Tuesday, 18 January 2011

‘Why Ethics?’: some introductory questions

Opening the discussion about ethics ... Saint Patrick’s University Hospital, Dublin, was founded by Dean Jonathan Swift of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral

Patrick Comerford

Personal introduction:


I am the Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, where I teach on a master’s course that prepares post-graduate students for ordination and priesthood in the Church of Ireland.

In all, we have 25 full-time students and 18 part-time students. Ethics is a major consideration for those students when it comes to their preparation for pastoral and parochial ministry.

The course work includes broad issues, such as the ethics of war and peace, economic and financial ethics, confidentiality, and ethics in business and the workplace. In the ethos of Irish society, but perhaps also because of the nature of Irish family life, a major part of the ethical concerns in pastoral formation involves ethics in hospitals and health care. Often this course work is based not just on Biblical studies, but on a wider understanding of society and on case notes and pastoral experiences.

Moral and ethics in society today

Today, in Ireland, we live in a society where the vocabulary of ethics and morality are in danger of losing currency. Among our politicians and bankers, too often when they are asked whether their behaviour has been ethical they answer in words such as “I have done nothing that was illegal.” Or: “I was only claiming what I was legally entitled to.” When people are asked to take moral responsibility for their decisions, they step down from office, either in politics or in the boardroom, or ask the state – in other words the taxpayer, you and me – to accept their debts. Or, in some cases, they simply leave the country.

The moral and ethical strength in debates in Irish society has also been weakened by the loss of moral and ethical credibility by the Church, all the churches, but the Roman Catholic Church in particular. When the church, politics and the banks lose not only moral authority but even credibility when it comes to shaping ethical values in society, then we are in danger of people making decisions on simply on what serves not so much my good but my interests.

How do we begin to rebuild an ethical agenda and debate that can have relevance not just for today but for the future?

It is true that in every modern society, and not only in Ireland, that too often, the demands of the marketplace and commerce, the needs for profit and the temptation to greed force us all to make snap decisions not just on day-to-day, mundane and routine matters, but on moral and ethical issues too. And so, morals and ethics become commodities that are subject to the forces of the marketplace. We end up making rapid choices as though we are picking up items from the shelves in our local supermarket.

Past emphases in ethics

In the past, the emphasis in debates on ethics and morality in Ireland focussed on issues such as abortion, contraception and fertility, and on related issues such as marriage, divorce, cohabitation and sexuality. These debates shaped the ethos and the ethical practices in many Irish hospitals. Seldom were they shaped by debates about priorities in spending, or the need for society to seek a holistic and wholesome society, and not just holistic and healed individuals.

Yet we know that other ethical and moral issues are important to the wellbeing and psychiatric health of people. If we can talk about macroeconomics and microeconomics, then we can talk too of “macro-ethics” and “micro-ethics.”

The questions raised by “macro-ethics,” for example, include the conflict between the richest and poorest not just in our society but globally. As you know, my engagement with these debates both shapes and is shaped by the state of my psychiatric health – my sense of personal worth, my sense of the value of my contribution to society, my appreciation of the value of others, even those I do not know and who do not impinge on or contribute to my personal wellbeing.

The roots of Anglican ethics

What can I say about this, as an Anglican theologian and priest? After all, Anglican ethics is seldom considered in wider society. For example, it rates only one paragraph within an 86-page entry on the “History of Western Ethics” in that authoritative collection, The Encyclopedia of Ethics (ed. L.C. Becker, C.B. Becker, 3 vols, New York: Routledge, 2nd ed, 2001).

The roots of Anglican ethics begin in a belief that God’s divine order is established in Christ and his teachings, so that Christian identity and action go beyond individual piety, or a private relationship with God. There are moral, ethical and public dimensions, for example, to the Great Commandment “to love God and love one another as I have loved you” (Matthew 22: 37-40). Among Anglican clergy, ethical demands are part of our ordination vows and charges, to be “instruments of love,” to be “caring for the poor and the needy … helping the oppressed,” promoting “unity peace and love among all ..,” to “watch over and care” for people, and “to search for God’s children in the wilderness of the world’s temptations and to guide them through its confusions,” (The Book of Common Prayer (2004), pp 564, 567, 570-571).

The distinctly Anglican perspective on Christian ethics was shaped, in large part, by theologian Richard Hooker (1554-1600), author of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity at the end of the 16th century. Hooker set out the Anglican method of doing theology, including the Anglican approach to ethics, working through Scripture, Tradition and Reason. He sought continuity with the past while seeking answers for new situations as they arise.

As Christians, we know not all ethical or moral contexts in the Bible are prescriptive for Christian living. For example, chattel slavery – the ownership of one person by another for the purpose of economic or exploitative gain – appears in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, and it passes without comment in Christ’s teachings, for he neither condemns nor condones the practice. But we have since discerned that the ownership of one human being by another is not consistent with the great Commandment to “love one another.” Many moral and ethical questions we face today are not mentioned in the Bible, such as global warming, the nuclear arms race, just war, economic justice, sexism, racism and homophobia. And so we find Hooker’s method of scripture, tradition and reason helps us to engage in the debates.

What are ethics?

Although we often use the words interchangeably, there is a difference between what is meant by the words “morals” and “ethics.”

Morals are related to customs, to culture or to an emotional state. Morals engage with beliefs, feelings, statements or opinions about certain kinds of questions. Moral questions are, for example, questions about right and wrong or good and bad. For Christians, moral questions may be questions that involve what we perceive as God’s approval or disapproval, whether something is just or unjust, or whether something is consonant with or contrary to the will of God. Examples of moral questions include: should I pay all the tax demands I face?

On the other hand, the word “Ethics” best describes the rules, principles or values to which a person or a group refers in settling moral questions. Ethics also refers to the study, argument, conversation, or other process in which a person or a group engages to work out the answers to moral questions. And so, the word ethics describes both the process of working through moral questions and the answers that emerge as a result of that process.

Moral values are derived from the conversation we know as “ethics” – a conversation that is generated by the meeting of questions and commitments. Those commitments are called “metaethics.”

In practice, Christians and non-Christians often find themselves, initially, in substantial agreement about a moral question and later find themselves in disagreement as they attempt to apply a moral principle more generally. The root of these disagreements is often in the core commitments that inform how we come to ethical conclusions.

Actions and rules

In the 18th century, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) asserted that there are certain core principles that govern all of reality and that can be used to either answer all moral questions (action) or to generate more rules which can then be applied to specific moral questions (rules).

To understand what Kant is expressing, we can ask these two questions:

● Would it be good if everyone, everywhere, and in all circumstances acted in this way?
● Would it be good if precisely what I am about to do to someone else were done to me?

The concept of utilitarian ethics is associated with the 19th century English philosophers Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). Utilitarians maintain that I can decide on a course of action or create a rule based on whether that action or the application of that rule results in the greatest good (or the greatest amount of happiness) for the greatest number of people.

And there are other approaches.

● “Relational ethics” evaluates a rule or act according to the degree to which it honours or promotes relationships between persons.
● “Character ethics” focuses on the moral development of individuals and communities.
● “Pragmatic ethics” is based on utilising information from the sciences and from human experience and experimenting with the different outcomes.

These approaches to ethics are not necessarily exclusive. So, for example, our system of justice is derived from more than one “metaethic.” However, any conversation about ethical issues breaks down when those who engage in them fail to recognise and acknowledge that we are informed by different “metaethical” theories.

For example, in the debate about capital punishment, opponents frequently cite research that indicates capital punishment has no significant deterrent effect, while proponents argue that justice demands the severest possible punishment for the most heinous crimes. The opponent is arguing about utility and the supporter’s argument is based on a deontological principle of justice. Those engaged in this debate must recognise and speak to each other’s basic commitments or they will be doomed to continue talking past each other.

A shared language?

When we seek to have faithful and helpful conversations about moral issues, we need to pay careful attention to the language we use in these conversations. Carelessness and intentional manipulation mean language can be misused and we end up blurring rather than clarifying the issues. For example, it is often easier to attack the person making a moral claim rather than addressing the claim itself – attacking the player rather than the ball. We use words such as “heretic” or “fundamentalist” not just pejoratively, but to avoid conversing and debating with each other.

We make claims such as “the Bible says,” or “the Church has always taught,” or “science shows us” to bolster our own arguments, to give them spurious authority, and to make the other person appear to have no foundation for their deeply-held view. Claims such as these can be ways to open ethical conversation, but should never be the way to close it.

In any organisation, discussions about budgets mean making practical decisions about the use of limited resources – even if the “Celtic Tiger” was still alive, we would not have unlimited spending resources, so choices would still need to be made. A practical evaluation of available resources at any time needs moral and ethical evaluations. Any discussion about practical, economic evaluation is also a discussion about the moral claims about who or what is most important.

Conversations about ethics and morality eventually address the need to make decisions about specific issues or to develop rules or principles to more generally guide decision-making. In making decisions or attempting to formulate principles, we find we have to take into account the simple fact that different individuals may make decisions in very different ways and may attach value to very different outcomes.

Culture is a primary factor in determining how individuals make moral decisions. But gender, race, class, religion and age are also factors that play important roles. When we discuss ethical and moral issues, each of us has already unspoken commitments that we cannot presume are shared by others. Because I can articulate actions and principles for myself does not mean I am capable of articulating a value system for others.

A working example:

Your 18-year-old niece confides in you, telling you she is pregnant. She says she cannot tell her parents. The are conservative, church-going, have always strongly disapproved of her boyfriend, and have even threatened to cut her off from the family if she continues to see him, never mind getting pregnant. However, her boyfriend, the father of her baby, ended their relationship when he heard she is pregnant.

She asks you for advice about an abortion. What do you do?

a. Try to convince her to tell her parents, and let her know you will do your best to support her when she tells them and whatever comes next.
b. Tell her you will tell her parents if she does not, because you feel that ultimately sharing that knowledge will expand the available options and enable everyone involved to make the choices they need to make.
c. Talk with her about her options and desires. If you are clear that abortion is the recourse she feels is best, you travel with her to England without telling her parents.
d. Try to convince her not to have an abortion because you believe strongly that abortion is wrong.
e. Refer her to a professional counsellor you feel can help her sort out her options.
f. Tell her not to have the abortion because murder is wrong.

Answer A is an illustration of relational, or responsibility ethics. The relational style honours the quality of relationships between people above other considerations. Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962) of Yale described responsibility ethics in his book The Responsible Self (1962). Professor Carol Gilligan of Harvard and Cambridge developed this approach in her book, In A Different Voice (1982). Joseph Fletcher (1905-19991), an Anglican ethicist at Harvard who first articulated “situation ethics,” emphasised the quality of life over the length of life. He asked the question: “What is the most loving thing to do on any situation?”

Answer B illustrates the teleological approach, looking at the end, in this case the consequences of behaviour rather than motives or intention. Utilitarian ethics is one example of this approach.

Answer C is an example of character ethics, described by, among others, Stanley Hauerwas of Duke Divinity School, who famously said: “The first task of the church is to make the world the world, not to make the world more just.” Character ethics focus on what kind of person one wants to become, or even what sort of society we want our society to become. Seeking the greater good of society as a consequence of one’s moral actions already presumes an ethical understanding of what is good, what is greater good, and what society is. An argument against this is that it was for the greater good of Egyptian society, socially and economically, to keep in bondage the Hebrew slaves. The conflict arises when the Hebrew slaves define themselves as a separate society and seek their greater good.

Answer D illustrates the deontological approach, which prioritises obligation:

● What should I do?
● What ought I do?
● What obligations do I have to God?
● What obligations do I have to my neighbour?
● What obligations do I have to myself?

People who rely on this approach often argue there is a natural law, perhaps one that expresses God’s plan for humanity and the created order. Kant is a deontologist. He wrote: “Act as if every action could become a universal rule.” But in this school of reasoning, we are still left to ask or to determine which principle or principles are primary. For example, if you have to lie to save a life, which principle should govern – truth-telling or preserving life?

Answer E is pragmatic. It is more akin to problem solving than moral reasoning. Sometimes we have to accept either we do not see or we do not want to see the ethical dimensions of a situation. Or, sometimes, there is no good answer, so we try to minimise the damage done by actually making one decision rather than another. We might decide to do what we think “works.” In such cases, we emphasise experience and trial and error.

Answer F is an argument from some authority. It may fall back on the law, on the Bible, or on what is culturally accepted and acceptable. But what gives any one of these moral authority that I can expect others to accept?

Roman Catholics may turn to the magisterium, but Anglican moral theology has resisted temptations to establish an authoritative canon, stressing instead the development of conscience over obedience to an external authority.

Yet, if we throw our hands up in despair, we give the final say in any ethical and moral decision-making to the individual. And then, we have to ask, who and what shapes and develops the conscience of an individual. And what about those who conscientiously find nothing wrong in something that society generally, at present, regards as ethically abhorrent?

In preparing part of this paper, I drew on ‘Christian Decision Making: Commodity or Community?’ – a Resource for Ethical and Moral Decision Making For Congregations, presented by the Ethics Task Force in the Episcopal Diocese of Newark.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This paper was presented on 18 January 2011 at a meeting of the Research Ethics Committee of Saint Patrick’s University Hospital, chaired by the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, the Very Revd Dermot Dunne, a governor of the hospital.