Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"Do like Captain Kirk...

...or do I like Picard?" White and Nerdy by Weird Al.

My philosophy buddy used a delicious description of the discussion of philosophical ethics and morality; she called it the "large creature that is morality and ethics." How true and picturesque! She describes how outcome, intent, circumstances, and conditions are directly influential on the rightness or wrongness of an act--the morality thereof. She used the moral dilemma of a train wreck:

"For instance, you're the only one who is able to change the outcome of a situation in which if you pull a lever the train track will switch and save 10 people and kill 5, but if you do nothing it will save 5 people and kill 10. We may claim killing is always wrong, but in this situation you will be responsible for killing some and saving others, and we may still claim that one action is the right thing to do."

And while we Americans would doubtless lean toward whatever decision allows us to save the most people, we must also take into account--what if I save the most people but purely with the motive that someone I hated was in the group with less people? Ultimately I saved the majority (morally superior?) but my intentions leading to that decision were morally reprehensible. So the moral validity of my decision is in question, though the outcome seems, on the surface to be preferable.

Indeed, even the Bible makes it clear that, if I may make a sweeping statement, there are different rules for different people. We can't take this TOO far, obviously, but the Bible says that while some people can eat or drink whatever they want and it's fine, for some people, they can not eat or drink what they want--you must eat or drink firmly as your conscience leads, and don't try to wangle your way in or out of things morally. But we must be extremely cautious here--situational ethics is a slippery slope, and there must be a stop point somewhere that will let us say, "thus far and no further."

Friends, I know I've used this example before, but are any of you Star Trek fans? My mom is a bit of a Trekkie, so I was raised with the classic Captain Kirk series. Something he (Kirk) said has stuck with me my whole life--and though it's a silly place for me to found my moral philosophy, I think it's a fairly solid idea. Kirk says that he does not believe in no-win situations (The new Star Trek emphasizes this idea too, which I loved). Kirk believes that there is always a right decision, and throughout the whole series the lesson he learns is that "winning" does not always look like we think it should--though it appears that the writers agree and support Kirk's philosophy that there is always a way to win, or more specifically, that there's always a right decision.

So if I take this idea into the situational jungles with our creature that is morality and ethics, and we tangle and fight through the undergrowth, I am forced against those moral dilemmas like the train example described above. I truly believe that when stuck between a rock and a hard place there is always a right decision for every single person. The great thing here is to believe in the sovereignty of God. I know God can use even my wrong decisions to end up with the best solution--that's the whole point of the story of Joseph in the Bible. What man intended for evil God intended for good. Now that does make the actions of those men any less evil morally for themselves, but the greater picture is less hopeless--the good guys DO win.

As for myself, I will make the best decision I can under the circumstances and then throw myself at the feet of Grace and trust God's goodness to forgive my sins as He promised, and to better equip me every day to make better and better decisions. Therefore I can live my life boldly doing or not doing, so long as I seek to do the right thing, and am not careless with my doings. And I will step out with a firmness and determination, intending and hoping that I am always doing the right thing. (Was it Martin Luther who said, "if you're going to sin, sin boldly"?)

Of course Captain Kirk doesn't quote the Bible to back his philosophy--or if he does I missed that episode--but his life is lived boldly and fearlessly and though he struggles with decisions on occasion and sometimes loses the things dearest to him (like his son) the outcome always remains the same: he saves mankind and sets himself up to be the perfect hero for the next big adventure. Voila! Isn't fiction charming?

At any rate, the grand point is this: if good and evil is limited by definition to what we do--incorporating our intent, situation, conditions of the dilemma, outside forces, and the limitations of immediate knowledge--how can we ever be sure, or even reasonably confident that we are doing the "right" thing? We cannot go through life paralyzed by fear that we will do something wrong; yet it would be foolhardy in the extreme, and I think extremely arrogant as well, to live as if we knew everything and to go making ethical decisions right and left without regard to the impact they will have, especially considering our limited knowledge. Without the comfort of trusting in a God who will work everything out for good, what are we to do?

Regardless of whether you believe in a God orchestrating or not, it seems like this is where "rules of the game" would be nice. Things that everyone can and should agree on--specific rights and wrongs and morals--like "do not murder innocent people" or "do not steal." Perhaps even just the idea of virtues--love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control. And as we've seen through history--most clearly recently in 9/11--we cannot just depend on the good will of mankind.

So where are we to get these rules, if not the Bible, or are they necessary after all?

Here is to truth!

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