We started ethics today in philosophy. Here are some of the distinctions I presented to give greater precision to the way we talk about these things.
1. Act based ethics is only one approach to ethics, namely, the one that focuses most on what we do, do's and don'ts. The other main approach is virtue based ethics, which of course involves actions but focuses more on character and being, what we are. I didn't mention it today, but of course the ancient Mediterranean world, as the New Testament, formulated ethics more in terms of a virtue based than an act based ethic.
2. We made the important distinction between absolutism in ethics and absolutism in epistemology. These are related, but often blurred together. An absolute truth is a truth that is always true everywhere under all circumstances. An absolute moral requirement, on the other hand, is something that is always right or always wrong everywhere under all circumstances, no exceptions.
I suggested that among others, there were two foundational moral absolutes laid down by Christ: love God and love neighbor. There is no exceptional circumstance where it would be appropriate not to love God or not to love one's neighbor.
3. To make a distinction that is often lost, we discussed the fact that a person who believed abortion was wrong unless the life of the mother is in danger is not an absolutist on the issue of abortion. Similarly, if someone believed it was wrong to lie except, say, if a Nazi at your door is asking if you are hiding Jews upstairs (and you are), then this person is not an absolutist on this issue.
I labeled this position "universal rights and wrongs" (but with exceptions). I pointed out at least one area where this was the appropriate scope for a Christian ethic, namely, obeying those in authority over you. The right thing to do in all places is to obey those in authority over you except when it conflicts with your obedience to God. So Peter and John disobey the Sanhedrin's command not to preach in the name of Jesus. They made an exception to the rule.
4. We didn't get to the next position on my overhead, relativism, but we did mention it. We mentioned head coverings and possibly drinking alcohol as matters of Christian conviction. We then pointed out that convictions are, by definition, points of relativism that are appropriate to Christian life. God might require me not to drink, while God having no such requirement of a Christian in Australia.
This led to a challenge. We cannot dismiss various ethical positions simply by labeling them as "not absolute" or "relativist." There are issues where God's position is apparently not absolute or even relativist. So when a person might say, "Well, abortion is wrong for me, but I can't say it would be wrong for someone else," we have to show that it is wrong to be relativist on this issue. But we can't dismiss the comment because it is relativist. We have to argue that this is not an issue on which God is relativist.
But God is a relativist on some issues, according to the Bible. So Paul: "I am convinced that no food is unclean of itself, but if someone thinks it is unclean, then it is unclean"--Rom. 14:14.
A snippet from philosophy class on Wednesday, March 21, 2007.