Moral Choices

"What would you do?" an ethics instructor asked a class of business majors. A man's car phone is stolen, and his employer has already paid for a new one when a check arrives from the insurance company. Do you refuse the money? Return the check? Give it to the employer? Amazingly, nearly half the class said they'd keep the money and not say anything. The incident was described in a recent Wall Street Journal article, written by one of the students. "I was stunned," she wrote—not only by how many students said they'd keep the money but also by how few of the others tried to change their minds. Even those who would act ethically themselves treated it not as a matter of universal principle but only individual decision. And no wonder: A favorite buzzword in moral education today is "responsible decision-making"—which sounds good until you realize it means teachers don't tell kids what's right and wrong any more; they only teach them a process for making their own decisions. In elementary and secondary schools, a typical values clarification program teaches kids a series of steps for making moral decisions: They're told to consider alternatives, to sort out what they most cherish, to affirm their values publicly, and so on. But students are given no guidance on what sort of things they ought to cherish and affirm. They're not taught to practice respect, fairness, or honesty. Instead, they're told to decide for themselves whether these are their values. This approach to moral education rests on the utopian assumption that people are innately good, and that if they're simply taught to reason clearly they will naturally choose what is good. But as the business school example shows, it doesn't work that way. The Bible is more realistic: It teaches that human nature is fallen, and that all the reasoning in the world doesn't make us good. In fact, more often than not, we use our reason to rationalize bad choices. Remember the classic book by Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment, where the main character debates whether to kill an old woman and steal her money. His argument in favor of the crime is logically impeccable. But later he comes to see that it was nevertheless terribly wrong. In today's moral climate, no one is ever wrong. For example, an article in the Atlantic argued that if a woman has weighed the alternatives and clarified her feelings, choosing an abortion is a responsible "moral choice." Obviously, for this author, what makes a decision moral is not the act itself but only whether you have rationally considered your options. In an earlier generation, effective evangelism could begin with convicting people of sin and guilt. But today it's become much harder to convict anyone of anything. People are taught that all their choices are moral, so long as they can produce half-baked reasons for them. In our post-Christian culture, evangelism needs to start at the very beginning: not with sin but with creation, and with God's right as Creator to set the moral standards for our lives.


Chuck Colson


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