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April 23, 2007

Whose Values, Whose Virtues?

Values and virtues are not the same. The word "values" was first used in its modern sense by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Nietzsche thought nothing was good in itself, but only because someone "valued" it. He meant his use of the term "values" in preference to "virtues" as an attack on conventional morality that he perceived as weak, foolish, and meaningless.

When we read that values should be taught in the public education curriculum, we might ask what values the writer has in mind. Influential citizens tout many secular values that are rarely if ever alluded to in scripture: egalitarianism, cultural diversity, privacy, environmentalism, vegetarianism, feminism, animal rights, capitalism, a woman’s right to choose abortion, patriotism, democracy, academic freedom, and gay rights, to name only a few. Values are indeed what some group deems valuable, but values do not necessarily constitute a part of Christian ethics. In fact, certain secular values may become the enemy of Christian virtues if they contradict biblical teaching or if they take priority over weightier concerns that lie closer to the heart of God.

Values are human choices. Christian ethics stand upon principles that come from the mind and character of God (for example, Leviticus 19:2). In the process of "values clarification," students confronted with a moral dilemma usually must begin by responding to the question, "How do you feel about this?" As Robert Bellah and his colleagues write in Habits of the Heart, "In modern morality, utility replaces duty; self-expression unseats authority. 'Being good,' becomes 'feeling good.' Something moral is something you feel good after; something immoral is something you feel bad after, which implies you have to try everything at least once. Acts are not right or wrong in themselves, but only because of the results they produce, the good feelings they engender or express." Such an attitude often finds expression in contemporary song lyrics such as when Elvis sings, "Baby, if it feels so right, how can it be wrong?"

Values are ideas and attitudes that result in moral decisions. Christian virtues are those character qualities necessary for pleasing God and living an authentic Christian life. Christians try, insofar as possible, to make biblical virtues their own core values. For example, Paul writes in Philippians 2:4-8, "Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross!" Paul is urging Christians to become humble altruists, based on the example of Jesus.

Choosing certain values and rejecting or subordinating others lies at the heart of Christian ethics. Ethics, like time management, involves making difficult choices between competing values or activities and then sticking with those choices. Understanding what is right is a necessary, although not sufficient, condition for doing what is right. It is equally essential to pursue the right with all one's heart, soul, mind, and strength.


1.What does the phrase "family values" suggest to you? What do you think it might mean to a non-Christian?

2.Do you think that some values can be subversive of Christianity? Name some non-Christian values not already mentioned in this lesson. Can you name any non-Christian values that actually conflict with Christian teaching?

3.Write down what you believe to be the top five core Christian values. What are your reasons for choosing these values? In what way do you think these are the "weightier concerns" that lie close to the heart of God?

4.What do you think Robert Bellah means by the assertion that "self-expression unseats authority" in modern morality? Can you cite some examples from personal experience of authority that has been overthrown by those who want the freedom to express their personal values? Have you encountered any Christians who want to unseat biblical authority in order to follow a contemporary value?

5.Which biblical values do you think contemporary Americans have the most difficulty accepting? Are there any that you yourself have difficulty accepting?

6.Do you know of Christians who have behaved badly in public or private? Why is it that some Christians know perfectly well what is right yet fail to do it?

Continue reading "Whose Values, Whose Virtues?" »

Is the Golden Rule Sufficient?

Many witticisms are made at the expense of the Golden Rule. For example, it is sometimes paraphrased as "Do unto others before they do unto you" or reinterpreted as "The Golden Rule means that those who have the gold make the rules."

Is it enough to say, "Just live by the Golden Rule and you'll be all right?" The term "Golden Rule" refers to the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:12, "So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets." A parallel passage is Luke 6:31, "As you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.”

In his book Morals and Values, Marcus Singer explains two possible interpretations of this Golden Rule. The first may be called the particular interpretation, "Do to others WHAT you would have them do to you." According to this interpretation, we should apply the rule by asking ourselves what in particular we want others to do or what we would want if we were in their place.

If you were a landlord trying to follow the particular interpretation, you might allow your tenants to live in your apartment rent free. Why? Because if you were in their place, you would definitely want a rent-free apartment. By the same token, if you were a jailer, you would let your prisoners go free, because that is exactly how you would like to be treated if you were a prisoner. Obviously, there are problems with this literal interpretation of the Golden Rule.

Another view is known as the general interpretation: "Do to others AS you would have them do to you." This interpretation does not consider what in particular we want others to do or what we would do were we in their place. Rather, the general approach asks us to consider the general ways in which we would expect others to behave. That is, what we want is for others to take into account, in a reasonable way, our interests, feelings, and needs when they act. Similarly, we are to treat others by the same standard that we want them to apply in their treatment of us. We want them to be fair, just, and reasonable. That is how we should treat them, too. The landlord should treat tenants fairly and not exploit them. The jailer should treat prisoners humanely.

The Golden Rule requires that the same standard of fairness or justice be applied to behavior, no matter who performs it and no matter who benefits by it. It demands that we take into account the wishes and desires of others, even if we do not always accede to them. It is a method for dealing with moral questions without being controlled by self-interest.

The Golden Rule cannot stand alone because it is predicated on principles of justice and fairness that exist outside the rule itself. Without a standard of justice or fairness, it would be impossible for us to apply the Golden Rule reasonably because there would be no common understanding of justice. As Joshua Halberstam has noted in his book Everyday Ethics, another underlying assumption behind the Golden Rule is that you love yourself. People who hate themselves tend to misapply the rule. For Christians, furthermore, any concept of justice must connect to other values like love and compassion. If our sense of fairness is somehow biased or flawed because of selfish blindness or lack of compassion, we will probably fail to apply the rule correctly. In commenting on the Old Testament principle, "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18), Paul writes, "Love does no harm to a neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law" (Romans 13:10). In short, it is love for others that makes the Golden Rule shine.


1.You are responsible for hiring a new accountant. One of your old friends has applied for the job. Although other applicants have better credentials, you believe your friend could do the job satisfactorily. On the basis of the Golden Rule, would you hire your friend? Shouldn't we show loyalty to our friends just as we want them to show loyalty to us?

2.Janet and Jennifer are college roommates. Janet works at a donut shop and Jennifer at a fast-food restaurant. When Jennifer goes to the donut shop, Janet always gives her a free donut. Should Jennifer give Janet a free hamburger when she comes to the restaurant? Explain why this situation relates or does not relate to the Golden Rule.

3.Does the Golden Rule presuppose that what I wish others to do to me is the same as what they would wish me to do to them? Can you give an example of how different people might have different expectations of how they should be treated?

4.Confucius (c. 551-479 BC) once said, "Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you." Some say this negative formulation is more humble and modest because it prevents moral harm without presuming to impose one person’s standards on another. What do you think?

5.In what way does the Golden Rule require you to put yourself in another's place or to imagine yourself to be the other person? If Christian soldiers followed the Golden Rule, could they ever deliberately try to kill someone?

6.Another biblical rule is "Do unto others as God has done unto you" (Deuteronomy 5:12-15; 24:17-18). In what way, if any, does this rule offer a different perspective from the Golden Rule?

April 27, 2007

Is It Ever Permissible to Lie?

Lying is one of the most common practices in human society. We usually lie because it is not in our self-interest to tell the complete, honest truth. A real-estate agent tells a client a property won't last long on the market in order to motivate that client to buy. A secretary says the boss is "on another line" when she really isn't. A student tells the teacher he forgot to bring his homework when actually he never got around to doing it.

The general rule holds that truth should never be violated. If society is to function efficiently, its citizens must have the security of being able to believe their fellow citizens. Following this principle, individuals must be willing to suffer occasional inconveniences, embarrassments, and financial losses by always telling the truth. But clearly, many who tell lies don't believe the fate of society stands or falls on their absolute truthfulness. Is lying ever permissible behavior?

Lying is verbal deception. The liar makes statements that intentionally attempt to deceive or mislead. A basketball player who makes a head fake and causes an opponent to leave his feet prematurely is a deceiver but not a liar. Society obviously accepts some deception as "part of the game." For many people, lying is simply part of earning a living. Lawyers may lie to protect their client's confidences. Doctors may lie to patients in order to calm their irrational fears. Salesmen may lie to customers to preserve a fair commission. Journalists may lie in order to get information about a story. Even presidents may lie to protect what they consider to be the national interest. Some see lying as necessary for survival in a highly competitive world.

Lying is effective because human beings seem to be "hard-wired" with a predisposition to believe. Our natural inclination gives others the benefit of the doubt. Were this not the case, we could accept nothing we hear or read without independent confirmation. This means that veracity is the norm expected in human relationships. Any lie constitutes a deviation that must be justified.

The Bible strongly condemns lying (1 Timothy 1:9-10; Psalm 5:6; Revelation 22:15), but will God punish any and every lie? If using force to prevent a murder would be justifiable, why wouldn't telling a lie to prevent a murder be justifiable? Isn't that what Rahab did to protect the spies in Canaan (Joshua 2:4-7)? What about white lies that harm no one? Can a girl make a false excuse if she doesn't want to date a boy? Can we give false compliments or express false gratitude for a gift we don't really like? Can we lie to children about Santa Claus or the stork or the quality of their art work? Can an employee lie to protect his company from embarrassment if the lie does no harm to the customer?

Most Americans never encounter a crisis where lying is necessary to personal survival or to the survival of friends and family. Yet throughout the world, civil wars, invasions, political persecution, and other terrible events put moral considerations to the supreme test. Are there limits to Christian heroism or should a Christian always be ready to die rather than to lie?

In her excellent book entitled Lying, Sissela Bok notes that people who rationalize their own lies as justifiable usually don't like to be lied to themselves by their doctors, lawyers, stockbrokers, or political leaders. We perceive the full impact of a lie only when we view lying from the perspective of the person being lied to.

Lying is dangerous because it eats away at a person's dignity and integrity. One lie usually leads to another, and people delude themselves as they make excuses for their lies. Habitual liars often become skeptical that real truth or really truthful people actually exist. Lying and the cynicism it produces eventually undermine one's faith and Christian influence.


1.Are evasion and suppression of information forms of lying? For example, a preacher is told in confidence that a teenager is pregnant out of wedlock. A few days later, a member asks him, "Have you heard that Julie is pregnant?" What should he answer?

2.Is lying necessary to success or even survival in certain jobs or professions? May we lie to enhance our company's image or to avoid embarrassment to our employer? What about lying to enhance our own personal image or our own personal advantage? Do you remember any "spur of the moment" lies you have told that you wish you had somehow avoided?

3.When professors write inflated recommendations or assign grades of good or excellent to students who in reality are more average than outstanding, are they liars or are they simply compassionate, generous, and altruistic? Where does one draw the line on lying for the benefit of others?

4.In Exodus 1:15-21, the Hebrew midwives lied to Pharaoh and were blessed. Who were some other famous biblical liars? Were any of them (other than the midwives and Rahab) praised for lying?

5.Is it a sin to lie if the lie is part of a practical joke? Is it permissible to lie in order to spare another person's feelings? Give some examples.

6.In order to save valuable time, business people sometimes try to end long phone calls by telling "white lies" like "I have someone in my office" or "I have someone on another line" or "I have to leave for a meeting." Is lying justified in these cases? At what point does a "white lie" cease to be harmless or trivial? What are some alternatives to telling "white lies"?

7.In John 7:8-10, did Jesus lie about going to the feast? Why or why not?

April 28, 2007

Is Perfectly Legal Morally Right?

A common occurrence in recent times is to see a president, senator, or representative proclaiming vigorously to the press, "I have done nothing illegal." Somehow such statements fail to convince anyone that the speaker has been acting irreproachably. Yet the implication is that whatever is legal is also ethical and moral--at least to a satisfactory degree.

Before expelling a student for buying a term paper or dismissing a faculty member for sexual misconduct, a university will often consult a lawyer because an action that seems morally justified may in reality be legally untenable and open the school to damaging litigation. Just because an act causes Christians to feel righteous indignation does not necessarily mean it will be punished by a court of law.

What is the relationship between legality and morality? Are some actions legal but immoral? Are Christians free to do what is illegal as long as it is ethical? Are Christians free to engage in any and all legal activities? May Christians skirt the law as long as no Christian ethical rules are broken?

For example, there is a tax penalty for married couples: Under current tax codes, a married couple pays more taxes than two singles living together do. Is it ethical for a young Christian couple to exchange vows in church before God and their fellow Christians and yet avoid higher taxes by never securing a marriage license that would make the marriage official?

Eleanor Holmes Norton (1938- ), the representative of Washington, D.C., in the United States House of Representatives, has said, "The law is not a system of values but a system in search of values." Yet Christian lawyers and accountants sometimes make their living by suggesting practices that, while they may have the appearance of impropriety, are in reality "perfectly legal." In this way, the law becomes the minimum standard of values by which the propriety of any action may be tested. The law deems acceptable anything that meets its minimum standards.

Lawmakers may write laws contain wording or loopholes that favor certain special interests. For example, laws may exact harsher penalties for "blue-collar" crimes than for "white-collar" crimes. Do some acts seem more wicked than others because certain social or racial groups engage in them more frequently than one's own particular group?

As American society becomes increasingly post-Christian, lawmakers may even begin to write laws that Christians consider to be wrongheaded or immoral themselves. Laws that protect gay and lesbian rights, for example, may force a Christian landlord to rent to homosexual couples. In the past, Christian pacifists have disobeyed draft laws by refusing military service. Many Christian groups have opposed legal decisions that accord doctors the right to perform abortions. How are Christians to react when what they believe is a moral duty becomes illegal?

Profanity, pornography, homosexuality, adultery, divorce, drunkenness, slander, abortion, and gambling have already been decriminalized either partially or wholly by the legal system. It is imprudent, therefore, for Christians to legitimize automatically whatever the law allows. The legislative actions that have legalized highly questionable or openly sinful practices underscore the reality that our governments are not Christian theocracies. Lawmakers have found it inadvisable and usually unworkable to force Christian ethics upon non-Christian citizens. This separation of legal codes from ethical codes makes the law an uncertain moral authority for Christians.


1.From a Christian perspective, is it ethical for a millionaire to pay no income taxes at all because of questionable yet technically legal tax shelters? Is it fair to society when the rich pay few if any taxes?

2.Can a Christian be morally right but legally wrong? Give an example. Does the silence of scripture make something morally permissible? For example, the Bible does not condemn speeding in a car. Is it morally wrong to exceed the speed limit?

3.Aside from the examples given in this chapter, can you think of other behavior that is perfectly legal yet morally wrong for Christians? What about laying off thousands of long-time employees in order to increase profits? Under what circumstances could that be unethical for a Christian executive?

4.How scrupulous does Christian morality have to be? For example, if your auto insurance policy does not list your teenager as the principal driver of a particular car, are you justified in let him or her drive it on a regular basis? If this is neither illegal nor immoral, is it unethical? How so?

5.It is not illegal to charge interest on a loan. In light of Deuteronomy 23:19-20 and Psalm 15:5, may a Christian charge interest on loans to other Christians?

6.The gay rights movement illustrates the conflict between societal values and Christian morality. The law in some states prohibits discrimination against homosexuals in employment and housing. To what extent should the legal values of justice and fairness take precedence over the biblical teaching that homosexuality is sinful? Would you rent an apartment you owned to a homosexual couple if the law required you to?

April 30, 2007

Are Christian Ethics Relevant?

In his book The Quest of the Historical Jesus, Dr. Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), a Nobel Prize-winning humanitarian and theologian, maintained that the radical ethic of Jesus was an "interim" ethic conditioned by his mistaken expectation that the world would soon end. Although Schweitzer admired the spirit of Jesus and believed it had power for today, his thesis implied that radical teachings such as "turning the other cheek" or "going the extra mile" make the best sense to those who believe the world will end within their lifetime and who feel as a consequence that earthly pride, possessions, and power mean little.

For over a century now influential writers and philosophers have suggested that much of our thinking comes from the cultural and social contexts in which we as individuals live. In other words, all human thought is relative rather than absolute. Some have gone on to say that all moral statements and judgments are nothing but expressions of personal preference, of personal attitudes or feelings, none of which is any more authoritative than any other.

One Christian variation of this type of thinking is to say, when confronted with a rebuke from scripture: "Well, that is just your interpretation." The implication is that your understanding of what the Bible says represents your personal preference or feeling rather than an absolute truth. Because this relativism has shaped the views of typical Americans, one finds that even Christians may greet moral judgments with skepticism rather than shame, especially if those judgments are directed at them or their families.

The definition of virtue in general and specific virtues in particular has varied from age to age. Although Aristotle admired courage, justice, self-control, and generosity, he never mentions qualities such as kindness and compassion in his Nicomachean Ethics. Different cultures have had widely divergent views on the value of human life. Just because different standards of ethics are found across time and culture does not mean, however, that each and every standard has equal merit. If one can condemn the Nazi Holocaust as immoral, one can also decry racial segregation, slavery, genital mutilation, cannibalism, infanticide, and other acts condoned by certain cultures.

The question remains: "On what basis can one morally condemn those practices?" If it is impossible to provide a rational justification for morality, as some contemporary philosophers hold, how can you criticize something like the Holocaust that appears so obviously wrong? This is the dilemma of secular ethical thought: Is it ever possible to resolve moral questions and disputes?

Christian ethics are relevant today because they fill a void that no secular moral system has yet managed to fill satisfactorily. Many unbelievers claim they cannot believe in God because evil exists in the world. But by the same token, if physics, brain chemistry, and evolution explain everything, then they, not God, are to blame for evil. No one can escape the reality of evil through unbelief. Indeed, the best alternative to despair lies in the faith that a good God will someday make things right. In similar fashion, imitating the goodness of God provides the only real solution to the moral dilemmas human society faces.

Jesus never explained his ethic in terms of an imminent end to the world. In Matthew 5:48, he says that men must be perfect because God is perfect--not simply because the world is coming to an end. In rejecting divorce, Jesus does not say, "Judgment Day is approaching." Rather, he reminds them that ". . . from the beginning it was not so" (Matthew 19:8). The rationale for Christian ethics is always the character and will of God. The message of an unchanging God remains as relevant as ever to an unchanging human nature.


1.Emotivism is the view that all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, attitude, or feeling designed to evoke emotions. There are no objective and independent standards of right and wrong, only individual preferences. Morality is determined either by polling those preferences ("right" is what people typically prefer) or by bargaining to determine which preferences will take priority ("right" is whatever compromise people negotiate). Suppose that Beavis and Mother Teresa observe a group of children pouring gasoline on a cat and setting it on fire. Beavis says, "Cool!" Mother Teresa says, "How terrible!" Who is to say which one has the appropriate reaction? How would Beavis and Mother Teresa reach a compromise? What examples of emotivist thinking do you see in contemporary life?

2.Utilitarianism is the ethical system that explains human action in terms of attraction to pleasure and avoidance of pain. Morality, in this view, is a cost-benefit decision that depends on the consequences of one's actions and nothing else. What is moral is that which produces the greatest good (happiness or pleasure) for the greatest number. If making one person a scapegoat would restore peace and order to an entire organization or community, would the desirable outcome justify harming that one person? Was Pontius Pilate following a utilitarian ethic? If you were a utilitarian, how would you decide which actions would result in the greatest good and the least harm?

3.Aristotle believed that people had to be intelligent in order to be good, that is, in order to make correct moral choices. Does scripture ever indicate that smart people have a better opportunity to be ethical than slow-witted people? What does the Bible teach about limitations to one's responsibility for making moral choices? Are young children, the severely retarded, or the mentally ill responsible for their acts?

4.Much of secular morality is predicated on the notion of "human rights" such as privacy or freedom to choose. Do human rights really exist independently of legal or constitutional rights? If so, what is the rationale for their existence?

5.What do you think of the advice, "Let your conscience be your guide"? Is the conscience a trustworthy guide to moral decisions? For example, if you knew that your car did not meet the pollution or safety standards of your state even though it had been certified by a lax inspector at a local gas station, would you still be morally justified in driving the car? Would your conscience let you?

6.Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) thought people could reason their way to moral truth without divine revelation. He suggested that a moral rule is true if we are willing for that rule to be followed by everyone all the time. For example, if we can wish that everyone would always tell the truth, then "Always tell the truth" would be a valid moral rule. Would the rule "Always treat everyone with complete and utter impartiality" be an ethical rule acceptable to Christians?

About April 2007

This page contains all entries posted to Trite but True in April 2007. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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