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Hoosier Musings on the Road to Emmaus

Saturday, January 31, 2004

Ethics II - Week 4

This week our topic was "Forms and Norms of Ethics."

I had done the reading for the first class on Tuesday-- some 20 short articles, detailing a wide variety of approaches to Christian Ethics, written and expounded by theologians large and small. And, though I'm hardly any kind of expert after a few hours of survey reading, I thought I was prepared for the class. I felt I had a fair grasp of the main points, of the gist of the arguments.

Then I walked in the classroom. The discussion quickly went into a land of ethical theory that is not where I live at all; and my mind, looking desperately for a marked trail, got lost in the forest of amorphous chalkboard illustrations, and arrows that were not directional, and connections I simply couldn't seem to make. Moving from the actual to the virtual... the real to the possible... and different understandings of the Trinity sort of overlaid on it all.

Boy, did I feel clueless.

You know what helped? Bouncing it off someone who wasn't there. Nothing like trying to explain something, to force learning.

So, here's the result:

The present reality is kind of like facing the kitchen, and trying to decide what to do there. Initially, the possibilities are infinite: cooking, perhaps, but what? Or if not cooking, then maybe holding a conversation, or redecorating, or making love on the countertop. Then those possibilities get limited, by preference (I'd rather bake cookies than roll out a pie crust) , or experiencial background (kitchens are not supposed to be orange), or circumstance (the counter isn't big enough for the both of us).

So finally you make a choice, based on whatever criteria. Let's say you decide to bake oatmeal raisin cookies. This further defines the actual reality, as well as narrowing the path for future decisions, defining what sorts of kitchen-related stuff you're about to do next, as well as what you're likely to do another time.

Now, suppose you're the kind of person who keeps a journal. You record the experience of oatmeal-raisin cookie making that day-- your thoughts, your feelings, your disappointment over the whole counter-size issue. If, say, five years later, you remember the event, and look up what you wrote, it's very likely that your memories - the virtual reality of the event - will be quite different than what you recorded in the actual reality of the moment.

This is how I see ethical thinking. We are faced with myriad choices and possibilities every day, large and small, for ethical consideration. The forms and norms of ethics are what we use, consciously or not, to narrow the possibilities and shape our realities.

Forms: Do I make a decision deontologically, choosing to do what seems to be my duty, regardless of how awkward or painful the result might be? Or teleologically, looking at the end result, and forging ahead by whatever means necessary? Or situationally, looking at what seems to be the greatest good at the moment?

And Norms: what do we accept as givens, as default positions? If I declare myself to be a Christian, what do I hold as foundational virtues (faith, hope, love?) and standards that someone of another faith background-- or none-- may or may not?

These are only a few broad brushstrokes, I know; there are many forms and norms in ethical thought, and ethicists further define and nuance within them. But these, for good or ill, provide the basis of how we live in the actual, as well as how we filter the virtual; and how we move from what is possible, to what is real.

Opinions, anyone? Questions? Fire away; I'm still absorbing, and that'd help.

In the meantime, I'm headed to the kitchen.


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