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David Hegg: On its own, individual’s choice not a strong argument

Posted: November 4, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: November 4, 2012 2:00 a.m.

In the past few decades, and perhaps even before that, a strange and subtle change began taking place in the area of ethical behavior.

We are in the midst of this change, and the vestiges of the old model are still evident even as the permissions of a new model swirl around us.

This strange mix is producing a confusion that is actually masking a much greater problem. A confused society often finds it easier to drift off into an ethical numbness rather than do the heavy lifting of logic and its child, consistent behavior. Let me explain.

Under the historical model of ethics, choice is understood to be constrained by morality.  While freedom — the ability to do what one chose to do – is always paramount in a free society, not all choices are considered ethical. Moral values are understood and law stands as society’s protection against those whose choices conflict with those values.

For example, someone who chooses to take another’s property will be held liable for a choice that goes against the moral standards of the society. Simply put, that choice is not considered ethical. Those who continue to make such unethical choices rightly end up having their basic freedoms curtailed by imprisonment or worse.

In any society of laws, it is clear that depriving the constituency of certain choices is not actually a curtailing of freedom when it can be shown that such choices harm society by going against the basic values of that society.

Today, we are seeing the emergence of a conflicting ethic … the ethic of choice as its own value. This means that if I choose to do it, it must be accepted by you. To curtail my choice is wrong on its face.

On both sides of the political aisle, this new ethic is being played out. Those who favor abortion on demand do so largely on the basis of choice. Whatever a woman chooses to do with her own body is to be accepted by all simply because it is her choice. Those who oppose the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act did so on the basis that it deprives individuals of the choice to be insured. Those who favor school vouchers do so on the basis that each family should be able to choose where to send their children. And those who favor the legalization of certain drugs do so on the basis that what an individual puts into his or her body should be up to them.

All around us these two ethical systems are in conflict. Choice should be curtailed in some instances while held inviolate in others. This brings us several haunting ironies. Those who favor abortion on the basis of choice still fight to deprive families of their choice in the areas of schooling and health insurance. And those who would make the choice to enter into same-sex marriage illegal will fight on and on for their right to choose in the same areas.

I am quite confident that, as you are reading this, you are feeling that I am not being fair, that I am mixing apples with oranges.

You are most likely saying that some curtailing of choice is necessary because some choices are still wrong. And that’s where we are in agreement.

The fact is choice is never its own ethical standard. Rather, choice is the extension of an ethical, moral belief. We think, and then we act. And what we think is permissible to act upon will be fueled by our basic beliefs regarding right and wrong, good and bad.

It is never good enough to say that a certain action is right or wrong simply because it is my choice. Certain choices are wrong even if the one making them believes they are right, and even if the majority of their tribe agrees. To restrain certain choices is the right of society if those choices conflict with common sense and moral standards. If we don’t regain this perspective in America I fear that we will become a nation that believes right and wrong belong to the individual, and freedom may be defined as everyone doing what is right in their own eyes.

Our current response is an ethical numbness as we go along to get along. Such a course undermines the priority of morality over personal choice. Its time we stop letting our preferences be our guide and return to the guiding principles of life given to us by our Creator.

David W. Hegg is senior pastor at Grace Baptist Church in Santa Clarita.


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