This commitment is called social praxis, which means: The process of interpretation of ideas, on the basis of the social realities of poverty and struggle, the reinterpretation of ideas, ideologies, and texts, the discovering of new meanings of God and faith, which in turn are reapplied to ideas and social realities. In other words, social praxis is the hermeneutical circle.

Given the above, it is no surprise to hear Chung Hyun Kyung say:

Doing theology is a personal and a political activity. As a Korean woman, I do theology in search of what it means to be fully human in my struggle for wholeness and in my people's concrete historical fight for freedom. By discerning the presence and the action of God in our midst, I want to empower my own liberation process as well as that of my community. Our personal stories of agony and joy, struggle and liberation are always connected with our socio-political and religio-cultural contexts (1990:1).

While liberation theology began in a very particular context (as is true of all theology!) it has had profound effects on the way we understand and do theology in the West. Many in the West identify with some, if not all, the concerns of liberationists; poverty, oppression, freedom, the need to contextualize faith, and its methodological approach to doing theology and ethics. And, as the world continues to "get smaller" we realize that our brothers and sisters with different voices are speaking to and for the world in which we live.

Living the Methodology

Step 4: Analysis of the Dilemma

Structure: Power, Justice, and Liberation
Explore the institutional setting, or structures within which you live, work, and locate your dilemma. Identify where power is placed and how it is used or abused. Considerations of power quite naturally lead to questions of justice. and the possible need for liberation of moral agents. Do such considerations affect your possible actions and your sense of who you are as a person and professional?

The Croquet Game

Within the institutional setting of the church, if Kathy wants help from her minister, she must speak openly of her painful situation. It does not matter if Kathy likes Ruth, though it would help. There is in the institution and "imposed intimacy" (Lebacqz 1985:111). Also, the exchange of information about the self and the situation is unequal. Kathy must expose herself in some ways. Ruth can chose to share or not to share equally painful experiences in her life. The point is, however, that Ruth can chose while Kathy, if she wants help, cannot.

Lebacqz speaks of this inequality saying the "institutionalized character leads to a morally relevant difference in assessing the issue of power and vulnerability...The power held by the professional over the client is not simply a personal power. It is a social power" (1985:113). In other words, professionals like Ruth do not just have power, but authority; which is legitimated and institutional power. For Ruth, her authority represents the Church and, to a certain degree, God. "She interprets for Kathy how he pregnancy and contemplated abortion are seen in the eyes of the church and in the eyes of God...She can shame Kathy or provide support" (Lebacqz 1985:115). As a result Ruth's personal agenda, her power and authority, Kathy's vulnerability are all greatly important. Ruth must ask herself how she will use her power in the face of Kathy's pain and vulnerability.

The above question is so important it leads Lebacqz to say that professionals "have the power to define reality. And it is this power that makes dependence on individual virtue an insufficient corrective (1985:116). Lebacqz is saying, at least in part, that such power is too great a temptation for the individual. There have been two corrective's to this power. The first is the nature of the relationship between professional and client. It has always been assumed that the professional is their for the client and not for personal gain. The second check is the notion of professional indebtedness to society or, as Lebacqz says the "trustworthy trustee is entrusted with power: power is given, and it can be taken away" (1985:124); which is to say the professional is bound by obligations to society. But many would say that these two traditional correctives to abuse of power are not enough.

Concerns for justice and liberation are also necessary. Lebacqz puts it this way: "If power is central  to professional ethics, then justice and liberation become central norms. Liberation means not merely freedom from sin but also freedom from oppressive structures,

mythologies, and personal relations (1985:129). While it may seem, at first glance, to be unusual to put justice and liberation at the centre of ethical considerations, I think it is not. The ethical dilemma that exists for Ruth and Kathy involves the conflict between beneficence and keeping confidence. It has been noted by many that "beneficence" can leave the client indebted rather than liberated. Thus ethists have been moved to consider a new definition of trustworthiness in professional ethics, which includes fidelity to client and society, but also addresses the concerns of use and abuse of power. Lebacqz states it thusly: "the trustworthy one is the one who works for a balance of power that could be called justice" (1985:130).

We must also be aware that liberation cannot be given to a person or community. True liberation is not found in the question, How can I help this person? but, How will liberation happen? How can I facilitate liberation in this situation? (Lebacqz 1985:131). Thus, if Ruth asks how she can help Kathy, she assumes she knows what is ultimately right for Kathy, what Kathy needs. She might, for example, decide that parenthood is too great a responsibility for Kathy and support the notion of an abortion. Or she might decide that Kathy could not carry the burden of abortion and support having the child. Either way, Ruth is in control. As Lebacqz says, the "very first decision that she makes involves the power of definition: she defines what Kathy's problem is, and then decides on the proper solution" (1985:131).

However, if Ruth asks how liberation can happen in this situation things change. She would need to ask what liberation means for a frightened young women in such a situation. She would need to ask what role she plays in Kathy's predicament, how Kathy perceives the situation, how the structures that surround them both oppress or liberate Kathy. In other words, Ruth must begin by looking at who Kathy is, her life story (Lebacqz 1985:132).

Copyright © 2000 Dale Rominger


Living with Ethics

It is hoped that the theoretical and methodological aspects of the book merge, thus giving meaning to both. In this concluding chapter we will take a last look at the two case studies, how our theoretical concerns effect the final resolutions of both.

Living Resolutions

Step 5: Resolution of the Dilemma 
Decision: Action and Being

The Croquet Game

Ruth decided that the rules to keep confidence and keep promises applied in her case, but thought her decision could not be simply to follow the rules. She attempted to balance a set of prima facie duties (promise keeping vs. avoiding harm, etc.) and discern which of these were the most compelling and what it meant to act on them in her particular situation.

Part of her situation was being a minister with all the role expectations inherent in ministry. And yet, she found that these expectations led her to questions of character, not just choosing the right action. She concluded that given her role as Christian minister, the virtues of fidelity and trustworthiness were crucial to her decision.

Considering the institutional structures in which she acted, she realised that she possessed considerable power, power which could be used for or over Kathy. Thus, the norms of justice and liberation also came into her deliberations.

In summary, Ruth considered the following as important in her decision:

a. defining and interpreting the situation, naming the morally relevant factors that "activated" prima facie duties and/or duties expected of her given her profession;

 b. living a story that exhibited those virtues inherent in her professional role and in harmony with the person she thought she was and wanted to become in the future;

 c. attending to structures, keeping in mind issues of power, justice and liberation.

 Ruth had to consider the "case for confidentiality", her duties to others (Kathy's parents, the father of the child, etc.), the duty to divulge to avoid harm coming to Kathy, all in light of her role and position as minister.

Ruth finally decided not to break the promise of confidence given to Kathy in the "sanctuary" of her office. She made this decision by considering the prima facie duty of promise keeping, the virtue of trustworthiness expected of a minister, her use of power, etc. However, she was greatly concerned that she do good for Kathy, or that the least amount of harm come to Kathy. Ruth knew that no matter what Kathy ultimately decided, she, Kathy, would have to live with it the rest of her life. Ruth also felt she had responsibilities to Kathy's parents, being their minister as well. Ruth decided the best action was to convince Kathy to tell at least one of her parents.

Ruth succeeded and Kathy told her mother, with Ruth present. Her mother supported Kathy's wish to have an abortion, but together they decided not to tell Kathy's father for fear of his reactions. Ruth did not break confidence, thus maintaining Kathy's trust.

Final Consideration of the Methodology

It is very important to remember that the entire narrative method used in this book was to familiarise you with ethical concepts and enable you to handle concrete moral problems you will confront in your ministry. It was not to judge you as right or wrong concerning a specific past action. If you have used a past professional dilemma, and you concluded at the end of the exercise your original action could have been different, it would not be at all surprising. You have been through several weeks of learning about and using ethics while exploring and coming to an understanding of the nature of ministry. On the other hand, if you justified your original action as appropriate, you will know better why it was so.

Copyright © 2000 Dale Rominger



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