What’s the Moral?

I read this short book summary and can’t stop thinking about it.

I’m not so interested in the anecdotal story but the conclusion drawn from it at the end – in general, that people should choose ethical behavior in case there is a possible, undetermined and unknowable material benefit to them. In other words, rather than responding to a given situation based on an internalized ethos, people must be encouraged to rationally process all of their options and then select one based upon possible personal benefit.

It sounds reasonable enough. But it’s troubling and I assume indicative of larger ethical and moral issues challenging our culture right now. More and more, people do not have an underlying moral and ethical framework which dictates to them the appropriate course of action in any number of possible situations. As such, morality and ethics often gets boiled down to a matter of personal benefit. Actions we once considered moral and ethical in and of themselves (not stealing, returning lost items when possible, etc.) now are only opted for when a maximum personal benefit is evaluated.

Years ago when I was teaching ethics in technology at university I discovered this troubling reality. Students were quick to affirm that shoplifting a sweater was wrong, but they saw no such problem with illegally downloading software or movies and video games. Their explanation was that they felt they were far more likely to get caught physically shoplifting an item, whereas the odds of them being caught and then prosecuted for digital theft were slim to none. Their definition of the right thing to do was determined solely by personal benefit. They rationalized digital theft as really of no difference to the producers of the content (who were already rich) and justified by their own current impoverished circumstances as students.

I was raised however with a different set of criteria, a criteria that still guides my actions and decisions often at a subconscious level. This criteria is a codified and unified system identifying some actions as right and others as wrong. My personal benefit in any given situation is rarely a factor. There is simply a right course to be followed. While I could follow the wrong course – and at times have – I would do so knowing what I was doing was wrong. I might try to justify it on any number of subjective grounds but I would still know such attempts were ultimately inadequate and the reality remained that I was doing something I should not do, whether I personally benefited from the decision or not.

This system of criteria was embedded in me through my religious upbringing as a Christian. It wasn’t a matter of economics. Certainly finding a wallet with money in it might have been very advantageous to me as a young person, but I understood clearly that this was not the primary consideration. The primary consideration was whether or not I could return the wallet and everything in it to the rightful owner. Certainly there might be a temptation to keep the money, justifying it as a small loss to the owner but not nearly as severe as someone more dishonest who might attempt to steal more by utilizing whatever debit or credit cards were inside. But that temptation – whether heeded or not – was recognized and categorized as exactly that. The right course of action was clear and not dependent on whether someone might be watching me or not, or whether I would benefit more or less.

A morality or ethics based purely on economic considerations can hardly be called that. Economics can justify certain courses of action based on personal benefit, but cannot ensure that such personal benefit is uniformly present in any given situation. What results is a very situational and subjective approach to morality and ethics. If I’m as positive as possible there won’t be any negative consequences to my actions, my actions become permissible and even defensible. This excessively complicates our actions and makes them externally unpredictable.

Economics is a poor substitute for Truth, even when economics might approve of a course of action I would personally prefer, but which Truth dictates is not permissible. Yes, there are times when doing the right thing might result in further benefit than peace of mind. This is because the wisdom of God the Creator is woven into creation and cannot be completely eradicated or eliminated by our sinfulness. The truth that honesty is the right choice sometimes plays itself out in unforeseen benefits, like being approved for a loan. But even if it doesn’t, I benefit from a clear conscience and the joy of knowing my choice to deprive myself whatever benefit my wrongdoing might have brought makes the other person’s life better and easier.

However my choice is not justified by this emotional or spiritual reward. This is not a form of spiritual economics. It is not karma from Eastern religions nor is it an attempt to earn a less tangible reward as Islam would suggest, stacking up enough good deeds to outweigh my bad deeds. Rather, it is an understanding that this is who I have been made to be – someone who is able and willing, albeit imperfectly – to recognize and live the way I and all of creation was intended to live. My opting to do the right thing without regard to my personal benefit is in gratitude for the reality that my sinful (selfish) and broken self has in fact been redeemed not by my good efforts but rather by the incalculable sacrifice of the Son of God, Jesus, for me. I am now free to respond not in fear but gratitude. Not in a calculated self-seeking but in love for the God who saved me as well as those around me who I hope are also brothers and sisters in Christ.

This is not an alternate set of evaluations and computations in any given situation, but rather my condition. The air I breathe, so to speak. And I’m also still free and prone to rejecting this beautifully clean air for contaminated and unhealthy air, so to speak. I’m free to act against what I have been shown is right. But I do so at risk to myself and others, rather than benefit.

There’s an economic reversal only God is capable of!

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