By David Hegg
In the world of social science, ethics is the discipline concerned with right and wrong. Technically, we all have an ethical system, a set of beliefs that – more or less – drive our actions. We consider something or someone to be right or wrong, good or bad depending on how we perceive they align with our belief system.
In good and workable belief systems there are always different levels of conviction. Not everything rises to the rank of right or wrong; some things are morally neutral. For example, take the question of whether one should put sugar or salt on tomatoes, or eat them au naturale. While some will argue the relative merits of each option, we all would agree that those who differ on this issue are not engaging in morally despicable behavior. At least I hope so.
But not everything is morally neutral. Some things are wrong. It is wrong to steal your neighbor’s tomatoes, staying with the theme. Ordered, civilized society exists on the principle that, while some things are morally neutral and therefore a matter of preference and personal choice, other things are wrong even for those who prefer them.
Today we are experiencing a leveling of moral categories. Actions that once were considered wrong have been brought down into the category of morally neutral. In some cases this is the result of clearer thinking and a better understanding of what is really right or wrong. For example, it was once wrong for a girl to call a boy on the phone, wear a hat inside a building, and fail to stand when a woman entered the room. Now we understand that this was never really a moral absolute, but only a cultural custom that eventually melted away. But there are other instances where things that really have a moral rightness to them are being brought down to the morally neutral level.
At issue today is where certain things should fall. Are they morally neutral? Or, are they right or wrong? I believe strongly that many of the battles over social issues in our society are exacerbated by the fact that one side passionately believes the issue is morally neutral while the other holds it to be of high moral value based on deeply held ethical convictions. And things get really rough when those who believe something is right attempt to make it incumbent on those who see it as morally neutral, a matter of personal preference and choice.
I recently saw a bumper sticker that read “Against Abortion? Don’t Have One.” In those five words resides a belief that abortion is morally neutral, and if you don’t like it, don’t do it, but don’t do anything to prevent others from choosing to have one.
Imagine, however, a bumper sticker that read “Against Political Corruption? Don’t Be A Corrupt Politician.” I expect that most of us would respond “but political corruption is wrong and even though I’m never going to be an elected official, corruption among elected officials needs to be eliminated.”
Or how about “Against Drive By Shootings? Don’t Be A Drive By Shooter.” I hope everyone reading this recognizes the absurdity of such reasoning.
For many of us abortion isn’t morally neutral, and to treat it as so infuriates us. But I have also come to understand that, for many, abortion is morally neutral. For many it is just a choice, like deciding whether to keep my car or sell it and get a new one. Those who see it this way believe the matter should be left to personal choice, as should whether I put sugar or salt on my tomatoes. To those who consider abortion morally neutral, those of us who consider it murder are seen as radical, intolerant and dangerous. I get it. The problem lies in the fact that we have a different system of ethical classification, built on differing bases of authority. And that’s an important matter that most never take up.
What is the basis for our ethical pronouncements? I greatly fear personal convenience and feeling have been given equal authority with historical precedent and divine proclamation. To put it bluntly, individual desires are now being allowed to trump both natural and divine law.
I believe that theism, when understood and practiced with integrity, provides the only consistent basis for upholding high moral standards while recognizing the presence of what is morally neutral. Every other worldview, including personal desire, will ultimately collapse everything into one level that plays to our selfish preferences, like thinking that choosing to end a life is on par with how you eat your tomatoes.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.