Over the last month, many of us have experienced disbelief, worry, and finally numbness. Due to these concerns, we naturally have tried to define our situation and what we should do. How do we protect the vulnerable? How do we protect our economy? How do these two concerns mesh?
Many experts have put their shoulders to the plow to figure out these matters, and I will not (and cannot) add to these specific questions since I neither have the requisite skill nor the ability to review all the data. What I do have are faith and Christian ethics.
And through these, we can navigate the difficult ethical waters of the coming months with some confidence.
Almost everyone has a moral compass of some sort. For some, it can be so damaged that a person celebrates evil as if it were good. Consciences can be marred. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit renovates our natures so that we can again will and choose what is good, honorable, and right.
So what I propose here is possible for Christians, and aspirational for those who are not. In sum, there are three primary tendencies in ethical reasoning within North America. The first is utilitarianism. This tendency defines what is good as being the best for the most people.
The second is expressive individualism. What is good is what most fulfills a person. For example, consider the relatively common phrases, “You do you” or “find yourself.” The movie Frozen II focuses on self-discovery and self-actualization. These represent emphasises on expressive individualism.
The last, and now somewhat forgotten about, often goes under the name of virtue ethics. Basically, this view defines goodness as the practice of individual virtue. So a person acts on the basis of what is right without specific regard for utilitarian concerns or expressive individualism.
Obviously, these patterns of ethical thinking overlap. And for Christians, we often want to do good to the whole church, we want to express ourselves truly, and only a good true can produce good fruit. So each tendency overlaps somewhat with Christian ethics and so scriptural patterns of thinking.
As you might guess, Christians ethics really includes various tendencies that find their centre in God’s revelation. Yet some aspects of each view can be eliminated. First, utilitarianism can define what is good for the most as almost anything. So if it defines the economy as good and safety as bad, then it may skew off the rails. Who defines what is good? What is good? Utilitarianism may unwisely define the good for society.
Likewise, expressive individualism can run amok largely because it involves selfishness at its centre. And when expressive individualism works in a utilitarian society, then it can define the best for society as the best for oneself!
Virtue ethics in its general form has the virtue of defining goodness in an objective way. A good action is good by definition, and practicing that good action makes one virtuous. Hence, it may be good to deny oneself (contra expressive individualism) because selfishness is wrong; it may also be right to act virtuously even if it harms people as when a military leader will not commit an atrocity to win a war even though it may mean his side loses (against some forms of utilitarianism).
It also seems to fit with Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and particularly with his emphasis that only a good tree produces good fruit (Matt 7:17). Of course, defining “good” still creates problems. But thankfully, Christians can interpret divine revelation to define what is good, holy, and just (Rom 7:12).
Interestingly, Christians have agreed over the centuries and usually emphasized a kind of virtue based ethics over the years. In one sense, how could they not? Christianity emphasizes a way of living, of acting and being in the world. It defines goodness objectively.
So how do we navigate the world today?
Every city is made up of individuals whose actions contribute to the whole picture of the city. If many citizens act virtuously, then the city itself will be virtuous. In this sense, Christians who pursue goodness in their community can truly become, as Jesus, said, “the salt of the earth” or the “light of the world” (Matt 5:13, 14).
God not only justifies but it also sanctifies us. We become new creations in the world since Jesus sent the Holy Spirit into the world to renovate it. He ascended so that we could follow him.
Hence, we follow certain ways of living that the Spirit empowers us to accomplish. For example, 2 Peter 1:3–9 says:
3 His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, 4 by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.
5 For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, 6 and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, 7 and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.
8 For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins.
This list of virtues indicates in sum that God has called us to “excellence” as defined in this list. We are called to virtue, to goodness, and every other honourable behaviour.
Some guidelines for ethics in a COVID19 world
While I know that I have not exactly argued for a case here, I hope I have illustrated how one scriptural pattern of ethics involves being a good tree that produces good fruit, which 2 Peter defines through its list of virtues.
Other passages likewise encourage us to pursue virtue as an objective reality despite society not understanding it to be beneficial and often through denying oneself.
This leaves something like virtue ethics for Christianity as one key revelatory pattern for Christian ethics.
And therefore during a time when we argue about whether we should continue physical distancing or restart the economy, here are some guidelines:
- Be virtuous, meaning love God and your neighbour. This perspective favours physical distancing. It does not invalidate economic concerns.
- Do not ask: what will kill more, the virus or the economy? That leans too heavily towards utilitarianism—and a rather dark version of it. Instead, concentrate on ways to empower virtuous acts of both love (safety for others) and provision (i.e., economy). Do not count deaths as such. Avoid the trolley problem.
- Do not argue for change based on your comfort level or your future comfort level. Do what it is right because it is right; and because you practice what is right. Comfort is not by itself a good, and so worrying about a future lack of comfort because we care for others today is not a good argument.
With that said, most of us are not experts. We must listen to wise politicians and epidemiologists. To confidently state our opinion without the requisite expertise vitiates the virtue of wisdom. Wisdom knows its limits and is not quick to speak but quick to listen (James 1:19).