I don’t consciously think about ethics on a regular basis, but lately it seems to be a recurring theme in my life. Which is a problem, because I feel like a total dummy when it comes to questions of ethics.
It started the other night when my niece was over here doing her psychology homework. She was telling me that there are different levels of ethical development. To illustrate, she shared the example of the man who cannot afford to purchase the drug needed to save his wife’s life. The ethical issue is whether he should steal the expensive medication.
The four of us present were split as to whether to engage in this act of thievery. My niece indicated that she has been learning that, in this example, abiding by the law (saving one’s self and dooming another) represents a lower level of personal ethical development than placing one’s self at risk (of criminal consequences) in order to save someone else.
This reminded me of a lesson we learned back in the first year of law school. In criminal law class, we were taught the difference between the old Latin terms mala prohibita and mala in se. The former is an act that is wrong simply because the law says it is, while the latter is an act that would be wrong even if there were no law prohibiting it. Murder, for example, is mala in se; we know it is wrong even without a law to specifically tell us so. By contrast, one could argue that speeding is mala prohibita; not only is driving 60 miles per hour not of itself immoral, but it isn’t even illegal if the speed limit is seventy.
Returning to my niece’s class problem, the ethical issue could potentially hinge on whether theft is considered mala in se or mala prohibita. One could argue that taking something that does not belong to you has always been wrong, even before the Biblical commandment “thou shalt not covet” codified it into law. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, however, even such a basic law falls away when violating it is necessary in order to save a life. Faced with such extreme circumstances, the proscription against theft gets demoted from mala in se to merely mala prohibita. The reasoning behind this is that laws are not designed to be arbitrary; they are promulgated for the betterment of society, i.e., toward the formation of a social contract (as described in the theories of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau) that allows a diverse population to live together in peace and harmony. The law ceases to be valid when
the very reason it came into being (lawyers call this “legislative intent”) no longer applies. Arguably, honoring the prohibition against theft even when doing so results in death runs contrary to the reason that the prohibition exists at all. “Bright line” rules are helpful in the socialization of children (“I won’t take it, it’s not mine”), but seeing the world through a black-and-white lens is rarely helpful to adults faced with making ethical decisions in an increasingly complex world.
As if my niece were preparing me for what’s coming, I have been faced with ethical issues twice this week. Thankfully, in neither situation was I called upon to make a life or death decision. Or was I?
No one can truly know the far-ranging effects of his or her actions.
A woman, probably in her forties, rang the bell at the door of the parsonage while my wife and I were in the kitchen. Our visitor asked if we had any food we could share with her. We explained that we are a very small church that lacks the resources to maintain a food pantry or distribute food. However, my wife told the woman, we’d be happy to look in our pantry and see what we can spare.
We opened a folded grocery bag and began filling it with items from our cupboards and refrigerator. Pasta, rice, canned fruit, a bunch of baking potatoes, an apple, an orange and some crackers filled the bag to the top. The woman thanked us, saying “this should get me through til Saturday.”
I asked my wife whether she thought the woman was homeless. She said no, which made me wonder whether she had a family to feed. Were there two or three little hungry children waiting patiently somewhere? If so, have her utilities been turned off? Will she be able to cook the rice and the pasta and the potatoes? The woman was on foot, so she probably lives here in town. Did she walk a long way to get here? Probably not, as there are many churches within a mile or two of here.
Or, on the other hand, was the woman dropped off by someone in a car? Was she headed a few blocks away with her bag full of food to meet the driver somewhere out of sight of the parsonage? For that matter, did she really need the food at all? Was she a freeloader, going around to all local churches to see what she could get for nothing so that she could sell it for money to buy alcohol and drugs?
Years ago, my wife and I decided that it is impossible to know such things and that it is therefore unproductive to stress over them. Our duty is to discern needs and to fill them, to stand in the gap. “And I sought for a man among them, that should make up the hedge, and stand in the gap before me for the land, that I should not destroy it: But I found none.” Ezekiel 22:30 (KJV)
If the recipient of our love offering misuses that gift, he or she will be held accountable for that misdeed. In other words, we have no control over what anyone else does. Our responsibility is to do the right thing and leave the rest to God. For who knows, even if the recipient of our gift proves unworthy, perhaps our act will set a good example for someone else who will follow in our footsteps?
Unfortunately, it is often difficult to figure out the right thing to do, particularly when one is called upon to make an instant decision. What if the person asking for your assistance needs more than a bag full of food? What if the person needs hundreds of dollars that you can ill afford to give? And what if the person in need is a member of your own family and your heart bleeds for his or her suffering?
I was raised on the adage that “charity begins at home.” Nevertheless, I am as prone to help a stranger as to help a friend or family member. In some respects, I may be even more inclined to help the stranger, who may be friendless and have few other sources of assistance.
But I stopped in my tracks this week when my wife informed me that my nephew’s water is about to be turned off because he hasn’t money to pay the bill. He would need more than $300 to turn his water back on. As if that weren’t enough, his electricity is likely to be turned off soon for nonpayment as well.
Should my wife and I raid our savings to provide our nephew with the hundreds of dollars he needs to keep the lights and water on? I was laid off a month ago, and neither of us is currently working. What I get on unemployment is only a fraction of what I earned at my job. Our savings will not last all that long. At my age, who knows when I will find another job, if ever?
Uh-oh. So now it’s all about me, huh? Isn’t it unethical to place my own needs before those of another? If nothing else, it sure is selfish of me.
So what to do? Failure to proffer the requisite funds clearly would not be mala prohibita, but could it be mala in se? Are we ethically responsible for “standing in the gap” regardless of personal consequences? There are no easy answers. What do you think?
(Update: My nephew’s landlord prevailed upon the utility company and the water has been turned back on. Praise God.)