MacIntyre Chronicles Ethics Story

Alasdair MacIntyre. 2002. A Short History of Ethics: A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Century (Orig Pub 1966). Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

I used to joke that any mathematics text with the words, like simple or elementary in the title, was neither simple or elementary—at least on first reading. The truth of such titles can only be known to those who persist with multiple readings. Ethics is similarly a field much like mathematics that gets easier with repetition.

Introduction

In his historical narrative, A Short History of Ethics: A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Century, Alasdair MacIntyre repeats the premise: “Moral concepts change as social life changes.” (1) After writing about a third of his book on ancient Greek philosophical and moral thought, MacIntyre observes:

“The Division of labor and the differentiation of function in early societies produces a vocabulary in which men are described in terms of the roles they fulfill.”(84)

History of Good

An example that he works out in great detail is the notion of the word, good, writing:

“The word αγαθός, ancestor of our good, is originally a predicate specifically attached to the role of a Homeric nobleman. ‘To be αγαθός,’ says W. H. Adkins, ‘one must be brave, skillful and successful in war and in peace; and one must possess the wealth and (in peace) the leisure which are at once the necessary conditions for the development of these skills and the natural reward of their successful enjoyment.” (5-6)

Not just everyone could be good and we would immediate judge a “good” Greek tribal warlord harshly for behaviors not commensurate with our own standards of goodness. In fact, MacIntyre argues that even later Greek literature after the development of city-states would find such behavior reprehensible. In this new Greek social context, αγαθός loses its original meaning predicated on the role of a Greek tribal warlord (a presupposition) and takes on a new meaning—a general sense of approbation not tied to any particular role.

Moral Context Matters

 More is at stake here than a lesson in ethnolinguistics. Fast forwarding past a long narrative history of philosophical ethics MacIntyre opines:

“In discussing Greek society, I suggested what might happen when such a well-integrated form of moral life broke down. In our society, the acids of individualism have for four centuries eaten into our moral structures for both good and ill. But not only this: we live with the inheritance of not only one, but a number of well-integrated moralities. Aristotelianism, primitive Christianity simplicity, the puritan ethic, the aristocratic ethic of consumption, and the traditions of democracy and socialism have all left their mark upon our moral vocabulary. Within each of these moralities there is a proposed end or ends, a set of rules, a list of virtues. But the ends, the rules, the virtues differ… It follows that we are liable to find two kinds of people in our society: those who speak within one of these surviving moralities, and those who stand outside all of them”(266)

Given this moral dilemma, Kierkegard’s admonition that we must chose to adhere to a particular morality speaks directly to our moral circumstance (215).

Background and Organization

Alasdair Chalmers MacIntyre (1929- ) is an Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame educated at Queen Mary, University of London, University of Manchester, and University of Oxford. He is the author of numerous publications, including: Edith Stein: A Philosophical Prologue, 1913-22(2006), Dependent Rational Animals(1999), Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry(1990), Whose Justice? Which Rationality?(1988), and After Virtue(1981)[1]

MacIntyre writes in 18 chapters preceded by two prefaces, corresponding to the two editions of the book, and followed by notes and an index.

Observations of a Keen Mind

While the narrative flow of an historical treatise is central to its development and reading, such books are often remembered more for particular insights shared along the way. MacIntyre’s insights go beyond a brilliant statement of the obvious.

MacIntyre writes: “The Bible is a story about God in which human beings appear as incidental characters”(110) The divine theme may seem obvious but today many authors offer lengthy critiques of the cultural context of the Bible seldom posing to note that God appears at all. Surprisingly, he goes on to write: “the whole problem of Christian morality is to discover just what it is.” (111) In developing this theme, he is not disrespectful at all, but notes how Christian morality has evolved to speak to the particular contexts in which it is found. He contextualizes Christian ethics without suggesting that it is arbitrary or relativistic. How else could the Holy Spirit serve to guide us in our daily walk?

Assessment

Alasdair MacIntyre’s A Short History of Ethics: A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Century provides aperceptive and assessible overview of the history of philosophical ethics. Seminary students and pastors will benefit from taking the time to absorb this work.

[1]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alasdair_MacIntyre. https://philosophy.nd.edu/people/emeritus/alasdair-macintyre.

MacIntyre Chronicles Ethics Story

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Kreeft Outlines Jesus’ Philosophy

Peter Kreeft. 2007. The Philosophy of Jesus. South Bend: Saint Augustine’s Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Every kid in Sunday school knows that if the pastor asks you a question, the answer is always Jesus. And so it is with philosophy (9).

Introduction

In The Philosophy of JesusPeter Kreeft (3-5) observes that we are all philosophers—even Homer Simpson, even Jesus. If we are all philosophers and espouse a philosophy, then what philosophy do we embrace?Philosophy (philo-sophy) is taken from the Greek expression for love (philo) of wisdom (sophy). Kreeft (6) divides philosophy into four primary questions:

  1. What is? (metaphysic)
  2. How do we know what is real? (epistemology)
  3. Who are we? (philosophical anthropology)
  4. How should we be? (ethics)

Why is it that we use intimate words like espouse (to marry), embrace (to kiss), and love to describe our relationship with wisdom?

Background and Organization

Peter Kreeft[1]is a professor of philosophy at Boston College, a Catholic school. He structures his book in four chapters, one for each of the questions cited. These chapters are proceeded by an introduction in three parts and followed by a summary and indices. 

Four Philosophical Questions

Let me say a few words about these four questions. Note that Kreeft considers the ordering of these questions as important:

“The logical order of questions is this: we must first know something is real before we can know how we know it; and we must first know who we are before we can know what is good for us.”(8)

In my own writing, I found it helpful to reverse anthropology and epistemology in this ordering. Our relationship with God comes first as person to person before we begin to intellectualize it or wonder how to respond to it. Our anthropology also seriously affects how we deal with knowledge and wisdom, which tends to give anthropology higher priority. In this sense, I agree that ordering does matter.

Metaphysics

Kreeft (10) starts his metaphysics of Jesus with the observation that he is a Jew. This is an interesting observation because throughout history Jesus’ ethnicity has been deliberately blurred to make him more acceptable to gentiles. More to the point, however, is that God chose to reveal specifically to the Israelite people (11), who later in the Bible became Judeans and known to the world as Jews. 

The distinctiveness of the Jews comes, in part, because no other ancient language other than Hebrew has the word, create. Only God can create out of nothing (13). Kreeft boldly proclaims that God can only be referred to as He because he impregnated non-being with being. The earth is Mother Earth, which is part of the created order that God stands apart from (14). The Hebrew God is transcendent, standing apart from time and space that are bound up in the created order.

If you think creation is a word game; you would be wrong. There are no paths up the mountain to God because he stands outside of the time and space in which we are bound. We cannot approach God metaphysically; he must approach us (51), which as Christians we believe he did in sending Jesus Christ. Creation is the reason that Jesus is the exclusive path to God. Obviously, lots more could be said about metaphysics here.

Epistemology

Kreeft focuses his discussion of epistemology on truth about being (47). He writes:

“What must we know? Only two things: who we are and who God is.”(50)

This is the person-to-person dialogue that I referred to earlier.

Kreeft (51) makes my earlier point about the importance of creation with these words:

“We can’t know God, ultimate Truth, by climbing any human tower, whether it is built of the babble of words or of bricks [Gen 11:1-11]. We can only know God if God comes down.”

God always must take the initiative in our dialogue with him (54). This is why Kreeft observes that no convincing fiction about Jesus has ever been written that credibly extends his wisdom (58). We can quote him; we cannot one up him.

Anthropology

Kreeft (69) observes:

“Know thyself, said Socrates, at the dawn of philosophy. But know thyself seems to be an unsolvable puzzle.”

Pope John Paul II observed: “Jesus alone shows man to himself.”(69) Kreeft writes:

“Christ is the answer to the question [puzzle]: What is the meaning of human life? Who are we meant to be? The answer is that we are destined to be little Christs.”(74)

The Bible says that we were created in the image of God (Gen 1:27) so Kreeft’s observation should come as no surprise to Christians.

Ethics

What are we to do? Kreeft writes:

“There are really three moral questions, three basic parts to morality: how should we relate to each other, to ourselves, and to God?”(95)

The basic answer to every question in Kreeft’s philosophy is Jesus, not a perfect answer, but a perfect person (119).

Assessment

Peter Kreeft’s The Philosophy of Jesusis short, readable book that changed my life. I have spent the last six years since graduating from seminary writing about these four questions from philosophy as they pertain to Christian spirituality. I commend this book to you.

[1]http://www.peterkreeft.com/home.htm.https://www.bc.edu/bc-web/schools/mcas/departments/philosophy/people/faculty-directory/peter-kreeft.html.

Kreeft Outlines Jesus’ Philosophy

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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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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).

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

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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

Also see:

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 

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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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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