A place for common morality

Although the weather in the Midwest does not seem as much like winter as it usually does at this time of year, I just received the winter edition of Dignitas from CBHD. In the lead article Erik Clary makes the astute observation that when those who have been trained as Christian theologians abandon their Biblical foundations and use the methods of secular philosophy, the ideas that they propose lose their Christian distinctiveness. He traces the loss of influence of Christian thought in bioethics to those who have identified themselves as Christian theologians, but have left that biblical foundation.

His examples are James Childress, who paired with philosopher Tom Beauchamp to introduce principilism to bioethics, and Joseph Fletcher, who introduced a capacity based concept of personhood to bioethics. In Fletcher’s case he abandoned the biblical foundations of Christianity to the point that he eventually rejected Christianity altogether. The concept of capacity based personhood has extensively undermined the theological concept of the inherent dignity of human beings based on being made in the image of God.

It is true that there are problems with Beauchamp and Childress’ principle based system of bioethics. Their concept of common morality lacks a solid foundation. That probably comes in part from an abandonment of biblical authority on Childress’ part and a desire to appeal to everyone in a multicultural society. Because of the lack of solid foundation there is the ability to emphasize various principles as one desires to support one’s own biases. But there is something about the use of common morality that should appeal to Christian bioethicists.

While we need to be solidly grounded in the Bible as the source of moral truth, and never drift into ethical concepts that contradict that truth, we also need to find ways to communicate the theologically grounded moral truth that we have to those who do not yet realize the value of what God has communicated to us in the Bible. That’s where common morality comes in. As a Christian I understand that God has communicated his moral truth both specifically through scripture and more generally through what he has written on the heart of every human being deep in our conscience. Although Beauchamp and Childress do not seem to understand the foundation of common morality, they understand that it is there. Recognition of the presence of basic moral truths that are known to all who are willing to reflect seriously on them no matter what culture they belong to is a beginning point to understanding that there are objective moral values that go beyond personal reasoning and societal culture and point to an authority beyond us.

An understanding of the existence of common mortality can lead to knowing that there must be a source of moral truth and the need to be reconciled to that source. Until people see that, the Christian message of God sending his son to redeem the world doesn’t make sense. Common morality can be one step along the path to a relationship with God.

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