- a discussion in the always fascinating OneKirk Facebook group about whether faith had any contact with truth and knowledge
- another discussion there about an article in the Telegraph reporting an article in a journal of medical ethics proposing a parental right to infanticide
- an ecumenical lent study group at Augustine United Church in which we talked about what a Christian society was or would be and whether this was something we desired
- a Scottish United Reformed and Congregational College session in which a fundamental difference emerged between some of us who contended that we can discern the image of God in our human nature and others (including, or maybe only, me) who hold to a Calvinist/Augustinian belief that the fall has erased that image (in Calvinist jargon the “total depravity” of fallen humanity)
Cardinal Keith O’Brien made an intervention in the debate about changes in the marriage law regarding same-sex couples and there was an outraged response to that intervention in a number of forums.
In addition I listened to Radio 4’s Moral Maze programme in which various people argued for and against the “right” of women to abortion (the discussion was very largely framed by a problematic of rights, a point to wish I might wish to return but which is not really my theme today).
It was this last discussion, to which I was a non-participating spectator that crystallised for me the common thread in my reactions across all these incidents and episodes; my feeling that what often makes this kind of talk go wrong is discomfort with uncertainty, temporariness, and dependency.
In the argument about abortion many of those taking part seemed to believe that the way out of the difficulties created by our disagreements would be to establish a single principle as unarguable and absolute, trumping all others, and then deduce ethical norms from it that would apply in all cases. On one side you have the right to self-determination as regards one’s body (“a woman’s right to choose”) on the other the obligation to protect and sustain the vulnerable and powerless, taken to apply to the foetus (“sanctity of life”).
I don’t at this point want to take sides on this question but rather to assert that the proper context for it in the mainstream of the Christian tradition is the idea of the fall and of original sin. This has a number of general consequences for ethical reflection of which two are of crucial significance.
First and most important it means that we cannot expect to act innocently. None of us can claim to be without sin. All of us stand in need of God’s forgiving grace. Our attempts to do the right thing are always under the shadow of failure and limitation. A real sense of this should encourage us to modesty and forbearance.
We are looking for the least bad more than for the best course of action and this will always be relative rather than absolute. We must anticipate a tragic balancing of pain and harm and not a clear, final and absolute answer.
Second it means that the very faculties we are using to achieve this balance are themselves marred and distorted by sin. This is the link to the conversation about faith and knowledge. We are not the kind of beings that can know ourselves, the world, or God clearly. This means that we should always be ready to acknowledge that all we think and feel is liable to correction and change.
This is no less true of our moral reasoning and moral intuition than of anything else. We have to have a tolerance of those who think and feel differently, even where we cannot tolerate actions that flow from their thoughts and beliefs. We need to try to understand the positions of those with whom we disagree and to assume that they really do have good reasons for their views and feelings, even when we think they’re dangerously wrong.
There are limits to this tolerance, of course, and there comes a point where we have to have recourse to the idea of “evil”, whatever we may mean by that difficult word, but this should be a last recourse and come to unwillingly, since it implies the end of conversation and the beginning of another and more desperate form of struggle.
What follows from this? Well for one we should be suspicious of our outrage. Calm is almost always better. People on all sides of all serious moral questions seem to disagree with this. The more strongly you feel about a question the greater seems to be your right to speak. I think this is wrong.
For another we have to be ready to see the bad things about our position or proposed course of action and acknowledge them. On abortion I’m inclined to see the current arrangements in Britain as about right but I still think every abortion is a tragedy. The alternative to them is not, though, just extra happy children. It is also unhappy mothers and children and illegally procured and dangerous abortions.
In deciding what to do and how to legislate we are always faced, in this fallen world, with balancing bad outcomes. This will never be unambiguous and certain and we shouldn’t act as if we thought it was.