The Power of Moral Principles in Action

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Have you noticed that morally powerful quotes posted on social media from insightful thinkers get a lot of traction? Moral principles inspire people. “The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children” (attributed to Dietrich Bonhoeffer) brings instant positive comment, as does “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act” (generally though probably incorrectly ascribed to George Orwell). It’s the same with stories of people who stop at nothing to live up to the demands of their belief. Take the subject of Mel Gibson’s new movie, Hacksaw Ridge, about the Sabbath-keeping, pacifist medic Desmond Doss at the 1945 Battle of Okinawa. This noncombatant (unarmed) hero saved many wounded men by dragging them back from the front line at the height of battle. He was the only World War II conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor. Two of his principles were derived from the Ten Commandments, which specify Sabbath rest and forbid murder.

Moral principles and the actions that flow from them are the truly big ideas. When principle is lived out in example, no matter the walk of life, it convinces and convicts.

Yet many too easily dismiss principled people’s actions in the same breath in which they praise their commitment. While admiring the Sabbath-keeper’s devotion to principle, they might voice the excuse that they wouldn’t want to be overly strict personally, effectively canceling out the action that led to admiration. In other words, let the other person live up to principle, but I don’t want to be a fanatic. We could consider this as an interesting maneuver on the part of human nature. Was Jesus a fanatic when He observed the Sabbath? Certainly not! Was the Pharisees’ strict obedience in keeping the day the problem, or was it their self-righteous and judgmental attitude toward others? Clearly the latter.

We are susceptible to self-deception every time our actions conflict with the lived-out principles we admire in others. It’s then that rationalization kicks in and we find a reason for our failure to be brave or persistent or committed. We tell ourselves that it’s too difficult to do what is right; or we hide behind “I’m no saint”; or we excuse our wrong behavior with “I’m just a weak person.”

But Jesus taught those who followed Him, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Belief had to be seen in good works—in the doing of the right thing. To profess and not do would not produce anything beneficial. As He said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

Can human weakness be overcome so that right action can follow from right principle? Can we “be[come] perfect” as our Father is (Matthew 5:48)? It’s a tall order. But just before His death, Jesus assured His followers of His continuing help. It was closely connected with living out His teaching: “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him” (John 14:23). There can be no better help than that!

Tags: ethics and morality, character, moral principles

Cyborg Cockroaches and the Ethics of Animal Biotech

CyborgsA company called Backyard Brains has developed a neuroscience learning kit for home or classroom—the RoboRoach—which, according to their advertisement, is “the world’s first commercially available cyborg.” For just under $100, anyone can purchase a kit to transform a living cockroach into a cybernetic organism that can be controlled by sending the animal remote signals via Bluetooth from an iPhone.

Another project uses a severed insect leg connected to electrodes to show the workings of motor and sensory neurons. The company’s slogan “Neuroscience for Everyone!” expresses the educational approach of cofounders Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo, whose goal is to create interest in the study of the brain and the nervous system, particularly among school-age students.

But not everyone is excited to see insects being transformed into robotic slaves, or children participating in experiments that require severing a cockroach’s leg. It is understandable that some may have a feeling of distaste when they hear about the surgical procedure involved in removing the roach’s antennae and carefully inserting the electrodes that will control the movement of the animal remotely. On their website, the company willingly shares some of the criticisms they have received in relation to their projects, such as: “There are better ways of teaching neuroscience that do not use animals,” or “This enables and encourages kids to harm animals.” In response, the company cites peer-reviewed papers on the importance of hands-on experiments, explanations of their recommended procedure for anesthetizing subject insects, and reminders that their projects are learning tools as opposed to toys for entertainment.

In her 2013 book Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts, science journalist Emily Anthes discusses numerous potential benefits of animal biotech research, but she also brings out some of the ethical dilemmas involved: “We are heading toward a world in which anyone with a little time, money, and imagination can commandeer an animal’s brain. That’s as good a reason as any to start thinking about where we’d draw our ethical lines.”  

Society seems to be gaining great benefit from animal biotech research. Cures for human neurological disorders and bionic prosthetics for individuals with missing limbs are just two examples of areas where science is making headway of late. The fields of study that lead to improvements in quality of life for ourselves and our loved ones are easily justified in relation to the cost, but as Anthes points out in an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, this type of research often "puts animal welfare and human welfare in conflict.” In the same interview, Anthes also refers to ongoing research that looks into using cyborg insects with altered brains and neural systems as remote drones for the purpose of surveillance and for scouting out potentially hazardous conditions.

The follow-up question in all of this is Where do we draw the line ethically? When do we cross the line between being good caretakers of living resources and exploiting or forcing our will on them?

As it pertains to human relationships and in a broader sense to the world around us, the Bible teaches that care and dignity should be afforded in the interactions we have with all around us, and it prohibits oppression and exploitation (Exodus 22:21–22). It is important for us to consider whether our undertakings may cross this important line.  

BRANDON SEXTON

Tags: ethics and morality, biotech, animal research