the Crucible

Contemporary Ethics

Reflections of contemporary ethics
We appear to have entered the age of ethics… People throughout our society have grown acutely aware of the ethical dimensions of contemporary life and consequently have become increasingly willing to speak the language or ethics.  Hence Christian moralists are not the only one today who would find questionable the attitudes and actions of the CEO in our opening narrative…  People who claim no connection to Christianity would likewise label such conduct blatantly unethical[1].

As Dallas Willard has mentioned “contempt is the brother of anger”[2] and this is increasingly is becoming visible as our culture embraces a mindset of justification.  Not justification in the classical Biblical context, but rather that of brilliant manipulation.  Unfortunately it seems that many of today’s systems are set up in a way that enables bright manipulators.  From education to business many that rise to the top are those who can jump through the hoops in the most efficient of ways.  Perhaps it’s a coping mechanism of the system, or a system initiated by manipulators but either way it offers results favorable to manipulators.  Often times in our current culture, nice guys finish; but not always on the top of the resume pile. 


In College as my academic world quickly became much larger, it was easy to observe that working the system was not only a survival skill, but a managerial strategy that rendered a shortcut to results. As a newbie to this system I quickly noticed that there were many who had gotten into “The Ivy League” because they knew how to work the system.  They did their work, their assignments were in on time and they got great grades but it was their methods that at times were questionable.  They went on to get fantastic jobs, many starting at over 100k their first year out of undergrad and I can attest there were many who felt their actions were whole heartedly ethically acceptable. 


I will never forget the look of distain I witnessed in a bi-weekly 2 hour discussion class I had in Greek history.  It was a cohort of 9 students and one Prof; and the tenured professor was a few minutes late… one of my classmates had obviously not done his reading and was frantically scrambling to read the 120+ pages before the professor got there.  A hopeless endeavor, he finally asked one girl in our class, (who was brilliant) if she would give him a reading summary.  She looked so offended I think I actually laughed out loud, but un-phased some of the students chimed in and began an impromptu book review cram for him… as it turned out the student, did get called on and ironically the question he was asked was one that in his “mini-review” someone had briefed him on.  With a polished delivery, the “un-read” student, delivered an answer, diverted some of the attention and focused on some relevant subject matter that he knew about… his rabbit trail worked and another student was lured in and “took over for him”- Why? 


From the earliest years of homework starting in some cases the second grade, all the way throughout education this account is too understandable.  I have witnessed it in so many classes it has become expected.  From Fraternities that retained old finals in their file cabinets dating some 30-40 years back, to phone photo’s of the most recent exams, there were those who always had access and those of us who did our best to study and learn with our best efforts.  Generally those students who had the advantage, were the ones who were most successful.  And when success is measured in terms of a job, happiness, and paycheck, I know many who still are successful.  Some may say “how do they live like this?” but in many senses they are victims of the culture that has been defining success and criteria measurement that gauges progress in terms of absolutes.


Not to beleaguer examples, but I know of one prominent Christian author who found out that in order to make it to the top of  the New York times best seller list, an individual only had to sell 5000 books in a limited amount of time.  He was hosting a series of conferences with about 1500 people per session, so he decided to charge $5 more per person (his cost of his recent book) he then had his subsidiary “ministry” purchase the books, and gave every one who attended a free voucher for the book at his ministry’s store (knowing many people would never redeem the voucher).  As a result of his “generous giving” he then made it to the best seller list (which then increased his sales).  Unethical or good business?  Within the rubric of business, it was a brilliant measure.  Within a business model, if it generates money, it’s a success.  There is no penalties, no sin, no eternal result- “it ain’t personal, it’s business”.


I appreciated Grenz’s position of relationship in terms of ethical accountability.  I would have liked to see him tease out the covenantal perspective that “Christianity ain’t business it’s personal”.  An ethical tweaking of a business model which incorporates a relational perspective is a message that our culture doesn’t often hear.


Studying for the sake of learning is generally not rewarded with a hefty salary.  A losing athletic department is much more of a statistic than an average English department.  Without doubt the budgets are dissimilar.  It is this survival mentality that has been carried out in the business model of ethics that is pervasive, manipulative, and rewarding to those who can work it… It rewards with choices, with power and with the ability to perpetuate itself repeatedly.  In the business rubric a donation goes farther than a word of encouragement, a painful acknowledgment in respect to the ethics of deontology.


It seems unfair to critique our culture in an ethical model not based in business.  From a Christian ethic perspective the “business contract” kills many aspects of community.  In light of this perhaps a viable option for evangelism is demonstrating ethical behavior both within and outside the walls of business.

“making morals means making community” … individuals do not become moral agents except in the relationship, the transactions, the habit and reinforcements, the special uses of language and gesture that together constitute life in community”.[3]

They seem to be speaking of “ethical” not in a business sense, but rather from a Christian perspective.  Keeping a clean slate is difficult when doing the business of Christianity in a business world.  Perhaps this is reason behind some shifts in Christian ethical approaches. 

“Stanley Hauerwas- no longer view the rightness or wrongness of specific actions as the central feature of the ethical task.  Instead an increasing number of ethicists are concerned about character ideals (or virtues) such as friendship and cooperation, or they elevate the quest for “values” as the central ethical concern.  In keeping with this shift, J Philip Wogaman recently declared, “The question is: where do we ultimately get our values?”[4]


This approach is a re-culturing of context that is inviting to a post-Christendom audience.  No longer is the context an apologetic that begins with a bizarre agenda of creationism, but rather it is an open invitation, a laying out a belief system and structure that is dogmatic, yet not exclusive.   We as Christians need to lay out our agenda with humility and openness.  This approach of openly stating belief and accepted norms has been one that many in the gay culture have been sewing with great acceptance.  It’s not preachy, it’s not combative, it’s just an open stating of positions and beliefs.  Perhaps this is why culture so readily assimilates their societal participation.  They are who they say they are.  They are what they say they are.  They do what they say they do.  Homosexuality is so widely accepted it has become protected under in the workplace under discrimination acts.  Theirs is not a message of exclusion but inclusion.


Reflecting, it causes me to want to move towards a culture that transcends competing moral communities?  How can we develop an over arching ethic of community.  Where is commonality?  Perhaps mine is a cultural backlash of acceptance, and now living in the year 2006 nine years after The Moral Quest, I find myself relating to ontology more.  I have less interest for commonality.  Commonality seems soft, mediocre, wimpy and a selling out.  High god’s, have High alters and ours is the Most Beautiful of all creations so why not promote the things our God has stated in a healthy way. 

“We enjoy a special covenantal relationship with the covenanting God, that we live in fellowship with our Maker.  Our creation by God with a special destiny is what marks us as ethically responsible.”[5]


Recently the Security and Exchange Commission Chairman mandated that corporations publicly disclose executive benefits and pensions.  No longer will Firestone Tire Corporation be able to write off their three yachts as “Testing Facilities for wet surfaces”, or will Million dollar birthday parties, which hire Jimmy Buffet as the MC, be permissible excuses for “a business meeting”.[6]


If we can move away from the business model of ethics in our daily lives and focus on in inviting individuals into a covenantal model of ethics; developing relationship as a starting point rather than business, perhaps the our friends and neighbors will see an ethic demonstrated that will compel them to inquisition.  If not, we can always use words.




[1] Stanley J. Grenz, The Moral Quest: Foundations in Christian Ethics; (Downers Grove, IL; InterVarsity Publishers,. 1997), p. 206.

[2] Dallas Willard,  The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God; (New York, NY; HarperCollins Publishers,. 1998), pgs.  149-154.

[3] Wayne A. Meeks, The Origins of Christian Morality: The First Two Centuries (New Haven, CT; Yale University Press, 1993), p. 5.

[4]  Stanley J. Grenz, The Moral Quest: Foundations in Christian Ethics; (Downers Grove, IL; InterVarsity Publishers,. 1997), p. 208.

[5] Stanley J. Grenz, The Moral Quest: Foundations in Christian Ethics; (Downers Grove, IL; InterVarsity Publishers,. 1997),  p. 217.

[6] All Things Considered, December 29, 2005

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