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. In the last post, I set forth “Love of neighbor and love of God” as my core ethical principle. In this post, I look at the choices some others have made for their key to ethics.
Almighty God, we entrust all who are dear to us to thy never-failing care and love, for this life and the life to come, knowing that thou art doing for them better things than we can desire or pray for; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Why Care About Alternate Core Principles?
I began this series with a survey of authorities on ethics, primarily the Bible, but extending to theologians and commentators of numerous stripes, even some who are not Christian. Those authorities were weighted and put into the pot for analysis. From that pot, I drew forth a single organizing principle for my ethics: the summary of the law from the gospels.
“you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Mark 12:30-31
And I interpreted that commandment to love with I Corinthians 13.
What then, are we to make of other people who choose different passages to focus their ethical reasoning? My choice was not the only one possible. It certainly would not have been the core ethical principle for everyone on my list of authorities. Everyone made it on that list for a reason, and as an Anglican ethicist, I need to do more than create a new ethics. I need to do more than figure out that I disagree with some of them. I need to figure out why. I respect these authorities because they have something to offer. I want to know what their perspective offered them and others, even if I choose not to accept it myself.
I want to understand for four very important reasons.
1) Compassion: since love is one of my goals, I find it important to know why other people think the way that they do. Identifying key principles in scripture, tradition, and reason can help me understand the authorities better as well as the people who follow their advice.
2) Weighting: the process of ethical reasoning I have outlined relies critically on knowing the authoritative opinions and weighting them appropriately. Every time I discover something new about ethics – and I really think there is something to discover – it updates the weights I put on different authorities. Assessing authorities allows me to evaluate them more accurately in the future.
3) Change: our morality changes with time. Whether we like it or not, the norms and expectations of society shift from generation to generation. The message of the gospel does not change, but the way it interacts with the world does. Particularly with regard to sexual ethics, it will be important to identify the different standards set by different generations. We will find, as we progress, that Hebrews, Greeks, Medieval Europeans, and Modern Americans have some very different ideas about sex and some of them have to do with differences in core ethical principles. We will find it impossible to properly understand authorities in different ages unless we keep an eye on their primary goals.
4) Partnership: most of the difficult questions in sexual ethics involve more than one person. Love requires that our actions conform not only to our own priorities, but to those of our partners. I’ll say more on this later, when we get to specific ethical principles. Just know that it will be important to understand your partner’s motivations and values before entering too deeply into an intimate relationship.
In the next few posts, I will look at other principles that have played an important role in Christian sexual ethics, namely obedience and purity.