Ethics involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior. A central aspect of ethics is "the good life", the life worth living or life that is simply satisfying, which is held by many philosophers to be more important than traditional moral conduct.
Most religions have an ethical component, often derived from purported supernatural revelation or guidance. Some assert that religion is necessary to live ethically. Blackburn states that there are those who "would say that we can only flourish under the umbrella of a strong social order, cemented by common adherence to a particular religious tradition".
Main article: Buddhist ethics
Ethics in Buddhism are traditionally based on the enlightened perspective of the Buddha, or other enlightened beings who followed him. Moral instructions are included in Buddhist scriptures or handed down through tradition. Most scholars of Buddhist ethics thus rely on the examination of Buddhist scriptures, and the use of anthropological evidence from traditional Buddhist societies, to justify claims about the nature of Buddhist ethics.
According to traditional Buddhism, the foundation of Buddhist ethics for laypeople is the Pancasila: no killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, or intoxicants. In becoming a Buddhist, or affirming one's commitment to Buddhism, a layperson is encouraged to vow to abstain from these negative actions. Buddhist monks and nuns take hundreds more such vows (see vinaya).
The sole reliance on traditional formulae or practices, however, can be questioned by Western Buddhists whose main concern is the practical solution of complex moral problems in the modern world. To find a justifiable approach to such problems it may be necessary not just to appeal to the precepts or the vinaya, but to use more basic Buddhist teachings (such as the Middle Way) to aid interpretation of the precepts and find more basic justifications for their usefulness relevant to all human experience. This approach avoids basing Buddhist ethics solely on faith in the Buddha's enlightenment or Buddhist tradition, and may allow more universal non-Buddhist access to the insights offered by Buddhist ethics.
The Buddha provided some basic guidelines for acceptable behavior that are part of the Noble Eightfold Path. The initial percept is non-injury or non-violence to all living creatures from the lowest insect to humans. This precept defines a non-violent attitude toward every living thing. The Buddhist practice of this does not extend to the extremes exhibited by Jainism, but from both the Buddhist and Jain perspectives, non-violence suggests an intimate involvement with, and relationship to, all living things.
Theravada monk Bhikkhu Bodhi has observed:
- "Buddhist ethics, as formulated in the five precepts, is sometimes charged with being entirely negative. ... [I]t has to be pointed out that the five precepts, or even the longer codes of precepts promulgated by the Buddha, do not exhaust the full range of Buddhist ethics. The precepts are only the most rudimentary code of moral training, but the Buddha also proposes other ethical codes inculcating definite positive virtues. The Mangala Sutta, for example, commends reverence, humility, contentment, gratitude, patience, generosity, etc. Other discourses prescribe numerous family, social, and political duties establishing the well being of society. And behind all these duties lie the four attitudes called the "immeasurables" — loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity."
Main article: Christian ethics
See also: Sermon on the Mount, The New Commandment, and Ministry of Jesus
Christian ethics in general has tended to stress the need for love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness because of sin. With divine assistance, the Christian is called to become increasingly virtuous in both thought and deed, see also the Evangelical counsels. Conversely, the Christian is also called to abstain from vice.
Christian ethical principles are based on the teachings within the Bible. They begin with the notion of inherent sinfulness, which requires essential atonement. Sin is estrangement from God which is the result of not doing God's will. God's will can be summed up by the precept: "Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself", commonly called the Great Commandment. Christian ethics are founded upon the concept of grace which transforms a person's life and enable's one to choose and act righteously. As sin is both individual and social, so is grace applied to both the individual and society. Christian ethics has a teleological aspect—all ethical behavior is oriented towards a vision of the Kingdom of God—a righteous society where all live in peace and harmony with God and nature, as envisioned in the Book of Isaiah. Specific ethical behaviors originate in the Old Testament’s Ten Commandments, and are enriched by teachings in the Psalms and morals contained in historical accounts, see also Biblical law in Christianity.
Christian ethics is not substantially different from Jewish ethics, except in the exhortation to love one's enemy. Perhaps the greatest contribution of Christian ethics is this command to love one's enemies. It has been argued (see Chet Meyer's Binding the Strong Man, and John Yoder's The Politics of Jesus) that Jesus was waging a non-violent campaign against the Roman oppressors and many of his sayings relate to this campaign--turn the other cheek, go the second mile, etc. Understanding these commands as part of a larger campaign makes it impossible to interpret Christian ethics as an individual ethic. It is both an individual and a social ethic concerned with life here on earth.
Other tenets include maintaining personal integrity and the absence of hypocrisy, as well as honesty and loyalty, mercy and forgiveness, rejection of materialism and the desire for wealth and power, and teaching others in your life through personal joy, happiness and Godly devotion.
There are several different schema of vice and virtue. Aquinas adopted the four cardinal virtues of Aristotle (justice, courage, temperance and prudence), and added to them the Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity (from St.Paul, 1 Corinthians 13). Other schema include the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven virtues. For more see Christian philosophy and Biblical law in Christianity.
Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism emphasize the maintenance and propriety of relationships as the most important consideration in ethics. To be ethical is to do what one's relationships require. Notably, though, what you owe to another person is inversely proportional to their distance from you. In other words, you owe your parents everything, but you are not in any way obligated towards strangers. This can be seen as a recognition of the fact that it is impossible to love the entire world equally and simultaneously. This is called relational ethics, or situational ethics. The Confucian system differs very strongly from Kantian ethics in that there are rarely laws or principles which can be said to be true absolutely or universally.
This is not to say that there has never been any consideration given to universalist ethics. In fact, in Zhou Dynasty China, the Confucians' main opponents, the followers of Mozi argued for universal love (Chinese: 兼爱; pinyin: jiān ài). The Confucian view eventually held sway, however, and continues to dominate many aspects of Chinese thought. Many have argued, for example, that Mao Zedong was more Confucian than Communist. Confucianism, especially of the type argued for by Mencius (Chinese: 孟子; pinyin: mèng zĭ), argued that the ideal ruler is the one who (as Confucius put it) "acts like the North Star, staying in place while the other stars orbit around it". In other words, the ideal ruler does not go out and force the people to become good, but instead leads by example. The ideal ruler fosters harmony rather than laws.
Confucius stresses honesty above all. His concepts of lĭ (Chinese: 理), yì (Chinese: 義), and rén (Chinese: 仁) can be seen as deeper expressions of honesty (Chinese: 誠; pinyin: chéng; literally: "sincerity") and fidelity (Chinese: 孝; pinyin: xiào) to the ones to whom one owes one's existence (parents) and survival (one's neighbours, colleagues, inferiors in rank). He codified traditional practice and actually changed the meaning of the prior concepts that those words had meant. His model of the Confucian family and Confucian ruler dominated Chinese life into the early 20th century. This had ossified by then into an Imperial hierarchy of rigid property rights, hard to distinguish from any other dictatorship. Traditional ethics had been perverted by legalism.
Buddhism, and specifically Mahayana Buddhism, brought a cohesive metaphysic to Chinese thought and a strong emphasis on universalism. Neo-Confucianism was largely a reaction to Buddhism's dominance in the Tang dynasty, and an attempt at developing a native Confucian metaphysical/analytical system.
Laozi (Lao Tzu) and other Taoist (Daoist) authors argued for an even greater passivity on the part of rulers than did the Confucians. For Laozi, (Lao Tzu) the ideal ruler is one who does virtually nothing that can be directly identified as ruling. Clearly, both Daoism and Confucianism presume that human nature is basically good. The main branch of Confucianism, however, argues that human nature must be nurtured through ritual (li 禮), culture (wen 文) and other things, while the Daoists (Taoists) argued that the trappings of society were to be gotten rid of.
Taoist ethics ask for a greater sense of being and less identification with the act ofdoing. Taoist passivity nurtures, cultivates and prepares an atmosphere that allows the majestic and the real to shine, which influences society for the better. - "If you want to awaken all of humanity, then awaken all of yourself; if you want to eliminate the suffering in the world, then eliminate all that is dark and negative in yourself. Truly, the greatest gift you have to give is that of your own self-transformation." - Lao Tzu
Main articles: Hinduism, Yamas, and Niyamas
Ethics is called Nitisastra (Sanskrit: नीतिशास्त्र) in ancient texts of Hinduism. Ethics and virtue are a much debated and an evolving concept in ancient scriptures of Hinduism. Virtue, right conduct, ethics and morality are part of the complex concept Hindus call Dharma - everything that is essential for people, the world and nature to exist and prosper together, in harmony. As P.V. Kane, the author of the History of Dharmasastra said, the term "Dharma" does not have a synonym in English language. While it is often interpreted as meaning "duty", it can mean justice, right, moral, good, and much more.
Ethics are explained in Hindu philosophy as something that cannot be imposed, but something that is realized and voluntarily lived up to by each individual. For example, Apastamba explained it thus: "virtue and vice do not go about saying - here we are!; neither the Gods, Gandharvas, nor ancestors can convince us - this is right, this is wrong; virtue is an elusive concept, it demands careful and sustained reflection by every man and woman before it can become part of one's life.
Ethics that constitute a dharmic life - that is a moral, ethical, virtuous life - evolve in vedas and upanishads. Ethical subjects and questions are debated by various schools of Hinduism, quite extensively, in numerous texts on what is right conduct, when, how and why. Over time, new virtues were conceptualized and added by ancient Hindu scholars, some replaced, others merged. For example, Manusamhita initially listed ten virtues necessary for a human being to live a dharmic life: Dhriti (courage), Kshama (forgiveness), Dama (temperance), Asteya (Non-covetousness/Non-stealing), Saucha (inner purity), Indriyani-graha (control of senses), dhi (reflective prudence), vidya (wisdom), satyam (truthfulness), akrodha (freedom from anger). In later verses, this list was reduced to five virtues by the same scholar, by merging and creating a more broader concept. The shorter list of virtues became: Ahimsa (Non-violence), Dama (self restraint), Asteya (Non-covetousness/Non-stealing), Saucha (inner purity), Satyam (truthfulness).
The Persian historian Al Biruni who visited and lived in India for 16 years in the early 11th century, describes the concept of ethics and virtuous behavior among Hindus of his times. Of ethical mandates among Hindus, a literal translation of his Persian language manuscript includes (1) A man shall not kill; (2) nor lie; (3) nor steal; (4) nor whore; (5) nor hoard up treasures. These correspond to five Yamas of ancient Hindu ethics: Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truth, non-falsehood), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (celibacy if unmarried and non-cheating on one's partner if married), and Aparigraha (non-possessiveness). In addition to these five negative things to abstain from, Hindu ethics also recommends five positive things to strive for as Niyamas: Śauca (purity in body, speech and mind), Santosha (contentment, acceptance of circumstances with optimism), Tapas (perseverance, meditation, austerity), Swadhyaya (lifelong learning) and Pranidhan (right attitude, contemplation). An ethical life in Hinduism is essential for a liberated life, one without craving, one that is content, attained through knowledge and by abstaining from evil.
Hindu literature variously discuss ethics as one or more of four topics: (1) Gunas that is inner tendencies of conduct found in every individual (in large measure, psychology); (2) Purushartha that is proper aims of life for every individual for self-development and happiness (dharma, artha, kama and moksha); (3) Ashramas that is ethics for an individual in different periods of one's lifetime (ethical expectations for a child are distinguished from those for adults, old age); and (4) Varnasramas that is ethics and conduct for every individual in relation to society. Ancient literature at the foundation of various Hindu traditions primarily discuss the first three, while the last has attracted greater attention since the 18th century. Some early 20th century literature wondered if ethics was ever a serious topic of study in Hinduism. Later studies have yielded the above four approaches to ethics in different schools of Hinduism, tied together with three common themes: (1) ethics is an essential part of dharma concept, (2) Ahimsa (non-violence) is the foundational premise without which - suggests Hinduism - ethics and any consistent ethical theory is impossible, and (3) Ethics cannot always be dualistically or non-dualistically reduced from first principles, ethics is closely related to moksha (self realization and spiritual freedom) with Vivekacudamani stating, "individuals with self knowledge and spiritual freedom are inherently self examining and ethical" and "ethics, freedom and knowledge require each other". In addition to the above four topics in Hindu ethics, scholars state that the karma doctrine of Hinduism is part of its ethical theory compendium.
The Bhagavad Gita—considered one of the epitomes of historic Hindu discussion of virtues and an allegorical debate on what is right and what is wrong—argues some virtues are not necessarily always absolute, but sometimes relational; for example, it explains a virtue such as Ahimsa must be re-examined when one is faced with war or violence from the aggressiveness, immaturity or ignorance of others.
Main article: Islamic ethics
The foundational source in the gradual codification of Islamic ethics was the Muslim understanding and interpretations of the mankind has been granted the faculty to discern God's will and to abide by it. This faculty most crucially involves reflecting over the meaning of existence, which, as John Kelsay in the Encyclopedia of Ethics phrases, "ultimately points to the reality of God." Therefore, regardless of their environment, humans are believed to have a moral responsibility to submit to God's will and to follow Islam (as demonstrated in the Qur'an and the Sunnah, or the sayings of Muhammad) [Quran 7:172]).
This natural inclination is, according to the Qur'an, subverted by mankind's focus on material success: such focus first presents itself as a need for basic survival or security, but then tends to manifest into a desire to become distinguished among one's peers. Ultimately, the focus on materialism, according to the Islamic texts, hampers with the innate reflection as described above, resulting in a state of jahiliyya or "ignorance."
Muslims believe that Muhammad, like other prophets in Islam, was sent by God to remind human beings of their moral responsibility, and challenge those ideas in society which opposed submission to God. According to Kelsay, this challenge was directed against five main characteristics of pre-Islamic Arabia:
- The division of Arabs into varying tribes (based upon blood and kinship). This categorization was confronted by the ideal of a unified community based upon Islamic piety, an "ummah;"
- The acceptance of the worship of a multitude of deities besides Allah - a view challenged by strict Islamic monotheism, which dictates that Allah has no partner in worship nor any equal;
- The trait of muruwwa (manliness), which Islam discouraged, instead emphasizing on the traits of humility and piety;
- The focus on achieving fame or establishing a legacy, which was replaced by the concept that mankind would be called to account before God on the day of resurrection;
- The reverence of and compliance with ancestral traditions, a practice challenged by Islam — which instead assigned primacy to submitting to God and following revelation.
These changes lay in the reorientation of society as regards to identity and life of the Muslim belief, world view, and the hierarchy of values. From the viewpoint of subsequent generations, this caused a great transformation in the society and moral order of life in the Arabian Peninsula. For Muhammad, although pre-Islamic Arabia exemplified "heedlessness," it was not entirely without merit. Muhammad approved and exhorted certain aspects of the Arab pre-Islamic tradition, such as the care for one’s near kin, for widows, orphans, and others in need and for the establishment of justice. However, these values would be re-ordered in importance and placed in the context of strict monotheism.
Furthermore, a Muslim should not only follow these five main characteristics, but also be more broad about his morals. Therefore, the more the Muslim is applying these rules, the better that person is morally. For example,Islamic ethics can be applied by important verses in the Quran . The most fundamental characteristics of a Muslim are piety and humility. A Muslim must be humble with God and with other people:
“And turn not your face away from people (with pride), nor walk in insolence through the earth. Verily, God likes not each arrogant boaster. And be moderate (or show no insolence) in your walking, and lower your voice. Verily, the harshest of all voices is the voice (braying) of the ass.” (Quran 31:18-19)
Muslims must be in controls of their passions and desires.
A Muslim should not be vain or attached to the ephemeral pleasures of this world. While most people allow the material world to fill their hearts, Muslims should keep God in their hearts and the material world in their hand. Instead of being attached to the car and the job and the diploma and the bank account, all these things become tools to make us better people. Morality in Islam addresses every aspect of a Muslim’s life, from greetings to international relations. It is universal in its scope and in its applicability. Morality reigns in selfish desires, vanity and bad habits. Muslims must not only be virtuous, but they must also enjoin virtue. They must not only refrain from evil and vice, but they must also forbid them. In other words, they must not only be morally healthy, but they must also contribute to the moral health of society as a whole.
“You are the best of the nations raised up for (the benefit of) men; you enjoin what is right and forbid the wrong and believe in God; and if the followers of the Book had believed it would have been better for them; of them (some) are believers and most of them are transgressors.” (Quran: 3:110)
Muhammad summarized the conduct of a Muslim when he said:
“My Sustainer has given me nine commands: to remain conscious of God, whether in private or in public; to speak justly, whether angry or pleased; to show moderation both when poor and when rich, to reunite friendship with those who have broken off with me; to give to him who refuses me; that my silence should be occupied with thought; that my looking should be an admonition; and that I should command what is right.”
Main article: Jewish ethics
Jewish ethics may be said to originate with the Hebrew Bible, its broad legal injunctions, wisdom narratives and prophetic teachings. Most subsequent Jewish ethical claims may be traced back to the texts, themes and teachings of the written Torah.
In early rabbinic Judaism, the oral Torah both interprets the Hebrew Bible and delves afresh into many other ethical topics. The best known rabbinic text associated with ethics is the non-legal Mishnahtractate of Avot, popularly translated as Ethics of the Fathers. Generally, ethics is a key aspect of non-legal rabbinic literature, known as aggadah, and ethical teachings are found throughout the more legal (halakhic) portions of the Mishnah, Talmud and other rabbinic literature. This early Rabbinic ethics shows signs of cross-fertilization and polemical exchange with both the Greek (Western philosophical) ethical tradition and early Christian tradition.
In the medieval period, direct Jewish responses to Greek ethics may be seen in major rabbinic writings. Notably, Maimonides offers a Jewish interpretation of Aristotle (e.g., Nicomachean Ethics), who enters into Jewish discourse through Islamic writings. Maimonides, in turn, influences Thomas Aquinas, a dominant figure in Catholic ethics and the natural law tradition of moral theology. The relevance of natural law to medieval Jewish philosophy is a matter of dispute among scholars.
See also: Hellenistic Judaism
Ethics in systematic form, and apart from religious belief, is as little found in apocryphal or Judæo-Hellenistic literature as in the Bible. However, Greek philosophy greatly influenced Alexandrian writers such as the authors of IV Maccabees, the Book of Wisdom, and Philo.
Much progress in theoretical ethics came as Jews came into closer contact with the Hellenic world. Before that period the Wisdom literature shows a tendency to dwell solely on the moral obligations and problems of life as appealing to man as an individual, leaving out of consideration the ceremonial and other laws which concern only the Jewish nation. From this point of view Ben Sira's collection of sayings and monitions was written, translated into Greek, and circulated as a practical guide. The book contains popular ethics in proverbial form as the result of everyday life experience, without higher philosophical or religious principles and ideals.
More developed ethical works emanated from Hasidean circles in the Maccabean time, such as are contained in Tobit, especially in Chapter IV. Here the first ethical will or testament is found, giving a summary of moral teachings, with the Golden Rule, "Do that to no man which thou hatest!" as the leading maxim. There are even more elaborate ethical teachings in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, in which each of the twelve sons of Jacob, in his last words to his children and children's children, reviews his life and gives them moral lessons, either warning them against a certain vice he had been guilty of, so that they may avoid divine punishment, or recommending them to cultivate a certain virtue he had practised during life, so that they may win God's favor. The chief virtues recommended are love for one's fellow man, industry, especially in agricultural pursuits, simplicity, sobriety, benevolence toward the poor, compassion even for the brute and avoidance of all passion, pride, and hatred. Similar ethical farewell monitions are attributed to Enoch in the Ethiopic Enoch (xciv. et seq.) and the Slavonic Enoch (lviii. et seq.) and to the three patriarchs.
The Hellenistic Jewish propaganda literature made the propagation of Jewish ethics taken from the Bible its main object for the sake of winning the pagan world to pure monotheism. It was owing to this endeavor that certain ethical principles were laid down as guiding maxims for the Gentiles, first of all the three capital sins, idolatry, murder, and incest, were prohibited (see Sibyllines, iii. 38, 761; iv. 30 et seq.). In later Jewish rabbinic literature these Noachide Laws were gradually developed into six, seven, and ten, or thirty laws of ethics binding upon every human being.
Germanic Neopagan ethics
Germanic Neopagans, including followers of both Asatru and Theodism, try to emulate the ethical values of the ancient Germanic peoples (Norse or Anglo-Saxon) through the form of the Nine Noble Virtues.
Main article: Ethics (Scientology)
Scientology ethics is based upon the concepts of good and evil. Ethics may be defined as the actions an individual takes on itself to ensure its continued survival across the dynamics.
Main article: Morality without religion
See also: Secular ethics
Secular ethics is a moral philosophy in which ethics are based solely on human faculties such as scientific reason, sociobiological composition, or ethical intuition, and not derived from purported supernatural revelation or guidance. Secular ethics comprise a wide variety of moral and ethical systems including consequentialism, freethinking, humanism, secular humanism, and utilitarianism, among others.
The majority of secular moral concepts are based on the acceptance of natural rights and social contracts, and on a more individual scale of either some form of attribution of intrinsic value to things, Kantianesqueethical intuitionism or of a logical deduction that establishes a preference for one thing over another, as with Occam's razor. Approaches such as ethical egoism, moral relativism, moral skepticism, and moral nihilism are also considered.
Shinto beliefs start with an assumption of the inherent goodness of humans as descendants of the kami. By the 6th century CE, Shinto had drawn from a Chinese idea that good people will adhere to societal norms, and emperors have a divine mandate to bring about the "desirable and required order". Shinto adherents are to "realize and carry out the will of the kami and the ancestors in the family, the community, and the nation".
Although State Shinto reinforced subordination to the emperor and the state, Shrine Shinto is a situation-based ethical system that emphasizes right actions toward others, versus adherence to a specific belief system. Shrine Shinto also stresses gratefulness for "blessings of the kami", and maintaining harmony with the emperor and the world.
Main article: Wiccan morality
Wiccan morality is largely based on the Wiccan Rede: 'An' it harm none, do what ye will' -- old-fashioned language for 'as long as you aren't harming anyone, do as you wish'. While this could be interpreted to mean "do no harm at all", it is usually interpreted as a declaration of the freedom to act, along with the necessity of thinking through and taking responsibility for the consequences of one's actions.
Another element of Wiccan Morality comes from the Law of Threefold Return, which is understood to mean that whatever one does to another person or thing (benevolent or otherwise) returns with triple force.
Many Wiccans also seek to cultivate a set of eight virtues mentioned in Doreen Valiente's Charge of the Goddess, these being mirth, reverence, honour, humility, strength, beauty, power and compassion. In Valiente's poem they are ordered in pairs of complementary opposites, reflecting a dualism that is common throughout Wiccan philosophy.
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- ^Gerald Gardner, High Magic's Aid, London: Michael Houghton, 1949, p.303
- ^Farrar, Janet & Stewart, Eight Sabbats for Witches.
Going for Refuge & Taking the Precepts (The Wheel Publication No. 282/284). Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society. (Originally published 1981 and transcribed for Internet publication in 1994.) Retrieved 2007-11-12 from "Access to Insight" at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/wheel282.html.
A Basis for Christian Ethics
Does being a Christian have implications for one’s behavior? How should the Christian behave? Is there such a thing as a Christian ethic? Can we reasonably discover guidelines or construct a set of principles to guide the life of the Christian? If Jesus is the model we have chosen to emulate, what does that imply about attitudes, values and style of life of the self-identified Christian?
In common usage the term Christian is applied carelessly and generally, as in Christian nation to mean Western nation or a good Christian family to mean those who regularly attend church or are nice persons with typical middle class values. To the Fundamentalist Christian the term Christian is limited to those who hold the Fundamentalist’s particular belief in personal salvation which they refer to as “being born again” and they intend their use of Christian to exclude the majority of those who belong to the mainstream (non-Evangelical) Christian denominations.
Here we use the term Christian in a precise way. We begin with the premise that being a Christian is intentional rather than an accident of birth or membership in a particular Christian group or church. We use Christian to mean anyone who has made a conscious decision to be a follower (disciple) of Jesus without regard to membership in an organization or church or to any particular doctrine or creed and whether or not that person has a supernaturalist view of reality. We take that to mean that the Christian intentionally chooses Jesus as a model for his life and is committed to live his life so far as he is able according to Jesus’ teachings and example. To put this somewhat differently, a Christian is one who chooses to live by a Christian ethic, which in turn is derived from what we know about the life and teachings of Jesus.
That is easier said than done, however, because Jesus lived in a very different time and place and attempts to reconstruct the “historical Jesus” have had only limited success. As we saw in an earlier essay, the mists of time and the layers of theological interpretation that his followers developed as a means to understand him and to explain him to their contemporaries make it difficult to reconstruct his life and teachings with any degree of precision and confidence.
Moreover, we have a very different understanding of our world than his followers had in the First Century. That difference in outlook and perspective requires us to translate Jesus’ teachings into words, behaviors and attitudes that are relevant today and consistent with our scientific knowledge while remaining faithful to the spirit of Jesus’ teaching. Unless we can see the relevance of his life and teachings for the issues we face today and learn how to translate them into a Christian style and philosophy of life for the Twenty-first Century, his teaching will become meaningless and his words will lose their power to be heard.
In order for us to understand the behavioral implications of being a Christian so that we are prepared to decide in an informed way whether we are willing to commit to those values, we must first attempt to set out clearly and carefully the underlying moral principles that are implicit in Jesus' life and teaching.
The term ethics is used rather broadly in general conversation to refer to standards of conduct or guidelines for behavior. The unqualified word ethics generally refers to moral principles of conduct, but in our common usage we often qualify ethics to apply to standards of conduct of a particular profession or group, as in medical ethics or legal ethics, by which we mean the expected behavior and conduct of members of a particular profession to their clients and to other professionals. Professional ethics, by their nature, have no applicability other than to members of that profession and are not intended to apply to conduct generally.
Professional ethics not only have nothing to do with moral standards of conduct or behavior, they may be immoral when they act against the public good or the general welfare by promoting anti-competitive behavior or encouraging conduct intended to protect a profession’s financial interests to the disadvantage of clients and customers [for example, prohibitions against advertising or rules preventing the posting of fees for various services that would encourage customers to shop for lower rates or fees].
When we refer to Christian ethics we mean the core values that have been extrapolated from the life and teachings of Jesus that form the foundation of the moral life of the Christian and that provide guidelines for his behavior and decision-making and a basis for self-examination and judgment. The claim to be a Christian implies an invitation to others to evaluate the behavior, the value commitments and the personal conduct of those who define themselves as Christians.
Theologians and moralists have written whole libraries on the subject of Christian ethics and the moral life, yet for all of the effort put into defining the implications of Christianity for behavior, it is rare that individual persons or religious communities consistently exemplify the values that we see in the life and teachings of Jesus and that define what we mean by Christian ethics and the Christian life.
Christian ethics is a particularly important topic for us to consider at the moment because it is necessary that the prospective Christian understand the ethical and behavioral implications of a decision to become a Christian and to live a Christian life.
Before we explore Christian ethics further by setting out for consideration an interpretation of what it means to be a Christian today that makes sense to us and that is faithful to the teachings of Jesus, we need to deal with a movement that has claimed the attention of many Americans but has not only seriously distorted the message and teachings of Jesus but also has had a corrosive effect on Christianity, on contemporary politics and society, and on our democracy. That movement is an unfortunate marriage of convenience (or more accurately a strategic alliance) between Fundamentalist Christians and the extreme right wing of the Republican Party, which for the purpose of this discussion we will call the Christian Right. This alliance is attempting to hijack Christianity to serve its political ends much in the same way that Islamic fundamentalists have hijacked Islam to serve their particular invidious political purposes.
Those are strong words but they reflect accurately the present state of politics in America and need to be heard if we are to stop this dangerous movement before the Christian Right does any more damage to Christianity and to American democracy. In the past decade we have seen an explosion of participation in evangelical and fundamentalist Christian churches and a simultaneous growth in political influence of right wing politics in America. These trends have had unfortunate and serious consequences for our democracy and our values as an open and caring society.
An observer cannot help but notice that our political leaders use Christian religious terms and concepts in ways that would have been considered unusual and a reason for alarm just a few years ago. The Christian Right refers to the United States as a Christian nation and by seriously and inexcusably misreading our history they inform us that our national heritage comes from colonial forbears who intended to establish a theocratic “nation under god” for those who came to this continent seeking religious and political freedom.
Conservative Christians (by which I mean Fundamentalists and Evangelicals, groups that are to the right of the mainstream Christianity) are outspoken about the moral decline of American society, the loss of positive values and virtues in everything from our schools to our music, the destructive influence of Hollywood and the drug culture, and the decadence of much of our contemporary cultural life. They are concerned that the United States is no longer a Christian nation. They resent the decline of religious influence in public life as a result of judicial decisions that enforce the principle of the separation of Church and State, that bar religious emblems from government premises and that limit prayer and religious instruction in public schools. They are offended by public nudity and open expression of sexuality, by gratuitous violence in our cities and in our schools, by the increasing secularization of American society, and by the diminution of public moral values which they believe gives rise to crime, increases homosexuality and sexual perversion, and replaces God as creator with evolutionary theory.
Much of that is valid social criticism. We join with them in concern about the corrosively destructive effect of many of these negative influences on our society, and we share with them an interest in seeing greater social consciousness and moral sensitivity in our society, but we strongly disagree with them on how to bring about a truly just and caring society.
The fundamentalist approach to moral values is legalistic, authoritarian, rigid and punitive. It strains to find a rationale and justification for its positions by selective reading of the Bible, taking passages out of their historical, cultural and linguistic context and using those carefully selected passages to assert their ethical and moral positions with the discussion-stopping claim that those biblical passages that they believe support of their views are the very words of God himself and therefore have divine authority behind them. The Christian Right espouses ethical positions and moral values that are inconsistent with what we know about Jesus’ own values and attitudes, yet it promotes these misguided and un-charitable values as Christian values, thereby doing considerable damage both to Christianity and to society.
For right wing Republicans, the pragmatic goals of their social agenda are military and political power and effective control over the judicial, legislative and administrative branches of government, driven by an ideology that values corporate and individual economic and property rights and interests over the rights and interests of the broader human community, of self over others, of narrowly-conceived national interests over the welfare of the community of nations. The political and social agenda of the Christian Right is both self-interested and selfish. It is a view that denies the validity of the concept of the social contract that (arguably, at least) determines the appropriate relationship between societies and their individual members and the respective rights and duties of the members of society.
The considerable overlap among right wing Republicans and Christian fundamentalists is most clearly evident in the use of religious language by both groups in a political context. By example, note the references to ‘Christian nation,’ ‘evil-doers,’ the ‘right thing to do,’ a nation ‘under God,’ and ‘God bless the U.S.’ in public statements and speeches, as well as the increasing public displays of religiosity among government officials while acting in their official capacity (prayer, bible study groups, references to their faith in public statements). Both fundamentalist Christians and right wing Republicans are inclined toward punitive rather than redemptive responses to social problems and criminal acts, to criminalizing private behavior that they object to, to long prison terms and capital punishment rather than remedial and educational programs. Both blur the distinction between illegal and immoral acts and are disinclined to consider the morality of means to what they envision as desirable ends (viz. the Patriot Act).
Evangelical Christians insist that our nation’s moral decline and loss of values can only be reversed by ‘putting God back into our national life’ by removing what they believe is an artificial barrier separating Church and State that has resulted in pervasive secularism in American culture. Conservatives are pushing hard to re-establish their version of ‘Christian’ and ‘American’ values in our nation through aggressive political action that includes using all the available levers of power in the halls of Congress, appointing right wing advocates of their positions to the Judiciary, and taking administrative actions that push the limits of what is lawful in a democratic society.
This alliance between right-wing religious activists and conservative political groups has resulted in an intentional and unfortunate blurring of the once clear line of separation between Church and State that is implied by the Constitution’s “establishment clause” as it has been interpreted consistently by the courts and that has been the nation’s policy since the founding of our nation. Breaching this wall of separation has resulted in political pressure by the Christian Right for prayer on public occasions and in the public schools, regular prayer meetings and Bible study groups in government buildings, and Federal funds to subsidize religious enterprises that provide social services.
Fundamentalist Christians in public office (including, for example, President Bush and Attorney General Ashcroft) exhibit their Christian piety in public and make a point in their public statements about being ‘Christians’ and their desire and intent to restore our country from its current status as a secular democracy to its heritage as a ‘Christian nation’ among the nations of the world. Let’s set aside for the moment the appropriateness of applying the modifier ‘Christian’ to nations. Let’s take them at their word that they are ‘Christians’ and that they are sincere in their beliefs. Shouldn’t we expect to see some evidence of Christian values reflected in the actions they take and the programs and policies they promote and implement? Isn't it reasonable to expect that a self-proclaimed Christian is committed to Christian values and would promote those values as public policy of the nation? Should we not expect that a 'Christian nation' would exemplify the values of Jesus?
Because values play such a central role in the Christian Right’s political-religious agenda and those values are presented as Christian values, it seems useful and necessary for those of us who have a different take on what Christian values are to examine and critique the Christian Right’s approach to values and then to lay out an alternative view of what we believe Christian values are and are not.
There are troublesome aspects of the Christian Right’s approach to moral values that should be matters of public discussion because they directly affect the discussion of Christian Ethics.
First is the arrogant claim by Fundamentalists and Evangelicals that they alone possess the truth, they alone know the will of God and speak for God, they have a monopoly on knowing what is right and wrong, what is evil and what is good, not just for themselves but for others as well. Some in the evangelical camp will deny that the Christian evangelical makes this sort of arrogant claim, but it is patently obvious to anyone who holds a contrary opinion about the “rightness” of conduct in a particular situation that the evangelical expects to trump any discussion by asserting that ‘God’s word says’ so-and-so and that is all there is to it.
Moreover, the Christian Right attempts to monopolize the word Christian so as to limit it to describe only those who hold its particular views about what being a Christian means. You only have to listen to the way the word is used in fundamentalist-evangelical circles to get this point. When an evangelical refers to John Ashcroft or George W. Bush as a ‘Christian,’ he means to say, “he is one of us, born-again, etc.” They do not refer to Bill Clinton or Ted Kennedy or Barney Frank as Christians even though they are just as much Christians as the right wing Christians are.
Second is the tendency for the Christian Right to seek to impose its particular views of right and wrong on those who have a different moral outlook through laws that compel everyone to conform to their particular view of right moral behavior. We can see this tendency on virtually any issue where the Christian Right claims the moral high ground against competing claims: abortion, same-sex marriage, death penalty, homosexual behavior.
For example, let’s look at the way the Christian Right moves from an assumption that particular behavior is “morally wrong” to the conclusion that if such behavior is morally wrong from their particular perspective then it ought to be illegal. To make this point clear, look at the way the Christian Right approaches the question of abortion. At the outset I want to be clear that the discussion that follows is not intended as an argument on one side or the other of the abortion debate, but merely intends to point out that the moral issues involved are far from simple or clear and that the legal or public issue is one that cannot be resolved by a religious claim to hold the moral high ground against the wishes of those with whom it disagrees.
The anti-abortion argument depends upon several premises some of which are not self-evidently true or universally-agreed to be true:
a. a “child” comes into being at the moment of conception;
b. abortion involves killing a child;
c. killing is always wrong; and
d. what is morally wrong should be made illegal.
Let’s examine these premises. The key premise is that the fertilized egg, which begins the life of the embryo, is a human being, a child. That is not a statement about which there is universal agreement. It is not self-evidently true. It is not a scientific statement. Throughout history and across cultures it is more common to look at the moment of birth as the beginning of a new human being. Moreover since the fundamentalist relies so much on quoting the Bible, we should note that the biblical view about the beginning of human life appears to be that human life begins with the “breath of life” -- the human spirit or soul, which God breathes (in Hebrew, ruach, breath or spirit) into the body of Adam at the creation and into the baby at the time of birth and which “spirit” of life leaves the body at the time of death.
The second premise, that abortion involves killing a child, only follows if the first premise is valid, and it is clear that the first premise is not a scientific statement but rather an assertion that is controversial at best.
The third premise, that killing is always wrong, seems to be unsupported by many in the Christian Right as a matter of practice. Many among the Christian Right have argued in favor of the death penalty and support engaging in war even when it results in the death of innocent civilians as well as combatants if it is in the national interest or if it is arguably in self defense. So apparently the Christian Right presumes the right to choose which killings are acceptable and which are not.
The fourth premise is absurd on its face. Law exists in a society to preserve the social order and prevent social chaos. It regulates traffic so that we do not run into each other. It prohibits theft not because it is ‘morally wrong’ but because an orderly society cannot function without the security of personal property. The description of behavior as moral or immoral is a judgment that an individual applies to behavior from his personal perspective or the perspective of his social or religious group and means behavior that he finds repugnant or abhorrent and believes that he should not participate in and may even wish others did not engage in.
It is quite clear that abortion is an issue of morality that arises out of religious faith but it is important to realize that it is a religion-based moral position that applies only to those that believe that it is morally wrong. Persons who believe that abortion is wrong are entitled to that belief and it is their religious duty to refuse abortion for themselves and refuse to perform an abortion or assist others in performing them. But it is quite another matter to use one’s religious based moral views to interfere with the rights or activities of those who do not share their religious premises or their conclusions about the moral implications of abortion. Such a position involves interfering with the freedom of others to live according to their morals, and as such is an inherently immoral position. It makes no more sense for those who are opposed to abortion to try to impose their views on others or interfere with the rights of those who have a different religious view about that issue, than for Muslims or Jews in the U.S. to seek statutes outlawing the consumption of pork by the general population.
It is reasonable to assert that each of us has a duty to live a moral life and that therefore each of us must determine as best we are able, in accordance with some value principle, how we will decide what is right and what is wrong behavior for us and therefore how we choose to act in matters of public and private morality in a particular situation. This is how we expect the moral person to act.
It is quite a different matter for any individual or group to compel others to live according to its particular sense of right conduct under threat of penalty or force of law. Moral values defining right and wrong conduct are valuable for individual and personal guidance in determining how an individual or member of a group should act in a particular situation, and moral values may have universal value as moral principles that should obligate all members of society. But regardless of one’s belief that a particular moral value has universal validity, that does not justify compelling universal compliance with that particular value through force of law. [Incidentally, for those inclined to argue this point, this is not moral relativism. It is the simple acknowledgement of a logical difficulty, that in the face of two competing value claims that conflict with each other there is no arbiter between them and one is obligated to do the best he can with the limited truth that is available to him, but not to claim more for himself or for his piece of truth than the circumstances warrant.]
Third and not unrelated to the two previous points, the Christian Right tends to have very simplistic attitudes toward very complex issues that make it difficult to engage them in constructive dialogue. When you see the world and its problems in stark black and white terms, good guys and bad guys, friends and enemies, those who are for us and those who are against us, it is difficult to argue for rational principles and constructive steps in dealing with social problems, and it makes it impossible to discuss how Christian personal or social ethics might impact the way we approach difficult issues.
The current ‘war against terrorism’ is a good example of a situation in which it is close to impossible to have a serious dialogue with the Christian Right about how Christian ethics might impact one’s attitudes toward this particular struggle against terrorism and how that struggle is being waged by our political leaders. To those who see the world in black and white, this is a confrontation of the good guys against the bad guys, the champion of the forces of right against the evil and satanic Islamic rulers of the Middle East.
That simplistic attitude together with the unwillingness to understand and acknowledge the real moral and political issues with the United States in particular and the West in general that drive the terrorists have made the American “war against terrorism” incomprehensible to much of the world, which continues to view the actions of the United States as an immoral and unwarranted extension of American belligerence and a Christian crusade against Islam and Islamic nations rather than a legitimate national defense against terrorists and terrorism.
The misuse of Christianity for partisan political purposes by the Christian Right in pursuing the war against terrorism is a specific instance of the misunderstanding of Christianity by the Christian Right that requires us to be clear about what Christian morality is and what it implies about war and peace, and to state forcefully that a Christian Crusade was not Christian in the medieval period of the first Christian crusades against Islam and it is no more Christian today.
The fundamental principles of Christian ethics, which we can extrapolate from the life and teachings of Jesus, are integrity and love.
The word love in English has several different meanings depending on the context. It is helpful in distinguishing between these various meanings to go to the ancient Greek, which used different words that have all been translated into English as love.
These Greek words are philia, eros, and agape.
Philia means the love that exists between friends, the relationship with a dear friend. We see the word in combination as in philosophy, the love of wisdom.
Eros means erotic love, the passion of lovers, the attraction of sex, physical sexual love.
Agape is love of an entirely different sort. It is love of another that does not imply mutuality (as in friendship) or self-interest (which is implied in erotic love), but rather is the affirmation of the worth of another human being. It implies respect for others and recognition of their human dignity.
When Jesus said that we should love our neighbor, he used the word agape to convey his intent. He did not mean to make friends and he was not encouraging erotic relationships. He meant “self-less” love, the giving of oneself to causes and persons without the expectation of return, not even an expectation of gratitude.
That form of love as obligation based on the humanity of others is the basis of Christian ethics. It underlies the commitment to work for justice even against one’s own interests by standing with the powerless against the powerful, by fighting for human rights, by giving one’s resources and strength and self to strangers.
Love as obligation, love as agape, love of one’s neighbor require specific acts of commitment that can be described as love fulfilling itself in action. Love is demonstrated in the life of the Christian by building housing for the poor with Habitat for Humanity, by sharing what one has with the poor in Haiti or with those in poverty in one’s own village, by feeding the hungry, by clothing the poor, by providing comfort and medical care to the sick and the dying.
But love (Agape) means a great deal more than specific acts of charity as occasional gestures to satisfy the unease of having much in a world in which so many have so little. It means a commitment to work for a society that respects all members of the human community and that provides the resources to make life better for those for whom it is a form of hell.
It implies respect for the fundamental nature of the social contract, the worth of all members of society and the responsibility of all members of society for those who are weakest in their midst—in short, a caring society in which human dignity is respected and in which all members of the society have an obligation for the betterment of all -- and this is not meant in any superficial way. There are some serious political implications of this obligation and demand on Christians and if those obligations were met by those who claim the name of Christian, it would mean a radically different social commitment and priorities than we see in our current national agenda as dictated by the Christian Right.
One way to summarize the message of Jesus to his day is to point to his understanding of the Kingdomof God . Jesus is reported to have said on many occasions to his disciples and to the crowds who listened to him that “the Kingdom of God is among you”—he was clearly not referring to some future event but to a present reality.
First Century religious Jews anticipated the coming of a Messiah, a political and religious leader who would lead the Jews to a political victory over their Roman rulers and would establish a new kingdom of Israel in which Israel ’s god Yahweh would be acknowledged and the Kindom of God (Yahweh) would be established once more in Israel . As best we can determine from the extant historical record, what Jesus was saying to his generation was that the Kingdom of God was not a future political kingdom to anticipate but was rather a present reality to the degree that his message was heard and acted upon by his disciples. His message was not to anticipate a future kingdom but rather to bring about the Kingdom of God in the present through one’s actions and commitments.
If the first principle of Christian ethics is love, the second principle is integrity, which comes from the word integer (“oneness” or “wholeness”) and in the context of ethical values means the unity and consistency of belief and action, of honesty and sincerity. It was integrity that led Jesus to be faithful to himself and his message even when it meant his death.
Developing a reasoned ethics and its application to specific ethical issues will be a continuing project for other essays over the next few months. For the moment it is enough to summarize the guiding principles of a Christian ethics rather than to elaborate on them.