Because of my vocation in the church, people who want to know what the correct moral/ethical response is to a particular question often approach me for counsel. Many times though, I don’t give them an answer to their dilemma, just more information.
The reason for this is that a lot of people don’t really understand the terminology that they are using when they ask such questions. Take the words “moral” and “ethical” for example. These are two very different words that are often used in contemporary society as if they have the same meaning. Understood properly though, they have very different meanings.
An action is moral if it has a consequence (or a reward) attached to upholding it. This seems pretty straightforward. If the law says that the speed limit is 35 mph, then I am behaving morally if I do not exceed that speed.
If, though, we want to discuss whether the speed limit is ethical then we need to examine other options for its interpretation. Should the speed limit really be 55 mph in order to generally conserve gas? Does 35 mph cause general traffic congestion? Are there considerations such as neighborhoods with small children or schools along the route that might be cause for reducing the speed limit? These are all ethical questions. Ethical questions always involve a particular method of interpretation, otherwise known as a hermeneutic, which is the lens through which we view such questions as individual. Our context and personal experiences inform our opinions on issues at hand.
When people begin to understand that their personal context informs their ethical deliberation, which in turn informs whether they behave morally or not, they then quickly see that most human-made laws are really not quite as clear cut as some might try to make them out to be. Thus, we have the reason that most police officers won’t pull you over if you are going 2 or 3 mph over the speed limit.
Theologically speaking though, there seems to be much more at stake. If God is, in fact, absolutely good then any action contrary to the will of God would be both unethical and immoral at the same time. So practically, what most people who engage me with such questions really want to know is; what actions they should take in any given situation in order to be faithful to God? That is a somewhat easier answer, but again not always answered specifically.
For Christians the moral guidelines as to how we are to interact with one another and God are laid out in the Bible and are easily enough read. The ethical interpretation of such morality though is, again, not always as clear-cut as some might want us to believe. This point is important to realize when we deal with one another in community because our hermeneutic often informs our belief system. As such, beginning conversations from a point of humility is of vital importance to our unity as a larger body.
The reality is; if we as Christians want to do what is right, regardless of our personal interpretation, we need to follow what Christ commands of us as individuals. This means that when confronted with very basic questions of right and wrong –we must prayerfully consider whether we are being led by Jesus or by our own intentions. Those are questions that can be discerned and informed by our faith communities and their leaders, but in the end, they are questions that must be answered by the individuals themselves who are authentically seeking to live in faith.