3 books that influenced my thinking in ethics

April 7, 2015

When asked to name books that influenced my thinking in ethics, these three came to mind initially:

1. Ethics for a Brave New World by John and Paul Feinberg

Back in the late 90s, SBC Seminary Extension drafted me to write the study guide for their basic ethics course and recommended the Feinberg book, which I hadn’t read. I was happy to pick up on the suggestion and dove right in. I’m still using it in my own ethics classes at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, over 15 years later (now in the 2nd edition).

I didn’t agree with everything I read therein (e.g., I’m not a hierarchicalist, but rather a non-conflicting absolutist), but their care in working out the biblical case on a range of topics was gratifying. Their treatment of divorce and remarriage was particularly helpful because of a trial by fire I’d gone through in my first pastorate.

Fresh out of seminary, I was teaching the January Bible Study theme book that year, 1 Corinthians, which has something in it to offend about everyone. And offend I did, unwittingly. When I got to chapter 7, where Paul addresses the topic, I said that there were weddings I wouldn’t feel free to perform because they weren’t pleasing to God. I think I could have endorsed cannibalism and gotten less flak, for my predecessor was quite easygoing on the subject, and now I’d branded myself as a Shammai Pharisee within a thoroughly Hillel congregation.

Some couples left the church. One deacon wondered out loud how they’d pay my salary. People loaned me books they thought I should read, and read I did, almost desperately, trying to get a fix on what the Bible said. To complicate matters, biblical inerrantists were all over the map. To make a long story short, I settled on a two-exception approach (accommodating the victim of adultery or abandonment by a non-believer). This upset William Barclay fans on the “left” and Bill Gothard fans on the “right.” Still, I found comfort in resonance with John Stott and John MacArthur. But it wasn’t until 15 years later that I read in the Feinbergs’ book that this was the Erasmian position, one that they defended ably, and I was able to rest more firmly in the practice.

2. War: Ends and Means by Paul Seabury and Angelo Codevilla

By the time I’d read this book, I was already an infantry major, a Vietnam-era ROTC product who never had to face combat. But I had faced gainsayers toward the military, who were plentiful in those days. Some were thoughtful Mennonite friends; many were secularists or “mainliners” marinating in the 60s and early 70s.

I made my just war arguments as best I could, but the other guys had all but monopolized talk of “peace” and “love,” with its affective cachet. Then, I read the following passage on the “victims of peace,” and I felt an easing in the burden of proof. Yes, we need good justification to enter war, but we may just as well need good justification not to take up arms in defense of those being slaughtered in war’s absence.

War is hell. Nobody doubts that. War means death, destruction of families, cold, hunger, and the subjection to harsh authority. So why is so much of mankind at war? One answer is that peace is no picnic. The very evils we associate with war have fallen upon mankind more fully in times and places well removed from battlefields and in conditions conventionally called peace. Especially in this century, the victims of peace outnumber the victims of war.

The authors then ran the tally: “Perhaps 35 million people, of whom 25 million were civilians, have died as a direct consequence of military operations since 1900.” Then came the butcher’s bill from “peace”: “During the same period, however, at least 100 million human beings have been killed by police forces or their equivalent . . .” The methods have ranged from gas chambers to starvation, from shootings to crushings by trucks.

Because the victims could not (while others would not) make war on their own behalf, the killers did their killing in peace. Regardless of whether the victims were Armenians, Jews, Tutsis, Ukrainians, Chinese, or Cambodians, the stories of these historic horrors of peace are very similar.

And so on it has gone with the Zaghawa of Darfur, the Kurds of Northern Iraq, and all the others left to endure “the horrors of peace.”

3. Degenerate Moderns: Modernity as Rationalized Sexual Misbehavior by E. Michael Jones

I’d long-known the maxim, “Ideas have consequences,” but this book led me to suggest that, also, “Consequences have ideas.” It’s an odd expression, but it picks up on Jones’s argument that modernity is “rationalized sexual behavior.”

Jones seeks to demonstrate that the ungodly work of such icons as Margaret Mead, Alfred Kinsey, and the Bloomsbury Group was meant to excuse their sin, albeit with fancy speech. He certainly misfires on some points (as when he, a doctrinaire Catholic, suggests Luther started the Reformation because he was tired of being celibate), but much of what he says rings true, and resonates nicely with Peter Gay’s book, Modernism: The Lure of Heresy.

So, in sum, the first two didn’t so much change my mind as help secure and advance convictions already in place, and the third gave me a new perspective on the ethics wars in which we find ourselves engaged. All three reminded me of my duty as a writer to “pay it forward” that I might help others as I was helped.

Mark Coppenger

In addition to teaching at Southern Seminary, Coppenger is managing editor of the online Kairos Journal. Before attending seminary, he taught at Wheaton and Vanderbilt, where he directed a project for the National Endowment for the Humanities. He has authored, edited, or contributed to numerous books.  His articles and reviews … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24