In this entry, we hope to answer the following questions: What is EIN? What is the value of an EIN course in terms of one’s overall education? Or, for professors, what is the value of the courses you prepare to meet the EIN requirement? How is an EIN course at St. Olaf College different from an ethics class at other another school? What does the college seek to foster among its graduates in terms of moral reasoning and values? What’s the place of religion in all of this?
Here at St. Olaf College, each student must complete a course that satisfies a requirement called “Ethical Issues in Normative Perspective.” The colleges explanation of the requirement may be found here. ‘Ethics’ concerns the evaluation of persons, events, institutions, governments, objects and the like in terms of justice or injustice, virtues and vices, right and wrong. This may include attention to laws (both national and international) that set standards of acceptable and unacceptable conduct, religious traditions, the history of ethical reflection in the past, and engagement with current and future matters of concern (from war and peace to famine relief, toleration, Christian-Muslim relations and more).
What about the “normative perspectives” part? Ethics is not like mathematics – one does not solve an ethical problem in a way that can be universally agreed upon. Instead, ethical positions are culturally located and involve making potentially contentious choices about what ought to be valued. An ethical issue such as identifying the best and most fair means of funding health care in the USA may be viewed from many normative perspectives. A normative perspective is a framework or point of view, such as Christianity or Islam or Utilitarianism (an ethical theory introduced elsewhere on this site), that selects certain values and methods to apply to particular ethical issues. So, a Christian may draw on Jesus’ radical call to assist those injured as displayed in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. A Muslim may look to the fourth of the Five Pillars of Islam, the duty of every believer to engage in alms giving or charity (Zakat). A utilitarian may seek to measure the probable utility (the likelihood of the greatest satisfaction of preferences) of different health policies and analyze which one is likely to produce the greatest long-term satisfaction.
EIN courses are designed to develop skills in ethical analysis on the level of both theory and practice. EIN course are never merely theoretical – they are always concerned with real life cases. Likewise, an EIN is never merely practical either, great attention is given to the theory of values underlying different ethical systems. For example, in an EIN course on biomedical ethics, one may examine and debate case studies while also working to cultivate an overall understanding of human nature, health, and justice.
While our EIN offerings may sometimes resemble ethics courses offered in other colleges and universities, St. Olaf EIN courses are distinctive insofar as they are not limited to secular ethics: each EIN course must engage with one or more Christian ethical traditions. Such an engagement may be done in comparison with a non-Christian tradition, as in the courses like “Buddhism, Peace and Justice” or “Christian and Islamic Ethics: Conflicts and Cross-Pollination.”
Some may be skeptical of the ways in which the college privileges Christian ethics. Much of this privileging is institutional and historical in nature, but we believe there are several good reasons to pay special attention to Christian ethics beyond our college’s ecclesiastical ties.
Firstly, Christianity’s world influence can hardly be understated. Christianity has been a tool for imperialism, and spread across the world by colonialism. Today there are over 2.2 billion Christians in the world, with some of the fastest growing Christian populations in the global south. Studying Christianity is necessary not just to understand the West, but to understand all kinds of people and places affected by European imperialism.
Secondly, institutions from the Western education system to International Law to the entire scientific enterprise grew out of Christianity. Contemporary colleges and universities can trace their practice of education to pre-Christian Ancient Greece. Our term ‘academic’ and ‘academy’ derives from the name of the garden in which Plato would have dialogues with his students (the garden was named for a hero). But the first universities in Europe were the inheritances of Christian monastic and Cathedral schools. “School” is from the Latin schola for “school, lecture, discussion”; it also carries the meaning “leisure” and “spare time.” The latter is important to appreciate insofar as higher education would not be possible without a culture that provide surplus agriculture and a stable, secure social structure, so that young people may be free to pursue higher education rather than devoting their labor to farming and military service. One of the practices that contemporary education inherited from its Medieval roots is the practice of the art of disputation (ars disputandi), a practice in which a student or faculty member puts questions to scholars, who are then given time to propose arguments that invite students and other faculty members to question.
One symbolic tie between the Christian founding of the great universities of Europe and our educational institutions today is our use of black gowns to adorn our students at graduation. In the medieval era, being a student was considered a great honor and worthy of the same protection under the law granted to clerics (priests or those studying for the priesthood). The black gown – which used to be required in the early universities for most occasions – signals to others that students should be given the same respect and protection as Christian priests.
Modern science owes much to the Christian origin of our education system. Alfred North Whitehead has proposed that the birth of modern science was made possible by the prior belief in the rationality of the world based on the yet deeper belief in the rationality of God. We quote him here at length:
I do not think, however, that I have even yet brought out the greatest contribution of medievalism: the formation of the scientific movement, that is, the inexpugnable belief that every detailed occurrence can be correlated with its antecedents in a perfectly definite manner, exemplifying general principles (causality). Without this belief the incredible labors of scientists would be without hope. It is this instinctive conviction, vividly poised before the imagination, which is the motive power of research: — that there is a secret, a secret which can be unveiled. How has this conviction been so vividly implanted on the European mind?
When we compare this tone of thought in Europe with the attitude of other civilizations when left to themselves, there seems but one source for its origin. It must come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God, conceived as with the personal energy of Jehovah and with the rationality of a Greek philosopher. Every detail was supervised and ordered: the search into nature could only result in the vindication of the faith in rationality. Remember that we are not talking of the explicit beliefs of a few individuals. What I mean is the impress on the European mind arising from the unquestioned faith of centuries. By this I mean the instinctive tone of thought and not a mere creed of words.
In Asia, the conceptions of God were of a being who was either too arbitrary or too impersonal for such ideas to have much effect on instinctive habits of mind. Any definite occurrence might be due to the fiat of an irrational despot, or might issue from some impersonal, inscrutable origin of things. There was not the same confidence as in the intelligible rationality of a personal being. I am not arguing that the European trust in the scrutability of nature was logically justified even by its own theology. My only point is to understand how it arose. My explanation is that the faith in the possibility of science, generated antecedently to the development of modern scientific theory, is an unconscious derivative of medieval theology. (Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, p. 18-19)
We maintain that Christian thought is indispensable largely because of its immense historical influence – both good and bad.
A further reason to study Christian theological ethics is that it includes important themes that are frequently ignored in an ethics course at a state university, such as unconditional love or Agape, forgiveness and redemption, the ideal of loving one’s neighbor as oneself, the good of living in a covenantal community, or the role of divine revelation in shaping our moral practices (such as the radical teaching of Jesus in the parable of the Good Samaritan or the sermon on the mount enjoining us to love our enemies). Studying ethics through the Christian lens simply opens one up to a larger body of thought for navigating the moral landscape, as does the study of ethics from all other religious viewpoints. To deny the relevance of religion in the study of ethics is to close oneself off from a huge quantity of potentially helpful reflections. All the world religions offer a wider ethical palate than a strictly secular worldview. Whatever one’s own religious convictions, we maintain that there is great value in considering the unique concepts and themes that theological ethics provides.
Beyond personal fulfillment, religious literacy is tremendously helpful in living and working with others. Because of this, many EIN classes are comparative in nature. As our world becomes increasingly globalized and pluralistic, issues of inter-religious and cross-cultural understanding in ethics are more important than ever. Whether you are pursuing a vocation in law, industry, trade, healthcare, agriculture, education, and so on, whether you work domestically or internationally, your understanding of moral reasoning in different traditions and ability to put that understanding to use will be vital.
We’d like to offer a couple of ideal cases in regards to pluralistic understandings of ethics. in the first a Hindu inspired by Christianity, and in the second the opposite: a Christian inspired by a Hindu.
The first figure is Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who led India to independence from the British Empire through non-violent civil disobedience. This was the largest non-violent movement in human history. Gandhi’s life and teaching has since been highly influential even after independence from Britain was gained (on August 15, 1947), inspiring other non-violent movements around the world. Gandhi’s ability to speak with such poignancy to British colonial power came in part from his close and sympathetic study of Jesus’ sermon on the mount. Here is an exchange reported to have taken place between Gandhi and the British Viceroy of India, Lord Irwin:
Lord Irwin asked Gandhi what he thought would solve the problems between Great Britain and India. Gandhi picked up a Bible and opened it to the fifth chapter of Matthew and said: “When your country and mine shall get together on the teachings laid down by Christ in this Sermon on the Mount, we shall have solved the problems not only of our countries but those of the whole world.”
Gandhi’s appeal to the Sermon on the Mount was not a mere strategic effort to sway a British magistrate, but an appeal to what Gandhi thought most important about Christianity.
“I did once seriously think of embracing the Christian faith,” Gandhi told Millie Polak, the wife of one of his earliest disciples. “The gentle figure of Christ, so patient, so kind, so loving, so full of forgiveness that he taught his followers not to retaliate when abused or struck, but to turn the other cheek, I thought it was a beautiful example of the perfect man…”
Gandhi elsewhere offered this testimony about the importance to him of Jesus’s teaching:
“The message of Jesus as I understand it,” said Gandhi, “is contained in the Sermon on the Mount unadulterated and taken as a whole… If then I had to face only the Sermon on the Mount and my own interpretation of it, I should not hesitate to say, ‘Oh, yes, I am a Christian.’ But negatively I can tell you that in my humble opinion, what passes as Christianity is a negation of the Sermon on the Mount… I am speaking of the Christian belief, of Christianity as it is understood in the west.”
Consider now the second figure: a Christian influenced by a Hindu. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to prominence in the Civil Rights movement with the Montgomery bus boycott. This boycott was part of the most successful non-violent protests up to that point (1956) in United States history. From the earliest days of the boycott, King referred to Gandhi as “the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change.” After the boycott, King went to India to deepen his understanding of Gandhi. Here are his own words about the time in India:
“The trip had a great impact upon me personally. It was wonderful to be in Gandhi’s land, to talk with his son, his grandsons, his cousin and other relatives; to share the reminiscences of his close comrades; to visit his ashrama, to see the countless memorials for him and finally to lay a wreath on his entombed ashes at Rajghat. I left India more convinced than ever before that non-violent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom. It was a marvelous thing to see the amazing results of a non-violent campaign. The aftermath of hatred and bitterness that usually follows a violent campaign was found nowhere in India. Today a mutual friendship based on complete equality exists between the Indian and British people within the commonwealth. The way of acquiescence leads to moral and spiritual suicide. The way of violence leads to bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. But, the way of non-violence leads to redemption and the creation of the beloved community.”
Pluralism and cultural exchange can deepen ethical understanding for all parties involved. Ideally, the EIN should prepare students to navigate these ethical differences and develop appreciation for the religious other. King and Gandhi are among the highest examples of this ideal.
Finally, we’d like to emphasize the uniqueness of St. Olaf’s approach to ethics. The Christian founding and continued heritage of the college is an asset to both non-Christians and Christians in the St. Olaf community. The Lutheran heritage of St. Olaf College and other Lutheran institutions of higher education include: a long tradition of freedom of inquiry; an education that fosters intellectual development along with the development of the whole person (integrating mind, body, and spirit); a strong commitment to justice as well as an appreciation for grace and mercy; a commitment to science both for its own sake as well as a means of addressing the value of human life and the environment as a whole; a commitment to a healthy, pluralistic community life; using education not just for the sake of getting a job but living a life of vocation (fitting, satisfying work that contributes to one’s own and others’ well being); appreciating and seeking to aid the vulnerable; interfaith dialogue between secular persons and those of other religions.
Our religious orientation nurtures our culture of service. There is a widespread belief in the profound value of the life of service at our college. While most members of the community feel this way, including non-Lutherans and non-Christians, the specifically Lutheran emphasis on the life of service to others has historically been a deep inspiration and driving force from the founding of the college onward. 496 St. Olaf graduates have served in the Peace Corps since its founding in 1961, 22 of which are currently active (as of Feb. 5, 2013). Student volunteer involvement extends to organizations such as Lutheran Volunteer Corps and Teach for America as well.
Our close community and commitment to social justice is also difficult to separate from our Lutheran heritage. St. Olaf’s culture of warmth, acceptance, and attention to justice may be viewed in part as Christianly influenced. We suggest that all of these facts and more are good evidence that Christian ethics are valuable and useful. We believe that good ethics shall be known by their fruits. Our Lutheran heritage is behind many of our college’s greatest strengths, and for this reason we believe that the attention to Christian ethics is indispensable.
So, welcome to this site of resources for ethical reflection that will, we hope, contribute to the EIN perspective, but given that the mission of this site extends well beyond the St. Olaf community, we welcome all interested parties to use this site with profit.