Posted by: dacalu | 6 February 2014

Core Ethical Principles

This post continues a series on ethics.  My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics.  The process began by exploring relevant authorities and continued with an outline for moral reasoning.  That outline included a call for constant prayer, study, discussion, and reflection before, during, and even choices are made – an idea I think of as “due diligence.”  Am I doing the work I need to do to consider myself a thoughtful, moral Christian?  Step 4 calls for identifying core ethical principles.

 

O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgment, and light riseth up in darkness for the godly: Grant us, in all our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what thou wouldest have us to do, that the Spirit of wisdom may save us from all false choices, and that in thy light we may see light, and in thy straight path may not stumble; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

Finding a Core

When thinking about ethics, how do you move from the vast expanse of learned opinion to workable rules for daily life? We start by focusing our knowledge through a lens. Even the Bible alone would be too long and diverse to summarize in a sentence or two.  So you pick a few basic principles by which to orient yourself and, through due diligence, constantly reassess whether they do their job properly.  Anglicans usually use a passage or two of scripture as both a meditation and an ethical focus.  I have heard L William Countryman and Paul Zahl refer to this as a “canon within the canon” (an authoritative key to the authoritative text).

I am not suggesting that we condense all of our ethical authorities into a single perspective and then ignore the rest.  That would be simplistic.  Instead, I am saying that we need to start with a few principles that we can use as a touchstone while we explore the issues. When you get lost in the masses of options and opinions, you can use your core ethical principles as a place to return to.  I see these principles as a lens through which to view the breadth of Christian witness, not as a filter by which to exclude inconvenient truth.  There is simply too much in scripture, tradition, and reason to deal with it all at once.

Different thinkers view the scriptures through different lenses.  Small differences in this first choice can lead to radical differences in moral standards. Reason dictates we should be critically aware of how we take this step.  Compassion requires that we pay attention to the choices others make so that we can understand their perspectives.

The Summary of the Law

Most liberal Episcopalians work with Jesus’ summary of the law: love God with your whole being and love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:30-31, Matthew 22:37-39). The principle works well as a core principle for a number of reasons.  Chief among them: it is succinct, Jesus refers to it as a summary of the law, and it agrees well with parallel passages in the Old Testament and Rabbinic literature.

Love, of course, is a tricky concept, and it can be unclear what best constitutes “love,” whether love of God and love of neighbor can conflict, and, if so, which one wins.  Luckily, we have the rest of scripture and thousands of years of commentary to unpack this word “love.” Let me give you one or two points of contact for what the summary of the law means to me.

My first reference would be to I Corinthians 13.  “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.” Love excuses neither attempts to control the beloved nor failure to control the self. “It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Love is not about correctness, but about forbearance. “If I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” Love even trumps faith.”

My second reference would be to I John 9.  “Whoever says, ‘I am in the light’, while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness.”  Love of God entails and requires love of neighbor.  And the reverse is true as well.  If you think you have to choose, you have, in some very important way, missed the point.

My third reference would be to the writings of CS Lewis in The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce, where he speaks with humor and great insight into love as well as the excuses we give when we choose not to. There are, of course, countless other commentaries on love.  I find the Mahayana Buddhist concept of “compassion” to be useful just because it does not have the baggage of Western ideas of charity and lust built into it.  (No doubt it has its own baggage.)

I will defend the Summary of the Law as the Core Ethical Principle not because it is the only option, but because it is the option I have chosen.  In this case, I really do think it is the best option, but in the next post, I turn to other possibilities.

 

 

 

 

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Responses

  1. […] for developing sexual ethics.  The process began by exploring relevant authorities.  In the last post, I set forth “Love of neighbor and love of God” as my core ethical principle.  In this post, I […]

  2. […] My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics.  In a recent post, I set forth “Love of neighbor and love of God” as my core ethical principle.  In this post, I […]

  3. […] on ethics. My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics. In a recent post, I set forth “Love of neighbor and love of God” as my core ethical principle. In this post, I […]

  4. […] on ethics. My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics. In a recent post, I set forth “Love of neighbor and love of God” as my core ethical principle. The last post […]

  5. […] my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics. In recent posts, I have addressed love, obedience, and purity as possible candidates for core ethical principles. Here I turn to […]

  6. […] here). My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics. In a recent post, I set forth “Love of neighbor and love of God” as my core ethical principle. In this post, I […]

  7. […] Love […]


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