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February 01, 2013

Why Do Right and Wrong Matter?

Editor’s Note: Early this morning I finished the rough draft of the ethics chapter. It’s slightly longer than the other chapters, but I guess it’s necessary — how can the history of moral philosophy and a reasonably detailed account of the ethical theories of six worldviews (as well as an extended defense of the Christian worldview) fit into 11,000 words?

Anyway, here’s the introductory section. Again, it is a first draft and will hopefully smooth out once John Stonestreet and editor Carlos Delgado have their whack at it. Let me know what you think!

Chapter 10: Ethics

The door opened. A singular and violent group made its appearance on the threshold. Three men were holding a fourth man by the collar. The three men were gendarmes ; the other was Jean Valjean.

A brigadier of gendarmes, who seemed to be in command of the group, was standing near the door. He entered and advanced to the Bishop, making a military salute.

In the meantime, Monseigneur Bienvenu had advanced as quickly as his great age permitted.

“Ah! Here you are!” he exclaimed, looking at Jean Valjean. “I am glad to see you. Well, but how is this? I gave you the candlesticks too, which are of silver like the rest, and for which you can certainly get two hundred francs. Why did you not carry them away with your forks and spoons?”

Jean Valjean opened his eyes wide, and stared at the venerable Bishop with an expression which no human tongue can render an account of.

“Monseigneur,” said the brigadier of gendarmes, “so what this man said is true, then? We came across him. He was walking like a man who is running away. We stopped him to look into the matter. He had this silver – ”

“And he told you,” interposed the Bishop, with a smile, “that it had been given to him by a kind old fellow of a priest with whom he had passed the night? I see how the matter stands. And you have brought him back here? It is a mistake.”

“In that case,” replied the brigadier, “we can let him go?”

“Certainly,” replied the Bishop.

Jean Valjean was trembling in every limb. He took the two candlesticks mechanically, and with a bewildered air.

“Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”

The Jean Valjean character in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is a broken, bitter man, a known thief who will surely rot in prison. Forgiven through an unexpected act of mercy, Valjean repents and leaves a changed man. Hugo’s telling of the story bears witness to the universal reality of evil and injustice, and also to the possibility of hope and goodness. Les Miserables is popular, whether in book form, on stage, or in the movies, because it raises a hope to which all humanity clings: brutality must give way in the face of redemption. This, in a sentence, is perhaps the most important thing that may be said about ethical living and consequently the study of ethics.

Ethics, based on the Greek word “ethos,” goodness, is the study of right and wrong. It has two functions. First, it is a guide to action. Ethics seeks to answer the question, “How should we live?” What does it mean to live a good life — not just a life that feels good, but a life that actually is good? And if everyone lived this way, would it be good for all of us?

Second, ethics proposes a way to think through what life is about. Said the famed journalist Walter Lippmann, “At the core of every moral code there is a picture of human nature, a map of the universe, and version of history. To human nature (of the sort conceived), in a universe (of the kind imagined), after a history (so understood), the rules of the code apply.”[1] Ethics is more than a guide for how to live. It has a clarifying effect, shining light on everything else of importance.

Christianity says right and wrong are based in God’s character as revealed in nature and scripture. We ought to speak truth not because we’ll feel better about it or because it is reasonable to do so, but because God’s nature is truth. We ought to pursue justice not because it helps us maintain power or because the law commands it, but because God is just. We ought to express mercy not because it will make us happy or it is our duty, but because God is mercy.

Because God is everywhere, Christianity says, an ethical system based on his character will be resident in every soul. Calvin D. Linton, onetime professor at George Washington University, found in his study a basic pattern common to all ethical codes:

[T]here is a basic pattern of similarity among [ethical codes]. Such things as murder, lying, adultery, cowardice are, for example, almost always condemned. The universality of the ethical sense itself (the ‘oughtness’ of conduct), and the similarities within the codes of diverse cultures indicate a common moral heritage for all mankind which materialism or naturalism cannot explain.[2]

Christians see common ethical systems among vastly different cultures as evidence of a universal law, and thus a universal lawgiver. Every ethical system must either explain away such evidence or account for it. In this chapter we will seek insight into the key terms and players in the field of ethics and overview the ethical theories of the six worldviews we are studying. Hopefully by the end we’ll understand better why people do what they do and even see Christian ethics in a new light.

Notes

  1. Walter Lippman, Public Opinion (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1965), 80, quoted in Thomas Sowell, A Con­flict of Visions (New York, NY: William Morrow and Company, 1987), 18.
  2. Carl F.H. Henry, ed., Baker’s Dictionary of Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1973), 620.

This post has earned 4 Comments so far.

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  • February 02, 2013 // 02:00 am //  # 
    Mrs. Randall counts's avatar Mrs. Randall counts

    I’m not sure cause I’m not a smartie or intellectual but the sentence brutality giving way in the face of redemption ( though true) seems to beg less vagueness.
    In fact since your asking , the concepts , while all true and worthy of touting , seem to beg a deeper more clear definition.
          It’s all good stuff though and glad someone is at the helm.
    If I may be so bold, don’t forget, while God has raised you up for this time, Jesus Christ remains basically simple in all He taught.KEEP IT SIMPLE!
    C.S. Lewis while having so much good to share with the masses left out the presence of the Holy Spirit . This
    kept his teachings and great cranial comprehensions and developed observations of God,man etc.on purely analytical and intellectual ground.

    Ps. Heard you guys for the first time this am on family talk.
    Loved it and was thanking God for yous guys.
    Your in a tight spot.
    Mucho responsibility.
    It won’t be easy but I’d like to encourage you both by saying , keep following Him.
    Sounds too simple and yet that is what God requires of us of .He really is that SIMPLE.
    As well as balancing grace with truth being spoken in love with great humility.
    Whew!
    Like a four legged stool.
    They all need each other to stay stable.I read that today by Rick Joyner.
    I thought it good stuff. The stool part I made up.

    One question , if anyone can answer me about wher eyou derived your statistics about man woman m. Vrs same sex m.
    If I’m sharing with someone that same sex m. Families are having higher stats of drug abuse, rape , etc. then I need legitimacy to back me up. Where specifically did you get your info.?
    Thanks again for what you do.
    Can’t wait to read the rest.
    We all need Jesus Christ don’t we.
    Sincerely, ...

  • February 03, 2013 // 09:35 am //  # 
    Jellaby White's avatar Jellaby White

    I’m not sure what you are referring to, Mrs. Randall. What statistics are you talking about?

    With regard to the article: Having been steeped in Summit ministry materials for almost 20 years now, I’ve become more cautious about using the word “system” as Dr. Myers did in his article. The Christian worldview doesn’t fit into neat boxes. But, I don’t condemn teaching it this way when one is first learning the basics, because I haven’t found a better way….yet.

    My hesitation is that thinking of your faith in terms of “systems” of beliefs to either affirm or deny is seems to be a bit too gnostic to be truly Christian. Am I incorrect in my hesitation?

  • February 03, 2013 // 09:51 pm //  # 
    M. Counts's avatar M. Counts

    Oh boy did I bite off more than I can chew.

    First may I begin by saying I heard Dr. Jeff in bits and pieces on a talk show last week.
    I was so impressed with he and his good wife that I went to the web sight to look them up having NO IDEA That i was entering a worldview global philosophizing thnk tank.
    This is so out of my realm and not what I was created to be.
    I apologize..
    As far as the word system is concerned I have no idea .your talking over my head. Im an educated person, and though I read your last sentence to me three or four times, I’m still not even sure what it’s asking.
    About The use of the word stats, that was my word of choice in seeking more info to a statement the good Dr. Used about findings between traditional m. Vrs non traditional marriage .  To speak plain English, I just wanted more info on his info.
    That’s all.
    Sincerely,
    M.counts

  • March 03, 2013 // 08:27 pm //  # 
    Abby Fleming's avatar Abby Fleming

    I really like this intro to the chapter. The excerpt from Les Miserables helped introduce ethics. When the Bishop shows grace to ValJean, it opens his eyes to the Supernatural. He realizes that people make mistakes, and God forgives even the worst of sinners. When you look at modern ethics, it becomes so clear that our culture is desperately missing this. They are missing God. As soon as you admit that there is a God, everything changes- especially ethics. Atheists have no accountability or unchanging moral code. How could they? But God provides a standard for humans and He will hold us accountable.

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