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Inescapable Ethics

Human beings may not be the only creatures which demonstrate an awareness of right and wrong.

However, we do seem to be the only ones who never tire of trying to explain and justify our moral and ethical behavior.

Writing in the February 10, 2011 issue of The New York Review of Books, Ronald Dworkin takes up the question, "What Is a Good Life?" He is reflecting on the nature of morality and ethics, as well as the relationship between the two of these. His article provides a helpful overview of the question and offers what I consider to be sound advice concerning how to evaluate our own lives. In the process Mr. Dworkin presents sound evidence in support of the Biblical doctrine of human beings as the image-bearers of God.

Mr. Dworkin insists that this question is inevitable, and that it cannot be resolved in merely relativistic terms. The good life is something more than whatever any of us might wish it to be. A life, to be good, must be responsible in its conduct toward others as well as authentic and characterized by integrity within the individual life. Further, we have to resist the temptation to define a good life in terms of the magnitude of its "achievement" - its contribution toward others. Mr. Dworkin insists that "we have a responsibility to live well and believe that living well means creating a life that is not simply pleasurable but good in that critical way." He continues, "It is important that we live well; not important just to us or to anyone else, but just important."

In the pursuit of ethics and morality and the good life we must concentrate on everyday things - the performance of duties, obligations, and responsibilities - more than on the overall "product" of a life. Mr. Dworkin asks, "Why can't a life also be an achievement complete in itself, with its own value in the art in living it displays?"

Two aspects of this reflection appeal to me and cohere, I believe, with a Biblical view of ethics. First, there is the idea that ethics and morality are not quanitifiable in terms of the magnitude of any person's achievement in life. I can be moral and ethical without being Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King, Jr., and I can be just as moral and ethical as they or anyone else. Every person therefore bears the responsibility for discovering the path of ethics that provides the most integrity to his or her life and the greatest amount of decency and responsiblity to others. This sounds a good deal like the Golden Rule, does it not?

Second, Mr. Dworkin suggests that every action, even the smallest, most mundane and everyday actions of life, are fraught with moral and ethical potential - an idea that reflects nicely the Apostle Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians 10.31.

So while Mr. Dworkin does not want to associate his thinking on ethics and morality with any religious tradition or holy book, it seems he just can't help himself. What does it say about a man like Ronald Dworkin - a careful secular thinker - that he recommends conclusions about what constitutes the good life which roundly cohere with the teaching of Scripture? While he may not admit it - and I don't know for certain whether he would or not - Mr. Dworkin betrays a transcendent element to his thinking, as well as a penchant for absoluteness and objectivity in morals and ethics, and these suggest, again, as the Scriptures teach, that he and all human beings are made for the knowledge of God and have the works of God's Law written in some fashion on their hearts.

It seems that the hard work of careful thinking - when it can escape the limitations of mere subjectivity or sensuality - will often point like a compass needle toward spiritual north. We should encourage such thinking on the part of our neighbors, and see what we can learn from and with them about how, together, we might discover the true nature of the good life.

Additional related texts: Romans 2.14, 15; Acts 17.22-31; 2 Corinthians 10.3-5

A conversation starter: "How should we think about what constitutes a 'good life'? Are there standards of ethics and morality that are somehow binding on us all?"

T. M. Moore

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
Books by T. M. Moore

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