Why Do Right and Wrong Matter?


Editor’s Note: Early this morning I finished the rough draft of the ethics chapter of Understanding the Times. 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!


Dr. Jeff MyersChapter 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.

Footnotes

  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.