Re: Religious Life/Professional Ethics

George Murphy (
Mon, 02 Feb 1998 08:18:32 -0500

Ruth Douglas Miller wrote:

> I am in agreement with Dennis here; I teach engineering ethics, though
> admittedly as the typical ignorant engineer speaking authoritatively on
> matters in which I have no training, and I ask the students to think of any
> "rule of life" that can't be traced back to the Golden Rule and/or the 10
> Commandments. Ethics have to start somewhere!

I don't think the problem is whether or not such rules can be
traced back to fundamental ones of the Judaeo-Christian (often in common
with other traditions). Rather, are there rules which are relevant to
the issue at hand. In some cases I think there just are not - e.g.,
genetic engineering & cloning. Here traditional rules apply to some
aspects of the question - e.g., treatment of "excess" embryos - but
those are really peripheral to the fundamental question of whether GE or
cloning in themselves are appropriate. Belief that traditional rules do
apply in all such situations can lead to the sometimes rather arcane
procedure by which Jewish or Islamic authorities try to apply torah or
Qu'ran to them.

> I would submit, in response to the excellent post that started this thread,
> that perhaps Xians have more difficulty responding to a difficult ethical
> situation b/c we are too often encouraged to look at the world as black and
> white, and have no training, in church or school, in how to deal with the
> grey. Yet bringing full Christ-like thinking to most human situations
> (what would Christ do here) _ought_ to bring most of us to paralysis, or we
> do not see all the sides of the issue. This seeing all sides is the
> hardest part, for me, to get students to do.

In some difficult situations the problem isn't that the Ten
Commandments don't say anything but that the what is required by one
Commandment appears to conflict with another. Should I steal food if
that's the only way to keep my family from dying? Often such questions
get shrouded in talk about consequences, intentions, primary & secondary
causality &c which are interesting but which conceal the fact that
finally I have to decide one way or another & have a choice about the
It's perhaps worth noting that there is some significant
theological difference between Lutheran & Reformed traditions on the
roles of the law. All serious Christians agree that the law has
proper uses - to "diagnose" & reprove sin (Rom.3:19) & to maintain order
in society. But does the law have a separate function as a guide for
Christians (i.e., in telling those who are justified what they should
do, as distinguished from its functions of pointing out to them that
they're still sinners and telling them they still have to live in the
world)? Calvin emphatically said "yes". The Lutheran tradition has
been more a bit more hesitant about that - & I think properly so. A
great deal of traditional Christian ethics of all communities really
hasn't taken seriously enough Paul's arguments, especially in Galatians,
that Christians are no longer bound by the law - & there he does _not_
mean just OT ceremonial law.

George L. Murphy