By / Mar 29

Amidst the constant distractions and shallowness on social media, reading a book can serve as a reprieve from the onslaught of information and as a way to challenge yourself to go deeper than 280 characters. Social media draws us in because it leads us to think we are staying connected with others, keeping up with what is going on around the world, and often takes less concentration than picking up a book. But these tools are constantly discipling us to seek expediency over the long process of learning and variety over sustained concentration. And with each click, scroll, or flick of the thumb, we are usually only being exposed to ideas that fit our preconceived beliefs about the world.

However, picking up a book that you know you will disagree with can help you understand another’s perspective and clarify why you hold to another position. This doesn’t mean that you run to just any book, but as you grow more comfortable with ideas, you can expose yourself to contrary positions in order to strengthen your own.

Understanding your neighbor

As part of my doctoral program in ethics, I recently picked up a copy of Peter Singer’s classic work Practical Ethics. This was the first time I read Singer’s work myself, but I was familiar with his line of argument for a particular form of ethical evaluation called preference utilitarianism. Singer has made waves in ethical and philosophical circles for decades, often making controversial claims about the nature of personhood and abortion, animal rights, and embryo experimentation. Originally published in 1979, the work has been reprinted countless times. Singer released two updated editions in 1993 and 2011. The book has become a staple in ethics courses across academic disciplines and has influenced countless readers, shaping their approach to ethics and morality.

As one who hopes to teach and continue to study in this field, I am behooved to be aware of these classic works and to be intimately familiar with their arguments. In so doing, I am able to better understand those around me and the true nature of the debates surrounding complex ethical decisions about the rise of technology, medicine, economics, and other social issues. Regardless of whether or not you plan to specialize in a field of study, being exposed to seminal works across a variety of disciplines can open up a world of ideas and a comprehension of your neighbors that is more than worth the time and effort.

One of the most devastating effects of the culture wars happening all around us, especially on online platforms like social media, is that we are often told that we need to be protected from the world of ideas or that reading something outside of our own beliefs might lead us down a path of destruction. While this is understandable to some extent, this siloing effect is dangerous to the life of the mind and treats the very concept of understanding our neighbors as a bridge too far.

Do we really think so little of our ability to think and reason that we cannot engage divergent positions or even allow them in the public square? Frequent examples of this are seen in our society such as Amazon delisting a book on transgenderism because it deviates from the secular orthodoxy on sexuality and the derision of entire concepts out of fear of being brainwashed. This happens on both sides of the political aisle. But one of the simplest things we can to ratchet down the tensions with our neighbors and seek to love them as ourselves is to put down our phones, pick up a book, and have an honest and humble conversation with someone who disagrees with our position on a particular topic. Living in a constant cycle of outrage shapes us into more cynical people and prevents us from growing in our faith. I am not saying that all ideas are equally valid, but regardless of what you take away from a book, it is worth the time and effort to comprehend your neighbor’s beliefs and engage them on their own terms.

Understand why you disagree

One of the joys of reading is growing in knowledge about the world around us, including those to whom we are called to minister and share the hope of the gospel with. But a second and extremely important reason behind reading things we disagree agree with is for our own personal growth. Over the years, I have found that I grow more by reading books outside of my own tribe than only reading those with whom I mostly agree. This is because when we are challenged in our own beliefs, we often dig deeper as we wrestle with various ideas and beliefs.

When reading or engaging the world of ideas, I am often reminded of the words of the Apostle Peter in 1 Peter 3:14-16 (emphasis mine):

“But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.”

Reading books that you do not agree with or believe to be true can help sharpen your own ability to “make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” Not only will it push you to understand your own beliefs better, but it will also equip you to engage those around you in good conscience and faith.

Recently, I was reading a work by evangelical scholar Carl F.H. Henry and was struck by how he talked about divergent ideas. Henry was quick to give credit to various thinkers when they picked up a thread of truth. In his classic work, Christian Personal Ethics, he wrote that the “world did not need to wait for Utilitarianism to assert that benevolence is good, that whatever imperiled the public good was not virtuous, that true morality tends to the welfare of the social whole. The revealed morality of the Bible had affirmed all of this.” As I read his examinations of those ideas, it became clear that he was not afraid to engage ideas contrary to his own. Not only did this equip him to better understand the world around him, but it clearly helped strengthen his own convictions about the nature of truth, morality, and even the gospel itself.

So go grab a book, a cup of coffee, and a friend to dialogue with as you engage the world of ideas and grow in your ability to interact with contrary positions, all for the sake of loving others and sharing the transformative truth of the gospel message with your neighbor.

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By / Mar 2

In the final three articles in this series, we’re comparing and contrasting the most dominant ethical systems—deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics—to the standard of biblical ethics. In the first article we defined biblical ethics as the process of assigning moral praise or blame, and  considering moral events in terms of conduct (that is, the what), character (the who), and goals (the why). As we’ll see, the problem with each of these other approaches is not that they are necessarily wrong, but that they are incomplete. 

A concise, though admittedly simplistic formulation, would be that deontology is concerned with the “what,” virtue ethics with the “who,” and consequentialism with the “why.” Because all three of these elements—the what, who, and why—are essential to biblical ethics, we can learn from each of these ethical systems. But while they have much to offer, we should always keep in mind that on their own they are incomplete.

What is virtue ethics?

Virtue ethics is a broad term for ethical theories that emphasize the role of character and virtue in moral decision-making rather than putting the primary focus on moral rules (as in deontology) or good consequences (as in consequentialism). Such theories require an understanding of what virtue is (or at least what virtues should be advocated for) and an idea of how to promote such virtues within an individual or society. Because of this focus, virtue ethics tends to consider a different, broader set of questions than other ethical theories. For instance, instead of asking “What is the moral thing to do in this particular situation?” a virtue ethicist would ask “How should I live?”

By / Jan 26

Editor’s note: This is the second article in a series on what Christians should know about ethical theories. The first article and future articles can be found here.

In this series, we’re looking at several of the most common ethical systems within normative ethics (such as deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics), considering their strengths and weaknesses, and comparing them to a baseline standard, which we’ll call “biblical ethics.” The first article explained what biblical ethics is and how we know an action is moral. In this article we’ll examine moral decision-making, including how we know which biblical rules or principles apply to a given situation and what we do when moral acts conflict.

How do we know which rules or principles apply to a given situation?

As pertains to moral decision-making, the Bible should be understood as a revelation of God’s commands, principles, and virtues. God’s moral instruction comes to us in the form of commands and principles and is also revealed in Christian virtues and examples (particularly in the example of Jesus). We should therefore prioritize commands because they help us to most clearly understand God’s standards for our conduct. They also help us determine how principles and virtues are to be applied.

Within Scripture we find two basic categories of commands: broad (or general) commands and narrow (or specific) commands. Broad/general commands typically apply to many situations, such as the command to love our neighbor, and always apply in some way to all cultures and all contexts.

Narrow or specific commands relate to a particular circumstance, often in a culture that differs from our own. An example is Deuteronomy 22:8, which says, “When you build a new house, make a parapet around your roof so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof.” An application in our day might be to build a fence around your backyard pool so that a neighbor’s child doesn’t fall in and drown.

Narrow commands might not always apply to all cultures and all contexts. In some cases (as with the example above) there might be a parallel application. Narrow commands are similar to “case law” (i.e., law as established by the outcome of former cases) in that they give us paradigmatic examples for situations we might encounter.

In determining how a command applies we must consider the reason for the command. If the reason for the command is a theological principle that is always true, then the rule will almost always apply today. As a general rule, if the Old Testament gives a moral command it is still in effect unless later canceled, either explicitly or implicitly, in the New Testament.

Sometimes it is rather obvious how a command in Scripture can be applied. But oftentimes, to determine whether an action or circumstance is similar to an action judged to be wrong in Scripture, we must use analogical reasoning. In his essay “The Place of Scripture in Christian Ethics,” James Gustafson states the commonly accepted method of scriptural analogy:

Those actions of persons and groups are to be judged morally wrong which are similar to actions that are judged to be wrong or against God’s will under similar circumstances in Scripture, or are discordant with actions judged to be right or in accord with God’s will in Scripture.

An example of how to use analogical reasoning would be to consider the question of whether abortion is immoral. Our first step would be to ask, “What ethical rules or principles apply in this situation?” For this question, the answer is rather straightforward since the Bible has a clear command that prohibits the taking of innocent life.

The command was given by God to Moses as one of the Ten Commandments on two separate occasions (Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17). In the New Testament, we also find the commandment reconfirmed by Jesus (Matthew 5:21), and reiterated by his apostle, Paul (Romans 13:9). As pastor-theologian Kevin DeYoung notes, the sixth commandment prohibits much more than just cold-blooded, premeditated murder. It prohibits killing or causing to be killed, by direct action or inaction, any legally innocent human.

An elective abortion (as opposed to a spontaneous abortion, or miscarriage) is the killing of an innocent human being. Based on scientific knowledge of human development, we know a human embryo/fetus is an actual human being and that human life begins at fertilization/conception. Several passages in the Bible also strongly suggest that human life begins at conception (cf. Job 31:13-15; Psalms 51:5; 139:13-16; Matthew 1:20). Because elective abortion unjustly takes the life of a defenseless human being, abortion is prohibited by God under the sixth commandment.

What do we do when moral acts conflict?

There may be times when we may find that two or more moral commands or principles appear to be in conflict. An oft-used example is the “Nazi at the door” problem:

Imagine that you are living in World War II Germany and are hiding a family of Jews in your basement. A Nazi SS soldier comes to your door and asks if there are any Jews in your home. On the one hand, you know it is morally wrong to lie. On the other hand, you also know it would be morally wrong to answer in a way that would get the family killed. What should you do?

There are three ways to resolve this issue. The first is to determine whether there is an actual moral conflict. The second is to conclude that true ethical conflicts cannot exist. The third is to determine the hierarchy of commands.

Many Christians—including me—would say that in this particular situation there is no moral conflict because there is no lie being told. A lie is an intentional falsehood that violates someone’s right to know the truth. I’m convinced there are cases in which people forfeit their right to know the truth. The Nazi at the door has forfeited his right to know the truth about whether you have Jews in your home because he has a nefarious intent. It would be similar to the Hebrew midwives who deceived Pharaoh when he wanted to kill all newborn male babies (Exodus 1:17–21).

If there was an actual moral conflict (because you believe failing to acknowledge the Jews hidden in your home would be lying to the Nazi), then we have to apply the second or third approaches. The second approach is called “non-conflicting absolutism.” It denies that a true ethical conflict can even exist and claims that any perceived conflict is a result of human misinterpretation. Under this view, if we have a perfect view of ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ any illusion of conflict is dispelled. The problem, of course, is that we have no perfect view and so it is not clear how we would know what decision to make under this perspective. This is why the non-conflicting absolutism is rarely held by Christian ethicists.

The third approach is called “hierarchicalism” (or graded absolutism). This view holds that moral conflict can exist and that when ethical laws are in conflict a “right” choice is available through a hierarchy of principles found in Scripture. Under hierarchicalism, if one duty clearly has priority, we must choose that duty. Even if we believed that we would be lying to the Nazi and that it would be morally wrong, the duty to protect the lives of the Jewish family would take priority. According to hierarchicalism, as long as we follow the higher moral law, we are not held responsible for failing to keep the lower-level command.  Also, under hierarchicalism, if both duties appear to have equal priority, we are free to obey either duty (though we need to be certain they are indeed of equal priority).

Hierarchicalism has solid biblical support, as even Jesus prioritized some rules and commands when they appear to come into conflict (see, for example, Matthew 12:9-13). It’s important to remember that hierarchicalism is about selecting the better of two goods, not choosing the “lesser of two evils.” We are not called to choose any evil—even a lesser one. We are not called to choose an evil that good may come.

What is the process for moral decision-making?

We can put all of this together to devise a seven-step process for making moral decisions:

  • Pray for divine guidance — Ask the Holy Spirit to illuminate the process and to help you act in a way that glorifies God.
  • Clarify the ethical issues or problems — Make sure you understand the relevant factors (e.g., context, facts) that help clarify or define the ethical issue or problem.
  • Gather the scriptural data on the issue — Determine what commands, principle(s), and examples are most relevant to the issue.
  • Determine how to apply the biblical instruction — Once the applicable rules are understood, decide how they should be applied.
  • Determine the hierarchy — If necessary, determine the hierarchy of commands that would need to be applied.
  • Consult the community of the faithful — There are few situations you will face in this life that are entirely novel. Consult with mature believers and those with expertise on the issue (such as Christian ethicists) about what you should do.
  • Formulate a Christian ethical position — With prayer and guidance from the Holy Spirit and the community of faithful believers, make a determination about what moral position is most glorifying to God. 

This may initially seem like a labor-intensive process, and too burdensome for use in real life. But once we develop a solid grasp of God’s commands and the relevant fact patterns, the process often becomes rather straight-forward.

In the next article in this series, we’ll wrap up our focus on biblical ethics by considering the role of conscience. The remaining articles in this series will then compare and contrast other ethical systems—deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics—to the biblical standard.