By David Hegg
Let’s say, for the sake of discussion, that ethics are those moral principles by which individuals order their lives. Further, let’s agree that, broadly defined, the study of ethics is the attempt to identify the various ethical systems, and determine which offers the best life.
Of course, this determination will depend on how we define “best life.” To help in this I propose three statements regarding ethical living.
First, one might say I am responsible to God to live ethically. Second, one could say I am responsible to my neighbors to live ethically. And lastly, a person may say I am responsible to myself primarily, and when it suits me, I will live ethically.
The first statement grounds ethical living in the belief that I am accountable to a higher power who has determined what is right and wrong. The rules are set and there will one day be a reckoning when I will account for the way I have lived. This represents a theistic worldview in which everyone is accountable to God. In ethical system, the standards are set by God, and humanity is accountable. Right and wrong come from God and are not determined by consequence.
The second statement sees ethics as primarily related to the betterment of society. In this case, the ethical standards may vary from culture to culture, and even change over time. It is also true that this view tends to create the belief that something is allowable as long as no one is disadvantaged. Under a system of laws, this view often evolves practically to the understanding that, if there is no law forbidding an action, it is not unethical. Right and wrong are determined by consequences and, therefore, are fluid as the consequences associated with certain beliefs and actions ebb and flow along with societal preferences.
The last statement sees ethical living as subservient to personal advantage. This view is highly pragmatic and exalts personal desire over both the greater good of the many, and any accountability to the Divine. This view allows for the individual to determine, depending on the situation, what is actually right and wrong for them.
These three positions describe the three basic assumptions we have about how we should live. Admittedly, while we may live in one of them, we all occasionally visit the others when it suits us.
Foundational to all three is the idea of accountability. If we are accountable only for ourselves, and believe our responsibility is primarily to ourselves, we will concoct a personal code of ethics that is malleable to fit the situation. You don’t have to be a scholar to recognize that where this view proliferates, chaos exists. This is true in marriages, families, teams, business, and any other group that depends upon one another.
If we believe our accountability goes beyond ourselves, and focuses on those around us, then we will live beyond our selfishness and personal well-being in order to bring about the greater good. Yet, this will ultimately create the problematic situation where competing viewpoints clash over what is best for society. Witness our current political climate in Washington, D.C. We have several good, smart people – all of whom claim to want the best for the rest of us – engaged in real battles that are both frustrating to them, and unhelpful to us. The problem is they can’t agree on what is right and wrong.
That brings us to the first view of ethical living in which we believe we are accountable to the same set of moral laws, handed down by God. I would submit that this view is actually the best for both society and the individual.
Now, at this point, I will agree with my detractors that we could well say “whose God?” I’ll take that question so long as we all agree that ethical living must be based on something higher than the changing whims of human society. Once we all agree to that, I’m confident my understanding of God can withstand the challenge.
David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a Santa Clarita resident.“Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.