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Trade Paperback
345 pages
Oct 2004
InterVarsity Press

Doing Right: Practicing Ethical Principles

by David W. Gill

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Chapter 1

Mapless Travelers and
Christian Cartographers

More than once in my life I have wandered around unnecessarily for long periods of time on foot or in my car because I was utterly confused and lost. Why? Because I have a personality defect that makes me think I can somehow sense where to go or perhaps remember my way from a previous visit. But this is pure self-delusion: I have no such sense of direction, and my memory for directions is conclusively unreliable.

There are only two possible solutions to my problem. The first is to be sure I always have someone with me who knows where we are and how to get where we need to go. The second is to get a good map or clear directions for my travel. Fortunately, my wife has a great sense of direction and a good memory for such things. As long as I keep my instincts and comments to myself (alas, not always possible) and follow her advice and intuition, we get where we need to go. Unfortunately, she is not always available, and I am either too cheap to buy a map or too hasty to get directions. So I waste time going in circles.

Once in a great while my mapless, unguided travel results in an unexpected discovery. Much more often it wastes my time and gasoline (and contributes unnecessarily to air pollution and traffic congestion). Sometimes I have been late and missed the beginning of a great performance. (Once I had to watch the first half of an expensive opera on a television monitor in the lobby. “Sorry, no latecomer seating!”) Sometimes my mapless travel follies make other people wait for me. (This is great for their disposition and general happiness and for our relationship, as you can imagine.) I’ve never harmed anyone, but you can imagine that speeding drivers who are lost or running late might seriously injure someone in their haste.

This saga of maps and travel provides a helpful metaphor for ethics and life. Ethical guidelines are just as essential for finding your way in life as good maps and directions are for finding your way geographically. The Bible is full of the language of pilgrimage and migration toward the promised land. Walking in the way and the truth is a common metaphor. Map and travel imagery has the additional virtue of emphasizing the dynamic, open, developmental character of the Christian life—in contrast to the static, abstract and dispassionate character of most ethics (and theology) literature.

But are maps really so important? Isn’t this just a matter of taste and preference (anal-retentive map followers vs. free-spirited mapless troubadours)? Perhaps if we lived in small towns with one street and five or ten houses, we wouldn’t need maps. But our ethical world today is vastly more complex, crowded and dangerous. Traveling without a moral map can result in crashes and injuries; in getting lost in dangerous and lonely places; in aimless, meaningless, profitless wandering around; and in too much gratuitous pollution. We need better ethical guidance because there is far too much cruelty, sadness, dishonesty, violence, suffering and injustice in our world—not just in some distant places, but in the cities and neighborhoods where we live. Ethics is about avoiding harm and overcoming evil with good. This is why we need to find an ethics map.

Our problem is not solved, however, if we grab a defective map. Have you ever had this experience? I have sometimes been frustrated by maps that fail to show the existence of some street, or that show two roads crossing but don’t warn you that you may not turn from one onto the other, or that show an old name for a road that has long since been renamed, or that fail to indicate that a road surface is gravel and mud.

So it is with today’s ethical maps. There are lots of faulty or inadequate ones to lead us astray. Hollywood puts out maps that show the road of irresponsible self-indulgence as the way to happiness. (There are a lot of wrecks when people use this map.) Many governments now put out maps urging citizens to take the lottery road to arrive at wealth and happiness (a bald-faced lie financed with tax money). Businesses put lots of money into maps directing us onto the consumer superhighway to arrive at satisfaction. The National Rifle Association promotes a map urging gun-ownership as the main road to political freedom and personal safety and security. We need better maps than these.

Another school of thought urges each of us to draw a personal ethical map as we wish. Apart from the personal dangers of living in such a fabricated dream world, there are just too many people on the road for each of us to insist on making and following our own personal maps. If personal autonomy (self-determination) is allowed to trump all other values, we become nearly powerless when seeking any common resolution of the big issues we must face together. We need to find an ethical map that respects, protects and values the individual while providing us with good guidance in matters of common concern.

A Moral Map Is a Network of Guidelines

Saying that we need a better map to guide life’s ethical movements means that we need a better network of guidelines for our actions. Ethical guidelines are action guides, indicating not so much what we are as what we should do, how we should act and what is the right thing to do.1 These ethical action guides are ought statements: imperatives concerning what we must do, which are prescriptive rather than descriptive in tone. Terms like commandment, duty and obligation underscore this emphasis.

What gives ethical guidelines their oughtness? Why are the Ten Commandments not just the Ten Suggestions? Why isn’t Immanuel Kant’s “categorical imperative” just the “categorical option”? The short answer is some more map talk: “If you want to get to destination X, you must turn right on road Y and proceed 3.4 miles,” and so on. Thus, if you want to know and please God, you ought to obey his commandments; or, if you want to be consistently rational, you ought to do what Kant says. Ethical principles are linked with, and dependent on, purposes.

There are many terms for such moral action guides (e.g., rules, precepts, axioms, counsels), each of which carries various nuances or shades of meaning. These guidelines are often organized into codes of some sort; such codes are, in turn, components in larger moralities, moral philosophies or ethics.2 Such ethics and moralities are, in their turn, components in philosophies or theologies of life. We will mainly confine ourselves to four terms as we try to map out the guidelines for a Christian ethic: principle, rule, law and commandment.

Principle comes from the Latin principium, meaning “beginning.” A principle is thus a fundamental starting point truth on which others are based. It is a guideline or rule of conduct at a very fundamental level.

Rule comes from the Latin regula, meaning a straight piece of wood, such as a ruler. A rule is thus a guideline established to regulate action, a criterion or standard by which the rightness (or straightness) of an action can be measured. Rules can be very broad and general or very narrow and specific.

Law comes from the Latin lex, meaning a rule (or system of rules) of conduct laid down and established by an authority, political or otherwise. It is not unusual to encounter the phrase “moral law,” which sometimes implies a law above the law. Law has also been a common English translation of the Hebrew torah, referring sometimes to the Decalogue, sometimes to all 613 laws in the Pentateuch, sometimes to the Pentateuch as a whole and sometimes to the whole Old Testament.

Torah, however, must be understood not just as a collection of regulations, but in the broader sense as teaching, instruction and guidance.

Command (or commandment) comes from the Latin commendatus, meaning “to commit to one’s charge.” A commandment is thus an order or mandate from an authority. This notion of a commander entrusting or charging someone to do something is a central feature of Christian ethics.3

Cover Principles and Area Principles

We should make an important distinction between action guides that are broad, inclusive and general in their field of application, and others that are narrow, specific and limited. The first type is like the Golden Rule (“Do to others as you would have them do to you,” Mt 7:12 par. Lk 6:31) or the principle of utility (“Do what results in the greatest good for the greatest number”). Examples of the second would be “Do not murder,” “Do not give a patient a deadly drug even if they ask for it” (from the Hippocratic oath), and “Be kind to children and the elderly.”  Such rules pertain to certain situations or sectors of life.

Some ethicists call the general statements principles and the more specific ones rules. However, there are no compelling etymological reasons to require this distinction, nor is there anything like a consistent customary usage (e.g., Golden Rule). I think it is better to use principle and rule interchangeably (unless a specific nuance is made clear in context) and to distinguish instead between cover principles (or rules) and area principles (or rules). The Golden Rule, the principle of utility, the categorical imperative and the love command (see chapter two) are four examples of what I will call cover principles. They cover everything, every situation. They are general. In the travel metaphor, these cover principles could be called “rules of the road”: they apply to every itinerary at all times. Cover principles help us to have a coherent, integrated, unified moral perspective. Cover principles remind us of the overarching purpose and intent of our area principles.

Area principles include prohibitions such as those against murder, theft and lying, or those enjoining kindness, generosity and truth telling. Area principles help to make the demands of our general, cover principles more concrete, practical and specific. In the travel metaphor, I think of these area principles as “itineraries,” guidance for how best to explore a certain region. If you want to see Paris, Michelin’s green tourist guide will give you twenty-five walking itineraries, pretty much covering the whole city. I will argue in this book that the Decalogue provides ten such moral itineraries for exploring human life.

If we press to a level of still greater detail and particularity, some rules can be so specific that even designating them as area guides is too broad (e.g., “do not use a photocopy of a copyrighted song unless the composer has been compensated”). We might call this the level of situation rules. All of our action guides together form a kind of hierarchy, a pyramid, with the most general cover principles at the top, the area principles in the middle and the specific situation rules on the bottom. The love commandment is a cover principle at the top of the Christian ethics hierarchy, the Ten Commandments are a set of area principles in the middle, and the hundreds of specific, contextual moral injunctions of Scripture are at the bottom of the hierarchy.