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Blog // Thoughts
December 27, 2008

On Having Been An Ethicist

Believe it or not, I was once an Ethics lecturer. I still struggle to understand how that ever happened. I don’t think of myself as especially ethical and I’m not inclined towards the pontifications of public ethicists, especially those from church backgrounds. In a way, it was an accident. At theological college I developed three […]

Believe it or not, I was once an Ethics lecturer. I still struggle to understand how that ever happened. I don’t think of myself as especially ethical and I’m not inclined towards the pontifications of public ethicists, especially those from church backgrounds.

In a way, it was an accident. At theological college I developed three great academic passions – philosophical theology, cultural theology and biblical theology. But, my college placed an emphasis more on biblical exegesis (in a narrow, non-systemic way), populist doctrine, apologetics and church history. These distinctions might not mean anything to people who haven’t breathed the rarified air of academic theology, but, for those that have, it might be clear how I struggled to find an intellectual home in those formative years, despite the opportunities to teach and lead seminars.

It soon became clear that my interest in teaching was matched by a small amount of skill. The curriculum offered few options in the topics that really interested me, but a lot of possibilities if I shifted my focus to ethics. As many people experience everyday, I was making “career” choices on the basis of short term prospects, rather than long term passions.

Being an ethicist was always a bit like wearing an ill-fitting jacket. I think I did a good job teaching, running seminars, marking papers and, hopefully, inspiring some students to think a little more deeply about life. The feedback was certainly positive (overwhelmingly so). When I left for London, I was even formulating my research projects from the perspective of ethics. But, I knew I really wanted to occupy a different conceptual space.

Now that I’m a full five years away from the academic world (it’s not easy to write that), the ethicist label has fallen off. I still have those old passions at the intersection of theology, philosophy, biblical and cultural studies. But, with no professional or denominational affiliations to speak of, there’s no need anymore to tailor my “image,” so to speak.

In a way, “ethical issues” still interest me. I want to think about them, write about them and support practical solutions for them. In Early 2007 I tried to write a series of blog posts about what I saw as some key ethical issues (global debt, pharmacolisation of obesity, politics of cynicism, mercenary and private armies, gender imbalances). It was then that I realised something was wrong in my approach.

I’ve always struggled to write sustained pieces for the blog, the sort of thing that fill a multi-post series. Writing 400-500 words is not too taxing, but writing 3000-5000 on one topic, when you are unsure if there is any audience at all, is a different proposition.

However, the deeper issue is that I don’t necessarily think in “ethical” terms anymore. I’m prone to see problems more as issues of economics, politics, cultural policy and so on. The “ethical” category has ceased to be central – and maybe it never was. Perhaps it was always just a way to speak about something else?

What I see at the core of most “ethical” debates is not a clash of morality, but a clash of interpretation (hermeneutics). Different ethical positions reflect not just different ideologies, but different interpretations of reality (increasingly so in our globalised moment). The solutions to these seldom lie in ethical statements or ideas, but in practical policies and politics. Ethics is helpful as a way to “think” about problems, to define and corral our philosophical tools, but that’s about it.

To really address ethical problems you need more than just ethics.

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