Ben Mitchell. 2013. Ethics and Moral Reasoning: A Student’s Guide. Wheaton: Crossway.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
My interest in ethics dates back to when as a young man I faced the Vietnam war and the draft without a clear understanding of what I was dealing with. What does God require of us here and now, in this situation, and why? Questions of life and death tend to grab you by the throat and refuse to let you go.
In the preface to his book, Ethics and Moral Reasoning, Ben Mitchell writes:
“Few people need to be convinced of the importance of ethics. We live in a tragically flawed world where we are confronted daily with moral failures…This book is a guide to thinking about the good.” (15-17)
He goes on to write:
“Jesus described a trinity of moral relationships—to God, to others, and to self. These three relationships were to be ordered by the virtue of love. Importantly, when one of these relationships becomes disordered, the others are affected.” (19)
Nouwen (1975, 20) refers to these three relationships as movements of the spirit, suggesting that what we believe and what we do are closely related. Much of what we do arises, especially in a professional sense, arises out of our identities.
As Christians, our identity naturally flows from our understanding of who Jesus is. Mitchell’s commitment to a Christian ethical understanding is summarized as:
“Although every person may pursue the human telos, Christians enjoy the aid of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, who motivates them both to will and to do God’s God pleasure as they follow the path of the Lord Jesus.” (97)
In his final paragraph he asks: “What does it mean to be truly human?” (98) The answer to this question often given by Christians is that we more closely reflect the image in which we were created (Gen 1:27).
Background and Organization
Ben Mitchell has a doctorate from University of Tennessee, a masters of divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and is a grade of Mississippi State University. He is currently on the faculty at Union University in Tennessee. His focus is bioethics and he is widely published.
Mitchell writes in six chapters:
- “The Challenges of a Relativist World
- The History of Moral Reasoning, Part 1
- The History of Moral Reasoning, Part 2
- Enlightenment Ethics
- Evangelical Ethics
- Using the Bible in Moral Decision Making” (9)
These chapters are preceded by two prefaces and acknowledgments and followed by conclusions, an appendix, questions for reflection, a timeline, glossary, resources for further study, and two indices. In his scriptural index, the vast majority of citations are from Genesis (creation), Exodus (Ten Commandments), and Matthew (Sermon on the Mount).
Concerning the pervasive influence of relativism, Mitchell observes:
“relativism is morally crippling because relegates ethical discussions to the personal, private, and subjective, and to the realm of mere preference.” (34)
He terms this view normative ethical relativism because it suggests not only what is, but what should be. Citing Louis Pojman, it stands on two premises: the diversity thesis, that “right and wrong differ from person to person and from culture to culture”. And the dependency thesis, that “morality depends on human nature, the human condition, or specific sociocultural circumstances, or a combination of all three.” (24-25) The diversity thesis is not normative, but simply observes that ethical practices differ between cultures. Mitchell devotes more attention to the dependency thesis.
Mitchell outlines five weaknesses of the dependency thesis that we care about:
- Majority opinion can be wrong. For most of human history, the majority of people supported the institution of slavery.
- Moral error is not possible, if the dependency thesis is true. Child sexual abuses is always wrong, irrespective of cultural context.
- Moral reform makes no sense if relativism is true. Abraham Lincoln had no basis for criticizing slavery or Nelson Mandela for criticizing racial segregation, if relativism is true.
- What is does not imply that it should be. Just because some Islamic and African nations practice female genital mutilation does not imply that is should be.
- Relativism confuses moral practices and their underlying values. Signs of disrespect differ by culture, yet every culture honors respect. (27-29)
Citing James Q. Wilson, Mitchell observes that “every culture shares the values of sympathy, fairness, self-control, and duty” (30) suggesting that we share common moral values even if they are expressed differently among cultures.
In part one of this review, I give a general outline of Mitchell’s work. In part two, I will summarize his views on biblical, enlightenment, and Evangelical ethical thinking.
Ben Mitchell’s Ethics and Moral Reasoning: A Student’s Guide is a gem. It provides a short, concise statement of a Christian ethical perspective.
Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1975. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: DoubleDay.
Mitchell Simplifies Christian Ethics, Part On
Other ways to engage online:
Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.