Been on Facebook lately? It’s pretty quiet with no real controversies. That is, unless your feed has been plastered with memes and commentaries about red cups and refugees. With those subjects, it’s more like a galactic space battle straight from the mind of J.J. Abrams where memes flash back and forth faster than lightsabers. I don’t know what people outside the Christian faith think of it, but I certainly wonder: How can two people from the same religious faith believe such radically different things ought to be done? Boycott! Buy! Bring them in! Ban them! The juxtaposition of the mundane with the imperative makes the question all the more curious. In short, the answer lies in a person’s ethics. But there’s a lot beneath the surface.
An ethic can be a body of beliefs that form what is right and wrong or the system that develops these decisions. My friend (and leadership scholar) Bruce Winston calls an ethic “a preferred behavioral choice among possible choices.” Part of the heat generated by memorable, simplistic memes and passionate, contemptuous posts comes because opposing preferred behavioral choices (opposed ethical decisions) clash without engaging an underlying system of belief.
Let me briefly introduce five ethical systems before answering our opening question about opposing choices.
Virtue ethics: A virtue is a moral excellence. In theology, there are three virtues: faith, hope, and love. In ancient philosophy, there are four: courage, moderation, prudence (wisdom and the process for wisdom), and justice. These are traits deemed worth pursuing by a person’s actions. The right thing to do in a situation is in response to the question, “What kind of person do I want to be?”
Deontological ethics: This system comes from the Greek word deon which means duty. It focuses on the duty of actor in accordance with an action being right or wrong in itself. Imagine that every possible ethical situation is written down in a book somewhere with a corresponding rule to follow. To know how to act in a difficult situation, you just need to find the corresponding rule. The right thing to do in any and every situation is found by asking, “What is the rule to follow?”
Utilitarian ethics: This ethical approach starts by thinking about the consequences. The right thing to do in a situation is what will accomplish the greater good or the most important purpose. Think Jack Bauer from 24. Jack gets away with a lot of stuff because he has a good purpose in mind—saving the civilized world. You can also think about a business that opts for layoffs rather than achieving less (or any) profit. The right thing to do is decided by asking, “What action will accomplish the right result?”
Personalist ethics: Personalist ethics emphasize the value of the human person—including personal experience (“I feel, think, believe, and understand uniquely”) community/cooperation (“I am part of a wider group in making this choice”), freedom (“I am in control of the choice I make”), transcendence (“I can think about the choice without committing to it and I can think about how previous choices interact with a new choice”). The right choice can be discerned by asking, “What will be best for the other person and, by extension, for me?”
Kingdom ethics: Finally, if you’re a Christian, then the way of arriving at right and wrong includes asking what God thinks about a subject. One can go to different parts of the Bible to arrive at an answer (e.g., the 10 Commandments in Exodus 20:1-17 or the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7), or by reasoning through a book of the Bible (e.g., Philemon), or by reasoning through the whole story of Scripture from beginning to end. Right and wrong is found by answering the question, “What action lines up with the community under God’s reign?”
Now, each of these approaches will produce ways to think about right and wrong. They can also be used together to come up with right and wrong. For example, I have two young children. I want them to grow up to be certain kinds of people (virtue ethics). My value of what kind of person is worth becoming is formed by my faith (Kingdom ethics). They are not yet that kind of person, so as Dad, I am given the responsibility to help them achieve this end. Or am I? Does it treat a person with their full due respect to shape them by my values (personalist ethics)? Suppose Wesley, my son, is watching a TV show and I need some help with chores. Suppose—and this would never happen in reality—Wesley is too concerned with Wild Kratts to listen to Dad. Do I enforce my desire because it’s the right thing to do (deontological ethics), because children are to respect their parents (Kingdom ethics?), or because I want him to learn to be conscious of authority (virtue ethics)? How should I enforce Wesley’s discipline? I can find verses that advocate forms of physical punishment, but I can also read Scripture as affirming the inherent value of Wesley outside my parental authority because he is made by God. Should I opt for one kind of discipline because it is more effective in getting Wesley to obey (utilitarian ethics)?
You can see how ethical decisions that are made every day in fairly simple situations are informed by various ethical systems. Now, widen the context and increase the stakes by thinking about refugees. One can arrive at the decision to welcome refugees from any number of systems. I’ve seen countless for and against on Facebook. Here’s what they sound like, from the systems introduced above:
Virtue ethics: “We should welcome them; that’s the kind of people/country we are!”;
Utility: “The economy can use more well educated professionals in certain regions”;
Rules: “Aren’t we supposed to love others as we love ourselves?”;
Personalism: “They are human beings, after all!”;
Kingdom ethics: “Deuteronomy 10:18 says God loves the foreigner and that he defends orphans and widows” or, more popular recently, “Jesus was a refugee!”
Each of those make sense, don’t they? Even if you disagree, there’s still a rationale underlying the opinion. Interestingly, I’ve also seen people arrive at the decision to ban or delay refugees (or some refugees) based on the same systems:
Virtue: “We need to exercise good wisdom as a people”;
Utility: “Bringing in refugees will leave certain parts of the world without well trained, intelligent people to rebuild cultures” or “Refugees will take away jobs”;
Rules: “Some people are already in the refugee process and it would not be fair to have them bypassed”;
Kingdom ethics: “Jesus said they will know we are Christians by our love for one another, so we should focus on Christians who are suffering.”
Finally, we must factor that Christians in the Western world are part of pluralistic societies that thrive by reasoning beyond (not excluding) religious conviction, and one must ask if it is right to lobby a politician who has responsibility to people of other faiths (or no faith) by the convictions of the lobbyist’s own faith.
Do you see how people from the same faith can be so opposed? Underlying the actual ethical opinion is an array of systems that many have not considered. Are people bigots, racists, idiots, and fear mongerers? Yep. Could they also be ethical people, simply unaware of their ethical systems? Yep. So, set down your (red? green? blue?) lightsaber and land your X-Wing fighter (or could it be an Imperial Starfighter?). When you see something you don’t like or don’t agree with, pause on passing along the meme, hoping your less enlightened friend will see it, and send a personal question. Perhaps you’ll find out not just someone else’s ethics and ethical system, but also refine your own—in an ethical way.