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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Books, Films, and Ministry

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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)

Also see:

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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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

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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

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Wells Exercises Moral Vision, Part 1

David Wells, Losing Our VirtueDavid Wells. 1998. Losing Out Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. (Goto Part 2 after November 13)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the most difficult things that I have done in my life was to work with integrity as an economist in financial regulation and actually measure and report on the risk being taken by the institutions under our supervision. I likened my job as being a lifeguard hired to watch people drown. The better my team got at actually doing our jobs, the more trouble we found ourselves getting into. When I threw up my hands and left my well-paid career to enter seminary, I discovered that much the same environment engulfed the pastors that I worked with.

Introduction

In David Well’s Losing Out Virtue, he writes:

“In the language we use to understand ourselves and our world is not simply a matter of words. It is the result of the interactions of many other factors…In this engagement, I shall argue that is now framing life in such a way that the most important part of self-understanding—that we are moral beings—has been removed from the equation. That is the beguilingly simple thesis I shall be pursuing: functionally, we are not morally disengaged, adrift and alienated; we are morally obliterated. We are, in practice, not only morally illiterate; we have become morally vacant.”(13)

Well’s goes on to observe:

“For over two thousand years, moral conduct was discussed under the language of virtues. First Plato and then Aristotle talked about the cardinal, or foundational, virtues. These were justice (or rectitude), wisdom, courage (or fortitude), and moderation (or self-control) …. The importance of the classical view of the virtues was that moral conduct was seen to be the outcome of character, and it was considered entirely futile to divorce inward moral reality from its exercise in the society or community in which a person lived.”(14)

Obviously, having morals in the classical sense meant much more than simply being able to keep one’s pants on. In a world where virtually every adult male served in the military (as is true in small counties today), hand-to-hand combat quickly tested at least one’s courage and other virtues. Following this train of thought, Hauerwas and WIllimon (2014, 35) write: “States, particularly liberal democracies, are heavily depend on wars for moral coherence.”

What Makes the Postmodern Era Different?

Wells observes four distinctives of the postmodern period:

  1. “We are seeing on an unprecedented scale the birth of a world civilization…
  2. Ours is the first major civilization to be building itself deliberately and self-consciously without religious foundations…
  3. Our experience of modernity is intense to an unparalleled extent…
  4. As a result of these factors that are unique to our time, we are seeing on an unprecedented sale, a mass experimentation with new values.” (23-27)

Note that Wells is using the term, modernity, to apply primarily to what I would call the postmodern period. Changes that might have taken generations during the modern period (1800 through 1960) have been compressed into just a few years during the postmodern period (since 1960).

Recovering our Moral Vision

Wells sees the church needing to undertake two things in recovering its moral vision. The first thing is:

“it will have to become courageous enough to say that much that is taken as normative in the postmodern world is actually sinful and it will have to exercise new ingenuity in learning how to speak about sin to a generation for whom sin has become an impossibility.”(179)

In the twenty years since Wells penned these words, little evidence can be cited to suggest that the church has taken up this first challenge. The second thing is:

“the church itself is going to have to become more authentically morally, for the greatness of the Gospel is now seen to have become quite trivial and inconsequential in its life.”(180)

Again, there is little evidence that the church has taken up this second challenge. As a general rule, the church has not staked out morally as a field that it even attempts to play on. If anything, it has run away from teaching morality which is often associated with the folk ways of the builder and boomer generations rather than a challenge facing every generation equally.

Background

Dr. David Wells is a Distinguished Senior Research Professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (GCTS) in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. Born in Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Wells is a graduate of University of London with a masters from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and a doctorate from Manchester University, England. He is the author of numerous books.[1]

As a GCTS graduate myself, Wells taught one of my New Testament courses and I read this book before taking the class to acquaint myself with his work, as was my custom in seminary.

Organization

Wells writes in these chapters:

  1. A Tale of Two Spiritualities
  2. The Playground of Desire
  3. On Saving Ourselves
  4. The Bonfire of the Self
  5. Contradictions
  6. Faith of the Ages

These chapters are preceded by a preface and introduction and followed by a bibliography and indices.

Assessment

In part one of this review, I have focused on summarizing Wells’ basic argument. In part two I will examine his arguments in more depth.

David Wells’ Losing Our Virtue focuses on the question of Christian morality in the postmodern period better known for its sexual obsessions and liberality. As leaders in all aspects of society, from our politicians to our academics to entertainment to the church, crash and burn in moral failures in daily news accounts, Wells’ stark assessment of postmodern morality rings ever truer. This is a book desiring of more attention from academics to frontline pastors.

Footnotes

[1]https://www.gordonconwell.edu/academics/view-faculty-member.cfm?faculty_id=15912&grp_id=8947.

References

Hauerwas, Stanley and William H. Willimon.2014. Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know that Something is Wrong (Orig pub 1989). Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Wells Exercises Moral Vision, Part 1

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Character, Monday Monologues, November 5, 2018 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In today’s podcast, I pray over formation and talk about Character.

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!

Character, Monday Monologues, November 5, 2018 (podcast)

Also see:

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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Living Expectantly, Monday Monologues, October 29, 2018 (podcast)

Stephen W. Hiemstra, www.StephenWHiemstra.net
Stephen W. Hiemstra, 2017

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In today’s podcast, I pray for justice and talk about Living Expectantly.

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!

Living Expectantly, Monday Monologues, October 29, 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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Living Expectantly

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in ChristBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

Moral confusion pervades postmodern culture. This confusion directly threatens our persons and our way of life. While the Christian starts every conversation about morality with God, we can just as easily begin by observing that morality reflects not only a divine edict but the revealed experience of human beings struggling to make sense of life and survive in a sinful world. 

Normalization of Drugs

While our minds normally gravitate towards immoral sexual activity when moral confusion is discussed, the normalization of drug use probably makes the point even more clearly. According to a recent survey by the federal government:

“In 2014, 27.0 million people aged 12 or older used an illicit drug in the past 30 days, which corresponds to about 1 in 10 Americans (10.2 percent). This percentage in 2014 was higher than those in every year from 2002 through 2013.” (CBHSQ 2015, 1)⁠1

What is the response of the body politic to this serious social crisis? Because most drug use involves marijuana, Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington DC have as of this date legalized recreational use of marijuana.⁠2 This response suggests that, in spite of the negative medical impacts of marijuana use and almost universal opposition from police departments around the country, a majority of voters in these states approve of these legal changes.

Negative Impacts of Drugs

While we might have a “open minded” discussion about the morality of consuming illegal drugs, the criminal activity associated with providing these substances is devastating communities throughout Central American and has led to historically high levels of illegal immigration into the United States in recent decades. The inability of young people and rural people to pass random drug tests has made it difficult for American companies to recruit employees, especially among defense contractors. The flip side of this recruiting problem is that many Americans have systematically precluded themselves from a high-paying job in their chosen field or in their local community because of drug use.

Why the moral concern about drug use? Employers want nothing to do with drug users because drug use impairs mental concentration and is often associated with criminal activity, depression, and suicide. Record drug use is not incidentally associated with a thirty-year high in suicides (Tavernise 2016). Reinforcing this observation, alcohol intoxication is reported in about half of all suicides (Mason 2014, 34).

Christian Ethics

Christian ethics starts with God in whose image we are created (Gen 1:27). In the Old Testament God interacts with his people primarily through the giving of covenants. After a second giving of the Ten Commandments, we find God revealing his character to Moses:

“The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod 34:6)

This description of God’s character provides a context for interpreting the Ten Commandments in the Book of Exodus, but for us as image bearers it also gives us a template for ethical behavior. Jesus endorses this image ethic in the Lord’s Prayer when he prays: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matt 6:10)  The Apostle Paul says it even more directly: “be imitators of God” (Eph 5:1)

Later in Matthew when Jesus tells us to love God and neighbor (Matt 22:36-40), we embody this love first by imitating God’s ethical character and then by sharing this character with our neighbor. Remember that mercy, grace, patience, love, and faithfulness all require an object. The obvious object here is our neighbor because how exactly are we to show mercy or grace to God?

Role of Risk in Ethics and Judgment

Circling back to the moral confusion in postmodern culture, Christians are often accused of being judgmental and many are. But judgment and discernment differ substantially. As Christians we discern that most immoral behavior is also risky, suggesting a direct link with how we were created. 

Risk is an expected loss. In a sense, most moral behavior works like the premium on an insurance policy that protects us from a knowable and avoidable loss. Most people hate paying insurance premiums until they experience the loss for themselves. 

If we discern that a behavior places someone at risk of a future loss, we should inform them humbly of our insight, be it from scripture or life experience, and pray that they will not incur the loss or, should it be incurred, that they will turn to God in their loss. Such prayer leaves room for God’s sovereign grace and, if we are humble about it, we may also gain the confidence of that person in dealing with future issues.

Christian Distinctive

What sets Christians apart from others, especially secular people, is that we live, not expecting death, but expecting Christ’s return. Life is not a risk; it is an opportunity to prepare for our ultimate homecoming. We live life taking chances for the kingdom and leaving room for joy, because we know the end of the story is in Christ.

References

Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality (CBHSQ). 2015. Behavioral health trends in the United States: Results from the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (Health and Human Services (HHS) Publication No. SMA 15-4927, NSDUH Series H-50). Retrieved from http://www.samhsa.gov/data. (Cited: 18 October 2018).

Mason, Karen. 2014. Preventing Suicide: A Handbook for Pastors, Chaplains, and Pastoral Counselors. Downers Grove: IVP Books.

Tavernise, Sabrina. 2016. “U.S. Suicide Rate Surges to a 30-Year High” New York Times. April 22. Online: https://nyti.ms/2k9vzFZ, Accessed: 13 March 2017.

Footnotes

1 This citation continues: “The illicit drug use estimate for 2014 continues to be driven primarily by marijuana use and the nonmedical use of prescription pain relievers, with 22.2 million current marijuana users aged 12 or older (i.e., users in the past 30 days) and 4.3 million people aged 12 or older who reported current nonmedical use of prescription pain relievers.” (CBHSQ 2015, 1)

2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decriminalization_of_non-medical_cannabis_in_the_United_States.

Living Expectantly

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/2018_Character

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Living in Christ, Monday Monologues, October 22, 2018 (podcast)

Stephen W. Hiemstra, www.StephenWHiemstra.net
Stephen W. Hiemstra, 2017

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In today’s podcast, I offer a New Day prayer and talk about a Living in Christ.

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!

Living in Christ, Monday Monologues, October 22, 2018 (podcast)

Also see:

Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

Other ways to engage online:

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

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/2018_Lead

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