We Need New, Public Conversations About Ethics

Recently, more than one hundred members of the U.S. House of Representatives voted not to expel a member who had been found guilty (by a bipartisan committee of his peers) of serious ethical failures, based on the argument that he “hadn’t (yet) been convicted of a crime.” Law and ethics are not perfectly congruent, as made evident in this case. In fact, I contend that societies defer to the law when ethics fail, and the first line of defense against moral turpitude is sound moral reasoning. As an academic, I revel in the complexities and nuances of moral reasoning. As a practitioner, however, I fear that the lack of consensus in this area, combined with the general secularization of Western culture, have led to a moral vacuum, and a misguided preference for legal solutions to fundamentally ethical problems.

At its most basic level, ethics may be properly defined as the study of morality in both theory and praxis, whether in general terms (i.e. “meta-ethics”) or in particular circumstances based upon certain criteria, so-called “normative ethics.” Most of us, whether we realize it or not, have been influenced by various schools of thought on what those “criteria” should be, criteria that often contradict each other, rendering ethical discernment quite difficult. 

For instance, the “consequentialist” or “utilitarian” approach (e.g. of Jeremy Bentham or John Stuart Mill), views the morality of a decision or action, based upon the anticipated result of that decision or action. It seeks to quantify the “highest good, for the greatest number,” thereby reducing all ethical considerations to a “pleasure/pain” calculus. While there are logical benefits to this approach, it is not without its limitations. What happens, for instance, when it is impossible to accurately predict the outcome of a decision or an action, or when other ethical considerations are brought to bear? Isn’t the “deontological” approach (e.g. of Emmanuel Kant), which is qualitative, not quantitative, and based upon moral principles (i.e. “duty”) instead of results, an equally valid motif? 

Similarly, one may contrast “ethical egoism” (e.g., Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman), which posits that “the highest good for all, is achieved when individuals seek their own highest good,” with “virtue ethics” (e.g. of Aristotle and Aquinas), which is predicated on the belief that human-beings are capable of upholding universally held values (i.e. “virtues”) through the exercise of human reason and wisdom. These are diametrically opposite approaches to discerning what is morally right, yet they are reflective of ethical belief systems that over time, have permeated our collective consciousness.

I teach and write extensively on everything from the ethics of macroeconomic systems to workplace harassment, corporate governance, and sovereign debt from a biblical perspective. While my foray into the myriad of philosophical systems has positively informed my thinking in many ways, nothing has dissuaded me from the conviction that St. Augustine was correct in surmising in On Christian Doctrine that all truth is God’s truth and Christians must ultimately view all subjects, and particularly ethics, with that aphorism in mind.

Traditionally, in the West (at least since the dawn of the Common Era), it has been the responsibility of the church to teach and uphold standards of ethical conduct. Whether in government, education, the professions, or countless other civil societies and guilds, the church (despite the occasional lapses of its own rank, file, and leadership) has been seen as the guardian of moral theory and praxis. That is due to the unique emphasis the church places on the source of its authority — namely, its claim to Apostolic teaching and the efficacy of Scripture. Much of what the Bible has to say about ethical conduct, however, is more implicit than explicit, and when set against the cacophony of other competing voices, one might reasonably ask, what constitutes Christian ethics? 

While many excellent books have been written that explore this very question, like Dennis P. Hollinger’s Creation and Ethics: Understanding God’s Design for Humanity and the World, the simple answer I give my students is this: Any ethical decision or action that reflects the being nature, and character of God, is, by definition, “Christian” ethics. This is true regardless of one’s normative preference. All the traditional schools of thought mentioned above, and their accompanying motifs, are permeable and limited in their usefulness. The “being, nature, and character of God,” however, are impermeable and immutable and therefore the only standards of morality for Christians — in any sphere of life, including business and economics.

The key to understanding this definition, is not in our understanding of God’s ontology (i.e. God’s “being” and “nature”), which are manifest in the perfection of the Trinity and explicitly defined in 1 John 4:8 (“God is Love”), but in the “character” of God, which I define as “the perfect tension between the righteousness (i.e. holiness/קָדוֹשׁ/qadash) of God and the mercy of God (i.e. grace/χάρις/charis). These two poles provide us with the aspirational desire (and obligation) to do our best to emulate the divine, on the one hand, while simultaneously acknowledging our inability (as fallen beings), to do so. They also provide us with a model for how we are to deal with our fellow creatures, whom we easily judge but begrudgingly forgive. Or as author Stephen M.R. Covey famously quipped: “We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior.” God, however, judges us by neither — God judges us by the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross, and it is that consideration that must inform our ethics, above all others. 

Understanding this tension is therefore critical to the exercise of Christian moral reasoning. If not for righteousness, grace would have no meaning or value. But without grace, the pursuit of righteousness would become unbearable. This is true in society at large, where we are called upon to “seek the welfare of the city” (Jer 29:7), while simultaneously providing opportunities for individuals to flourish (Ez 47:1–21). Where we are commanded to “obey everything [Jesus] has commanded” (Matt 28:20) while loving our enemies (Luke 6:27) and forgiving our transgressors “seventy times seven” times (Matt 18:22). It is also true in the realms of business and economics. 

The more devoted proponents of “ethical egoism” would have us believe that the brute force of the market provides enough assurance of a fair and level playing field. Any moral intervention they claim would skew the system and punish those who have played by the rules and won. That of course is true, in theory. In practice, however, things are often quite different. The playing field isn’t always fair, especially for new entrants and those without familial, political, or economic capital at their disposal. Likewise, the rules aren’t always the same for everyone. And the more complex the game becomes, the more the rules seem to favor those who have the power to make them. Faith in the efficacy of the market as an engine of wealth creation is both logical and reasonable, but it is no excuse for Christians who see economic injustice and fail to act. Their love of neighbor and love of Christ must be greater than their love of Mammon (Luke 16:13).

How, then, are Christians to inform our culture in a way that reinforces our need for ethics in the marketplace and across the public square? I will offer two suggestions — one from the Roman Catholic tradition and one from the Calvinist tradition. 

The first is the Roman Catholic principle of “subsidiarity,” that gives responsibility for moral and social action to entities with the most local agency. Working from “the inside out” (or, if one prefers, from the “bottom up”) encourages individuals, families, churches, and communities to adopt for themselves the moral basis for their actions. It requires no legislative agenda, no government mandate. It is catalytic in nature and spreads in much the same way the Gospel itself spread across the Roman Empire. The tenets of the Christian faith are irresistible to those whose hearts are open to it. The same may be said for ethical behavior.

The second is the Kuyperian principle of “sphere sovereignty” that gives responsibility for moral and social action to denizens of a particular sphere of influence, whose existence is seen as ordained by God and subject to God’s ultimate suzerainty. More of a “top-down” approach, it encourages leaders to promote virtuous behavior and ethical practices through education, reward systems, and personal example. 

Regardless of the approach, I contend that it is paramount for Christians to take seriously our responsibility to bring ethics back into our public discourse. It will take great courage to do so, but the stakes of failing to do so are too high to ignore. It is possible (even essential) for us to speak frankly, but graciously, about sexual ethics, including the importance of gender distinction. I believe it is critically important for Christians to ask difficult ethical questions at the edges of science, including biomedical ethics and artificial intelligence. We must also be willing to speak frankly and honestly about racism, antisemitism, sexism, political extremism, and economic injustice — especially if it is coming from within our own “camp.” And we need to do so in the face of those who would impose a “heckler’s veto” in the form of “political correctness” or the censoring of free speech. 

All of this must be done, however, without a hint of malice or judgment. Instead, it must be done with grace, humility, and love, remembering the words of the prophet: 

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

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