There has always been a multiplicity of views concerning moral and ethical issues in the world religions. For example, Orthodox Jews only eat food that is kosher, hence they don’t eat pork or shell fish, while Reform Jews may eat pork or shell fish like shrimp, but some still observe dietary rules at home, as opposed to eating out. Muslims have dietary rules for halal food that adheres to Islamic law as defined in the Qur’an.
Southern Baptists are split on their interpretation of the Bible. Some Baptists believe in taking a literal understanding of the book of Genesis when it says that God created the world in seven days. Other Baptists disagree stating that seven should not be taken as a literal number since the universe took thousands of years to develop.
Christians of every denomination have divergent views on the question of abortion, euthanasia, contraception, same sex marriage and divorce, among other issues. Why this pluralism in regard to moral issues? In regard to specific moral issues, it’s impossible to have certitude that completely eliminates the possibility of error. By certitude, I mean freedom from doubt.
As one considers specific acts, for example, capital punishment, it’s not possible to have the type of certitude that may be present on the theoretical level. If life is always sacred, one may ask whether or not the government has the right to use lethal injection (or some other method) to kill a prisoner on death row? There have been innocent people, particularly blacks, killed for a crime they never committed.
Another reason why moral questions are so difficult is this: Scripture does not always tell us what is right or wrong. For example, should any country have nuclear weapons? Russia and the U.S. have between them thousands of nuclear weapons that could eliminate life on earth 10 times over. However, scripture doesn’t say anything about the morality of building and using thermonuclear weapons, does it?
I would argue that these nuclear weapons are unshootable, since they are capable of wiping out entire countries. The U.N. Security Council stated that “autonomous weapon systems” or killer robots may have killed human beings in 2020. These robots are able with lethal weapons to attack targets operating on their own accord, independently of human decision-making, though the U.S. government doesn’t do this, as far as I know.
If scripture does not have an answer in regard to the use of killer robots, how are moral decisions made? As I see it, moral questions can be decided on what’s called the natural law.
The natural law is what we can know through reason about the eternal law or God’s plan for the universe. In short, human reasoning helps a person decide whether a particular act is morally right or wrong. This is where conscience comes into play. I would define conscience as reason making a judgment about the goodness or badness of an action to be decided here and now.
Two people, for example, making a decision about the morality of using artificial contraceptives may come to two different conclusions. Some couples may decide that they do not want any children for several reasons: they might decide that they do not have the emotional wherewithal to raise a child. Others may not have sufficient money to raise a child and give them a good education so they can eke out a decent living in the future.
A couple’s circumstances must be an integral part of the picture. Some couples may decide to adopt a baby instead of having their own child. Look at all the immigrants with children on the southwestern border of the U.S. Since the U.S. is one of the richest countries on the planet, does not the U.S. have a moral obligation to help the children of immigrants from Haiti or Guatemala who have no future in their own countries?
Finally, as imperfect human beings we must attempt to understand God’s plan for us as we deal with complex questions that have no easy answers. We see now through a glass darkly, but in the afterlife we see God face to face. In a future piece, I’ll reflect on how to make an ethical/moral decision. Stay tuned.
Richard Penaskovic is an Emeritus Professor at Auburn University. His writings have appeared in the Birmingham News, Columbus-Ledger Enquirer, Montgomery Advertiser and online by Informed Comment and Politurco.