March 4, 2013

Ethical Divide (?)

Over at Thinking Anglicans, the still swirling debate concerning the ordination of women to the episcopate has raised some questions about the underlying worldviews (or perhaps it would be better to say church-views) of the various sides. There is no doubt that there is on this issue a divide between traditionalists and progressives. But surely it is an error for the traditionalists to try to co-opt every element of the tradition, and to charge advocates for change with a wholesale abandonment of the philosophical bases of Anglicanism if not Christianity itself.

One of these claims took the form of the statement that the traditionalists are following a basically deontological system of ethics while the progressives have adopted a consequentialist mode of ethical thinking. There is a tiny grain of truth in this, to the extent that deontology tends, in itself, to be rather dogmatic and a bit less interested in the broader context of actions in determining their ethical weight. This may reflect a general tendency towards idealism and an attendant yearning for objectivity. But the suggestion that deontology is the standard mode of Anglican — or Christian — ethical thinking is unsupportable.

Let me first say a few words about these two approaches. Deontological ethics rest on the principle of duty — an action is right not because it leads to right results, but because it is right in and of itself, in conformity with law, whether human or divine. Consequentialism, as a species of teleological ethics, tends to look at the results of actions. Utilitarianism falls under this heading, as one particular manner of making judgments about the rightness of an action in terms of its producing the greatest good for the greatest number.

It has to be admitted that there is a deontological strand in Christianity, and hence in Anglicanism; as indeed there is in Judaism and Islam. Any ethical system that is based on law and obedience to law, especially when that law is held to have a divine mandate, will value duty and obedience as high ethical principles.

But it is equally true that Jesus himself appeared to take a consequentialist approach for much of the time — not looking at acts in themselves, but in a larger context including intent prior to action and results in the wake of action. This is perhaps summed up nowhere so well as in his teaching on the nature of Sabbath observance — that it is not observed simply for its own sake as a matter of duty, but for the good results that come from the observance, whether the right use of leisure, or the opportunity for acts of charity. He also adopts a strictly teleological ethic when he speaks of knowing virtue by the fruits it bears. In other words, there is a strong subjective element in the ethical teaching of Jesus; and his Summary of the Law, while it gives a nod to duty, also places a reflexive value on the moral and ethical relationship of oneself to others, as does the Golden Rule a fortiori.

In any discussions of changes in practice — whether the ordination of women or marriage equality — it is of little use, and of minimal persuasive value, to rest ones opposition on the charge that those advocating change are advocating change, and that only those opposed to the change are truly faithful to the tradition. As with the claim that traditionalists are absolutists and progressives moral relativists, it is a brush far too broad to paint an accurate picture. It is good to be aware of the underlying differences in philosophical approach employed by any argument, upon whichever side of the debate it is deployed; and it is perhaps helpful to attempt to have some agreement on basic philosophical or ethical approach prior to engagement. But many traditionalists, far from cleaving to the dogmatic and deontological, have often employed arguments that are at least in part teleological, or, as in the case of opposition to marriage equality, baldly utilitarian.

So let us deal with the actual content of arguments rather than their formal or philosophical attributes.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Erika Baker said...

Tobias, thank you.
I agree with your reasoning here. I would say, though, that over at Thinking Anglicans, there has been so much debate about the arguments themselves that people have got very entrenched.
And in that context, it was quite helpful that Jonathan Clatworthy tried to see if there is a fundamental understanding of faith that separates the two groups who have been successfully talking past each other for decades, using the content of the arguments as canon balls against each other. It's a means of shifting the sands a little, of trying to open up new ways of engaging with each other.

I like your comment that it is wrong to claim that one approach is traditional and the other pure innovation. It would help a lot if we could genuinely see that both sides are grounded in traditional faith.
And, of course, no-one is ever following only one methodological approach or another. It just seems like that when we look at one or two subjects in isolation.

I have often been surprised to discover, when TA posted about topics that have nothing to do with our 2 hot button issues, how the lines of allegiance suddenly change completely and how many of those I used to think were in "my camp" were much more conservative in other matters, while those who were "rigid traditionalists" were astonishingly liberal in other respects.

I am convinced that we select our opinion first and then align ourselves with the theology and the methodology that support it.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Erika. I do think it is valuable, per Jonathan's reflections, to look at the underlying ideologies that form people's opinions. My concern was more with Labarum's attempt to put all who support the ordination of women into some kind of moral-relativist, ethical-consequentialist box, and then dismiss that ideology as somehow "unAnglican."

There is ample support for the ordination of women from a "traditionalist" stance -- which is the approach I take. I do this in part consciously "to win some" to my side, but also because that is at base my approach -- going back to primary sources, and examining whether they actually say what some who claim to be traditionalist infer or cite. This was in part the Anglican adventure in countering both the excesses of Rome and the errors of Calvinism. Most of the arguments now raised against the ordination of women fall either into a Papist ("sacramental assurance") or Protestant ("male headship") theology that has little standing in Anglicanism. The proper referent should be Article XXXVI!

Daniel Weir said...

It is worth noting that Frank Bruni, in his column in the NYT, notes that Jeff Chu, whose Southern Baptist mother couldn't bring herself to attend his marriage to another man, "hasn't determined, beyond any doubt that his life and love are in concert with God's will, because he thinks it arrogant to insist, as the zealots who condemn gay people do, that God's will is so easily known." An awareness of the limits to our understanding of God is often lacking in the discussion of marriage equality.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Indeed so, Daniel. "Epistemic humility" has always been, for me, one of the more attractive "notes" of Anglicanism. The official church position that the church can and has erred -- another point from the wholesome Articles! -- is something we neglect to our loss.