Monday, February 9, 2009

An Excersise in Situational Ethics

Prompted by my annoyingly intelligent friend Jon Vowell's prodding regarding my thought in a previous post, I have a few questions.

1.) Is it better:
  • a.) that a man thoughtfully holds a door open for a senior citizen out of compassion because he sees that the elder is disabled, or
  • b.) that a man thoughtlessly holds a door open for the same senior citizen because he has trained within himself a general respect for his elders?
2.) If one is better than the other, is the lesser wrong? (If you say no, I win)

3.) If yes, is it possible to live within what is popularly called God's "perfect will?" (If you say yes, I seriously question your grasp on reality.)

4.) If no, why do we even talk about it?


Matt Sliger said...


Jonathan Vowell said...

I hope I have not irritably annoyed you, my friend; at least no more than a gadfly annoys a Romantic out of their Victorian idealism.

I think it is obvious that doing something out a sense of compassion (magnanimity?) is far superior to doing something out of mere duty. I base this assumption in regards to the issue of will. I mean that a man who "thoughtfully" holds open the door is engaging in a intended, WILLFUL act. The man who does the same act "thoughtlessly," however, is engaging in an instinctual, non-willful act. Willful acts are always superior to non-willful acts (whether they be for good or evil). Thus, choice "a" is better than choice "b" on the grounds that choice "a" is an act of the will and choice “b” is not.

As to whether or not choice “b” is WRONG when it is done instead of choice “a,” I again defer to the issue of will. If it is the willful intent of the individual to do “b” as opposed to “a,” then what he has done is wrong (I believe the Bible calls it, “He that knows to do good, and does it not, to him it is sin.” I forget the reference). Likewise, if it is NOT the willful intent of the individual to do “b” as opposed to “a,” but does so out of ignorance to “a” or its benefits, then he has done no wrong.

As to whether or not we can live in “what is popularly called” God’s perfect will, I am afraid that I am ignorant of the popular rendition of God’s perfect will. If I had to hazard a guess, however, I suppose what is “popularly called” God’s perfect will is what God desires and expects of us (if I may use such optative language). If that is the case (or whatever the case may be), then I am afraid that I must again defer to the issue of will. What God desires is that we desire what He desires, i.e., we willful choose to be made “holy as I am holy,” loving neighbors as ourselves; in short, be conformed into the image of His Son. I say “be made” because (as I understand it) our actions in regards to these things are passive and not active, i.e., we receive from God after we willful surrender to His will.

What all that means in regards to your question is this: can we live in what is popularly called God’s perfect will? My answer: Yes, in so far as we willful choose what God wills (i.e., are fundamental attitude is “Thy will be done”). The more interesting question is, of course, can we live in what is popularly called God’s perfect will PERFECTLY? My answer to that: No, on the grounds of what I said earlier about choices “a” and “b.” If the individual choose “b” over “a” out of ignorance, then he has done no wrong; but it is still ignorance, ignorance of the better way. I am afraid that until we reach Heaven, and all veils are lifted and all glasses thoroughly undarkened, we will always be in ignorance of some better way. I believe that God, who as the Psalmist says knows our frame is dust, does not hold us accountable for our ignorance (if it is not willful) but graciously takes what we give and fills up our lack. Therefore, as to your final question, my answer is, and always will be:

Yes, and no. 8^)

Joshua Andrew Smith said...

Matt: As with all other aspects of your amazing self, you have left me wanting more.

Jon: I am pleased to be challenged. Intellectual annoyance is a faithful friend of mine.

1.) I believe the case could be argued well the other way if framed more fairly. If a non-willful act is the result of a previous willful act, perhaps one should compare the two willful acts instead of one cause against another effect.

2.) In that case, the second point is moot.

3.) I think we're agreed here. His will for us is that our will be that His will be done.

4.) I believe this illustrates the point that the second man may have made a choice long ago to always respect his elders which eventually became an habitual holiness which actually precluded him from having a willful emotional response to the situation. I think we could argue all day long about which is better, but in the end, we will see that he could always have done something better regardless of what he did. All our righteousness is filthy rags, even when we will God's will, we could (and should) have done it better.

Which is why I think wisdom is found more often in pondering good and better over the more obvious right and wrong.