A Review of Navigating Right and Wrong: Ethical Decision Making in a Pluralistic Age

[1] A significant number of books have appeared in recent years that address the subject of ethics in view of the spirit of relativism that is deeply rooted in our pluralistic culture. Daniel Lee’s book makes a distinctive contribution in addressing this challenge. Lee, Professor of Religion at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois has written a book designed for the college student and thoughtful laity in general who can be easily overwhelmed by the apparent lack of moral standards and the laissez faire attitudes that often characterize moral discussion.

[2] First an observation in regard to style. Lee has the ability to write in a cozy, engaging manner that is often helpful in explaining concepts that can be formidable to the reader unacquainted with ethical terminology. He comes by this talent quite naturally, having written on ethical topics for some years as a weekly columnist for his local newspaper. At the same time, his obvious desire to reach the uninformed reader does not prevent him from making numerous references to scholarly materials and historical incidents related to his discussion, as well as a fair number of scholarly works relating to the topics he discusses. These appear in endnotes at the close of each chapter. A page listing “Ten Questions for Reflection and Discussion” also appears at the conclusion of each chapter.

[3] As a means of getting at the nature of ethics and in particular the nature and legitimacy of moral obligation, Lee begins by addressing our sense of obligation to comply with the law. He uses Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” as a means of suggesting the possibility of a moral order or “natural law” that transcends society’s laws and by which particular laws are either validated or judged. This leads to brief references to theologians and philosophers such as Augustine, Aquinas, Kant, Locke, and Hume, raising for the reader some of the intellectual difficulties in establishing a basis for moral obligation.

[4] In chapter two Lee turns to the way we make moral decisions, discussing deontological and consequentialist approaches and closing with a brief consideration of situation ethics and prima facie obligations, making the point that our understanding of justice and moral obligation is intimately connected with how one makes a moral decision – epistemology shapes ontology.

[5] In the third chapter Lee returns to the concept of natural law and leads the reader through a number of ways in which thinkers have derived moral conclusions from that concept. Here he discusses imperatives one might glean from human reason or from the natural (animal) world, concluding that in reality the value assumptions one brings to this discussion will determine the moral conclusions that one “finds” in nature. Moral answers are not to be derived from any factual realm. Nor does Lee find any final or persuasive answers in moral intuitionism, the idea of a “moral instinct,” the notion of “self-evident” moral truths, or in other recent arguments (such as that of John Rawls).

[6] The conclusion at which Lee arrives is that whatever one’s “center of values” (here citing H. Richard Niebuhr), one affirms them as a matter of faith. Under the chapter heading, “But Isn’t Faith Dangerous?” he acknowledges the grim historical record of churches that have attempted to enforce or impose faith upon unwilling people (the Spanish Inquisition under Torquemada and the burning of Servetus in Calvin’s Geneva are cited and discussed), concluding that every religion has been victimized by arrogance whenever its leaders have sought to defend the faith by exercising force. True faith is moved by a spirit of humility that recognizes we do not have a “God’s-eye view” that justifies our standing in judgment of those with whom we disagree. Faith compels “action with humility. It is affirmation without arrogance.” (89)

[7] Lee’s argument leads to a form of virtue theory, though the term is not used. The essential issue for ethics is our existential response to the questions of meaning and purpose posed by life itself. We are shaped and formed by many life-experiences, those that happen to us and those which we generate through our own decision-making. Here Lee refers to the practice of Jesus in associating with those publicly regarded as “sinners,” lifting it up as the exemplification of a central moral truth: our task as moral persons is to see the humanity in our neighbor, to relate to others in a way that sees the person behind his or her faults, which is to bring the capacity to forgive in all of our interpersonal relationships. This capacity can be recognized as the willingness to “lose” oneself on behalf of the neighbor, to live a life characterized by charity in one’s relation to others.

[8] But if the basis for one’s moral stance in life is rooted in one’s own faith and the moral convictions and ideals that it inspires, what about the possibility of moral community and the establishing of a public morality in a pluralistic society? Addressing this question in his concluding chapter, Lee draws on a distinction made by philosopher Richard DeGeorge between radical moral pluralism, which allows for no moral agreement, and pluralism of moral principles, which is a more accurate description of the nature of our differences as a pluralistic society. Differences at the level of principle still allow for significant agreement on many moral practices as people find some level of community in conventional morality. Building moral coalitions in order to affect public policy is a realizable goal and an imperative for morally concerned citizens. At the same time, there will always be a variety of relatively tight-knit moral communities in our society whose goals and ideals will seldom gain the loyalty of the society at large.

[9] Lee closes by recommending three values that he believes are worthy of a public morality and which are also deeply rooted in our political, religious, and cultural traditions: Respect for persons, integrity, and compassion. “If we can all agree that these core values are beyond debate, possibilities exist for identifying a public morality sufficiently inclusive to provide the moral fibers necessary to bind together a society such as ours.” (130) While affirming moral order in the universe, Lee’s main point is that its reality remains a matter of faith, best affirmed with a strong measure of humility that leaves one open to the spirit of dialogue and learning from the perspective of others.

[10] The tone of Lee’s book is quite modest in what it claims for any explicit moral order. The emphasis is on humility and our incapacity to see things from the mountain top, or from God’s viewpoint. This is certainly appropriate, but it raises for me two issues that I believe are worth considering: First, in his effort to avoid any hint of dogmatic assertiveness concerning moral beliefs, does Lee sacrifice too much by concluding that there is no basis for one’s moral convictions beyond an act of faith? Are there no empirical and experiential arguments that one might summon in behalf of the life-affirming and life-fulfilling nature of neighbor-centered love? Does not the practice of Jesus which he cites, in being a friend to sinners and outcasts, constitute a persuasive argument on behalf of the power and validity of self-giving love? What kind of arguments make sense in supporting the notion of a moral order in the complex relationships of human beings?

[11] Second, as a Christian theologian and ethicist, teaching at a church-related college, I know that Lee has often thought about the moral implications of the Christian message and the nature and status of those moral insights in relation to other, competing moral stances. That subject does not receive the intentional treatment that I believe it deserves in a book of this kind. There are occasional references to Jesus and his moral teachings, but how are we to relate the moral insights we glean from the Christian tradition to secular, humanist moral teachings? Lee tends to emphasize points of connection when he briefly touches on this subject, but I wish he might have addressed the matter more intentionally, taking up the Lutheran distinction between law and gospel and spelling out its implications for this topic.

[12] These suggestions would have expanded the book, of course, and one has to acknowledge that Lee has already covered a lot of ground in a relatively short number of pages. I’m glad he has written this book; it brings many constructive insights and conveys a down-to-earth perspective that should be helpful to those who are trying to make sense out of the conflicting moral viewpoints in our society.

Paul T. Jersild

The Rev. Dr. Paul T. Jersild is Emeritus Professor of Theology and Ethics at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, Columbia, South Carolina