In the previous session we began what will be several classes devoted to ethics. I argued last time (I’m sure controversially for many) that a criterion for moral grounding known as Divine Command Theory (DCT) was simplistic and inappropriate. That session is a bit like a fork in the road. If you cannot agree with that conclusion then, at minimum, you may find these next several weeks irrelevant or even annoying. But for those who see the need to go beyond DCT (‘God said it, I believe it and that settles it’) we will spend the next two weeks considering how Christians may examine and form moral foundations and deal with ethical issues and dilemmas.
However, an understandable reaction to the suggestion that DCT is an inappropriate criterion is to think binary and conclude that its abandonment necessitates relativism. People can be very upset by the apparent loss of certainty that moving past DCT seems to demand. So let us briefly consider the topic of relativism. Let me begin by noting several things:
- DCT is a simple, straightforward method of determining moral choices. Its abandonment as a method does not mean that the Bible is now somehow untrue or its principles invalid. We do not need to return to ‘square one’. And it does not necessarily mean that conclusions we might reach via DCT are false. What we seek is compatible integration between the two streams of knowledge-forming information (as diagrammed in Session 1): a) from our trusted revelatory source such as the Bible (remember there are false revelation ‘wannabes’ out there); and b) from personal experience and reason, extended by human authorities (with its severe and important limitations).
- Even if the revelatory source is trusted there remains the need for proper interpretation – determining how its principles apply to novel, modern and culture-shifted settings, deciding how literally to apply the information, etc. This exegetical process is human-based (although we should be seeking assistance from the Holy Spirit) and consequently error-prone. So even if you are enamored with DCT there are still significant problems getting the ‘God said it’ part right.
- There is an important difference between believing there are no absolutes (relativism) and believing that we humans can know those absolutes with certainty. Abandoning the comfort of supposed certainty provided by DCT has an emotional component that can be unsettling.
While not cast in the terminology being used here this same issue has been raised in the past within Adventism – with significant controversy – by Adventist theologian Alden Thompson in his 1991 book Inspiration . He differentiates between a ‘codebook’ and ‘casebook’ approach to exegesis. A codebook approach looks at the Biblical text propositionally. The casebook approach tries to take the universals being stated by the Bible and apply them to novel situations. Consequently some have viewed this approach as disguised relativism.
It is understandable, perhaps, that believers in general are reluctant to say privately or publicly that a particular command or example in Scripture does not apply to them. To risk the possibility of the human will overruling the divine will is not an attractive prospect for someone really serious about obedience. Furthermore, examples can be multiplied of careless Christians who dismiss their responsibilities all too easily with a times-have-changed argument. 
Now let’s consider the topic of relativism more directly (albeit briefly).
First let’s note that relativism can be trivially refuted (although this by no means ‘magically’ makes the problem disappear).
Relativism can be defined as a philosophy where there are no universal moral absolutes by which to judge human behavior. Now note that this definition itself is not relativistic. It makes a universal declaration. Thus relativism itself is inconsistent in that it cannot be applied to itself.
Case closed? Hardly. Relativism in a broader sense concedes this inconsistency but, pragmatically doubts the possibility of grounding values in absolutes and fears that authoritarianism, fanaticism or cultural hegemony are the real roots of behavioral norms. And it is not difficult to provide anecdotal evidence. The issue is whether these plentiful anecdotes should be extrapolated to the extreme conclusion of denying the existence of moral absolutes.
Unfortunately time constraints prevent more than a cursory examination of this complex and extensive topic. Let me simply note then some arguments that have been used against relativism:
- Humans have a conscience that produces a much more consistent (universal) set of norms on the issues that really matter than can be explained away by cultural diversity. Sometimes this idea is termed ‘natural law’ meaning we have – by nature – certain ‘laws’ of behavior that we understand to be normative (even though we frequently don’t live up to them).
- The relativist may be confusing abusive religious authoritarianism with the possible existence of genuine absolutes. Hence the rebellion is misplaced.
- A relativist may argue that the absolutist position can never admit exceptions or recognize any hierarchy of value in their moral system. And in this life there are many no-win scenarios – real and hypothetical – that produce dilemma for which an over-rigid absolutist approach could result in a harmful outcome. But this is an oversimplification of the absolutist position, although true of many. We will explore this problem in some detail next week using the well-known ‘Jews in the Barn’ example.
We must move on. For a very readable, thorough and helpful examination of this topic I would suggest reading Peter Kreeft’s A Refutation of Moral Relativism . Another short, useful, but more difficult read is Bernard Williams’ Morality. 
The fundamental question put on the table by Dr. Nicoli in the DVD conversation is “where do we get our concept of right and wrong?”. And because so many Christians take a reductionist DCT stance the previous class dealt with that and no video segment was shown. In this session we will view the video segment (or you may read the transcript) and continue pursuit of Nicoli’s question.
The Right and the Good
I first want to make what I believe will prove to be a very helpful distinction between two words we casually use interchangeably: ‘right’ and ‘good’. This distinction was first suggested by a 20th century Scottish philosopher D.W. Ross (1877-1971) in a work entitled The Right and the Good . Let us define:
Right: an a priori (before-the-fact) principle that should ground one’s morality and produce praiseworthy results. Things that are right should be done.
Good: an a posteriori (after-the-fact) result of acting that is morally praiseworthy. So, if you operate your morality based on right principles (which would be an evaluative process prior to acting) you should expect, under normal conditions, to have good outcomes.
Basically the term right is what comes prior to and drives a moral action, while the term good defines the quality of the results.
Right → Action → Good
Ross sought to make this distinction because the terms also encapsulate two radically different ethical perspectives. A ‘right-based’ ethic is typically labeled Deontology, named after a Greek word δέον (deon) which very roughly translates as duty or obligation. To avoid big words just think of this as duty-based ethics. Its most famous advocate was the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), to whom we’ll turn to next week. But duty is a before-the-fact concept. Duty drives action. It is not a consequence of an action. A ‘good-based’ ethic is typically labeled consequentialist, with the obvious inference that your morality is driven by actions that produce good results. There are multiple flavors of consequentialist ethics but the most ubiquitous, and the one we will examine, is called utilitarianism. The idea here is to somehow evaluate how useful an action is (its utility) and drive your ethics based on whether your actions are producing these good results. So utilitarianism is ‘good-based’ ethic.
Christians tend to strongly favor ‘right-based’ (duty) ethics as the a priori source of the norms to be applied would come from the Bible. We will consider ‘right-based’ ethics next week. But utilitarianism is a ‘good-based’ (consequential) ethic. Its primary strength, in my view, is it allows history to inform our future moral choices. We humans have a limited and flawed ability to always make correct ‘right-based’ ethical decisions. So we might choose and the result turns out badly, for many reasons. At minimum, utilitarianism suggests we take past results under consideration when forming future decisions to act. And this approach does seem to be good common-sense.
But if/should you wish to use utility as the only factor in decision-making, then you confront difficult problems. Let me suggest three:
- First, any consequentialist ethic has the infinite regress problem - i.e. what is the original grounding? The idea here is that a utilitarian evaluates a result as good or bad. But on what basis? Significantly on the basis of historical norms of what good and bad are understood to mean. But on what basis did those earlier people reach their definitions of good & bad? On earlier historical evaluation. And so it goes. So where did the original definition of good come from?
- A utilitarian would say that one should make their choice based on the “greatest good for the greatest number”. Fine. But just how are we to measure goodness quantitatively? The original utilitarian, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), used the idea of greatest happiness for the metric. But we have the same problem of quantifying happiness. And people’s preferences differ widely. Bentham’s definition was critiqued by a next-generation utilitarian, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), who famously noted “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied”. So it's way more complicated to figure out how to measure than might be initially thought. If everyone but me thinks the definition of pleasure is to smoke crack, should that be the norm? Or even allowed? The problem here exhibits the risk that humans may make seriously flawed decisions about what is good for them.
- Utilitarianism suggests the ‘greatest good’ principle should outrank everything. But this concept risks being abusive to the minority. A concept like justice cannot be relativized. So consider, for example, that there was some bizarre situation where a psycho zillionare would pay everyone in his or her country some large sum of money. But the price was that the government had to humanely imprison an innocent person – some John Doe – for life. Utility might argue that this was a good trade off. Justice I think would disagree.
Criteria for Morality – Internal or External
I want to end this session by briefly exploring the difficulty of determining whether an act is praiseworthy (or blameworthy). I do this to emphasize that matters of morality are more complex than one might otherwise think. And to illustrate this I present 2 versions of an admittedly unrealistic scenario – as a thought experiment .
Consider a situation where a climber is below a ledge precariously clinging to a branch that will not hold his/her weight much longer. And to fall would mean sure death due to the height. But if somehow there was a more solid handhold within grasp the climber might use that to pull up to the safety of a just-out-of-reach ledge. Now, down at ground-level stand two people, a world-class archer and an observer. The archer pulls out an exceptionally sturdy arrow, puts it into his/her crossbow and shoots toward the desperate climber. The arrow lodges securely in the cliff near enough for the climber to grasp just as the branch s/he was holding onto gives way. But further (and this is a stretch) the arrow proves to be strong enough and embedded deeply enough in the cliff so the climber can use it to now climb up to safety.
Here is the question. Is the action of the archer praiseworthy? An action was performed and good resulted. From the standpoint of both the witness and a utilitarianism one would expect the answer to be: yes, this has been a praiseworthy event.
Now let me add some additional detail, omitted above. It turns out that the archer knows the climber and has a passionate hatred for him/her. And from the archer’s somewhat distant perspective it appears that the climber just might be able to save themselves by using the existing branch to pull up to the nearby ledge. So the archer pulls out the arrow and shoots. But their intent was not to provide a new handhold so the climber might escape death. The intent was murder. The archer wants to make sure the hated enemy dies. But even though the archer is world-class s/he misses the intended target – the climber – and the missed arrow lodges at the fortunate position that permits escape, as noted above in the first version.
Now, is the archer’s action praiseworthy? Note that externally the physical actions performed were identical in both cases (we assume the archer was smart enough not to show any external sign of displeasure at his/her failure to commit murder). Now, the utilitarian has a problem here in that it would seem obvious that the archer’s motives cannot be praiseworthy but the external results certainly were.
But, more to the point for our purposes, how do you understand goodness, badness, sin, holiness, etc. to be appropriately measured? Internal or external? How does the Bible define sin?
The Video Conversation [8 minutes, 13 seconds] – Transcript
Some Questions to Consider:
Q: In your own morality do you lean toward ‘right-based’, ‘good-based’ or some sort of mixture. Why?
Q: Do we need Divine Command Theory to avoid relativism? If not, how do you work through the risk?
Q: Are there parts of utilitarianism you find to be valid and attractive? Why?
Q: Do we need revelation to adequately ground our morality?
|1||Thompson, Alden, Inspiration (Review and Herald Publishing, 1991).|
|2||Ibid, p 105.|
|3||Kreeft, Peter, A Refutation of Moral Relativism (Ignatius Press, 1999).|
|4||Williams, Bernard, Morality, (Cambridge University Press, 1976).|
|5||Ross, W.D., The Right and the Good (Clarendon Press, 1930).|
|6||This illustration is not original with me but as yet I have failed to recall where I read it. If I later find the attribution I will update this footnote.|
Links to the other essays in this series:
5) Why Believe?
8) Moral Law – Part B
11) Suffering and Death