Saturday, April 03, 2004

Simplified Ethics

On Thursday, I posted a letter that I feel identifies one of the problems within the Church today; disgruntled clergy who have "authority issues." Every clergy conference I've attended has included a group of priests who sit around and complain about the bishop. This is a factor that has to be considered in today's climate within the Church, as when I survey what is going on, I am firmly convinced that most issues are primarily clergy driven.

There are other considerations as well. For instance, I find it helpful to reflect on the way we "do" ethics today. In an attempt at clarity, I'm not talking about how we "should" do ethics; that is another discussion. What follows is my perception of how people make ethical decisions today, with an attempt not to judge the validity of a specific approach.

To keep it simple, I want to suggest that there are basically two models used when faced with an ethical decision; the deontological model (some things are always right, and some things are always wrong) and the consequentialist model (the greatest good consequence for the greatest number is the right thing).

Both are valid approaches, and people of faith can find precedents for each within scripture and tradition. The classic example for sorting out which approach you are inclined to use is to imagine that you are the captain of a ship that is sinking in the North Atlantic. You are in a lifeboat that is dangerously overloaded. If something is not done, the lifeboat is going to also sink. As the captain, you must decide what to do. What is your decision?

A deontologist might suggest that even in this extreme situation, it is not an option to force anyone out of the boat, as killing is always wrong. A consequentialist might use some criteria (age, health, etc.) to decide who will be forced out of the boat.

The difficulty we have today is that the deontoligists and consequentialists cannot hear what the other is saying. They talk right over the top of each other. Both are firmly convinced that their way of understanding the ethical decision is the only way, and are appalled that the other would even consider another option.

Most people are a bit of a mix; maybe a deontological consequentialist, for example. Yet, it is usually the two poles that are heard the most, as they yell at each other the loudest. To many people, all this noise suggests to them that neither position has any real merit, and so they reject them both.

That doesn't mean they don't have some ethical model they follow, however. I want to suggest that while the deontologists and consequentialists have been so busy arguing with each other, most people have moved on, and adopted a third model, one that I see as the dominant model today. For lack of a better term, I call this model hedonism (what is best for me is the right thing). This model fits very well within some cultures, especially in the US, where individualism and competition are seen as positive values.

Most people are aware that such a model is less than ideal, and so they do not admit that it is the dynamic behind their decisions either to others or themselves. It is the characteristic of being a "stealth model" that concerns me the most. Unless it is brought out into the light, the end result for our society seems to inevitably be one of decadence and decay.

I find all three models to be somewhat flawed. I am not going to offer an alternative model right now. What I will suggest is that at the root of each of these models is how one defines "the good." I think that needs to be the discussion today.


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