Four things Christians need to know about ethics #3

Knowing who is a person with full moral status

In Luke 10 Luke tells the story of an expert in the law who had a conversation with Jesus. After Jesus had confirmed that he was correct that the essence of the law was to love God and to love our neighbor, the man asked Jesus another question. His motive was wrong, but the question was a good one. He asked “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered him with the story that we know as the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus’ answer was a very inclusive one, but the culture around us would suggest we should be more restrictive.

We live in a culture that gives an answer to the question that is much closer to what the man talking with Jesus was looking for. I suspect that he was wanting to narrow down the list of people who qualified as a neighbor since he was desiring to justify himself. Many in our culture would say that our neighbor is someone like us and say that we can come up with a list of characteristics or capacities that an individual needs to have to be one whom we have an obligation to treat like ourselves. Ethicists would call this defining personhood or determining who has full moral status. Western philosophical ethicists commonly have devised lists of capacities required to be a person. Mary Ann Warren’s list includes consciousness and ability to feel pain (sentience), reasoning, self-motivated activity (will), capacity to communicate, and presence of self-concepts and self-awareness.

This is not a new idea and just like the man talking with Jesus cultures have sought to justify what they wanted to do by choosing characteristics of who was a person or neighbor so that those whom they chose to mistreat would be left out. In past cultures a person has been defined as needing to have such characteristics as being white, male, or a member of a particular nation or tribe. That left out those who were black, female, Jewish, or a slave. Today the dominant culture would choose to leave out those who are not fully developed such as embryos and fetuses, those with mental disabilities such as Down syndrome or dementia, and others who are weak or frail or dying.

The Bible tells us that all human beings have dignity and value because we have been made by God in his image. That means that every member of the human family, no matter what that individual’s level of development or capacities may be, should be seen as a person with full moral status who is our neighbor. Even the weakest and most vulnerable should be included.

Recently I asked a group of senior science majors if they thought they would agree to participate in a research project that would involve the destruction of human embryos and a large majority of them said they would participate. For many of them it was because they did not see a human embryo as a person that they had an obligation not to kill. For others it was because the possible benefits of finding a treatment for a serious genetic disorder in the scenario I had given them outweighed their concern about destroying the embryos. That relates to the consequential moral reasoning I discussed in issue #2 of this series.

Those of us who claim to follow Jesus need to be careful to be as inclusive as he was regarding who is our neighbor.

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