JTS: Intro to Phil
Session 7: Briefing Note
GEM 03:11:19a

 Ethics, Sustainability and Development



1. Background: the Nature and Purpose of Ethics

2. The Positivist and Relativist Challenges to Ethics

3. The GR/CI: linking Ethics to Sustainability and Development

4. Towards Prophetic Intellectual and Cultural Leadership

For Discussion or Reflection

References & Readings


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INTRODUCTION: Ethics is concerned with how we should make our decisions and how we should then live; so, it is the facet of our world views of which we are most aware. This focus also implies that ethics is also directly related to the twin challenges of development and sustainability we face in the Caribbean and wider world. Further, ethics has long been a prophetic focus of the Christian Faith, which is concerned to promote good living under God. Thus, the triad: ethics, sustainability and development is a logical point of contact for the church’s task of prophetic intellectual and cultural leadership in and beyond our region.

1.         Background: the Nature and Purpose of Ethics

Ethics is closely related to, but subtly distinct from, principles and morality. As David Clarke and Robert Rakestraw aptly observe[1]:

Principles are broad general guidelines that all persons ought to follow. Morality is the dimension of life related to right conduct. It includes virtuous character and honorable intentions as well as the decisions and actions that grow out of them. Ethics on the other hand, is the [philosophical and theological] study of morality . . . [that is,] a higher order discipline that examines moral living in all its facets . . . . on three levels. The first level, descriptive ethics, simply portrays moral actions or virtues. A second level, normative ethics (also called prescriptive ethics), examines the first level, evaluating actions or virtues as morally right or wrong. A third level, metaethics, analyses the second . . . It clarifies the meaning of ethical terms and assesses the principles of ethical argument . . . . Some think, without reflecting on it, that . . . what people actually do is the standard of what is morally right . . . [But, what] actually happens and what ought to happen are quite different . . . .  A half century ago, defenders of positivism routinely argued that descriptive statements are meaningful, but prescriptive statements (including all moral claims) are meaningless . . . In other words, ethical claims give no information about the world; they only reveal something about the emotions of the speaker . . . . Yet ethical statements do seem to say something about the realities to which they point. “That’s unfair!” encourages us to attend to circumstances, events, actions, or relationships in the world. We look for a certain quality in the world (not just the speaker’s mind) that we could properly call unfair. 

Thus, we see the focus of ethics as a philosophical discipline, and the major challenges to ethics over the past century: positivism deriving from the naturalist worldview, and relativism, deriving from the assumption that what is and what ought to be are effectively the same.

Consequently, as Arthur Holmes points out[2], ethics has to address the is-ought gap:

However we may define the good, however well we may calculate consequences, to whatever extent we may or may not desire certain consequences, none of this of itself implies any obligation of command. That something is or will be does not imply that we ought to seek it. We can never derive an “ought” from a premised “is” unless the ought is somehow already contained in the premise . . . .

R. M. Hare . . . raises the same point. Most theories, he argues, simply fail to account for the ought that commands us: subjectivism reduces imperatives to statements about subjective states, egoism and utilitarianism reduce them to statements about consequences, emotivism simply rejects them because they are not empirically verifiable, and determinism reduces them to causes rather than commands . . . .

Elizabeth Anscombe’s point is well made. We have a problem introducing the ought into ethics unless, as she argues, we are morally obligated by law – not a socially imposed law, ultimately, but divine law . . . . This is precisely the problem with modern ethical theory in the West . . . it has lost the binding force of divine commandments.

The relevance of this comes out as soon as we consider the concept that we have rights:

If we admit that we all equally have the right to be treated as persons, then it follows that we have the duty to respect one another accordingly.  Rights bring correlative duties: my rights . . . imply that you ought to respect these rights.[3]

But, why should we consider that people have rights at all? The only enduring answer to this has been aptly summarised in the US Declaration of Independence of 1776: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed . . .”

In short, the is-ought gap of ethics points to the question that rights and correlative duties arise from our being equally valuable as creatures of God. But such claims often do not sit well with modern or post-modern people, who wish to reject the moral argument to God.

2.         The Positivist and Relativist Challenges to Ethics

Over the past century, during which naturalistic thinking has been dominant, ethics has (unsurprisingly) faced two major challenges: [1] from the positivists (who have argued on skeptical grounds that ethics is meaningless), and [2] from the relativists (who argue that since there is an obvious diversity of ethical theory and practice, there are no binding universal ethical norms: i.e. “ought” collapses into “is”).

The first of these claims not only fails the common sense test – most people do find ethical statements meaningful -- but also rests on a self-referential inconsistency. For, the underlying positivist verifiability principle, that only statements that are analytic (true by definition, e.g. mathematical statements)  or synthetic (empirically testable) are meaningful, itself is neither analytic nor empirically testable. And, if it is reformulated as an “ought,” it appeals to the very ethical concern it would destroy!

So, positivism in general, has passed. However, in skeptical, educational and scientific circles that are not philosophically current, it is sometimes still popular. It is also sometimes used by those who know better as a cheap rhetorical trick, hoping to “catch” those who do not know of positivism’s failure and collapse as a viable philosophical system. 

Relativism is far more popular, and has received a shot in the arm from the current hyper-modern mood in the academy and media. For, it is commonly believed that relativism is the necessary underpinning for “tolerance,” the chief post-modern virtue. 

Yet, as Clark and Rakestraw [IBID, p. 19] continue:

Many people today think relativistically. “We live in a pluralistic society,” they say, apparently thinking this proves normative ethical relativism [that is, the theory that contradictory ethical beliefs may both be right, as such beliefs are viewed as only relative to the culture, situation, or individual: perception and feeling, not objective reality]. Others hold that . . . it is necessary to a tolerant society. Absolutists, they argue, encourage intolerance of other views, and this erodes social harmony. Tolerance in society is a benefit produced when people adopt relativism.

Is this inference right? Philosopher J. P. Moreland[4] . . . [argues that] Relativism is true descriptively, but consistently holding to both normative and metaethical[5] relativism is difficult. [That is, it tends to fall into logical inconsistency: arguing that all people ought to become relativists!] Further . . . [true] tolerance is entirely consistent with absolutism. Those who defend tolerance hold that everyone ought to practice tolerance!

In short, radical relativism is actually a logically inconsistent, absolutist ethical position: while deploring the idea that certain moral principles are universally binding, it proposes just such a universal principle: tolerance.

Thus, there is good reason to believe that there are binding moral principles; for, to try to deny this ends in absurdity – as both the positivists and the relativists demonstrate.   

3.         The GR/CI: Linking Ethics to Sustainability and Development

But, what would be a suitable candidate for such a generally binding moral principle? How can such a rule be relevant to an age in which development and its sustainability in the face of bio-physical, socio-cultural and economic environmental challenges have become central concerns?

Classical times have bequeathed to us as a candidate, the Golden Rule [GR]. This has been variously formulated, but is most famously stated by Jesus of Nazareth:

In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. [Matt. 7:12, summing up his Sermon on the Mount.[6]]

This has been stated many times, in may ways.[7] Confucius, similarly but negatively, said: “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.”  Hillel, greatest of the Rabbis, said: “What is hateful to you don’t do to another.” The founder of Islam advised: “to do unto all men as you would wish to have done to you, and to reject for others what you would reject for yourself.” And many more.

But, as Tom Morris also points out [pp. 114 – 115], instead we tend to mirror back to others what they have done to us, or what we think they have done to us. Thus, we get into the vicious cycle of mistrust, oppression, misunderstanding and vengeance that so darkens history and our contemporary world. But, if such “moral mirrors” are treated according to the GR, this challenges them to live up to it![8]

On the other hand, as Morris further points out [pp. 115 – 116], two main objections have been made to “do as you would be done by”:

Why should we treat others as we would want to be treated, rather than . . . as they themselves actually want to be treated? . . . . First, if I were in the other person’s place, I would want to be treated in accord with all my own legitimate desires and felt needs. So the Golden Rule enjoins me to treat him in accordance with all his legitimate desires and felt needs. Consequently, it does not . . . require of me, or even suggest, the imposition of any of my more distinctive likes or dislikes on others at all.

Secondly, what if the other guy actually wants to be given unfairly preferential treatment? No moral rule should demand that I comply. But, the critic could retort, this objection can be easily avoided by saying that we ought to treat others in accordance with all their legitimate desires and felt needs. Why should we bring any consideration of what we ourselves would want into the mix at all?

The Golden Rule is stated as it is in its classic formulation in order to give us not only guidance but also motivation . . . [for it] directs us into a mental exercise of imaginative projection . . . That draws on all the emotions tied up with self-interest and used them to move us in the direction of other-interest . . . .

But even the Golden Rule has its limitations. Like every other rule, it needs interpretation. And it can’t turn a bad person into a good one.

So, Morris goes on to counsel that the proper use of rules is in moral training, with the aim being to build a life that is marked by character, wisdom and virtue in proper alignment: our habits of thought, feeling and behaviour should habitually line up with a correct understanding of how we ought to live in light of the ultimate reality of the world.  

At the turn of the 19th Century, Immanuel Kant reformulated the Golden Rule [GR] as the Categorical Imperative [CI], which allows us to make a direct link to the concept of sustainable development [SD].

The resulting CI can be summarised as: one should not make self-serving exceptions  to moral principles – that is, it is a call to consistency in thought and practice, given the basic principle that people are equally to be respected. Or, more explicitly, the CI indicates that one should act according to principles that s/he could freely and coherently recommend to all. Equivalently, the CI requires us to treat other persons as ends in themselves, not just means to our own ends. (This last form is especially helpful in illustrating the CI’s equivalence to the GR: respecting and treating people as people, not simply instruments to one’s own ends.[9])

This in turn entails the Sustainable Development principle, as stated by the Bruntland Commission in 1987. This last can best be summarised: development initiatives are sustainable when they allow our generation to ever more adequately and more fairly meet our needs, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs; given the opportunities and constraints posed by the environment.

In short, the SD principle invites us to consider how we should meet the needs of the marginalized and powerless in our time, and helps us give voice to our posterity by asking whether what we do now may harm their prospects. So, it in effect applies the GR/CI to the economic, socio-cultural and bio-physical environmental challenges that now face the world.

4.         Towards Prophetic Intellectual and Cultural Leadership

The conclusion that the SD principle is a form of the GR/CI opens the door for informed Christians to speak to key society challenges, and to intervene towards the positive transformation of the community and even the world at large.

The key SD concept is that initiatives should be well aligned to the trends in the natural, technological, economic, political  and social environment [often summarised as PEST and biophysical factors] that pose opportunities and/or threats. So, one should first consider how the current, “Business As Usual” [BAU] approach aligns to the environment’s opportunities and threats, projecting to the “expected” future. Often, this is less than desirable, but reflects the current balance of power in the community or institution.

Fig. 7.1: SWOT-Scenario Analysis Framework/Model


Then, by first identifying strengths and weaknesses, one can often create a more sustainable alternative strategy [ALT]. Such a strategy should:

Across time this will lead to a more desirable, more sustainable future. The gap between the two projected future scenarios then motivates change strategies and initiatives that help the institution or community shift from the BAU to the ALT strategy.

In short, the scenario analysis framework is a model of how to use the GR/ CI/ SD principle in the community or institution, to promote more ethically balanced decisions, by forcing attention on the implications and consequences of a mismatch to the environment.[10] That is, it promotes wise action through considering the context and consequences of action, as constrained by the principle of sustainability. The underlying assumption is that immoral actions or ill-informed ones will have damaging consequences.

In practical situations several factors will be vital:

 (1) Ethical priorities: As we noted, "Sustainable Development" (1) seeks to more adequately meet the needs of the current generation, while (2) putting a high priority on equity ["fairness"] in the community, and (3) without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (i.e. due to biophysical- or sociocultural- environment degradation and/or resource depletion). So, "SD" initiatives in a community should seek to create an ever-growing capacity to meet human needs across time, while not destroying the integrity of the biophysical and sociocultural environment. However, given the vital importance of "liberty and justice for all," such efforts must also preserve or even enhance the rule of law, human rights, fair play and truthfulness in the community. [Cf. Lev. 19:15 - 18.] For, as history has shown repeatedly, these principles are key antidotes to autocratic or oligarchic tyranny on the one hand and destructive mob-rule on the other.

(2) Tradeoffs: Real-world SD initiatives, then, must make compromises; given the inevitable tradeoffs between beneficial and harmful impacts on the current and future generations, and on the biophysical environment. But, how to strike such tradeoffs is a major challenge. For instance, there is a tradeoff between increased rates of current economic development on the one hand (that may cause increased environmental damage); and, on the other, the reduced capacity to meet human needs and/or to mitigate or remedy environmental damage that a slower growth path implies. Such a hard-to-achieve balance is best achieved through bringing to the policy decision-making table a truly representative cross-section of the stakeholders/citizens in the community. Further, these decision-makers and stakeholders must understand and respect the critical importance of markets and associated property rights for economic development.

(3) Transparency & Fairness in Participation: Unfortunately, that is also hard to do. For, given the persuasiveness of misleading arguments, the lack of ready access to the full facts [which may be unknown] and possibilities for bias and hidden agendas, it is easy to exploit the concept of SD to manipulate communities, stakeholders and institutions based on deceptive stratagems. To avoid this requires the creation of a transparent (i.e. open, fair, truthful, accountable and trustworthy), highly democratic and truly representative participative process for identifying, developing, implementing, monitoring, managing and evaluating such projects and programmes.

Jeremiah’s prophetic letter to the exiles from Judah, circa 600 BC, brings out some of the subtleties of how this pattern can work in a diverse, potentially hostile community:

“Build houses and settle down, plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage . . . increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper. . . . . For I know the plans I have for you . . . plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.”  [Jer. 29:5 – 11.] 

These are of course general remarks; they are consistent with individual cases where disappointment or worse happens. But, the community of the exiles as a whole is counseled to seek the peace and prosperity even of the land of their enemies and oppressors, who have carried them off into exile. And God promises to bless them and eventually to restore their fortunes:

The long-term sustainability and benefits that flow from this path can be seen from the fact that this has been the consistent, and often successful, approach of the Jewish Diaspora ever since those dark and painful days of the Babylonian exile.

Across time, communities that work in the above way tend to become prosperous, well-educated and influential; as the stories of Daniel, Nehemiah, Ezra and Esther illustrate. However, this progress may also provoke resentment and persecution, especially if there is an unwillingness to compromise core moral commitments and/or to assimilate to the wider community. (This has been one root of the many persecutions the Jews – and Christians -- have suffered. Cf. 1 Peter 3:3 – 6.)

But also, when communities are open to the importance of justice and broad-based participation and fairness in the community, the approach opens up to include possibilities for involvement in the sort of democratic participative governance approaches described above. (It should be noted that such approaches can be manipulated by clever interest groups who are able to distort perceptions or suppress key facts, so that the community’s actions become disconnected from reality. In our time, this is unfortunately a commonly used tactic.)

CONCLUSIONS: Ethics seems to be a key to the prophetic intervention that is sorely needed if our region is to turn away from its current collision-course with disaster. For, the power of the Golden Rule to illuminate the development and sustainability dilemmas we confront in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean opens up the door for informed, prophetic intellectual and cultural leadership that can bring blessings, reformation and transformation to the church and the wider community across our region.  However, if we are to successfully exert this power, we will need to undertake a long-term strategy of attitude change, personal and community development, and doing good in the wider community. As opportunities open up, this may require counselling against or even prophetically confronting/exposing foolish and immoral, destructive agendas in the community. To promote such action, it is apparent that we will need to undertake a carefully considered programme of initiatives within the covenant community of faith, which can then become exemplars to the wider community.

Points to ponder . . .

1.     Consider the claim that “my right requires your duty.” What does this imply about the nature and value of personhood and the basis of morality?

2.     Why is it that attempts to dismiss morality as meaningless or as only relative to individuals, communities and times have consistently come to grief?

3.     How can the link from the GR/CI to the sustainability of development open the way for prophetic intellectual and cultural leadership initiatives in the Caribbean?

4.     How can such initiatives be defended from the charge that they are simply attempts to impose outdated, backward, hypocritical and oppressive standards on the community?

References & Readings

Stanford online Enc. of Phil: http://plato.stanford.edu/ . Cf. articles on major ethics themes and terms.

Clark, Davis K & Rakestraw, Robert V, Eds. Readings in Christian Ethics, Vol. 1: Theory and Method. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002).

Holmes, Arthur F. Ethics: Approaching Moral Decisions. Downers Grove, IL: 1984.

Morris, Tom, Philosophy for Dummies. NY, NY: Hungry Minds, 1999.

JTS/CGST Public Ethics Lecture, 2002: Ethics and Development. URL: https://www.angelfire.com/pro/kairosfocus/resources/Ethics_and_development.htm

A Note on the Sustainability Concept: https://www.angelfire.com/pro/kairosfocus/resources/SD_concept.htm

[1] Readings in Christian Ethics, Vol. 1: Theory and Method. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002), pp. 18 – 19.

[2] Ethics: Approaching Moral Decisions (Downers Grove, IL: 1984), pp. 70 – 72.

[3] Arthur F. Holmes,  Ethics, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1984), p. 81.  Holmes goes on to point out that certain duties arise from our particular relationships, commitments and roles in the family and wider community. We may also face situations in which we are forced to choose the lesser of evils, especially where delay or inaction is in effect to make a worse choice.

[4] Cf. pp. 23 – 31, an excerpt from Moreland’s Scaling the Secular City, (Grand Rapids, Baker: 1987) pp. 240 – 248.

[5] “This is the view that principles of justification and concepts of moral value are legitimately different for different persons, religions or cultures. Metaethical relativism makes cross-cultural ethical judgements impossible.” [IBID, p. 19.] One implication would be that we had no right to criticize the Boers over Apartheid in South Africa!

[6] Cf. Matt 22:34 – 40 for his equivalent summary, that the Law and the Prophets boil down to: (i) Love God, and (ii) love your neighbour as yourself. Cf. also Deut 6:1 – 18 and Lev. 19:15 – 18 for the OT context. Also cf. https://www.angelfire.com/pro/kairosfocus/resources/SD_concept.htm for a discussion towards practical action.

[7] Morris, Tom, Philosophy for Dummies, (NY, NY: Hungry Minds, 1999), p. 114.

[8] However, sometimes perceptions are so warped, and emotions so intensely painful, that it is very hard indeed for the cycle of rage, hate, oppression, retaliation and violence to be broken.  Thus, we see the value and power of forgiveness. Also, when one holds office as a civil authority [ranging from a parent, a police officer or a teacher, to a President of a Great Power], one has a special obligation and stewardship to promote justice and restrain evildoers that threaten justice within one’s community or institution. This may require the use of a measured, proportionate degree of force, as Rom 13:1 – 7 discusses in the case of a Governor. Unfortunately, as the case of Jesus’ crucifixion so powerfully demonstrates, this is ever so prone to the very worst forms of abuse and manipulation. Consequently, and sadly, as Lord Acton observed of the Renaissance Popes: “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are bad men.”

[9] Kant did not have a high view of the classic statements of the GR, but ironically, his CI is a form of the same underlying principle of beneficence ands fairness. To see this, consider how “do as you would be done by” parallels the principle that people should never be viewed and treated as simply means to one’s own ends. Or, consider the question: “Would you like that if I were to treat you that way?”

[10] Cf. discussion, Morris, pp. 95 – 100, of various ethical theories, leading to the conclusion that virtue-based ethics captures and renders coherent the insights of the various Consequence-focused [teleological], Natural Law, Divine Command, Duty-based [deontological], Social Contract, Utilitarian etc. approaches, whilst avoiding their fatal flaws. In sum, the sociobioloogists are looking at commonalities of human nature in the context of the natural and human environment [natural law and/or sociobiological approaches], which in turn promote social consensus on what is right [social contract], and would lead to a favourable overall balance of benefits as against costs and harm – at the society-wide level [utilitarian]. In turn this arguably reflects the nature we have been endowed with by our Creator, whose commands are “for our own good” [Cf. Deut. 10:12 – 13] – i.e. Divine Command ethics. Virtue based ethics, as briefly discussed above, seeks to build the settled habit/character of thinking, valuing, deciding and acting in ways that are well-aligned to sound insight into the realities of the world in which we live.