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The only, true, absolute, and objective morality…

30 May

A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world. 
                                                -Albert Camus 

              One of the first serious references about the topic of Ethics goes back to 4 century B.C. to a now well known scholar named Plato. Since then numerous figures have put down a variety of ideas on this unsettled field of study. Despite previous long-lasting continual efforts only recent development succeeded to some degree in clearing away Christian values. But what are the consequences of driving out God from the world of morality? Can we sense them already in the latest “progress”?

In this essay I will define basic concepts of ethics and its elementary branches and I will also delimit area in which we are actually able to speak about moral decisions. In the end I briefly present foundation for Christian Ethics as well as a couple of reasons for more detailed exploring of this subject by Christians today.


Defining Ethics 

              
            Various books that deal with a matter of “ethics” or “morality” in their definition would suggest using these notions synonymously or interchangeably in modern society, while recognizing their distinguishing factor. Both cover field of study that addresses issues of good and evil, out of which we try to derive set of beliefs or even rules concerning the question of what is demanded and prohibited. In other words ethics examine judgments of moral (as opposed to non-moral) values and duties. Whereas the final interpretation may differ the variance of these two words lies in their Greek origin[1]. We can often find “ethics” defined by more complex schemes such as branch of philosophy, source of moral norms, set of standards, or even prescription for working moral system. Simpler more specific patterns that ought to be or are implemented are generally accepted under concept of “morality”.   
 
Good or Right?

          Right in the start we need to face the foremost major issue in form of two principal ways for understanding things which hold value of morality. Entity is either “good” (in sense of worthy or profitable) or “right” (in sense of an objectively or subjectively ordained value).    
 

             
Meta-ethics and normative ethics 
              
            Secondly ethics can be classified to two other groups depending on the matters they are dealing with or questions they are asking. First one, Meta-ethics either seeks for the source of moral values and duties by ascertaining the ground for the methodology of our findings (epistemology[2] of ethics) or it speaks about the meaning or interpretation of ethical terms such as right, good or just (semantics[3] of ethics). Normative ethics on the other hand is, on the basis of some granted or commonly perceived denotations of right and good, circumscribing moral (as opposed to immoral) values and duties. Probably today’s most needed or sought-after branch of ethics is its subdivision – Applied ethics, which pursues to find answers for actual contentious issues such as abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, genetic engineering, artificial reproduction etc.. Given this description it should be obvious that the two groups cannot work independently, but are to certain extent interconnected. Naturally some conclusions in normative or applied ethics will be contingent on the meta-ethical foundation that an individual or group holds. 

Besides these basic splits, there are a great number of groups that disagree on other lesser, yet still weighty points; however their analysis goes beyond the scope of this paper.


Conditions for accessing moral debate

              In order to get down to a discussion about whether ones action was morally right or wrong there are three conditions that need to be preserved simultaneously:

     1. Person must act freely. 

Freedom of action is the overriding requirement for accessing the realm of defining whether ones action was moral or immoral.

If someone points gun at another person and threatens him to shoot him if he does not rob a bank, he will most likely rob a bank. We ought not to steal, but there is also an evident duty to protect our life. Since it is not logically possible to fulfill both of them, this person’s conduct cannot be morally judged in given circumstances.

      2. Person must have the right motivation.

Immanuel Kant formulated the requisite for having the proper motive so as to access it by moral inquiry. If acting morally goes hand in hand with acting reasonably, motive is the decisive element.

A store owner treating both experienced and inexperienced customers equally may do so solely because it is right, but also because in the long run it will secure him a beneficial credibility, which could be otherwise lost if the word got out. We need to know persons motive to judge whether conduct held any moral value or whether it was only caused by mere self-interested insight.

      3. Person must do what is morally right to do. 

Even when the two former preconditions are met, deed still must be in itself moral (in compliance with one or another normative ethical theory).

If someone freely molests small children motivated exclusively by his sense of duty it does not make the act moral when this act is immoral. However this throws us back into discussing the question: “which actions are actually good and bad?”[4]

Why should Christians study ethics?

Divine Command theory

               In John 3:20-21[5] we read about “wicked things” and “doing what is true”, while there might occur further debate about exact use of these verses, they positively indicate, among Christians prevalently accepted, existence of objective moral values and duties rooted in Gods
loving nature. This perception is also called “divine command theory”. 

The updated light of the world
              In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus reminds us of our status in being “light of the world”, so people could see our “good works” and give glory to our Father in heaven[6]. Christians ought to study ethics to be able to recognize the specific “good works” in 21st century. While the ethical principles grounded in God stay always the same, their concrete application alters over time. The book “Ethics of a Brave New World” offers a fitting example: While the principle of loving one’s neighbor was in the Old Testament expressed by building houses with flat roofs and railing around them[7], “a legitimate application for today would be to ensure that our friend wears a seat belt while riding in our car (an application totally irrelevant to Moses’ day)”[8]. Today our environment changes more than ever before and with new technologies we stand in front of queries our ancestors never had to face. While some questions (as shown above) might be fairly easy to resolve by “Gods normative theory”, there are other more difficult areas, which for the purpose of giving sufficient intelligible response, require our sharp attention.


The apologetic position

             I see that second reason for study of ethics can be found in the core verse of apologetics – 1. Peter 3:15[9]. As besides other credible arguments for existence of God, moral argument holds one of the strongest positions among them. William Lane Craig, considered to be one of the foremost promoters of this argument worded it ensuingly:  

Premise 1: If God does not exist, then objective moral values and            duties do not exist.
  

Premise 2: Objective values and duties do exist.

Conclusion: Therefore, God exists[10].

Such study of ethics, in the apologetic sense of it, offers a sound foundation for any reasonable conversation and may lead in planting certain seeds of doubts into ones heart, if not together with Gods grace causing a complete transformation in person’s life. “There is a great need for more Christian thinkers in contemporary society, who will throw themselves into the public debate,…” John Stott[11]

I have unfolded a brief guide and displayed some practical ends for a deeper investigation of Ethics field. Since this subject touches nearly every part of our lives I believe this article should play nearly just a trifling part in the total interest we ought to give it, simply because it barely touches the surface of the issues behind the scenes. In advocating my point of view I will close by quoting a person whose name is used synonymously to genius. 

Relativity applies to physics, not ethics.

-Albert Einstein 
 
For an already widespread discussion on this topic check out BlogCatalog Discussion Forum: Is there anything like objective morality or is all the Ethics only subjective? hosted by factorysense.

______________________________________
[1] Ethics comes from the Greek word ethos, meaning a “stall” for horses a place of stability and permanence. Morality comes from mores, which describes the shifting behavioral patterns of society. (Kerby Anderson, (2005). Christian ethics in plain language. Nashville, Thomas Nelson, Inc., p. 5.)
[2] Epistemology is the study or a theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge especially with reference to its limits and validity (Merriam-Webster, I. (2003). Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary. (Eleventh ed.). Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, Inc.) 
It addresses the questions: What is knowledge? How is knowledge acquired? How do we know what we know? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistemology)
[3] Semantics is the study of meanings – the historical and psychological study and the classification of changes in the signification of words or forms viewed as factors in linguistic development (Merriam-Webster, I. (2003). Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary. (Eleventh ed.). Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, Inc.)
[4] Feinberg, J. S., Feinberg, P. D., & Huxley, A. (1996). Ethics for a Brave new world. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, p.20-21.
[5] 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”(ESV)
[6] 14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (ESV, Matthew 5:14–16)
[7] 8 “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it.(ESV, Deuteronomy 22:8)
[8] Feinberg, J. S., Feinberg, P. D., & Huxley, A. (1996). Ethics for a Brave new world. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, p.33.
[9] 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect(ESV)
[10] A video recording of debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig on the matter of the source of objective moral values and duties (http://apologetics315.blogspot.com/2011/04/william-lane-craig-vs-sam-harris-debate.html)
[11] John Stott (1990). Issues Facing Christians Today. London, II.: HarperCollinsPublishers., p.60.
written by Peter Makovíni 
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Posted by on May 30, 2011 in Ethics

 

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