What is ethics? It’s easy to think that ethics is a bit distant from my day-to-day life. It’s about moral theories and systems that academic philosophers specialise in, argue over, and write obscure papers about. Or it’s about big political or biomedical questions: ‘is war ever justified?’, ‘how can such wealth inequality be fair?’, ‘should euthanasia be legalised?’, ‘should we clone humans?’.
Well, ethics is about all these things. But if these are all that ethics is about, it’d be easy to understand why some people might not see why it’s relevant or important to them. It’s OK for those who are interested in that sort of thing, or for those who have to make big decisions in government or healthcare, but not for me. It just doesn’t make any difference to my life. I’d rather spend my time and energy on other stuff. But ethics is not just about philosophy or politics or cutting-edge medical technology. It’s about the everyday stuff we do, every day. It’s about all the things we consider right or wrong, good or bad. It’s about all those times we use words like ‘ought’ or ‘should’.
Some questions are more obviously ‘moral’: is it always bad to lie? Is there anything wrong with sex outside of marriage? Is it OK to use legal highs? Some questions are less so: should I break-up with my girlfriend? How should I balance my time between work and leisure? What job should I do? But all these are moral decisions, ethical decisions, because they’re about ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’. They are decisions based on our fundamental beliefs about how we think things should be, and decisions that determine the way we behave. What we think is good, will determine what we think we should do. Our beliefs affect our behaviour. And that’s what ethics is all about. The beliefs that shape our behaviour. We might not have spent much time thinking about what those beliefs are, but they underpin all the decisions we make, all the time.
Making moral decisions
A few years ago, a 30-year-old schoolteacher ran away with a 15-year-old pupil. Shortly beforehand, he’d written in his blog of his ‘moral dilemma’ which left him wondering ‘how should we define what is right or wrong, acceptable or unacceptable?’ I guess he felt he was facing a question that required more ethical thinking than usual, so he started by thinking about how we define right and wrong. Society might say that his affair with this girl was unacceptable, but was that true? Why was it ‘wrong’? If he could define good in a way that made his behaviour right, then he would do it. It does seem as though he was genuinely wrestling with the ethics. Even if his motives were selfish, for his own pleasure, he was still trying to justify his behaviour in terms of right and wrong. He wasn’t ignoring the ethics. Perhaps, if he’d recognised that there was something wrong with what he was doing, he might have stopped. But he concluded: ‘I was satisfied that if you can look yourself in the mirror and know that, under all the front, that you are a good person, that you should have faith in your own judgment.’ In other words, if you’re basically good, then what you decide to do is also good. And presumably, you should therefore go ahead and do it. And so he did, with such tragic consequences for them both. His ethical thinking presupposed his own goodness, and his own rationality. If he weren’t basically good, then it’d be unlikely his decisions would be good. If he were basically good, but his rationality, his decision-making ability, his judgments were flawed, then he’d have no confidence in his decisions either.
I wonder how many of us make decisions like this, though? In the little things, the things that aren’t so important? I’m not a bad person, I’m basically OK, so if it makes sense to do this, it’s probably fine. And who’s to say it’s not fine? Why might other people say it’s not? How does anyone judge their own goodness (other than just to look in the mirror, and say ‘yes, I’m OK’)? Or judge their own judgment? Even more, how does anyone judge someone else’s goodness or judgment – and should they?
The case illustrates some of the problems of subjective, intuitive ethical decision-making. Ethics that depends basically on yourself and your own ideas of what is OK. But it’s perhaps the most common way of thinking ethically. If it feels good, do it. Get drunk? Sleep with your boyfriend? Copy someone’s work? If it feels good, do it. If it doesn’t, don’t.
Do whatever you want or whatever you’re told?
So here’s the question: what makes it feel good? It’s that word ‘good’ again. How do we know what should feel good? And should some things feel bad? Let’s take a step back. Perhaps, deep down, people might act according to what benefits them the most. Anything that benefits me, is what I consider good. Sometimes, this will seem purely selfish – I do things that serve only my own interest. But sometimes, this might appear altruistic. Perhaps if by serving someone else, I will get what I want in return. But either way, it’s decision-making that’s shaped by self-interest: do whatever you want.
On the other hand, a society in which everyone acted according to self-interest might struggle, because the interests of different people would clash. One person’s interest might only be met if someone else’s wasn’t. So as people live together in societies, they develop rules to regulate that self-interest. These might be laws, or customs, or social pressure in other ways. This is decision-making that’s shaped by society: do whatever you’re told. Many professions have codes of ethics. Doctors in the UK have the General Medical Council’s ‘Duties of a Doctor’, for example. It’s really a list of what you ‘should’ and ‘should not’ do if you’re a doctor. And for some doctors, this is pretty much all they need to know about ethics. As long as you stay within the rules, you’re OK.
So, ethics might be seen simply as a tension between the demands of self and society. There is no absolute ‘good’, merely a balance between what I perceive as good (what I think is beneficial for me), and what society perceives as good (what society determines is good for itself). At one end of the spectrum is the hedonist, for whom ethics is just about their own pleasure. At the other, an authoritarian understanding of ethics, in which it all depends on rules and regulations. Somewhere in between might be those for whom ethics is about consensus, or peer-pressure. But wherever you are, these factors of self and society will likely shape your understanding of what is good and bad, will shape your conscience, your intuitive sense of what is right and wrong.
Rules and rights
And we’re back where we started. It’s all subjective. Whether it’s me, or those around me, who determine what is right, that’s what shapes our ethics. And it’s probably, if we’re honest, what shapes most of our ethics most of the time. Perhaps I was a bit unfair earlier in assuming that many people aren’t really interested in ethics. I suspect that people actually are often interested in some ethical issues, especially issues that touch on individual rights. In a world that sees ethical truth as so relative, so subjective, there have to be some sort of rules. And at the same time, we don’t want rules that infringe unfairly or unnecessarily on our own freedoms, on our rights. So when people discuss ethical issues, it’s often in the language of rights. The right to life, the right to choose, the right to free speech, the right to freedom of religion, and so on. But this often becomes a very sterile debate, with different people arguing for their own rights – there’s no external standpoint from which to judge whose claim is, well, right! ‘If it feels good, do it’ can be as subjective as ‘it’s my right to do it’. Both are tempered by societies’ rules, or other people’s rights. Both are essentially saying ‘I can do whatever I want, as long as it doesn’t hurt others’ (or more cynically, as long as I don’t get caught hurting others).
So if this is what ethics is about then it’s not surprising that many people don’t see the point of studying it further or taking it seriously. Right and wrong? It’s just not a big deal. Do whatever you like as long as you don’t hurt others. Please yourself within the limits of what’s socially acceptable. So when we’re discussing moral questions, whether they’re the big issues of the day, or the little things we face all the time, it’s not really worth much thinking about. Popular ethics is so often just ‘whatever’. Whatever I want to do’ (as long as it doesn’t hurt others). Or ‘whatever I’ve been told to do’ (unless I can get away with it). Or just, ‘whatever’ – a don’t care, don’t bother me, response?
But these are the attitudes we need to resist, if we’re to hold on to the idea that good and evil, right and wrong, ‘should’ and ‘should not’, actually have meaning. And don’t just have meaning, but have a specific meaning, a meaning that is true and beautiful and rooted in God. Because whatever our culture says about ethics, the starting point for ethics is what God says. And God speaks to us through his Word, the Bible.
1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1
So, let’s turn to a Biblical ‘whatever’, in 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1.
So, whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God – even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.
‘Whatever you do’. It’s easy to take a verse or two out of context, to make a point. Here’s a verse with the word ‘whatever’ in it, so let’s use that. Of course not – we need to take Scripture seriously! Paul has just been warning the Corinthians not to follow the example of the Israelites, who had been rescued from Egypt by God, but who then fell into idolatry. You will be tempted, he says, and there is a danger you will fall too, but know that God can give you the strength to stand up to it. We are tempted too, in belief and behaviour, to idolatry, to the denial of God’s rule in our lives. So, Paul’s warning is for us as well: stand firm and be careful. Our ethics matter! Will we obey God and do what he wants, or will we follow other gods, and do whatever we want?
You might think it’s obvious from the Bible that some things are wrong, are sinful. Should I worship other gods? Should I indulge in sexual immorality? There’s no doubt from God’s repeated, direct commands to his people recorded in the first few books of the Bible that these things are always wrong. But the Israelites still fell into those sins and Paul warns us not to do the same.
But it’s interesting that the example he then uses to apply in the Corinthians’ own experience is not at all as black and white. It seems as though it’s a sort of grey area: the issue of eating food that had been offered to idols. Some in the church seem to have been comfortable eating such food, because they knew that idols were just stone or wood, they were nothing. It didn’t matter if you ate the food – food is a good gift from God, thank him for it, and don’t worry what non-believers did with the food beforehand. But others in the church were upset by this. Eating such food seemed almost to condone the pagan sacrifices, almost to make them participants in idol-worship.
Here was an ethical dilemma; what should they do? What was the right thing to do? For some of them, their consciences said it was OK. For others, it wasn’t. It doesn’t seem as though there was a clear-cut ‘this action is wrong’ or ‘this action is right’. Both groups had good reasons for acting the way they did, so Paul helps them out with some clear principles for Christian, ethical decision-making.
· Do it all for the glory of God. Whatever you do, whether you eat or drink, or don’t eat or drink, do it for God’s glory. It’s not about us, it’s about him and his glory. Were they putting God’s glory first?
· Don’t cause others to stumble (whoever they are) but try to please them by doing what is good for them (not for yourself), and the good we’re hoping for is their salvation.
· Finally, follow Christ’s example.
It can be easy to say that something is ‘for God’s glory’, or for other people’s ‘good’, but these aren’t things we define for ourselves. God tells us in the Bible what brings him glory and what is good. It’s in the pages of the Bible that we meet Christ and learn what he did for us.
Whatever you do
Now it doesn’t matter whether you’ve faced the issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols or not. Paul’s principles will apply to all our ethical dilemmas. All our decision-making. Should I drink alcohol? Should I get drunk? Should I go out with that person? Should I break up with them? Should I have an abortion? And I think it applies to all these dilemmas because Paul says so… ‘whatever you do’. Whatever you do pretty much covers everything, doesn’t it? The big issues, the little issues. The clearly right or wrong issues, the issues which seem a bit hazier.
Some of the issues I listed will be pretty clear-cut to some of you reading this. But not to all of you. And I suspect that was the case in Corinth, too. Those on each side of the debate thought their position was clear. Some people may have been caught in between, not sure who was right. But it’s interesting that Paul doesn’t settle the issue in terms of ‘one of you is wrong, the other is right’. He asks them to think deeper than that; to explore their motives and their impact on others; to think about how God is glorified, and Jesus imitated in what they decide and do.
Don’t get me wrong. The Bible is clear that some things are very definitely and always wrong. Including some of the things in my list above. So, if I’m sure they’re wrong, you might think that I don’t need to think hard about whether to do such a thing would glorify God, bring others closer to Christ, or be a Christlike thing to do. I know the answer already! It is wrong to murder my wife. There’s no circumstance in which it would glorify God to do that. But that’s the same position some of the ‘don’t eat this meat’ people were in, in Corinth. They were sure it was wrong. So they didn’t do it. If we’re sure something is wrong, don’t do it. Don’t risk falling into sin as the Israelites did, says Paul.
But firstly, more often than not, we’re not really sure what is right and wrong. There isn’t a direct command in the Bible to tell us. We wouldn’t have an apparent ethical dilemma if the answer were obvious. Christians won’t spend time wondering whether it’s OK to murder my wife: the Bible is so clear that murder is wrong. So, Paul’s wisdom is especially helpful to us because this is the sort of position we’re actually in when we’re not sure. And rather than just say ‘whatever’, it doesn’t matter, do what you like, he’s reminding us that it does matter, because it’s so important not to risk falling into sin. So, when you’re not sure? When the Bible doesn’t seem to address the issue? Follow those three biblical principles: for God’s glory, to be like Christ, to bring others to him.
And secondly, we’re not facing these ethical dilemmas in isolation. As Christians, we’re part of God’s family, and part of the wider human community. Our decisions impact others. We must not cause others to stumble. So even if we’re sure something we’re doing is OK, we need to think through how it will affect others.
So, whether you’re sure you’re right or not, whether you’ve understood what the Bible teaches on a particular topic or not, whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God, for the sake of others, following Jesus’ example. If the Bible does give a clear command about an issue, then we need to obey – that’s how we’ll glorify God, do good to others and imitate Christ’s obedience. If there isn’t a clear command, then we need to work hard, prayerfully, in the power of God’s Spirit, to understand what will be most glorifying, loving, and Christ-like.
Ethics is not just about tricky moral decisions, it’s about all the decisions we make in life. Some of them will be more of a challenge, some will seem more about ‘ethics’ than others. But ethics is really about all of our behaviour, behaviour that depends on our basic beliefs about who God is and who we are, and what God wants of us. This worldview, this basic understanding of reality and what it’s all about, determines our ethics. And ethics is about whatever we do.
1. Willsher K, Booth R. Megan Stammers and teacher Jeremy Forrest found in France. The Guardian, 29 September 2012. Accessible from bit.ly/3KTGHUz
2. The duties of a doctor registered with the General Medical Council. The General Medical Council, 29 January 2022. Accessible from bit.ly/2Uqrkxj
This article has been adapted from the first chapter of Giles’s new book ‘Whatever – cross-centred ethics that point to Jesus’, published by the Christian Medical Fellowship.