Judge For Yourself

“I have yet to equip them to make their own moral judgments.”

This thought has been recurring in my mind ever since I started our Christian Education on ethics. No doubt we would have covered Christian perspectives on abortion, medical technologies, employment, life and death; yet, we often face specific moral situations where a way of thinking is more useful than a generic stance. Since today’s Christian Ethics session is the last instalment of the series, I thought I had better make up for it using this column.

It should be said first that not all situations have a moral quality. For example, whether you choose to have onion rings or French fries with your cheeseburger, is a matter of preference and not a matter of right and wrong. Ordering a coke against the doctor’s advice to cut down on sugar is also not a moral dilemma. This is merely yielding to temptation – a conflict between the moral principle of obeying (medical) authority and your self-interest.

A true moral dilemma is a conflict between two or more moral principles. For example, the choice between prioritizing the life of the foetus versus the life of the pregnant mother is a moral dilemma because the principle behind both options is the sanctity of life.

Or take for example, a situation where your supervisor informs you that your subordinate and friend, Lisa, has been shortlisted for promotion. Promotions will only be announced in the company meeting next month. On the other hand, Lisa has told everyone in office that she has a job offer and intends to resign. She wants to leave because she feels the company does not value her. It may seem obvious that you should let her know about the promotion now to retain her. However, you cannot violate your company’s strict policies on internal communications, especially on sensitive issues like employee promotion. Yet, if you don’t tell her, she will take up the job offer which is not in her favour.

For situations such as these, Christian ethicist Dr William W. May has a 7-step model to facilitate ethical decision making.[1] I’m limited by my publication space so I shall leave you to work through it.

  1. Gather the Facts – What do we know? What do we need to know? What would be helpful to know but is not available?
  2. Identify the Ethical Issue – What are the competing principles?
  3. Identify Additional Principles – What additional principles have a bearing on the case? Which principles have more weight than others in this situation?
  4. List the Alternatives – What are the various possible courses of action that may be taken to resolve this conflict?
  5. Compare the Alternatives with the Principles – Which alternative satisfies all of the competing principles? Which alternative satisfies the most important principle?
  6. Assess the Consequences – How beneficial are the positive consequences? How severe are the negative consequences?
  7. Make a Decision – Make a decision based on your responses to the above steps.

As with all guidelines, going through the steps do not guarantee a right decision. That said, this process is more objective than relying on gut feelings since we are reminded to be as comprehensive as possible in understanding the situation, considering the principles and assessing the consequences. Therefore, it is a good tool for individual or group discussion and deliberation on ethical issues. Furthermore, this may also be a tool for us to guide us in our personal reflection in the aftermath of a moral decision.

How is this way of thinking, Christian? I asked the same question when I first read this model. The process is open to the use of biblical as well as secular principles.  Yet, simply appealing to biblical principles is insufficient to ensure a Christian use of the model. One may choose biblical principles that best serves one’s self-interest. Furthermore, a strict adherence to the steps can quickly degenerate into a blind following of biblical principles.

In our first session on “God as the Source of Morality,” we learnt that God created human beings to be good and enables us to become good by the power of the Holy Spirit as we respond by obeying the morality of God as revealed in His Word. The practice of Christian morality helps us to be more like God, to be restored to the image of God which has been marred by sin. We should not forget that this is the goal we are striving toward.

Accordingly, at some point in our moral decision making, we may need to include an additional step, Assessment of Character. What is my present character? Which virtue should I work on to be more Christ-like? Let me illustrate using the case of Lisa above. Suppose you assess that you have a tendency to prioritise the virtue of love over justice because you are inclined to take care of people’s feelings instead of strictly following organisational policies. Then, disclosing the promotion in this case will reinforce your inclinations towards love while keeping confidentiality grows the virtue of impartiality.

So there you have it. Something to guide you in your own moral judgments. It leaves me only to remind us that we need to strive to be good and make good moral judgments. However, we can and will fail at being good. The good news is forgiveness and redemption are available to the repentant. No moral failure is unpardonable; no sinful person is irredeemable. Because Jesus saves.

[1] Scott Rae, Introducing Christian Ethics: A Short Guide to Making Moral Choices (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 52-55,