Lesson 2: What are Ethics?

Three Shepherds When I began my face-to-face classes by asking how many ethical decisions they had made that day, I received a variety of answers. Some felt these were confined to big questions that demanded carefully considering the proprieties and priorities of the options before taking action. Others believed just about all their acts involved some form of moral choice, usually based on “habits of the heart” rather than profound decision making.

When asked to define ethics, most talked about obeying the laws of the land or the Ten Commandments. Of course, ethics has always been associated in some way with law codes. Sometimes these were regarded as absolute, straight from the mouth of God; sometimes as natural law, built into the cosmos or based on the agreement of all reasonable “men.” This worked when people shared a common place and story. It is far more difficult in our pluralistic, mobile society. People no longer live their whole lives in one area, surrounded by neighbors who believe as they do.

Responding to this breakdown of traditional values, Sandel says moral reflection now involves a constant back and forth between personal judgments about the decisions before us and the general principles on which we base our lives, such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Preferring to speak of ethical approaches, rather than theories or systems, he suggests three that are helpful: asking if the options maximize the welfare of society, respect the freedom of individuals, and promote virtue.

It is the third that incites the most discussion as people disagree on what kind of virtue society should be promoting. In the past, ethics always involved virtues that were qualities or traits beneficial for making proper moral decisions. Theologians often said their ethics were based on nurturing a virtuous or righteous person– righteousness defined as being in a right relationship with God and other people. They spoke of four cardinal virtues: courage, fortitude, temperance, and justice, that were available naturally to all people; but also three theological ones, faith, hope, and love, that were gifts from God.

A case study in Sandel’s first chapter makes clear how modern society is questioning the value of these theological virtues. Four members of a special services unit are sent on a mission in Afghanistan. Before they get to their objective they come upon 3 shepherds, one a young boy. Circumstances leave them only two options: kill the shepherds or let them go. A Christian has the final say and reported his “Christian conscience crowded in on him,” preventing him from killing unarmed people. An hour and a half later the unit was attacked by a force of at least 80 Taliban. Three of the mission as well as 16 others trying to rescue them were killed. The Christian survived and called this “the stupidest, most southern-fried, lame-brained decision I ever made in my life.”

That leaves us with two questions to ponder. 1) What values should our pluralistic, democratic society promote? 2) Was the Christian’s conscience to blame for the death of the nineteen soldiers? You can post your answers by either e-mailing me at fritzafoltz@embarqmail.com or by posting on the Website, http://frontlinestudy.com/

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3 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Bob Nordvall says:

    A stroy somewhat similar to the three shepherds occured during the resue attempt for American Embasssy hostages held in the Iran in early 1970s. One of the resue helicopters was forced down I think by a sand storm. At this point a bus with Iranians passed by on the road. The Americans shot at the tires of the bus, but this did not stop it. I believe the Americans were told to limit civilian casualties in every way possible. In my opinion the Israelies, in a similar situation, would have destroyed the bus. If you go to war, it is hard to have it be a half-way proposition.

    In the example of the three shepherds, an unknown, but important, factor is the probability that the manuever will be compromised by not killing the three — one in two, one in ten, one in a hundred? Also whenever civilains are killed, it undermines the military goal of obtaining their cooperation in the war against the Taliban. Of course you can take the view that in war it is all or nothing at all — kill anyone who might cause harm to your troops. It turned out that the view taken in this case by the guy in charge may have ultimately led to more deaths than the killing of the three, but that does not mean it was “wrong.” We cannot know the future. We act predicting the future as best we can, but sometimes, even though are acts are reasonable, the future does not play out as we guessed it would.

    A very seminal philosophical book in this area is “A Theory of Justice” by John Rawls, but it is more philosophicaly technical than the book we are reading.

  2. Concordia Hoffman says:

    I did not receive this weeks’s discussion, but I asked my brother to forward his, which he has done.

    l. Was there absolutely no other choice, other than killing, or letting the shepherds go? Could they have been securely tied up?

    2. I think the Christian is responsible for the others’ deaths because his decision led to those deaths. To what extent was he aware that these deaths might occur? He is in a dangerous war zone; would he have anticipated the consequences of that decision.? Are there degrees of responsibility?

    3. When does a war-time mission take precedence over saving lives?

    4. His response/answer to the deaths of (number?) so many seems flippant, casual, somewhat cold, as if he’s disappointed that he bought a Cadillac rather than a Honda.

  3. Marland Strand says:

    Our ethical treatment of big and large “choices in our life” are grounded in our faith if we are a believer.
    In a study on the monotheistic faiths (Islam, Judaism, Christianity) we settled on one word for each as being the driver or foundation or virtue that summed up human behavior towards others – Justice, Law and Love respectively.

    The article calls out the 3 ethical (theological) virtues or gifts from God – faith, hope and love – A Christian bias in my opinion of the author (or perhaps an American bias living in a Judeo – Christian country)
    I feel comfortable swapping out these virtues for obedience, destiny(mission) and justice as virtues/drivers/foundations for action for the two other monotheistic faiths.

    The four cardinal virtues: courage, fortitude, temperance, and justice are necessary for civil/political/patriotic or perhaps nation building. The fact that Islam encourages faith and governance to be one as opposed to the USA constitutional separation of church and state has large ramifications in the way we act upon ethics “rich” situations in a global society.

    And the Shepherds, soldiers and taliban – perhaps the cost of discipleship — Very Harsh… thus we need dialogue and understanding without evangelism and ethical common ground — is that even possible or desirable ? Should we bring back the Crusades; How about Jihad.???

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