The Ethics module of RESource explores how people make decisions about what it is right and good to do in life. It explores what philosophical and religious ideas consciously or unconsciously influence our decisions about acting ethically and what implications these decisions have for ourselves and society.
Each topic features a scenario or story which provides a life setting for a particular question. Most of these stories are true stories. The scenario is followed by five steps through which teachers may, either work systematically to gain an overall grasp of the topic, or use selectively according to need. Some sites will be valuable for student use, others are more suitable for teacher preparation.
As with any resource, teachers are invited to tailor the material according to the interests and abilities of their students.
Introduction to Ethics
Ethics is intrinsically interesting to most students because it involves talking and thinking about human beings, human situations and human behaviour; and because the topics and issues it concerns itself with are the stuff of which day to day life is made. It is a uniquely topical area of study.
What is Ethics?
Ethics is the branch of philosophy which explores human conduct and the nature and logic of what is good and morally right. Within the study of ethics there are three main subdivisions.
Firstly there is ‘ethical theory’, sometimes called meta-ethics (the word meta means beyond), which looks at the principles and concepts underlying (beyond) all ethical thought and behaviour. This aspect of ethics asks the big questions such as, What is it to be a human person? What kind of person ought I be? What is it to be a human person in society? What are values? Does morality exist apart from God? What is good? Are concepts such as good and evil, universal? Do they originate in the nature of human beings or are they largely social constructs, relative to the society in which we are born? What are the mutual rights and responsibilities of individuals and groups within society?
A second division of ethical thought looks at ‘ethical norms’ or standards: how we reach an understanding of how to behave. Should we simply please ourselves, follow the rules or act according to what is truly right? Why should we take into consideration the consequences of our actions? Should ‘the Golden Rule – do as you would be done to – set the standard for us? What part do ‘authorities’ – national or group ethos, religious belief or traditions play in how we behave? How would we act without any of these influences? What balance ought there be between self-interest and the good of all? What is conscience? Thinkers through the centuries have wrestled with such questions.
A third division of ethical thought looks at how decisions and convictions about how to be truly human and how to act might be applied to specific moral problems in society. This branch of ethics is usually termed ‘applied ethics’.
Ethics and Religion
Because religion also concerns itself with the ultimate questions which face human beings it has an intrinsic contribution to make towards ethical thought and behaviour. Some even maintain that there can be no ‘morality’ without a notion of God since every human view is inevitably subjective. Even a secular society like our own derives many of its moral presuppositions from a religious context, and religious beliefs can either confirm or challenge many aspects of a particular society’s ethical stance. More personally, religious belief has a significant influence, either explicitly or implicitly, on how individuals respond to particular issues.
Naturally, as human beings, we check our experience of family, friends, colleagues, community and experts before making decisions. We take into consideration the philosophy, laws, customs, stories, ideals, rituals, habits and conventions of our society as we form our responses.
As Christians, we take into particular consideration the scriptures – and in a special way, the teachings of Jesus and his life, death and resurrection and all that those events and teachings imply for the leading of a good life. Christianity expresses faith in a God who creates, redeems and enlivens all that is, and so has a particular approach to ethics based on this faith.
- If God has ordered creation in a particular way towards a particular end it makes sense to try to discover what this order is.
- If Jesus Christ is the fullness of God’s revelation to humankind, attending to the teaching of Christ and, at an even deeper level, attending to the mystery of his death and resurrection are crucial in understanding the Christian ethical approach.
- If we believe in the continuing action of the Spirit of God in the world we are moved to respond in a particular way to ethical issues.
A really helpful, though quite detailed, article exploring the relationship between the scriptures and ethics is an extract from ‘What are they saying about Scripture and Ethics?’ by William Spohn SJ.
Finally, as Catholics, we take into consideration the living Tradition of the Church – the wisdom of centuries of Christian belief and practice handed down through the years, and alive and active in our own time.
The RESource Approach
The way RESource deals with the different ‘components’ of the study of Ethics is to choose a specific ethical issue and, using the Internet as a tool, bring into focus not only the facts surrounding the issue but some of the philosophical questions that are raised by it, and some scripturalteaching relevant to it, as a lead-in to the clear presentation of the Catholic perspective on the issue. The views of the other world religions on the issue are also introduced. Finally, it invites the reader to formulate a personal response which also takes into consideration the particular experience and cultural background of the individual.
The Internet is a valuable means for research in ethics since, in effect, it puts at our fingertips a whole library of resources that most schools and homes would not ordinarily possess. It can generate a great sense of engagement in the whole human project by putting students in touch with the core questions of existence, discussed since the dawn of civilisation. Yet finding appropriate and reliable sites can also be frustrating and time-consuming for those who are not familiar with a particular subject area. While a site like RESource is useful because it prepares a path through the many options available in exploring a particular issue, teachers and students will often be searching the Net around topics other than those offered here. How should they go about it?
The Internet for Philosophy site helps both teachers and students become aware of Web resources in the area of ethics and philosophy.
Below are the headings used on each page of RESource (Ethics) together with a listing of sites which are consistently helpful in exploring different aspects of any ethical issue.
Finding the Facts
It is not possible to identify general sites which will supply factual information about every issue. Use the skills and insights you have gleaned from the Internet Tutorial to guide you in choosing reliable factual sites about a particular topic.
The aim of this segment is to focus attention on the broad background of thought which is relevant to the particular issue. Some Web sites are encyclopedic in scope and are consistently helpful in expanding horizons. They include:
- the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy which has good introductory articles on Ethics. This encyclopaedia has a wide range of contributors, some more skilled than others, but generally it provides interesting and accessible articles on many topics;
- the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy which contains a large collection of articles by reputable scholars;
- the Social Science Information Gateway (SOSIG) Ethics Resources Page which includes annotated links to many ethics sites and resources;
- Ethics Updates Laurence Hinman’s fine, up to date (as its name suggests) site. It contains many articles and essays about a wide range of ethical issues and metaethics. The site features powerpoint presentations which succinctly convey information and ideas in point form;
- Epistemelinks provides lots of links to encyclopedias and other formal resources in the area of philosophy and ethics while the Markkula Centre for Applied Ethics of the Jesuit University of Santa Clara is first class in its approach to applied ethics. Exceptionally good is the page headed Ethical Decision Making.
Exploring the Sacred Texts
This segment within RESource identifies some scriptural references which have a bearing on the ethical issue being examined. Internet access to the Bible is freely available through many different sites.
The extensive Bible Gateway site has many translations available but not the one most generally acknowledged by scholars, the New Revised Standard Version, nor the Jerusalem Bible which is used in Catholic Liturgy. Unfortunately the Jerusalem Bible is not on-line in English at all, but the New Revised Standard Version is available on the Oremus site. It is well set out in large readable type and now can be searched by individual word and phrase as can the University of Michigan site which has the Revised Standard Version on-line enhanced by an efficient search engine that allows you to search by book, chapter or verse as well as by individual words and phrases. This is the version usually referred to in RESource.
While biblical links within RESource are often to precise extracts or even single verses from the Scriptures, it is important to read these extracts or verses in the context of the whole chapter or narrative in which they occur. Caution needs to be exercised in using sites that comment on the Bible or provide study guides as there are many very odd scripture sites on the Web, and some very fundamentalist and anti-Catholic perspectives.
Understanding the Traditions
A consistently useful compendium of Catholic belief and teaching is, of course, the Catechism of the Catholic Church . There are several on-line editions of the catechism. The one posted on the Vatican website is alphabetically indexed and easy to read but another online edition has a search facility which is very useful. Again, it is always valuable to read particular extracts from the Catechism in the context of the whole chapter in which it is set.
The entire Vatican site is useful. It contains the texts of all the Documents of Vatican II , many papal encyclicals dating back to Leo XIII, and many of the writings and speeches of the Popes. It also provides some access to the treasures of the Vatican library. It is attractively set out and easy to navigate, though quite a few sections are not translated into English or are not yet operational.
The New Advent site contains three significant contributions to theology on the Net. One is an on-line edition of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, another is a collection of works of early Christian writers, and the third is an on-line edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia which, despite its datedness, is still a useful resource.
Another consistently reliable site for the exploration of Catholic tradition and teaching is the Theology Library of the Jesuit Springhill College, which has hundreds of links.
Catholic Social Teaching is clearly and accessibly set out in a site maintained by the Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes, an Australian site. This site also includes over two hundred valuable links in the area of social justice and spirituality. Another excellent site in the area of social justice, is managed by the Archdiocese of St Paul and Minneapolis and provides an overall introduction to the Church’s social teaching, and also deeper, resources should teachers or students want more detail. A feature of this site is a ‘Teacher Toolbox’.
Respecting Other World Views
Sites which provide a good general introduction to the ethical thought of the other world religions are few, partly because they originate in non-Western, non-English speaking cultures. One exception is an on-line Journal of Buddhist Ethics edited by Damien Keown which has an archive of interesting articles relating to various areas of Buddhist ethical thought.
A short introduction to Hindu Ethics can be found on the IndiaNest site.
Principles of Islamic Ethics – An Introduction by Moiz Amjad introduces the Islamic ethical approach; while a general entry on the Wikipedia site entitled Ethics in Religion includes a summary of the ethical approach of each of the major world religions.
RESource writers acknowledge the fact that they have no specific expertise in non-Christian religions and they welcome suggestions about useful sites in this area.
Care should be taken by teachers and students searching for religious viewpoints as religious, including Christian, sites, are often used as mouthpieces for views that the faith traditions themselves would not want to endorse.