The Role of Case Studies in Understanding Ethical Theories

Clay Christensen writes that a case study is simply an examination of a situation.

Humanity’s religious scriptures, which have collectively survived several dozen centuries, contain thousands of parables that can be examined for both ethical and unethical behavior. Since these manuscripts have been revered as holy books by billions of people over the centuries, they have formed the basis of countless theories of ethical behavior.

These scriptures, however, do not exclusively contain case studies. They are further embellished with commandments that affirmatively demand or prohibit specific behaviors. Nevertheless, since one of the foundations of the world’s faiths (at least the monotheistic ones I am familiar with) is the infallibility of their respective religious texts and protagonists (from whom models of ethical behavior are derived), these case studies take on urgent importance as many of these parables seemingly contradict not only each other but the explicitly communicated commandments as well.

Religions reconcile these differences through successive layers of interpretation, but because of the infallibility postulate, no precept or case study can be irrevocably erased. Thus, religion, the institution that is supposed to be civilization’s vanguard for teaching ethics, does not maintain a clear codex of ethical best practices; rather, it carries the remnants of every erased word like an ancient palimpsest.

Adherents of the world’s major religious traditions, consciously or unconsciously, navigate between these conflicting ethical theories based on underlying and overriding principles. These principles may come from a combination of selected portions of the text itself, tradition, family, culture, education, and experience. When these principles are applied unconsciously, the resulting ethical theory can be inelegant, even incoherent. On the other hand, when principles are applied as a systematic filter, the resulting belief system can be inspirational, or as we saw on September 11, disastrous.

Society, for better or for worse, is an iceberg. The majority of participants are beneath the surface, and a minority charts its course. As leaders, it is imperative that we distill for ourselves the ethical theories to which we will hold ourselves accountable. We need to acknowledge our unique role in shaping the course of ethical theory and the risks of slipping silently beneath the surface. Icebergs are known to flip suddenly when their center of gravity shifts from melting surface ice, and in much the same way, history has shown that small groups of dedicated extremists can hijack religions and conquer countries time after time. It would be naive to think that the perpetrators of September 11 were the unique product of a foreign religion or culture, for practically every religion or country, including this one, has fallen victim to extremism and plunged into a foreign, civil, or religious war.

It is a scary thing-to examine our principles, religious texts, and ethical theories with a critical eye. Perhaps the only thing scarier is not to do so. When you begin to ask why and do not stop until you no longer know the answer, you may experience a spiritual rebirth where you will find true faith and the principles from which to construct a cohesive ethical theory.