I've been stuck in editing portions of philosophy chapters I've already written--editing for me is way harder than writing a first draft. So I thought I would jump start myself for writing some "stubs" of the philosophy chapters I didn't even start in the spring.
So here's to chapter 11, "Christian Approaches to Ethics":
1. Setting Priorities
2. Absolutes and Relatives
3. The Greater Good
4. Virtue and a Happy Life
1. Setting Priorities
As we mentioned in chapter 1, ethics is the area of philosophy that has to do with how to live in the world. It is actually a branch of axiology, which more broadly asks questions about what is truly valuable. Hardly any area of philosophy is more directly applicable to "real life" than ethics, because it deals with the kinds of decisions we have to make in life both in the long and short term.
We can further specify two basic approaches to ethics that philosophers of all kinds have taken throughout the ages. The better known today is act based ethics. Act based approaches to ethics understandably focus on doing--what we should or should not do, how we should act. The other approach is more interested in being--what sort of people we should be or become. Virtue based ethics, as it is called, is more focused on things like character, motives, and true happiness than on whether specific actions are right or wrong.
[text box: ethics, axiology, act based ethics, virtue based ethics]
Obviously virtue based and act based approaches to living are not completely different from each other. To be virtuous surely means that you will act a certain way under certain circumstances. And a person's actions surely say something about a person's character or happiness. Your approach is thus a matter of emphasis rather than choosing one to the exclusion of the other.
Further, we will see in this chapter that there are actually several different kinds of act based approaches to ethics as well. For example, duty based ethics focuses specifically on actions that are intrinsically right or wrong, meaning that they are wrong in themselves whether they cause something else bad to happen or not. By contrast, utilitarianism focuses completely on the consequences of actions. The right course of action is what brings about the "greatest good for the greatest number."
Finally, egoist approaches to ethics ask "What's in it for me?" The "right" course of action is what will most benefit me. In many respects, the egoist approach would currently seem to be the default ethic of the West, whether consciously or unconsciously. As we will see in chapter 14, it is the fundamental theoretical basis of the American economic system and any capitalist society.
[text box: duty based ethics, utilitarian ethics, egoist ethics, intrinsic]
The problem with all ethical theories is the complexity of life. Life is filled with no win situations. For example, what happens when two different duties come into conflict with each other? What were those who hid Jews during World War 2 to do when Nazis searched their homes? Should they lie or surrender the Jews? What if someone is trying to harm your family and will almost certainly succeed unless you harm them? Is it okay to kill when your life is in danger or when someone else's life is in danger?
Real life necessitates that we prioritize our values so that we know what to do when our values come into conflict with each other. We have no other option. It simply is not possible to consider every right or wrong an absolute, as something we must do or not do without exception. The question of a Christian ethic thus is a question of which approaches fit better with Christian values than the others, as well as which specific values take precedent over others.
When it comes to the question of approach, Christianity has always been concerned with both who a person is and what a person does. To be sure, different Christian groups throughout history have leaned now more toward the importance of the heart or now more toward the importance of proper action. Yet only the most extreme Christian groups would deny any place either to "faith" or "works" in the Christian life.
On balance, the church of the ages and certainly the New Testament have placed a greater emphasis on who you are than on what you do. As we will see later in the chapter, both Jesus and Paul put more importance on the heart than on your concrete actions, and even those books of the New Testament that do put significant emphasis on works (e.g., Matthew and James) do so within the context of the heart. Even the Roman Catholic Church of today sees faith as the primary element in our relationship with God, despite the faith versus works debate of the Reformation.
When it comes to prioritizing Christian values, the New Testament once again gives a clear indication, one that the best minds of Christian history have reaffirmed. When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he replied,
"Love the Lord, your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength." And the second is like the first, "Love your neighbor as yourself." On these hang all the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 22).
This teaching in Matthew is echoed in Paul (Rom. 13; Gal. 3), James, and 1 John. It has echoed throughout Christian history as the essence of a Christian ethic (e.g., in Augustine). The "love God and neighbor" command is thus the bedrock of a Christian ethic. These twin commands are the most "absolute" of Christian duties, for no conceivable situation would create an exception where it was not appropriate to love God or one's neighbor. Similarly, these two values can never come into conflict if they are properly understood.
These two Christian absolutes thus trump all other Christian values, as we will see in the next section. Jesus himself, for example, makes an exception to the rule not to work on the Sabbath in the light of his disciples' hunger (Mark 2). When his opponents question him, he does not reinterpret the Sabbath rule, to argue that plucking grain is not working. His argument is rather that the situation calls for an exception to the rule.
With a basic sense of what the Christian priorities are, we are set to look at three of the ethical theories we have introduced in this section. The next section looks at duty based ethics from a Christian perspective--what Christian duties are absolute, which ones universal but with exceptions, which ones if any relative to culture and personal conviction. The third section of the chapter examines utilitarianism and when the ends do justify the means, if ever. The chapter ends with a look at virtue based ethics and questions of character and true happiness. We will return to egoist ethics in chapter 14.