I may have mentioned that I’m working on my doctorate. It’s an inter-disciplinary study, which basically means that I was able to choose the courses that I think I’ll best be able to use in my work.

Last week I handed in my coursework for “The Problem of Evil,” and for the next couple of months I’ll be studying bioethics—I thought the topic would give me good fodder for my novels.

Yesterday I read a chapter in my textbook on ethical systems and ways of moral reasoning. It applied names to all the ways people reason, and yesterday afternoon, since I was taking some time off, I watched a movie I’d recorded off the TV: “A Bronx Tale.”

Then I found myself floored as ways of ethical reasoning announced themselves with flashing lights. No, not really, but once I learned the buzzwords, I was able to see how characters in the movie justified their actions using weak ethical methods.

For instance: in one scene, a nine-year-old boy witnesses a murder. When the cops come knocking, the boy’s father tells them the boy “didn’t see nothing.” The boy, however, tells them he saw everything, so the cops take him downstairs for an impromptu lineup.

The father lied out of fear. The boy, however, lies because he thinks the gunman is the coolest guy in the world, and he wants to protect him. The end result is the same—the killer gets off—and the boy asks his dad, “Did I do the right thing?” The dad says, “Yeah, you did a good thing for a bad man. But you had to do what was best for us, so yeah, you did the right thing. But I don’t want you hanging around that man ever again.”

Immediately, I recognized the moral reasoning involved: UTILITARIANISM, that which says morality is determined by the end result. If telling a lie and covering for a killer keeps the family out of trouble with the mob, then it was the right thing to do. Trouble is, nobody thought about the dead guy in the street . . . . who was looking out for his interests?

In a later scene, the kid is grown up, a teenager, and he’s asking the mob guy (who’s become a second father to him), if he should date a black girl. “You gotta do what’s right for you,” the thug says. “You gotta follow your heart.”

Again, lights flashed in my head. That’s ETHICAL EGOISM, and even Scripture indicates that a degree of ethical egoism is valid. God motivates his people by promising blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. The weakness of ethical obedience is that it must be balanced with a concern for others—you can’t live in a world that runs only by your reasoning and your desires.

The kid goes on, loving this slick hood, and I realize I’m seeing the embodiment of VIRTUE THEORY: we choose an “ideal person” and model our morality after his/her example. Christians, of course, model their morality around Christ (Example: what would Jesus do?), but this kid was modeling himself after a street-smart thug.

Now . . . it’d be nice if I had a point, wouldn’t it? I find all of this very interesting, and I know it’ll be useful as I get ready to write columns for my local newspaper and for my books. As Christians, we use a combination of divine command, natural law, and virtue theory to conduct our moral reasoning. I’m looking forward to being able to deconstruct some arguments and build others that will stand up against faulty systems.




  1. Anonymous

    This brought an interesting thought to my mind. By the definitions you gave, would Rahab in the Old Testament be using utilitarianism in her lie to protect the spies hiding on her roof? Her lie brought about the desired result–the spies were safe and able to go free.
    Scripture never comments on her lie. If lying is never right, would God have intervened another way on the spies behalf? What do you think?

  2. Angela

    Yes, Rahab did use utilitarianism–or ethical egoism (she did what was best for her and her family).

    If you were hiding Jews in your house and the Nazis asked if you knew where Jews were, would you hand them in? This is one of those situations where we must reason things through–and I discussed a lot of this in my novel, THE TRUTH TELLER.

    My final opinion? We owe truth to God and to fellow believers, but we do not owe it to the enemy. However, each of us must walk in obedience and listen for the voice of the Spirit . . . because God may urge us to give truth so that He can do something.

    God did, however, bless the Egyptian midwives when they lied to save Hebrew babies. He also allowed lying spirits to advise a king. Hmm. Elisha (or was it Elijah?) once lied to heathens who’d come to kill him.

    There’s a story in the Truth Teller about the Lying Baptist versus the Truthful Baptists. It’s a true story about a church that split over a farmer who lied with savages came to kill his family . . . fascinating.


  3. Becky

    Have you seen this article (Disowning Conservative Politics Is Costly for Pastor)? It is on AOL news. The link is http://news.aol.com/topnews/articles/_a/disowning-conservative-politics-is/n20060729212509990001

    I read it and thought of what you have said. I agree with some of the things in the article, but a lot of it makes me uneasy. Jesus DID get involved with culture. He DID take a stand against the moneychangers, but not against the Roman government. I guess I think the disagreement here is over absolute truth.

    If you have any thoughts or insights as you continue with your studies, I’d be pleased to read them.

  4. Angela

    I read that article in the New York Times over my breakfast this morning. The pastor, Gregory Boyd, is no stranger to me–as the Lord would have it, I had to read his book on Warfare Theodicy just last month for one of my classes–and I strongly disagreed with huge parts of it.

    I don’t think a church should become in politics, for the church’s priority should be the gospel–sharing it, living it. On the other hand, I DO think that churches should equip members to become active in society so that we can be effective in promoting things that enable people to live godly lives. And when a government sets out to disenfrancise an entire segment of the population (for instance, the unborn), then we have a responsibility to speak out.

    I’ll post my review of that textbook in another post . . .


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