Christian Ethics and Moral Philosophy
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Christian Ethics and Moral Philosophy

An Introduction to Issues and Approaches

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eBook - ePub

Christian Ethics and Moral Philosophy

An Introduction to Issues and Approaches

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This introductory textbook presents Christian philosophical and theological approaches to ethics. Combining their expertise in philosophy and theology, the authors explain the beliefs, values, and practices of various Christian ethical viewpoints, addressing biblical teachings as well as traditional ethical theories that contribute to informed moral decision-making. Each chapter begins with Words to Watch and includes a relevant case study on a vexing ethical issue, such as caring for the environment, human sexuality, abortion, capital punishment, war, and euthanasia. End-of-chapter reflection questions, illustrations, and additional information tables are also included.

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Varieties of Ethics and Moral Thought

Men go abroad to admire the heights of mountains, the mighty waves of the sea, the broad tides of rivers, the compass of the ocean, and the circuits of the stars, yet pass over the mystery of themselves without a thought.
—Augustine, Confessions
Words to Watch
agapistic ethics ethics moral theology
analytic ethics general revelation narrative ethics
applied ethics imago Dei natural law ethics
biblical ethics metaethics normative ethics
consequentialism morality quadrilateral
cultural relativism moral philosophy relativism
deontological ethics moral relativism special revelation
divine command ethics morals virtue ethics
“Ethics” is a term that usually refers to the academic study of morals and moral systems. We rarely appeal to the general idea of ethics but most often appeal to some specific account that we have in mind, as indicated by the use of a modifier. We might, for example, speak of professional ethics or personal ethics. These modifiers help us to be more precise with our discussions. We can also talk about the various approaches that people throughout the world adopt with regard to ethics, given their own religious, cultural, and philosophical commitments. As a result, there are Buddhist ethics, Jewish ethics, Hindu ethics, Muslim ethics, Maorian ethics, and Christian ethics.
There are also specifically philosophical approaches to ethics, including Kantianism, utilitarianism, contractarian ethical approaches, ethical relativism, continental ethical approaches, feminist ethics, natural law ethics, natural rights ethics, and virtue ethics. These lists are not exhaustive, but they show that we need to have some qualifications on the term “ethics.” This book is about the relationship between two kinds of ethics: the theories of ethics found in philosophy and approaches found in Christian ethics. It is a conversation between philosophical ethical theories and the Christian tradition that many of these philosophical theories either emerged from or argued against.
What Is the Difference between Morality and Ethics?
We can begin by making an important distinction between morality and ethics. Morality concerns the principles and teachings about right and wrong that organize a group of people. These include, for example, prohibitions against lying, murder, and theft, as well as exhortations to honor one’s parents and give aid to those who are suffering. All human communities practice morality in one way or another. Yet not all people take the time to think about the nature of these principles: why they apply, how they apply, and what motivates us to abide by them. Such reflection is the work of ethics, which requires asking important questions about the morality we practice. A contemporary definition of ethics, therefore, is the thoughtful reflection and evaluation of various systems of morality around which people organize their lives. We can see this distinction at work in an experience from the life of Augustine (354–430), who is one of the most important philosophical and theological figures in the Christian tradition.
In his spiritual autobiography, Confessions, Augustine recounts the story of how he stole some pears from a neighbor’s orchard.1 He says that one evening some of his friends encouraged him to go out and raid the neighbor’s orchard for pears. The pears were not particularly delicious, but Augustine wanted to go along because there was no fun in stealing them alone. He wanted “companions in crime.” Augustine reflects that, had it not been for his morally suspect friends, he never would have stolen the pears, but there was a certain social dynamic that influenced his behavior. Years later Augustine still found occasion to reflect on this seemingly unimportant event to ask why he did what he did. What did he find pleasurable in the experience? To what extent was he personally responsible for his actions? To what extent can we place the blame for our sinful actions on other people?
In this brief narrative from the life of Augustine, we can see the difference between morals and ethics. Morals are the collective values we live by—the values we ascribe to certain activities and goods. Companionship is a value, but so too are self-restraint and respect for property that belongs to others. Augustine’s morals as a young man had more to do with his desire for acceptance and pleasure than with a concern for integrity and respect. Some people value money above all else, while others see a life of self-sacrifice as most valuable. Some people pursue pleasure at all costs, while still others believe that honesty in all circumstances is to be valued. The point here is that all people have morals since we all value some behaviors over others. Yet we not only judge some moral behaviors as better than others; we also judge some moral systems as better than others. We can ask whether we were justified in some action, whether our intentions were the appropriate ones in a given situation, and whether we followed the guidance of our conscience. These and other questions begin the process of systematic reflection on morals—or what we call “ethics.”
Among those professionals who engage in the practice of ethics, we’ll focus on two kinds: philosophers and theologians. In general, philosophers consider life’s ultimate questions without regard to holding specific theological assumptions. Historically, philosophy is the “love of wisdom” as developed by such figures as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Philosophers often consider questions concerning the ultimate basis of reality, such as whether humans have free will, how knowledge is possible, and how the basic principles of logic work. They also consider questions concerning the ultimate meaning of human existence, such as the nature of the soul and what constitutes the “good life.” On all the aforementioned questions, their work oftentimes overlaps with that of theologians. When philosophers look at questions raised by ethics, this is known as moral philosophy—that is, the reflection on and the evaluation of moral principles and norms from the perspective of philosophy.
Theologians, however, take beliefs about God to form the core of their ideas about life. They are not as concerned with proving God’s existence as they are with understanding God’s relationship to humanity and how reconciliation, salvation, and sanctification are possible. In light of these concerns, theologians are often interested in how God’s relationship with humanity shapes and informs our behaviors toward one another and toward God. When theologians consider ethical questions, this is usually known as moral theology—that is, the reflection on the moral principles and narratives as found in the Scriptures and church tradition from the perspective of faith.
There is not always a clear distinction between philosophers and theologians (and between moral philosophy and moral theology), since some philosophers have religious commitments, while others do not. For example, Plato and Aristotle—two of the greatest Greek philosophers—both wrote extensively on ethical issues, including themes many Christians hold to be central to the life of faith such as justice, friendship, courage, and self-control. Other philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre were openly hostile to Christian beliefs. Still others like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas blur the lines considerably, since they not only engaged both philosophy and theology but also held to the idea that philosophy without the correcting influence of theology was fundamentally incomplete. As a result, we see that there is often a great deal of overlap between what counts as moral philosophy and what counts as moral theology (see figure 1.1).
One of the tasks we have in this text is to treat both philosophical and theological approaches to ethics from a Christian perspective. Too often, texts in theological ethics ignore the importance of such thinkers as Plato, Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, and Friedrich Nietzsche, while texts in philosophical ethics ignore the work of theologians such as Augustine, Aquinas, John Calvin, John Wesley, and Sþren Kierkegaard (many of whom are also considered “philosophers”). In reality, theological issues have influenced many so-called secular thinkers, and philosophers have influenced much of Christian thought on ethical issues. As a result, we intend to bring these two disciplines into conversation with each other. We begin by laying out some of the different approaches to these areas of ethics.
Right, Wrong, and the Good
Traditionally, moral theories have been divided between those that ascribe priority to the notion of what is right (and the corresponding idea of one’s duty) and those that see the good (in terms of utility or interests) as the most important factor. Those ethical theories that advocate for the priority of the right are forms of deontological ethics,2 while ethical theories that see the good as primary are forms of consequentialism.3
Deontologists emphasize the idea that an action is right or wrong regardless of the consequences. Moreover, one has a binding moral obligation to perform one’s duty once it becomes known. For example, a deontologist would say that one is morally bound to keep one’s promises regardless of any good that might come from breaking them, since one has a duty to fulfill as a result of the obligation freely entered into when making the promise.
Consequentialists see morality primarily in terms of the results of any given rule or action. They tend to avoid talk of duty and prefer to think in terms such as “the greatest good,” “net utility,” or “maximizing interests.” A consequentialist would only see keeping a promise as valuable if it promoted good outcomes. Promise keeping, if adopted as a general rule, might promote overall good in some contexts. It all depends on what the consequences are. Lying might actually save someone’s life or preserve a person’s dignity in some situations.
The distinction between deontology and consequentialism often fails to account for theories such as virtue ethics, feminist ethics, and various forms of existentialism that resist being primarily concerned with either duty or consequences. These other theories emphasize such ideas as the development of specific virtues, authentic and responsible choices, or the practice of compassion.
Moral issues often take place at the intersection of all of these concerns. In both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, which together Christians view as their Bible, we see approaches that sometimes emphasize duty. In some instances, moral actions are associated with punishment and reward. At other times, development of personal character is encouraged. Children are told, “Honor your father and your mother . . . so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you” (Deut. 5:16). But at other times, God issues commands without qualification, lending to the idea that some actions are simply right in themselves—such as “You shall not murder” (Exod. 20:13). At still other times, people are told “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [their] God” (Mic. 6:8).
We can see this conflict played out in contemporary situations when people try to judge among competing alternatives. Consider the case of war. Some Christians appeal to the idea that it may be important to kill in a “just war” so that there may be peace or to protect innocent lives from unjust aggressors. The appeal here is to a consequentialist intuition that God wants peace and that killing, while unfortunate, must be done to achieve peace. In contrast, there are some Christians who appeal to a deontological approach that sees the command against killing to be binding in all circumstances, regardless of the consequences. Others see the command to protect innocent life at all costs as another kind of moral obligation that does not permit exceptions. Still others look to the life of Jesus, when he tells Peter, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword...