Reviewed by Larry Lyon
Ethics for a Brave New World, 2nd edition, is an updated and expanded version of John and Paul Feinberg’s first edition from 1993. The updates and expansion, to nearly double the original size, were completed to “keep current with contemporary trends and respond to the most recent scholarship,” according to the publisher. The additions to the book were completed by John Feinberg, as Paul Feinberg passed away in 2004. The 17-year gap in the writing of the original text and this updated version is addressed by John in the Preface to the 2nd edition. He states that the need for an update was great, but that the passing of his father, the passing of his brother, Paul, to complications related to his diabetes, and his wife’s Huntington’s disease all delayed the work. It is significant to note that an ethics text of such detail and position was written amidst “real life” turmoil and not ivory tower pietism.
The book takes its title from the work of Aldous Huxley in 1932, Brave New World, which foresaw a world in which technology had advanced to such a degree that morality and human freedom were laid to waste. The Feinbergs use the title to address many of the concerns surrounding the field of Christian ethics that were predicted in Huxley’s book. Major ethical crises such as abortion, homosexuality, war, capital punishment, and stem cell research are present topics in the authors’ research. If Huxley’s world of technological domination was coming to pass, then the Feinberg brothers present a formidable defense of the Christian ethical witness.
Introductory – Foundational Matters
The book opens with a chapter dedicated to moral decision making and its relationship with the Christian. This chapter opens the door to understanding how the Feinbergs will present the following chapters about ethical issues such as abortion, capital punishment, homosexuality, technological/medical advances in genetics, and war. The opening chapter is an excellent introduction to the matters of ethics and its philosophical considerations. The topics covered in the opening chapter range from defining ethics and morality, to matters related to ethics such as responsibility, permissibility, obligation, moral freedom, and a survey of ethical theories/systems.
The authors present their own view for the book as deontological, a view that they describe as part divine command theory based on revelation with some help from natural law theories. The authors modify the divine command theory slightly by resting it in God’s character, thereby attempting to avoid God’s commands being arbitrary, irrational, or developed without concern for consequences. The Feinbergs believe that this shift does not qualify them as mixed deontologists since they remain reliant on God’s prescription or forbiddance of an act. This self-description frames each chapter to be presented in a biblical ethic, an ethic that draws it’s “ought” from the Scriptures first and foremost.
The authors also subscribe to hierarchicalism. This view holds that there are prime facie duties for the believer that sometimes conflict. The believer must obey the higher duty and is not guilty of committing a sin for not obeying the lesser duty. Since Scripture does not seem to illustrate a hierarchy in commands, according to the Feinbergs, the believer must evaluate each situation separately.
The book can be broken down into sections related to major areas that include several topics. Chapters two through five deal with the topics of death: abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment. The second area covers the topics of human sexuality (sex, birth control, and homosexuality) and genetic engineering technologies in chapters six through twelve. The final section handles topics that relate to more interpersonal issues. Chapters thirteen through fifteen cover the topics of divorce and remarriage, war, and the Christian’s relationship to a secular state.
Chapters two and three deal with the topic of abortion. While the issue of abortion is certainly not new for this edition of the book, the Feinbergs provide helpful insight and data that supports the biblical case against the practice. Where these chapters succeed is in providing up-to-date data (for 2010) that includes information about abortion rates based on race, geography, socio-economic concerns, and religious affiliation. The authors do provide descriptive language for the procedures used for abortions and this can be helpful in understanding the processes used and the experience for mother and child.
Chapter four addresses euthanasia and combines their arguments against the practice with many of the arguments that exist contra pro-choice in chapters two and three. The authors are successful in presenting the updated technological information and data related to end of life issues. The biblical information for the various perspectives related to euthanasia and cultural/national issues is made as well.
Capital punishment is supported by the authors as valid position in chapter five. The authors argue that while this form of punishment is valid, there should be evidences of grace for the criminal from the believer. They do not argue that this grace would overrule the practice of capital punishment, rather that grace should be present and that viable exceptions can exist to the use of this form of strong punishment.
Chapter six presents the Feinbergs’ position on human sexuality and the use of birth control. This chapter dives into the many medical technologies that are available to prevent pregnancy and whether any of these methods present ethical dilemmas for the Christian. A primary question related to their argument is whether such technologies are abortifacient thus causing them to fall under the same arguments presented in chapters two and three. The authors’ reliance on natural law for the argument is evident, and while not distracting from their treatment of the issue, it opens the door for disagreement in discussion with those who deny the plausibility of the natural law theory. This chapter does provide insight for the use of birth control for Christians and its permissibility for limiting the number of children born to a family.
Homosexuality takes up nearly 80 pages for chapters seven and eight. These chapters are particularly helpful in discussing the biblical passages used by both sides of the debate regarding homosexuality. The authors use the example of Sodom and Gomorrah and the debate regarding the judgment of the cities being tied to hospitality or homosexuality to show the invalidity of the homosexual argument. The Feinbergs are perhaps at their strongest as they weigh the biblical perspective on homosexuality. So, the chapters are extremely valuable in defending the Christian ethics against homosexual hermeneutics and agendas. The chapters, however, do not hit as strongly as some of the more contemporary issues related to this debate have shifted since the edition’s publication. This is of no fault of the authors, just simply that the debate is continuing to evolve and shift. The book provides solid defense of the biblical perspective that should be at the basis of the debate against homosexuality, but it will need to be updated to consider many of the newly argued perspectives related to homosexuality and same-sex marriage.
Chapters nine and ten address reproductive technologies such as in vitro fertilization. These chapters again address social and biblical data to warn the Christian from assuming the position of using technology just because it is present and available. This warning extends to chapters eleven and twelve and the use of genetic engineering. These four chapters address the advances in technology that can allow sex selection in children to stem cell technology for the treatment of disease. The success of these chapters is the updated data and technological practices used to discuss the potential helpfulness of their use, but also to distinguish what is acceptable for the Christian to use as well. The chapter can be overwhelming as well since it provides so much information and the potentials for discussion are so far reaching. The reader must avoid becoming bogged down in the fine details to see the strong development of the Christian perspective that is invaluable in the matters discussed in the chapters.
The final three chapters offer perspectives on three major relational aspects of Christian ethics. Chapter thirteen presents the various positions for divorce and remarriage and the potential positions that can be held while remaining biblically faithful. The Feinbergs’ position about Christian involvement in war specifically nuanced for the use of nuclear weapons is the topic of chapter fourteen. While there are several positions mentioned, the authors are fair and balanced in defending the Christian place and participation in war. The authors may be disagreed with on their specific stances, but they attempt to make sense of the theories related to Christian involvement in the horrors of, and grace needed in, war. The final chapter offers the Feinbergs’ positions of Christians and their rights and roles in the secular state. This chapter is helpful in the discussion that is consistently present for each generation of Christians and their relationship and participation in the public square.
John Feinberg states that the update of the book was necessary because of the advancements in technology, but it was also the advancements in technology that enabled him to access the data to write the book. This access to data for Feinberg allowed him to expand and further develop the biblical and data-based arguments for the Christian ethic. This is major strength of this book; the accessibility of biblical and scientific/social data in discussing major ethical issues. This strength creates a large book that is used as an ethical textbook and reads as such for most of the book.
So, the book is accessible, yet dense. Some of the material throughout the book can be easily lost as the reader sifts through the vast array of material presented, particularly in the sections on genetics and reproductive technologies.
The book also does not present very many positions that relate to non-Western cultures. The presence of the church in the third-world and in non-Western contexts needs to be continually evaluated and contextualized.
These matters do not, however, distract from this text from being a highly valuable and much needed monograph on Christian ethics. The book’s views and presentation is highly commended to those seeking to ask and answer questions related to a Christian ethic in the contemporary world.
Larry Lyon is a church planter, PhD candidate in Christian Ethics, as well as the Director of Admissions, at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC.