Ethics: What am I supposed to do?
The field of Ethics considers the different principles that inform the way that we act; it asks the illusive question of “What should we do?” when facing life’s decisions. And it’s important to realise that everybody does have an ethic, whether they realise it or not, because every person is required to make decisions. We all need to discern between what we think is most valuable, and what isn’t, in the choices that we make. Whilst Christianity isn’t primarily concerned about our actions and their consequences, as we’re saved by grace apart from our works, it still is an important area to examine. In this article we’re going to consider some of the popular secular ethics that trickle down from high philosophical thinking to our everyday cultural attitudes. Then we’ll consider what the Christian ethic is, and how being a follower of Jesus informs the way that we make decisions. Finally, we’ll think about the ways in which the Christian ethic engages with the secular ethics of those around us.
Three Secular Ethical Frameworks
The first, and perhaps most common, secular ethic is called consequentialism. You may recognize it in popular sayings like “the end justify the means” or “just do what makes you happy”. Consequentialism argues that all our actions need to bring about a certain purpose or goal. People often differ on what this purpose or goal is (Hedonism’s aim is pleasure, Utilitarianism’s aim is fulfilment of wants), but they all agree that we should always make the decision that brings about the most of this purpose or goal.
I think that there are two big concerns that face consequentialism. The first, and most difficult, is to determine what purpose or goal all your actions should head towards. Happiness might be good, but should all our decisions really be based on getting the most happiness? Likewise, fulfilling people’s wants is good, but what if people want a bad thing? A second aspect of consequentialism that often grates people is that it places very few boundaries on our actions. It calls us to make the decision that will bring about the most of our purposes or goals, regardless of how we get there or other unintended consequences.
The second secular ethical framework is deontology. Deontology states that all our actions and decisions should be guided by a set of duties or rules. Again, what these rules are will differ from person to person. They might be rules about what we should do, or rules about what we should refrain from doing, but these rules all place boundaries on our actions. An example of this is Immanuel Kant’s ‘Categorical Imperative’, which boils down to something like “only do things that would be ok for everyone to do”. For example, you can’t steal because then everyone would be able to steal, and the world would quickly turn to chaos. Like consequentialism, deontology does flow down into the way everyday people think. People will very happily adopt maxims and rules that provide them with a lense for decision making.
However, there are also big concerns that deontology is faced with. Firstly, it’s hard to know where the source of these rules should come from. Other complicated questions quickly arise too: Are these rules my own, or should they apply to everyone? If they’re my own rules, what’s the big deal if I break them every now and then? Deontology appears to give us a convenient framework of rules and duties, but it too is a lot more complex than it first appears.
The third secular ethic, which has recently increased in popularity, is that of virtue ethics. Virtue ethics begins by defining a set of character traits which it deems good, such as courage, generousity, or loyalty. Then, when faced with a decision, a person following the virtue ethics framework will ask themselves “What would a (insert virtue here) person do?” They should then act in the way that a courageous, generous or loyal (whatever the virtue is) person would. Although the virtue ethics approach is criticised for being vague or open ended, as it simply asks what a virtuous person would do, it really is no more muddled or complex than the other two ethics. One aspect of virtue ethics that is particularly attractive is that it clearly recognises that our actions do make us certain ‘kinds’ of people. And, like the other secular ethics, virtue ethics does trickle down into popular thinking in statements like “I just want to try to be a kind/nice/generous person.”
Virtue ethics, like the other two ethics, faces some very tricky questions. The most obvious is the question of what things are virtuous? That might be something that seems clear to us, but why is it that being a kind or loyal or courageous person really a good thing? And again, do I decide my own virtues, or are they true for everyone? Another particular issue with virtue ethics is when different virtues clash, like a decision between being an honest person or being a loyal person.
Hopefully this has given you a sense of the three main secular frameworks for ethics, some of the issues they face, and how they might manifest themselves in day to day life, conversation and decision making. Now we will consider the question of what the Christian or biblical ethic is.
Hopefully it’s been made clear that all three of these previous ethics are shaped by what we consider to be good and right in the world. Because of this, it should be unsurprising then, that as followers of Jesus, we would have a different ethic to the world around us, one shaped by the things that God cares about, which we find in His word. John Murray puts it well when he says “Biblical ethics is concerned with the manner of life and behavior which the Bible requires, and which the faith of the Bible produces”. The biblical ethic is concerned with knowing what God asks of us in the Bible, and by faith seeking to live that out.
It’s important to note that we don’t find these commands in the examples and lives of the people in the Bible (with the exception of Jesus). Although their examples are educative and helpful they, just like us, are sinful and flawed. Instead, we find the biblical ethic in the divine commands that God has given to us. We find these commands in places like the Creation Ordinances of Genesis (marriage, work, procreation), in the Old Testament Law (mainly the Moral Laws like the 10 commandments), in the teachings of the Apostles, and obviously in the words and teachings of Jesus himself. As Christians these divine commands are to inform, direct and govern all our actions.
Engaging with Secular Ethics
Although the biblical ethic is clearly different from the secular ethical frameworks around us, I do think that the biblical ethic is able to recognise and satisfy the desires which lie behind these secular frameworks. This can give us some indication of how we might engage with those of different ethical frameworks.
Consequentialism - One of the pulls of consequentialism is that all our actions have obvious meaning and purpose, as they are always bringing about consequences that we consider to be good. The biblical ethic is able to recognise that our actions need meaning and purpose, and is able to fulfill this desire as well. The Bible tells us that all our right actions show respect and honor to God, and are pleasing to Him. Because of this, we can be confident that biblical decisions that we make have good consequences, even if we don’t see that at the time.
Deontology - seeks to give us rules to live by but it struggles to justify where these rules come from, and can’t really give us consequences for when we break them. The biblical ethic gives us both a clear sense of right and wrong and a defined set of universal rules. It tell us that keeping these rules is good and honors God, and that breaking these rules dishonors God and leaves us guilty. However, in Jesus we’re justified before following the law, so we can strive to keep the biblical law knowing we have forgiveness in Jesus.
Virtue Ethics - helpfully recognises that our actions shape the kind of people we become. The downside is that no human being is truly virtuous, so any example of virtue that we have will be imperfect. However, the Bible is able to give us the model of the perfect person in Jesus. In Him we find the perfect set of virtues that we can seek to live by.
So what does this mean for us? Firstly, it means that we will likely need to be more conscious of the way that we as Christians act, and to be aware of the differing ethics of those around us. In order to live the Christian life we need to be aware of the ways that our decision making is influenced by the ways of the world and ensure that all our actions flow from the biblical ethic, which requires a deep and personal knowledge of God’s will from His word. Finally, we should be looking for ways to engage with the ethics of those around us, graciously showing them the flaws in their ethics, whilst displaying, in our words and our lives, the beauty of the biblical ethic that God has given us.