Review: Talking About Ethics

Talking About Ethics, Michael S. Jones, Mark J. Farnham, and David L. Saxon. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academics, 2021.

Summary: An approach, which after a chapter of laying out different ethical approaches, applies these through fictional conversations between three students, friends, and classmates discussing various contemporary ethical issues.

This book offers an alternative to the traditional books on ethical issues and decision-making. Most of these consist of a series of discursive treatments of each ethical issue, citing major theorists and how they argue to their conclusions. This book is different. It features three students, Micah, a thoughtful evangelical, Bianca, an Eastern Orthodox immigrant, and Lauren, an atheist nursing student, taking the same ethics class. Early in the term, they meet at a favorite tea and coffee shop, the Grey Earl, and after discussing their last class, they decide to form a study group to both learn the material and dig more deeply into various ethical issues.

An introductory chapter formally lays out the ethical approaches of ethical relativism and ethical absolutism, and theoretical approaches including virtue ethics, utilitarianism, Kant’s duty ethics, natural law ethics, divine command and divine nature ethics. Subsequent chapters explore:

  • Humanitarian issues: immigration, capital punishment, torture, and animal rights.
  • Medical ethics: legalizing narcotics, abortion, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, organ transplantation, and reproductive technology and human cloning.
  • Marriage and sex: premarital sex, homosexuality, gender identity.
  • International issues: environmentalism, world hunger, war.

Discussions by our three students are the primary vehicle for exploring each issue. How and where the issues arise vary. Some follow from or are classroom discussions, or projects the group decides to work on for extra credit. In the case of the discussion on euthanasia, the conversation arises from a relative of Micah receiving a serious cancer diagnosis. In another case Lauren is introduced to an environmental club by a friend and goes back to the group with questions about environmental ethics not covered in the class. Homosexuality arises out of a conversation between Bianca and a friend who comes to her after the friend learns one of her roommates is lesbian. In each discussion, different ethical approaches and theories are applied and critiqued as they relate to the issue.

There are several things I like about this approach. One is that it presumes a level of intelligence and engagement on the part of the students–these students do there homework, engage in rigorous questioning with courtesy toward each other, and think hard. Second is that it models ethical reasoning in real life as opposed to abstract, discursive arguments. The third thing I liked, which I don’t always see in Christian-based texts, is that the chapters don’t resolve with “the Christian answer.” Students arrive at different answers and the presence of Lauren reveals how a secular student might ethically reason without reference to faith. The Christians don’t always agree, and don’t always know at the start what they think. I personally appreciated chapters on torture, animal rights and organ transplantation that challenged me to think more deeply about these issues.

Each chapter concludes with questions to ponder, key terms discussed in the chapter, and a list of books, both general and Christian, for further study. An extensive bibliography is offered at the end. The book seems designed well for use in a college ethics course or a collegiate ministry course on ethical issues. It might serve as a supplemental text to an ethics course in a secular setting and might even serve as the basis for group conversations similar to those of Micah, Bianca, and Lauren. It is also a helpful resource for anyone who wants to explore the issues of the book in more depth or who may be called upon to comment on them.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

One thought on “Review: Talking About Ethics

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: June 2021 | Bob on Books

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