Summary: A look at various approaches to making ethical decisions.
When I taught an ethics course, as an adjunct, at Mount Vernon Nazarene University, I started the class by talking about the fact that moral decisions are at times exceedingly complex. Black and white categories do not work very well in the real stuff of life. To demonstrate this I used an illustration. I read several statements regarding a situation involving an organ transplant, and as each new piece of information was given, the students had to mark on a paper whether they agreed or disagreed with whether the transplant should take place. So here is the situation, and perhaps you can check off in your mind whether you agree or disagree with whether the transplant should take place after each statement is read. “You have been asked to join an Ethics Committee to review a case involving a possible kidney transplant. A young woman needs kidney transplant, but
1. Her father is the only possible donor
2. Her father has only one kidney
3. Her father wants to donate his kidney
4. Transplants are only viable for about 5 years
5. This is her second transplant
6. Her father is on death row for murder
7. She was an accomplice in the murder”
So you see that moral reasoning is never easy or black and white.
Many people think that they can figure these things out for themselves. After all, we have reached an age of scientific sophistication and great intelligence so that by using our minds we can come up with the right answer. But it is like the discussion in the popular Harry Potter series where the wizard Sirius Black is having a discussion with Professor Severus Snape, and says to him: “Brilliant, Snape — once again you've put your keen and penetrating mind to the task and as usual come to the wrong conclusion.” Like Professor Snape, it seems like the smarter we get about some things, the dumber we get about other things. We face a crisis of morals in our culture today which threatens to undo us. We have not only lost sight of the difference between right and wrong, we seem not to care anymore.
And it is tempting to say that all we need to do is get back to the Bible — and I do believe that is an important part of the answer. But I have heard people say things like, “The Bible says it; I believe it, and that settles it.” Oh, if only it was that easy. Unfortunately, the Bible does not speak to every issue. And not all decisions are between what is right and what is wrong. Sometimes we have to decide between what is good and what is best. At other times we are forced to decide between what is bad and what is worse. These decisions are difficult, and it would be great if there was always a nice, neat Bible verse that would give us the answer to any given situation. But we have all seen people line up on opposite sides of an ethical issue — both quoting Scripture. Scripture was used to justify slavery in the South. What makes it difficult is that there are some things that are not mentioned in Scripture. Things like smoking are not mentioned, since tobacco was not available. And many of the things the Bible strictly forbids are completely ignored by almost all Christians today; things like not getting tattoos, not eating pork, lobster or shell fish, men having long hair and women cutting their hair, women praying with their head uncovered (Paul wrote that their heads were to be shaved for refusing to cover their head during prayer). The Bible talks about stoning disobedient children, stoning adulterers, not wearing jewelry, observing the Sabbath on Saturday, etc., but we do not go by those rules today.
And then, technology is changing faster than our moral reasoning can keep up with. What does the Bible say about cloning? In Vitro fertilization? Harvesting embryos? Organ transplants? Transgender operations? Designer babies? Cosmetic surgery? Gene therapy or genetic modification? A few years ago, a mother desperate to have a second child reported that she lost her last In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) embryo when the U.K. National Health Service implanted it into the wrong patient. When the other woman found out that the embryo was not hers, she aborted it. In another case, a pregnant mother had to give birth to another couple's baby after a blunder by an IVF clinic. Carolyn Savage had the wrong embryo implanted into her and has had to give the boy up to his biological parents as soon as he is born. These ethical dilemmas would have been impossible to imagine in Jesus’ day.
With genetic engineering, parents can not only choose the sex of the child, but will be able to determine the color of hair, height, intelligence. We may be able to actually develop a super race. So what is good and what is bad? What is right and wrong? And how do we decide? If you think it is difficult now, how much harder will it be for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren?