The area of values takes on a difficult, intangible, but highly important dimension of human life. Values appear to exist only in the realm of the human species. Man alone passes laws to defend the weak, preserve works of art in expensive museums, and argues against the destruction of life. The realms of values and ethics lift man from the frank barbarism and savagery of a sub-human existence. True, man relapses, but then he stands condemned in his relapse precisely because of values.
The status of values is a frequently debated subject. Are values objective so that all people can recognize them? Objectivity of values means that works of art are great and classic regardless of whether anyone recognizes them. This stands in contrast to the subjectivity of values which means that values are only a matter of personal taste and differences. In this case values are like foods--some like ice cream and yet there are people who do not. Advocates of both positions have existed in the past and present with hybrid views in between. The various positions sketched in the following pages will point to a spectrum of thinking running from relativism dealing with subjectivity to more objective systems of ethics.
Ethics is the discipline concerning what is of moral worth. The word "ethics" comes from the Greek language and refers to character and is related to custom or habit. It doesn't help much for a definition of ethics. Traditionally, the discipline of ethics has been concerned with moral norms, the good life, or the life that should be sought. It may be described as anormative discipline--what life ought to be--in contrast to a descriptive discipline like sociology or anthropology which describes life as it has been lived. Increasingly, ethics has been turned into a discipline without norms that are applicable to all people. This will be seen in the first approach to decision making that we will examine.
a. Cultural Relativism.
Cultural relativism began about the fifth century B.C. with the Sophists. One of their most famous teachers, Protagoras, expressed this law simply and succinctly in the saying: "Man is the measure of all things--of what he is, that it is, and what is not, that it is not." No standard exists other
Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza (1632-1677), spent his life as a grinder of lens for glasses and died of consumption caused by the dust. He declined the chair of philosophy at the University of Heidelberg because he thought it would deprive him of his independence. His Ethics was published shortly after his death.
than man, and that can be broken down to each individual being a law unto himself. There are no universal principles of right and wrong. One may do one deed now and the opposite deed in a similar circumstance at another time. Both are right. Essentially, relativism is the idea that whatever is, is right.
Support for this view is sought in the modern era in anthropological studies as The Golden Bough of Frazer and other works. This appears to give scientific support to cultural relativism. Cultures vary in many ways and a norm is hard to find. In a superficial way one can make a defense of relativism.
Criticisms of relativism become complicated. For example, it is argued that relativism appears plausible on the surface, but beneath the surface there are important strata of moral laws common to most great cultures. This is true in spite of small pockets here and there who practice things like the Eskimo practice of lending wives to visiting males. In contrast to this limited practice of the Eskimo, there are no great societies that allow a man to have any woman anytime he wants one. Great cultures have common rules for the regulation of the sexes and although it may have been chauvinistic, it was not a relativistic view of things. The common idea of man is that murder is wrong, and no society allows for indiscriminate killing. Relativism can only be pushed so far. Even among thieves there must be honor and integrity toward the limited group or they could not survive.1 Ethel M. Albert has written, "All societies forbid and punish murder, incest, adultery, theft. All reward or require caring for one's family, helping others, assuming responsibilities, doing as you would be done by."2 As a further expansion of Albert's comments, one can find a list of laws common to many diverse cultures in C.S. Lewis's The Abolition of Man.3 These laws reflect Hindu, Christian, Jewish, Moslem, Egyptian, Babylonian, Norse and Chinese cultures as well as sophisticated pagans like Cicero and Terance.
If these insights be granted, then relativism appears to be a superficial approach to the study of culture and ethics.
b. The relativism of logical positivism.
Logical positivism (cf. chapter 14) gives us another form of relativism. This is the result of tying truth claims to the principle of verification, and the arbitrary division of language into precise categories. A.J. Ayer's work, it will be recalled, distinguished four types of propositions used in ethical discourse. (1) "Propositions which express definitions of ethical terms," i.e., what does it mean to speak of the good, just, wrong, etc. The attempt to define terms is the only legitimate domain of ethical philosophy. (2) There are propositions which describe the phenomena of moral experiences. If I tell you of the frightening experiences of being mugged I describe something that I disapproved of. This type of subject belongs to the discipline of psychology or sociology because they are concerned with the human psyche. (3) Exhortations to moral virtue are the third type. Exhortations--Don't smoke! Don't drink! Be careful driving to work!--are designed to bring about a certain action depending on the relation to the exhorted person. They are impressive when made by a parent to a child, but less so when made by an adult to an adult. Exhortations do not belong to any science since no discipline could deal with them in a factual way. Neither do they belong to philosophy or ethics, as Ayer viewed it. (4) Actual ethical judgements, the last type, are nothing more than value judgements seeking some agreement. Value judgements--it is wrong to use drugs, it is wrong to kill, commit adultery, etc.,--cannot be verified and in Ayer's view are not genuine statements. One may say with truth that "he committed murder" but one cannot say scientifically "it is wrong to commit murder." Since "it is wrong" cannot be verified in a scientific way, these statements merely reflect my emotions and feelings and they are not genuine propositions. My emotions are expressed in my statements but your emotions may be counter to mine. Who arbitrates? No one! This is the relativistic point of logical positivism. There are no objective points of ethical theory concerning right and wrong.
We have earlier considered the problems of logical positivism and will not restate the criticisms here. There are a few minor points to be made concerning the application to ethics. It is inconsistent. It insists that there are no standards, but makes relativism a standard. It denies that there are opposites in moral judgements. But more seriously, it denies that there are bad or wrong actions. Certainly child abuse is not morally defensible, and the proper care of a child is better than the physical abuse and degrading of a child. To say that proper care and physical abuse are equally good involves some kind of twisted thinking.
Just a step up from relativism is the appeal of conscience for moral guidance. Immediately, we have a problem of defining conscience. It has been defined as the "voice within," the voice of God, the voice of the community, the internal voice reflecting one's upbringing. Sometimes it has been equated with intuition, that almost indefinable experience of humans in which they "just know something to be the case." Regardless of how conscience is defined, the real question about it is--can it be a moral guide? Bishop Joseph Butler (1692-1752) thought so and wrote:
There is a superior principle of reflection or conscience in every man, which distinguishes between the internal principle of his heart as well as his external actions; which passes judgements upon himself and them; pronounces determinately some actions to be in themselves just, right, good, others to be in themselves evil, wrong, unjust; which without being consulted, without being advised with, magisterially exerts itself, and approves or condemns his, or the doer of them, accordingly. (Sermon II)
Conscience as a moral guide has seldom been expressed so succinctly. Each man has the moral barometer within.
Criticisms of conscience are easy to come by. First, conscience varies from culture to culture. It is not a uniform guide. It has similar problems associated with the advocates of cultural relativism. A Moslem boy has a Moslem conscience just as a Christian setting produces a Christian one. Second, kept in its religious setting, it does not come off as a useful means of moral decision making. The Bible does say quite a bit about conscience, but never that it is an authoritative decision-maker. Man's conscience is too easily warped, squelched, and blinded by many problems. In the religious context moral decisions are based upon the commands of God, not upon conscience. The adage, let your conscience be your guide, is quite foreign to the Bible. Conscience can be enlightened, made more sensitive, but only in the religious context of the command and Spirit of God. Last, conscience is not an objective guide. Nor, can it be made "public." I cannot see your "conscience-decision" in the same way that I can comprehend and understand a decision based on reason.
3. Pleasure (and Happiness).
The ethics of pleasure is ancient. It has a modern expression in the Playboy philosophy. Various names have been used to describe it. It has been called hedonism, eudaemonism, epicureanism, and a more modern term utilitarianism. Hedonism or the ethics of pleasure is very simple. The good is identified with pleasure and the bad as identified with pain. In simple application, actions which give pleasure are good, and actions which bring pain are bad. The modern poster slogan--if it feels good, do it--expressed a hedonistic sentiment.
Pleasure, however, is not easily definable, and is ambiguous. It also varies from person to person. Pleasure is often connected with the senses, whereas the word happiness is more frequently related to mental or spiritual serenity. It is difficult to avoid switching from one term to the other in a discussion of the ethics of pleasure. This is seen in J.S. Mill's definition. He said:
The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals utility, or the greatest happiness principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure.4
In addition to the difficulty of defining pleasure there is the matter of the extent of pleasure. Am I interested only in my own pleasure, or is my pleasure and happiness linked to society? Individualistic hedonism claims that one's individual pleasure is all that counts. Universal hedonism claims that pleasure is inter-linked and promotes the motto, "the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people." Universal hedonism was also known as utilitarianism. The word utility was used to describe the ability of an action to bring pleasure to the do-er.
Examples of individualistic hedonism can be seen in ancient times. Aristippus (435-356 B.C.) taught that the sense pleasure of the moment is to be sought rather than gambling on the uncertain pleasures of the future which may not come about. Mental pleasures were not as important as the sense pleasure. Epicurus (342-270 B.C.), in contrast, allowed for mental tranquility as a pleasure and the pleasure of one's total life was more significant than intense pleasures of short duration. This led Epicurus to emphasize the importance of health, moderation, as well as peace of mind. Epicurus gave some sage advice in terms of pleasure and desire: Either get what you want, or quit wanting it. Both will give you pleasure.
The better known modern philosophical hedonists were Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and J.S. Mill (1806-73). Bentham believed that pleasure and pain were directives in life, but his was a general social hedonism. Happiness is related to society as a whole. The pleasure of many people is more important than the pleasure of a few people. Bentham also attempted to measure or evaluate pleasure quantitatively. His critics called his views a pig philosophy and the defender of Bentham came in the person of J.S. Mill. Mill introduced quality into pleasure and allowed intellectual pleasures were more important than sense pleasures. His famous statement was: "It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be a Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied." Mill's position twists the Hedonistic ideal. If there are differences in pleasure, if some are better than others, than it is for a reason, and reason is an appeal to a standard that is not pleasure itself.
There are many problems with the ethics of pleasure. Philosophers have raised all kinds of objections against hedonism. (1) Pleasure does not bring happiness. The pursuit of pleasure may be the most empty pursuit of human existence. The pursuit of pleasure may be what Pascal called a "diversion," the covering over, or ignoring the reason for human existence, the unwillingness to face the facts of life. (2) There is no way of measuring pleasure, or knowing how much pleasure an act will bring. Many are the innocent comments, "It was not as much fun or pleasure as I expected." (3) There is no norm for pleasure. What gives pleasure at age 19 may change radically at age 65. Tastes change due to education, health, and culture. If a norm is sought in an ethical system, hedonism does not give much. (4) The hedonism of the modern era is often egoistic, rejecting personal attachments, binding loyalties, and responsibilities such as the home, family, and serious romance. (5) A criticism raised against utilitarianism involves an unusual hypothesis. Suppose that they are right in terms of the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. Suppose a utopian state could be brought into existence--food, shelter, harmony, and the needs of mankind would be met in terms of health and all the conditions of happiness--with the provision that one man be retained in involuntary torture with his life sustained miraculously not being able to terminate the torture. If all could be happy at the expense of one--would a utilitarian agree to it? Presumably not, since the happiness of all is an equal happiness involvement.
These criticisms must not be taken to overrule a necessary and important place of pleasure and happiness. There is nothing wrong with happiness--the problem is where happiness is sought and in what ways. In most ethical systems there is a place for pleasure and variation. The fact that I secure pleasure in writing this book is compatible with most ethical systems. If I secured pleasure at the expense of my family, or the abuse and exploitation of other people, then the system itself has little to say in counter-acting my pleasure, with the exception of utilitarianism. While the ethics of pleasure certainly appeals to our senses, it is too anarchic to be of value in setting forth a norm for decision making.
4. The Ethics of Power.
An ethic of power is an adaptation of the ethics of hedonism centered in the pleasure of one person ruling over the many. One person has pleasure at the expense of all others in varying degrees. Ethics of power is sometimes called naturalism in ethics or the idea that might is right. The familiar conclusion that many reached about the end of World War II and the Nürenburg trials expresses this ethic: "If the other side had won, they would have tried our leaders and done the same thing to us." Right is on the side of the winner--whoever it is.
One prominent analysis of this comes from Plato in which Thrasymachus argued for the ethic of power against Socrates. Thrasymachus argued that right "is to act in the interest of those who are more powerful than yourself."5 The corollary of this is that the one in power does right. Thrasymachus argued that the laws of the land reflect the ruling party. A despot makes autocratic laws, a democracy makes democratic ones. Laws are made in the interest of the ruling group. Moreover, Thrasymachus argued that injustice is more useful and profitable than justice. He gave a number of examples. The unjust man who enters into a contract with a just man will always have more when the partnership is dissolved than the just man will have. The unjust man always pays less income tax and other kinds of taxes than the just man. He spoke of running for public office. The unjust man will take advantage of the office and do injustices on a large scale and get away with it, while the just man will suffer many ways. His friends will criticize him for being just to them and he loses in terms of his business he must forsake while he pursues public office. It pays to be unjust and most men would be unjust if they knew they would be able to get away with it. An old joke illustrates the principle argument in Thrasymachus. A Russian Jew once told a Polish Jew, "When one dishonest Czar cheats some other Czar, it is called High Policy; when one dishonest Prime Minister cheats another one, it is called High Diplomacy; when one dishonest banker cheats another one, it is called High Finance; when one dishonest merchant cheats the public, it is called Trade, but when a housewife walks out with a pair of pretty earrings, it is called robbery and she is speedily deported to Siberia." "Well," mused the Polish Jew, "She was probably condemned not for shoplifting, but for clumsiness."
In modern times the ethic of power is reflected in Darwin's survival of the fittest and more particularly the exposition of it by Herbert Spencer. Friedrich Nietzsche is sometimes erroneously interpreted in this way. Revolutionary ethics of all sorts argue from the basis of power.
A modern amalgam of pleasure, power, and reason is seen in the views of Ayn Rand, novelist and philosophical advocate of rational self-interest. She proposes three virtues as a guide to living: (1) reason, the basis of knowledge, (2) purpose, the basis of happiness, and (3) self-esteem, the basis of the worth of living. These three are the basis for the following exposition of virtues.
1) rationality--nothing takes precedence over thinking
2) independence--yours is the responsibility of judgements, there is no substitute for you.
3) integrity--you cannot fake your own consciousness, and there should be no breach between soul and body.
4) honesty--recognize that the unreal is unreal; obtain nothing by fraud.
5) justice--every man is to be judged for what he is, both good and bad. This judgement is by you.
6) productiveness--recognition of the fact that you choose to live and remake the earth in one's values.
7) pride--you are your own highest value, and like all of man's values, it has to be earned.6
The emphasis on rationality coupled with selfishness makes the system of Rand difficult to categorize. The selfish emphasis relates it to hedonism and to the ethics of power. The emphasis on rationality places it in a later relationship. But on selfishness, she wrote, "The most selfish of all things is the independent mind that recognizes no authority higher than its own and no value higher than its judgement of truth."7 Selfishness is expressed in the trader concept, "A trader is a man who earns what he gets and does not give or take the undeserved."8 If you cannot give, you should not get. The weakling, the rotter, the liar, the failure, and the coward should suffer for their condition. Welfare-ism is out and rational self-interest is in.
Rand's views have appeal to the vanity of the human ego. But is man as rational as she believes? Is man as independent as she hopes? There are other criticisms that we have no room for concerning her understanding of religion and the nature of capitalism as well as the relation between religion and the rise of capitalism.
Now for a few criticisms of the ethic of power in general. It is hard to criticize the ethics of power because tyrants are not rational. The only thing a tyrant respects is counter force. If rationality be granted, then one may consider a number of things. (1) Socrates argued that injustice creates division, hatred, and fighting, and human needs are not met. If all humans have their own needs met, then justice prevails and harmony with it. (2) He also argued that tyranny is contrary to man's basic needs. After the necessities of life, man's nature requires nothing more. The tyrant is a person who does not know himself and his needs as a human being. (3) The ethics of power involves a false assumption that happiness can be achieved by power. The most powerful rulers have frequently been the most unhappy. (4) If reason is admitted, then religion poses some other considerations concerning human life and its relation to God. God wills regard for human life, and there is no divine right of kings, let alone tyrants. This raises the question about man's nature and his needs and brings us to the system of ethics called self-realization.
5. The Ethics of Humanism, or Self- Realization.
Is it possible to develop an ethic based on man's general understanding of his own nature? The ethics of humanism or self-realization affirms this possibility. The first question to answer is: what is a self? The first real model of this ethical system was that of Plato. Man was analyzed by Plato and understood as a tripartite being. Man is composed of reason, passion or spirit, and appetites.
Using the model of the ideal state, there is an order in man and the state. The first principle is reason which is to rule man's body and life. The second element or principle is passion or spirit. An example of passion or spirit is the anger expressed in oneself for giving into a desire. Plato described Leontius who felt a desire to look at some dead bodies and at the same time abhorring the thought. He gave in to the desire and was angry at himself for so doing. Passion or spirit frequently allies itself with reason, or the rational principle. The third principle, the irrational or appetitive, is related to hunger, thirst, and other pleasures and satisfactions.9
The order of this view of man is important. If it is inverted or perverted then inharmony reigns. In a similar manner Plato argued that if a cobbler were to be the ruler of the state chaos would result. Everything in its place is important. The cobbler is important for shoes, but not for statecraft. Reason is to rule man's life. The man ruled by the appetites or the passions is a man living in an inharmonic state.
Something more is linked to this analysis of man. There are four Greek virtues, called the cardinal virtues. Each of the first three virtues is related to the principles of man's existence. Linked with reason is the virtue of wisdom. Wisdom is the proper and right use of one's rational principle. Linked with spirit or passion is the virtue of courage. Courage involves the control of one's passions or the use of one's passions as the courage of a soldier, or the enthusiasm in one's work. Linked to the appetites is the virtue of temperance. Appetites are good in their place and under the control of temperance and rationality. Too much food is dangerous as is too little food.
The fourth virtue, justice, has no single parallel, but is related to all three. Justice means that each part or principle has its legitimate dessert. The harmonious functioning of the three principles in relation to one another then brings fulfillment. The graph indicates this:
Passion Courage Justice: everything
Appetites Temperance in its place
Plato concluded that the just man, the man of self-realization, would never be guilty of making off with the state's silver or gold, he would never be guilty of sacrilege or theft, or treachery, of breaking faith, or agreements, or adultery, or irreligion. The reason being that he knows--rationally--what is right and will do the right.
The ethic of Plato is one of the finer examples of the humanist ethic. Various systems have been inspired by Plato and many of them are in the idealist tradition or by philosophers that are sympathetic to idealism such as personalism and pragmatism. There is much that is noble in the aspirations of self-realization. But there are very few well-rounded individuals who live rationally and the society in which we live is not as well-ordered as Plato conceived. His was a utopian view and in a utopia everyone is angelic. But a world filled with revolution, strife, tyranny, and chaotic people is quite different from the Republic.
The twentieth century has brought two World Wars and threats of more, along with minor wars. Disillusionment with man's progress and self-realization has been raised in various circles. There are criticisms that may be looked at briefly. (1) Is man the standard of right or wrong? Is man the measure of all things? Doesn't this allow more for relativism than a standard of ethics for all people? (2) Can simple rationality save one from the complexities of decision making? Given Plato's belief in God would it not involve Him in some further relationship for ethics? (3) If a different analysis of man prevailed--as in the Marxist view--then the ethical precepts come out differently. Therefore, is the view of Plato correct? It would be contested by many.
6. The Ethics of Duty (Formalism).
A step further in looking at ethical systems may be seen in the person of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), and the ethics of the categorical imperative. An ethic that decides goodness on the basis of motive is a formal ethic. Doing the good for the sake of the good and no other reason is important. Kant's ethic began with the aim of establishing "the supreme principle of morality."10 The foundation of his ethic is "the good will," or the act of willing. He wrote, "It is impossible to conceive anything at all in the world, or even out of it, which can be taken as good without qualification, except a good will."11 The usual elements in life such as power, wealth, honor, and health need to be vitally related to the "good will" to keep them from corruption. Going further Kant claimed that it is not the result of an action or the means that is to be stressed, but the motive in the deed. The deed is "good through its willing alone."12
Willing a good deed and the sense of duty are related. One must not do a good deed from wrong motives. A merchant has one price for his goods to all customers, but it is for business reasons rather than from principles of fair dealing. Such an act is not done from duty but from business expediency.
Similarly, duty is done for duty's sake, and not for the purposed result from the action. Proceeding from this sense of high duty Kant set forth a categorical imperative, which is a type of action done for duty sake rather than as a means to something else, i.e., gain, love, etc. He noted that there is "only a single categorical imperative and it is this: `Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.'"13 The categorical imperative has three applications or three formula. The first one is expressed in a similar fashion as the categorical imperative. It is called the formula of the law of nature: "Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature."14 Four illustrations are given by Kant, but one will be enough for illustrating this principle. Suppose a man finds himself in hard times and needs to borrow money. He knows he cannot pay it back within a fixed time, and he knows that he will not get it unless he promises to make a definite payment at an early time. Can he lie and say he will do what he knows he cannot do? When he asks: is lying right? then the obvious answer is no. He cannot will that everybody lie and deceive. He cannot universalize his action and so he must reject lying.
The second application of the categorical imperative is called "The formula of the end in itself." It is: "Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end."15 In the case of our example above, lying to the banker would be merely another way of exploiting or using him as a means, and not regarding him as an end. Prostitution serves to illustrate the dual application of the principle. One who goes to a prostitute is exploiting her, and at the same time the prostitute does not treat herself as a person in the full sense of self-dignity.
The third application is more vague and not stressed as much as the first two. It is called the formula of autonomy. Kant wrote of it as "the supreme condition of the will's conformity with universal practical reason--namely, the Idea of the will of every rational being as will which makes universal law."16 No illustrations are used for this, but it means that one abides by laws made by oneself and which are universal. Heteronomy is the rule by other laws presumably not universal, but which are made by someone else.
Kant visualized the possibility of an ideal, a kingdom of ends where all live in regard for people as people.
Kant's ethic has had a great influence in western thought and it is one of the noble attempts at searching out the basis of values. But there are some problems with it. (1) One criticism concerns the categorical imperative, or the sense of duty. Duty does not have content. We should do our duty, but what is the nature of our duty? (2) How does one resolve conflicting duties, i.e., should you leave family to serve the nation? If life is hard and your family is starving, should one steal to preserve their life? (3) Some good things cannot be universalized. Welfare and celibacy are two examples. Welfare is good when the majority of the people are working, but it cannot be universalized. (4) The good will or intention needs more than Kant gave it. It needs good means as well as good consequences flowing from it. The housewife is not helped much if her good china is broken by a well-intentioned friend helping with the dishes. (5) The fulfillment of duty has an ambiguity: if the Gestapo knocked on your door and asked, "Are there any Jews here?" If you were a Kantian you would have to say yes. If duty is done without regard to consequences, life may turn terribly cruel. Is there not greater duties to save life and serve humanity over against perpetuating tyranny?
Some of the good features of Kant's ethic are a secularized version of the Christian ethic, and to that we now turn.
7. The Christian Ethic.
The Christian ethic has suffered more caricatures than other ethics. A poem sums up this negativistic-stereotype:
My parents told me not to smoke, I don't, I don't.
Or listen to a naughty joke, I don't, I don't.
They made it clear I must not wink at pretty girls,
Or even think about intoxicating drink, I don't, I don't.
To dance or flirt is very wrong, I don't, I don't,
Some play at cards the whole night long, I don't, I don't,
I kiss no girls, not even one, I do now know how it
is done, You wouldn't think I'd have much fun,
I don't, I don't.
Unfortunately, the religious ethic appears to many as a set of "no-no's."
The Christian ethic is something different. One can see this in the following comparisons. In actuality, there are only three types of ethical systems when they are all boiled down: (1) naturalistic--a view that is individualistic, egoistic, and pleasure or happiness oriented; (2) idealistic--views associated with Kant or self-realization ethics. It is an ethic based on reason, duty, or an analysis of man's nature, and is essentially man-centered. (3) The religious ethic is an ethic retaining some of these emphases but with the starting point of God, not man, nor nature. Emil Brunner raised a complicated question about the nature of ethics. Is there an ethic
in which morality is seen in its purity
in which one is free from irrationality and is yet grounded in something which is higher than human reason;
in which the Good is both the highest sense human, and yet in the highest sense Divine
in which the good and evil are clearly distinguished from one another, without merging again into one at an innermost point;
in which the opposition between good and evil comes out as clearly as possible, yet without rending humanity into two separate metaphysical halves,
in which the individual is taken seriously, yet not at the cost of the community,
in which the community is taken seriously, yet not at the cost of the individual,
in which physical well-being is not denied in order to exalt spirituality
in which spirituality is not deprecated as a merely accompanying phenomena of the physical,
in which an answer absorbs all knowledge which unveils and removes all the errors which manifest itself in the contradiction of the opposing views,
in a word, does the Christian faith give the answer, the only answer, and the whole answer to the ethical problem?17
Brunner affirmed that Christian faith does give the best answer to the problem of ethics. The reason for this claim is that Christian ethics begins with a transcendent source of the good, namely God. The difference in ethical systems may be compared to a group of musicians who tune up together on any pitch that sounds right. They can play together but the contrast is obvious when a standard A is sounded.
The Christian ethic begins with God. Ethics and worship cannot be separated. There is no ethic apart from worship and commitment. The Ten Commandments begin with "I am the Lord, Therefore, you shall . . . ." The authority behind the Ten Commandments is God. Their validity starts with God. Because God is, he wills the Good.
The content of God's will is directed toward community. God created mankind out of love and his will is socially oriented, a community. There is no service for God which is not related to the service of man.18 The hermit, the isolated saint, the solitary contemplator who leads a private life runs counter to the will of God.
It was said above that ethics cannot be separated from worship, and it must now be said that ethics cannot be separated from doctrine. There is a particular Christian doctrine--the Incarnation--which points up three items for ethics: (1) Knowledge of God's will is seen eminently in the Incarnation and God's will is wholly a will for humanity. (2) The Incarnation points up the possibility of becoming truly human for it involves a recovery from sin and weakness and strength for overcoming. (3) The Incarnation involves reconciliation and forgiveness which is not only the source of recovery from sin, but also preventing ethics from being legalistic moralism in which no mercy or forgiveness is shown.
For a definition, Christian ethics is human living as commanded by Divine Command and Conduct.19 Divine Conduct is motivated by love and the two great commandments that sum up all others are: Love God with all your heart, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Now we must ask, what is love? The English word covers several ideas and is used so loosely that Charles Whitman set at his typewriter on August l, l966 and wrote, "I've decided to kill Kathy tonight. I love her very much." The next day he expressed his "love" of humanity by gunning down more than two dozen from a University of Texas tower. Is it possible to destroy a life you love?
The Greek language has given us three different words that are translated by our single word love. These words carry important distinctions in trying to understand the commands to love God and man. First, there is eros. Eros is erotic love, romantic love, love between a man and woman. It cannot be commanded. It is known intuitively and grows up spontaneously. Second, there is philia, referring to the love of a friend for friend. This refers more to liking. I love or like a friend and the rest of mankind falls outside of my liking or this type of love. This is also spontaneous, known intuitively, and cannot be commanded.
Third, there is agape. Agape is what God commands and it describes his love toward man. God's is a non-calculating love. It is not a tit-for-tat deal between humans. Love expresses itself without seeking gain. Love does seek reciprocity, a response, but it involves the welfare and wholeness of humanity. God loves the unloving, and unlovely, and seeks to bring wholeness to their lives. When God commands man to love (agape) it is a love involving respect, helping where help is needed regardless of the relationship, and love is not bounded by boundaries of any kind. Love extends even to one's enemies--love your enemies--meaning you don't need to like them, but love helps, desires that even the enemy be truly human, and be helped as all humans need help.
The positive commands of God are two: love God with all your heart--God has certain rights and respect and reverence are due Him. The Ten Commandments speak of these as reverence for Him, His Name, and his day, and the family. Men also have certain rights, and love reverences these rights. They are rights to respect, property, a wife, a good name, and life. These rights are preserved positively in agape, and preserved negatively in the second table of the Ten Commandments.
Love is universal in its application, in all circumstances, and at all times. Love overrules the harshness of duty, and prohibits the legalism of moralism. Love is founded in God, but is an ethic for man. Love gives pleasure but is not mere pleasure. Love is not wishy-washy. Love is responsible to human needs over against the rationalizations of reason. Love as an ethic is not adverse to commandments, but fulfills their intention. Love also involves forgiveness--a virtue that almost no other system of ethics advocates.
The Christian ethic involves many other things, but this serves as a basic model which may be developed further. If the problem of relativism is to be overcome fully, the most significant way seems to be in a ethic borne of God's self-revelation. This is the claim of the Christian ethic. It is especially significant that Confucius, Buddha, and Lao-tzu did not claim to bring a revelation from God, and in pantheistic Hinduism there is no revelation, only meditation. The Judaeo-Christian ethic is built upon God's self-revelation.
The Christian ethic has other advantages. The Christian ethic gives content to conscience. Consciences vary from culture to culture. The conscience of the Christian is to be determined by the Word of God. It is only in this fashion that conscience can be said to be a guide in moral decision making.
The Christian ethic also gives meaning to pleasure and happiness. The ethic of the Bible is not against wholesome pleasure and the gift of happiness is something that comes from God. Jesus claimed to come to give the life more abundant. There are different views between a secular ethic and the Christian ethic concerning what the good life is all about, but the judgement of the Christian ethic is that life must be more than sensations. Life must have a quality to it that comes from a relation to God. The gospel is the good news of salvation, deliverance, and healing. In reality, an ethic of pleasure finds it greatest fulfillment in the Christian ethic.
Similar comments may be made concerning humanism, or the ethic of self-realization. What is the real purpose of human existence? The Christian ethic gives a different view than Plato did; Plato's self-realization involves only an earthly view of existence. The Christian ethic claims earthly and heavenly fulfillment.
The ethic of duty really needs the Christian idea of agape to give it vitality. Christian ethics has its duties, but it is not duty for duty sake. It is duty for God's sake. It is obedience out of love.
These are some implications of the Christian ethic with regard to other systems. There are some other advantages to the Christian ethic. (1) It gives a solid basis for criticizing culture. The prophets of the Old Testament and religious reformers have always appealed to the Word of God over against decadent cultural practices. (2) By virtue of accepting criticism, progress can be made for the individual-in-community. (3) The standard of God's ethic is, to use Karl Barth's phrase, an impossible-possibility. It is impossible to achieve perfection, but in all circumstances it would be possible to do better. This prevents the smugness of a moral system like that of Ben Franklin, as well as retaining a challenge to higher moral achievement.
There are some questions raised about the religious ethic. First, the question of God's existence is raised. Can one prove that God is and has spoken. The second question is raised in regard to which religion is true. Both of these questions can be dealt with in a rational, but not scientific way. Various writers have treated them elsewhere and we will not go into that exposition.20
We have surveyed the major types of ethical systems. These still influence vast segments of the world's cultures. Understanding the system helps to understand why people do the things they do. It appears obvious that our regard is for the Christian ethic. While not everyone accepts it for varying reasons, it offers the finest way of solving ethical problems as well as giving a solid basis for decision making. It offers decisions related both to man and God.
For Further Study
Aristotle. Ethics. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1953.
Ayer, A.J. Language, Truth and Logic. New York: Dover Publications.
Bourke, Vernon J. History of Ethics. 2 vols. Garden City: Image Books, 1970.
Brennan, Joseph G. Ethics and Morals. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.
Brunner, Emil. The Divine Imperative. Translated by Olive Wyon. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1947.
Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals. Translated by H.J. Paton. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1964.
Lewis, C.S. The Abolition of Man. New York: Macmillan Co., 1947.
Mill, J.S. Utilitarianism. New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1949.
Moore, G.E. Ethics. London: Oxford University Press, 1912.
Rand, Ayn. The Virtue of Selfishness. New York: The New American Library, 1961.
Rand, Ayn. For the New Intellectual. New York: The New American Library, 1961.
The Portable Plato. New York: Viking Press, 1948.
1Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol. I, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1941, p. 275.
2Ethel M. Albert, "Facts and Values," in The Range of Philosophy, edited by Harold H. Titus and Maylon Hepp, New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., 1970, p. 256.
3C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, New York: Macmillan Co., 1947, pp. 97-121.
4John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1949, p. 7.
5The Portable Plato, New York: The Viking Press, 1948, p. 298.
6Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, New York: The New American library, 1961, pp. 1-27. Also, For the New Intellectual, New York: The New American Library, 1961, pp. 128-134.
7The New Intellectual, op. cit., p. 142.
8Ibid., p. 133.
9The Portable Plato, op. cit., p. 443.
10Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, translated by H.J. Paton, New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1964, p. 60.
11Ibid., p. 61.
12Ibid., p. 62.
13Ibid., p. 88.
14Ibid., p. 89.
15Ibid., p. 96.
16Ibid., p. 98.
17Emil Brunner, The Divine Imperative, translated by Olive Wyon, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1947, p. 51.
18Ibid., p. 54.
19Ibid., p. 86. Many of the points here follow Brunner.
20See Brunner, Revelation and Reason, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press; Hendrik Kraemer, Why Christianity of All Religions, Philadelphia: Westm,inster Press, 1962. Also Kraemer, The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World, Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1963; Dallas Roark, The Christian Faith, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977.