By David Hegg
In the past few decades, and perhaps before that, a strange, subtle change began taking place in ethical behavior. We are in the midst of this change, and the vestiges of the old model are still evident even as the permissions of a new model swirl around us. This strange mix is producing a confusion that is masking a much greater problem. A confused society often finds it easier to drift off into an ethical numbness rather than do the heavy lifting of logic and its child, consistent behavior. Let me explain.
Under the historical model of ethics, choice is understood to be constrained by morality, and morality is defined through natural law. This moral code that tells us stealing is wrong, and so is eating another human, for example, is what historically has been the shared basis of right and wrong, cause and effect, good and evil, and reasonable and absurd that all humans share. It is obvious that the values of any society must not be capricious. A society’s values must not be tied to the changing desires of the society but must rather be grounded in the morality — natural law — that comes installed on every newborn human hard-drive.
While freedom — the ability to do what one chooses — is always paramount in a free society, not all choices are considered ethical. Moral values are understood and laws stand as society’s protection against those whose choices conflict with the shared values of natural law. For example, someone who chooses to take another’s property will be held liable for a choice that goes against the moral standards of the society. Simply put, that choice is not considered ethical. Natural law tells us stealing is wrong. It just is! Those who continue to make such unethical choices rightly end up having their basic freedoms curtailed by imprisonment or worse. In any society of laws, it is clear that depriving the constituency of certain choices is not actually a curtailing of freedom when it can be shown that such choices harm society by going against the basic values of natural law.
Today we are seeing the emergence of a conflicting ethic… the ethic of choice as its own value. This means that if I choose to do it, it must be accepted by you. To curtail my choice is wrong on its face. To oppose my choice on the basis of natural law, science and common sense is to terrorize me and make you an enemy to be destroyed.
All around us we see this new ethic being played out. Today you can choose to end a life in the womb under the label of “reproductive health.” What? And you can choose to go against reason and the proof of your human genome and say you’re no longer your birth gender but are a different gender, or both genders, or neither gender. What? And you can say a Caucasian’s racist character is inextricably linked to the color of his skin. What?
On the other hand, natural law says ending a human life is wrong, every human shares the same basic genome and skin color has no absolute connection to the heartfelt values and character of the person.
All around us these two ethical systems are in conflict. Advocates on both sides argue choice should be curtailed in some instances while held inviolate in others. This brings us several haunting ironies. Those who favor abortion on the basis of choice still fight to deprive families of choice in the areas of schooling and health. Those who insist on equality in terms of race are even now trying to overrule the will of those parents who do not want their children taught that skin color represents the content of one’s character.
I am confident that, as you are reading this, you are feeling I am not being fair, that I am mixing apples with oranges. You are most likely saying that some curtailing of choice is necessary because some choices are still wrong. And that’s where we are in agreement. The fact is choice is never its own ethical standard. Rather, choice is the extension of an ethical, moral belief. We think, and then we act. And what we think is permissible to act upon will be fueled by our basic beliefs regarding right and wrong, good and bad, which ultimately gets us back to natural law.
It is never good enough to say a certain action is right or wrong simply because it is my choice. Certain choices are wrong even if the one making them believes they are right, and even if the majority of their tribe agrees. To restrain certain choices is the right of society if those choices conflict with common sense and the moral standards in natural law. If we don’t regain this perspective in America, I fear we will become a nation that believes right and wrong belong to the individual, and freedom may be defined as everyone doing what is right in their own eyes.
Our current response is an ethical numbness as we go along to get along. Such a course undermines the priority of morality over choice. It’s time we stop letting our preferences be our guide and return to the guiding principles of life given to us by our Creator.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.