« Is Perfectly Legal Morally Right? | Main | Are Some Virtues More Important ? »

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?


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on April 30, 2007 8:53 AM.

The previous post in this blog was Is Perfectly Legal Morally Right?.

The next post in this blog is Are Some Virtues More Important ?.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

Powered by
Movable Type 3.35