When I went to college, it was at a school that had some affiliation with the Presbyterian Church, USA, but for all practical purposes, it was a private secular school with a chapel. It wasn’t as though there was a pervasive Christian atmosphere. Pretty much it was standard-issue multi-cultural liberalism.
A part of the core curriculum to graduate was a class in the senior year on Ethics. Of course, I almost failed.
It was really difficult for me to process their way of gauging right and wrong because they weren’t willing to pin themselves to any particular foundation. It should be pretty obvious that Ethics is the sort of thing that starts from a set of key principles and works the implications out from there. But being the sort of school they were, it wouldn’t do to just assert what these principles ought to be. What if I don’t like your principles?
Instead, they gave us some options. Apparently, it’s a modern pluralist idea to try to present ethics on a 3-legged stool, kind of as a “choose-your-own” morality. So they give you Kant, Mill, and Aristotle to teach Duty, Utility, and Virtue. You’re supposed to choose which system of reasoning best fits the situation and your taste. You’re even told that each form of reasoning has its flaws, so that you have to balance each against the others.
It really got me. Confused the daylights out of me. The problem was that in my heart of hearts, I didn’t believe in morally gray areas. Still don’t. There are things that are hard to do, but it’s not usually hard to determine the right thing to do. So how did they get this perfectly balanced porridge? It took me years to get an answer, and I wish I’d written down who it was that popped the bubble of my confusion.
It’s actually pretty pathetic. Every system has its flaws so long as man is the measure of all things. If there is no standard to hold to, there isn’t even any way to come to a wrong answer. And if there isn’t any wrong answer, there can’t be a right one either. But the very point of ethics is to determine right and wrong. If you set up the system so that the goal can’t be achieved, then there’s no wonder that no one ever achieves the goal.
Sin is determined to tie up moral knots because that twistedness deflects you from judgment. It takes a Champion to take the sword of authority to cut through those knots with a simple standard.
I haven’t read my Kant, but from the summaries I’ve seen, it looks like he was trying to be a Christian without the benefit of revelation in Scripture. So he produced a view of duty without a particular authority to be dutiful to. What he was left with was an arbitrary universalism that sucks the reasonableness out of the very idea of duty. No one tells me the standard for right and wrong, so I imagine a world in which every human being is perfectly consistent. What do they do? Does it make sense for them to kill people? No, for then everyone would be killed. Therefore no one should kill anyone, whether in murder or as punishment for a crime or an act of war. Does it make sense for them to lie to anyone? No, for then everyone would be lying all the time. Therefore everyone should be completely free and open, even with information that isn’t theirs to share.
As a result, duty is made into the kind of fool who ties his own shoes together. Properly hobbled, duty takes his place as one of three equal (and equally flawed) foundations for ethical reasoning.
But properly, duty is the foundation of ethical reasoning. Ethics is the study of “ought,” and only duty has the heft of authority to compel what ought to be done. Every other form of reasoning is a helpful shorthand for evaluating what courses of action are better than others, but once it comes to action, there’s no reason why I have to do what is best.
Virtue ethics may tell me how to form a chiseled, god-like character, but what if I’m content with a character that’s fat and lazy? Who says I should be better? Utility may help me find the course that provides the greatest happiness to the most people, but what if I value my own demented pleasure more than all the world? Who can say to me, “What have you done?”
Duty, on the other hand, is all about Who can make demands on your life. It’s a relational view of right and wrong. Whom it is you have a duty to, and how much, and why – this determines everything.
Scripture says that there is a God, who made the heavens and the earth. He is the sole proprietor of everything, and has the right to make and unmake as he pleases. He says that his intent is to make the universe reflect his character, so that the heavens and the earth would declare his glory. Scripture also says that God made man (male and female) in his image, to reflect his character in detail, to represent him, and to administer the bounty of the earth.
Once you have this set firmly in your understanding, it’s easy to see where your duty lies. You owe it to Him to be just what he pleases. So you pursue virtue, because God expects those who are in His image to be conformed unto his character. And you look to see what’s best for the group, because you can see that you’re not the only one in the image of God. Everything we do should be bent toward pounding out on every inch of creation exactly how great is the nature of God.
And, if we’re honest, and if we have eyes to see, once we look at what ought to be and back and what we are, we recognise a rebel. And we know there is a part of God’s character that can only be displayed when He does what’s right with those who hate him.
The foundation of ethics is duty, and the first step of duty is to learn to be afraid. The second step is to hope for mercy.
I wrote this essay primarily as a personal rant – I just looked at my Army ethics assignment and saw the same old three-legged ethical chestnut. But now I hate to leave it at the bottom of the ski slope. There’s no way to determine what’s right without looking at duty, but by itself, all duty can bring is despair. In order to actually do what’s right, you need joy.
God himself is making the world align with his character. Not me. I’m part of the world that He so loved. So He sent His Son, the only one who ever did His duty; his only Son who took my rebel’s pay. And by his personal atonement, I’m made righteous for His sake.
As a Christian, what I owe God now is what he himself is putting inside me. Obedience is accomplished by the Spirit, through gratitude and joy.