ok, it hasn't won anything yet.
i was asked to write up something for a contest celebrating the 20th anniversary for the ethics and values course at uvsc. here is what i managed to pull out of my butt last night.
Ethics, Values, and Religious Convictions
Too often the study of ethics and values as a general requirement at Utah Valley State College is seen as a conflict of interests for the many religiously raised students in the school. Because religion has provided the grounds for their personal ethical outlook on life, and has instilled within them values which they deeply hold, a secular institution requiring them to study ethical theories and encouraging them to critically investigate their own values can be seen as a threat, or even an insult, to their religious beliefs. This view, however, is unnecessary. Not only should the critical studying of ethics and values not contradict our personal beliefs, but doing so gives us the tools to both evaluate and actualize our religious convictions.
The notion that studying different ethical theories and value systems threatens and insults our potentially religiously grounded views is based on the false idea that secular theories are taught as necessarily more correct than religious ones. This mistake becomes quickly apparent when it is understood that a proper studying of ethics and values does not begin with a presupposition that particular theories are in actuality more correct than other theories. Rather, each theory (including different religious-based ethics) should be presented and understood as one among many. Kant, Mill, Marx, and even Jesus should be evaluated for their content, each with the potential of having something to accept or reject. This does not mean that morality is relative; instead, it means that the moral choices we have to make are not always simple, but are often extremely complex, even with deep religious convictions. Questions of honesty, sex, economics, business, family, death, and life often cannot be summed up with a simple shall or shall not. Instead of presenting a particular theory as the theory of all theories, the proper studying of ethics and values provides a wide range of tools that helps us make what we may feel is the best possible choice. In the end, this may include in part (or in total) our religiously based ethics.
While we may be completely justified in basing our ethical choices on personally held religious convictions, it is no hidden truth that history is replete with incidents of violence and other highly questionable actions, all done in the name of religion. From Yahweh commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son to terrorists killing innocents in the name of Allah, and from the Mormon Meadow Massacre to the murder of abortion doctors, it is sometimes important to step back and evaluate the ethical implications of our religious convictions. What does it mean to say that God is good, and then subsequently assert that this good God requires us to do something we would normally call not good, even evil? The common response that God’s ways are not our ways, or that God has a different understanding of what is good, renders the assertion ‘God is good’ meaningless. My saying that a pen has blue ink, but a totally different sense than our understanding of blue, says nothing about the color of the ink. Likewise, saying God is morally good, but good in a different sense than our understanding of good, says nothing about God’s morals. This conflation of differing ideas of moral goodness can lead to post hoc justifications, where an action which would normally be considered immoral (such as Dan Lafferty killing his sister-in-law and niece), suddenly becomes moral because of its supposed divine origin.
The study of ethical theories and value systems aid in avoiding this problem by providing tools with which religious believers can evaluate purported commandments and ethical beliefs (I say purported, because immoral actions in the name of religion, are usually believed to be from God). Typically, the idea is that if a commandment or belief comes from God, then it is morally good. By modus tollens then, if a commandment or believe is not morally good, it does not come from God. For example, I may believe God has commanded me to steal my roommate’s Ipod. If I chose to do what would normally be immoral and defer to some ‘higher’ or different morality possessed by God, then I essentially render the claim of God’s moral goodness meaningless. However, if I appeal to a meaningful understanding of God’s goodness, then I have a standard by which to judge the possible commandment. By applying other ethical theories, I know that stealing the Ipod is still immoral, and thus not commanded by a moral God. Similarly, a prophet in Mormon scriptures, Nephi, uses the same technique to examine what he felt was commanded by God. Though initially the command seemed to require an immoral act, through a utilitarian evaluation (by sacrificing one, many more can be blessed), Nephi determined that the command was moral and compatible with his belief in a moral God. Thus, by critically evaluating the content of a purported belief or action, we can maintain an understandable concept of God’s goodness and provide meaningful application of that concept in our lives.
Finally, not only do the study of ethics and values provide us with tools to evaluate and give meaning to our religious convictions, they also provide us with tools for applying many of our religious ethics in our daily lives. First, the tools gained through study aid in clarifying sometimes ambiguous, antiquated, or seemingly contradictory ethical claims within our religious beliefs. How should we understand what it means to honor our parents or not bear false witness? How do we live ancient sexual, social, and medical commands today? How should we reconcile conflicting beliefs to not lie, steal, or kill with examples of commands to do the very opposite? The study of ethics provides new light to these sometimes difficult questions by providing alternate ways of understanding them. Second, the study of ethics can fortify our religious convictions by providing additional backing to support our moral decisions. There is no reason why we should live solely on the heels of our religious beliefs. Like Nephi, additional ethical evaluations enable us to act “by study and also by faith” by incorporating critical ethical thinking into our religious lives. Third, the study of ethics and values provide us with methods to apply our religious convictions where they may be otherwise vague or anachronistic in our modern age. What is the best way to love our neighbor? To what extent should we give national loyalty? How should we understand war and theft with our modern economics, globalization, and technology? The critical study of ethical theories and value systems provide tools for applying our underlying religious convictions in today’s world. They enable us to live out our religious lives to our fullest extent.
In conclusion, the critical study of ethical theories and value systems should not be understood as a threat or insult to our religious convictions. To the contrary, they provide tools to help us through our religious lives. The study of ethics enables us to critically evaluate our religious beliefs to ensure they meet the ethical requirements we should expect of them. It also provides us with the tools to full apply those beliefs. The study of ethics and values is not a hindrance to, but helpmeet for our religious convictions.