“Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethics” by Steve Wilson
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In his book, Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethics, author Steve Wilkens discusses nine ethical views that are prevalent in cultures today. Although the systems are sometimes vague, and his discussions, a bit biased, I find myself fortunate because I seem to agree with most of his opinions that he lets slip.
The first ethical belief that the author discusses is Cultural Relativism. It talks about the how diversity is becoming more and more apparent between different cultures worldwide. The author mentions that often customs that are unquestioningly accepted in one part of the world are considered abhorrent in another, for example: human sacrifice. Cultural Relativism claims that there are no absolute standards for moral judgment. Basically says that the values that every culture isn’t necessarily wrong, just different. I almost completely disagree with this view. The largest problem I have with it rejects absolute truth and its existence. If one were to make the statement “there is no absolute truth,” they would have just proven themselves wrong because that is a self-defeating statement.
For example, Communism and Christianity make divergent claims concerning the nature of reality. One or the other may be correct, or neither is correct; but they both cannot be correct at the same time. According to the Law of Non-Contradiction, no statement can be both true and false at the same time. Only one ethical view can correctly mirror reality (truth). Cultural relativism is built on the belief that truth is always relative to a non-absolute standard: one’s own culture. This leaves God completely out of the picture or rather puts culture in the role of God. I do not agree with the belief that this ethical view presents referring to judging cultures. Sometimes you have to judge other cultures. What I mean is this: If a culture has a standard that defies the truth (God’s laws) then they are wrong. If there was complete tolerance, there would be no justice. In some cases, it would not be, for instance, the United Sates’ role to go and change another country’s ethical system and make them do the right thing. If, however, the country is directly defying the will of the majority and affecting our own system of ethics, we have the justification to intervene. The Bible talks about war and things many times, but you need to have a balance and pick your battles, or else our world would be chaotic.
The next system discussed is Ethical Egoism. This system seems completely irrational to me. It basically states that everyone should “look out for number one,” meaning, “live and act only according to your own needs.” If everyone lived by this system, the world would fall apart. Everyone would be looking out for himself. We would all be selfish, and no one would succeed. Jesus addresses this issue in Luke 14:11, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but everyone who humbles himself will be exalted.” This includes just looking out for one’s self. It is impossible for people to reap benefit if everyone is pursuing only themselves. Jesus said, in Matthew 16:25&6 “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?”
Next discussed is Behaviorism. I completely disagree with this view. First of all, it denies the possibility of God from the start because God is not the type that can be seen, touched, or tasted. It also vetoes the possibility that there is something within human beings, like a mind–something not governed by physical laws. It claims that people are not free and therefore eliminates any ethical meaning within itself. In ethics, people are trained to behave certain ways. Our actions are influenced by our social environment, but they are not determined by it, as the system claims. Freedom and social influence can co-exist, but if something is already determined, it can only happen, and leaves no room for freedom. If the entire world used this standard of ethics, what would happen to our justice system? No crime would be anyone’s fault. People would not take responsibility for their actions, and this world in fact, not be ethical at all.
Egoism advocates the selfish pursuit of happiness, although it does seem to put more emphasis on selfishness than happiness. Utilitarianism, which is the next view discussed, keeps the pursuit of happiness, but eliminates selfishness. This system seems more socially inclusive, and its main slogan is “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” To me, this is the most wishy-washy chapter. One thing from this ethical view that I do agree with is that it offers a means of balancing individual freedoms with social obligations. While God does choose certain people to do certain things, we are all judged according to one standard and loved equally by God. Also, it would seem difficult to imagine a loving God who wants to torture his creatures. Of course He wants them to be happy.
One problem I have with this view is that it says that actions are judged by their consequences. If this is true, then we can’t know if our actions are good are bad because the decision is dependent on knowing the future. Also, if we chose one path, we would still not know what the results of the other choices would have been so how would one know if the one he made was the “greatest good.” Also, according to Utilitarianism, we must face the problems concerning the extent (“greatest number”) of actions. We would then have to face who would be affected, but we cannot know this beforehand. Plus, we would have to know that our action would produce the “greatest happiness” for each one we affect. There is no way to determine those. This view, therefore, is not very concrete. Further, we must once again consider what would happen to justice. This system does not use rules to determine if actions are right or wrong. Neither punishment nor reward would be fair. If someone earned a salary, it might not be in everyone’s best interest to grant it to them. Justice would completely be thrown out. Utilitarianism allows people to ignore rules and, instead, concentrate on results. This is unbiblical. God created rules for justice, order, and happiness! The Psalmist David wrote,
“The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart…The ordinances of the Lord are sure and altogether righteous…By them is Your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward,” (Psalm 19:7-11).
Rules protect rights and rights are to support the fact that people have value. Utilitarianism emphasizes the value of individual’s happiness, but it doesn’t recognize value in people.
While Utilitarianism focuses on results of actions, Kantian Ethics, which is next discussed in the book, cares about motives and rules. According to Kant, the only ethical rules that should be adopted are those which show themselves to be logically consistent and which do not result in self-contradiction. This view claims that Reason is the judge and the source of right and wrong. Duty is the focus of this moral philosophy. This is one of a few aspects of this philosophy that I find accurate. Duty takes us back to the perception that some things are right no matter what–even if our emotions are persuaded or our moods change. It is true that Ethical laws are not open to negotiation. I agree with the author, in that, it is possible to hold unreasonable beliefs about ethics. But this is a problem with our understanding of right and wrong, not a problem with right and wrong itself. Also, Kantian Ethics demands that rules be universalized. This coincides with Scripture’s supposition that its basic ethical commands are intended for everyone.
One difficulty I find with this sort of thinking is that God really has no place in it because it places reason alone to be the foundation for moral truth. Human reason is finite and to make our narrow reason the single standard of right and wrong leaves any ethical system open to error. Also, reason is part of human life, as the author explains; it is not immune from the effects of sin. Because sin exists, it makes even the best motivations not fully pure. Our own good will can’t ever measure up to God’s standard. Kant fails to mention any indication of these inadequacies as well as the need for God’s grace and help.
Going back to duties, I have another problem with Kant’s view. It is a fact hat duties conflict. Years ago I heard the story of a middle-aged father of one. The man worked as a bridge keeper for a rail company. His job was to operate the controls that raised the railway bridge which spanned a fairly wide river. He did this so that barges could float by, and he also lowered the bridge so that passing trains could cross the tracks on it. One day the man brought his 6 year old boy to work. Keeping an eye on him through the windows in the cabin beside the bridge, the man allowed his son to play on the surrounding rocks, as he did paperwork and such. Soon later, the man noticed the alarm sounding that the 11:00 train was approaching, signaling that he needed to lower the bridge for it to safely cross. The man ran to the door, calling his son in. As he spanned the riverbank for his little boy, he suddenly realized that he was on the bridge, hundreds of yards away. He desperately cried for his boy to get away from the tracks, but in his protest, he discovered that his son had gotten caught somehow on the planks of the bridge and would be crushed by the lowering of the tracks.
At the same moment, the father heard the whistle of the train, it was seconds away from the bridge. Horror filled the man’s mind. If he didn’t lower the bridge, the train would crash and explode. The 11 O’clock was a passenger train that usually carried about 230 people aboard. The man was faced with an instant choice of murdering his son, or saving the boy’s life for the sacrifice of a couple hundred strangers. In the end, the man nobly sacrificed his son’s life, but that isn’t the point. The point is that no one can really determine what the man’s choice should have been. He had two conflicting roles: one as a bridge controller and one as a father. Sometimes choosing between two rules that can be universalized is unavoidable, and Kant does not have any way to solve this problem.
I didn’t take much interest in Virtue Ethics, mostly because I didn’t like it. It is based on working to be virtuous–a point that none of us will ever reach. Only God is truly virtuous, and Christians are only righteous because of the righteousness that Christ’s blood brought upon us. The good deeds and “fruit” is a result thereof. It does not come from within us.
In Situational Ethics, one might say the catchphrase is “All you need is Love.” It begins at the right point by asking who God is, and replaces the love of the law with the love of people. This is biblical and it stresses that we are to love everyone. It also provides a means of avoiding conflicts between ethical rules. It does not allow for gray areas. Situationism has only one rule that applies in every situation, and so there is no conflict. This system does not, however, provide a clear definition of love. Also, the creator of the belief, Joseph Fletcher, uses Jesus’ summary of the law to argue that love is the only standard. However, it seems to “eliminate” all the other ethical rules mentioned. If he is going to use the Bible for the base of his ethical system, he cannot eliminate the parts that do not support his theories–and neither can you or I.
Thomas Aquinas had a large influence in the next ethical system mentioned: namely, Natural Law Ethics. He reached the conclusion that Christians and non-Christians should reach the same conclusions about morality, even if non-Christians do not recognize the source. He discusses that God reveals himself in nature. He also includes an aspect of God’s plan that does not come through nature: divine law. It is necessary because God cannot be known fully just through nature. He is divinely involved with it. One problem with the view is that reason cannot lead us to divine truth. Our instinct and nature cannot reveal right from wrong because we are tainted with sin. It seems to me that this view replaces nature with the Divinity of God.
The final ethical system discussed in the book is the Divine Command Theory. It names God as the source of moral truth, which I find favorable. It states that God made rules for the universe and that it is the duty of people to obey these rules. This, to me, seems to tie all of the truths from the previous views into one generally accurate system. I agree with the belief that our creaturely nature obligates us to rules that are part of the created order, and that God, who isn’t a created being, is not bound by these rules. I agree that Good and evil do not exist independently from God, but I do not necessarily agree that God created evil. I believe that it would not be according to His Omnibenevolent nature for God to have created evil. Instead, evil is a corruption of what is good–like rust to a car, like rot to a tree. Evil is a lack of good things. Like a cancer evil infects and can corrupt, but in and of itself it has no substance. It also does not replace a personal being, just as a person has cancer but is not cancer.
In Conclusion, I believe the key thread in discerning what is true and what is false in each of these ethical systems is dependent on one belief. That is that God is the source of moral truth and He alone is the revealer of what is right and wrong. He does this through His Word, through nature, and through Divine revelation. Upon arriving at this conclusion, I believe that the truths in each of these systems are brought to light, as I have shown.