I’ve been teaching “Ethics” to my first-year nursing students all month as part of their “Fundamentals of Nursing Practice” course.
We’ve covered the usual definitions and several ethical theories, including biomedical ethics and the major global ethical concerns happening in healthcare today (abortion, euthanasia, organ transplants, etc). The last lecture (in about a week) will be on “Christian Ethics in Nursing Practice”, something dear to my heart and the raison d’etre that I am here.
But it is the two classical theories of ethics, utilitarianism and deontology, that have been most on my mind and in my thoughts during this past week since the U.S. Presidential election has taken place.
Utilitarianism is the theory of “the end justifies the means”. It’s the consequences of one’s actions which are the most important, rather than the actions themselves. An action or practice is right if it leads to the greatest possible balance of good consequences or the least possible balance of bad consequences. The right action is the one, out of all possible actions, which leads to the maximum sum of human happiness.
Deontology, on the other hand, is the position that judges the morality of an action based on the action’s adherence to a rule or rules. It is sometimes described as “duty-“, “obligation-” or “rule-” based ethics, because rules “bind you to your duty”. In this theory, actions are “right” or “wrong” in themselves, without regard to what the consequences of those actions are.
For something to be considered an ethical dilemma, a conflict between two moral imperatives must exist, where to choose one would result in violating the other. One can’t be both a utilitarian and deontologist at the same time when making this kind of moral choice.
A classic example is from the book “Les Miserables” by Victor Hugo. Jean Valjean stole the loaf of bread to feed his family (utilitarian), even though “stealing” is most always thought to be morally wrong (deontological).
Most of us would have no trouble with agreeing that Mr. Valjean made the right choice in this instance; even though most of us also would likely hold to the core moral value of “Stealing is Wrong”.
In my reflections over this past week, I believe the utilitarian argument is exactly what has been used by many Christians, consciously or not, to justify their votes for our new President-elect, Mr. Donald Trump.
How else to explain all the statements and reasons given to justify voting for this man, whose character (or lack thereof) has been on mega-watt display not only during this election cycle, but for most of his adult life?
- “I’m voting for a President, not a Priest”
- “His sexual predator language caught on tape happened over 10 years ago”
- “He has lots of minorities and women working for him; he can’t really hate them”
- “We have to vote for him, because of the Supreme Court Justice appointments and abortion laws”
- “I’ve gotta keep those Democrats from taking away my guns”
- “I can’t possibly vote for Hillary, so I will have to vote for Trump”
- “Trump is a flawed vessel, but someone who we need to Make America Great Again…”
Utilitarian arguments, all of them. The ends justifies the means. In this view, it has been worth it all to vote this (racist, misogynistic, ethnocentric) man into office, so that the consequences for the country might be what most Christians hope and want them to be.
And if you are ok with that, then ok. Who am I to say that being utilitarian once in awhile is not a good thing? After all, it was the right decision for Jean Valjean….
And who’s to say that a Republican President and Congress won’t be good for the country? After all, it wasn’t like I was a big Clinton supporter, either. Actually (full disclosure), I didn’t even vote (as our absentee ballots “somehow” never found their way to us in Kenya).
But voting for Trump would not have been an option for me (Evan McMullin, maybe?). So now, I am in that small minority (20%) of white evangelical Christians who was not able to bring myself to “get on board” with this man. Somehow, I just couldn’t bring myself to believe that “praying for a Trump win” was the right thing to do, especially as a Christian; especially for me.
“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time” (Maya Angelou).
I did. And I still do; which puts me squarely in the deontological camp concerning Mr. Trump.
Integrity….mine….was on the line. I could not vote for him and still be morally congruent with myself.
But…now that this election is over, how can I get past who this man is? I don’t know. Prayer will help; and time will surely tell all of us what kind of POTUS he will be. And yes, I believe that I can at least try to give him a chance.
In the latest Christianity Today (“Trump Won. Here’s How 20 Evangelical Leaders Feel”, Nov 11, 2016), Justin Taylor (author/blogger of “The Gospel Coalition”) wrote these words:
“I feel relief Hillary Clinton will never nominate a Supreme Court justice. I feel empathy for those evangelicals who voted for Trump on the calculus of the better of two bad choices, but I feel great frustration at evangelical leaders who excused his many sins, distorted the gospel, and tried to make a positive case for Trump’s virtues as commander in chief. I feel a deep sadness for our minority brothers and sisters who feel further alienation from white evangelicals who excused or ignored Trump’s racism and misogyny.
[But], finally, I feel hope. We do not put our trust in such rulers, but in the reign of our Lord (Ps. 146), praying for our leaders so that we would be free to live peaceful, quiet, godly, dignified lives for the earthly and eternal good of our neighbors (1 Tim. 2:1-2).”
Yes, ok. I can resonate with this…
“Elections have consequences. Yet I’m much more interested in the church—my church and the Church. Our fidelity to biblical truth, our personal holiness, our sincerity, our consistency, our ability to speak with grace and truth, our unwillingness to confuse the kingdom of this world with the kingdom of Christ, our realism in the midst of utopian promises, our hope in the midst of fear and loathing, our winsome witness to the gospel—to embody these realities week after week is more important than what happens” on election day.
Yes. Christians, whether we voted as utilitarians or deontologists, and no matter which candidate would have won this long, tiring, and contentious election, we must, for the sake of our country and in order to be a credible, life-changing Church in a world that desperately needs it, put aside our differences and come together.
We must all, once again, commit to acting and behaving like the body of Christ.
We must try our best, with God’s help and by His grace, to do the right thing.