People sometimes criticize ethical decisions by claiming they are shaped by pluralism or relativism. Is that wrong? Shouldn’t we consider the ethical layers that make up a situation’s context when we make a decision?
Your question explores the dynamics of ethical decision-making. Numerous elements belong in a proper methodology for determining what is right or wrong. When we try to ascertain the right solution in an ethical dilemma, we always should begin with the conviction to our authority.
For the Christian, authority finds its most definitive expression in Scripture. That said, submitting to the authority of Scripture also means using proper interpretive skills to arrive at what the Scripture actually means. Those skills include, but are not limited to, study of the context of the passage, the linguistic analyses of the words, a consideration of other biblical passages that address similar situations, and a prayerful approach to God’s Spirit guiding our understanding and application.
Examine situation’s unique features
After an honest and thorough study of the applicable passages of Scripture, we must examine details of the situation with which we are dealing. The unique pieces that comprise the overall context are what make every decision a new challenge. Rarely will we encounter the exact set of circumstances that create the precisely same ethical dilemma.
However, context does not automatically create pluralism in our ethical decision-making. Pluralism, in part, is the condition in which we live side-by-side with others who do not share our own set of beliefs. Pluralism does not necessitate we lose our individuality or our convictions. Rather, pluralism means we recognize our differences without surrendering our understanding of right or wrong in the process.
Context does not necessarily create relativism in our ethical decision-making, either. Relativism implies everyone’s resolution to the ethical quandary is equally correct. When relativism rules the day, each individual decision is relative to that person’s context, authority, interpretation and other elements of the decision-making process. Relativism causes us to relinquish the unique rightness of our decision. We may indeed be correct, but relativism leads us to admit we may be right only relative to our own position.
At the core of your question is the legitimacy of considering context when making ethical decisions. Given that context does not inherently involve pluralism or relativism, its inclusion in the decision-making work actually is important. Since we are creatures of many contexts, it would be impossible not to include the influence of context in our ethical decision-making.
The warning, however, is that context must not become the sole criterion for the decision. That would be relative. Context is one piece to the ethical decision-making puzzle. Beginning with the authority of Scripture, and including good interpretive skills, context, experience, prayer and even the insight of a good and trusted friend, we can take huge strides in determining what is right or wrong.
Allen Reasons, senior minister
Fifth Avenue Baptist Church
If you have a comment about this column or wish to ask a question for a future column, contact Bill Tillman, consulting ethicist for Right or Wrong? at firstname.lastname@example.org.