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Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Faith as a responsible choice

Reproduced from ABC Forum

One of the things I am teaching my ethics students is how to face moral dilemmas using ethical theory. A moral dilemma is a case where one is faced with a decision where none of the options seem to be morally acceptable and yet the choice cannot be avoided, such as cases where a person is an agent for a client but his responsibility to respect his client's confidentiality comes in conflict with his responsibilities to protect the public's safety. Moral conceptual clarification, more information, and/or discovering other options are often helpful but not always. One may approach the question by examining it in the light of various frameworks of moral justification; will it bring about the greatest good to the greatest number of stakeholders, will it violate anyone's rights negatively or positively, will it satisfy or fail to satisfy any relevant duties, will it be fair or unfair to all concerned, will it contribute to one's own or another's flourishing, will it express love toward God and toward others, is it something a virtuous person would do, etc. One often discovers that the results of various frameworks of consideration will conflict but in the course of consideration one discovers reasons why some accounts are ultimately the most relevant and decisive about the issue, which I call trumping reasons, which turn out to be the ultimate grounds for deciding to do what you do. Consequently, since no one account is always proven adequate, one demonstrates moral responsibility by considering all the possibilities and hearing all sides before deciding. If someone has done that, their decision cannot be morally faulted.

Given the close tie between morality and religion, especially as understood by the Christian Faith, I suggest that a similar story can be used to defend one's faith. In the case of faith, one can distinguish what in faith is not subject to moral choice (the production of belief as a result of applying rational norms) and what is (the ethics of belief as acceptance). One can be specific about the criterion relied on from each perspective (naturalism, scepticism, idealism, theism) in determining theory choice in connection with one's own moral and existential situation in life. In considering all the perspectives (empiricism, evidentialism, rationalism, mysticism, experimentalism, pragmatism, classical metaphysical reasoning, naturalized epistemology, intellectual virtues, scientism, postmodernism, fideism), one can decide that faith in Christ is the right choice on the balance of considerations. Then one can present her decision as satisfying the responsibility of considering the matter from all perspectives and stating what was finally decisive and why.

According to this model, we defend our faith the same way we defend any other important decision we make by showing that we have given a fair hearing to all sides and stating what grounds finally settled the matter. This pushes the ethical aspect of faith to the center and avoids the rationalistic fallacy of typical apologetics without caving in necessarily to relativism or scepticism or arbitrary leaps of faith. Our audience may continue to disagree with our conclusions and final decision but the cannot complain about the irresponsibility or indefensibility of it.

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