Ethical Reflections: Ethics & Logic
Because this space is piggy-backing on my previous column In the Light of Logic, perhaps we should correlate the study of logic with the study of ethics. The two are closely entwined, as flip sides of the same coin. Ethics concerns right conduct, as logic relates to right reasoning. Where logic deals with the reasoning process pertaining to the truth or falsehood of statements, ethics deals with the rightness or wrongness of actions. Both logic and ethics presuppose that truth and goodness are real, and that reasoning logically or ethically can bring us closer to the ideal or the standard. Christians believe that God is the author of Truth and Goodness, and that there are absolute standards to which we can aspire. Logic is foundational to ethics, because ethics is reasoning about the rightness or wrongness of conduct. That reasoning can either be logical, and conclusions necessarily derived from premises, or illogical and inconsistent. Logic also helps us to think clearly about what is being argued ethically, and whether the basis of an argument has been assumed, or actually proved. Many people argue against the death penalty, for example, assuming that because the taking of the life of a person is involved that death is affirmed rather than life. This conclusion does not follow from the premises. The argument goes something like this. Whatever affirms life should not involve death. The death penalty involves the death of a person. Therefore, the death penalty does not affirm life. Though this is a valid argument, it is not true because it contains a false premise: the first one. To demonstrate that sometimes death serves life, consider that the near-death experiences of many people have resulted in a much greater appreciation of the value of life, family, health, etc. So in that case, the reality of death served to bring about a greater commitment to life and that which gives life. Ethical reasoning and reflection is only as good as its standard for what constitutes true goodness. Today, much ethical reflection is proffered that admits to no absolute moral standard, and is thus self-refuting. For instance, if one thinks that there is no absolute moral standard for what constitutes right conduct, then any conclusion about some action being immoral is only a matter of one’s personal opinion or taste. Even the sacrifice of innocent children, then, might be perfectly justifiable in some cultures, but I just find it personally distasteful. I could decide to sacrifice you to my gods and you cannot say that what I do is wrong in any meaningful way. All you can do is seek a practical escape, and to run like heck when you see me coming with my knife. Ethics evaluates our behaviors and seeks to find rightness or wrongness in the things that we choose. We do not pronounce ethical judgments about the behavior of raccoons, because they are not capable of choosing good behavior over bad, or of making such moral judgments. We do not blame raccoons for trying to climb into our garbage cans and spreading trash everywhere, because we know that they are just acting on their instincts. We humans, however, are not ruled by instinct. We can and must make choices about what to believe and how to act, and we are accountable for our choices because we have choices (i.e., freedom of will). These choices are made in various contexts, and some choices are more apparent than others. Christian ethics sees humans as responsible for their moral choices, even when those choices are made for us unless we choose otherwise. For example, the choice to be racist in the pre-civil rights South did not appear to be a choice but it was. A very few people
refused to comply with the injustice of slavery and bigotry and paid a stiff penalty for it up to and including death. Others could have chosen to resist, but didn’t because of fear and self-interest. Biblically and ethically, strong social pressure to conform to unethical...
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