This updated and revised second edition analyzes the current literature regarding various ethical issues. Includes a new chapter on stem cell research and expanded material on other topics.
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About the Author
John S. Feinberg (PhD, University of Chicago) is department chair and professor of biblical and systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is the author of Ethics for a Brave New World (with Paul D. Feinberg) and is general editor of Crossway’s Foundations of Evangelical Theology series.
PAUL D. FEINBERG (ThD, Dallas Theological Seminary) was professor of biblical and systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He passed away in 2004.
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MORAL DECISION MAKING AND THE CHRISTIAN
What makes good acts good and evil acts evil? If Nazi soldiers ask if I am hiding Jews in my attic, is it immoral to lie in order to safeguard those I am protecting? How do I know my moral rules are correct? How would I prove that Christian ethics are binding on non-Christians?
At one time or another most of us have wrestled with questions like these. One could easily study such issues for a lifetime, and yet they are only a sample of the many concerns facing moralists as they try to construct a theory of ethics that will guide daily decision making.
In this chapter we want to isolate the major questions that arise in thinking about ethics and note various responses to them. Moreover, we want to set forth the theoretical framework for discussing the practical issues handled in the rest of the book. We turn first to definitions and distinctions used in discussions about decision making.
FOUNDATIONAL DEFINITIONS AND DISTINCTIONS
Ethics and Morality
Terms like "ethics," "morals," and "morality" are often used synonymously. The same is true of "ethical" and "moral." In this chapter (and the book as a whole), we shall frequently do the same. To act ethically or morally means to act in accord with accepted rules of conduct that cover moral (as opposed to non-moral) matters. To have ethics or a morality is to hold a set of beliefs about what is good and evil, commanded and forbidden. To "do" ethics or moral philosophy is to reflect on such issues as the meaning of terms such as "good" and "ought" and the method of justifying ethical rules.
On the other hand, "ethics," "morality," etc., are terms that are not always used interchangeably. For example, ethics is often defined as the branch of philosophy that reflects on such issues as the source of moral norms and how to justify one's rules for governing action in moral matters. Morals or morality may refer simply to the specific set of norms or rules by which people should live. Some define ethics as the study of morals, but that does not explain what morality is per se. Typically, the concept of morality is understood in one of two ways. For some, the point of morality is to note those things that are good (i.e., valuable or beneficial) and even to define "good" itself. Others maintain that the focus of morality is what is right (moral as opposed to immoral) and what ought to be done (i.e., one's duty). Each emphasis fits with a certain kind of ethical judgment that may be made. Judgments of value are judgments about what is good and bad, desirable or undesirable. Judgments of obligation focus on what is right and wrong and on what one must do or forgo.
Taken together, the theory of value and the theory of obligation comprise the whole field of ethics. Some theories of ethics focus more on value than on obligation, though each ethical theory usually addresses both issues at least implicitly. In this book, our focus will be more on matters of obligation than on matters of value. That is, our emphasis will be to answer what one is morally obligated to do or refrain from doing. Of course, as we address that question in regard to each topic, we shall frequently note the values that are upheld by fulfilling moral obligations. In fact, we shall often argue that a certain course of action is obligatory at least in part because it upholds a certain value (e.g., sanctity of life or justice).
Normative Ethics and Meta-Ethics
A second way to divide the field of ethics is to split it between normative ethics and meta-ethics. Normative ethics deals with which actions are morally right and obligatory. Normative theories about what is right and obligatory presuppose some notion about the meaning of concepts such as right and good. Determining their meaning, however, falls within the domain of meta-ethics. Meta-ethics itself can be subdivided as follows: (1) discussions about the meaning of ethical terms and concepts such as right, ought, and good; and (2) considerations of how ethical judgments (whether of value or of obligation) can be justified or established.
In this chapter we discuss both meta-ethical and normative concerns. In the book as a whole, we handle primarily normative questions as we delineate actions that are morally right and wrong in regard to the various topics discussed.
Descriptive vs. Prescriptive Language
Descriptive language tells what is the case and what is done. Prescriptive language commands what ought to be done; it sets forth moral obligation. Prescriptive language includes terms such as "must," "should," and "ought." Prescriptions are often stated in the imperative mood (e.g., "thou shalt not steal"). Descriptive language includes terms such as "is," "had," and "happened." When descriptive language is used, the intent is not normally to make moral judgments or commands.
The two kinds of language can be illustrated as follows: (1) John and Mary engaged in premarital sex; (2) John and Mary should not engage in premarital sex. Sentence (1) reports what John and Mary did. It makes no moral judgments about right or wrong, nor does it encourage or discourage any kind of action. On the other hand, sentence (2) states a moral duty (it prescribes a course of action), but it also implies an evaluation of a particular action. That is, whoever utters the sentence as a command presumably does so (at least in part) because he makes the judgment that premarital sex is not good (morally and/or otherwise).
We raise this distinction because sometimes it is assumed that an act is morally right and even obligatory just because it is being done. On the contrary, merely describing what is done does not in itself set forth moral obligation. In fact, ethicists debate whether it is possible to move from statements of fact to statements of value and vice versa. That is, can one derive statements of ought from statements of is? A detailed examination of that issue is beyond the scope of this work. However, we raise these issues to remind readers to take seriously the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive language in ethics.
Moral Responsibility and Freedom of Action
Moral philosophers commonly agree that in assessing moral praise or blame for an action, one must consider whether the agent acted freely or not. The principle involved is: no one is morally guilty for failing to do what he could not do or for doing what he could not fail to do. That is, moral responsibility presupposes freedom of action. Moral "oughts" imply that the agent can do his duty. Thus, if someone points a gun at me and says he will shoot me if I do not rob a bank, I am likely to rob the bank. It is my duty not to steal, but presumably there is also a prima facie duty to preserve my life. In this case, I apparently cannot obey both duties. I disobey the duty not to steal, but I do so under constraint, not freely. In neither law nor morality am I held responsible as I would be if I had robbed the bank without compulsion.
Morally Permissible, Morally Obligatory, Morally Supererogatory
These three concepts are very important in determining what may or may not or should or should not be done in particular situations. These notions are especially helpful when actions are not covered by explicit (or even implicit) moral absolutes. Many of the practical issues covered in this book involve such actions.
To say that an action is morally permissible means one may do it or refrain from it without incurring any moral guilt because the action breaks no rule. Obviously, mandated acts are also permitted, and refraining is also allowed if the act is forbidden. However, the notion of morally permissible acts primarily refers to deeds neither mandated nor forbidden.
To say an action is morally obligatory means there is a moral command that mandates it or forbids it. The morally obligatory must be done (or avoided), and failure to fulfill moral obligation brings moral censure. While there is debate about which acts are morally required, it is agreed that moral duties may not be ignored without incurring moral rebuke.
Morally supererogatory deeds are not duties but are praiseworthy, because they produce good that goes beyond what duty demands. The concept may be illustrated as follows: it is a prima facie duty to preserve life, and that duty includes preserving one's own life. If I can save someone else's endangered life without jeopardizing my life, moral philosophers would usually say it is my duty to do so. On the other hand, if saving another's life endangers my life or would cause me to lose my life, I am not morally obligated to try to save the other person's life. If my life is endangered, but I try to rescue another person anyway, my attempt goes above and beyond the call of duty. My act is morally permissible but not morally obligatory. It is also a work of supererogation, an act beyond the call of duty. Suppose, then, that I do not know how to swim, but I see a child drowning in a river. If I try to save her, under those circumstances my act is not my duty but it is an act of supererogation. Even if I fail to rescue her, my attempt still goes beyond the call of duty (a supererogatory work). If I lose my life in the process (regardless of whether I save the drowning child), my sacrifice is supererogatory. What makes an act supererogatory is not whether the person doing it succeeds or fails to do what was intended. It is that the act goes above and beyond what duty demands.
In recent years, there has been an interesting interchange in the literature over one's duties to people at a distance (geographically). Am I morally obligated to help people in need who live far from me? That is, if I see a neighbor's child apparently drowning in a pool, and I know how to swim, ethicists universally would say that I am obligated to help the child. On the other hand, there are people in Africa and Asia who are starving to death. I have resources that could be used to feed many of these people. Several questions arise: is it my duty to give money to feed them, or would my help be an act of supererogation? Regardless of the answer to that question, am I required to continue giving financial help to feed starving people even if doing so means I cannot feed my own family? While some might claim that it is my duty to do this, others, including ourselves, would say that giving financial aid to such people is morally permissible, but not morally obliged, as long as I use enough of those resources to meet the needs of my own family. Caring for my family's needs is morally obligatory, and a case can be made that giving some help to feed the starving is, too. However, meeting my family's needs and then using the rest of my resources to help feed the starving is an act of supererogation.
Those who think it is my duty to continue giving financial aid when I cannot meet my own financial needs often appeal to biblical teaching about sacrificing to help and serve others. In no way would we deny that biblical teaching encourages people to sacrifice. However, that doesn't mean one is required to do every form of sacrifice and every sacrificial act possible. For example, suppose that I could free any prisoner who is scheduled to be executed by offering to take his place. It would be a great sacrifice for me to do so, but am I required to make this sacrifice? It is hard to imagine that either Christian or non-Christian ethicists would say I am obligated to do this. And, even if I were somehow obligated to intervene in this way, I could not be obligated to save more than one prisoner. One cannot be obligated to do what one is not free to do.
Similarly, while there is an obligation to give of our financial means so that starving people in our country and other parts of the world can be fed, the degree of financial sacrifice incumbent on one individual cannot require him or her to liquidate all of his or her financial holdings and give it to help feed the needy. The reason that such a sacrifice isn't required is that to do it would insure that one couldn't meet the financial obligations of oneself and one's family. And, surely we are required to meet our financial obligations. So, if I give away all of my resources to feed the hungry, I won't have enough to care for my family, but I am obligated to care for my family. Since I cannot meet both obligations, I can't be required to make such a sacrifice. However, I can meet my family's obligations and help some people who are starving, so I should. To do so may require that I have to forego a planned vacation or anticipated purchase. Such a sacrifice seems reasonable to expect. To give so much of my resources that I cannot meet my family's needs might be judged by some as a work of supererogation. Others, however, would view it as a failure to meet my moral obligations to my family.
The net result is that while Scripture encourages us to sacrifice to help others in need, not every form of sacrifice is enjoined on everyone. This whole discussion should underscore the incredible generosity of Christ in sacrificing his life for everyone so that their sins might be forgiven. That was a total act of supererogation; dying for our sins was in no way Christ's duty or obligation! In this book our concern is to discover moral obligation in regard to each topic discussed. In some cases it will be difficult to specify a moral absolute that covers the issue. In those instances our goal will be to present as carefully and clearly as possible the kinds of acts that are morally permissible. In discovering the morally obligatory and permissible, acts that are morally supererogatory become evident.
What Makes an Agent Moral in Doing an Act?
How does one know if he is being moral or immoral in his actions? Without an answer to this question, sinners may think they are saints, and saints may be tormented by doubts about their moral rectitude. The first step in addressing this issue is to distinguish it from the question of what makes an act moral or immoral (an issue for a later section). Even if one knows a particular act is morally good, it is still proper to ask if the one doing the act has acted morally.
Two answers, though often heard, are wrong. First, some answer that an agent is moral if he does an act that is morally good or refrains from doing a morally evil act. This answer does not emphasize motivations or intentions for doing an act, but merely notes that the agent did what the law demanded. If this sounds familiar, it should, for the Lord frequently rebuked the Pharisees for adopting this approach. They were very careful to conform their actions externally to the law, but Jesus was clear that mere external conformity to the law did not gain eternal reward, nor was it morally acceptable. Likewise, in the OT the Lord frequently stressed that he was not interested in mere outward conformity to the law; he wanted a proper heart attitude (cf. Hos 6:6). Scripture is not alone in rejecting mere external conformity to the law as the prerequisite for acting morally. Traditionally, philosophers and theologians have agreed that something else is required.
A second problematic answer is that one acts morally if good comes from what he does (consequences are the key). This may sound like utilitarianism, but it is not. For some utilitarians it is one's duty to act so as to maximize the greatest good for the greatest number. So for them the results of an act determine whether the act is morally good or bad. However, even they would admit that what makes the agent moral in acting is not that good was maximized by his action, but that he intended to do his duty (in this case, the duty was to maximize good). Hence, for utilitarians and non-utilitarians alike, consequences are not what make the agent moral in his action.
Is it true that consequences are not the key for determining the morality of the agent? We think so. Our reasoning is best illustrated as follows. Suppose someone sees a child drowning in a swimming pool and tries to rescue him just because he needs help and because it is right to help. Suppose as well the attempt fails, and the child drowns. On this theory of what it means to be moral, the would-be rescuer did not act morally, because the child died. Surely that conclusion is unacceptable. Likewise, suppose someone robs a bank, and isn't apprehended. Because of the attempted robbery, the bank installs a better security system. As a result, everyone who comes to the bank will be safer, and money deposited in the bank will be better protected. On this theory of what it means to be moral when acting, the thief did a harmful act, but he cannot be considered immoral, since good ultimately came from this incident. Examples like these should convince readers that what makes agents moral when they act is not the results of their action.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Ethics for a Brave New World"
Copyright © 2010 John S. Feinberg and Paul D. Feinberg.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Abbreviations of Works Frequently Cited, 9,
Preface to Second Edition, 11,
Preface to First Edition, 15,
1 Moral Decision Making and the Christian, 21,
2 Abortion, 63,
3 Abortion (II), 109,
4 Euthanasia, 157,
5 Capital Punishment, 227,
6 Introduction to the Ethics of Human Sexuality: Sex and Birth Control, 267,
7 Homosexuality, 307,
8 Homosexuality (II), 345,
9 Genetic Engineering — Reproductive Technologies, 387,
10 Reproductive Technologies (II), 433,
11 Genetic Engineering and Genes, 461,
12 Genetic Engineering and Genes (II): Gene Therapy and Stem Cell Technology, 523,
13 Divorce and Remarriage, 583,
14 The Christian and War: Christian Faith in a Nuclear Age, 635,
15 The Christian and the Secular State, 697,
General Index, 821,
Scripture Index, 839,
What People are Saying About This
“This 2nd edition of Ethics for a Brave New World by John Feinberg and Paul Feinberg is a welcome updating and expansion of a text I have long considered essential for anyone wishing to engage the moral collapse of contemporary culture with biblically grounded truth. The Feinbergs provide a timely and effective resource for dealing with the most crucial issues of our day, and they do it in ways as appealing as they are compelling.”
—Daniel R. Heimbach, Professor of Christian Ethics, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary; author, Truth, Sex, and Morality
“Since the first edition, changes in the world have only made this book’s title more apt. Again and again, science fiction has become science fact; and with masterful theological discernment, John Feinberg helps us to make sense of what is happening. He does a tremendous service by gathering and interpreting an ocean of literature on key issues of our day. Readers will come away informed about the issues, conversant with the multi-faceted debates that swirl around these vital challenges, and equipped and inspired to engage them in a way that glorifies God.”
—John F. Kilner, PhD, Professor of Bioethics and Contemporary Culture and Forman Chair of Ethics and Theology, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
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