Sunday, August 2, 2015

Christian Ethics in a Secular Environment

Can Christian ethics and a secular environment be reconciled? Here are some thoughts on the meaning of the “law” within Christianity and how it applies to Social Work ethics or even life in general.

Imagine that you see a sheep in a field. You see the sheep and exclaim “ah, there is a sheep in that field”. However, unbeknown to you, the sheep that you thought you saw was actually a rock in the shape of a sheep; and behind the rock in the shape of a sheep, there was actually a sheep.
-      Did you know that there was a sheep in the field?
-      Were you correct that there was a sheep in the field?
The statement was technically correct that there was a sheep in the field, but what you had in mind was incorrect.
Epistemology is the study of “how you know that you know things” and applies to ethics as much as anything else. As the sheep in the field scenario illustrates, knowledge is largely subjective, meaning that it is from our personal perspective.

Ethics and Social Work
Ethics in Social Work likewise are also subject to interpretation. Not every person will see all aspects of a given situation before them.
For example:
What does it mean to act in the client’s best interests? We may have a vague understanding of what it means, but how that is perceived and outworked varies greatly. This is largely due to our own interpretations.

Context plays a huge role in determining which ethical action to take. Depending on the context, what may seem in the client’s best interests may require an action that will vary from case to case. This calls for humility when working in these situations. We will never have all the knowledge in a given context. We may think we do at times, but one must remember that knowledge is largely from our perspective, even if we may think it is “common sense”… Knowledge is heavily influenced by our cultural background and life experiences. You can say that you believe there is a sheep in the field, but in actual fact, because of our fallible natures and limited knowledge, we should be aware that we could be very wrong. 
Depending on how much we can see of a given scenario or even how we see it from our perspective, no universal ethic will necessarily look the same. We may have a general understanding of what to do, just like we have a general understanding that there was a sheep in the field, but we are ultimately limited in our knowledge.

Even worse than working with a lack of knowledge, ethical practice may even directly conflict with itself. What if you thought you were looking at a sheep in the field and your client or colleague saw a rock in the shape of sheep? Both are looking at the same scenario. Who says who is right?

The Duck/Rabbit picture is a great example. Some people see a rabbit and some people see a duck. Both appear equally correct from each perspective. In an ethical dilemma one must be chosen and each choice with its own consequences.     
So how do we decipher what any particular ethic practically looks like when working with clients?  

Human rights v Moral rights.
Marie Connolly shares an understanding of practical Social Work values that I particularly like, which comes from a rights based perspective. She claims that there are two types of rights, human rights and moral rights. Human rights are concerned with the wellbeing of people, whereas moral rights are concerned about smaller issues in the grand scheme of things. From my understanding, moral rights which could come from asking “what is the right thing to do”, can become troublesome in Social Work because they are often from our personal values and don’t necessarily impact wellbeing greatly. On the other hand, human rights tend to be more helpful when making ethical decisions in Social Work. Instead of asking “what is the right thing to do”, a Social Worker coming from a Human Rights base may ask “what would be most helpful thing to do to produce wellbeing?”. Doing this enables us to sieve through the various decisions available.
An example could be a parent’s rights over their children. It is a moral right for parents to provide for their children, but if the children’s wellbeing is compromised, then the child’s human right comes into effect and overrides the moral right of the parent. It wouldn’t be helpful for the Social Worker or the child to value moral rights over human rights in this situation.

Difference in Christian thought.
Marie Connolly comes from a secular perspective, which I generally agree with. But what about Christians? Much of my upbringing consisted of encountering a variety of Christians that come from different schools of thought. Many Christians come from an objective law focus when it comes to moral rights and I did too for much of my life. Think back to the sheep in the field. An objective outlook would claim that there is definitely a sheep in the field, but a subjective outlook would believe there is a sheep in the field and would admit that due to limited knowledge, they could be wrong.

An objective outlook is fine - we are all entitled to our opinion - but this type of Christianity may find it difficult to do social work in a secular context, because of the limitations that an objective outlook creates. I wrestled with this earlier on in the degree. How can I work in a manner that honours the “morals” of Christianity at the same time as “supporting” someone else’s opposing morals? Carl Rogers thought that a person’s psychological well-being was connected with how well they were able to live congruent lives. A person who is able to be congruent between their perceived reality and with their actual experiences, results in less anxiety. For me this has been true. The more I can reconcile my conscience with reality, the more at ease I feel with myself. This makes the place of ethics in Social Work and my interpretation of what these ethics mean to me, very important.

Laws made for man
The more I have studied the Bible I have found that I have misunderstood a huge part of the gospel, and much of what Jesus emphasized. Many Christians try to preach the Ten Commandments as a list of written “rules” from God. However, I over looked that Jesus Himself denied that these were “rules” per se. Jesus revolutionised the purpose of a law when he and his disciples picked heads of grain in a field on a Sabbath (which breaks the Sabbath law of doing no work). Jesus said that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). Likewise I believe that laws are made for the benefit of people (therefore making them more like principles), rather than people being made for laws.

Fulfilled in love
To me, what the law produces is a motive of self-concern. E.g. if I follow this law then God will value me. However, more recently I see that Christianity teaches a rather different way of understanding morality and ethics.
The apostle Paul talked about how Jesus fulfilled the law, and summed up the law in what he called one word: “ For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. 14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”(Galations 5:13-14),
Living with the principles of dying to our selfish selves helps me to naturally look outward towards the needs of others, rather than following a law “just because”. This outlook ties in well with Human Rights ethics. Jesus was concerned about people’s wellbeing rather than a set of arbitrary rules. The “rules” or principles Jesus and the writers of the New Testament expected us to live by were for our wellbeing!

I have at times wrestled with Corrie Ten Boom type scenarios regarding lying versus telling the truth. For those who don't know the story, Corrie lied to the Nazis in order to protect Jews in her care. At times like these, I believe it is helpful to look at ethical dilemmas within their context and looking at things from a wellbeing perspective. Sure, it may not be right or helpful generally speaking to ourselves and society to be a false witness, but when it comes down to the wellbeing of another (like hiding Jews from the Nazis) wouldn’t it be more Christ-like to break a law for the wellbeing of another? I ask this remembering of course Jesus’ attitude to towards the law of the Sabbath. 

So how does this outlook relate to Social Work ethics? Just like with Social Work and ethical dilemmas, as a Christian, I will inevitably encounter ethical dilemmas. However, the difference is that I can work with more flexibility regarding what might be considered “Right” or “Wrong” in a given situation. I can live with greater congruence between my personal and professional values.

Following are some of the verses I found helpful to consider when thinking about ethics:

Matthew 5:43-44
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” 

Matthew 7:12
“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them…”

Ephesians 4:29
"Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers."

Romans 14:4-6, 14-15
4 ”Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand…
 “14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. 15 For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love…” 

Mark 12:31
“You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

I would also like to conclude with some words of wisdom from Captain Barbossa:

"The code is more what you'd call 'guidelines' than actual rules"