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Do others have the right to define what’s ethical for me?

BIG BLUE WAVE: Do others have the right to define what’s ethical for me?


  1. If they didn't, then wouldn't priests, ministers, rabbis, imams, secular ethicists, etc. be out of business?

  2. Fr. Michael Smith14 February, 2011

    The question isn't "who" has a right to determine what is ethical; the question is "what". The answer to the "what" is the natural law.
    As for priests, ministers, etc.--even the Pope--the role of us clergy is to PROPOSE; there is no power to IMPOSE. In the modern world, at least in the West, the formulation of ethical standards and the drafting of legislation necessarily involve a dialogue with human freedom. All legislation, once drafted, reflects some ethical standard or other; if it did not, then all murders, for example, would be legal.
    Religious people are not alone in wanting ethical principles reflected in legislation. Secular people want it as well. Where we sometimes disagree is over which principles are to find their expression, and the disagreements do not run only along the line between religious and secular.
    In other words, there is a real debate and not just a power game, although either side of the debate would be naive to deny that there is an exercise of some kind of power. What we must all avoid is the attempt of one group to render others powerless by denying their right to speak publicly and organize.

  3. My retort was lighthearted, but couldn't help chuckling on the irony.

    Of course we call can debate morality and through our democratic society we can seek to have actions that have a detrimental affect on other sentient beings enacted into law. Legislators can imposed these societal standards of conduct (but not morality or ethics in the broader sense).

    There is probably much agreement within society on most aspects of conduct.

    Legislation can enforce conduct under threat of fine or imprisonment, religions can enforce it with the promise of heaven or the warning of hell.

  4. Fear not Michael, I assumed as much. Thanks.

    Fr. Tim

  5. "All legislation, once drafted, reflects some ethical standard or other; if it did not, then all murders, for example, would be legal."

    That, I think, would depend entirely upon who gets to define things like "ethical" and "murder."

    I don't consider laws against murder (as currently defined) to be ethical in nature. Ethics doesn't enter the picture. Such laws are simply meant to diminish the amount of chaos in which we live, and give us a chance to order our own lives without wondering if someone intends to shoot us any second, now, and spoil all our plans.

    "What we must all avoid is the attempt of one group to render others powerless by denying their right to speak publicly and organize."

    Yes. And good luck with that. Seriously.

    And...would someone -- anyone -- please try to explain what y'all mean by this "natural" law? What is that, exactly?

  6. Lady Janus: Natural Law is that which we can discern from the designs of creation of which we are part. Think of it as an accumulation and formulation of a collective consciousness of such basic issues as protection of the weak and preservation of life explained from the perspective of its own internal logic.

    Analogously speaking, it shares in some respect to that you have described here as 'magik' (forgive me if I've misspelled it).

    Fr. Tim

  7. Lady Janus To add to an inadequate first attempt (I was too oblique), let me add that it is the discernment of the designs within creation in that such designs reflect something of the mind of the Creator (a.k.a. God). Combined as a philosophy these are schematized into a series of laws of nature.

    Richard Dawkins is alleged to have expressed in exasperation at the end of a public debate with a particularly stubborn proponent of the Natural Law that IF by GOD we meant some 'force' that exists entirely outside of this universe who/which was responsible for the existence of creation... then who knows? Such a force/being might exist and could only be know by discerning the traces of its/his handiwork within creation or by the direct self revelation of such a force/being into our universe.

    "That," his opponent said was a "beautiful description" of his conception of the Abrahamic God as understood through the lens of Natural Law.

    Fr. Tim

  8. Fr. Michael Smith15 February, 2011

    The claim that a good society is (relatively) free of chaos, with citizens being free of violence, is itself an ethical claim.

    As for natural law: Natural law has received bad press in recent decades, but if we throw out any notion of natural law, think of what the alternatives are:

    a)either the arbitrariness of positive law based on consensus

    b)or Divine Revelation.

    The problem with (a) as a basis for law is that it provides a flimsy grounding for human rights. Classical theories of human rights, such as that of John Locke, ground human rights in some understanding of natural law. On this view, rights are RECOGNIZED (since they exist in the nature of human beings); they are not INVENTED (as though it were up to humans to create them out of nothing).

    The problem with (b) is that not everyone accepts Divine Revelation. The political and legal system would then be a theocracy, with some citizens being forced to live under an authority that they do not recognize. Once again, human rights would suffer. Also, at least in Christian terms, theocracy does violence to the principle that faith is a gift. A gift freely given must be freely accepted.

  9. I agree a theocracy would not be desirable. The main reason I would oppose a theocracy is in history it has been proven to be a disaster. Extremists always tend to impose on other people their own views and ignore human rights. We only came of out of dark and middle ages a couple hundred years ago and began to recognize democracy and respect for human rights as the best form of government.

  10. @Tim: So...if I'm reading you correctly, "natural law" is a series of conclusions based upon observations made without the benefit of being tested for accuracy? That would explain some of the nonsense I've seen touted with authority as "natural law," then. Because, if I'm actually understanding your explanation correctly, one must FIRST assume the existence of a "creator/creative force" with the intelligence and intention to design the space in which we exist. Am I close?

    But then, what of those of us who do not agree that we are living in a "designed" world, and who are content not to believe in any kind of "creator?" Where, then, does this "natural law" live?

    Spelling...magick. ;D

    "The claim that a good society is (relatively) free of chaos, with citizens being free of violence, is itself an ethical claim."

    Ah, but I made no mention that "society" must be either "good" or "not good." THAT would be an ethical claim, and I make none such. Concepts such as "good" and "bad" are subjective, not objective, and completely dependent upon the individual making the judgment, taking into account all the circumstances of the specific judgment.

    As for your alternatives to natural law, you need to add: c) Any "rights" we have are, indeed, invented by humans. Same way we invented all our religions. Somebody had a great idea, and he was lucky enough and popular enough that his idea got adopted by enough people that it was brought to the attention of the rest of the people, who joined the movement, so to speak, and thus began what would eventually become a tradition, the true origins of which are lost in the mists of time.

    "A gift freely given must be freely accepted."

    "Freely" meaning without strings and conditions?

  11. The laws which we have are to a large extent based on the ten commandments in Exodus chapter twenty. This has been the basis for our laws for centuries. Many in the government have believed in a higher law in years gone by. However, today, as the country becomes less religious and more secular, fewer believe in these moral absolutes.

    Keeping the ten commandments is impossible though because of our fallen corrupt nature. Nobody is able to keep the law; in fact most of us probably break much of the ten commandments in thought or deed every day. That is why we need a Saviour. Only Jesus saves.

    "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost." Titus 3 vs5.


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