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What’s Right?

“Don’t hit your sister. ”

“Why not?”

“Because I said so.”

Because I said so. This is the earliest lesson in morality that most children get. What’s right and wrong is determined by the rules handed down from on high. More likely, morality becomes more about the fear of punishment than anything else. I probably would have still hit my sister if there weren’t negative consequences to keep me from doing so.

Unfortunately, most people (myself included, and how someone can have a Master’s of Theology without a course on ethics is beyond me) haven’t taken their study of morality and ethics much further than this. They simply live life and never take a moment to pause and think about why they believe what they believe about moral issues.

This becomes clear when there are really controversial topics on the news. Should we clone people? Should embryonic stem cells be used for study? Should a society accept homosexual marriages? Is there an acceptable time to terminate a pregnancy?

When these questions come up, it becomes clear how little we have thought about how to make moral decisions. Most people will spout off some thoughts without ever thinking about the unquestioned assumptions that guide their thinking.

Someone may say, “Homosexuals should be permitted to get married because they aren’t hurting anyone else,” or, “Abortion is wrong, even in the case of rape,” without even pausing to think about the large statements she is making about morality and ethics with those statements.

So how do we determine what is right and wrong? How do we know good from evil?

One helpful way of classifying ethical decisions is to divide between deontological and teleological ethics. Deontological ethics focus on ‘duty.’ Teleological ethics tend to focus on ‘goals.’

As an example, if a person were to say that it is wrong to sacrifice an embryo for its stem cells even if 100 lives could be saved because we have an obligation to protect all life, he would be emphasizing duty (deontological).

On the other hand, if one were to say that a person should lie to the Nazi soldier to protect the Jewish person she is hiding, she would be emphasizing goals (teleological). The results of her actions are good, so they are good actions.

If you’re like most people, you tend to believe a bit of both of these things and bounce back and forth from issue to issue. You may believe there is a duty to protect all human life, which makes abortion wrong in all circumstances (deontological). At the same time, you may believe that war is sometimes justified if it can save more lives than it costs (teleological).

I want to hear from you. Have you ever thought about why you believe certain things are right or wrong? How do you determine what’s right?

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