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University chaplain pens new book on moral theory

In a new book, Lloyd Steffen explores the gray areas around black-and-white views of controversial acts.

Lloyd Steffen believes a messy world needs messy moral theories. According to the professor of religion studies and university chaplain, society would be healthier if controversial acts—war, abortion, euthanasia—were treated with less theoretical certainty and more openness to the struggle of the “good, right, and fitting” thing to do.

Steffen makes this point in his new book, Ethics and Experience: Moral Theory from Just War to Abortion (Rowman & Littlefield). The goal of the 230-page book is to turn dueling monologues into dialogue.

Steffen claims there are “common moral agreements” binding us together despite cultural, intellectual and emotional differences. “Ethical dilemmas arise when we’re considering exceptions to those agreements,” he says. “The book is meant to explore that exception-making process. I’m bringing together theories that don’t want to be brought together.”

Steffen started studying life-and-death dilemmas in the 1980s as a divinity student at Yale and a graduate student at Brown University. Since then he’s been teaching ethics and moral philosophy in the classroom while practicing both as director of Lehigh’s Center for Dialogue, Ethics and Spirituality and the Lehigh Prison Project.

His own experiences inform his ethics: He has helped families make decisions about hospice care and visited death rows in two states.

In Ethics and Experience, Steffen explores gray territories. He argues that Gandhi and King appealed to “just war” ideas to justify nonviolent force. He constructs a criminal-justice system concerned with restoring relationships rather than simple retribution. He contemplates whether injecting a fatal dose of morphine into a brain-dead newborn can be justified even if it violates a physician’s desire to save life at all costs. And he asks if an adulterer can really betray a spouse, if the spouse can’t feel the pain of betrayal due to a lengthy coma.

Some readers will question why Ethics and Experience has few of the author’s personal experiences with ethical problems. There’s nothing in the book, for example, about Steffen debating a district attorney over the death penalty, which he opposes. He claims he wrote the book as a forum for ethical encounter rather than a guide to the best arguments.

Steffen has plenty of opinions, on and off the page. He’s not a fan of the late Jack Kevorkian, the pathologist who said he aided at least 130 suicides: “But I do respect him because he talked about things we don’t want to talk about. He put options on the table.”

“I think it’s time to be a little less judgmental and a little more compassionate,” says Steffen. “All I’m trying to do is say: Wait a minute. Calm down here. Let’s bring some options to the table.”

Story by Geoff Gehman '89 M.A.

Posted on Wednesday, January 16, 2013

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