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Ethics, Apple, and the Future

There has been a great deal of discussion in the news lately that surrounds the legal battle between Apple Computer and the FBI. After the terrorist shooting in San Bernadino, California, the FBI asked the computer company to assist them in breaking into the terrorist’s iPhone. On the surface, this sounds like a pretty reasonable request, but the ramifications of the request are far greater than just the matter of the security of an electronic device or the responsibility (or lack-thereof) of a private company or individual to assist the government.

My point with this reflection is not to say that Apple is the knight in white shining armor nor is it to condemn their actions. My purpose is to raise the question of computers and privacy from a principled perspective, namely as to what Biblical ethics are at stake here. And by the way, Apple was never established as a Christian company nor are its leaders professing Christians in any way that I am aware of, which means that this is not an apologetic for Apple, but rather a reflection from a Christian perspective.

On the most basic level, this discussion in the news is where the balance lies between personal privacy and the government’s right to restrict your activity to “protect” the general populace? Or, perhaps we should simply the question even further: “do the needs of the many  (protection) outweigh the needs of the few (privacy)?”

For the purpose of clarity, we should assert that the protection of the populace is part of God’s design for the government as the government’s job is to praise good behavior and to punish those who do evil (1 Peter 2:14). Yet, how far ought our civil government go in seeking to punish those who do evil? Certainly the Biblical writers would never have dreamed of the technology available to us today, so we need to rely on clear inferences when making application. Yet, as the scriptures are designed to prepare us for every good work (2 Timothy 3:17), we ought to expect the scriptures to give us guidance as to matters such as this.

There is one more reason that this court battle is important. For most of us in America, we have been taught that ethics are situational. In other words, right and wrong only apply to the context in which one finds oneself. Yet, situational ethics are not the ethics of the Bible. In God’s economy there are absolute rights and wrongs, proper things to do and improper things to do. And when the Ethic is absolute, there is no “wiggle room” to adjust the ethical rule because of the convenience or inconvenience of the situation.

So, if we return to the question, “do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” how ought we to think as Christians? On the surface, as Christians, we might be tempted to look to the sacrifice of Christ and say, “yes, the needs of the many do outweigh the needs of the few.” But, if we are tempted to say as much, I would caution you to examine Christ’s sacrifice more closely. For, why did Jesus sacrifice himself? It was an act of sovereign grace to redeem the elect (a comparatively small number, compared to the whole of mankind). Were Jesus compelled to sacrifice himself because of the needs of the many, then not only could you argue for a form of universalism, but also, were he compelled, his sacrifice would have been one of compulsion, not grace. Further, while indeed the sacrifice of Christ did provide for the needs of the elect, it was motivated not by our needs, but for the purpose of glorifying the Father.

Jesus was under no obligation to agree to die to preserve a remnant from fallen man, he chose to out of his sovereign grace for the glory of the Father. So, in this case, the need of the few (to glorify the Father) was the reason for the act that benefitted the many (the elect through the ages). And a principle of absolute ethics applied in one context, applies to all contexts because of the nature of absolute ethics.

So, dispatching the notion of the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few, we must go back to 1 Peter and ask, would such an action Apple assisting the FBI in getting access to encrypted data in a person’s iPhone, be an action consistent with rewarding good behavior and punishing evil behavior. Apple asserts that doing so would create a weakness that either the government or a criminal could exploit. The FBI states that they are only requesting access to one phone.

As I stated, my purpose is not to advocate for one side or the other, but simply to ask the ethical question. In a world where electronics track almost our every move, record places we shop, and hobbies in which we engage, at times today’s world feels a little like Orwell’s world in the novel 1984. We must not place our heads in the sand with regard to the rapid advance of technology and must be intentional about applying what we know about Biblical principles to the world around us…even to Apple and the FBI, whose feud has ramifications for the things that follow in our culture.