Intro to Ethics: Christianity

by Luke Muehlhauser on June 20, 2009 in Ethics,Intro to Ethics

intro_to_ethics

Welcome to my course on ethics. Last time we discussed the birth of virtue ethics with Aristotle. Now, we jump 300 years forward and consider the ethical revolution of Christianity.

As in Judaism, Christianity’s highest ethic is not happiness or well-being or peace or harmony, but obedience to God. “Why should I do that?” “Because God said so.”

But then we may ask, “But why should I do what God commands?” For some, the answer lay in God’s power: “Because otherwise he can beat you up.” But for most, the answer lay in God’s goodness: “You should do what God commands because God is good.” So the definition of “good” is “God.” But then, what does it mean to say that God is good? If good=God, then calling God good is to say nothing more than that God is God. So if I want to call God good in a meaningful way, I must have access to some criteria for goodness beyond God.

To this, the Christian may reply that God knows everything, so he can see more clearly than anyone else what is good. But this leaves God subject to a standard of goodness that is above himself, and this is distasteful to many monotheists, who want to say that God is ultimate. It’s not clear what the answer to this dilemma is.

Another problem is that Christianity introduced the notion of hell1 as a place of eternal punishment for those who disobey God. But if evildoers are always punished, and the righteous are always rewarded (in heaven), doesn’t this provide us with a corrupting, self-interested motive for doing good rather than evil? If one really believes in heaven and hell, it seems unlikely that other motivations could outweigh this self-interested motive. So true believers are stuck doing good not for goodness’ sake, but for their own selfish sake.

But the concepts of heaven and hell do provide ultimate accountability for one’s actions. According to Christianity, evildoers are always punished – no matter how much they “get away with it” on earth – and the righteous are always rewarded – no matter how much they suffer on earth. God is in control, and holds everyone accountable.

So happiness and virtue meet only in the afterlife. This is a rather desperate remedy for poor and unjust societies, but it is at least a remedy. The effect is to make all men equal before God. This is the ultimate elimination of social class, which was upheld by nearly all other ethical systems. In this way, Christian ethics prefigured communism, the abolition of slavery, and, oddly enough, women’s rights.

A fleeting ethics

Another notable feature of Christian ethics is that it was designed to work only for very small groups of people, and only for a limited time. Both Jesus and Paul thought the end of the world would come in their century, and so their ethics are not meant to be endured long: “take no thought for tomorrow,” “sell all you have and give to the poor,” “if someone takes your cloak, give him your shirt also,” “it is better if you do not marry,” etc. The problem is that Jesus never came back, and the Church was left to figure out how to apply these impractical moral principles to billions of people over hundreds of years.

And so, the Church was forced to adopt moral principles from other traditions that are more practical in the long term. One example is its adoption of hierarchy from feudal society. This was anathema to the original Christian ethic of a classless society, but it provided the stability required for the survival of the religion.

Over time, Christianity also adopted ethical ideas from Plato and especially Aristotle. But next, we look at a Christian ethical thinker who firmly rejected Aristotle’s ideas: Martin Luther.

  1. A few Jewish scriptures contain a mystical notion of “Gehenna,” but it is more like Purgatory than the Christian notion of Hell. []

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris June 20, 2009 at 10:14 am

Martin Luther is next? The man who re-emphasized the importance of correct belief over ethical behavior? I can’t wait to see what ethical lessons we get from the author of, among other classics, On the Jews and Their Lies.

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Dace June 20, 2009 at 2:46 pm

But if evildoers are always punished, and the righteous are always rewarded (in heaven), doesn’t this provide us with a corrupting, self-interested motive for doing good rather than evil? If one really believes in heaven and hell, it seems unlikely that other motivations could outweigh this self-interested motive. So true believers are stuck doing good not for goodness’ sake, but for their own selfish sake.

I had a thought about this. Many parents force their children to do good deeds, sometimes with the threat of punishment, sometimes just with the intimation that they would be disappointed in their child, which is equally a kind punishment. They do this because they believe that in forcing the child to do these good deeds, the child will come to feel that they are worthwhile even without the threat of punishment, and so will shape the adult-life of the child in a positive way.
I think the same sort of argument could be made with regard to heaven and hell: God presents us with a choice that is not really a choice, basically forcing us to act in good ways, and it becomes second nature to us. Eventually, we are attenuated to what is good, and begin to do these things simply because they are good.

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cartesian June 20, 2009 at 4:12 pm

>>If good=God, then calling God good is to say nothing more than that God is God.>>
 
I don’t think this is a good inference. Everyone knew that Superman=Superman, but it was a real discovery for those who learned that Superman=Clark Kent. This was a case in which X=Y, and yet saying that X=Y was more meaningful and significant than saying that X=X. So the general form of your inference up there is invalid. So I think what you said up there is false. Saying that God is good may be more meaningful and informative than saying that God is God, even if good=God.

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Reuben June 20, 2009 at 4:32 pm

“It’s not clear what the answer to this dilemma is.”
 
Here is something that I do not understand. I have encountered the Euthyphro dilemma on numerous ocassions, in classes, in books, and in conversations. Atheists present the dilemma (or a more modern variant), and take it to be decisive. Meanwhile I’m reading someone like Doc Bill Craig, who says, “this is why the dilemma is false,” and then takes it to be decisive.
 
Now, if this were a more complex argument, like say, Kalam, I could understand why there would be such disagreement. But this seems like a relatively accessible subject.  What gives? My suspicion is that the disagreement really rests on radically different intuitions about God and “the good,” arguments aside.
 
On that note, here is Craig’s response to two questions on the Euthyphro Dilemma:
 
http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=6063
http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=6087
 
Also,  that first paragraph under “A Fleeting Ethic,” is, I think, very well and simply put.
 

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lukeprog June 20, 2009 at 4:46 pm

cartesian,

Looking at it again, I didn’t make this very clear, but where I was going was of course the Euthyphro dilemma. If good=God, then goodness is arbitrary to whatever God does or is. So if God commands rape or genocide or genital mutilation or for rape victims to marry their rapists (as the Hebrew Scriptures claim), then those things are all – tada! – good!

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Hylomorphic June 20, 2009 at 7:53 pm

“One example is its adoption of hierarchy from feudal society. This was anathema to the original Christian ethic of a classless society, but it provided the stability required for the survival of the religion.”
 
No, hierarchy was present within the Christian church from the earliest years. By the middle of the second century, the basic hierarchical framework of the the modern Catholic and Orthodox churches was present. By the time of Saint Augustine, it was an almost unquestioned assumption by the orthodox.
 
This hierarchy was, for the most part, in distinction to the secular hierarchy; it was possible for a poor man to become a well respected bishop, though rare. However, one generally needed a decent education–the privilege of the middle and upper classes–to get a real position in the church. (Unless, during the persecutions, one became a martyr, or else later headed out into the deserts of Egypt and became a monk.)

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cartesian June 20, 2009 at 9:43 pm

lukeprog: cartesian,Looking at it again, I didn’t make this very clear, but where I was going was of course the Euthyphro dilemma. If good=God, then goodness is arbitrary to whatever God does or is. So if God commands rape or genocide or genital mutilation or for rape victims to marry their rapists (as the Hebrew Scriptures claim), then those things are all – tada! – good!

The Euthyphro dilemma doesn’t arise for a divine command theorist who identifies the good with what God commands (X=Y). It only arises for the divine command theorist who says that, while not identical, the good and what God commands are coextensional, i.e. perfectly correlated (X iff Y). Only then can the causal/explanatory questions arise: “X because Y? Or Y because X?” If the claim is that X=Y, these causal/explanatory questions don’t make sense. Compare “Is something water because it’s H2O? Or is something H2O because it’s water?” Those questions don’t make sense, since Water=H2O. Similarly if the good=what God commands.
 
The arbitrariness charge is meant to apply to the divine command theorist who accepts (i) only the weaker claim of coextension — i.e. something’s good iff it’s what God commands — and (ii) that something’s good because God commands it. That makes the good look arbitrary.
 
But again, a divine command theorist need not accept this mere claim of coextension. He can go whole hog and make the identity claim.

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Reuben June 21, 2009 at 4:18 am

lukeprog: If good=God, then goodness is arbitrary to whatever God does or is.

To add to cartesian’s rejoinder, a quote from Craig, if I may:
“I think you’re confusing being ultimate with being arbitrary. If something serves as one’s explanatory ultimate, there can be no further explanation why that thing is as it is. But that doesn’t imply that it is arbitrary in the sense that it could have been otherwise and so just happens accidentally to be the way it is. God’s nature, like Plato’s Good, is ultimate and not arbitrary. Nor is taking God’s nature as paradigmatic of the Good arbitrary, for He is the greatest conceivable being and it is greater to be the paradigm of goodness than merely to exemplify it.”

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Chuck June 21, 2009 at 6:33 am

13 Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” Nathan replied, “The LORD has taken away your sin. You are not going to die. 14 But because by doing this you have made the enemies of the LORD show utter contempt, the son born to you will die.” 15 After Nathan had gone home, the LORD struck the child that Uriah’s wife had borne to David, and he became ill … 18 On the seventh day the child died.

One can take a few tracks with this. Either (1) what God did was good, or (2) what God did was evil, or else (3) the writer of 2 Samuel is mistaken when he attributes the act to God, or (4) the whole thing is a fabrication.

The Biblical inerrantist is unable to choose (3) or (4). He must say it is either (1) or (2). But he cannot say (2) so he must find some sort of odd justification for (1). Even if I were to accept the idea it is just for God to strike me down for my sins (I don’t), I can think of no justification to say it’s all right to strike down my son.

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Jeff H June 21, 2009 at 6:45 am

God’s nature, like Plato’s Good, is ultimate and not arbitrary.

I find this statement to be problematic. Craig simply asserts this without even attempting to explain why God’s nature would not be arbitrary. If God simply is (and has been for all eternity), then where did his nature come from? He obviously did not create it himself, since that’s logically impossible. Apparently his nature also simply is – it has no beginning point, and therefore no cause. It seems to me that such a situation could conceivably produce a God whose character is malevolent, and who justifies rape. What basis does anyone have for saying that this could not be the case? God simply has to be good, because he has to?

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Reuben June 21, 2009 at 9:33 am

 

Jeff H: I find this statement to be problematic.

Hey Jeff, after reading over your response I was looking for the appropriate section to quote from Craig’s two articles, but I don’t want to keep posting his material in the comments section. If you haven’t already read the articles I suggest that you do in order to find his answer to your question (they’re quite short). If you read it and still come away disagreeing, then that would reinforce my initial thought about the Euthyphro Dilemma, namely, that theists and non-thesits have very different intuitions on the matter, arguments aside. Then again, perhaps some are indeed seeing through the matter clearly while others are not.

 
 
 

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lukeprog June 21, 2009 at 10:08 am

Hylomorphic,

I’m talking about the first few decades of the church, in which there was (apparently) no hierarchy.

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lukeprog June 21, 2009 at 10:10 am

Thanks, cartesian and Reuben. The Euthyphro dilemma is certainly an issue that invites more research on my part and perhaps a series of posts.

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Jeff H June 21, 2009 at 11:31 am

Reuben, I did read over the articles before commenting. My issue, I guess, is more with defining God as a “necessary” being with “necessary” qualities to go along with that. He simply asserts that God’s character isn’t arbitrary, without offering any support for that statement. I mean, if “the good” is simply what God’s character is, then I can certainly understand that we could call God “good” (by definition he could not be anything else), but this does not show that his character is not arbitrary. It is not necessary for God’s character to be the same in all possible worlds, only that whatever his character is, we call that “good.” Thus, in my view, this still doesn’t avoid the Euthyphro dilemma – it is still analogous to the “whatever God says is good, is good” option. Only in this case, it is, “whatever God is, is good.”

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Derek June 21, 2009 at 11:51 am

According to Jesus, all of the commandments hang on the following two:

“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matt. 22:37-40)

So, for the Christian, what you ought (construed either hypothetically or imperatively) to do is love your God with all that you are, and you should love your neighbor as you love yourself. Why should we do this? Well, perhaps this is how one can have life more abundantly. That is, loving God, self, and others as much as you can is the most fulfilling thing you can do. This is why Aquinas thought that Charity is the highest of the all virtues (Perhaps, following Jesus’ lead, Aquinas could have easily said that “on Charity hangs all the Virtues, for Charity between self, others, and God will bring about eudemonia.” We should be temperate as a means to loving ourselves; we should be courageous as a means to loving ourselves and others, etc. We should have Faith and Hope in God so that we can restore our relationship to the Greatest Good and the source of our being. Why should we do any of this? Because doing so enables us to have the most fulfilling life. We are most complete when our relationship with our Creator and each other has been restored to its natural state.

“I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10)

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Reuben June 21, 2009 at 3:58 pm

Quite so, Jeff; that was presumptuous of me to assume that you hadn’t read the articles.
 

Jeff H: My issue, I guess, is more with defining God as a “necessary” being with “necessary” qualities to go along with that. He simply asserts that God’s character isn’t arbitrary…

I take qualities here to be akin to or perhaps synonymous with attributes. As such, since Craig would define God as a maximally great being, and therefore a necessarily existing being in all possible worlds, he would therefore ascribe to God attributes that are consistent with maximal greatness, and do so in all possible worlds. Thus God would exhibit moral perfection in all worlds, just as God would exhibit omnipotence or any other divine attribute. If this line of reasoning is correct, then Craig does, I think, have reason to assert that the character of God is not arbitrary, but necessary, and as such must be exhibited identically in all possible worlds, although the details of the exhibition may differ according the natural features of any given world.
 
Now, granted that I have represented the case properly, I think that its plausibility really turns upon a form of the ontological argument. And what is said about ontological arguments, that whether one accepts or rejects them depends upon whether or not one is already convinced that God exists?
 
 
 
 
 

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Reuben June 21, 2009 at 4:18 pm

Quite so, Jeff; that was presumptuous of me to assume that you hadn’t read the articles.
 

Jeff H: My issue, I guess, is more with defining God as a “necessary” being with “necessary” qualities to go along with that. He simply asserts that God’s character isn’t arbitrary…

 
I take qualities here to be akin to or perhaps synonymous with attributes. As such, since Craig would define God as a maximally great being, and therefore a necessarily existing being in all possible worlds, he would therefore ascribe to God attributes that are consistent with maximal greatness, and do so in all possible worlds. Thus God would exhibit moral perfection in all worlds, just as God would exhibit omnipotence or any other divine attribute. If this line of reasoning is correct, then Craigdoes , I think, have reason to assert that the character of God is not arbitrary, but necessary, and as such must be exhibited identically in all possible worlds, although the details of the exhibition may differ according the natural features of any given world.
 
Now, granted that I have represented the case properly, I think that its plausibility really turns upon a form of the ontological argument. And what is said about ontological arguments, that whether one accepts or rejects them depends upon whether or not one is already convinced that God exists?
 
 

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Reuben June 21, 2009 at 4:19 pm

Wowsers! Ignore all that Microsoft Word nonsense. I had saved my comment there and reposted because it had not originally appeared.

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Jeff H June 22, 2009 at 4:01 am

Reuben: I take qualities here to be akin to or perhaps synonymous with attributes. As such, since Craig would define God as a maximally great being, and therefore a necessarily existing being in all possible worlds, he would therefore ascribe to God attributes that are consistent with maximal greatness, and do so in all possible worlds. Thus God would exhibit moral perfection in all worlds, just as God would exhibit omnipotence or any other divine attribute.

I guess my question is then, how can someone have “moral perfection” if he is the standard of moral perfection? All we know is that whatever God is, that is good. We don’t know what makes God that way. If we define him as maximally great in all attributes, then we would need some standard to really say, “This is maximally great in morality.” You would need some standard of good and evil in order to make God the highest good.
 
If, however, God is himself the highest good, it doesn’t matter what God’s character is. It’s just that whatever he happens to be, we call that good. So in other words, morality must necessarily come after God, whereas if we try to define him as maximally moral, morality must come before God.
 
Let me know if you don’t understand what I’m trying to say, because I’m not sure I’m being clear. But I just don’t see any way to say that God’s character isn’t arbitrary if you are accepting that God’s character becomes what is moral.

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Reuben June 22, 2009 at 7:10 pm

I think that you’re being quite clear. Perhaps I should focus on your use of the word “arbitrary.” If by describing God’s character as arbitrary you mean “without reason,” then I think that the theist will agree. Since God is the paradigm of moral perfection, there is nothing more to which God’s character refers, nothing further that explains why God is *this* paradigm, just as the moral Platonist would take moral forms to be ultimate in moral explanations.
 
However, if by arbitrary you mean something along the lines of determined by a whim, as easily this as thus, then I think that the theist will disagree. God cannot be one kind of moral paradigm in our world and another in the next, but is necessarily the same in all possible worlds just as God necessarily exists in all possible worlds. Granted,  if it were possible for God to be a different paradigm in another world, where being greedy and arrogant and whatnot became “the good,” then people in that world would acknowledge it as such because this is what God’s character is. But it is precisely because it is not possible that such a scenario need not be considered.
 
Here we seem to return to the question, why is that not possible, why is it necessary that the paradigm not change? I think that the answer may be filtered out through a variation of the ontological argument, as I briefly noted in my last post, though perhaps you find that unsuccessful or at least not decisive. Admittedly, the more I write about this the more I think that I am playing at a mere word game. Perhaps I am.
 
Interestingly enough, Craig’s latest Q&A is, once again, on the Euthyphro Dilemma. Does it clarify anything?

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lukeprog June 22, 2009 at 8:07 pm

Reuben,

I shall write more about Euthyphro in the future.

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Matthew D. Johnston August 6, 2009 at 5:08 pm

“But the concepts of heaven and hell do provide ultimate accountability for one’s actions. According to Christianity, evildoers are always punished – no matter how much they “get away with it” on earth – and the righteous are always rewarded – no matter how much they suffer on earth. God is in control, and holds everyone accountable.”
It should be pointed out (since it hasn’t been so far in this thread) that this is not standard protestant Christian theology, which holds that any and all sin makes somebody worthy of hell and no number of good deeds can overcome this fate. One’s ultimate destination comes from repentance and belief in Christ alone.
Granted, not all Christians believe this, but many do. Perhaps it’s growing up in a uni-cultural rural community that makes me feel the requirement to point this out.

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lukeprog August 6, 2009 at 7:17 pm

Matthew, I was writing about original Christian theology. Protestantism is a radical branch of Christianity that was invented about 1500 years after its inception…

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Matthew D. Johnston August 11, 2009 at 3:07 pm

I’m curious, though, whether earlier Christians thought exactly that — that evil was always punished, and good always rewarded. It does not seem consistent with what I know of Paul’s theology, which was respected very much by the early church.
 
That said, I’ve only read a little bit on the origins of the books of the New Testament. I know of certain early theological struggles, including questions of canonization, the relationship of the OT and NT, and the nature of Christ’s divinity, but I’m not so well read on their views on the afterlife. Perhaps you could enlighten me, or give me a few references. Did the pre-Protestant Christians believe actions (“Love your neighbour as yourself”, etc.) were more important than strict adherence to belief (John 3:16, etc.)?

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