In this episode, Sean interviews Scott about the latest update to his classic book Moral Choices. Scott reflects on how ethical issues have changed over the past few decades, some areas where he has refined his thinking, and offers some insights on pressing moral issues today such as climate change and euthanasia.
More About Our Guest
Scott B. Rae (PhD, University of Southern California) is professor of Christian ethics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, La Mirada, California.
Sean McDowell: Welcome to the podcast Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture. I'm your host, Sean McDowell, professor of Christian apologetics at [inaudible] school theology, Biola University. Now at this point, my co-host was about to jump in and introduce himself, and I cut him off because actually, Scott Rae is going to be on the hot seat today because of our topic. So I'm glad you're here. Hope you're a little bit nervous, 'cause I'm gonna ask the toughest questions and we'll see how you think on the spot. Actually, that's not true.
Scott Rae: Give me your best shot.
Sean McDowell: Exactly. We are gonna talk about your book, Moral Choices which just came out in a fourth edition, congratulations by the way.
Scott Rae: Thank you.
Sean McDowell: First edition came out in 1995. I was a student at Biola during this time, and let me ask you this kind of as we start. Why did you first write this book? Which I would consider, by the way, when people ask me, "Give me one text that deals with moral issues [inaudible] thoughtfully biblically philosophically." I consistently point to Moral Choices. But what was the impetus for writing this in the first place?
Scott Rae: I saw a couple things that I felt like needed to be addressed. One is just in the field of ethics in general. Books either were about theory or they were about the issues. Books that were about theory were, for the most part, excruciatingly boring, and had nothing to do with putting shoe leather on real life.
Sean McDowell: And this is an academic saying it's boring.
Scott Rae: Yeah, that's right. The stuff that had to do with the issues was just disconnected to any kind of foundational thought about what morality is, and how you determine it. And so the books that are an on the issues almost left the reader thinking that well, 'just any views as good as the next one.' ''Cause it was often, they were presented in anthologies, where they'd give all these different views. But no commentary, no way to help any student or reader think about, well how do I decide which one of these views I ought to be holding? Because they were all over the map, and some mutually exclusive.
The other reason I did this is because, this is the reason I actually went into ethics. I started out in old testament. And somebody asked me one time, they said, "How did you get from studying old testament to doing ethics?" I said, "Well, I read the text." I took the text seriously. In my view, you can't read most of scripture seriously and not think that ethics matters. Because it's just shot through. And so what I wanted to do, what I said, the people who were really good theologically typically were not good on the issues. And the people who were good on the issues typically either were, they were playing fast and loose, theologically, or just didn't care about that at all. And so I wanted to do something that would bring our biblical and theological stuff to bear on the issues of the day that you are reading about in the newspaper. But also to do it in a way that took the issues seriously, but also could help people think about how they do morality, from a distinctly Christian view of the world.
Sean McDowell: I think the other unique perspective you bring is that you are a practitioner of this, too. You've consulted at a number of hospitals, you do counseling with individuals, and some of the issues in here you've really worked through personally. Like I remember when I was in your class, and this is back in mid 90s, as an undergrad. You mentioned just in your family, you and your wife dealing with infertility for [inaudible]. You were very honest and vulnerable about that. And that was the first time it hit me, I'm like, 'Wow, that really could be an issue.' So I think you really bring this personal perspective to it that comes through in the book itself, that really makes it stronger.
Scott Rae: I appreciate that. I often tell my students, before particularly bioethics part, be careful. There's an occupational hazard, because your field might follow you home. And it did for us. We wrestled with infertility, right about the time I got interested in all these reproductive technologies. About the time the first assisted suicide bill came on the ballot in California in the early 90s. We started walking with- We ended up with three of our parents through terminal illnesses. And then when the first genetic test came out after human genome project was first done, one of the first diagnostic test was the test for breast cancer. The gene that would give you like an 85% likelihood of getting breast cancer. And my wife has a huge history. She had breast cancer herself, and had a huge history of it in her family. But she was so ambivalent about taking the test, because she said, "Well, I'm not sure I really want to know all this." And so she reflected the ambivalence that a lot of people had in the culture at that time, and sort of the idea was, well maybe we'll give a genetic revolution, but nobody's gonna show up.
That turned out not to be true, but initially, there was huge ambivalence about just wanting all of this information. Now the stuff that we address in the book has been, those have been dinner table conversations. And conversations with friends over coffee. Yeah. Just the strictly academic approach would not be cutting it with a lot of the stuff that I've had to deal with.
Sean McDowell: Well I think that shines through in your book really well. One of the questions that I have is as soon as we talked about doing this podcast, it's man, I want to know how from your perspective, because you've been studying the ethical landscape and in particular bioethics, two or three decades. How is the landscape changed in that time?
Scott Rae: Well Sean the issues just keep getting more and more complicated, as technology gets better and better. And what we've discovered is, most of these medical technologies are mixed blessings. For example, the technologies that enable us to extend life often give us a lot more years of longevity, but usually that's at a very compromised quality of life. And a lot of people who are just hanging on at the end, because family members are unwilling to let go of them, and unplug some of these things. I'm not sure they look at that as an unqualified blessing. I remember my own father, his biggest fear was that he would linger on in a badly compromised state because myself, my brother and my sister were unwilling to let go, and to acknowledge that we were gonna disconnect all the life support, turn him back over to the lord, to allow God to do whatever he would for the remaining days of his life.
So, that has changed. And the biotechnology is just an enormous field now, where we're talking about enhancing otherwise normal trials, we're talking about now being able to edit our genomes in embryonic form. Which means that those genetic changes are all now potentially passed onto succeeding generations through normal reproduction. I don't think we ever envisioned 30 years ago that we would be able to do designer children. I used to tell my students that designer children probably will not happen in our lifetime. Was I wrong about that. Because we are on the cusp. In fact, just in the last few months, researchers in China have done the first gene editing in human embryos, to give them the traits that parents want. You could select not only for sex but for eye color, hair color, things that have clear genetically. Now some of these things are a mixture of a lot of different genes interacting together, and it's much harder to do. But the days of being able to do designer children is here. Now. And I never envisioned that.
Sean McDowell: So the blessing is that, if we can potentially, at the genetic level, prevent certain diseases. Potentially that could help.
Scott Rae: We prevent them forever.
Sean McDowell: Exactly. But the curse is, now people can become commodities, because I want someone who's taller, who's better looking, who's smarter, and it just changes that relationship. Is that the curse that comes with it?
Scott Rae: Yeah, that's part of it. I think the other part is that the ... We're redefining what we mean by longevity, by our mortality. And the curse is generally the unanticipated side effects of a lot of these genetic alterations. For example, years ago they discovered a genetic alteration that would basically correct the genetic defect that caused sickle cell anemia, which was a huge benefit, especially to African Americans. What we discovered, though, is- Unintended and unanticipated side effects was it genetically wiped out the body's resistance to malaria. And so, pick your poison, here. And there's just so much about the genetic code that we still don't know. We don't know what we're unleashing on succeeding generations.
Sean McDowell: So give me an example of an ethical issue over the time you've been writing your research around this that you say, "You know what, we've made some progress. This is good to see culturally where we're heading," and one you just say, "We are headed in the exact wrong direction." Like give me maybe some polar opposites to compare.
Scott Rae: Well I'm encouraged, they're almost all mixed. I'm not sure there's too many that are, I would say more making unqualified progress. I think with abortion for example, we're no closer to Roe V. Wade being overturned than we were in the 34 years ago.
Sean McDowell: Even with the supreme court?
Scott Rae: Even with the supreme court like it is today. What will happen, if Roe V. Wade is overturned, what they will do is the same thing that they did with the court decision on assisted suicide. Is they will leave it to the states to determine legislatively what to do. And every state will enact, probably within a few days, if that decisions ever handed down, will enact laws essentially allowing the same freedom of choice for women to end their pregnancies.
But, the encouraging thing is that with the ultrasound technology, particularly 4D ultrasound and things that we've picked up from forensics called DNA phenotyping, the technology we have to appreciate what exactly is developing in the womb is exponentially greater than it was even 30 years ago. And DAN phenotyping can actually take DNA from the unborn child in the womb and you can essentially get a sketch of what the person will look like based on their genetic code. They're using this in crime scenes now to identify suspects, based on DNA that they leave behind. You can get a sketch of what that suspect will look like. There's no reason we can't also do that for the unborn. Our genetic code doesn't change.
So I think there's some encouraging things there, too. How we approach the end of life, I think we've gotten much better at what I think is a very biblical position. Recognizing that death is a conquered enemy, and therefor need not always be resisted, that under the right conditions, it's okay to say stop, enough, to medicine. The downside of that is that we've been emboldened. Around the world, increasingly in states in the U.S., but particularly in Europe with things like assisted suicide and euthanasia are becoming more the norm.
I say most of things, they're again, the progress is mixed.
Sean McDowell: That's fair. That's totally fair. How about in your fourth edition, are there any specific topics that you added that you hadn't addressed earlier? Or any topics that were there that you just substantially changed. What are they and why?
Scott Rae: Both. I decided in the fourth edition, I decided to take on a handful of relatively uncontroversial topics, like immigration. Like gun control. Like race, gender and diversity. And then environmental ethics.
Sean McDowell: So these were not in the last edition?
Scott Rae: Not in the last edition.
Sean McDowell: Interesting.
Scott Rae: In fact, I'm a little bit embarrassed actually that there's been nothing on race and gender issues until now. It's like I kind of woke up and figured out, I actually better do this, or else nobody will think that the book's even remotely credible. Immigration is a newer issue, and then the gun control and violence, we've seen so many of these mass shootings. And I think what people don't realize is that the worst of these have actually not occurred in the United States. The worst of these mass shootings have occurred one, in the middle east, and in terms of the most number of casualties have been the ones that have occurred in Europe.
Now the frequency of them I think is greater in the United States. But in terms of just the sheer amount of human carnage that's taken place, the worst of those have been in other parts of the world, not in the U.S.
Sean McDowell: Are there any issues you took out? That were relevant that we've moved beyond?
Scott Rae: No, there aren't any.
Sean McDowell: That's interesting.
Scott Rae: That I know. Because there's still relevant ... I think I revamped the whole discussion of sexual ethics, because that chapter was written in the third edition, before the Obergefell decision came down in 2015. So really, in my view, anything in sexual ethics written before 2015 is probably obsolete. So once same sex marriage was legalized, then the whole discussion of sexual ethics changed. The transgender phenomena, we really weren't wrestling with that all that much in the 2008 and nine when the third edition came out. So that's all brand new. But each chapter starts out with a theological framework. That hasn't changed. It's just the application of it has gone all over the map.
Sean McDowell: Have you changed your mind on any issues in the decade since you first wrote, or maybe even nuanced a position?
Scott Rae: I have. I have nuanced my views on the death penalty differently. I think earlier on, I was much more a committed retentionist to the death-
Sean McDowell: Define that.
Scott Rae: It means that the death penalty is a moral option under certain circumstances. The bible generally teaches that- Can we stop for a minute? Excuse me. Okay.
But today, I think I've recognized that some of the procedural issues with the death penalty are more substantial than I thought. The idea of mistakes being possible and racial discrimination that takes place as part of the death penalty administration. I'm not as pessimistic about our legal system in general as some opponents of the death penalty. I was a foreman on a jury of murder trial a few years ago. It actually restored my faith in the seriousness, I now take great offense to the notion that all jurors are morons.
Sean McDowell: Okay.
Scott Rae: But also I recognize, we took our task really seriously. And it's actually ironic, 'cause the closest I've ever felt to playing God. Because we knew this person was- he ended up being convicted of manslaughter, and as a result, we probably held a decade of his life in our hands. And there were a couple people on the jury that wanted to give him a pass based on self-defense. Others that wanted a much more aggressive second-degree murder charge. Turns out the only thing the law would allow us to do was the manslaughter charge, because we gave him self-defense on the first two shots. But it was the next six, when the victim was hiding in the car, that turned out to be very problematic.
But I do think that the bible allows for the death penalty. I don't think it mandates it. I think there probably are some rare cases where something less than the death penalty would not be just. I think of Timothy McVeigh who blew up the Oklahoma City federal- something like that. But I think for the most part, I share a lot of the procedural cautions about people who oppose the death penalty. I think biblically, it's harder to oppose it in principal. But on procedural grounds, I think there's actually I think some merit to some of those things.
Sean McDowell: Do you think, not only on the issues themselves, but underlying the issues, everybody brings some kind of moral approach to these questions. Has this changed over time, since when you really started researching this and writing the book, to how people even ask ethical questions today?
Scott Rae: Yeah, it's a really good question. The way we talk and think about- in fact, I retitled the second chapter, 'Thinking about morality.'
Sean McDowell: Ah, interesting.
Scott Rae: Which gives basically the theoretical approach to it. What we've discovered, there's been a couple of really interesting shifts. One is that morality has shifted from becoming something that I think 30, 40 years ago was widely viewed as for the most pat an objective thing. Which means that your view of it, or whether it was true or not didn't change based on how you felt about it. Morality today has become much more of a subjective opinion. And some of that is our world view, our understanding of knowledge. We can't really know things unless we can empirically verify them. Which puts morality into the realm of religion and speculation and other things that we can't know about. But yet I suspect, if you said that, take the term racial discrimination is morally wrong, and you said, "Well, the KKK just has a different perspective on it." I think we would say, "No. The KKK is just flat wrong about that."
And if you would have said to Martin Luther King, "Well, if you have a problem with slavery then don't own slaves." Sort of like we would say, "If you have a problem with abortion, don't have one." I think he would have said, "Well you've just completely missed it." And so the idea that morality has retreated into the realm of subjective opinion is a really dangerous idea. I think people today, although I think they are waking up to the notion that that's a completely unlivable situation. Nobody actually lives that way. And what you find is that as soon as someone becomes a victim of injustice, they become a very rigid absolutist. And that relativism and subjectivism goes straight out the window.
I was speaking to a group of high school students on this, and they were- this one really sharp young woman was siting right at the front. And she kept saying, "Well I think we ought to be able to make up our own moral rules for ourselves. Who are you to tell me what those rules are." And so I saw as I was kind of roaming the room speaking, saw she had a brand new iPhone on her desk. And so without looking at her, without mentioning it, I just sort of picked it up and put it in my pocket.
Sean McDowell: Nice.
Scott Rae: And just went on and proceeded with the rest of the discussion. And she was too embarrassed to say anything, I think she was just too shocked that I had done something like that. And so I started packing up my stuff at the end, and got ready to leave, and she said, "Aren't you gonna give me my phone back?" I said, "Well no, I'm not." And she said, "But that's my phone." And it was just so easy. I said, "Well, I thought you said we could make up our own moral rules for ourselves. And my moral rules say that people who are older, wiser and more experienced are entitled to the stuff of those who are younger and less experienced. So, too bad." I think she knew I was playing with her. But you could see she got a little steamed about it. And she might have just been flummoxed that she didn't know what to say. But I said, "Of course I'm giving you your phone back. But you are not a relativist at all. You are a very rigid absolutist."
And I think today, we see on lots of issues that tend towards the more politically correct side. Morality's not being viewed as a subjective thing, it's being viewed more today objectively on certain things. Objectively and rigidly absolutist. Try deviating from the secular orthodoxies on some of these things and see what happens.
Sean McDowell: Even in Judges when it says, "And people did that which was right in their own eyes." They were still made in the image of God, like people are today, and have a moral consciences. That can never disappear, but you're right, it seems that the amount of subjects and what we consider objective seems to shift. Would you say we have shifted to kind of a shame based culture? And I ask because some ways it seems especially with social media, we're so quick to just shame somebody. It's almost like the worst thing you can do is anything that's shameful to your group. And in a way that we historically as individualistic westerns have not been.
Scott Rae: Yeah I'd say on some things, yes. That's true. And I'd say on some things, that shame is deserved. Now, probably not in the- I don't know kind of the mob violence way in which it's done.
Sean McDowell: Virtue signaling.
Scott Rae: Yeah, it's not hard to destroy people's reputations like that. But, does Harvey Weinstein deserve shame? I think yes. And others who had a lot of those who have come out not that long ago. Other areas that used to be areas that brought shame are celebrated today. So things like having children out of wedlock used to be a source of great shame. And today we give baby showers for high school girls who are having kids. So, I say it depends on the issue. Some things we've gotten much more rigidly absolute about. Others we've- they used to be things that we ought to probably, should have some sort of disapproval of. Shame's I think a little strong. 'Cause that's a judgment about the worst of a person. But some public disapproval of is warranted on things that we know are causing harm like they are.
Sean McDowell: So you have a new chapter on the environment. What's your thoughts on climate change?
Scott Rae: Well, I admit, I've been influenced pretty significantly by my good friend Theologian Brent Waters on this. I think climate change is real. I think there's- and there's definitely a human element to it. But the issue is kind of what to do with that, and what should the launch ramp look like to get to a place where we're off of fossil fuels and all onto renewable energy. In my view, that day is coming. How soon or how far off that is I think is a matter of opinion, and it is true that technology has actually increased the longevity of the fossil fuels that we have in the earth's ground at the moment. That's just kicking the can down the road, in my view.
But the questions of the launch ramp is really important one, because the fundamental issue in addressing climate change is how is it going to affect the poorest of the poor around the world. And we know that there're two things that are essential for the poor to lift themselves out of poverty. Assuming you have a system that's conducive to that. One is education. The other is cheap, plentiful energy. Cultures will not lift themselves out of poverty today without both of those things. And so, if the launch ramp to renewable energy is too short, we've basically consigned about probably a billion or two people around the world to perpetual poverty that they will never get out of. And I think that's too high a cost. And I totally understand why some governments say, "You take your climate change stuff and stick it in your ear. Because we have a higher priority of getting our people off of two dollars a day poverty." And I think biblically, I think that's right. Because most of our public policy, in my view, ought to have at least a criteria in there about how does it affect those who are the least advantaged among us? And I think to short a launch ramp will cripple the ability of the poorest of the world's poor to escape that grinding, intractable poverty.
Sean McDowell: You're really highlighting one of the lessons I remember learning when I read a book by Jay Richards. He was talking about capitalism, but he said, "So much damage has been done by well-meaning good intentions that don't think through the implications of the consequences." Sounds like that's what you're saying, we see a lot of ethical issues, don't we?
Scott Rae: Especially as it relates to economics. Because so many of our good intentions are accompanied by an ignorance of economics. Even things that are as simple as [inaudible] that incentives matter. Or the laws of supply and demand. For example, laws that are designed to raise minimum wage to 15, 20 dollars an hour. I think we'll end up hurting the very people that they are designed to help. Because employers are simply gonna hire less people. In fact, I've had to tell some of my students who between their freshman and sophomore year I've said, "Look, I love you, but you're not worth 15 or 20 dollars an hour to most employers." As a high school student, I wasn't either. We shouldn't expect that.
And I think the reality is, like most socioeconomic sectors, people go in and out of those sectors pretty regularly throughout their lives. I mean statistically, roughly half the population will have lived under the poverty line at some point in their lives. Most of us as graduate students, we knew that feeling. And people move in and out of these wealth categories pretty regularly. Which means that at least at a place structured like it is here, socioeconomic mobility is actually an option. Which compared to lots of other parts of the world, simply is not, because they don't have the structures in place. And so well-meaning foreign aid, that's the reason it gets sucked into a vacuum. Because the system is not set up to incentives people to take risks and to start businesses and to better themselves.
Sean McDowell: You know Scott, we could take each one of these topics. Maybe we will sometime in the future and just, I get to kind of put you on the hot seat and talk about gun control, creation care, sexual ethics, war, ethical issues at the end of a life, immigration, you go into all these. So maybe at some point we'll do that, and I'll enjoy this. Actually, edit this part, what I just said. I've been enjoying this partly as your former student and now you're my boss, to get to have you on the hot seat.
Scott Rae: I appreciate that.
Sean McDowell: My goodness, you know your stuff. This was great, both in content, biblically, ethically, but really practically. So, I commend your book to people, and just so they know I'm not just recommending this because you're my co-host and colleague. I actually still teach a high school class part time, and we look at world view, we look at bible. These are juniors and seniors. And next year, there's a really good chance we're gonna use this for a semester, because I don't think there's another book that approaches it the way you do. So I definitely want to commend Moral Choices to our audience. Thanks for joining me as usual by being on the hot seat.
Scott Rae: Happy to assume that. Glad we can get the word out about the book, and glad it's useful. It's always kind of a mixed thing, when people say, "Well your stuff on bioethics was useful." I say, "Well I'm glad of that. But I'm sorry you're in that condition that it's actually useful for you."
Sean McDowell: Oh yes, yes.
Scott Rae: So, on balance, I'm grateful that it's been useful to folks over the years.
Sean McDowell: Well you bring that approach of both compassion yet biblical truth that people need. And I would say, even if somebody's not in that situation, the time is not to wait, but to think ahead of times so you're prepared. That's why this study is so important. Well, great job.
This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically. Conversation on faith and culture. To learn more about us and today's guest, my co-host Scott Rae, and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app, and share it with a friend. Thanks for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.