My Dear Friends,

Principle or pragmatism?

Imagine yourself in this position: in front of you sits a prisoner; inside his head is knowledge of enemy plans and activities which, if extracted, could potentially save many lives.  What would you do?

You have two options:  you can begin softening him up: mild abuse, induce fear, deprive him of sleep; not with any real comfort because ‘you are not really like that, it is just what you have to do.’  Or you can decide, whilst still doing your job, to treat this fellow human being with common humanity; a cup of water, even an act of kindness, not because it is ‘effective’, but just because it is right.

This may be a newsworthy illustration, but such ethical alternatives aren’t merely limited to the prisons of Iraq or the borders of Afghanistan.  Such options present themselves to all of us in our daily life and work.  It boils down to this: do we act according to principle or pragmatism?

There are two contending sets of ethics in our world.  Technically they are called deontological and the teleological moral theories - but don’t be confused by the fancy names: when it comes down to it we all know the difference.  One says you do what is right because it is simply the right thing to do.  The other says that there is no such thing as ‘the right thing to do’, only actions that get the job done.

The abusive regime of Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad was not just due to the moral failings of individual low-ranking soldiers, it is becoming more and more evident that it was the product of a top-down culture based upon the theory that the end justifies the means.  And it is frighteningly typical of a type of sub-Christian moral thinking that has rapidly gained more and more ground in our society over the last fifty years.  It has little place for honour, conscience and moral leadership, but has replaced these qualities with calculations of efficiency and goals-based management theories.

Such temptations have plagued the business community for a long time because of its singular focus on  one measure of success - the bottom line, or profit.  But more recently even the most unlikely of institutions have been infected by the limitations of this narrow way of thinking.  We measure a School by its SAT results rather than the quality of its children’s characters; a Hospital by its throughput rather than the level of care; we even measure a Church by bums-on-pews or the amount in the collection, rather than prayerfulness and faithfulness.

Strangely enough, while ever such ideas horrify us there is hope.  The Bible has a beautifully simple moral challenge for us to live by: ‘What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, love mercy and to walk humbly with your God’  (Micah 6:8).  We are called to love God & our neighbour; to measure our lives against Godly principle and not fall prey to the contrived moral calculus that the modern world passes off as ethical thinking.


Jeff Cuttell.


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