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Doing the Right Thing Participant's Guide
By Chuck Colson, Robert George
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2011 Charles W. Colson
All rights reserved.
How Did We Get into This Mess?
A crisis of ethics
The United States is facing a serious crisis of ethics.
Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the recent financial crisis, where ethical lapses very nearly brought down the global financial system. Yet it is all too easy to blame the crisis on corporate greed and wrongdoing on Wall Street. Looking more closely at the situation, we find ethical problems on all levels, including on the part of the government and even individuals who took out mortgages they could not hope to repay, along with the banks and financial firms.
But what exactly is ethics? And how have our ethical standards so deteriorated that we don't even seem to know right from wrong? What are the consequences of these failures?
Standards of behavior: universal or relative?
Maybe the simplest operating definition is that ethics are standards of behavior, presumably derived from some objective source or transcendent authority, whether it is natural law or God. These standards regulate the conduct of our behavior and our relationships with one another. When sound standards are in place, transparency and honesty generally operate in financial and commercial markets. Obviously there are exceptions, but these become the norm for behavior.
Yet many in our society today reject the very notion of ethics as something that is either objective or universal. Instead, many have embraced the idea of moral and ethical relativism. This view holds that ethics are not based on transcendent truths, but are instead dependent on the situation and the people involved. Since there is no objective standard of right and wrong, all cultures are equal, all individual values are valid, and we cannot judge the choices that other people make. Even government cannot get involved in these questions because "there is no such thing as objective moral truth."
The impossibility of relativism
Relativism is a common view of ethics in many influential circles today, including business schools and academia in general, medical research labs, law schools, and halls of government. In our pluralistic world, it seems to many to be the only option.
The problem is, it doesn't work.
First, it is obvious that ethical failures occur. The outrage against executives at the financial ser vices firms is ample evidence that we recognize wrongdoing. Yet if there is no objective ethical standard by which we can measure people's behavior, how can we even talk about unethical actions? There is no basis for judging anyone's actions as wrong or inappropriate. At best we can say they are illegal.
This leads directly to the second problem. In a world that believes in relativism, when obvious ethical lapses occur the only recourse is laws and government regulation. Yet regulations have loopholes and boundaries, whether by accident or design. No matter how carefully crafted regulations are, unethical people will find a way around the letter of the law and thus will not be restrained by them. Furthermore, increasing laws and regulations inevitably leads to an erosion of our freedoms.
So determining what ought to be and building a consensus around setting some ethical standards becomes essential for the survival of a free society. And developing this consensus and teaching it is critical for preventing the kinds of disastrous ethical failures that have caused so much havoc not only in the U.S., but internationally as well.
Video Notes Outline
I. Ethical failures and the economic collapse
II. "The dictatorship of relativism"
A. Business schools
B. Creating a culture without ethics
IV. "Borrowed capital" and ethical erosion
V. Resolving ethical disputes
Selling Short is a way of making money when a stock declines in value. The short seller borrows a certain amount of stock from a broker and sells it; if the stock declines in value, the short seller buys it at the lower value, returns it to the broker, and keeps the difference in price less the borrowing fees. For example, the short seller could borrow 100 shares of a stock valued at $10 per share and sell them for $1,000; if the stock then drops to $8 per share, he could buy another 100 shares for $800, return them to the broker, and keep the $200 difference between the price he received for selling the shares and the price he paid to buy their replacements. If the stock goes up, the short seller will lose money. This is generally considered an ethical form of trade, though in the examples discussed here, the financial firms knew the assets were bad, sold them deceptively to companies that thought they were buying legitimate assets, and then shorted them to make a profit when they inevitably dropped in value. That action was clearly unethical on several levels.
For Group Discussion
1. Consider: Brit Hume suggested that the financial collapse was caused by a widespread lack of, "first, ethical behavior by the government; second, ethical behavior in financial markets; third, ethical behavior by mortgage lending banks; and fourth, ethical behavior on the part of the public." Pope Benedict said, "The events of the last two or three years have demonstrated that the ethical dimension must enter into economic activity. Now is the time to see that ethics is not something external, but internal to economic rationality and pragmatism."
Discuss: Read Exodus 20:15; Deuteronomy 25:13–16; and Luke 19:1–9. How do passages like these lead us to see that Christians should take more interest in ethics and the role of ethics in the economy?
2. Consider: Jim Grant argues that it is important to understand where the ethical failures on the part of government, business institutions, and even individuals occurred to allow for accountability and personal responsibility. Christians can sometimes be a little wary about "finger-pointing" because they don't want to "judge" others or their ethical values and practices.
Discuss: How would you explain what Jesus meant in John 7:24, where He was quoting from Leviticus 19:15? Is it possible that as Christians, through our reluctance to be involved in matters of ethical judgment, we may also bear some responsibility for the crisis of ethics? Explain.
3. Consider: Chuck Colson claims it is impossible to teach ethics in business schools today. Donovan Campbell agrees that you need to subscribe to the idea of ultimate good or ultimate morality to provide a solid reference point for ethical decisions.
Discuss: Read John 17:17 and Romans 7:12. Without an absolute standard of good, what kind of ethics can we teach?
4. Consider: Michael Miller claims that we are brought up to be relativists, then at some point are suddenly expected to act ethically when we have not been given a foundation for it.
Discuss: Read Romans 2:14–15 and Titus 1:15. Is our conscience or our integrity a reliable starting point for ethics? Why or why not? What were you taught about right and wrong in school? Did you see more of an emphasis on absolute standards of right and wrong, or moral relativism?
5. Consider: The question that always arises when absolute morality is discussed is, whose morality? This problem is especially difficult when people who believe in absolute morality do not always hold to the same standards.
Discuss: Based on what we've discussed thus far, where should Christians turn in order to begin thinking about ethics and morality? How can we resolve whatever differences may arise between us in considering these kinds of issues?
6. Consider: It is common in our culture to blame crime on poverty, racism, or some other form of institutionalized injustice.
Discuss: If so, why is it that not everyone who experiences these things becomes a criminal? Read Matthew 15:19–20 and Romans 3:23. How do these passages account for criminal behavior?
For Individual Ref lection and Action between Sessions
1. Reflect on your own upbringing. When you were growing up, what lessons about morality did you learn from parents, teachers, and peers? Did any of those lessons point to absolutes? Did any encourage you in the way of relativism? List them below:
[Your Response] [Your Response]
Have you had more messages in one or the other of these areas? How has this shaped the decisions you've made in different areas of your life (social, financial, political, etc.)?
2. What is your personal reaction to the idea that there is an absolute standard of right and wrong that, as Donovan Campbell says, is true "outside of any context and which is translatable across cultures, times; it's applicable everywhere"?
If such a standard exists, what do you think it would look like? Where would you look to determine what it is?
What areas of your life would you need to reexamine in light of absolute ethical standards?
3. Review all the Scripture references provided for discussion in the first session. Would you say that Scripture encourages an absolute or relative ethic? How should this influence the way we think about our own ethical behavior?
4. The primary message of the first session is that America and the West are currently experiencing a crisis of ethics. In your own words, what is the nature of that crisis? Before the next class session, talk about this idea with some friends who are not in this course. Try to find out if they believe there is a crisis of ethics. How do they react to your suggesting this idea?
5. At ColsonCenter.org, read one or two of the additional resources listed below. The URLs are provided for your convenience in finding these articles.
Excerpted from Doing the Right Thing Participant's Guide by Chuck Colson. Copyright © 2011 by Charles W. Colson. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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