Category Archives: Ethics

Good-bad or good-better

You have a decision. You want to choose something good. But what will you call the option you don’t choose?

There are two ways of viewing this choice. Both are helpful, in the right place. I think one has come to dominate our thinking, unhelpfully. What I call good-bad thinking has taken over. I want to keep it, but also hold on to good-better thinking.


Good-bad thinking is just as the words suggest. We choose what is good, and what we reject is bad. I choose to drive at the speed limit (good!) – and choose not to fly through the red light (that would be bad).

Politics and election advertising communicates is always good-bad. Choose Party A, we’re good. Reject Party Z, they’re bad.

Unfortunately, the good-bad division has become a reflex way to think. It’s automatic. It’s so deeply-held that, when we say one thing, our listeners hear two things.

We say, ‘Evolution fails to explain all reality’ and people hear, ‘We reject science.’
We say, ‘Same-sex relationships are not marriage’ and people hear, ‘I hate gay people.’
We say, ‘Evangelism is of utmost importance’ and people hear, ‘Don’t bother caring for the poor.’
We say, ‘Don’t legalise euthanasia’ and people hear, ‘We don’t care about suffering.’

We did not say that second thing, yet it becomes the centre of the discussion argument.


Some decisions – perhaps even the most important decisions – are good-better decisions. There might be two options, both of which have appeal. There might be a large distinction between choices, or the merest hint of a difference – and yet a decision has to be made.

Good-better thinking admits that life can be messy. The non-preferred option might simply be a lower priority, or less clear, or slightly more difficult. A single man might have a couple of ‘just friends’ he could ask to the end of year formal – and feels bad because he does not want to offend one. Because of the expense, a church has to decide between new PA system or new heating. A family has to consider moving away from family for a job, or staying close with uncertain work prospects.

There are plenty of times in life when decisions are both messy and unavoidable.

At such times, it hurts people if we slip back into good-bad. All that does is stick the knife into someone who is already sore! ‘If you move away you’re abandoning family.’ ‘If you put the PA system in you’re ignoring the old folk who feel the cold.’ ‘You asked Grace to the formal because who haven’t forgiven Pearl making that joke about you.’

So what?

My advice – my advice to myself – is to listen better. Do a James 1:19. Be quick to listen, be intent on truly hearing what is actually said. Do not rush into implications, therefores and hasty conclusions. Keep a lid on the righteous (!) anger but hasten to understand. That surely is the better thing to do.



It’s all about me

In the ethical universe, there are no ideas bigger than good and evil. If good and evil mean anything, then they indicate something bigger than me, greater than the present, more important than any culture.

Yet even when confronted with the largest concepts, we humans are wonderfully adept at turning the focus on ourselves. So very easily we explain good and evil in words that scream, ‘It’s all about me.’

Try this for size. Ask someone to explain their reason for doing something good. Or why they should avoid doing something bad.

The Good
I’ve heard plenty of people explain to me why they want to do what I think is very good – share in Christian ministry. ‘Why do you want to serve Jesus by teaching Sunday school/leading a church/going to the mission field?’ I feel that this fits my gifts and personality. I always get lots of positive comments when I lead a Bible study. My minister encouraged me to pursue this.

It’s me, me, me. A bit of a worry, don’t you think? I’d hope that ministry is about Jesus first, and serving neighbour second.

No wonder people are so uncomfortable even with gentle criticism, or the suggestion they are not really suited to the task they’re doing. If it’s about me, then every negative word is heard as a personal attack.

The Evil
This happens with evil, too. ‘Why should we not lie?’ Lies come from me being insecure and lies pander to that insecurity. A lie will rebound and end up hurting you, anyway. Someone who lies is not being authentic. If I learn to lie now, it will weaken all the relationships I have in the future.

Again I wait in vain for any thoughts about God, or the larger moral universe. Perhaps the idea that God is true, and the author of truth – and that the devil has been a liar from the beginning. Perhaps the idea that words matter because ‘in the beginning was the word.’ Something bigger than, ‘Let’s talk about me for a while.’

If good and evil count, they call me to humility instead of selfish babbling.

What do you think? Is there a problem of self-focussed ethics-talk? And, if so, what is the way out of the problem?




Genetics & ethics

Alcohol dehydrogenase

This beautiful picture represents the three-dimensional structure of a human enzyme, alcohol dehydrogenase.

There are a few types of this class of enzyme. And their biochemistry is way beyond me. In simple terms, they all do something in the body with chemicals which include an alcohol group (-OH).

As such, this enzyme becomes quite busy when we drink beer, wine or spirits. Without this enzyme, drinking alcohol would likely be impossible.

As with all proteins, alcohol dehydrogenase is formed in the body from the information in DNA – there is a link between our genes and the amount/types of alcohol dehydrogenase produced.

There is variation in the activity of alcohol in different human populations. Some people have more activity, some have less. It seems that these differences link to age, sex, and race.

On that basis, here’s my Dorothy Dix question: if I have a different level of active alcohol dehydrogenase, does that justify me getting drunk? After all, ‘it’s genetic’!

Of course not! The level of enzyme in my body does not justify anti-social behaviour. The genetic subtypes present in my DNA do not excuse loss of self-control. If I get beaten up by a drunk, I won’t buy the excuse, ‘Sorry mister, I have low levels of class 1 alcohol dehydrogenase.’

In short, genetics does not prescribe ethics.

Except when we’re asked about sexual ethics, it seems. There are two main versions. The heterosexual: “You can’t try to stop me sleeping with other women – thought I’m married, it’s natural to have the urge to procreate.” The homosexual: “A high proportion of scientists say this is normal and natural.”

These arguments are examples of genetics used (badly) to justify ethics. They are ethical conclusions seeking a veneer of scientific kudos.

I think we need put a stop to the dodgy use of genetic-ethical arguments. If someone tries to justify adultery and all its associated lies, perhaps this is what we should say: “It’s not your genes, it’s what you want. Tell us why we should so highly value your desires.”



Two kinds of wisdom

In Albury-Wodonga, the weekly free newspapers used to include a column of reflections. They were written by local  ministers, or similar (authors included a local Baha’i leader, as well as someone from the local humanist society branch). I don’t know why they stopped. Equally, I don’t know if they achieved anything!

Cleaning up my computer, I found a few of mine. In the interests of recycling, I will re-release them on this blog.

Wisdom can sometimes be the most foolish thing.

I saw this recently with an expert quoted in The Post. A private eye gave ‘five golden rules for cheaters to protect themselves’ from being caught. Each rule was logical, sensible, achievable. And each rule was a great way to destroy trust and relationship. Would you like to find your husband or wife memorising these rules? This is wisdom that strangles life: foolish wisdom.

The Bible book of James speaks clearly about two types of wisdom. The first is like the private eye’s five rules. The second is wisdom from God. ‘The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.’

Let’s take the first point, purity. This does not mean perfection – who could ever reach that standard? It means that if you cheat on your spouse or cheat on God you will first say sorry. The wise thing is always to ask forgiveness, forgiveness from people and from God. This wisdom will move to restore relationship, not fracture relationships any further. This is wisdom that gives life.

You know your own relationships: with God, family, friends, workmates, neighbours. With all these people, how wise are you today?
December 2003



Quick review: Joined-up life

Joined-Up Life: A Christian Account of How Ethics WorksJoined-Up Life: A Christian Account of How Ethics Works by Andrew Cameron

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book.

Each chapter is written to be clear in its own right, and Cameron invites readers to dip into whichever topic interests us. I chose to read right through, however, and can recommend this approach. Though each chapter does stand, there is a clear sense of building the overall argument from chapter 1 to chapter 47.

There are seven sections. Awareness notes common approaches to ethics. Unawareness uncovers factors too often overlooked as we decide what’s right and wrong. Jesus versus ethics explores the various way the Bible’s message, centred on Jesus, shapes ethics. Five things that matter is where Cameron constructs his ‘unified field.’ Living our lives brings biblical input into contact with an approach not as popular now as it was historically: character or virtue. Life packages looks at some broad life situations (singleness, marriage, work, …). Six hotspots gets into some of the particular issues that often are controversial points of revelation for our differences of opinion.

In this short review it would be neglectful to quickly pass by Cameron’s unified field. His book, I believe, has two parts: constructing the unified field, then employing the unified field. What is it?

In my understanding, the unified field is a set of interconnected inputs for ethical thinking. There is not ‘an answer’ or ‘a single approach’ to ethics – life is more complex and nuanced than that. Therefore ethics is, likewise, more complex.

The elements of the field are these:
Creation: God made things with an order that we can (partially) perceive or learn
Jesus-shaped community: the work of Jesus creates a group of his people dedicated to living a better way, devoted to being in relationships that are shaped by God’s ways
The new future: history has a goal, set by God. This reality will last, and is to impinge on present life
God’s character: God himself has patterns of right and wrong that become normative for his people
Commands: commands are not ‘the’ ethical method. Yet God’s commands give us a quick insight into each of the above four elements

This field is a most helpful way to focus our approach to ethical questions. They do not neglect the major story arc of the Bible – the unfolding of the Saving Lordship of Jesus. Instead, they honour this story arc enough to see how the story of Jesus changes everything in our own story.



View all my reviews

The treachery of images

A favourite painter for me is René Magritte. His work is not always as technically skilled as other painters, but his ideas are engaging. He could be playful, or he could be serious. Magritte, with painted image, often raises the question of what we actually see, and how visual images are related to each other or to reality.

This is one of Magritte’s famous pieces.

The translation of Ceci n’est pas une pipe is, “This is not a pipe.”

The brilliance of this work is that we automatically ask, “What, then, is this?” Exactly the right question!

What is this? It’s an image, it’s a painting, it’s a fake. This ‘pipe’ has no bowl for tobacco. It lacks that which is almost the definition of pipe-ness, the tube. Instead, it’s an artifice of oil paint on backing. And, on a blog post, the distance from reality is increased: a digital image of a painted image of a real world item.

And yet, consider our response as viewers. We see the image and immediately think ‘pipe’. It takes no effort to jump to reality. It takes great mental effort to think ‘painting’. We enter into the realm of the painterly world so deeply that we ignore the art itself. Isn’t ‘art’ short for ‘artifice’? Magritte completed the painting, but we viewers are required to complete the circle of reference. Observers are required for the artifice to work, for we say ‘Oh, that’s a pipe.’ We decode the fake and it becomes a sign of the real.

Which reminds me of pornography. The torrent of internet porn and slew of soft porn advertising all depend upon the willing participation of observers. Porn is an artifice that needs our eyes. Observers are complicit in linking the obviously fake (pornography) with the ‘real’ world (this is how sex works). Unfortunately, we twist the real world in the process.

For the sake of honesty, porn should all have some Magritte-inspired words:

Star of the movie 'Emmanuelle'

This is not a woman

She has been created. The image is a fake, not a person. Someone has tried to dupe you, and you are willing to be duped. This person/sex scene will not help you, involve you, satisfy you. If you mistake this for real life, the result is pain.

The English title for Magritte’s painting is ‘The treachery of images’. There could be no better title for porn: treacherous images, misleading us, destroying from within.



The Slippery Slope

The trouble with the slippery slope argument is that it is sometimes true.

Sometimes. True.

There are times when one smaller step leads to a larger step. We can become desensitised to crude language, or casual mockery of the opposite sex. And it then we do these things in increasing measure.

  • Because sometimes true, we cannot brush aside the slippery slope argument.

Yet there are times when this argument does not apply. Plenty of people know how to enjoy a beer without falling into drunkenness. We know how to befriend someone without personal compromise, even with profound disagreement regarding God, politics, family life, etc.

  • Because sometimes true, we must be wary of applying this argument to every situation.



Empty tomb ethics

The centre of Christianity is Jesus: his life, death, resurrection and present rule. But this is not the only thing Christians speak about – far from it.

It’s probably true that Christians spend more time speaking about ethics than anything else. (I’m using ‘ethics’ broadly to cover any thoughts about how to live.) This is true in the public arena, as well as privately over coffee after church. Public examples range from well-known Christians (denominational leaders, say) to specific lobby groups like the Australian Christian Lobby (

In this post, I am not going to critique how well Christians do at public ethics-talk. I have a different aim: to claim that all our ethical talk must include the empty tomb of Jesus, otherwise it’s not Christian at all.

The empty tomb of Jesus is the powerful demonstration the Jesus really is the Son of God (Romans 1:4). Despite the shameful cursedness of Jesus’ cross – even through this curse – Jesus greatness remains: Jesus is Lord. The empty tomb changes everything, including the shape of life.

Empty tomb ethics
I think there are (at least) two factors that link ethics and the empty tomb.

  1. To crush evil, God had to defeat death itself
    God had to do this personally, in the person of Jesus the Son. No one else was capable of facing sin’s deadly sting with purity sufficient to remove the poison of that sting.
  2. In defeating death itself, God overwhelmingly crushed evil
    What’s the worst that could have happened to Jesus? The worst was to be handed over to evil men and condemned to an unjust death. That worst thing happened, yet God prevailed.

The first of these points makes it crystal clear: evil and sin are a big deal. The evil act of any person is death. No evil is ever trivial or can be shrugged off as of no account. If God went to that extent to crush evil, we have no permission to be blasé about our wrongs (or anyone else’s).

In other words, Christians must speak about ethics, including placing a spotlight on wrong. If we go soft, we do a disservice to the empty tomb and the astounding completed work of Jesus.

The second of these points is the wonderful glimmer of hope defeating the blackness of sin. God won the victory, therefore sin will not have the victory. More than that, since God won the victory, sin cannot triumph.

In consequence, all Christian talk of ethics must also include hope. Sin-talk that functions as a blunt-instrument attack is not consistent with the empty tomb. Sin-talk is serious, but always looks to the transformation God promises to those who have been raised with Christ.

For instance
To take one sin for an example, consider the greed for ‘stuff’ so prevalent in affluent Australia.

The empty tomb shows how useless is possession of the latest gadget, or fastest car, or shiniest house. The pursuit of these is a pathetic effort at self-definition. It spurns Jesus’ victory over sin by pushing it aside. ‘I’d much rather get a flat-screen TV than have union Christ who rose as the Son of God.’ We should name greed for the sin it is.

Yet there is hope. Once convicted of this failing, the greedy one can be sure: if s/he stops the pursuit of stuff, life will not end. There will be no loss of identity, but possession of true identity in Jesus! Change and transformation and resurrection life are real today. The sinner, therefore, is not left downcast but is lifted up to where Christ is seated in the heavenly realms. Life changes – and that is empty tomb ethics.



Same-sex marriage is not about same-sex marriage

I’ve lifted the following quotation from an article in The Australian

In the Anglo-American world [including Australia], gay marriage has become one of those causes through which the cosmopolitan cultural elites define themselves and construct a moral contrast between themselves and ordinary folk. What’s really important for them is the sense of superiority experienced through the conviction that “we” are not like them. In this way, a clear moral distinction is drawn between the forward-looking attitudes of an enlightened, courageous minority and the backward-looking prejudices of a homophobic majority.

It’s an obvious point. The cause is about self-definition (‘I am …’) and moral contrast (‘… on the side of good’). We all want to say, ‘I am on the side of good.’ Fair enough, but I have a concern with using this cause as the test.

The reason: ‘the cause’ has become a tool more important than real people, gay or not.

To make another obvious point, sexual identity is a very sensitive thing. Moral and political contrasts in the past were on such matters as free trade versus tariffs, or whether responsibility lies more on the individual or the state.

To throw sexuality into the centre of this kind of debate … It’s going to get messy and hurt people. Yet, for that very reason, it’s important to engage.

So a real question is this: how can we engage the discussion, while striving with all integrity to help people not hurt them?

Abortion & disagreement

I read The Book of Books. The radical impact of the King James Bible 1611-2011. It’s worth a read, though it has its problems.

One amazing statement, though, makes me wonder how disagreements are addressed. It’s about abortion.

Rightly enough, abortion is a very sensitive issue. All the personal dynamics are powerful for any man or woman involved. And then there are the myriad ethical matters (sexual ethics, personal and community responsibility, the care of the weak, legislating in areas of disagreement, etc).

Yet I thought it extraordinary to read these words from the author, Melvyn Bragg:

Neither abortion nor contraception carry stigma any more except in a few remaining repressive boltholes.
(Page 304)

He could not write ‘no stigma at all’ – it would be too obvious a lie. So, instead, those who disagree with Bragg’s ethics are allocated to the pit of repression.

The strength of this dismissal makes me wonder what’s going on. That’s what I would ask Bragg, if I was in any kind of pastoral relationship with him. Especially so since, in this very book, Braggrepeatedly shows understanding for people whose views he disagrees with radically.

One again I’m terribly saddened by this. It dismisses, without thought, thousands of attacks on the weak and defenceless. It also marginalises adult men and women who’d like to face up to their own suffering – even wrong-doing – in treating the unborn. All it says is, ‘If you have a problem, it’s your problem. Forget it, and don’t talk to me.’

That’s not what I want to say! That’s not loving!

What are your thoughts? What’s a better way to have the conversation on this difficult topic?