Tradeoffs, Desires, and Temptations. Monday Monologues, February 11, 2019 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In today’s podcast, I will offer a Decision Prayer and talk about Tradeoffs, Desires, and Temptations.

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Tradeoffs, Desires, and Temptations. Monday Monologues, February 11, 2019 (podcast)

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Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

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Thompson: Paul’s Ethics Forms Community

James W. Thompson. 2011. Moral Formation according to Paul. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Being created in the image of Holy God poses a special problem for Christians because of original sin. Sin not only mucks up the workings our lives like molasses poured into a car’s gas tank, it stinks up the place polluting our emotions and minds much like molasses as it burns. We love the wrong things like an addict lusting after drugs and think like criminals avoiding the sunlight that might expose their crimes. In the midst of our fallen state, Christ redeems us and the church aids in our formation as Christians. But how?

Introduction

In his book, Moral Formation according to Paul, James Thompson begins with this goal:

“Although I hope that this book has contemporary relevance, my primary task is not to ask the hermeneutical questions about the many moral questions that now confront us, but to grasp the specific shape and inner logic of Paul’s moral instructions.”(ix)

Thompson observes that Paul never uses the word, ethics, and only once uses the common Greek term, virtue. (2-3, 59, 107) Instead, Paul stands alone among ancient writers in arguing for the concept of original sin (Rom 3:10; 155, 208) and focusing on sexual immorality in his vice lists. (17) Unlike the Greeks, he did not advocate that sin could be overcome through human effort. (148) Like other Diaspora Jews (those outside of Israel), Paul turned to the Holiness Code (Lev 17-26) for guidance (133).

Paul Focuses on Formation

Paul’s teaching stands out from most ancient writers. Thomson writes:

“Paul’s major challenge as a missionary and planter of churches was to ensure the moral transformation of his communities. His task was not only to make converts, but to re-socialize them and provide a common ethos and shared practices.”(207)

Rather than emphasize the static view of Rudolf Bultmann (before and after faith), Thompson sees Paul teaches that we stand between conversion and the return of Christ (the end), an emphasis on the journey of faith (1, 61). Thompson writes: “Paul does not speak of ethics as such, but of how to walk, the primary term for ethical conduct.” (61) This suggests that telos, not identity or duty, drives Pauline ethics.

Summary of Paul’s Teaching

Thompson views 1 Thessalonians as a window into the content of Paul’s teaching, which he refers to as catechesis (preparation for baptism). He makes three points:

  1. “This catechesis involved first the memory of the death and resurrection of Jesus (Thes 4:14) …
  2. Second, Paul consistently places the story of Jesus and the readers’ own experience within the narrative of Israel, providing a symbolic world and an identity (e.g. 1 Thes 4:5) …
  3. Third, Paul appeals not only to the story of Jesus to shape the moral conduct of his communities, but also to the Torah. (207-208)

Paul stands alone among ancient writers in arguing for the concept of original sin. (Rom 3:10; 208)

Holiness as a Pauline Distinctive

While the Jewish community set itself apart from gentile communities through its dietary laws and Sabbath practices, Pauline communities distinguished themselves through holiness. Thompson writes:

“Having provided the community with an identity as God’s elect and holy people, Paul extends the sphere of holiness from the cult to matters of sexuality, distinguishing the holy people from the gentiles.”(76)

Paul’s use fo the term, saints, and referring to the church as the called out ones (ekkesia) furthermore distinguishes Christians a the holy ones and identifies them with ancient Israel (54-55). 

Background and Organization

James W. Thompson received his doctorate from Vanderbilt University, teaches at at the Graduate School of Theology at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas, and is the author of numerous books. He writes in eight chapters:

  1. “Ethics in Hellenistic Judaism: Maintaining Jewish Identity in the Diaspora.
  2. Shaping an Identity: Moral Instruction and Community Formation.
  3. From Catechesis to Correspondence: Ethos and Ethics in 1 Thessalonians.
  4. Pauline Catechesis and the Lists of Vices and Virtues.
  5. Paul, the Law, and Moral Instruction.
  6. Paul, the Passions, and the Law.
  7. Putting Love into Practice.
  8. Ethics and the Disputed Letters of Paul. (vii)

These chapters are proceeded by a preface, abbreviations, and an introduction. They are followed by a conclusion, works cited, and several indices.

Assessment

James Thompson’s Moral Formation according to Paul is a scholarly assessment of Paul’s ethics. It is well-written and documented resource for pastors, seminary students, and scholars of Paul’s work.

Thompson: Paul’s Ethics Forms Community

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Bonhoeffer Introduces Christian Ethics, Part 2

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

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life, writing, and death during the era of National Socialism (Nazi) in Germany gave him a uncanny ability to speak to our own postmodern, increasingly tribal, era. 

Why? Nazi Germany is sometimes described as the first postmodern state for two reasons. First, both the Nazis and post-moderns are heavily influenced by the writings of Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s “will to power”ideology directly informed the Nazi leadership model (Der Führer) and also informs the deconstructionism (also called the politics of suspicion) recently so prevalent in public discourse. 

Second, with the collapse of faith, people have to believe in something and they frequently turn to “barbaric brotherhoods” like the Nazis and other tribal affiliations to rob non-brothers, something predicted by Nietzsche himself (McGrath 2004, 262). Those that classify Nazism as a modern phenomenon focus on the German obsession with efficiency or technological preeminence rather than its philosophical underpinnings (Roseman).

In part one of my review of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, Ethics, I described his background, the organization of his book, and opening comments In part two of this review, I will look in more depth at Bonhoeffer’s ethical concepts.

God’s Will

Bonhoeffer has a high view of God’s sovereignty and the special role of Jesus Christ. He (1976, 38) writes:

“The will of God is not a system of rules which is established from the outset; it is something new and different in each different situation in life, and for that reason a man must ever anew examine what the will of God may be.”

Depending on your Christology, this statement is either terribly obvious or comes as criticism. After the attempt on Adolf Hitler’s life failed, Hitler ironically felt a special calling from God in his work.

Ethics

Bonhoeffer’s (1976, 32) focus on God’s will directly impacts his ethics, writing: “the only appropriate conduct of men before God is the doing of His will.” The problem with the Pharisees, from his perspective, was that they knew the will of God (or at least knew how to figure it out), but failed to act on it. Complicating the matter, the Pharisees did the opposite of acting—judging.

Love

Bonhoeffer would have been critical of the current tendency to define God as love, but then to offer a licentious definition of love. He writes (1976, 50-51):

“No one knows God unless he reveals Himself to him. And so no one knows what love is except in the self-revelation of God. Love, then, is the revelation of God. And the revelation of God is Jesus Christ.”

This definition of love as revelation through Jesus Christ is neither alone a licentious interpretation of love or any other revelation not based on Christology. Obviously, the only way to get a licentious interpretation is through a licentious Christology.

Ethics as Formation

Bonhoeffer’s special understanding of Jesus Christ is again made obvious in his discussion of discipling/formation. He (1976, 84) writes:

“The only formation is formation by and into the form of Jesus Christ. The point of departure for Christian ethics is the body of Christ [the church], the form of Christ in the form of the church, and formation of the Church in conformity with the form of Christ.”

Obviously, Bonhoeffer sees no possibility of seeing “Lone Ranger” Christians, as some envision today

Peril of the Void

When Bono and U2 sing about being stuck in a moment,[1]they could have been citing Bonhoeffer, where he talks about the peril of the void and relating it to the coming last days. He writes (1997, 105-107):

“With the loss of past and future, life fluctuates between the most bestial enjoyment of the moment and an adventurous game of chance. An abrupt end is put to any kind of inner self-development and to any gradual attainment of personal or vocational maturity. There is no personal destiny, and consequently there is no personal dignity.” 

Again, Bonhoeffer was writing from Nazi Germany, which some have referred to as the first postmodern society.

Penultimate

Bonhoeffer (1997, 125) observes that God’s grace is the ultimate word that we receive as believers. Grace is a gift but it is never cheap; faith is required. He describes the path that we come to faith as critique and entirely unique to each individual. He calls this process of coming to faith as the penultimate. Bonhoeffer (1997, 127) writes:

“Everything must go to the judgment. There are only two categories: for Christ and against him. He that is not with me is against me (Matt 12:30). Everything penultimate in human behavior is sin and denial.”

What is interesting about this concept of penultimate is that it only has meaning in view of the ultimate and no one is prepared to make a faith commitment—faith is a gift. Bonhoeffer (1997, 143) therefore concludes:

“But it will be more Christian to claim precisely that man as a Christian who would himself no longer dare to call himself a Christian, and then with much patience to help him to the profession of faith.”

In other words, being a Christian is an identity that we must live into; something that we cannot do on our own.

A similar concept in economics is called a full-employment budget. In order for the economy to grow at full potential, the government must budget as if we have full-employment, even if it is currently demonstrating weakness. To budget for the weakness would invariably make it impossible to obtain full-employment. Consequently, a full-employment budget is almost always aspirational.

And so it is with us before we come to faith.

Innocent Life

Bonhoeffer understands the intrinsic value of life that God gives us in creating us in the divine image (Gen 1:27) and loving us as his children. The value of life does not go up and down with circumstance. Bonhoeffer (1997, 163) writes:

“The right to live is a matter of the essence and not of any values. In the sight of God there is no life that is not worth living; for life itself is valued by God.”

The fact that we are weak, ill, or unborn does not hinder our intrinsic value as human beings in God’s eyes, which is the basis of all human rights as we know them.

Assessment

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics provides a series of essays on ethical topics that he wrote during the last days of his life in Germany during the Second World War. The book is surprisingly well written for a book rendered only in a series of drafts. Ethics offers a foundation for Christian ethics and is a must read for pastors and seminary professors.

References

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1995. The Cost of Discipleship (Orig Pub 1937). Translated by R. H. Fuller and Irmgard Booth. New York: Simon & Schuster—A Touchstone Book

McGrath, Alister. 2004. The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World. New York: DoubleDay.

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

Roseman, Mark. 2011. “National Socialism and the End of Modernity”

American Historical Review Vol. 116, No. 3 (June), pp. 688-701.

Footnotes


[1]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sl6j7hiALu0.Songwriters: Adam Clayton / Dave Evans / Larry Mullen / Paul Hewson. Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

Bonhoeffer Introduces Christian Ethics, Part 2

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Identity, Duty, and Planning, Monday Monologues, December 24, 2018 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

In today’s podcast, I offer a prayer for this place and talk about Identity, Duty, and Planning.

After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

To listen, click on the link below.

Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Identity, Duty, and Planning, Monday Monologues, December 24, 2018 (podcast)

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Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

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Bonhoeffer Introduces Christian Ethics, Part 1

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

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Vietnam created tension between my desire to become a career military pilot and my Christian faith. What is a just war? Why was the war in Vietnam unjust? Before I even graduated high school, I developed a passion for ethics.

The problem of war and peace also motivated Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s interest in ethics. In the editor’s preface to his book, Ethics, Eberhard Bethge writes:

“The manuscripts which are now before were written between 1940 and 1943 in Berlin, at the monastery of Ettal and at Kieckhow.”(7)

Because Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Bonhoeffer’s Ethics was written during the Second World War at the time of Adolf Hitler’s greatest battlefield successes (Metaxas 2010, 363). Although Bonhoeffer never gives a name to his successful man, the context is clear:

“When a successful figure becomes especially prominent and conspicuous, the majority give way to the idolization of success. They become blind to right and wrong, truth and untruth, fair play and foul play. They have eyes only for the deed, for the successful result.”(76)

Bonhoeffer’s characterization of Hitler as the “successful man” makes him an archetype whose appeal—even today—would not be limited to fanatics, making Hitler a much scarier figure than villainous caricature usually assigned him.

Who was Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer came from an aristocratic family and was himself extraordinarily talented. His father was the leading psychiatrist in Germany at the time and his own brother was a noted physicist. Neither were professing Christians and the family did not attend church on a regular basis. His mother was his most significant religious influence. Dietrich declared his intention to become a theologian at age 14 before he had even been confirmed; he received his doctorate at age 21. Metaxas pictures Dietrich becoming a committed Christian, much like John Wesley, only after he was already working as a theologian. After Bonhoeffer had made a visit to New York in 1936, Metaxas asks:  What had happened that Bonhoeffer [the brilliant young theologian] should suddenly take attending church so seriously? (Metaxas 2010, 124)

Neo-Orthodoxy

Bonhoeffer is the author of a number of influential books, especially the Cost of Discipleship, and, along with Swiss theologian Karl Barth (one of the authors of the Barmen Declaration[1]), is credited with starting the neo-orthodox school of thought.  Bonhoeffer laid out important principles of his thinking already in 1928 (age 22) in Barcelona in three points:

  1. …Christianity is not a religion at all, but about the person of Christ…religion was a dead, man-made thing, and at the heart of Christianity was something else entirely—God himself, alive.
  2. He differentiated between Christianity…which attempt but failed to make an ethical way for man to climb to heaven…and following Christ, who demands everything. and
  3. He identified ‘the Greek spirit’ or ‘humanism’ as ‘the most severe enemy that Christianity ever had…dualism, the idea that the body is at war with the soul (Metaxas 2010, 83-85).

In other words, Christians must only follow Christ; we cannot approach God, only God can reveal Himself to us; in our faith heart and mind cannot be separated.

Military Intelligence

Bonhoeffer, the seminary professor and spy, worked with military intelligence (Abwehr). Weeks before the war is over (April 1945), Bonhoeffer is hung for treason, having assisted in the smuggling of Jews out of Germany and assisting those who conspired to assassinate Hitler and bring the war to an end (Metaxas 2010, 423-431). Because Bonhoeffer did not survive the war, his student and confidant, Eberhard Bethge, assembled, edited, and published his notes after the war.

Organization of the Book

Eberhard Bethge organized Bonhoeffer’s Ethicsin two parts composed of twelve chapters:

PART ONE

  1. The Love of God and the Decay of the World
  2. The Church and the World
  3. Ethics as Formation
  4. The Last Things and the Things Before the Last
  5. Christ, Reality and God (Christ, the Church and the World
  6. History and Good
  7. The Ethical and the Christian as a Theme

 PART TWO

  1. The Doctrine of the Primus Usus Legis According to the Lutheran Symbolic Writings
  2. Personal and Real Ethos
  3. State and Church
  4. On the Possibility of the Word of the Church to the World
  5. What is Meant by Telling the Truth(3-6)

These chapters are preceded by two prefaces and are followed by a series of indexes. The second preface summarizes where the parts originated and the reasoning behind the current organization of the book.

 Origin of the Ethical Problem

Bonhoeffer begins his study of ethics with a most enigmatic statement:

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

If only God knows good and evil, then ethical knowledge shows separation from God (17-19). Thus, this knowledge is the source of human shame (20). Conscience is no help, being more a measure of the gap among people (24-25).

In the New Testament, the Pharisee becomes an archetype of the man of conscience, which is of no help with the ethical problem—knowing good and evil, but not from God’s perspective—judgment. In reconciling us with God, Jesus allows us to return to know God and God alone. Jesus’ problem with judging (and with Pharisees) is precisely a consequence of original sin—knowledge of good and evil—the original apostacy from God (30-33).

Assessment

In part one of this review, I have introduced Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the organization of his book, and the opening of the book. In part two of this review, I will look in more depth at Bonhoeffer’s ethical concepts.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics provides a series of essays on ethical topics that he wrote during the last days of his life in Germany during the Second World War. The book is surprisingly well written for a book rendered only in a series of drafts. Ethicsoffers a foundation for Christian ethics and is a must read for pastors and seminary professors.

Footnotes

[1]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barmen_Declaration.

References

 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1995. The Cost of Discipleship (Orig Pub 1937). Translated by R. H. Fuller and Irmgard Booth. New York: Simon & Schuster—A Touchstone Book

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

Bonhoeffer Introduces Christian Ethics, Part 1

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RSL Surveys and Argues Ethics, Part 3

Russ Shafer-Landau's The Fundamentals of EthicsRuss Shafer-Landau.[1]2018. The Fundamentals of Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One observation that I find myself repeating since seminary is the importance of finding the right words to talk about a given subject. Coming from a Dutch background, the words to express emotion that I learned in seminary were new to me. Although I did not immediately become a spontaneous and chatty person, the new vocabulary opened me up to grow my faith along an unexplored path, like I had been given the first map of an uncharted territory.

 Introduction

In his book, The Fundamentals of Ethics, Russ Shafer-Landau (hereafter RSL) writes in three parts: The Good Life, Normative Ethics (doing the right thing), and Metaethics (the status of morality). In part one of this review, I have outlined the basic arguments that RSL presents. In part two of my review, I commented on arguments in part 1 and began part 2. In Part three of this review, I finish RSL’s parts two and three.

Normative Ethics—Doing the Right Thing—Continued

Doctrine of Doing and Allowing

RSL presents an interesting dilemma that makes a distinction between sins of commission and sins of omission. He calls it the doctrine of doing and allowing: “It is always morally worse to do harm than to allow the same harm to occur.”(233)

For example, he tells the story of a soldier whose colleague is wounded—is it better to put him out of his pain, knowing he will die, or to leave him to die on the battlefield? This doctrine suggests just leaving him to die is morally superior (235) I am not sure that I would agree.

Virtue Ethics

RSL 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]. Rather, they are right because they would be done by someone of true virtue. This person is a moral exemplar.”(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 such, moral training, experience, and practice are required (258-261).

Virtue ethics has long been considered a Christian approach to raising children and developing leadership skills.

Feminist Ethics

RSL sees two ways that:

“philosophers have shortchanged the lives of women. The first is to make false and damaging claims about them. The second is to ignore female experiences and perspectives.”(277)

RSL sees feminists making four central claims:

  1. Women are the moral equals of men; views that justify the subordination of women or downplay their interests are thus mistaken on that account.
  2. The experiences of women deserve our respect and are vital to a full and accurate understanding of morality…
  3. Traits that have been traditionally been associated with women—empathy, sympathy, caring, altruism, mercy, compassion—are at least as morally important as traditionally masculine traits, such as competitiveness, independence, demanding one’s fair share, a readiness to resort to violence, and the insistence on personal honor.
  4. Traditionally feminine ways of moral reasoning, nes that emphasize cooperation, flexibility, openness to competing ideas, and a connectedness to family and friends, are often superior to traditionally masculine ways of reasoning that emphasize impartiality, abstraction, and strict adherence to rules.“ (277)

 These observations suggest that what is unique about the female perspective is tied to their particular role in society. Does what is unique about their perspective disappear when women take on roles traditionally associated with men?

 Metaethics—The Status of Morality

Are moral truths objectively true? If this is true, then some truths are better than others and not all cultures are equally good. Moral progress is accordingly possible.

Assessment

In this textbook, The Fundamentals of Ethics, Russ Shafer-Landau offers a taxonomy of ethical arguments covering a wide range of ethical philosophies. His writing is clear, concise, and interesting in the topics used as examples.

Footnotes

[1]http://philosophy.wisc.edu/people.

RSL Surveys and Argues Ethics, Part 3

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Ethics, Monday Monologues, December 3, 2018 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

In today’s podcast, I offer an Advent Prayer and talk about Ethics.

After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

To listen, click on the link below.

Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Ethics, Monday Monologues, December 3, 2018 (podcast)

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Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

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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.

Footnotes

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).

References

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 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter:http://bit.ly/Give_Thanks_2018

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RSL Surveys and Argues Ethics, Part 2

Russ Shafer-Landau's The Fundamentals of EthicsRuss Shafer-Landau.[1]2018. The Fundamentals of Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

During my career as an economist I frequently borrowed analysis and conclusions from other fields, such psychology, sociology, and history. The more widely I read, the more obvious it became that different fields approach similar questions differently, use different terminology for the same issues, and not necessarily aware of findings outside their specialty. Problem is especially prevalent among practitioners not familiar to scholarly research techniques.

Introduction

In his book, The Fundamentals of Ethics, Russ Shafer-Landau (hereafter RSL) writes in three parts: The Good Life, Normative Ethics (doing the right thing), and Metaethics (the status of morality). In part one of this review, I have outlined the basic arguments that RSL presents. Here In part two of my review, I will organize my comments about his more important arguments in parts one and two. In Part three of this review, I will finish RSL’s parts two and three.

The Good Life

RSL begins his discussion of the good life by talking about welfare and what improves. He defines “instrumental goods”that are“valuable because of the good things they bring about.” Those things are“intrinsically valuable” or“valuable in their own right.” Instrumental goods help us acquire things that are intrinsically valuable. (23)

RSL goes on to define hedonism, which is a philosophy focused almost exclusively on what makes us happy—the only thing that is intrinsically good. Hedonists distinguish physical pleasure from attitudinal pleasure. Hedonism in the West began with the Greek philosopher, Epicurus (341-270 BC; 24-25).

RSL offers a wide range of criticism of hedonism in the form of arguments why pursuing happiness is not logical.  An example is the “Paradox of Hedonism Argument:

  1. If happiness is the only that directly makes us better off, then it is rational to single-mindedly pursue it.
  2. It isn’t ration to do that.
  3. Therefore, happiness isn’t the only thing that directly make us better off.”(33)

RSL sees both premises (1, 2) are true, therefore the conclusion (3) must be true. He gives the example of a professional golfer who wants to improve her swing, but focusing on it makes it harder to do so. (33)

Other arguments against hedonism include the problem of people who enjoy doing evil things to other people and of people are equally happy but one person’s happiness is based on false beliefs (I will win the lottery tomorrow) while another is based on true beliefs (I just got my paycheck; 36-37). In like manner, RSL handicaps self-interest as a goal and other desires.

Normative Ethics—Doing the Right Thing

 Part two of the books is by far the longest involving 13 chapters and roughly 260 pages. Several arguments are worth highlighting.

Morality and Morality

In chapter 5, RSL highlights divine command theory citing a dialogue between Plato and a fellow by the name of Euthyphro who says that “piety is whatever the gods love.” To this, Plato asks:“Do the gods love actions because they are pious, or are actions pious because the gods love them?” (67) If the former, then the pious reasons are sufficient; if the latter, then the gods are acting arbitrarily.

As Christians, we believe that God is a god of truth, not arbitrary fiat, so we mostly argue the reasons rather than divine command. Still, we normally believe that the Bible summarizes truth making the search for reasons a secondary concern.

Natural Law

In chapter 6, RSL introduces natural law theory which:

“tells us that actions are right just because they are natural, and wrong just because they are unnatural. And people are good or bad to the extent that they fulfill their true nature—the more they fulfill their true nature, the better they are.”(77)

This argument is frequently cited to oppose suicide, contraception, and homosexual activity as immoral. (86) RSL finds this argument unconvincing in the case of abortion (a fetus is a human being, killing humans is immoral, therefore abortion is immoral) and homosexuality (marriage is for procreation, procreation requires a man and woman, therefore other sex is immoral) because the morality argument is primarily based on an arbitrary definition (86-89).

Consequentialism

In Chapter 9, RSL describes consequentialism as “an action is morally required just because it produces the best overall results.” (122) Utilitarianism, which stands behind many economic theories, is a form of consequentialism. (123) This theory is attributed to John Wesley and Methodist social activism owe much to this theory. (120) Potential problems with consequentialism arise because of measurement problem and because maximizing benefits sometimes leads to cases of injustice—RSL cites the cases of vicarious and exemplary punishment. (151)

Social Contract Theory

In chapter 13, RSL outlines social contract theory that argues that moral rules are objective and based on the benefits of cooperation, given free choice and rational behavior. The alternative is a state of nature where everyone is at war with everyone else (199). Given the horrors of war, cooperation enforced by an impartial, professional police force is worth the limits placed on individual freedom.

What rules would evolve from such a social contract? RSL writes:

“prohibitions of killing, rape, battery, theft, and fraud, and rules require keeping one’s word, returning what one owes, and being respectful of others.”(201)

The laws would reflect the rules that a free and equal people would accept. (205) Protests against particular unfair laws would be accepted provided that protestors could demonstrate that they tried to change the law and worked primarily within in the system (206).

Problems with social contract theory arise when some people refuse to pay their fair share (free rider problem; 209) or when fundamental values are in conflict, such as in decisions of war and peace and the care to be given to the poor (215). The scope of the moral community—who has rights?—is also a hot button issue. (216) The current discussion over allowing felony criminals the right to vote is such a hot button issue.

 Assessment

In this textbook, The Fundamentals of Ethics, Russ Shafer-Landau offers a taxonomy of ethical arguments covering a wide range of ethical philosophies. His writing is clear, concise, and interesting in the topics used as examples.

Footnotes

[1]http://philosophy.wisc.edu/people.

RSL Surveys and Argues Ethics, Part 2

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Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

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RSL Surveys and Argues Ethics, Part 1

Russ Shafer-Landau's The Fundamentals of EthicsRuss Shafer-Landau.[1] 2018. The Fundamentals of Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

How things get done has always been interesting to me. As a kid, when we traveled and spotted an interesting manufacturing plant along the highway, my dad would stop and we would inquire as to whether they offered plant tours. During my dissertation work I must have visited a dozen or more meat packing plants from Detroit to. Most people don’t know it, but economics (my first career) is a field closely related to ethics, its cousin in the philosophy department.

Introduction

In his book, The Fundamentals of Ethics, Russ Shafer-Landau (hereafter RSL) writes:

“In the pages to come, I present and evaluate a lot of arguments. These are the ones at the heart of morality, the ones that try to offer answers to the deepest questions of ethics. As we will see, no fundamental theory—about the good life, our moral duties, or the status of morality—has earned anything like unanimous support among philosophers.”(17-18)

While this might seem like the failure of philosophy, knowing the basic arguments and counterarguments is extremely useful. Think about how zoologists classify animals allows the zoologist to recognize species and subspecies almost immediately. In the same way, knowing the key questions in philosophy and the arguments pro and con for those questions allows one to quickly survey an entire field of inquiry because the same questions and arguments have floated around since antiquity, albeit in different contexts.

Background

RSL teaches in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He is a graduate of Brown University and received his doctorate at the University of Arizona. He is the founder and editor of the periodical Oxford Studies in Metaethics and the author of numerous books.[2]

Organization

RSL writes this textbook in twenty-one chapters divided into three parts, preceded by a preface and introduction and followed by references, suggestions for further reading, glossary, and index. The chapters are:

“Introduction

Part One: The Good Life

  1. Hedonism: Its Powerful Appeal
  2. Is Happiness All that Matters?
  3. Getting What You Want
  4. Problems for the Desire Theory

Part Two: Normative Ethics: Doing the Right Thing

  1. Morality and Religion
  2. Natural Law
  3. Psychological Egoism
  4. Ethical Egoism
  5. Consequentialism: Its Nature
  • Consequentialism: Its Difficulties
  • The Kantian Perspective: Fairness and Justice
  • The Kantian Perspective: Autonomy and Respect
  • The Social Contract Tradition: The Theory and Its Attractions
  • The Social Contract Tradition: Problems and Prospects
  • Ethical Pluralism and Absolute Moral Rules
  • Ethical Pluralism: Prima Facie Duties and Ethical Particularism
  • Virtue Ethics
  • Feminist Ethics

Part Three: Metaethics: The Status of Morality

  • Ethical Realism
  • Moral Nihilism
  • Eleven Arguments Against Moral Objectivity”(vii-xiv)

Part one focuses on what makes a good life or what RSL refers to as value theory. In part two he talks about normative ethics, who is in and out of our moral universe and the roles of virtue, self-interest, and justice. In part three, he discusses metaethics and the sources of moral authority (2). Clearly, RSL covers a lot of material in 342 pages plus front and back matter.

Beginnings

While skeptics argue that moral thinking is arbitrary, RSL lays out a list of parameters that guide any moral quest. These are not meant to be exhaustive:

  1. “Neither the law nor tradition is immune from moral criticism…
  2. Everyone is morally fallible…
  3. Friendship is valuable…
  4. We are not obligated to do the impossible…
  5. Children bear less moral responsibility than adults…
  6. Justices is a very important moral good…
  7. Deliberately hurting other people requires justification…
  8. Equals ought to be treated equally…
  9. Self-interest isn’t the only ethical consideration…
  10. Agony is bad…
  11. Might doesn’t make right…
  12. Free and informed requests prevent rights violations.”(6-7)

Poor beginnings can also be articulated. He writes: “A morality that celebrates genocide, torture, treachery, sadism, hostility, and slavery is…either no morality at all or a deeply failed one.”(7) Because we can all name cultures that embrace such practices, clearly not all cultures are created equal.

What is morality? RSL sees no widely agreed upon definition. (8) What is moral reasoning? RSL sees a set of reasons (premises) and a conclusion that they support. (9) The validity of an argument depends on how well the premises of an argument support its conclusion. (12)

Assessment

In part one of this review, I have outlined the basic arguments that RSL present. In parts two and three, I will examine some of his more important arguments.

In this textbook,The Fundamentals of Ethics, Russ Shafer-Landau offers a taxonomy of ethical arguments covering a wide range of ethical philosophies. His writing is clear, concise, and interesting in the topics used as examples.

Footnotes

[1]http://philosophy.wisc.edu/people.

[2]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russ_Shafer-Landau. https://www.amazon.com/Russ-Shafer-Landau/e/B001IR3DQW.

RSL Surveys and Argues Ethics, Part 1

Also see:

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter:http://bit.ly/Give_Thanks_2018

Continue Reading