Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Beyond Ethical Codes: A Call for Critical Thinking in Religious Culture

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Beyond Ethical Codes: A Call for Critical Thinking in Religious Culture

Article excerpt


The ancient dilemma of discord among many of the great religions of the world may be exemplified in our times by a resurgent Islam and a rising evangelical Christianity. In this essay, I argue that a salient matter feeding many such longstanding world conflicts along religious fault lines is the mistaken idea that what is right (or wrong) may be found in a formal (or an informal) code of values. To be sure, religious groups aspiring to promote their respective notions of what is right (or wrong) have historically made one of their foremost concerns the promotion of a code of ethics. Accordingly, virtually every great religion of the world has a code of ethics. And such a code of ethics supposedly guides choices and actions and determines the purpose and course of the believer's life. Unfortunately, this may engender conflict because what is right (or wrong) depends on the individual who does it (usually manifesting a passion or commitment born out of doctrinal certainty) and where it is done, and whether or not a certain religious community approves. But although many in the religious world have traditionally made one of their foremost concerns promoting a written (or unwritten) code to govern a follower's ethical behavior, the more fundamental concern of misgivings about a code of ethics has been largely ignored.

The primary reason for this might be the confused belief that we can actually appeal to a code of ethics, since many objections might be lessened or removed. (1) To be sure, the goal of a sound code of ethics is to provide a set of fundamental ethical rules (or commands) that help the individual or group do what ought to be done in face of (sometimes problematic) ethical situations. In this essay I will show, however, that given some significant misgivings about codes of ethics and some underlying pitfalls of the ethical (or moral) doctrines of absolutism and relativism, (2) religious culture cannot hope to do right things by appealing to ethical codes (where doing right is simply a matter of applying the right ethical rule). I argue that what is needed is a culture in which critical thinking (4) is fomented. To hope to do right things, we must go beyond ethical codes and think critically about the ethical issues that may confront us.

Misgivings about a Code of Ethics

To be sure, misgivings about a code of ethics abound. For instance, a code of ethics may be driven by legalistic demands designed to keep everyone in line and help to get the house in order. As a result, a code of ethics may be invoked to serve compliance. Accordingly, all things must move toward the code's established rules or instructions for action to be right. In this sense, a code of ethics is really about following rules or instructions efficiently (i.e., it is a recipe for merely doing things right, not doing right things (5)). And, since an unvarying set of rules (or commands) is to be spoon-fed to a captive audience, convergent thinking is encouraged. But, if everyone is thinking convergently, then no one is thinking critically very much.

The problem is that a code of ethics focuses on what the individual must obey (i.e., it seeks compliance) rather than on the ethical issues that a person needs to think critically about. Always in control, such a code denies the individual any real opportunity to analyze and evaluate the pressing ethical issue at hand, for control comes at the price of independent or divergent thinking. This is because requiring that a person do things right amounts to a deliberate attempt to change a mixture of belief and emotion that predisposes the individual to respond to the code's way. The individual, overwhelmed into passivity, always acquires someone else's values, on someone else's terms, for someone else's purposes. To do otherwise, is to engage in what seems to be ethically irrelevant activity. For a code of ethics has been selected, packaged, and conveyed by others to force the individual to attend, not to his or her own thoughts and choices, but to the sterile prescriptions and choices of others. …

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