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Appropriation and Ethics

If the meaning of morality is both discovered and created in the narration of our lives and the revelation of the divine, it must also be applied to the situations of our individual and corporate living.

In this session we will explore the nature of appropriating ethical understandings and to what degree we as human beings are free to take responsibility for our appropriation. We will also continue the analysis of your dilemma by addressing issues of institutional structures which affect our freedom and will to act.

Living Responsibility

For Christian (and others) today, the word responsibility is closely associated with words like moral and good. Thus, we speak of being a responsible person, spouse, friend, citizen; of being a responsible church or society; and now, of being a responsible species. What is implicit in the notion that human beings are responsible beings is that we are engaged in a dialogue, or a relationship, with others (other people and things) that demands our response. It is difficult to understand the meaning of responsibility if we conceive of human beings as totally independent, being and acting in the world unconnected to anything or anyone else. If that were the case, we would have little use for the notion of responsibility at all. To embrace the idea of responsibility, in a very real sense, means we acknowledge that as individuals and communities we are in relationships and that all our endeavors toward character and all our decisions leading to actions are a response to being in relationship.

H. Richard Niebuhr was a leading Christian theologian who defined and established the Responsibility school of thought in Christian ethics. Niebuhr spoke of the moral responsibility of an individual and a community as involving response, interpretation, accountability, and social solidarity.

Niebuhr says, "The first element in the theory of responsibility is the idea of response. All action, we now say, including what we rather indeterminately call moral action, is response to action upon us. We do not, however, call the action of a self or moral action unless it is response to interpreted action upon us" (1963:61). In other words, to say that responsibility is response is not enough. We recognize, for example, that many of our physical reactions (from a heartbeat to a sudden fright) are reflexive and thus would not be identified as responsible in an ethical sense. We do not call a responsive attitude or action moral unless it were self-aware and an interpretation of the situation in which we find ourselves.

We can approach the questions "Who shall I (we) be and what shall I (we) do?" in many different ways. If we used a teleological approach we would also ask "What is my (our) goal, ideal, or telos?" If we used a deontological approach we would ask "What is the first law (duty) in my life and what are the laws (duties) that apply here?" If we used a responsibility approach we would first ask "What is going or what it being done to me (us)?" In very general terms, teleology is primarily concerned with the good, deontology with the right, and an ethics of responsibility with what is fitting (1963:60-61). However, many ethicists would say that what is fitting, that is to say a response that, through self-awareness and interpretation, takes account of the wholeness of the situation and fits into the possibilities of interaction, response and counter response, would also be good and right.

But again, Niebuhr insists that response, self-awareness, and interpretation are not enough. The notion of fitting our selves and actions into a larger interactive whole, into a relationship or a network of relationships, points to another important element of responsibility: Accountability. Niebuhr explains accountability in this way:

A third element is accountability -- a word that is frequently defined by recourse to legal thinking but that has a more definite meaning, when we understand it as referring to a part of the response pattern of our self-conduct. Our actions are responsible not only insofar as they are reactions to interpreted actions upon us but also insofar as they are made in anticipation of answers to our answers. An agent's action is like a statement in a dialogue. Such a statement not only seeks to meet, as it were, or to fit into, the previous statement to which it is an answer, but is made in anticipation to reply. It looks forward as well as backward; it anticipates objections, confirmations, and corrections. It is made as part of a total conversation that leads forward and is to have meaning as a whole (1963:63-64).

Accountability implies that our development of character and actions must be aware of the past, interpret the present, and attempt to anticipate the future. We must anticipate the consequences of our selves and our actions, that is to try, as best we can, to anticipate the affect of our actions and responses on others and their choices and actions.

And finally, if accountability is anticipating the reactions of our reactions, Niebuhr would say that responsibility also includes the presumption of social solidarity. He says, "Our action is responsible, it appears, when it is response to action upon us in a continuing discourse or interaction among beings forming a continuing society" (1963:65). We are responsible beings, when we embrace the virtues and actions that, not only benefit ourselves, but also the relationships and the communities in which we live; and as we discussed in the previous section, also embrace God's and intentions for humankind (both as individuals and communities) and all of creation.

By turning to Dietrich Bonhoeffer we can extend our notion of responsibility. Bonhoeffer says the responsible life consists of two factors; "life is bound to man and to God and a man's own life is free. It is a fact that life is bound to man and to God which sets life in the freedom of a man's own life. Without this bond and without this freedom there is no responsibility" (1955:224). For Bonhoeffer responsibility consists primarily of our relationship with God and our freedom.

While some might accuse Niebuhr of being more a secular moral philosopher, no such accusation could be leveled against Bonhoeffer. For him, responsibility and freedom are grounded in our relationship with Christ and are actualised in a world created by God. The world is not isolated or autonomous; which means, if "the world remains the world, that must be because all reality is founded upon Jesus Christ Himself. The world remains the world because it is the world which loved, condemned and reconciled in Christ" (1955:232). If that is so, than human beings have a concrete and thus limited responsibility which finds its meaning in the world that is created, loved, condemned and reconciled by God. For Bonhoeffer, responsibility is, then, virtue and action that understands and acknowledges the world in this way. He makes this clear when he says

The 'world' is thus the sphere of concrete responsibility which is given to us in an through Jesus Christ. It is not some general concept from which it is possible to derive a self-contained system. A man's attitude to the world does not correspond with reality if he sees in the world a good and evil which is good or evil in itself, or if he sees in it a  principle which is compounded of both good and evil and if he acts in accordance with this view; his attitude accords with reality only if he lives and acts in limited responsibility and thereby allows the world ever anew to disclose its essential character to him.

Action which is in accordance with reality is limited by our creatureliness (1955:233).

At this point we begin to sense that when freedom is intimately bonded to relationship, a paradox arises. If we say human beings are limited and bound in relationship, what does it mean to also say human beings are free? Bonhoeffer says, "Responsibility and freedom are corresponding concepts" and that  "responsibility presupposes freedom and freedom can consist only in responsibility. Responsibility is the freedom of men which is given only in the obligation of God and neighbour." (1955:248). So, our freedom (what Bonhoeffer calls "entire freedom") finds its meaning in obligation to God and to each other as understood and challenged in life of Jesus Christ.

Living Freedom

In recent years one of the most dominant concerns occupying ethics has been the notion of freedom. It is easy to say that we have free choice; free choice in the market, in religion, in relationships, etc. It is easy to say we are free to become the person we want to be. It can even be said we are free to choose our morality from a supermarket of selection; indeed, in this Module you have been introduced to a number of ethical schools of thought and moral possibilities - deontology, teleology, situationalism, existentialism, responsibility ethics, Christian ethics, biblical ethics, etc. Is it enough to say that an authentic morality is one that you freely choose and take responsibility for your choice?

Stanley Hauerwas points out that as we fly the flag of freedom, we live in a world where we recognize and accept every increasing areas of determinism. Science has reduced human nature and action to simple matter of genetic, biochemical, environmental, psychological, sociological factors. It has been said that one of the defining characteristics of modernity is that people feel both free and determined. Paradoxically, in a world of every increasing choices (from breakfast cereals to philosophies/theologies of life) the one thing we hold unto is our own autonomy as free selves (1983:7).

Hauerwas quotes the sociologist Peter Berger as saying we are condemned to a concept of freedom where "freedom of choice" becomes a virtue in and of itself. Thus, Hauerwas himself says, "It matters not what we desire, but that we desire. Our task is to become free, not through the acquisition of virtue, but by preventing ourselves from being determined, so that we can always keep our 'options open'" (1983:8). He would suggest that by ignoring the people we want to be and are becoming (that is our character), and by ignoring the fact that morality is retrospective (remembering and accepting), we fall into a trap of individualism and self-deception. As individuals we 'forget' that our freedom of choice and, by necessity, our will impinges on others. This act of forgetting is an act of self-deception. Hauerwas goes so far as to say that "there is no morality that does not require others to suffer for our commitments" (1983:9). Ethically speaking, freedom, like responsibility, is living within relationships, where response, self-awareness, interpretation, and accountability are necessary.

Freedom is normally associated with actions and not character. Such a one-sided assumption implies that if only we have a choice we are free. Berger, however, would remind us that such an understanding of freedom is simply making a virtue out of necessity. Freedom is, rather, an ability to identify with our choices as well as the ability to claim our lives as our own (9183:37,38). But if freedom is more a matter of character, then it is legitimate to ask, as Hauerwas does, "how did I acquire the freedom to acquire character in the first place?" (1983:38)

As we noted above in our discussion of Bonhoeffer's understanding of responsibility and freedom, within a Christian perspective both responsibility and freedom find their meaning when understood in relation to God and God's intention for creation. As such, an ethic of responsibility finds meaning in its relationship to obedience and discipleship. We believe it to be so because we believe that Jesus Christ stood before God as one both obedient and free. Freedom without obedience is merely and expression of self-will and individualistic choice for the sake of choice alone. Obedience without freedom is slavery.

Within the notion of responsibility lives the tension between obedience and freedom, and within the reality of responsibility obedience and freedom find expression. In the Scriptures we find both the intimacy and tension inherent in the relationship of responsibility, obedience, and freedom. In Micah 6:8 we read:

...the Lord has told us what is good. What he requires of us is this: to do what is just, to show constant love, and to live in humble fellowship with our God (1994:903).

And in John 15:10-12:

If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so your joy may be complete. My commandment is this: love one another, just as I love you (1994:138).

An ethic of responsibility would argue that being a person of justice and love, and acting justly and lovingly, is to embrace both fidelity and freedom, which is to say responsibility. A Christian ethic of responsibility would argue that one can only realize a just and loving character, and make just and loving decisions, if our being is grounded in a relationship with God and our neigbhour, and benefits God's intentions for all of creation.

Finally, quoting the Scripture above reminds us that Christian ethics does not begin by "emphasizing rules or principles, but by calling our attention to a narrative that tells of God's dealing with creation" (Hauerwas 1983:24-25). As was mentioned in Session 2, narrative is neither incidental nor accidental to Christian belief. Hauerwas insists that narrative, first "formally displays our existence and that of the world as creatures -- as contingent beings"; second, that narrative "is the characteristic form of our awareness of ourselves as historical beings"; and third, that God has "revealed himself narratively in the history of Israel and in the life of Jesus" (1983:28-29).

With the rise of a scientific understanding and approach to reality the concept of what it is to be human has fundamentally changed. These changes are not easily reconciled with the biblical world nor with most of Church history. Much of the contemporary understanding of human nature would seem to "limit" our freedom and, thus, our responsibility. Below are listed four very brief sketches of contemporary constraints on human freedom and responsibility.

Biological Constraints: If, as Darwin suggests, we are evolved then we, like all animals, will be governed by genetic and bio-chemical realities. It is suggested (and assumed by many) that anger, greed, love, compassion, etc., are evolutionary developments and bio-chemical responses. It is believe today that once we have genetically mapped the human body, human nature will be understood.

Physical Constraints: More recent studies have suggested that much of our behaviour is determined, or affected by diet, exercise, stress, etc.

Psychological Constraints: Psychoanalysis, Behavourism, Self-Actualization, etc., are all attempts to define human behaviour, solve behavioural defects, and assure the well-being and good health of human beings. While these methods differ widely, they all suggest that human behaviour can be explained and understood scientifically. 

Social Constraints: Sociologists and anthropologists have gone some way in describing the effects of socialization on human beings. All human beings live in a social context and are accountable to laws, role expectations, the pressures and protections of conformity, etc.

Issues and Questions for Discussion

How do the theological notions discussed above interact with the contemporary scientific "explanations" of human nature, as just described?

 Given your Christian theological and ethical understandings, and the contemporary understanding human nature, discuss in what ways human beings can be held ethically responsible for their actions.

Given our contemporary understanding of human nature and the moral life, how are we responsible to God and our neighbour? In what ways does our relationship with God as created beings influence your understandings?

God gives the gift of freedom to human beings, including the notion of human radical free will. Consider the ideas of:

Redemption     Atonement     Grace

Living the Methodology

Step 4: Analysis of the Dilemma
Character: Virtue and Self

Consider any role expectations that may affect your ethical dilemma. These expectations will lead you into further considerations of character. What virtues are relevant in your dilemma and how might they affect your choice of actions. In what ways does your professional role affect issues of character and virtue? Anticipating your ordination, does being a minister make a difference in the resolution of your ethical dilemma and to you personally as a human being?

The Croquet Game

Being a minister is just as important as doing ministry; or, in ministry we are not just concerned with what we do, but how we do it. We imagine ourselves as certain kinds of people and the kinds of people we want to become. Thus, a minister is not only expected to tell the truth, but also to be a truthful person. We must be people of integrity. "Character gives continuity from one action to another. While actions may be discrete, the person or moral agent who is the same person. Her or his different actions over time must somehow fit into a whole that makes sense" (Lebacqz 1985:81).

Ruth wanted to be fair, honest, trustworthy. To be trustworthy meant more than just keeping confidence. "The trustworthy person does not simply keep confidence, but is thoughtful about the impact of her decisions on others, sensitive to their needs and claims..." (Lebacqz 1985:79). So, Ruth had to be concerned with the "depth" of her actions. She was also concerned with the "breadth" of her actions, however, or the "continuity over time between this decision and others (Lebacqz 1985:80). Thus, Ruth was interested in considering how any particular decision would impact her situations and relationships in the future. What would it mean to keep confidence if Kathy went ahead with an abortion? What effect would breaking confidence have on her relationship with Kathy and/or other church members?

We must always remember that to act is to create ourselves. As Lebacqz says, "Our actions can reinforce our character, or they can change our character" (1985:85). Integrity of character is determined by the

pattern of actions in our lives. We must always ask if such a pattern makes sense, or fits in with the image, or story, of our life. How do our actions fit the virtues, or character traits, which define us?

"Patterns of action over time form the basis for our judgments about a person's character and virtue" (Lebacqz 1985:93). It is, therefore, important to know what virtues are relevant in any particular situation and thus might lend some guidance to the right action. Thus, though Ruth may have a rule that tells her to keep confidence and be a member of a profession that more tightly binds her to keeping confidence, she must also consider still deeper questions asking what actions "are consonant with the kinds of virtues she wants to develop as a professional" (Lebacqz 1985:106).

Copyright © 2000 Dale Rominger

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