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Two Ethical Approaches: Prescriptive vs. Relational

In the best of times and the worst of times, religiously oriented academic communities strive to develop policies and practices that reflect and express their core values.
Recently, two Georgia universities, with roots deep in the rich heritage of Baptist higher education, have responded in rather different ways to this challenge.

Shorter University adopted a policy requiring all employees to sign a “personal lifestyle statement” that commits the signee to a life consistent with biblical principles (i.e., the avoidance of premarital sex, adultery and homosexuality).

Shorter President Donald Dowless said employees who do not abide by the pledge “may be subject to termination.”

In rather stark contrast, Mercer University announced the adoption of a domestic partner benefit policy, which will provide access to health and other benefits to employees and partners regardless of sexual orientation.

Mercer President Bill Underwood indicated that this expansion of benefits “brings Mercer into line with other leading private universities in our region, including Emory, Duke, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, Tulane, Furman, Rollins, Elon and Stetson. … It is also consistent with our established policy of not discriminating against employees based on sexual orientation.”

He added, “While I understand that some will be concerned about providing access to health and other benefits for these loved ones of our colleagues, I am persuaded that it is the right thing to do.”

The response of these two universities to a much discussed issue in our time illustrates pretty clearly two prominent ways of ethical thinking.

On a given issue, ethics can be done prescriptively, by finding texts (e.g., from the Bible, the Constitution, institutional bylaws) and applying those precepts as standards to be adhered to.

The policy-making system of Shorter University seems to have done that in developing the personal lifestyle statement and its accompanying statement of faith, which reads in part:

“We believe the Bible, consisting of the Old and New Testaments, is the inerrant and infallible Word of God. It was given by inspiration of God and is the only and certain authoritative rule of every aspect of the Christian life. … We believe that the Bible is our supreme authority and that it provides the oral and ethical principles for personal conduct within and outside the academic community.”

The authority of the guiding precept is the primary consideration in deciding the right thing to do or the right policy to establish. The Bible says it, we believe it, that settles it. Whatever the consequences to the people or community involved, the authority of the prescription is maintained.

On the same issue, ethics can be done relationally, by giving primary consideration to the impact of a decision or policy on the people of a given community or fellowship.

The decision of Mercer University to expand access to benefits to domestic partners seems to have done that as a way of respect, fairness and appreciation for the contributions made by talented employees to the mission of the school.

Here, it is the quality of the life of the community and its members that is the primary consideration in deciding the right thing to do or the right policy to establish.

Both these ways of ethical thinking can claim to be biblical – one by precept; the other by principle.

The question becomes whether the Bible is essentially prescriptive, with authoritative precepts to be directly implemented in policy and practice; or essentially relational, reflecting a developing understanding on the part of God’s people of a covenant faith whose application to life situations seeks to reflect the creative and redemptive grace of God, who has entered into a covenant partnership through which “all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).

Maybe it would be helpful to recall in our own experience whether wholesome communities (in families, friendships, schools, churches) are best created by controlling precepts or by grace-full relationships.

Any clues there as to which kind of ethical thinking works best?

ColinHarris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.