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A Question of Ethics

Is your teen academically honest? If so, he or she is in the minority. A new survey of nearly 30,000 students at 100 randomly selected American high schools found that 64 percent had cheated on a test at least once in the past year. And 38 percent admitted to cheating two or more times. More than a third said they'd used the Internet to plagiarize an assignment, while 82 percent had copied another student's homework. All in the past 12 months! With cheating on the rise, experts worry that young people are experiencing an unprecedented ethical crisis.

Ethics are the philosophies that govern how we live. Not just what we say. Not even what we deeply believe. They are represented by what we habitually do. True Christian ethics are evident when our beliefs, words, and actions are in alignment and based on the truth of Scripture. Teens may ask, "How do I make those decisions?" They can start by identifying the faulty logic of ethical relativism.

Ethical relativism says that there are no absolutely right or wrong behaviors. Rather, it all depends on the outcome you intend to produce. One form, known as "situational ethics," says circumstances dictate behavior. Another way of putting it is "the end justifies the means."

This isn't just tolerated in our culture; it's often encouraged. In fact, folk tales sometimes turn those who practice situational ethics—from Robin Hood to James Bond—into heroes. They live by a code that is highly subjective and often outside of accepted moral, legal and ethical standards. Yet we are expected to affirm and celebrate their behavior. Is it any surprise that young people are inclined to practice ethical relativism in their own lives?

A simple way to challenge teens to see if they are falling into this trap is to have them be clear about why they're doing what they're doing. Is it because of a clear instruction (either pro or con) from Scripture? Or are they subjecting their actions to a different test, such as:

The feelings test.
Many people, even some Christians, make feelings the ultimate standard for life. Actions are deemed OK as long as the behavior in question feels right in their hearts (ignoring Jeremiah 17:9). Personal preference is fine when ordering lunch or picking out shoes. But moral truth isn't determined by feelings. The false assumption behind this test is that a deceitful heart and vacillating emotions will reflect unchanging truth.

The authority figure test.
Influence. Reputation. Honor. We've all been around strong leaders. While it's proper to respect persons of authority and acknowledge the accomplishments of others, we need to be careful not to let teachers, co-workers, elected officials, scientists—even peers whose acceptance we crave—lead us to accept things we know are wrong.

The pragmatics test.
A pragmatic (or "practical") person wants to know what works, or what action or thing will yield the best result. A lot of things that result in "good" outcomes are still wrong. It might be pragmatic to withhold income taxes so that I can pay for a friend's medical care, but it would still be ethically wrong, not to mention illegal.

The economics test.
For some people, right and wrong cannot be decided until they see the price tag. The perspective here is that something is right only if I can afford it. Should I pay back the friend who lent me money, even though he has forgotten that I owe it to him? Absolutely!

The popular opinion test.
Particularly in America, we tend to think that the majority rules. Sometimes we say, "If everyone is doing it, it can't be wrong!" From the media we consume to the products we buy, we assume that others may know something we don't, which has led the majority to a certain conclusion we would do well to follow. That includes ethical decisions.

The age test.
Here's where Christian values may have suffered the most. Some say that the Bible may be a moral guidebook, but what it says is old-fashioned. It's outdated. But even though it was written thousands of years ago, what was right then is still right today.

The reputation test.
I also call this "the ego-protection test." It's true that Proverbs 22:1 says that a good name is better than great riches. But too often we don't want to be good; we only want to appear good. When we do the right thing, we don't have to worry about our reputation. It takes care of itself.

The autonomy test.
Situations may prompt our independent side to cry out, "I am free to do whatever I want, whenever I want!" Don't give in. As Christian author Oswald Chambers once warned, "Beware of refusing to go to the funeral of your own independence."

At a time when teens' ethics fail to impress, Christian young people can stand out by holding to a higher standard. The world will see the depth of their beliefs and want to know what makes them tick.

Alex McFarland is Plugged In's teen apologetics expert. For more on his ministry and speaking schedule, visit

Published December 2008