Ethics Defined

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ“He has told you, O man, what is good; and 

what does the LORD require of you 

but to do justice, and to love kindness, and 

to walk humbly with your God?”

(Mic 6:8)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

What is Christian ethics?

If ethics is the study of moral action, then Christian ethics is the study of moral action starting from faith in God. 

Bonhoeffer’s Ethics

Because only God can ultimately determine what is good and evil, Bonhoeffer sees ethics as originating in original sin:

“The knowledge of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection. The first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate this knowledge.” (Bonhoeffer 1976, 17)

If only God knows good and evil, then ethical knowledge shows separation from God and is the source of human shame. Our conscience originates in learned morality and offers no help, being more a measure of the ethical gap among people than closeness to God (Bonhoeffer 1976, 17-25).

Bonhoeffer sees the  Pharisees of the New Testament as archetypes of human conscience, judging good and evil from a religious perspective, not from God’s perspective. In reconciling us with God, Jesus allows us to return to God and know God. Jesus’ problem with judging (and with Pharisees) arises from the apostasy of original sin—knowledge of good and evil (Bonhoeffer 1976, 30-33).

Context for Christian Ethics

In looking to Jesus Christ as our divine role model, Christian ethics is often classified as a branch of  virtue ethics. One author writes:

“According to virtue ethicists, actions aren’t right because of their results [e.g. consequentialism] or because they follow from some hard-and-fast rule [e.g. utilitarianism].⁠1 Rather, they are right because they would be done by someone of true virtue. This person is a moral exemplar.” (Shafer-Landau 2018, 257)

Virtue ethics has a long history that is attributed to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. The focus here is on practical wisdom, emotional maturity, and sound judgment rather than hard and fast rules.  As King Solomon observes: 

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Prov 1:7)

As such, in virtue ethics the belief is that moral training, experience, and practice are required both for life and leadership (Shafer-Landau 2018, 258-261).

The Ethical Dilemma

The need to study ethics arises and is unavoidable because principles often come in tension with one another. Bonhoeffer (1976, 367) cites this example:

“…a teacher asks a child in front of the class whether it is true that his father often comes home drunk. It is true, but the child denies it. The teacher’s question has placed him in a situation for which is is not yet prepared. He feels only that what is taking place is an unjustified interference in the order of the family and that he must oppose it.”

In Bonhoeffer’s example, the student is presented with an ethical dilemma and must choose between the Commandments to tell the truth (Exod 20:16) and to honor your parents (Exod 20:12). Which Commandment is more important?⁠2 How do you decide? The split in the church today over how to respond to homosexual behavior poses an ethical dilemma that is not easily resolved.

The Ten Commandments provide theological principles outlining good and bad behavior. It is helpful to distinguish good and bad principles from right and wrong actions (Johnson and Zerbi 1973, 12). In Bonhoeffer’s example, it is good for the student to tell the truth and to honor parents, but it is wrong for the teacher to pose the question about the father’s drunken behavior (and embarrass the student publicly) and wrong for the student to verify it in public. 

Distinguishing principles from actions helps preclude dogmatic responses to ethical dilemmas when dialogue is the preferred response.

Principal Agent Problem

A principal agent problem arises when a leader makes organizational decisions based on personal benefits rather than organizational benefits. In the Bonhoeffer example, suppose that the teacher is a sadist who derives pleasure from tormenting students. By putting the student on the spot to verify the father’s drunkenness in public, the teacher derives sadistic pleasure at the risk of opening the school up to a potential lawsuit from the student’s family. In doing so, the teacher’s interests and the school interests deviate demonstrating a principal agent problem, a special kind of ethical dilemma facing leaders.

Sexual harassment, pedophilia, taking bribes, and narcissistic leadership are all potential manifestations of the principal agent problem.

Moral Training Not Optional

Behavioral learning starts with a simple idea: do more of activities that bring pleasure and do less of activities that bring pain. By contrast, rational learning starts with making comparisons: activity A brought more pleasure than activity B so let’s do more of activity A. Such comparison require pattern recognition and memory not required in behavioral learning. Success in implementing rational learning also requires patience that many people lack.

This simple distinction between behavioral and rational learning lies at the heart of many ethical controversies, because behavioral learning can lead to logical traps. For example, the fish that grabs every tasty worm is likely to end up the fisherman’s dinner.  In a study of such traps, Cross and Guyer (1980, 3-4) write:

“The central thesis of this book is that a wide variety of recognized social problems can be regarded from a third view [Not stupidity; not corruption]. Drug use, air pollution, and international conflict are all instances of what we have called ‘social traps’. Put simply, a social trap is a situation characterized by multiple but conflicting rewards. Just as an ordinary trap entices its prey with the offer of an attractive bait and then punishes it by capture…’social traps’ draw their victims into certain patterns of behavior with promises of immediate rewards and then confront them with [longer term] consequences that the victim would rather avoid.”

In both smoking and education, conflicts in patterns of short-term and long-term costs and benefits lead those specialized in behavioral learning into ethical dilemmas that cannot be avoided without considering the entire sequence of costs and benefits. The need to study and learn patterns of costs and benefits involving ethical dilemmas provide the inherent motivation for most ethical teaching and for avoiding an exclusive reliance on behavioral learning. 

Part of the task of Christian leadership is to anticipate ethical dilemmas and take steps to avoid them.


1 Consequentialism is “an action is morally required just because it produces the best overall results.” Utilitarianism, which stands behind many economic theories, is a form of consequentialism. This theory is attributed to John Wesley and Methodist social activism owe much to this theory. (Shafer-Landau 2018, 120-123) Potential problems with consequentialism arise because of measurement problem and because maximizing benefits sometimes leads to cases of injustice, such as cases of vicarious and exemplary punishment. (Shafer-Landau 2018, 151)

2 From the context of Bonhoeffer’s life, we can infer that the unethical teacher is a stand-in for the German secret police, the Gestapo, who did not immediately know after his arrest that had participated in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler (Metaxas 2010, 423-431).


Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1976. Ethics (Orig pub 1955) Edited by Eberhard Bethge. Translated by Neville Horton Smith. New York: MacMillan Publishers Company, Inc.

Cross, John G. and Melvin J. Guyer. 1980. Social Traps.  Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press.

Johnson, Glenn L. And Lewis K. Zerby. 1973. What Economists Do About Values: Case Studies of Their Answers to Questions They Don’t Dare Ask. East Lansing: Michigan State University.

Metaxas, Eric. 2010.  Bonhoeffer:  Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy—A Righteous Gentile versus the Third Reich.  Nashville:  Thomas Nelson.

Shafer-Landau, Russ. 2018. The Fundamentals of Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ethics Defined

Also see:

Preface to Living in Christ 

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

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