Boundaries and Ethics

The cell is the building block of life.  Essential to cell health is the semi-permeable membrane surrounding it that protects it from its environment even while it helps it interact with that environment.

This cell membrane, known as the plasma membrane, is designed to transmit out of the cell unneeded by-products, let essential nutrients and resources in while keeping dangerous ones out.

When this complex process works well—and a trillion times over it does—it means life for the cell and the organism. When it doesn’t work, death comes to the cell and to the organism. Too rigid a barrier and the essential processes are thwarted. Too loose a barrier and essential nutrients pour out of the cell and dangerous particles invade. Built into the process is some ability to deal with errors in this process.

In addition to the plasma membrane there is around the core of the cell, the nucleus, another membrane, the nuclear envelope with thousands of nuclear pore complexes. These protect further the part of the cell that “orders” the affairs of the cell.

Boundaries are essential for biological life and having a double protecting mechanism in a cell shows a design that can be useful in moral life.

Values and beliefs often form the membranes that determine what should go on inside and what should stay outside oneself. There is a threefold source for these: God, others, and self.  If any one totally determines the flow, there can be problems. Even God has restricted Himself to allow others their own will and choice.

First, one crucial socially structured moral boundary is liberty which gives people a choice to support or not support a particular value or cause. This is the boundary that even God does not violate to save people from their own wrong choices.

Second, while God and community may give freedom, they also set boundaries for participation in community. If individuals use their freedom or liberty to abuse community and hurt individuals, God and communities are morally justified in taking action to limit the involvement of those individuals in community. This can be done by removing privileges (taking away professional or driver’s licenses, fining for infringement, incarcerating, etc.).

Third, communities and individuals can set mechanisms to facilitate the dynamic process of preserving freedom and community simultaneously. This is often done by the creation of social institutions, socially constructed ways of guiding human action. The institutions can be as simple as shaking hands—a custom of greeting others acceptable in some parts of the world—to more complex structures with rules and regulations, like marriage. It can also occur at the macro level like the way a group organizes education or health care and how groups create expectations and norms to meet basic human needs.

These social institutions may be ubiquitous and taken for granted—so culturally embedded in one’s life that they are not seen (language, norms, customs). At other times they show up as laws and regulations that are not only prescriptive institutions but can be linked to significant pain for those who violate them.

For example, you can drive a car at 16 not 12 because of a combination of physical development issues but only if you live in a place that has created a car or has access to them and gas for them and only after proper training and often if you have proper insurance to cover potential damage as you drive.

Like cell membranes, social institutions can be structured too rigidly and keep out necessary flow, or be too loose and not create sufficient boundaries that check and control harm.

Studying more about God’s complex mechanisms of cell and nuclear membranes should inspire us to also study the “social and moral” processes around us that are contributing to moral and social well-being.

Lord, help me to have both the soft and stern virtues today to know when to see where mercy and grace need to abound and when justice needs to be served.  Let me know how to guard my body and thoughts, even my innermost secrets in the nucleus of my heart so that I can be loving, kind, gentle, self-controlled and truthful.

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