Secular Ethics Find Cohesion In Christ
Sitting in on a PHIL001 lecture at Annenberg last semester, I found comfort in knowing most students would not randomly burn a kitten. The justifications for this conclusion ran the gamut from utilitarian (“Unless burning the kitten served to preserve two other kittens…”) to situational (“The kitten shouldn’t be burned unless the crime it has committed is deserving of it”). Each justification I heard could have been categorized into an existential, normative, or situational ethical perspective. Historically, each school of thought has tried to distinguish itself by mutual exclusion with no hope of overlap. By contrast, a Christian ethic derived from the Bible can incorporate each perspective in some fashion: existentially, we seek the inner satisfaction of living as God designed us to live; normatively, this design is based on God’s authoritative word and law; and situationally, we seek to obey God by finding opportunities to advance his kingdom. Throughout this paper, my aim will be to show the reader the insufficiencies within each perspective by itself and how an ethic informed by the Christian Bible includes all three.
First, an existential ethic examines character and inward motive. Existentialists consider being motivated by external reward or law to be hypocritical and betraying genuine self-expression. They say we should be free to be who we really are; morality is thus not found outside ourselves, but within. The existential PHIL001 student does not appeal to civil law as the basis for burning the kitten. Instead, he has an internal aversion to that kitten because it may be infringing on the student’s moral freedom and the freedoms of others. This ethical perspective admittedly finds little practical use, and moreover, strict existentialism is self-refuting: if the existentialist denies absolute values, then the existentialist has made that an absolute value. Denying a value becomes a value, and denying a truth implies holding onto another truth. Even though the existentialist ethical perspective is not watertight, it is still very much part of the Christian ethic. Existentialism echoes the biblical teaching of the heart being the grounds on which God judges whether an action is good. In the Protestant ethic, faith and love are necessary and sufficient conditions for genuine “good works,” a term in the Bible denoting works that please a morally perfect God. As the Apostle Paul writes to the church in Corinth, “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing”. He then goes on to systematically explain the metrics of love, a robust explanation encompassing nothing short of patience, kindness, and humility that would be the envy of shallower explanations found within the realm of secular ethics. Now most existentialists would agree with this definition; so what makes the Christian ethic therefore distinct? The answer lies in the nature of the internal motive: whereas the existentialist mistakenly avoids using any outside law or norm as the basis for motive, the Christian recognizes that every human heart has already received this external standard of morality from God because, unlike animals, we and our consciences were made in his likeness. The two views differ vastly in their relationship to norms, with the existentialist denying them and the Christian embracing them; in the Christian worldview, obeying God’s law is not hypocritical but rather the truest expression of how humans were meant to behave. To follow God’s laws is the Christian’s greatest freedom and joy versus disobeying, which is the greatest form of enslavement.
Notice how the Christian’s existential ethic not only includes but also necessitates a normative ethical perspective. Indeed, both conventional and Christian thought agree that ethics based solely on inner affections and satisfaction, religious or not, are not a comprehensive basis for declaring anything right or wrong. Instead, a normative ethic should be promoted in order to catalogue standard human duties. Championed by Immanuel Kant, a normative ethic renounces emotion’s role and instead prescribes absolute duties. An absolute duty is one that could be applied to all persons equally without logical contradiction. The Kantian PHIL001 student cannot stomach the subjectivity of the existentialist looking inwardly in his decision to burn the kitten, and so suddenly the Kantian authoritatively preaches to the class their duty as Penn students to protect the rights of the kitten. Or maybe he actually states they must burn the kitten in order to keep his promise to the mouse family that the kitten killed. These examples show the fallacy of how the Kantian normative case itself actually has no norm. There is subjectivity in the different premises and situations that must exist to apply these duties. In this very subjectivity, the Nazis exploited Kant’s views by convincing themselves that it was their duty to improve the human race. It is a relief therefore that the Christian finds his standard from God’s everlasting and unchanging word in scripture, authored by God himself. Only the Christian has a sure norm because scripture attests its truth in people, in history, and in the world. And so in ethics, the Christian seeks to obey God’s authoritative word and laws because God is the original creator of the standard for good.
Using scripture to attest to its own truth may seem circular. The best I can do to assuage those concerns is to look to a third and final approach to ethics where normative duties can be empirically tested, and that is in the situational ethical perspective. From the customary viewpoint, we have demonstrated how existentialism is subject to norms and how norms are subject to situations. Utilitarianism – a philosophy that promotes, for a given situation, to seek the greatest pleasure for the greatest amount of people (or kittens) – has been the traditional go-to situational ethics framework. However, the view receives criticism for the possibility of permitting a wicked majority to oppress a minority. Does the Christian face a similar dilemma? One thing we know is that God calls Christians to act and avoid apathy to injustices around them. The Christian ought to care about the pain and pleasure of others and choose to act based on both norms and subjective feelings. We (the creature) have deep emotions because God (the creator) has deep emotions. Thus, feelings are given by God to be aids in decision-making in addition to principles in scripture. This simultaneously escapes the problems of utter subjectivity and the cruelty of oppressing the minority. The Christian situational ethic stands in contrast with modern situational ethics: the Christian recognizes that the most important factor in any situation is not the will of self or other people but is the will of the ever-living God who continues to speak his will through scripture.
In conclusion, I want to remind both the reader and myself that because we are not God; our perspective on everything, including ethics, is limited. One way to increase our knowledge and level of certainty of right and wrong is by supplementing our own perspectives with those of others, through friends, authorities, or books. That is what we have done by looking at not one, but three, approaches to ethics. Interestingly enough, by adding more views, we have shown that the nature of ethics assumes absolute values instead of subjective ones. Perspectives work by pinning the finitude of our views against the absolute, infinitely clear and complete knowledge of God; there is one truth and each perspective is merely an angle from which that truth can be viewed. By not abandoning different ethical viewpoints, the Christian is equipped to apply facets of each on a case-by-case basis. First, he asks what the problem is, employing the situational perspective. Second, he asks what scripture says about it, which is the normative perspective. Third, all associated parties seek the appropriate existential, internal changes in the motives of their hearts so that they may do the right thing. Christians do not have to fear as much as secular peers for their success in ethical enterprises because God’s word stands firm and ready to bless his children.
1. Matthew 15:19; Luke 6:45, 16:15. 2. 1 Corinthians 13:3. 3. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. 4. Genesis 1:26-27; Romans 2:14-15. 5. 1 John 5:3. 6. Psalm 19:3; John 8:24. 7. 2 Timothy 3:16; Isaiah 40:8. 8. Psalm 119:160. 9. 2 Peter 1:21. 10. Romans 1:18-20. 11. Romans 1:32. 12. James 1:22; Matthew 25:31-46. 13. Psalm 51:4; John 14:26.