I just returned from a lovely little respite from the usual grind and its daily dose of news alerts and fire alarms. I see not much has changed. Conservatives are still abuzz over Sen. Frist’s flip-flop on stem-cell research. Protests to the war on terror continue across the nation. TV evangelist Pat Robertson successfully identified the Christian right with radical Islam. And the activist courts in California are moving forward with their efforts to redefine marriage with three decisions advancing gay rights.

And they say August is notoriously a slow news cycle.

With all that fodder for water cooler conversation, I got to thinking about what exactly drives the debates on issues of war, politics, same-sex marriage, stem-cell research and other such concerns.

Taking a step back to see the forest for the trees, I think the answer, in every case, can be traced back to personal moral philosophy. Therefore, it may help anyone who dares form or voice an opinion on national and social issues to recognize the undercurrent of ethical philosophies guiding, if not driving, the nation. (Here’s where the professor in me takes over.)

First there is Relativism. That is an ethic that puts its finger to the wind as a test for what to do next. What is “right” would simply mean what was approved of by most of society.

So how would a moral issue such as slavery play out based purely on relativism? Indeed if most people were happy with the concept (save those actually in servitude), slavery wouldn’t be wrong. Yet few would argue that slavery is a good social construct, making it easy to see why relativism is a poor ethical framework to guide a life let alone a nation.

Then there is Utilitarianism. This is an ethic in which the ends justify the means and the goal is ultimate happiness. In other words, this philosophy holds that actions are “right” in proportion to their ability to promote happiness. In this ethic, individual rights are given little importance. Rather, the sacrifice of the individual would actually be required should it yield happiness to the greater society.

The question, of course, is whether anyone could ever agree on a universal definition of happiness. Adding to such a challenge is recognizing that the pleasure and happiness of one person may be quite different, and at times at odds, with another. So whose happiness would or should reign supreme? Failure to adequately answer this question reveals the shortcomings of this ethic in guiding a nation.

Next, and in opposition to the somewhat crude tendency of utilitarian ethics to sacrifice individual rights for the greater good, there is the Kantian ethic. That is an ethic that actually upholds individual rights and duties. This ethical philosophy further requires that for an action to be “right” or moral it must spring from what is called “good will.”

To successfully apply and live by this ethic inherently demands that a society treat everyone as moral equals – something the human population fails miserably to achieve. Quite to the contrary, application of this ethic most often fuels a rather strife-filled rise of ranking individual rights. An obvious example is seen in the debate over abortion, as women’s rights are seen pitted against or reigning supreme over the rights of the unborn child, thus revealing the shortcomings inherent in this ethical theory for guiding a nation.

Finally, there is Natural Law ethic, which is, by far, superior to the other ethical theories. This is the only objective, unchanging and time-tested ethical theory. It is a rules-based approach to life’s problems. In this philosophy, rules guide action in an attempt to curb the inherent sinful tendencies of man. The laws or rules themselves are rooted in divine and natural law existing in and established by God.

So that’s it – the four most prevalent and influential ethical theories currently in play in American culture. Now, lest you think these ethical theories are of interest only to we college professor types, consider that even Hollywood integrates them into their moviemaking.

Consider the big screen episode of “Star Trek” where first officer Spock endeavors to save the ship and crew from sure destruction. In this instance, Spock is trapped inside an enclosed room suffering extreme radiation exposure. Pressed against the glass he says to the captain, “Ship safe?” The captain replies, “It is safe.” Spock then goes on to encourage the captain, saying with dying breath that “the good of the many outweigh the good of the few or the one.”

That is utilitarian ethics! And this is not a rare example. Whether you know it, these philosophies consciously and subconsciously drive each of us and ultimately the nation. They are the very undercurrent of all our decision-making. I challenge you to think about what frames the submitted opinions next time you are in or hear a heated debate. You can often quickly discern what drives each contender – popular opinion, the greater good, individual rights or objective rules.

The fact is that the battles being waged in news media, legislative houses, our communities, indeed in our very homes are, at their root, battles over ethical philosophies, specifically, Relativism, Utilitarianism, Kantianism and Natural Law. Just tuck that in your pocket for the next round of water cooler debate. After all, August is a slow month for news.

Class dismissed.

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