The Revd Antonio Garcia Fuerte
Imagine that you are driving down the M3, on a summer day, towards the sunny beaches of the South of England. You then take the A3 to enjoy the beautiful greens of Queen Elizabeth Country Park on your left and Buster Hill National Nature Reserve on your right. You admire the beauty. The roads are not too busy. Just a truck behind you.
A roundabout ahead of you. You slow down. Look. Very quiet. Enter the roundabout and take the second exit. As you accelerate to take the exit you notice in the very corner of the curve a big leafy fallen tree. As you pass the tree, and previously completely blocked to your sight, a zebra crossing, too close now to stop the car safely.
Half way through the crossing, and now directly in front of your car, an elderly couple walking very slowly. To your right, two blind people with a white stick. To your left, a mother with a child by her hand. You look through the rear mirrors, to discover that the truck that was behind you, is in fact a 10 ton dangerous goods truck, it is strikingly close to you and is slightly tilted as a result of the inertia of turning on the roundabout. What do you do?
However, because today is Sunday and this is meant to be an uplifting sermon, as it turns out, today is your lucky day! You were driving a Google Self-Drive Prototype, and the anti-collision system takes over, so you don’t need to make a decision.
How will the robot react? Since there is no actual way in this scenario to avoid a fatal outcome, what is the robot programmed to do? What criteria does it apply in its ‘choice’? Can all the variables known to me be known to the robot? (such as my last minute discovery of the dangerous goods in the truck behind me.)
This is an ethical choice that the computer program needs to make. So the question that lies behind is this: can we program a robot to behave ethically? And if we can, should we?
We could program a computer as this one to behave ethically, if ethical choices followed the laws of logic, if to a situation ‘A’ always followed a reaction ‘B’.
This train of thought follows the seventeen century enlightenment philosophy idea that the wiser a person would be, the more ethical, which today would be considered rather alien to our postmodern world view. If the laws of ethical behaviour are logical, then they can be known, which then they can be written down (whether this code would be of common law, or any religious book).
On the contrary, more often than not, ethics escape the laws of logic. If ethics were logic, going back to the self-driven car example, it would be clear and obvious to all of us here the order in value of those lives in the scenario and we would be able to pick the least valuable and drive towards them. If they were logical we would all unanimously agree (that’s one of the principles of logic, to be widely recognisable as true).
If forced to, any of us here today, we could take a decision on the direction to drive the car, but it would not be based in logic, nor ethics. It would have to be based on something else. And we would probably disagree among ourselves, depending on many factors. Therefore, it is logical to conclude that ethics do not follow the laws of logic.
Let me bring this example to common law, and from there to the Gospel.
If ethical choices were to be logical they could be applied to common law. We could, then, create a robot, which takes into account all variables in a crime and, through a mathematical algorithm, calculates the sentence.
To say this is to believe that in each case we would all agree (as a matter of logic) in the balance between serving a just sentence and the time of full rehabilitation of the person sentenced (which implies knowing the future). It would also imply that we can mathematically measure beyond doubt things like the psychological damage of a criminal or the emotional affliction of the victim, and that there could be a balance where they neutralize each other in a logic decision making process.
Ethical choices are not logical nor illogical. They belong to the sphere of the deep personal, or, I would say, the spiritual. Our own personal relationship with God, us drawing near to God, moves our deeper self into the direction of God, that deeper self that takes those ethical decisions. Looking for manuals of ethics outside this relationship with God is similar to thinking that ethics are logical and its principles can be lay down to apply beyond doubt.
The Gospel we have just read today addresses this very issue. Jesus says that there will be division, (among closest relatives) the deepest sort of division, because of his cause, of the choices that we make as Christians, our ethical choices.
I find it interesting because Jesus is not saying that this is bad or wrong, he is just pointing out the fact that there will be divisions, or rather, multiplicity of ethical solutions.
This perspective of Jesus is deeply profound and compelling.
First, the multiplicity of ethical results for a same event, underlines our singularity in the eyes of God. It means that, when we look back in our lives, and we see success and failure, success and mistakes, what God sees and loves is our own individual journey. God’s forgiveness is a creative forgiveness because in forgiving our failures with each other we move forward baggage free. Our forgiven failures are just a step in our journey. If God respects and loves us this way, we also need to respect and learn to love what we might consider success and failure in others, because this is part of their own unique journey with God.
Second, that Christian ethics are not to be found outside our relationship with God. Take mercy, for example. Mercy is a clear pillar of Christian ethics. But abstract mercy is with difficulty applied into specific situations. It is our own experience of God, our own relationship with God, from which we experience God’s mercy for us. And then, aware of God’s mercy for me, I have a measure of mercy to use with others.
Nothing outside our own experience of God can form in us true christian ethical values. Our own experience of God is unique, that’s why ethical results are different, unique to each one of us. I don’t think any of you are here today because they couldn’t find anything better to do, but because we are all looking to draw near to God, to experience God. And the gospel today calls us to value and celebrate the diversity of this ethical choices of those who, like us, are genuinely looking for God. Recognizing this diversity is recognizing that God is at work in the world today, in each other. Not as robots or computer programs, but as unique and unrepeatable children of the same God.