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07/26/2017

Common ground in ethical debates

On 7/10/17, Janie Valentine posted a review of the new book, Why People Matter, edited by John Kilner. Recently while I was on vacation I had the chance to read it and found the basic concept of the book very interesting. It begins with the idea that people on opposite sides of many of the ethical debates in our society actually have common ground that they agree on which can be used to engage each other in a constructive way. I heartily agree with that idea and would suggest that one area of common ground is that those interested in moral and ethical issues agree that morality is important and that there are ethical standards that should influence how we live. That is good place to start. Dr. Kilner and his co-authors are more specific in suggesting that the concept that people matter, that they have moral significance and should be treated with respect, is an underlying concept that people on both side of many currently debated issues use to support their positions. That is also a very good place to start.

From that starting place the authors look at five common ways of looking at the world and moral issues and show that there are some problems with supporting the common idea that people matter within those ways of seeing the world. They contrast that with the robust support for the significance of people with in a Christian view. I was particularly impressed by the reviews of utilitarianism, individualism, and naturalism by Gilbert Meilaender, Russell DiSilvestro and Scott Rae. Those are the most common views from the surrounding culture that I see influencing the students I interact with. In each case they show why those views actually undermine the common understanding that human beings have significance – that they matter, and how a Christian biblical view provides much better support for the significance of human beings.

I think that their analyses also address the common ground that morality is important. As Dr. Meilaender points out utilitarianism is unworkable unless we are omniscient and omnipotent, which we are not. That leaves us without a way to determine what we should do. As Dr. DiSilvestro shows, individualism makes moral concepts subjective and gives no objective standards by which we can guide our moral choices. It makes ethical discussion meaningless. With Dr. Rae we can see that naturalism provides no foundation for the validity of rational thought that represents the reality of the world, let alone moral concepts to guide us. In contrast, a biblical view gives us a solid foundation for morality and ethics that is grounded in the nature of God who is good and who created a world and human beings who reflect the goodness of his nature.

No matter which of these areas of common ground we choose, we can engage those who see moral issues differently than we do by recognizing the areas on which we agree and then exploring how those areas of commonality fit with how we view the world. If we do this well with a genuine desire to understand how others think we can encourage civil discussion that will help all of us to grow and come closer to what is true.

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