What is Ethics?
Recently, I was re-reading a handout I used for a few theological ethics courses back in the late 90s. It’s fascinating and not a little disturbing to read these kinds of notes. I wonder how many academics would be kind of ashamed (or maybe proud?) to post there earliest public work in unadulterated form. This […]
Recently, I was re-reading a handout I used for a few theological ethics courses back in the late 90s. It’s fascinating and not a little disturbing to read these kinds of notes. I wonder how many academics would be kind of ashamed (or maybe proud?) to post there earliest public work in unadulterated form. This handout followed on from a introductory lecture that was aimed at getting students to see ethics as study of practical responses to life, rather than abstracted theories of faith.
Seeking a Definition of Ethics
Having reflected upon the practical nature of ethics, which is grounded in cases, applications, justifications and principles, and having speculated about the function of ethics and its relation to religion, we now need to devote ourselves to defining with some precision what we mean by ethics. What we shall do is look at a small sample of definitions, in order to help us come to grips with the things that we must consider in our definition of ethics.
“The word ‘ethics’ is derived from the Greek ethos or aethos (?). The former term occurs twelve times in the New Testament while the latter appears only once, in the plural form in 1 Corinthians 15.33… Thus our English term may mean ‘manner of life,’ ‘conduct,’ ‘custom,’ or ‘practice’ as prescribed by some competent authority.”
Walter C. Kaiser Jr, Toward Old Testament Ethics, 2.
Clearly for us as Christians, whatever ethics is, it will direct how we live, in accordance with scripture. However, Christianity is not the only school of thought that has sought to define and consider ethical issues.
“…In calling ethics practical, Aristotle had much more in mind. He meant that one does ethics properly, adequately, reasonably, if and only if one is questioning and reflecting in order to be able to act — i.e. in order to conduct one’s life rightly, reasonably, in the fullest sense ‘well.’”
John Finnis, Fundamentals of ethics, 1.
Here we encounter again the practical nature of ethics, but also the claim that ethics is meant to produce some kind of result, or behaviour.
“If you want to put it in one sentence, ethics is the science of behaviour. Ethics is the bit of religion that tells us how we ought to behave.”
William Barclay, Ethics in a permissive society, 13.
So ethics has to do with behaviour. But when we do ethics we don’t just describe what people do. We also evaluate, we think about behaviour.
“Ethics is a branch of philosophy; it is moral philosophy or philosophical thinking about morality, moral problems, and moral judgements.”
William E. Frankena, Ethics, 4.
We may feel uncomfortable with the term philosophy, but that should not concern us if we look at it as reasoning and thinking. In this way ethics is philosophical in so far as it involves making decisions and thinking about things.
“We engage in moral reasoning every day — making judgements about good and evil, right and wrong. Ethics is the name of the philosophical discipline that studies, systematises, and attempts to justify moral reasoning… the theological discipline that studies Christian morality is called theological ethics or moral theology. So ethics today is done by both philosophers and theologians.”
Nancey C. Murphy, Reasoning and rhetoric in religion, 109.
So in ethics we think about actions, but we also think about the status of affairs. Hence ethics will seek to define how we should act, but it also defines what are good and bad actions as well.
“The knowledge of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection. For the purposes of our present discussion it makes no difference if modern ethics replaces the concepts of good and evil by those of moral and immoral, valuable and valueless.”
Dietrich Bonhoffer, Ethics, 17.
So as we do ethics we try to distinguish between what is right and wrong, and so how we should live. But where do our definitions of right and wrong come from?
“The most important habits that make up cultures have little to do with how one eats one’s food or combs one’s hair but with the ethical codes by which societies regulate behaviour — what the philosopher Nietzsche called a people’s ‘language of good and evil.’ Despite their variety, all cultures seek to constrain the raw selfishness of human nature in some fashion through the establishment of unwritten moral rules. Although it is possible to affirm an ethical code as a matter of carefully considered rational choice, comparing one’s own ethical code against available alternatives, the vast majority of the world’s people do not do so. Rather, they are educated to follow their society’s moral rules by simple habituation — in family life, from their friends and neighbours, or in school.”
Francis Fukuyama, Trust, 35.
Of course, we would want to say that our sense of right and wrong is not solely based on society, though it is changed by it sometimes. A Christian ethic is thus different from some other ethics in that it is based on something beyond social norms.
“The first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate this knowledge. In launching this attack on the underlying assumptions of all other ethics, Christian ethics stands so completely alone that it becomes questionable whether there is any purpose in speaking of Christian ethics at all.”
Dietrich Bonhoffer, Ethics, 17.
We may not want to go so far, but we would agree that at times a Christian ethic will be at odds with the dominate ethic of society, because it is based on differing principles. However, the process of ethics can be seen to operate in a similar way, both inside and outside religion.
“Ethics is about the good (that is, what values and virtues we should cultivate) and about the right (that is, what our moral duties may be). It examines alternative views of what is good and right; it explores ways of gaining the moral knowledge we need; it asks why we ought to do right; and it brings all this to bear on the practical moral problems that arouse such thinking in the first place.”
Arthur E. Holmes, Ethics: Approaching moral decisions, 10.
So, would I start that way if I was to teach an ethics course again. No, not likely. I still agree with the impulse to show how even the definition of ethics, of what may or may not consitute an ethical (or moral) problem, was correct.
However, I think that I was missing some more coverage of the problems of interpretation across cultures, classes and faiths that is what makes public ethical debate so fraught and difficult. I was guilty, to a large extent, of overconfidence in how systematic (and serious) the ethical outlook of my students was (candidates for ministry, most of them).
Or to put it another way – I was expected to teach on environmentalism, for example, but every lunchtime unhealthy and unsustainable food was dished up to the students. I probably would have started the course not in the classroom, but in the college kitchen…