Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Christian altruism


Daniel Morgan said:

Steve and others,

I have been on the "defensive" in justifying foundational tenets of a non-theistic worldview for a while now.

What I would love to see is the Christian solution and justification to the Trolley Car Problem, or in Steve's dilemma, the sinking of the Titanic.

I find it hard to believe that you can extract some sort of "Biblical support" for these dilemmas with more surety than I possess for non-Biblical ethical approaches.

Regarding the sinking of the Titanic -- there is only room for two on a rescue raft, and a father, mother, and child will perish unless they jump aboard. Does the father sacrifice himself? The mother? According to the Bible, the man is the "head" of the family, but does this imply that he is responsible to take the fall, or that the woman is subservient and of less value? Should the man sacrifice the wife, since women are treated as baby factories by most of the OT ethic? (I esp. love Num 31:17 where non-virgin women are worthy of death but virgins are kept as "spoil") If the man is ultimately responsible for the child's welfare, shouldn't he be the one to go on and make sure it is raised properly?

Does everyone act altruistically at all times? Is this practical, or reasonable?


To begin with a couple of general principles:

1. From a Protestant perspective (sola Scriptura as our rule of faith), revelation is the measure of responsibility. Revelation and responsibility are conterminous.

In Scripture, God has revealed a set of general moral norms along with some specific case studies which illustrate the application of the general norms to concrete situations.

The case studies are illustrative rather than exhaustive. It’s possible to infer a general principle from a special case, or infer a special application from a general norm.

However, there are many topical questions or borderline cases in personal and social ethics for which there’s no Biblical answer.

In such instances, there may be more than one licit course of action. It’s not always a choice between right or wrong.

Bible ethics are minimal, not maximal. They address our minimal duties to God and to our fellow man.

They do not address every actual or hypothetical situation.

2. In Scripture, social ethics are concentric. I have a higher obligation to God than I have to my family. I have a higher obligation to my family than I have to your family. I have a higher obligation to a friend than to a stranger.

Ideally these obligations are complementary, but in case of conflict, due to life in a fallen world, the higher obligation suspends the lower obligation.

Moving along:

1.Concerning the Trolley Car Problem, I think that, as a rule of thumb, the good of the many trumps the good of the few.

The Trolley Car Problem presents a forced option in which someone is going to die one way or the other.

This is a traditional scenario in Christian ethics, under the principle of the double effect.

That said, the end doesn’t justify any means whatsoever. Sizing up the consequences of one’s action is a necessary condition of moral valuation, but it’s not a sufficient condition.

The common good cannot justify an injustice to the few, or to the one.

2.As to the Titanic, the duty of the father and husband is to take the fall for his wife and kids.

While this entails a hardship for the survivors, he’s done his duty, and the rest is left to providence.

1 comment:

  1. Steve wrote:
    As to the Titanic, the duty of the father and husband is to take the fall for his wife and kids.

    I agree. For Daniel, the Scriptural support for this can be found in Ephesians 5:25 (among other passages), which states: "Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her."

    Christ died for the church's gain; a husband likewise ought to die for his wife (and by extention, chidlren) if that is needed. Thankfully, the times this is needed are rare--but they still do occur, and when they occur the proper thing is for men to lay down their own lives for their family.