Good in What Context?

Article / Produced by TOW Project

Context is ethically important. Sometimes this is because actions mean different things among people of different cultures. Sometimes it is because people’s circumstances are different.

One of the best-known examples of this from the Bible is found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 8, where he examines ethical decisions that arise from eating food offered to idols. The key issue, he points out, is how our behavior will affect “weak believers.” In this case, Paul puts love and consideration for others ahead of his own liberty to do as he feels fit. The question is not just, “Is it right?” but rather, “What outcomes will it lead to?” What he feels free to do in one situation, he chooses not to do in another, where it might cause offense or problems. Paul is deciding on the rightness or wisdom of the action according to the consequences in this particular context.

This is not the same as moral relativism. Recognizing that Christian values need to be translated contextually, because what is good in one situation may not be good in another, is very different to the full blown relativism that is such a feature of our culture, where there are no absolute standards of truth or morality. For example, the command not to lie is an absolute standard. Yet it applies differently in different contexts: “Did you pay for this already?” requires a different process of application of the principle than, “Does this shirt look good on me?”

Increasingly, the society we live in is becoming more and more multicultural. We can expect to face a number of situations where the context challenges us to change our practices. For example, if you’re an employer, how do you allocate bereavement leave when several of your staff are from ethnic backgrounds where it is culturally essential for them to take several days, a number of times a year, to attend the funerals of relatives and friends?

Or suppose you are a tent manufacturer and you decide to get your tents made in a much poorer part of the world because of much cheaper costs. How do you decide what is appropriate payment for your employees?

The issue of context goes beyond cross-cultural matters. It’s also a factor in working out whether to treat people differently because of their circumstances. For example, a doctor might use graduated fees for patients based on their income. A car dealer might take a person’s economic circumstances into account when negotiating a price, as Flow Automotive did when they realized that poor people tend to end up paying more for cars because they tend to be less practiced in negotiations.

How do contextual concerns affect Wayne's decision-making?

When Wayne begins thinking about ways that these particular circumstances are influencing possible courses of action, he finds himself trying to understand and anticipate a number of things.

We’ve already mentioned the question of the customer’s financial situation. If Wayne refuses to pay for the repair, or only contributes partially, what impact financially is that likely have on the customer and his family? Is it likely to create stress? Wayne thinks that this is worth taking into consideration. In fact, for him it is part of the wider question of love and justice.

What if Wayne is aware that the customer is generous and liberal with his own time and money — serving others and genuinely seeking to make a difference in the world? If this is the case, Wayne may feel it is extra fitting to extend generosity towards him.

At the same time, Wayne is aware of also considering what he can afford, and the implications for him and his family if he ends up making little or no profit on this sale.

There’s another angle. Should Wayne think carefully about the sort of precedent he is setting? If he takes a soft line, will other customers also come running for assistance? Wayne smiles ruefully at the possibility. But for him personally, this is not a major issue. The other factors he has sifted through are, as far as he is concerned, of much greater importance. He doesn’t mind if he acquires a reputation as a “soft touch,” so long as he is satisfied with the appropriateness of his choice.

This gets Wayne thinking about how his character is being shaped to make moral choices.

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