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A Method of Doing Ethics

Returning to the Case

Before the 17th Century the study of ethics was more a field involved in "case ethics" and less an exercise in providing universal resolutions to various moral problems. Ethics was a field not for theoretical analysis, but for practical wisdom. Aristotle in writing about ethics and poetics said it was not our goal to ascertain certainty, necessity and generality beyond "the nature of the case". In other words, he encouraged us to match our expectations to the nature of the case and to avoid demanding irrelevant kinds of "certainty" and "necessity". Aristotle knew the difference between the grasp of intellectual theory and the wisdom needed to put techniques to work in concrete situations dealing with actual problems. Like Plato, he hoped we would eventually discover truths that held generally (that is, "on the whole") for human beings, but he saw also that our ability to act wisely in a concrete situation depends on are willingness, not just to calculate timeless universals, but to take decisions "as the occasion requires".

In time (particularly after the 1650's) ethics became more a field of searching for general abstract theory, and actually became separated from concrete problems. That is to say, morality was decontextualized (as also was theology).

While we should not, and cannot, return to the days of Aristotle, case study ethics is back. And while we are continually concerned with discerning, as best we can, general "truths", we are also unashamedly concerned with techniques, or methods, for actually doing ethics in concert situations involving real moral problems. Ethics is being re-contextualized.

Ethical dilemmas do not arise from vacuums but from our life and work experiences. As a result we are emotionally involved in the doing of ethics. Though it may be difficult for you to contemplate a real ethical dilemma as you read this book, such difficulty will more accurately reflect the doing of ethics in your life and ministry. We are often times emotionally involved with the people in and situations of our ministry. It would be inappropriate to be overwhelmed by our involvement or to become so objective as to lack sensitivity. Thus, while naturally being involved, we need to be able to make responsible and caring ethical decisions. The following methodology can aid us in balancing objectivity and sensitivity, while being emotionally involved in the situation ourselves.

As you read the following methodological guidelines for doing ethics remember that following all these steps and considering all these factors will not "produce" the right action, as if you were involved in some kind of ethical calculus; that is, put in the right data, get out the right answer. It will, however, present a process by which you can tackle ethical dilemmas you encounter in ministry. 

These guidelines may seem far removed from that of a Christian ethic, however, they provide a simply skeleton which has yet to find life. As we proceed through the week, issues of biblical understanding, theological insights, and personal and communal faith will be apply to the methodology.

Dealing with Dilemmas

Step 1: Narrative of the Situation

We begin by telling the story of the experience. While we will discuss narrative below, suffice it to say now that the narrative of the situation is more than a simple description. While it gives detail, it also speaks of feelings, spirit, and the passions involved in most difficult situations. Thus, you should tell the story of the dilemma in detail, describing every aspect of the encounter you can remember; i.e., feelings, thoughts, conversations, setting, people involved, relationships, and so on. No detail is too small during this initial stage.

Step 2: Analysis of the Narrative

Return to the description of your ethical dilemma, now asking what features of your story seem morally relevant. For example, where did the encounter take place? In an office? In a home? Does it matter? Who was involved? How old? Male or female? Does it matter? Identify prima facie duties and their consequences. Ask what rules apply and if there is something in the situation that would cause you to override a rule? Why? Identify any role specific duties you need to take into consideration?

It is most useful, if not necessary, write the story down, that is to say, textualize the experience.

Step 3: Identification of the Dilemma

Attempt to "name" the dilemma; is it a dilemma involving confidentiality, truth telling, justice, etc. Most of us have a "common sense knowledge" of what is right and wrong behavior, of what a dilemma involves, though we may have difficulty in articulating precisely the important elements involved. Use your common sense and your knowledge.

Step 4: Analysis the Dilemma

What are the role expectations you should consider? As a human being and a minister what issues of virtue and character are important in your dilemma? How do the structures, that is the institutional settings, involved in your situation influence your ethical dilemma? How is power being used and/or abused. In what ways is justice being sought or undermined? How are the issues of freedom and liberation being addressed?

Step 5: Resolution of the Dilemma

This is, of course, the heart of the matter, choosing the right action; i.e. what is right for all involved, or as right as possible. You should consider the morally relevant factors, the relationship between rules and your  situation, the consequences and duties (especially prima facie duties), role expectations which come into play, and how any course of action affects your character. Finally, apply your  understanding of virtue, consider the institutional settings and how your action uses or abuses power.

Living the Methodology

Step 1: Narrative Situation
Text: Telling the Story

Narrative: The Croquet Game

Ruth is an associate minister serving her first appointment in a suburban church. Like many 'associate' ministers, her primary responsibility is the youth group.

A fifteen-year-old high school junior from the group appears at Ruth's office door one day. Obviously upset, the young women blurts out, 'I need to talk to somebody, but you mustn't share this with anyone.'

Sensing her deep distress, Ruth replies,

'Kathy, what happens here in this office is just between us. Please tell me what's troubling you.'

Kathy bursts into tears. 'I'm pregnant, and I've got to have an abortion. My parents would kill me if they knew. My boyfriend doesn't know and I don't ever want to see him again. I've missed two periods and I don't have enough money to pay for the abortion. Please help me.' (Lebacqz 1985:9)

Copyright © 2000 Dale Rominger

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