Tag Archives: Ethics

Philosophy – Hiding in Plain Sight

“Philosophy”, by Raphael, 1511

“The report of my death was an exaggeration.” [1] Those famous words of Mark Twain might also apply to the subject of philosophy. You may have heard about Stephen Hawking’s low opinion of philosophy [2], or Neil deGrasse Tyson’s ramblings against the subject [3]. What many scientists today conveniently forget is that philosophy is inescapable; the only question is whether your philosophy is valid or not.  Because it forms the framework that supports your worldview, philosophy is often hidden in plain sight, so to speak.

Some areas of knowledge typically grouped under the umbrella of philosophy that are absolutely critical to successful science are logic (how we think rationally about anything), epistemology (the study of how we can know that we rightly know something, or how we justify our beliefs), and ethics (you know – that we shouldn’t fake the data, fudge our numbers, plagiarize, etc). Can you see why scientists who think the tree of philosophy is nothing more than so much firewood are really attacking what supports their own little treehouse? Science can provide us an amazing view of the world, but only when it’s supported by good sturdy philosophy. Data is little use without interpretation, and good philosophy provides that wisdom needed to interpret the data truly, consistently, fairly, without bias, and without going beyond what the data can support.

Because philosophy is so foundational to much of life, it remains behind the scenes for most of us. But sometimes you get reminded of its presence and effect in even the mundane tasks. I’m one that likes to read the commentaries in the backs of the various design standards and learn why various requirements or recommendations are instituted. And in the commentary for Chapter J of AISC’s Manual of Steel Construction [4], I came across an explanation for why a particular definition of cross sectional area in combination with a particular safety factor are used for one formula. In the body of the specification, you’re just given the formula and the safety factor for block shear strength, with no explanation. But the commentary points out that block shear is a rupture (or tearing) phenomenon rather than yielding, and therefore , the requirements shown are consistent with the design philosophy of  another chapter that deals with tensile rupture.  You see, our design philosophy may be behind the scenes, but it drives how we implement our specific designs. As engineers, our first duty is actually not to our employer or our customers, but always to protect the public safety. That’s actually part of our code of ethics.

One way that works itself out in practice is by trying to control how our designs fail in a worst-case scenario. Failures due to tensile rupture,  shear rupture, or compressive buckling can be sudden and catastrophic. A sudden failure of the main roof framing of a large venue might kill hundreds or even thousands of people. A slow ductile yielding on the other hand, can result in massive amounts of noticeable sagging before the final collapse, allowing ample time for evacuating people and repairing the problem before it collapses. And so our design philosophy is twofold: to design a structure that safely supports its intended loads with some margin, and to steer any potential failure toward failure modes that are more predictable and controllable. This is especially done when designing for earthquakes where we fully expect massive damage in the design-level earthquake,  but we try to control where the damage occurs and how it fails so as to protect life at all costs. For example, we’ll design braced frames where the braces act as “fuses” (like a circuit breaker in your house) that will eventually fail only after many cycles of ground shaking, leaving the rest of the building (relatively) intact. A former boss of mine applied the idea of a tensile “fuse” – with that nice, slow,  predictable failure mode – to open-web steel joists like what you see in many retail stores [5].  So you see, one aspect of our philosophy  can can have far-reaching effects. Our philosophy also provides direction in new or uncertain conditions. Going back to the steel manual, there are some spots where the authors explain what the intent of certain provisions are, which is a significant help in applying those provisions to scenarios the authors possibly didn’t anticipate.  We can see that something may not violate the letter of the law, but it does the spirit, or intent, of the law (or vice versa). These are all cases where our philosophy helps guide us, and without some overarching framework, our endeavors are fractured and adrift.

Of course, I’ve mentioned “valid” and “good” philosophy throughout this post. Not all philosophy is created equal. The system Hawking and Tyson advocate is, or very nearly is, scientism, a self-refuting idea that trusts the methods of science to be applicable to all pursuits of true knowledge. but just as philosophy (in general) is a tree that supports science, it needs its roots in good soil to actually be able to support anything. That soil is the truth of God’s Word. In the end, it seems that the real beef against philosophy is that philosophy done right basically points out to us that ideas have consequences, and that it’s wise to foresee the good and bad consequences of our ideas and avoid the bad ones. This self-critique – this admonition to “know thyself” –  can get us out of our typical comfort zone in our narrow specialties and force us to ask the bigger questions of life. For some worldviews like atheism, there simply are no answers to those questions, and it can make people like Hawking and Tyson uncomfortable with the whole endeavor. But our comfort should never hinder our search for truth or our desire for wisdom, and philosophy simply means “love of wisdom.” So be wise and don’t fall in the trap of scientism; examine your own philosophical grounding and make sure it’s rooted in the only source of truth – God.

[1]This is apparently the actual quote, contrary to what most of us heard growing up: http://www.twainquotes.com/Death.html
[2]Here is one philosopher’s thoughtful response to Stephen Hawking’s cutting off of the branch he sits on: https://philosophynow.org/issues/82/Hawking_contra_Philosophy.
[3] Here are 2 interesting responses to Tyson’s comments, the first providing a good recap of the comments: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/massimo-pigliucci/neil-degrasse-tyson-and-the-value-of-philosophy_b_5330216.html, and http://www.realclearscience.com/articles/2014/05/22/why_does_neil_degrasse_tyson_hate_philosophy.html
[4] AISC 360-16, Commentary J4.3, Block Shear Strength”, p16.1-446. published by the American Institute of Steel Construction, 2016-07-07.
[5] For the geeks: https://www.aisc.org/Experimental-Investigation-of-Steel-Joist-Design-for-Ductile-Strength-Limit-State#.WXa4A1G1vcs. For everyone else: http://www.newmill.com/pdfs/flex-joist.pdf


Christ in the Wilderness - Ivan Kramskoy - 1872 (small)
Christ in the Wilderness – Ivan Kramskoy – 1872

Consider the following situation: you are in your final semester of college, and one class is borderline. If you pass the final, you pass the class. If you pass the class, you graduate. If you don’t pass the final, your diploma is delayed another semester. Now suppose you’re going into engineering, where you are required to work under a practicing engineer before you’re eligible to become licensed yourself. But this experience (typically 2 to 4 years) doesn’t start counting until your after actual diploma date. A lot is riding on this one exam. Having retaken a class may not matter in 20 years after you’ve established a solid work record, but the stakes are high as you get ready to start your career. Lastly, suppose you have the opportunity to get the exam answers in such a way that you know you won’t get caught and nobody will ever know you cheated. You will benefit greatly, and there will be no foreseeable “casualties” from your actions (i.e. the exam is not graded on a curve, so your cheating will not adversely affect anyone else’s score, and so on).  Would you do it?

If your ethical standard is of a consequentialist nature (i.e. all that matters is the consequence, or end result), you could reasonably justify cheating in this case. It benefits you, without harming anyone else, so why not? For instance, if you take atheist Sam Harris’ view of basing our morals on whatever promotes human flourishing, then you could argue that the cheating would certainly appear to help you flourish in your career; and if it doesn’t hurt anyone else, that’s a net gain, right? But I’d like to suggest that the idea of simply not harming others isn’t sufficient for an ethical standard because of unforeseen consequences. We may truly believe that an action of ours, though generally viewed as unacceptable ethically, will be alright in a particular instance because it’s “not hurting anybody.” But we are notoriously short-sighted, especially when it benefits us personally. Whether intentionally or not, we often selectively look at the reasons for and against a course of action, ignoring or minimizing the potential consequences of our desired action if those consequences might stop us from acting.  But even if we are seriously, conscientiously weighing the pros and cons of a particular decision fairly, we still have our very finite knowledge hindering us. We simply do not, and cannot, know all possible ramifications of our actions, either immediate or in the distant future. In this case, the cheating may very well contribute to a timely graduation and successful career, with no harm to anyone else. But what we may not see from our limited perspective is that it will actually hurt us in the long run. For one successful lie often sets the stage for others later. At some point, our example student may find himself in another ethical dilemma. But now, ten years later as an engineer, it’s no longer grades riding on his decision, but people’s lives. Again, he might decide he has figured a way out of the dilemma where some unethical behavior won’t matter because “nobody will ever know” and “it won’t hurt anybody”. But, the devil’s in the details, as they say. This time, there is a subtle distinction he missed, and now people have died because of his lie. An investigation may determine the immediate cause of the tragedy, and find him guilty of misconduct or negligence in that particular design, but is that the root of it, or was the deeper cause ten years earlier when he learned that he could get away with cheating? Ideas have consequences, and one of the consequences of consequentialist systems of ethics (like utilitarianism and situation ethics) is a reliance on one’s own limited and fallible knowledge as the standard of right and wrong. This situation was aptly described in the Bible when it says that people in the land “did what was right in their own eyes.”[1]

Instead of relying on our error-prone selves to guess at right and wrong, might I suggest a better standard? It’s hard to judge the sweep in a line without a ruler to put next to it. Ask different people and you’ll likely get different answers. But get out a ruler, and that “official” standard settles it. Only having God as a source of our ethics is sufficient. Recognizing that God is the source of morality eliminates the idea that differences in ethics may simply be differences of culture or time.  God is the “third-party” that’s needed to settle these differences. Unforeseen consequences are the bane of utilitarian ethics, but that’s not a problem for an omniscient God. We can rely on His decrees because He is all-knowing. Recognizing that aspect of His nature also eliminates the rationalization that nobody has to know the wrong we do, for God knows. Recognizing that “it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment”[2] reminds us that we will be held accountable for every action, whether anybody happened to be harmed by a particular deed or not. God cares not simply about the results of our actions, but the root of our actions – our motives and intentions. But there is hope in knowing what to do: He has revealed to us what is required of us, both in the natural law written in our hearts, and in the special revelation of the Bible. He has also provided a way for us to made acceptable before Him in spite of our all-too-imperfect humanity: the redemptive sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ. And His way is always the right choice.

[1] Judge 17:6.
[2] Hebrews 9:27. See also, Ecclesiastes 12:14.
Additional Resources: For an in-depth comparison of different ethical systems with support and objections to each, I recommend Philosophical Foundations for Christian Worldview, Part V: Ethics, by J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, (Downers Grove, Intervarsity Press, 2003).


dominosI surprised an atheist colleague a while back when I asked to borrow all the atheist books he had. I was attending Frank Turek’s Cross-Examined Instructor’s Academy in Charlotte, NC for 3 days of intensive training in Christian apologetics (i.e. giving a rational defense for our beliefs).[1] Part of the requirements for attendance was a long reading list of Christian apologists, as well as being familiar with the works of prominent atheists like Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, etc. This desire to delve in to opposing views surprised my friend. But as physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne says, “The question of the existence of God is the single most important question we face about the nature of reality”.[2] That’s because of the far-reaching effects it has in our lives. Indeed, ideas have consequences, so let’s look at some consequences of Christian doctrine.

  • Work Ethic – I often hear the lament that people don’t want to work hard anymore, and I’ve seen plenty of examples myself. Work ethic seems to have suffered some major blows in our generation. But it’s good to remember that this trait used to be referred to as the “Puritan work ethic” or “Protestant work ethic”. Why? Because the Puritans brought to America the application of biblical principles that Protestant reformer Martin Luther had reminded Europe of the century before: that there can be honor in our work, regardless of what we do, because we do it for God. Other civilizations viewed physical work as demeaning and lowly, fit for slaves but not for citizens, and certainly not for nobility. Yet the Bible tells us that we are to do our work, whatever it is, as for God rather than men[3]; that masters should be fair to their slaves, for they too have a Master in heaven[4]; and slaves should not just work when their master is watching, but with integrity all the time; and that God had given Adam, the first man, work to do in the Garden of Eden before Adam sinned, and so work was not a curse to be avoided, but a way to serve and honor God.[5] While we may not live in a society with masters and slaves anymore, those exhortations to fair treatment of workers and doing one’s work with integrity apply equally well to our modern-day employer-employee relationships.
  • Ethics – That idea of fairness leads to another implication of Christianity. The Christian should not just work hard, but should also be ethical. The Bible tells us that false weights (i.e. for cheating in business transactions) are an abomination to the Lord.[6] And that he who formerly would steal should steal no more. [7] We are also told that it is better to be wronged than to do wrong. And that even when we do the right thing, it should be from pure motives and not from compulsion or fear of being caught.[8]
  • Stewardship – Under Christianity, all we have is given to us by God. He is the owner, and we are simply stewards. [9] This perspective naturally leads to a desire to care for and use wisely the resources we have. We do not value resources like the environment and animals above people, but we don’t want to neglect them or misuse them either.
  • Imago Dei – Speaking of the value of people, under Christianity, all people are created in the image of God, or “imago Dei” in Latin. Therefore, they each have intrinsic worth regardless of race, nationality, creed, gender, title, or any other differentiation.  In fact, the Bible tells us that there is really only one race – the human race – so racism simply must whither and die in the soil of Christianity.[10] Aside from our common origins, God has offered salvation and eternal life to all freely.[11] And if Jesus was willing to sacrifice Himself for people a little different from us, who are we to hate those whom He loved? Moreover, we recognize that “none are righteous,” and that apart from Jesus, we are no better than the lowest outcast or the most evil villain.[12] As the saying goes, “the ground is level at the foot of the cross.”
  • Dealing with Suffering – Life can be tough. And yet, in 2 Corinthians 4, Paul describes the various trials he has gone through, then proceeds to say that “momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison.”[13] Paul was a man who had been imprisoned, beaten, shipwrecked, stoned, left for dead – and yet, he considered this difficult life to be “light” in comparison to the “heaviness” of eternity with Christ. In Paul’s view, no amount of earthly suffering could tip the scales. Christians have a bottomless reservoir of strength and hope in times of trial.

There are significant implications to belief in Christ. We can compartmentalize our beliefs, but only at the expense of our honesty. For if we are honest, our beliefs must express themselves throughout our lives. These are just a few of the ways those beliefs will surface. Can you think of others?

[1] In fact, this blog is the result of being challenged by J. Warner Wallace at that training class to become a “Christian casemaker”. 🙂
[2] John Polkinghorne, The Faith of a Physicist, Ch. 3.
[3] Colossians 3:23, 1 Corinthians 10:31.
[4] Colossians 4:1, Job 31:13-15, Ephesians 6:5-9.
[5] Genesis 2:15.
[6] Proverbs 11:1, 20:10,23, Micah 6:11, Leviticus 19:36, Deuteronomy 25:13 to name a few.
[7] Ephesians 4:28.
[8] 1 Corinthians 6:7, Proverbs 16:2, 2 Chronicles 19:9.
[9] Deuteronomy 8:1-20, Matthew 24:42-51, 25:14-28,
[10] Genesis 1:27, Acts 17:26, Galatians 3:26-29.
[11] Romans 6:23, 1 Peter 3:18.
[12] Romans 3:10-12, 23.
[13] 2 Corinthians 4:17.

Hypocrisy vs Ontology

The Pharissee & the Publican - James Tissot 1894
The Pharisee & the Publican – James Tissot 1894

This past Sunday, one of the kids in my Sunday school class mentioned that a girl in his class at school was an atheist, and that she didn’t believe in God because of the hypocrisy of Christians. Is that a good reason to believe God doesn’t exist? While it is sad to hear such life-altering views becoming entrenched in one so young, what’s worse is that she is basing her worldview on faulty reasoning. A little dose of logic could keep her from even going down that dead-end road! But since she and others have gone down this road, let’s dig into this objection.

First, let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that her charge of hypocrisy is not simply true of some Christians, or even most Christians, but that all of us Christians were complete hypocrites. The question we have to answer is, would that have any impact on whether God exists or not? No, it wouldn’t, for the behavior of Christians is an ethical issue, while God’s existence is an ontological issue. Hypocrisy – saying one thing while doing something contradictory – is essentially “lying lived out”, hence a question of ethics. Ontology, on the other hand, studies the nature of being or existence itself, rather than behavior, so these really are unrelated categories.  What can we say about the question of existence? First and foremost, existence is objective. Something either exists or it doesn’t. If God doesn’t exist, then my saying that He does won’t change that fact. Likewise, if He does exist, the atheist saying He doesn’t won’t change that fact. For existence, like truth, is independent of our subjective observations. And ethical or unethical behavior on the part of either side won’t settle the ontological question. For instance, if Adolf Hitler looked at a lush green field of grass one day, and commented that the grass was green, we should recognize that  he would be speaking the truth in this case, regardless of how repellent the rest of his life may be to us. We should be able to separate the truth of that specific statement from his otherwise reprehensible behavior. Likewise, even if atheists find Christian behavior completely abhorrent, they are still stuck with the task of refuting the truth claim of God’s existence as a separate issue.

What does the hypocrisy of some Christians actually demonstrate? If becoming a Christian meant that God instantly transformed us into perfect people, then observed hypocrisy could prove that real Christians don’t actually exist, for then you would have a necessary condition unfulfilled. But even that still wouldn’t show that God doesn’t exist. However, that isn’t what the Bible says. In fact, the Bible explains that none of us are “righteous“[1], that we have all fallen short of the perfection that is God’s standard of judgement[2], that we are all in desperate need of intervention to fix a problem we can’t solve on our own[3], that accepting Christ as our Lord makes us “new creations”[4], that we are to be like Christ[5], but that this is only possible through Him and not of our own hard work[6], that this is a process that will continue as long as we live[7], and that some will claim to be followers of Christ who really aren’t.[8] So what does Christian hypocrisy prove? That all of us that are works in progress, and that some us have a lot farther to go than others; that despite being spiritually a new creation, we are still very much human; and that some are Christians “in name only”, and the skeptic must be careful to distinguish genuine from counterfeit when assessing the words and deeds of suspected Christians.

Now, lest I be misunderstood here, let me be clear that I am not excusing hypocrisy. God specifically tells Christians to not be hypocritical, repeatedly.[9] And when we are, we are not being Christlike, we are not being obedient, we are not being the good ambassadors He has called us to be. My case today is a modest one: simply that ungodly behavior does not negate the evidence for God. If you’ve been burned by the hypocrisy of Christians in the past, I can only say that we are but smudged reflections of our perfect Lord, hopefully pointing you to the One who never disappoints.

[1] Romans 3:10
[2] Romans 3:23
[3] Romans 5:6
[4] 2 Corinthians 5:17, Romans 12:2
[5] 1 Peter 1:15-16
[6] Ephesians 2:8-9, Titus 3:5, 2 Timothy 1:9
[7] Romans 7:14-25.
[8] Matthew 7:21-23
[9] Romans 12:9, 1 Peter 2:1, James 3:17, most of Matthew 23, and on and on….

Making It Personal

engineering-plansThere was an interesting article in the May 2015 issue of Civil Engineering magazine that got me thinking. Their ethics column dealt with the question of misuse of a professional engineer’s seal and made the following statement:

“Inherent in the message carried by a P.E. seal is the element of personal knowledge. With so much trust placed in an engineer’s assessment of professional documents, it is essential to know that the engineer is certifying the documents not on the basis of blind trust or an unsubstantiated belief in another’s work but because he or she has had sufficient personal involvement with the documents to know whether or not they meet the standards of the profession. Accordingly, the requirement of personal involvement looms large both in state licensing laws governing the use of an engineer’s seal and in the codes of conduct….”

Looking at this aspect of my life as a professional engineer and as a professing Christian, I see some parallels between the two.

  1. Personal knowledge is required in both cases. I shouldn’t stamp engineered designs that I didn’t personally design or thoroughly review. Likewise, I shouldn’t hold my Christian beliefs (or any, for that matter) just because they were my parents’ beliefs, or because they are generally socially acceptable where I live. I have to own them; I have to make them mine. But I don’t do that simply by accepting someone else’s beliefs unquestioned. They may be right, or they may be wrong; and ideas have consequences – some more serious than others. If I mistakenly trust a friend’s incorrect directions and take a wrong turn, the effects may be pretty minimal. But if the stakes are higher, like a life-or-death decision, it’s critical that I take full responsibility for that decision and choose wisely. If my eternal future is at stake, that’s not a decision I should (or even can) delegate to someone else. That’s on me, and “not to decide” is to decide.
  2. Blind trust or unsubstantiated belief may be accidentally correct, but that’s simply not sufficient for important decisions. A bad engineering design passed through supervisors and peer reviewers without adequate scrutiny can endanger thousands of people. A false belief, accepted blindly, can condemn countless people to an eternity apart from God. So it’s critical for each of us to examine ourselves, to understand both what we believe and why, and to verify that our beliefs are well-grounded, justified, coherent, and truthful. Our beliefs need to be warranted.
  3. Personal involvement – i.e. action – is required. If I’m stamping calculations or drawings done by someone else, it’s incumbent on me to personally act in a couple of ways. First, I need to take whatever action necessary to verify what I’ve received is correct before I stamp it. However, I also can’t fall victim to “paralysis by analysis”. I can either accept them as justified or reject them as insufficient, but I need to decide one way or the other. In examining my own beliefs, or prospective beliefs, I have to recognize that short of being omniscient, I won’t have every possible question answered to the nth degree when it comes to making a decision, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t make a reasonable, well-informed decision based on the evidence I do have. The absence of exhaustive data doesn’t mean I don’t have sufficient informative data to take action.

I want to avoid so-called “blind faith” in both my engineering and my Christian life. I want to “know whom I have believed” as the apostle Paul wrote[1]. In the words of Elton Trueblood, “Faith is not belief without proof, but trust without reservation.” Rather than being blind, only Christian faith is sufficiently well-founded to allow trust without reservations to be warranted. God doesn’t ask us to put our trust in just anything. In fact, He doesn’t want us trusting our eternal life to anyone other than Him. This is why the apostle John tells his readers to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”[2] This is why Jesus pointed people to evidence of His authenticity, attested to by the miracles He’d done in the sight of those questioning Him.[3] This is why God always reminded the Israelites that He was the God who had led them out of Egypt, who had miraculously fed them in the wilderness, who had driven their enemies before them when they were ridiculously outnumbered by vastly superior forces.  These reminders were a constant call to put their trust in His proven power and love and faithfulness, in His repeated demonstrations that He is the only one worthy to be worshiped and obeyed. It’s a call He still issues to us today, to “taste and see that the Lord is good”[4], to “come and see”[5] for ourselves that He is our only hope, and to make Him our personal Savior.

[1] 2 Timothy 1:12, NASB.
[2] 1 John 4:1, NASB.
[3] John 10:22-39, Luke 7:18-23, NASB.
[4] Psalm 34:8, NASB.
[5] John 1:46, NASB.

von Braun’s Surrender

Wernher_von_Braun_smallHere’s an interesting story from WWII. Wernher von Braun developed the V2 rocket program for the Nazis, surrendered to the Americans, and played a primary role in developing the Saturn V rocket that enabled us to land a man on the moon. But why did he surrender to the Americans?

On May 2, 1945, upon finding an American private from the U.S. 44th Infantry Division, von Braun’s brother and fellow rocket engineer, Magnus, approached the soldier on a bicycle, calling out in broken English: “My name is Magnus von Braun. My brother invented the V-2. We want to surrender.” After the surrender, von Braun spoke to the press:

“We knew that we had created a new means of warfare, and the question as to what nation, to what victorious nation we were willing to entrust this brainchild of ours was a moral decision more than anything else. We wanted to see the world spared another conflict such as Germany had just been through, and we felt that only by surrendering such a weapon to people who are guided by the Bible could such an assurance to the world be best secured.”

Let that sink in for a minute. One regarded as the greatest rocket scientist of all time chose who would get his powerful knowledge – knowledge that could be used for incredible good or evil – based on the idea that only a people guided by the Bible could be trusted with that knowledge. Why is that? What is it about the Bible that would offer him any hope that the US would not abuse this advantage once they had it?

First, the Bible sets the standard of right and wrong outside of man’s control. No king or president or prime minister (or even popular majority) can redefine what is right or wrong. Right is what is consistent with God’s unchanging character, while wrong is whatever is contrary to that, no matter who does it or how many do it. Thus, no one is above God’s law.

Second, the Bible establishes a standard binding not simply our outward actions, but our innermost thoughts as well. Not murdering someone isn’t good enough, for God sees the motives of our hearts and says we are not even to hate our brother, even if we never act on it. Similarly, stealing, lying, and every other unethical behavior all start with a thought, and Jesus addresses the problem (the action) at the source (the thought) as no other religion or worldview does.

Third, the Christian concept of grace flies in the face of any other world religion when it cleaves merit from salvation. The Bible tells us that there is no amount of good deeds that can earn our salvation. Rather, it is a freely and lovingly offered gift from God for us to either gratefully accept, or reject at our own peril. This then removes the motive of self-interest from the good deeds we do for others. We then help others not to “score points” with God, but to express our gratitude for all He’s done for us and pass on our blessings to others – “Freely you received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8).

So in the end, a people guided by the Bible would perform good actions generated from right thoughts and pure motives. Will a whole nation of people all do that? No. Will any of us consistently do that 100% of the time? Not in our own strength. Only God’s transformative renewal in us can accomplish that. But von Braun correctly saw that the people with that as their aim would be a better safehouse for power than the nation without such a standard.

Would someone with incredibly destructive knowledge entrust it to our country now, knowing the world would be a safer place because of our integrity and our adherence to an unwavering divine standard of right conduct? Sadly, I think it would be questionable.

“Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent, and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” – Revelation 2:5, Jesus speaking to the church of Ephesus and just maybe to us as well.

Lost Compasses

compass_smallMy latest bulletin from the Oklahoma Engineering Board had an article about engineering ethics and the following excerpt struck me.

It has taken generations for professional engineers and professional land surveyors to create the level of public trust that they have been afforded. Unfortunately, years of competent and ethical conduct can be destroyed very quickly by one unethical decision. One such serious breach of the public trust happened in Oklahoma just a few years ago.  A city’s Public Works department was racked with a bribery scandal involving one of its own professional engineers and other professional engineers in the private sector. After pleading guilty to the charges, the professional engineers were sentenced to jail time and assessed large fines.  Following disciplinary investigations and hearings, the Board revoked each of their PE licenses.  As a way of explanation for this unethical and illegal behavior, the attorney for one of the engineers told the court that his client had ‘lost his moral compass’. [emphasis mine]

I used compasses a lot in the Army. They’re nice tools. They’re also susceptible to error. I remember the Land Navigation course at Camp Williams, UT had one mountainside that was very iron-rich. Finding waypoints in that area was difficult because of the havoc magnetic materials wreak on compasses. You had to work off of known points and correct the heading your compass was telling you in those areas. Otherwise, you could truly go around in circles. You may get through most of the course trusting this handy little tool, but if you follow it when it clearly doesn’t match up with reality (i.e. I know that mountain is to my north, but my compass says it’s to my south…), then you are setting yourself up for failure, much like these unnamed engineers did. In fact, as I learned in the army, and as my cross-country flights for my pilot’s license later reminded me, compasses don’t match up exactly with reality to begin with. We say a compass points north, but a compass actually points to magnetic north, which generally does not line up with  true north. So as useful as a compass is for pointing you in roughly the right direction, precise navigation with one requires using a map that tells you the “declination angle”, or how much magnetic north and true north differ in your area. Where I lived, it was a 15.3° difference.

It really comes down to a matter of truth, whether that’s true north versus magnetic north when you’re physically lost, or truth versus error when morally lost. It can be said that something is true when it correlates with reality. If it is objectively true in this manner, then it is true regardless of our perceptions or rationalizations. Reality, then, is a known reference point that we can use to check  ourselves.  For instance, even if I’m red-green colorblind, there are tests one can do to verify that the color of light being reflected off of some grass is, in fact, green, thereby validating the statement that “the grass is green”.  But what of non-physical questions such as the ones that typically form ethical dilemmas? We need a known point of reference in those areas also to calibrate our “moral compasses” and correct them if needed.  What “known point”, – what benchmark – can straighten our meandering paths through ethical quagmires?

  • As our position changes, it should be unchanging for us to figure out how far off track we are (like a  “resection” in land nav).  If unchanging, this known point, or standard, would be applicable universally, i.e. multiple people could reference it to “fix”, or locate, their position on the map.  Likewise, a good ethical reference point should not be subjective. It should apply equally to all, from Mother Theresa to Adolf Hitler.
  •   A known point is also applicable without respect to time. You could likely figure out your location each year on vacation in Yosemite by looking for Half-Dome or El Capitan as those huge cliffs aren’t moving year to year. Using the snowplow on the side of the road as a reference point because it’s been in the same spot your entire week of vacation likely won’t help next year. Another example of this is how a homeowner’s property lines may be determined off a monument marker a surveyor set as a known point over 100 years prior. Likewise, a good ethical reference point should be just as valid whether it’s 2014, or 1914, or 2114.
  • A good known point is easily identifiable. Trying to shoot an accurate compass bearing to “the 15th tree down from the 3rd boulder over” when there’s a giant rock spire jutting from a barren mountainside a few hundred feet away is just silly. Use the obvious landmark. Likewise, a good ethical reference point should be obvious. For instance, if your ethical standard requires lengthy research on your part to agree that something as horrible as say, torturing babies for fun, is wrong, then I strongly suggest you find a better ethical “landmark”.

Is there a system of ethics that can provide us the known point we seek? A comparison of the several different and highly nuanced ethical systems and variations of each will have to wait for another day (and probably take several posts to even scratch the surface) but consider this: the combination of deontological and classic virtue ethics found in the Christian Bible provides an unmoving reference point in the character of God that applies equally to all people in all places and at all times. It explains the notion that some things really are inherently wrong (like torturing babies for fun) and are not “wrong for you but OK for me”.  It provides a readily identifiable reference for us in God’s holy character. “Is this activity I’m considering (i.e. bribery) in line with God’s character?” No? Then don’t do it! Done, compass calibrated. Move on down the road.