Christian Ethics are based on and derived from Christianity. Christianity is a religion with a complicated relationship with ethics. Christianity draws upon the Jewish ethics of the Old Testament but reinterprets them based on Jesus' distinctive summaries and stories. Later Christians drew on the Greek ethical traditions of Stoicism and Neoplatonism. In Europe, Christianity also picked up some of the pagan ethical traditions of the Celts, Germans and Vikings. Christian ethicists often appeal to Natural Law or Direct Revelation. There are other topics such as Muslim Ethics or Secular Ethics.
Some philosophers are not interested in what is right or wrong, but how certain things get to be right or wrong - where our ideas of right or wrong come from and how we go about making ethical decisions: Meta-Ethics is the study of the justification behind various ethical systems (literally ‘beyond’ ethics) and includes Moral Philosophy. Finally, Aesthetics is the study of whether something is ‘pleasing’ or ‘not pleasing’ – i.e. with a painting or music. This might seem to be quite separate from ethics, but actually questions about "what is beautiful?" or "what is pleasant?" turn out to be closely linked to "what is good?".
In the Bible the 6th Commandment says that you should not kill. Now this is in fact a DEONTOLOGICAL ETHIC. Deontological means an act is wrong regardless of any circumstances. In this example, there would be no circumstances when it is right to kill. However, in the case of war, another ethical theorist might argue that you have the right to kill someone if they are threatening you. This would be a TELEOLOGICAL ETHIC. Teleological means an act is judged to be right or wrong only when the consequences have been taken into consideration. Teleological ethics are sometimes called consequentialist ethics.
A mad axe-murderer of the worst variety arrives on your doorstep looking to kill your sister. You know your sister is in her bedroom, but if you reveal this to the axe-maniac he will murder your sister if he finds her. Now you have a problem depending on your ethical position:
Some Theists would say that God’s law provides an absolute moral law, whereas human law is changeable. This is sometimes called THEONOMY. ‘Theo’ means ‘God’ and ‘Nomos’ means law. The essential difference between this and secular ethics is that secular ethics are arrived at through the use of reason. Which is the best of these? All the top philosophers have put their mind to trying to base morality on reason, and none have been totally convincing. However, there is one area where Theonomy has a big advantage over secular ethics. If David Hume tells you to do something, and God tells you to do another, which one are you going to do?
Most religious believers think that God’s law is absolute. That is to say that this law is always the case. With absolute moral laws one is always assured that they are doing the right thing. There are no grey areas, and this is very enticing. However, opponents of the link between religion and morality would argue that one has not made a real choice in doing God’s commands and they are therefore not autonomous. But is God's will for us not better than the free choices we make? Perhaps, but free-will is very important in deciding the Problem of Evil debate. One of the arguments for justifying God in spite of evil revolves around our free will being essential. Perhaps one way out of this dilemma is simply to assert that in choosing to do God’s will we make a free choice.
There is also the question of determining God’s demands. Peter Sutcliffe, the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’, thought that he was doing God’s will when he murdered numerous prostitutes. However, giving isolated incidents does not destroy the argument altogether. Most Christian people would point to the Bible or to general religious teaching and show that God’s demands are clearly: ‘thou shalt not kill’.
Other Theists point out that God’s law demands a response. One of the criticisms of secular ethical theories is that they do not possess what C.L. Stevenson calls MAGNETISM - they do not impel someone to do either right or wrong actions. They give a reason why someone should do right or wrong, but don't give you an overriding motivation to do the right thing. It is one thing to say that it is good to help people, but quite another to get someone to realise that they should actually do it. With religious ethics the magnetism is strongest. Another compelling factor is the threat of punishment which, whether in the form of Hell or bad karma, is included in most religions.
Many people feel that without God evil deeds will go unpunished. It is clear that in this life justice is not meted out fairly. There is no absolute justice and one may resort to so-called 11th Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not get caught’. Immanuel Kant (left) thought along these lines. He did not see the possibility of ethics if there was no God. He believed that there wasn’t the possibility of a truly ethical system or real justice if there was no objective judge to mete out that judgement.
A similar point can be made when we look at cultural norms around the world and throughout history; for example the Apartheid laws in
Theists also claim that religion makes people morally superior. One needs evidence to support this statement. Critics will point out at wars, and atrocities committed in the name of religion. However, some of these were committed in times where morality simply meant doing what the King or Pope told you. But there is still the problem of acting violently towards people under the guise of religion, as this happens today as well. In Saudia Arabia in particular, public whippings still take place because of religious laws. There is also the concept of ‘jihad’, where a war is justified by religion.
Even if religious people are not necessarily more moral than the rest, there seem to be exceptionally enlightened religious people, who have devoted themselves to God and intuitively know what God’s demands are; eg Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Gandhi or Brother Roger of Taize. It would seem that these people have a moral awareness, a mystical knowledge which is linked to their closeness to God. They intuitively know, (as oppose to reason towards) what Goodness is. Their morality is clearly on a higher level than most of us, and this brings us to conclude that there is an inherent practical connection between Religion and Morality.
One objection is to show that non-religious people like Nelson Mandela (right) were clearly morally enlightened. Furthermore, there are many people who are ‘religious’ and not moral. For example, the Russian monk Rasputin had mystical healing powers but was in many ways a sexual predator. If you define being religious as being moral, then it is clear that religious people are moral; it is just an interesting fact that some other people are moral as well.
Finally, Theists claim that religion has a more beneficial view of human nature and it takes for granted the failings of humanity (i.e. original sin) whereas secular philosophers appeal more to an understanding of humanity as ‘reasoning’ beings - and many of us can't reason very well. This makes religious ethics less elitist and more attainable than secular ethics. Critics reply that since morality based on reason does not include the idea of self-sacrifice or absolute law then it avoids placing unbearable demands upon the individual.
Divine Command Theory (DCT) takes God’s will to be the foundation of ethics. According to DCT, things are morally good or bad solely because of God’s will or commands. Christians who support DCT often point to the Decalogue or Jesus' reinterpretation of the Old Testament Laws as the divine command that must be obeyed. There are a number of advantages to this view if you are religious. It provides an agreed-upon moral framework that settles a lot of questions quite easily and provides clear-cut definitions of what is or isn't the right thing to do. It has the advantage of "magnetism" and provides a platform for judging cultural norms (as many opponents of abortion or gay rights claim to do).
Divine command theory is often thought to be refuted by an argument known as the EUTHYPHRO DILEMMA. This argument is named after Plato’s Euthyphro, the dialogue in which it has its origin (although contrary to popular belief the argument isn’t actually stated there). The Euthyphro dilemma begins by posing a question: Are morally good acts willed by God because they are morally good, or are they morally good because they are willed by God? Whichever way the theist answers this question, problems are follow.
If the theist says that morally good acts are willed by God because they are morally good, then he faces the independence problem; if morally good acts are willed by God because they are morally good, then they must be morally good prior to and so independently of God’s willing them. This is clearly inconsistent with DCT; the divine command theorist must give the second answer to the Euthyphro dilemma.
If the theist says that morally good acts are morally good because they are willed by God, then he faces the arbitrariness problem, the emptiness problem, and the problem of abhorrent commands.
DCT is by no means the only ethical theory in the Christian tradition, but there are reasons why the Theist might be attracted to DCT and so want to defend it. God is claimed to be the creator of all things, and therefore the creator of our moral obligations. God is claimed to be sovereign, to have the authority to tell us how we are to live our lives.
Another idea about the link between religion and ethics that is rather more sophisticated than DCT is "Natural Law", an ethical theory proposed by Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas (right) that remains today the main ethical theory of the Catholic Church. The basic idea of Natural Law is that there is a moral code that humans are naturally inclined towards, that this can be discovered through reason and that one should start by looking at the purpose (what Aristotle would call "teleos") of human life. The moral life is the life lived "according to reason" in a way which completes and fulfils human beings. For example, Natural Law would say that human beings have an obligation to keep themselves alive, to reproduce, to live in an ordered society. Giving in to non-rational desires enslaves and degrades the individual, threatening their security and the security of their society.
Aquinas brings a strong religious dimension to this, saying that you cannot think about the purpose behind human life without considering the afterlife and God. Reason should be used to figure out God's purposes for humans and work out what is the good life. It's important to note that Aquinas (unlike some religious reformers like Calvin) did not consider human life and reason to be totally corrupt - though human beings have Fallen and are imperfect, their original purpose can still be worked out. Aquinas starts off with the "ideal" human nature we have all fallen away from and argues that that is the template for the good life. The problem is that people choose "apparent goods" that make them happy in the short term (like drunkenness or fornication) rather than "actual goods" that secure them long term happiness (like sobriety or chastity).
An important contribution made by Aquinas is to distinguish between INTERIOR acts and EXTERIOR acts and to recognise that interior acts are most important. Giving money to the poor so that people can praise and admire you is doing the right thing for the wrong reason. Good intentions are much more important, even if the exterior act (actually putting money in the beggar's hands) is thwarted (say, because you get pickpocketed on the way down the street).
In Aquinas' thought, God is the final end for all human beings and all human beings share the same nature. To be fair, Aquinas considers alternative goals for human life (pleasure, knowledge) but has to discard them (pleasure only satisfies the body while knowledge can only be reached by the educated few).
Natural Law is a powerful contribution to ethical thought, but it has been criticised. Aquinas recognises that humans have a moral duty to reproduce the species - but he himself was a celibate priest! He defends priestly celibacy by saying that the reproducing majority can make up for a celibate minority who devote themselves to prayer and contemplation. The problem with this is that it would also justify homosexuality - which Aquinas most certainly condemns! After all, so long as the heterosexual majority continue to reproduce, the homosexual minority can follow their own inclinations. Natural Law really needs to apply to everyone, otherwise all sorts of exceptions can be justified.
Aquinas also assumes there is a single purpose behind every human activity or organ. Genitals are for procreating - so no masturbation, homosexuality or contraception! The problem is, who's to say what a part of the body is "for"? Is a mouth for eating or for kissing? Aquinas has to make a lot of assumptions about the purpose of human bodies and actions, all of which can be challenged.
Also open to challenge is the assumption that human beings share a single common nature. For example, the Natural Law view on homosexuality is that there is something faulty in the nature of homosexuals, since they "should" be heterosexual in order to fulfil their purpose as humans. But maybe there is no single human nature, just diverse human natures. Recent scientific study suggests there may be a genetic basis for homosexuality and that, in an overcrowded world, genes increase which direct creatures away from procreation. Aquinas would not be able to fit such an idea into his Natural Law.
It's important to realise that Aquinas and other Natural Law philosophers do not claim to know, absolutely, what the Natural Law is and they accept there can be disagreements about what behaviour is actually good. They just insist that, beyond these disagreements, there is in fact an absolute Natural Law. In the Nuremberg Trials at the end of the Second World War, Nazi war criminals (right) were condemned for their "crimes against humanity". The phrase "Natural Law" was never used, but the idea of war crimes is based on Natural Law and is a good example of deontological ethics standing outside national boundaries and providing a yardstick by which whole countries can be judged.
Not all Natural Law philosophers are religious - to believe in natural law you just have to believe there is a purpose to human life and "good" becomes anything that helps people to fulfil that purpose. The Nazis' ethics could be seen as a version of Natural Law - if you believe the purpose of human life is to advance your own race's claims and eliminate the taint of lesser races, then exterminating Jews or Slavs or Gypsies becomes the moral thing to do! This illustrates the key problem with Natural Law: who is to say what the purpose/teleos is? If reason cannot solve this question, then the Theist has to fall back on claiming that the purpose of human life is revealed in Holy Scriptures or religious visions. This turns into Divine Command Theory again...
It has always been assumed that, without religion to back it up, ethical behaviour would collapse. Even the great sceptic Voltaire said about atheism: "Even if not as baleful as fanaticism, it is nearly always fatal to virtue." However, much evidence suggests he was wrong in assuming that disbelief in God causes unethical behaviour. In The Psychology of Religion, the authors cite studies showing higher rates of religious affiliation among criminals and juvenile delinquents than among the rest of the population. Alfie Kohn of Psychology Today summarizes the results of many years of research:
Throughout history, many great benefactors of humanity were either disbelievers or sceptics on the issue of God's existence. Examples include Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, and John Stuart Mill. In fact, Mill wrote in the 19th century: "It is historically true that a large proportion of infidels in all ages have been persons of distinguished integrity and honour." On the other hand, the God-believers have included slaveholders, Inquisitors, Crusaders, Conquistadors, witch-burners, Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen and many corrupt and cruel politicians and rulers, including Hitler and Mussolini.
The inferiority of religious morality to secular ethics was summed up by the great British philosopher Bertrand Russell (right) in his famous essay Why I Am Not A Christian. Here and elsewhere, Russell suggests (rather like Nietzsche) that religion develops out of a state of powerlessness:
Russell suggests this focus on personal holiness actually gets in the way of trying to improve the world and the lives of fellow human beings (rather like Marx). He concludes:
This argument accuses religious ethics of being "mercenary" - the religious believer does good not out of a love of goodness or compassion for other people, but because he or she is hoping God will reward them. By contrast secular ethics, which encourage us to do the right thing without any divine approval, are more disinterested and pure. However, an interesting counter-argument was made by C.S. Lewis (right):
Lewis is suggesting that motives are only "mercenary" when the reward is extraneous to the motive. Wanting to marry a woman for her money is mercenary because money ought not to be the basis of marriage - it should be love. In contrast, wanting to live morally in order to be with God in Heaven is not mercenary in the way that doing moral things in order to get your photo in the newspaper or an OBE might be. But is Lewis being a bit naïve here? There are some sensitive religious people who yearn to be closer to God (what Aquinas called the Beatific Vision). However, for many people Heaven really does mean being reunited with dead loved ones or being presented with 72 virgins. Lewis makes the point that religious ethics don't have to be self-interested, but in fact they quite often are.