In a previous article, I noted the silliness of suggesting that we make decisions based on small material gain or the desire to be like or impress other people. Yet, that is so often what we do isn’t it? How often have we made a decision in order to impress the cool person or the one with a little power (boss, gang leader etc). How often do we make decisions that prove unwise in the long run because our desires are captured by a short-term benefit?
So, how do we make better moral choices. This is what the subject of Ethics is all about. Moral Philosophers talk about three main categories for making decisions
Deontological Ethics are concerned with rules. I simply follow a code that enables me to know what is right or wrong. I choose not to drive at 90 miles per hour down the motorway because the Law says that the speed limit is 70. The code I am following may be the law of the land, religious law (such as the Ten Commandments) or the rules and conventions of a club, community or society (including unwritten rules).
Situational ethics as the words suggest focus on what is right or wrong in a given situation. I look at the circumstances and decide what is likely to be the best outcome. I choose to drive at 70 miles per hour not because that is the official speed limit but because I believe that driving faster than that put lives at risk. This is helpful where there are no given rules or when the law allows for personal discretion (such as identifying a reasonable excuse).
Virtue ethics runs on the basis that whether or not something is morally good depends on the character of the person who does it. If I am a virtuous person, I will do virtuous things. I look to the example of good people. This form of ethics has its roots in the thinking of Aristotle. The aim here is not so much to work out whether or not a specific proposal is good or bad but to develop the type of character that makes good decisions. I guess as well to some extent that this was the philosophy behind our original public school and university system.
Now each of those approaches may be helpful but they have their draw backs. Following rules may give a level of objective certainty but can lead to legalism and a sense that the rules are arbitrary. If you don’t provide enough detail then can you cover every situation and so you either need a level of interpretation or you end up with a heavy burden.
Situational ethics may help fill in the gaps and show why things are not just required but also good. However, this may lead to subjectivism and utilitarianism – what works for me and what works for the majority. And in the heat of the circumstances do we always make good decisions. Outside of the situation I think driving to Durham when ill is a ridiculous idea but what if I was the man in the middle of the situation?
Finally, virtue ethics may rightly raise the point that if we focus on the person we are more likely to equip someone to constantly make good decisions. However, the risk is that if you think that you are virtuous then you start to believe that the decision is right and you cannot make a wrong decision. You justify yourself. You are a good person so you cannot do bad. Look at how Tony Blair’s conviction of being in the right took us into the Gulf War and David Cameron’s took us into the Brexit referendum. Further, as Christians we remember that “There is no-one righteous, no not one.”
John Frame has suggested that Christian ethics recognises the need for all three perspectives on morality. We want to make decisions that are obedient to what God tells us and that will be ultimately working for our good. Whilst no-one is righteous, ultimately it is the virtue of Christ that brings goodness. We follow him and we are filled by the Spirit so that our hearts are renewed and our decisions are transformed.