Sermon Series: Doing Right, Being Good

Sermon Series: Doing Right, Being Good

Beginning September 17

Dr. Vamos will be beginning a new sermon series on September 17. How do we think about moral decisions? Is reason or emotion more important? Should we pay most attention to the outcome of an action, or whether it is right in itself to do – that is, out of duty? And perhaps most importantly – how does the gospel enable us to become good people, capable of making right decisions?
Follow along with Dr. Vamos on this page as the series progresses.

If you missed any of the sermons, recordings can be found here.

And the final sermon, on October 15, is on the topic, “Abortion and Moral Choice.” After several conversations, I’ve been wishing I might have chosen “Sports and Moral Choice.” But hey – in all seriousness, this is perhaps the most difficult subject on which to test some of our reflections, and I’m very aware of the pastoral and emotional freight that topic carries. I’d love it if any wished to share their thoughts either in advance, or after, the sermon. Just use the “Comment” feature below.

Comments

  1. In the first sermon in this series, coming up this Sunday, September 17th, we’ll explore what’s called utilitarian ethics. Utilitarian (or “consequentialist”) ethics focus on the question: what action will result in the best outcome – the greatest good for the greatest number? We’ll start off with a famous ethical dilemma called “The crying baby dilemma.” Read about it here:

    https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/thinking-about-morality/

    What would you do?

  2. If you want to take a stroll down memory lane, and see the emotionality of the dilemma mentioned above, watch this scene from MASH – the farewell episode.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sYjy7uUn7fc.

  3. This is a story that I will be mentioning in the sermon on Sunday, in reflecting on utilitarianism: Ursula Le Guin’s short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” It’s definitely worth a read.

    Would you live in such a society as she describes?

    https://www.utilitarianism.com/nu/omelas.pdf

  4. Jeff-

    Interesting series. I’ll be listening and learning, Pastor!

    You did a great job explaining that, with the Utilitarian model, the right moral choice is what produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people, and the least evil for the least amount of people. The right moral choice results in more good consequences than another choice, or than harmful results. This choice is the most reasonable.

    When I think about it, my parents often recommended the approach with the classic, “Make two columns. You add up the good column and the bad and whatever comes out on top you have to do.”

    Sometimes I think one of the attractions for people to this kind of utilitarianism is that it tries to be agent-neutral; it tries to avoid the part WE would have to play (e.g. covering the child’s mouth, in your M*A*S*H* example). What matters is only the result. That would seem to make the model diverge from a Christian worldview, where we are responsible agents, and called to live lives of repentance, which presumes responsibility.

    I think I’ve also noticed that when the result is in view, it is often a feel-good, peaceful or quiet world that you are looking for. The removal of threat. Tranquility. Almost a hedonistic “good” as the “end.” This too, seems to diverge from Christianity, which says that lives that include suffering can still have enormous, even salvific, worth.

    I think that while I have large problems with the model, in a secular-majority world that has no criteria of an “end” that is transcendently good or bad, we Christians want to be concerned with doing more good than harm. And as you pointed out Jeff, we Christians can be effectively utilitarian; in a world where there is heaven and hell, where there is a ruling God who rewards those who seek Him, where God’s providence orders things in a way that is beneficial, then we want to do things because they provide good. To do things in view of the goal of pleasing and glorifying God, of fitting into His providence, of moving towards glory ourselves. So there is a kind of Christian utilitarianism. If you lead a righteous life you may live longer and, better, AND you will please God.

    I think where the “system” has the biggest flaw for the Christian is that utilitarianism is only goal oriented, and its ethics are almost exclusively controlled by the PROBLEM or its outcomes, rather than the glory of the triune God.

    One question: the M*A*S*H* example, the Peter Singer infanticide example, and the Ursula Le Guin omelas example all dealt with children, misery, and the single child, and yet you never went to the big, daily, near-to-us issue of abortion, where in most (the great majority of the cases) the child is sacrificed not for the mother, or because of rape (situational reasons), but quite often for what seem to be utilitarian reasons. Would love to hear you weigh in on this as the series moves forward. Thanks!

    David

  5. Hey Jeff,

    Thanks for taking us to the Deontological view. Interesting stuff. I’m of two minds on this one. On the one hand, it wouldn’t seem like this view could even come close to working in our postmodern age: How do you manage a view that holds to absolutes, when we are in a culture where there are so very few?

    On the other hand, I think it’s the one the culture has chosen for that very reason. Because there is no accepted, cultural lawgiver, the absolutes are those chosen by the majority in that moment. We might say, nicely, by “the community” But our absolutes tend to be lowest common denominator truths. What seems nice to the most people. Sort of a “It takes a village” ethics.

    This would seem too impersonal to be Christian: we have law, because we have a lawgiver. And what happens when our law runs against the “village majority?” And the village majority would likely have no grace for a Hawkeye in his grief…

    Looking forward to the next one!

    David

  6. jeffvamos says:

    Thank you, David – and to whomever else might be joining us for this conversation! I am most honored that my good friend and colleague David has offered his very sage thoughts on the thinking that I’ve laid out in this series.

    First a few quick responses to David, and then on to an invitation to offer any thoughts about the sermon topic for this coming Sunday – abortion. Where I will indeed *gulp* weigh in on an issue that has so many challenging pastoral and ethical dimensions.

    * David, I think you’re so right that often in the utilitarian calculation, the criteria for “good” (as in “the greatest good for the greatest number”) is a key factor. And as I understand, its key progenitors thought of that good as happiness and pleasure – a kind of hedonistic calculation. The problem is whether this calculation can every truly bring happiness, when we equate pleasure and the lack of pain with human fulfillment; and so often the “good” is defined in quite selfish terms. Utilitarian for ME. And of course, the chief weakness of this system of thought, which many (including me) would say is the primary reason it runs agains the heart of Christian ethics, is its lack of concern for individual human dignity (as illustrated by the Ursula le Guin story especially).

    * As to the Deontological view, I’m somewhat curious about your notion of “village majority” ethics, and how you understand that as part of this view. I suppose one could go into more detail about the whole approach, but Kant, e.g., has a very rational and (in his view) fairly straightforward way of determining one’s duty in any situation; i.e., what if everyone did this behavior – e.g. lying, stealing, etc. – even if justified? But you are right, other critics of his approach say that Kant is just using some universal rational approach to justify what consist of cultural and “tribal” biases of his own. Despite that weakness, in general, I do think the general concept of duty ethics hews more closely to the Christian message, in which doing the right thing, doing one’s duty, whose primary essence is love, is the key, especially as this would lead us quite away from any “utility” if we are indeed taking up our crosses (out of love) and following.

    OK – so, thoughts about abortion?

    For background, here is a summary of some of the various pronouncements about abortion and problem pregnancy by the Presbyterian Church (USA): https://www.presbyterianmission.org/what-we-believe/social-issues/abortion-issues/.

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