Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Ethics 101: A Discussion of Moral Philosophies

Okay, before we get started: This topic isn't really "church" related, and it's one of those issues that has almost no real-life application. But it's an interesting debate, and I think that there are things to be learned here.

Monday night, Soebs and I were having another go-round at a discussion that many of us have had before. I know Darin feels the same way that SoeBeck does, because I think I've had the same debate with him.

This is the question, in an oversimplified nutshell:

For non-Christians, and specifically, those that believe in no higher power such as God (we'll use the generic term "Atheist" here), what reason could they logically have for living a moral life?

On one side of the argument, the reasoning is that if one believes he or she is not accountable to any God and that there will be no afterlife, there is no logical reason to do anything but live a "life for self." It doesn't matter who you step on or what you do, just get what you can, while you can, because you've got no moral code or accountability. Living any other way seems to be at odds with your own belief structure.

From a logical standpoint, I strongly disagree with that argument. I believe that this line of reasoning is flawed, and it makes jumps from "no God" to "no moral code" without proper correlation.

Although I love the topic of philosophy, I didn't take enough of those classes in college to really have a deep well of ideas in my brain to pull from. Why I thought "Paris and Berlin Art and Architecture in the 1920s" would be more helpful in the long run, I have no idea.

I do know, though, that philosophers such as Immanuel Kant made very strong arguments for the existence of good will, duty, and imperatives, apart from any notion of being "accountable to God." Kant's "Categorical Imperative" says, in a simplified manner, that one should "act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."

Epicurus observed that indiscriminate indulgence sometimes resulted in negative consequences. The greatest good was prudence, exercised through moderation and caution. Utilitarianism, described 150 years ago by John Stuart Mill, essentially states that the moral worth of an action is solely determined by its contribution to overall utility in maximizing happiness as summed among all persons in society. Or, simply "the greatest good for the greatest number."

All of these ethical ideals give differing reasons for living a "moral life." Granted, what is considered "moral" will vary slightly whether you subscribe to the Categorical Imperative, or Utilitarianism, or the Hebrew God. My point is that I could also be "accountable" to any number of other things: Love, family, society, or government and the laws of the land. Each of these worldviews will bring about some semblance of morality, although again in each case the details of my rulebook will differ.

From an observational standpoint, we know there are plenty of good, moral people who don't believe in God. And at the same time, we also know there are plenty of people that claim Christianity, and yet they are mean, immoral people. So the argument itself is more theoretical than practical.

But I do think there are important details we can glean from this debate. We often think that Christianity and religion has the market cornered on morality, but the truth is that forms of ethics within society were around before and apart from Judaism, and they would most likely still exist without Christianity or religion in general.

Luckily, I'm not the smartest one here, so I'm ready to see some comments. What do you think? For nontheists, what reasoning might they have for living morally?

27 comments:

soebeck said...

Again, my point isn't that there aren't people that believe the things that you mentioned. Living morally for family, betterment of society, etc, it's obvious that there are all kinds of people who don't believe in God that live for those things. My point is that with no one to judge you, some sort of God figure, there is not a reason to live that way. It's nice if you want to live morally, but in all reality it doesn't matter as there is nothing that will happen to you if you don't (eternally speaking of course - I know there are some repercussions here on earth such as prison, etc).

Joe B said...

"Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them." [Rom 2:14-15]

Of course non-Christians have morals. Was that ever in question?

I agree that sometimes Christian teaching sort of pretends that Christians have an exclusive franchise on morality, and even puzzle over why some nonchristians are so darned good. But it is a strange conundrum.

I've heard much sermonizing about why very very good people ought to feel very very bad so that they can get very very saved.

I think it largely misses the point of the gospel, which is that repentance from dead works is to follow Jesus the Messiah, the living way.

I do not see the point in trying to prove that unchristians are bad, or in trying to persuade a good person how bad they are. Consider 2 Cor 5:9 - 6:2...

"So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.
Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men...For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Robbie said...

Hebrews 8:7-12
7For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. 8But God found fault with the people and said[b]:
"The time is coming, declares the Lord,
when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah.
9It will not be like the covenant
I made with their forefathers
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they did not remain faithful to my covenant,
and I turned away from them, declares the Lord.
10This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel
after that time, declares the Lord.
I will put my laws in their minds
and write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
11No longer will a man teach his neighbor,
or a man his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,'
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
12For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more."

I need to do more research on this section of Scripture, because I don't know the full context of it, but, similar to the beginning of Joe's post, I see God saying that all will know the law in his mind and on his heart because God will put it there. Even if they don't believe in God and turn against everything that we believe to be morally correct, I still believe that they have those morals. I just see them turning away from them to gain in whatever it is they may be doing because they have nothing, from their perspective, that is holding them back except that initial moral law.

I don't know if that makes sense, and I might look stupid for posting it. I hope I explained it well enough that you can at least somewhat understand what I'm trying to say.

Joe B said...

SoeBeck's point makes me think: I have sometimes been tempted to act against strong moral convictions , but didn't (a woman in Chicago named Edie comes to mind). And a big reason I did not was because of a certainty that I would give account to a judge unimpressed by Edie's gracious invitation to watch a movie in her hotel room. (Flattery is a dangerous thing, boys. Prov 5:3)

It is kind of like having those side-boards up on a bowling alley -- the shadow of God's divine judgement helps you bounce off the the edge instead of falling off it. Keeps you out of the hopeless life-rut of the gutter, too.

A crutch? Whatever. If you ever run into Edie in Chicago a crutch can come in mighty handy.

Bethany said...

aaaah I love this post! There are more options than Christianity or AtheismDeathDestructionHateChaos.

Someone could lead a good life because (for no reason in particular) they find it fulfilling. Or someone could live by society's standard for morality. Even if there is no basis for it, there's also no real reason to challenge it. I mean, come on, that takes too much effort.

Though of course that's only patchwork, Nietzsche himself predicted the inevitable decline in morality after God's (cultural) death. And then you can always blame what morality we do find on the remnants of Christianity's influence from way back when...

Joe, I honestly don't know what to think about this 'shadow of God's divine judgement' thing. It's disconcerting. Can you explain how that is different than a prison?

Bethany said...

I guess what I mean is, isn't that fear-based morality rather than love-based?

Big Doofus said...

Should we not fear eternal damnation? Seems like a good idea to me. Why do you think believers are called to go out and preach the gospel?

I think people can be motivated to at least make the appearance of morality as it will be another source of power, influence, fame, money, etc. It seems to me that real morality can only come from a person that has been born again--a person with the Holy Spirit living inside them. The other morality is ultimately motivated by selfishness and flesh.

scott said...

It seems to me, then, that one could make the argument that morality guided by the fear of eternal damnation is motivated by the same selfishness and flesh. It's all about self-preservation.

I'm playing Devil's advocate here, to an extent. For the record, I do think that a bit of healthy fear of God's wrath can be a good thing. Overall, though, as Bethany says, the Kingdom of God is built on love, and not fear. Fear-based morality will be reactive rather than proactive.

What I disagree with is the argument that all non-Christian morality is motivated by selfishness and is not "real" morality. That seems to be making huge assumption on people's motives. It's like saying that I'm more "moral" for feeding the homeless because I've got the Holy Spirit... But if an atheist feeds the homeless, it's obviously motivated by selfishness, and it doesn't count. I don't think that's a tight argument at all. (I'm obviously speaking philosophically here, and not "who's getting into heaven.)

In fact, one could argue just the opposite. The Christian is the one that is bound to help the homeless -- that fear of judgment that Joe originally mentioned comes into play. So, then, perhaps the ATHEIST has more of a pure motive, to help his fellow man?

Just thought I'd throw that one out there to make you think. Devil's advocate smiles and awaits rebuttal...

Big Doofus said...

If you believe that your salvation is secured by your trusting faith in Christ (regeneration) then you have nothing to fear with regards to your salvation. I wasn’t saying that believers should act in a moral way exclusively out of this kind of fear. I was just pointing out that the fear of God is healthy. And I would go much further than having “a bit of healthy fear of God’s wrath.”

The New Testament doesn't toss out the notion of the fear of God. It's all over the place. Here a good one:

Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.
--2 Cor 7:1


Our holiness is perfected in the fear of God.

As far as our ability to perform "real" moral acts as unbelievers, I think you'll have a hard time dealing with Romans 3.

All the World Guilty

1 Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision?

2 Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God.

3 What then? If some did not believe, their unbelief will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it?

4 May it never be! Rather, let God be found true, though every man be found a liar, as it is written,
"THAT YOU MAY BE JUSTIFIED IN YOUR WORDS,
AND PREVAIL WHEN YOU ARE JUDGED."

5 But if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say? The God who inflicts wrath is not unrighteous, is He? (I am speaking in human terms.)

6 May it never be! For otherwise, how will God judge the world?

7 But if through my lie the truth of God abounded to His glory, why am I also still being judged as a sinner?

8 And why not say (as we are slanderously reported and as some claim that we say), "Let us do evil that good may come"? Their condemnation is just.

9 What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin;

10 as it is written,
"THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE;
11 THERE IS NONE WHO UNDERSTANDS,
THERE IS NONE WHO SEEKS FOR GOD;
12 ALL HAVE TURNED ASIDE, TOGETHER THEY HAVE BECOME USELESS;
THERE IS NONE WHO DOES GOOD,
THERE IS NOT EVEN ONE."
13 "THEIR THROAT IS AN OPEN GRAVE,
WITH THEIR TONGUES THEY KEEP DECEIVING,"
"THE POISON OF ASPS IS UNDER THEIR LIPS";
14 "WHOSE MOUTH IS FULL OF CURSING AND BITTERNESS";
15 "THEIR FEET ARE SWIFT TO SHED BLOOD,
16 DESTRUCTION AND MISERY ARE IN THEIR PATHS,
17 AND THE PATH OF PEACE THEY HAVE NOT KNOWN."
18 "THERE IS NO FEAR OF GOD BEFORE THEIR EYES."

19 Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God;

20 because (by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.
Justification by Faith
21 But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets,

22 even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction;

23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,

24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus;

25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed;

26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

27 Where then is boasting? It is excluded By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith.

28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.

29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also,

30 since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one.

31 Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law.


Certainly, people can do things that seem good, but the "goodness" is defined by the author of "good". Hence, to be truly "good" the deed would have to merit a positive reaction from God--but it doesn't happen. Now, in that person's mind, he may be thinking that he's doing something good. But if you ultimately asked that person "why" they did it and got a 100% honest reaction, I think you'd discover that their motivation was their own flesh.

Robbie said...

Although I believe it to be true that people do things that are seen as being good all the time and are truly doing things with their own motives in mind, when we talk about what is good to God and what is good to man, we are looking at two different things because God knows everyone's intentions. I am one who would say that I can do nothing truly good unless it is with the heart of Christ, but at the same time, I feel like when referring to whether or not people who are not believers can act out of their own true morality, it is really tough for us to determine because there's no way we can know their heart the way God does.

Big Doofus said...

Hello?

Joe B said...

I think that when anybody does justly, loves mercy, and walks humbly...God likes it.

Howdy.

Bethany said...

Hello.

The Christian's deepest motivation is selfish. Christians love God because he first loved them - they give because they have been given, not because they have some completely unselfish desire just to give.

"I think you'd discover that their motivation was their own flesh." - I don't see any reason for this to change after becoming a Christian. I thought the 'sinner' status was universal, forgiven or not. You could paint a thin religious facade over your actions, but more thorough self-examination would probably show "I did it for the sake of Christ" means something like "I want to be seen as a good person," or, "a tub full of grace can't help but spill over." Like Robbie said, only God could know true motives - chances are we don't even know our own.

God channels an other-worldly good through inherently bad people. Christians are not ultimately responsible for the good they do, they can't be praised over unbelievers. At all. Christians are no better.

"Well done, good and faithful" more accurately means "You channeled my good effectively."

I am still concerned about this fear thing - I thought perfect love casts out fear?

Joe B said...

Yeah, I hate the fear thing. But it is a reality in even the best situations, isn't it?

For instance, our home is just about perfectly power-balanced between Me & Mrs B. We each strive to defer to the other (knowing of course that the other is wrong and we are right ;-) Still, either would have to be plain stupid to realize that the other has the power to destroy his/her life. Break the bank. Withold money. Move the kids out of state. Set the bed on fire at 3am. Etc.
Just because there is an ultimate reckoning with fearsome consequences, however, does not mean that our lives are characterized by fear. There is a point at which these things could be realistic, and so in that sense they act as latent governing factors. Otherwise they do not even enter into normal thought. Getting freaky with Edie in Chicago places one in a position where it is time to reckon with the potential of fearsome consequences, seen and unseen, whethr Mrs B's wrath or the wrath of her avenger.

It doesn't cause me to reject Mrs B, and it doesn't make me bitter towards God. In reality, there is always someone with power to hurt you. The fact that God such power to hurt you doesn't mean disqualify him as God.

scott said...

I assume Joe meant "Still, either would have to be plain stupid to NOT realize that the other has the power to destroy his/her life."

And yeah, good example. Although I'm sure someone will mention that you do have the difference of unconditional love, of course.

Big Doofus said...

Bethany, I think you're wrong about this:

I don't see any reason for this to change after becoming a Christian. I thought the 'sinner' status was universal, forgiven or not. You could paint a thin religious facade over your actions, but more thorough self-examination would probably show "I did it for the sake of Christ" means something like "I want to be seen as a good person," or, "a tub full of grace can't help but spill over." Like Robbie said, only God could know true motives - chances are we don't even know our own.

I'm not sure where you came up with it. Here's what Ephesians has to say on the subject (see below). Feel free to read the entire chapters as I'm only including parts...


Ephesians 2
1 And you were dead in your trespasses and sins,

2 in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience.

3 Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.

4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us,

5 even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved),

6 and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,

7 so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God;

9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.

10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.

Ephesians 4
11 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers,

12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ;


He gave us gifts to do His work here on earth and He did it by His grace. You cannot attribute this to our flesh. Sure, we may still struggle with flesh and sin, but as believers we are no longer BOUND by it.

Bethany said...

Joe - that makes sense now. Thanks for explaining.

big doofus - hmmm. Christians can't do good, God does good through Christians despite themselves. Let's say you get the gift of love. If 'everything good and perfect comes from above,' automatically it is not you loving, it is someone else loving through you. Christians are no better than unbelievers, just luckier. These 'gifts' have come to them - no reason to have an us-and-them, we-are-the-good mentality.

The 'no longer bound by flesh' thing I see like training wheels on a bike - you're not keeping yourself up anyway, so there's no cause for bragging.

Big Doofus said...

How about some sort of reference from scripture to back up your idea.

I'm not not saying that believers are better than non-believers (although, I'd say we're better off). Scripture says that, too. Read Ephesians. We are no longer bound by sin. We have the ability to choose not to sin now (i.e. as believers) because of what Christ did). If you say that we're still sinners and can do no good, then you ignore the work of the Holy Spirit living inside of us.

It's nice that you give Joe the old, "thanks for explaining this" and move on. I realize that you don't know me, but I'm quite sure even Joe would agree with this. Joe? You there?

Even if he doesn't, he should. I'm not making this stuff up. It's scripture.

Joe B said...

Doofie & Bethie, I think there is a miscommunication in play. I THINK she did not assert that people and their lifestyles and choices should not change after conversion, but that the basic dynamic does not change. That any good one does "as a Christian" is by virtue of militating against the carnal nature and willfully "participating in the divine nature."

Does that make sense?

Big Doofus said...

Joe - this is what I was saying. I don't see that in bethany's comments. I'm really not trying to be a jerk about this. I actually think that it's an important distinction.

It may seem like nitpicking, but we have to acknowledge that a change does, indeed, take place in a person when he/she has been saved (it's a churchy word, but it's not a bad one). That person becomes a new creation in Christ who is now capable of making GOOD decision because of what Christ did on the cross and the fact that the Holy Spirit is living inside her/him.

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.

17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!

18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:

19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.

20 We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God.

21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.


We are no longer identified as "sinners." However, we still have flesh and there is a battle that goes on in our bodies. I'm not saying that the "new creation" doesn't sin or is not responsible for sin (but thank God he/she IS forgiven). We can do good things because Jesus began a good work in us. We are not slaves to sin any more. We have been freed by the blood of Christ.

Big Doofus said...

P.S. That passage was 2 Corinthians 5:16-21.

Bethany said...

Hey - sorry I haven't responded yet. I'm using the part in Galatians "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" as the basis for my argument. Joe said it nicely: "any good one does "as a Christian" is by virtue of militating against the carnal nature and willfully "participating in the divine nature.""

I take the word sinner to describe anyone who sins, which undoubtedly includes Christians. Though Christians might call themselves saved now, technically it doesn't happen until judgment day and all that good ol' fallennes still applies.

I am admittedly unsure on the 'new creation' thing, though I do think it is only symbolic of the newness of a different way of looking at life, a new meaning, and a new hope. You quoted: "Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer."

Big Doofus said...

Though Christians might call themselves saved now, technically it doesn't happen until judgment day and all that good ol' fallennes still applies.

Why?

I am admittedly unsure on the 'new creation' thing, though I do think it is only symbolic of the newness of a different way of looking at life, a new meaning, and a new hope.

Why?

Bethany said...

1. Because Christians are still alive, and they and the world are still fallen.

2. It makes sense.

Joe B said...

It seems an endless argument about "when" salvation is accomplished. Whether upon believing (he who belives in me does not come into judgement, he has crossed over from death to life) or at the resurrection when our new incorruptible nature is revealed. Each seems seem true, both intuitively and textually.

B. Doofus presents this as a technical, chronological matter and Bethany looks at it as a symolic, rhetorical matter.

What if we look at this as a transdimensional thing instead? What is accomplished in heaven is being worked out on earth. "...as in the heaven, so on the earth!" Mt 6:10 And hey, I'm seated with Jesus in the heavens even as I type this in my office, right?

Transdimensionality, Baby!

Big Doofus said...

This is how I am looking at it, too. The work is done (i.e. what Jesus did) and yet we're still "working out our salvation". But that doesn't mean that our salvation is not signed, sealed and delivered. It is.

There's a past, present and future all going on at the same time but we only experience the present and remember the past.

All I'm trying to say here is that we are no longer SLAVES to sin. Can we still sin as believers? Yes. Will we still sin as believers? Yes. But the difference is important. We are no longer controlled by a will that HAS to obey the flesh. Because of Christ's work on the cross and the Holy Spirit living inside of us, we are no longer destined to choose flesh. We have the ability to choose to do the good thing because of God's grace and mercy (not our own doing). To say that a Christian is still, inherently a sinner or slave to flesh is wrong. In fact, it's when we understand that we are no longer slaves to sin & flesh that we're able to live the way God wants us to--in His strength.

Joe B said...

Point taken. Now, we've established that a saint CAN sin, and a sinner CAN do good. All are agreed.

The differences between saint and sinner are two (maybe more): A durable intention to please God by doing good, and the immersion in the spirit of God to enable and sustain that will. (Neither is present in the Sinner, and both are variably present in the saint, right?)

I'm still not sure there is an argument here to be had. I think the sticking points are secondary matters. I think some fear that if unChristians can do good, then Jesus will be out of a job. I think that others fear the notion of a God who cannot tell good from evil because he is so entangled in creedal religion.

So, was that incendiary enough? I lob that Molotov upon thee in the spirit of Christian love.