I saw a pencil lying on the ground the yesterday. This was not your average #2 pencil, but a mechanical pencil. Kind of a big deal. I lost my mechanical pencil in the fall and was devastated. I have still not replaced my cherished pencil for I am in the mourning period. However, when I saw the mechanical pencil strewn about, forgotten, and unloved on the step of a lecture hall, I just about took it.
I did not take the pencil.
Hi. My name is Rachel and I am obligated to be a morally good person because I am in two ethics classes and this is my story.
This semester I am enrolled in two ethics courses. The courses are back to back and my encounter with the pencil occurred as I was leaving the first course to walk to the second. As promised by one professor, I no longer see pencils lying around as pencils lying around, I see them as ethical dilemmas. “Borrowing” bananas from my housemates, an ethical dilemma. Leaving nasty voice mails, an ethical dilemma. I am overthinking my entire daily routine, including eyeing office supplies, because of my ethics courses. I do not know who I am anymore.
The pencil dilemma of 2017 presented me with an array of options. There are various ethical guidelines I could have followed:
- Situational Ethics: In this particular situation, I see an owner-less pencil and a pencil-less owner. I shall take it because no one will mind or be hurt by my actions.
- Emotivism: Taking the pencil makes me feel good because I, once again, own a pencil. So many positive feelings.
- Ethical Egoism: I need a pencil. Acquiring a pencil benefits me and my interests. The pencil is mine.
- Virtue Ethics: Aristotle lacks clarity in his theory of virtue ethics about grabbing things off the ground. I wish I had not encountered the pencil because I am now questioning whether I am virtuous or not. Help!
- Deontology: Should people always take free things off the ground that do not belong to them? I get the point, Kant.
- Utilitarianism: Me taking the pencil may be best for society. For all anyone knows, I could write a thought-provoking book with it. Eh?
- Natural Law: Don’t mind me, just looking to find the innate moral code within me to decide whether taking this pencil is okay or not and how it will impact society as a whole. I will get back to you know when I know.
Rather than standing there looking at the pencil for five minutes while deciding which ethical theory I thought aligned best with my worldview, I left the pencil. I figured the owner might be back for it. If I left a pencil somewhere (as if!), I would hope it would stay put until I retrieved it.
This is my life now. Contemplating my ethical values over minute decisions. I am not even free from deep contemplation when in the safety of my Subaru. A song played the other day about the state of our heart, Wilderlove by John Mark McMillan. A lyric from the song sent me into deep thought about the condition of humanity: “there is no domestic heart.”
Every ethical theory is based on the theorists view of humanity. Are humans inherently evil or good? McMillan’s lyric reminded me of these ethical theorists, something most song lyrics do not normally trigger.
Domestic is an interesting word choice. While reading Guns, Germs, and Steel I learned the distinction between “domestic” and “tame” in relation to animals. Domestic animals are animals raised in captivity and will reproduce offspring that differ from the behavior of their wild ancestors. Domesticated animals will continue to reproduce domesticated animals. Tame animals are simply wild animals trained for human use. Tame animals will continue to produce wild offspring.
What do we believe humans to be, domestic or tamed? Every ethical theorist appears to have a different opinion of humanity reflected in their theories and philosophies (as shown in the variety of perspectives in the pencil dilemma of 2017). From the worldview of humanity as good, moral people, there is no need for strict ethical guidelines. People can assess situations on their own. If we view humanity as fallen, there is a need for moral laws to dictate our choices.
McMillan would assert that humanity is fallen. The heart of man can be tamed, but never domesticated. This is a strong position to take, but I agree with the statement. Left to our own devices, we will never be good. We have an equal capacity for good and evil, but neither type of action makes us good people; nor does the wrongdoing or good behavior of my parents make me good or bad. I make decisions for myself because I have free will. I can choose to live into the natural state of my heart or I can choose to be tamed by the Shepherd.
There is a way out of our natural state of being, that would be God. God has the ability to change our hearts. As stated previously, our actions are incapable of changing our hearts. Actions are the product of the heart, so we must change our hearts. We choose to change our hearts when we believe God loves us and willingly gave His Son to renew our hearts. My heart has been tamed. I have been set free from the wickedness of who I once was.
Humans have no set discernment of right and wrong. Earlier, I listed a few ethical theories. Each theory was created to guide our decision-making and each theory is flawed, the greatest of the flaws being that they were created by a human. Every human makes mistakes and I do not want to guide every ethical decision according to a system created by someone who is not perfect. I prefer to abide by the law set by God, the law of love and the law of justice. If we abide by God’s law, how can we do wrong?