Morals and Meaning

The news is full of commentary on commentary. I guess this blog is commentary on commentary on commentary. The editor of Christianity Today, Mark Galli, opined that the immoral personal behavior of Mr. Trump flew in the face of loyalty to “the Creator of the Ten Commandments.” That behavior had reached a tipping point for Mr. Galli, where no amount of “transactional” good could be justified in the face of such profoundly immoral character traits. In response, Franklin Graham, known as a “Christian Evangelist,” called Galli’s stance a partisan attack, a siding with the Democrats. Graham countered that Trump has done more for the agenda of conservative evangelicals than any other president. Trump’s personal morality was just a reflection that all are sinners, according to Graham. What really counts is what Trump has accomplished for those who elected him. Galli’s detractors say that he represents an elitist, liberal wing of evangelical Christianity, one out of touch with Bible believing followers. Trump went so far as to claim that Galli’s comments show he would rather have “a radical left non-believer who wants to take your guns and religion” as president. While the addition of guns to the issue could take us down an entirely different path, we will stick to basic outline of the argument that swirls back and forth.

As I read all the responses to these two stances, it seems pretty clear that people are arguing from different beginning points, and that their ethical reasoning, in all cases, is a bit muddled. Some reporters, like Greg Sargent at The Washington Post, felt it important to identify as a nonbeliever as they reflected on the Christian versus Christian viewpoints But really, all of what is being said is well placed within several categories of ethical reasoning, categories generally used in secular settings and not limited to any religious claims. A little Ethics 101 is in order.

Ethics is the system of moral philosophy that helps us govern ourselves, to decide what is true or good or best in different situations. There are a variety of approaches to ethics, meaning that there are different systems that can be at play, even with the same problem. The three words, used above–true, good, best–are examples of moral ideas found separately emphasized in three different systems. Principle ethics would call something true as better than something false. Tell the truth, is not only a commandment in the Bible, but is one in Principlism. Duty and individual behavior according to agreed upon principles for the group, are paramount, regardless of the consequences.

Virtue ethics uses words like good. Courage, patience and hope are also important in virtue ethics. It isn’t enough to be truthful. One also must be kind to be a good person–think Ellen. Like principilism, virtue ethics is mostly concerned with the individual’s behavior, not the group consequences of that behavior. What is the most loving thing to do? But that becomes more difficult to discern when love gets entwined with consequences.

Narrative ethics places the person in the story of their world and their moment. It recognizes the person is not a computer making isolated decisions, but is enmeshed with family, culture, personal and group history. How does this action taken line up ethically with what we know will have both individual and group impacts? We consider principles and virtues, but they are part of something bigger. It is a more case by case ethics, often used in medicine. It prizes the individual, but understands that person in a group context.

Utilitarian, or consequentialist, ethics is our last to consider on this spectrum going from individual obligation to group outcome. Utilitarian ethics holds the highest good for the greatest number as a value. Public health uses this–everyone at school must be immunized, or they can’t attend, for the benefit to all outweighs the freedom of the individual. The ends justify the means.

Typically, Christian theological ethics has found itself firmly rooted in principilism, with a good dose of virtue ethics thrown in. Human dignity is esteemed, and individuals not sacrificed for the greater good. Thus, pro-life supporters would be expected to be staunch principilists, believing life begins at conception and the consequences of a difficult unwanted pregnancy are immaterial when it comes to abortion. “Bible believing” people are almost by definition, principle-based. Historically, Christians railed against the utilitarianism of Peter Singer, author of Practical Ethics, distressed at the idea of a social order that would allow an “immoral” means to attain a good end. Nazi’s used a consequentialist ethic when they experimented on prisoners in order to learn medical techniques that would benefit their countrymen.

Curiously, Franklin Graham clearly situates himself in the utilitarian ethical camp. In truth, this is the most liberal or “left” of the ethics. It allows one to pretty well be as individually corrupt as needed to get a job done that is considered good for the group. Individual honor is not really a recognizable trait. It also can be termed elitist because the powerful often triumph over the weak. To be fair, an idealist utilitarian would try to make everyone equal in power at the start, but that never happens in reality. Most of communism operates on a utilitarian ethic.

Galli tries to remain in principle ethics, but he then muddles it up a bit by saying that the transactions achieved by Trump aren’t worth it. He is willing, by his remarks anyway, for a mix of consequentialism and principilism, with the latter having to be present in a substantial way. Maybe Galli is really tending more to narrative. In this story, in this time, we have a man with few principles and virtues (Graham didn’t name any), but who when engaged with a mix of certain other people in power, can achieve a desired good. It’s unclear just how virtuous and principled one needs to be, at least in the Christian world, to be a fit leader. Sinful? Why, yes. Everyone is. But morally bankrupt? How is that determined? When did Galli see a tipping point?

In all of this, Trump’s personal immorality has been viewed through a lens of principles. He shouldn’t break the Ten Commandments. But, it can also be viewed through the utilitarian lens. How have his choices affected his three wives and five children? The women and staff he has injured? The immigrants he has mocked? The world leaders he has dealt with? Where do transactions happen between these groups and the groups who want certain judges and laws passed? To be consistent, the same system should be used when determining all aspects of what is good. If Graham is a utilitarian, then all of Trump’s immoral behaviors also have consequences and should be weighed in the balance, even if he, individually, is not.

In the end, ethical reasoning is a great help as it gives us insight into our choices and the messages about us that they imply. But it isn’t how decisions are usually made in the real world. We still too often go with our gut instincts, our emotional reasoning and our desperate hope for our own wants to be realized. It is no irony that Graham posted a picture of himself with Vice President Pence at the very moment his rebuttal to Galli was published.

As we navigate the civics lessons of our era, maybe we all would do well to consider again the ethical claims we make, on ourselves and on each other. What principles do we hold high? What virtues are we developing in ourselves, our communities? Where is all of this placed in the narrative of the global life we share as well as in our particularly placed lives? And what of the consequences? There are also those yet unseen, of course.

I’m grateful for the chance Galli gave to public discourse and to Christian reflection. I hope it really won’t be seen as partisan or as just another example of the problems within evangelical Christian circles. Moral reasoning is important for all of us to flourish. I say that as a truth, a good and a desired end.

Published by jenniemclaurin

I'm a wonderer and a wanderer who likes to think about the intersections of science, faith, culture and the natural world. Hiking, family, medicine, travel and a collection of writers and mystics inspire me. I make my living in the land of public health, as a pediatrician. I live my life in the Pacific Northwest.

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