Posted in

The Human Face of Ethics

            I was surprised to learn that Martin Sheen and Jack Nicholson are both pro-life.  Their reasons are personal.  Sheen’s wife was conceived when her mother was raped.  She decided not to have an abortion.  As a single mom, Nicholson’s mother rejected the advice to abort him.  Sheen would have lost the wife he loves, and Nicholson would never have seen the light of day.  Both are against abortion because they saw the human face of ethics.

            Recently I was reminded of the human face of ethics with regard to the issue of immigration.  Even though I am married to a native-born West Indian and have lived in Latin America and speak Spanish, I am opposed on principle to illegal immigration and believe the current number of immigrants, legal or illegal, is excessive and harmful to America.  Nevertheless, just this week I was speaking with a Mexican couple who run a home remodeling business.  They spoke of their love for America and the opportunities that it has given them and their children.  Their faces glowed with pride when they told me about their daughter who is a university student majoring in architecture.  It is all too easy to allow a principled position against illegal immigration to degenerate into a disdainful attitude toward immigrant groups.

            Another example of the importance of the human face of ethics is our nation’s military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and its supplying of military hardware to various foreign nations.  I think that the majority of Americans and our soldiers fighting overseas believe that we are engaged in these activities in order to protect America and to help liberate the people of those lands from oppressive regimes.  I’ll leave it to the more informed to decide whether these are our government’s sole or primary motives, but for the sake of argument let’s assume that they are.  When we see the grieving face of an Afghan mother who has lost her son to a drone attack, we should ask ourselves whether this is an ethical price to pay for our protection.  We need to find out what her response would be to our argument that we are there fighting for women’s rights and a better future for Afghan children.

            I understand that in this fallen world politicians and generals have to make decisions that harm some and help others.  My concern is that we are easily deceived by the abstractions that we love.  Magical words such as “liberty,” “human rights,” and “democracy” can cast an evil spell over us.  Jesus Christ commanded us to love our neighbor not the idea of loving our neighbor.  To do that we need to look at his face.

8 thoughts on “The Human Face of Ethics

  1. Great post, Bill. I think modern Westerners have valued (cold, distant) “objectivity” much more highly than is warranted. If Jesus’ teaching that we are to love our neighbors (and even our enemies) is to take priority, I think you are right – we need to know (as much as possible) those who are affected by our decisions and fully understand them, their hopes, needs and realities. Anything less than that trivializes and dehumanizes them.

    1. Thanks, Roy. I taught political philosophy last semester and shall be teaching moral philosophy next year and am bothered by the excessive confidence in human reasoning. I think that the rationalist strain in many of us believes that we can determine right and wrong by abstract logic and that the kind of personal and even emotive argument that I mention only clouds the issue. I think too that we often deceive ourselves into thinking that we’ve been objective.

  2. ” I understand that in this fallen world politicians and generals have to make decisions that harm some and help others. My concern is that we are easily deceived by the abstractions that we love. Magical words such as “liberty,” “human rights,” and “democracy” can cast an evil spell over us. Jesus Christ commanded us to love our neighbor not the idea of loving our neighbor. To do that we need to look at his face.”

    Part of me wants to shout: “THAT’S IT!” in true, Charlie Brown fashion. Part of me cries inside in shame for the times I keep forgetting this. Another part of me remembers that we were also told to love our enemies… which reminds me just how hard it is to be HIS disciple. Thank you, Bill. I’m gonna steal this quote and throw it on my facebook wall, just ’cause I’m already causing so much controversy over there with my latest question. 😉

    1. Thanks, Kristi. Of course, I’m very good about talking about the idea of looking at my neighbor’s face, but not so good about actually doing it.

  3. Bill,
    Very interesting post.It is only when these so-called celebrities are directly affected by these issues that they give them due consideration. Their God given conscience speaks to them. It is not so with a born again believer, we know that abortion,euthanasia,sodomy etc is wrong, because the Word of God says so!
    Your comment above about being ‘bothered by the excessive confidence in human reasoning’,intrigued me.
    I know not exactly where,what or who you teach, whether they are believers or otherwise.
    Philosophy I understand in the Greek means ‘Love of wisdom’, and being Greek, would of necessity mean man’s wisdom and not God’s!
    I say this as I struggled a great deal over the ‘Parable of the workers in the Vineyard’;Matthew 20,where the man who is employed at the eleventh hour gets the same pay as the man who has worked from the first hour.
    I know that if I were employed from the first hour I would have felt short changed, even though I agreed the terms beforehand.
    God is NOT fair. The fairness doctrine is humanistic, God IS righteous. The problem as ever is with our fallen human nature..

    1. Thanks, Colin for your thoughtful reply. Yes, I would say that celebrities or any human can be affected by their God-given conscience, but remember my main point is concerning the excessive confidence in human reason. Some would reject out of hand Jack Nicholson’s response to abortion as just emotional and so not to be taken seriously. What I was arguing is that in ethics it is common to start with abstract notions of justice and make deductions from them in order to arrive at a decision of whether something is right or wrong. I want to say that our reasoning process is also fallen and can be used to justify wrong actions. We Christians do this as well. At the same time, conscience (as you say) or direct personal experience (as I was saying) can give us valid clues about the correctness of an action.
      With regard to philosophy I believe that reason directed by God’s revelation can lead us to a deeper understanding of truth. As an aside, remember the New Testament was written in Greek; so “Greek” doesn’t always mean mere human wisdom.
      I think the lesson of Matthew 20 is that God’s grace eliminates any notion of human merit or earning favor with God. Those who had worked 11 hours had no more claim on God than those who had worked only 1 hour. He is free in his grace, and, thank God, he doesn’t treat us with what we truly deserve.
      God bless, brother.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *