There is No Legitimate Christian Opposition to the COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate, Part 2: Ethical Opposition

Last week, I criticized religious opposition to the vaccine mandate regarding Christian liberty, faith vs fear, and more, and I found these issues do not provide a good reason to oppose the vaccine mandate. In this four-part series, I am evaluating religious, ethical, medical, and legal opposition to the vaccine mandate from a Christian perspective and show that the opposition is either not legitimate, not Christian (i.e. implied from Christian teachings), or both. In this second article, I will examine ethical opposition to the vaccine mandate surrounding the use of fetal cells. Like last week (and every post ever), I welcome feedback, missing arguments, holes in my discussion, or other considerations.

Ethical Opposition: Use of Fetal Cells
a. Scientific Background
b. Cooperation in Evil
c. Appropriation of Evil
d. Consistency Check
Summary and Outlook

Ethical Opposition: Use of Fetal Cells

It is no secret that substantial, if not the most, opposition to abortion comes from conservative Christians, though there are non-Christian pro-life organizations, such as Secular Pro-Life. It is natural for Christians to be concerned when hearing that cells derived from an aborted fetus were used in either the research & development or production of the vaccines. However, the moral wrongness of abortion, along with the extreme value of the human fetus and embryo, do not imply that the use of fetal cells in vaccine research is also wrong. (Note on nomenclature: I will be using the term “fetus” as that seems to be the most neutral term to use and is what is used in ethics for talking about vaccine research, although it would be just as correct to say, “unborn baby,” “child,” or “human being.”)

It is true that the main COVID vaccines have used cells (more details on this later) derived from aborted fetuses at some point in their lifecycle. Johnson and Johnson use cells from a cell line from an aborted fetus in the research & development (R&D) and production stage, whereas Pfizer and Moderna only used them in the R&D stage for m-RNA vaccine research generally. Since Pfizer and Moderna are both readily available and further disconnected from aborted fetal cells, thus representing the likely more-ethical options, I will focus on the ethics of Pfizer and Moderna in their connection to fetal cell usage. Ultimately, I will argue that use of these vaccines is ethical and, given the great results from appropriating a single evil act in the distant past without any cooperation in the act, results in net good for society.

How would such an argument go if we are to get from a) Christian teaching and the wrongness of abortion or the value of human life and therefore fetuses to b) the wrongness of using cells derived from aborted fetuses in the research and development? Such an argument may go like this:

  1. Christianity is true.
  2. If Christianity is true, then human fetuses have great value.
  3. If human fetuses have great value, then benefiting from cells derived from an aborted fetus is wrong.
  4. Therefore, benefiting from cells derived from an aborted fetus is wrong.
  5. Getting the vaccine is benefiting from cells derived from an aborted fetus.
  6. Therefore, getting the vaccine is wrong.

Let’s grant 1 and 2. How can 3 be supported? I do not think it can be, and this section will explore that. We can also investigate a slightly modified argument with 2’ implying that abortion is wrong, but then 3’ would still be the contentious premise without support.

a.      Scientific Background

In vaccine and pharmaceutical research, immortalized cell lines are used for testing, which is where cells were isolated from its original source and, because of mutation, have the ability to divide indefinitely (not to be confused with stem cells, which form naturally in organismal development without a special mutation). These cells are advantageous for research because once a cell line is developed, no new samples need to be obtained. This single batch of cells can be well-characterized and established, serving as a scientific standard for comparison. The cells can then be used for testing on many different things, and indeed they are. One cell line can be (and is) used for maybe hundreds or more of different research projects at the same time.

Both Pfizer and Moderna employed cells from the same cell line, HEK-293, or human embryonic kidney 293, in their research & development stage. HEK-293 is a specific immortalized cell line that is ubiquitous in biological research and has been used for decades. Indeed, “A student or fellow involved in life sciences research would almost inevitably encounter this cell line [HEK-293] in the course of his work.”[1] The cell line of HEK-293 was started in 1973 based on kidney cells obtained from an aborted fetus. Whether the abortion was a spontaneous abortion (the medical term for miscarriage) or an elective abortion is uncertain, but the preponderance of evidence seems to favor it being from an elective abortion with unknown reason[2] (though was NOT obtained for the purpose of using its cells for research). While there is some uncertainty, we will assume a worst-case scenario of being an elective abortion moving forward.

Figure 1: Human embryo (source)

Let us recap the situation. A fetus, a human with great value, was intentionally killed for unknown reason. This is morally bad. However, using his or her cells for a good purpose is not obviously wrong by mere implication. The cells used in research for the COVID vaccines are generations away from the original fetal cells. None of the original fetal cells remain, by many generations. No fetal cells are contained in the vaccine, either. The cells, generations removed from the original fetus down the cell line, are only used for testing purposes, and not in production and are certainly not in the vaccine.

b.     Cooperation in Evil

One line of thought that might show how this is problematic is that using these cells is cooperation in evil, where the cooperator contributes in some way to an evil action. Cooperation can be formal (sharing in evil intent) or material (cooperator has a different intent). Since the elective abortion was not carried out in intention for cell extraction and research purposes, then the cooperation could not have been formal. Furthermore, material cooperation can be either immediate or mediate. Immediate cooperation, from an external perspective, looks like the cooperator and evil actor are doing the same thing. Mediate cooperation, however, means there is some distance (whether temporal or spatial) between the two actions. There is clear differentiation in time and space between elective abortion and kidney cell extraction, so the cooperation was not immediate. Finally, since the cooperator was not necessary for the evil action to be carried out, the cooperation was contingent.

Therefore, a worst-case scenario thus far investigated is a contingent, remote, mediate, material cooperation. Of all the types of cooperation in evil considered, this is by far the most justifiable. Since the research from this one cell line has, by now, saved countless lives, it is quite possibly justified. However, is using the cells “cooperation” at all? Does cell extraction contribute in any way to the elective abortion? Does it factor into the causal explanation of the elective abortion (death of the human fetus)? No, it does not. Cell extraction does not aid elective abortion in any way, as they can be performed completely independently of the other and removing kidney cells does not make the abortion process any easier. Rather, deriving a cell line from an aborted fetus is likely more accurately termed as an appropriation of evil.

c.      Appropriation of Evil

The appropriation of evil is where agents “take advantage of the fruits or byproducts of some else’s wrongful acts in order to facilitate their own morally worthwhile activity.”[3] The appropriation of evil “is not about contributing to, but about benefiting from evil.”[4] The evil action is going to happen anyway. Is appropriation of evil also evil? I think the answer is definitely not. Now, Paul did say that we should not do evil so that good may come (Romans 3:8), but we are not doing evil and not even in a position to prevent the evil. Appropriation of evil is where you take an evil act that someone else did and turn it into something good. If that wording sounds familiar, it is because the concept is biblical, central to Christianity.

After Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt (an evil act), a huge famine swept the land, but Joseph had risen to prominence in Egypt and was entrusted to save grain for the famine. Joseph’s family returned to Egypt to receive assistance, and Joseph confronted his brothers, giving a demonstration of the appropriation of evil: “You intended evil against me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20). The fetus that was aborted around 1972 to support the HEK-293 cell line could reasonably say the same thing to his killer (assuming an afterlife interaction): “What you intended for evil, God intended for good to save many lives.” Appropriation of evil does not excuse the evil or allow it in the future (because that may turn into cooperation with evil), but it does allow for making the most of the current situation. If appropriation is wrong, then it seems Joseph (or anyone else who has ever been harmed) is wrong to take advantage of the harm done to them to do good.

The appropriation of evil is also the cornerstone of Christianity: the crucifixion of Jesus was an evil act that was used for the single greatest event in the history of mankind: the resurrection of Jesus Christ and offering salvation to the entire world. The entire Christian faith is built on the appropriation of evil. So in reality, I am not sure a better response to evil than its appropriation (among other things, such as righteous indignation).

d.     Consistency Check

Since I am running out of space and time, I will briefly mention two final things on this topic. First, if you support organ donation generally, then you should support the use of fetal cells to develop vaccines. Some organs are donated as a result of homicide or other crimes,[5] which are evil acts, and would thus be relevantly similar. Both actions are taking cells from dead humans to put it for a good medical cause that saves lives.[6]

Secondly, rejecting a vaccine because it is associated with a fetal cell line means you should also reject some ubiquitous over-the-counter and prescription medicines. For example, the following drugs were tested on HEK-293: Tylenol (acetaminophen), Advil (ibuprofen), Aspirin, Benadryl, Robitussin, Mucinex, Tums, Colace, Ex-Lax, Pepto-Bismol, and two of the vaccine treatment alternatives: hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin.[7] For this reason, Conway Regional Health System’s religious exemption form (see figure below) requires a signature agreeing that you “do not use or will not use any of the medications listed,” subject to disciplinary action for failure to adhere. This point does not show that such research is justified, but it does mean that avoiding these medications is required to maintain consistency.

Figure 2: Conway Regional Health Religious Exemption Form. It lists medications developed or tested using fetal cell lines. (source)

Finally, the Catholic Church and Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission have both said that “receiving a COVID-19 vaccine that required fetal cell lines for production or manufacture is morally acceptable.”[8] Beyond this, many Christian groups are starting to speak out against religious exemptions, stating that they will not offer nor approve them because there is no Christian basis for them.[9]

Summary and Outlook

In conclusion, the use of cells derived from aborted fetuses in the development of the vaccine is ethical, so these considerations do not offer any compelling reason to not get vaccinated, and it is not legitimate opposition to the vaccine mandate.


[1] Wong, Alvin. “The Ethics of HEK 293.” The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly 6.3 (2006): 473-495, p. 473-474.

[2] Ibid, p. 474-476.

[3] Ibid, p. 479.

[4] Ibid, p. 480.

[5] https://www.wrtv.com/longform/homicide-victims-are-rarely-candidates-for-organ-donation-scott-morin-was-one-of-the-few. Accessed 9.21.2021. This discusses one particular example in depth and also has some relevant statistics.

[6] There are some sticky issues I don’t have space to explore, such as the issue of consent. Some of the issues are parallel to organ donation and some are not. In the end, I do not think it changes the result. 

[7] https://www.somerset-kentucky.com/opinion/letters_to_the_editor/there-are-no-aborted-fetal-cells-in-vaccines/article_14809887-84f7-58a4-bb4c-76bc29724d8a.html. Accessed 9.21.21. There is substantial overlap between this list and the one on Conway Regional Health System’s religious exemption form, so the lists seem partially verified. I have not done further verification at this time (all the news articles on this claim do not help). At least some of these medicines had passed the initial R&D phase and had been manufactured for decades by the time HEK-293 was a thing. However, even these medicines were still tested using HEK-293.

[8] http://publichealth.lacounty.gov/media/coronavirus/docs/vaccine/VaccineDevelopment_FetalCellLines.pdf. Accessed 9.21.21.

[9] https://dnews.com/local/many-faith-leaders-in-america-say-no-to-endorsing-vaccine-exemptions/article_5bb15b7c-acd7-5dd5-b4cf-ef016eb2175a.html. Accessed 9.21.21.

There is No Legitimate Christian Opposition to the COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate, Part 1: Religious Opposition

In this four-part series, I will evaluate several claims which purport to be Christian opposition to the vaccine mandate and show that it is either not legitimate, not Christian (i.e. implied from Christian teachings), or both. I will investigate religious, ethical, medical, and legal opposition to the vaccine mandate from a Christian perspective and find that all strands of opposition come up short. After this four-part series, I will present four moral arguments for getting the vaccine. In this first article, I will examine religious opposition to the vaccine mandate.

Introduction

COVID-19 has been an unfortunately polarizing topic, and I think all perspectives on the matter should be evaluated with scrutiny. There are Christian brothers and sisters who disagree with me, and that does not prevent our ability to engage in critical dialogue and fellowship together. Reasonable disagreement within the Christian community does not mean there is not an objectively correct answer. I want to cut through pure rhetoric on both sides and have open dialogue about sensitive matters.

Skepticism over masking, vaccination, and their respective federal mandates have been around since the beginning, all of which I believe should be taken seriously and evaluated with caution and rigor. Here, I will be focusing on the vaccine mandate, specifically, rather than, say, vaccine hesitancy, which is a distinct topic, though I believe some of those concerns are addressed below. I welcome further feedback, missing arguments, holes in my discussion, or other considerations.

Religious Opposition: Christian Liberty, Faith, Fear, and the Mark of the Beast
a. Christian Liberty
b. Faith in God, Not Faith in Man
c. We Should Not Fear Death or the Virus
d. Mark of the Beast
e. Christian Denominations
Summary and Outlook
Endnotes

Religious Opposition: Christian Liberty, Faith, Fear, and the Mark of the Beast

Religious opposition is the only possible direct Christian opposition, but the ethical, medical, or legal areas might have indirect Christian opposition. The cluster of issues surrounding religious opposition focuses on Christian liberty and freedom of conscience, faith in God rather than faith in man, no need to fear death or the virus, and the similarity the vaccine to the Mark of the Beast in Revelation. Here, I argue that none of these issues in any way gives reason to avoid the vaccine or oppose the vaccine mandate.

a. Christian Liberty

The first opposition to the vaccine mandate is based on Christian liberty or matters of conscience, and the reasoning may go something along the lines of:

  • “Christianity says I can do what I want if it isn’t required in the Bible, and getting the vaccine isn’t required in the Bible, so therefore I don’t need to get the vaccine.”
  • “Getting the vaccine is a matter of conscience, getting the vaccine goes against my conscience, so therefore I shouldn’t be required to get the vaccine.”
  • “I have religious freedom, my religion doesn’t require me to get the vaccine, so therefore I have the freedom to not get the vaccine.”
  • “God is my authority, not man, so I don’t need to obey what man tells me to do.”

There may also be additional variations of this type of response to the vaccine mandate. The thought is that the vaccine falls in the category of things Paul talks about on multiple occasions, something like holy days (Romans 14:5 “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.”) or unclean food (Romans 14:13-14 “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.”).

Problem 1: The “Christian liberty” appeal is not applicable to a federal mandate by a governing authority, and thus each of these arguments misses the mark and are simply irrelevant. Paul says in Romans 13:1-2, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” Additionally, 1 Peter 2:13 says, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.”

Appeals to Christian liberty only apply where the action in question is out of scope of other Christian commands. A federal mandate, however, is within the scope of a Christian command, namely, the command to submit to authorities.  Getting the vaccine may have been a matter of conscience before the mandate (and I will argue that it wasn’t then), but it certainly isn’t now (at least for those subject to the mandate).

Perhaps the mandate doesn’t “count” as a governing authority because it is unconstitutional or is not the proper governing authority? In short (see section 4: “Legal Opposition” for more detailed discussion), that is for the courts and the government to work out, and Christians have an obligation to submit unless and until it is struck down as unconstitutional.

Perhaps there is legitimate civil disobedience to the mandate because it commands something evil or contradicts another of God’s commands? I argue below that both are false, and that getting the vaccine is even more in alignment with God’s commands.

Problem 2:  There are overriding ethical reasons to get the vaccine in the first place that impute a moral obligation on the Christian to get the vaccine. If true, then Christian liberty is also irrelevant to this consideration.

One more point I will make is that reasonable disagreement on a topic does not imply that the topic is a matter of conscience. There may be both essential and non-essential points of disagreement on theological matters, such as God’s attributes of impassibility or timelessness; however, that does not imply something like, “If I think it is wrong then it is wrong for me.” One of us is just incorrect on certain topics, even though neither of us are irrational in our evidence and arguments.

Let’s say we are discussing celebrating the Old Testament feasts, which are a matter of conscience. I personally celebrate the feasts (or at least have been trying to cultivate those habits for the past couple of years). I don’t think it is a general moral obligation for Christians. Some people do not consider them as holy days (as mentioned earlier in Romans 14:5), and that is not sinful. However, if the government mandates celebrating the Old Testament feasts, it would become sinful to not celebrate them even though previously it was a matter of conscience, since not celebrating would then be violating a command (Romans 13). 

b. Faith in God, Not Faith in Man

A second line of Christian opposition focuses on the role of faith and how we should have faith in God over faith in science. I consider this thinking to be more rhetoric and less substantive, as it is quite unclear what it is really advocating. First, let’s define faith. A good working definition I like is from William Lane Craig, which is “faith is trusting that which you have good reason to believe.”[i] I think we have good reasons to believe what “science” says (using “science” as a magical catch-all term is problematic, but I will do it here temporarily for convenience), so I don’t find faith in “science” problematic (though this does not mean we uncritically believe everything every scientist says at all times). Moving forward, though, let’s consider “science” to be referring to the body of research and researchers in the areas of immunology and other scientific vaccine-related research areas.

There’s nothing about faith in God that is at the exclusion of believing what “science” says.  There’s also nothing about faith in God that is at the exclusion of following the advice of scientists, and there is nothing about faith in God that is at the exclusion of following the data-driven conclusion that vaccines save lives and choosing to get vaccinated based on that fact.

One may say, “Well, God decides when I die, so therefore getting a vaccine is at the exclusion of faith in God.” God decides when you die even when you get the vaccine, so this is irrelevant. Surely God doesn’t stop deciding when people die if they get the vaccine. It makes little sense that “faith in God” means that getting the vaccine implies God is no longer in control of when you die.  If anything, that is the exact opposite of having faith in God. That would be “taking matters into your own hands.” Thus, this response is inconsistent.

This line of reasoning is a picture-perfect (hypothetical) example of the guy who was praying for God to rescue him from a flood, but refused the two boats and a helicopter that came to offer him a ride to safety, and he drowned as a result. In the story, God responds to his asking why he wasn’t saved with, “What do you mean? I sent two boats and a helicopter!” We thank God for all things, and we can truthfully thank God for giving us this vaccine to help keep our brothers, sisters, and ourselves alive and well best we can. In this context, taking the vaccine is no different than getting stitches when your arm has been severed. In the words of the common Christian trope, do your best and let God do the rest (note: not in the context of salvation).  

There is nothing about faith in God that is at the exclusion of following the data-driven conclusion that vaccines save lives.

We can take our example from Martin Luther, who was facing a horrible plague in his day.[ii] He said, “Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence.”  Luther thought both prayer and taking available medicine were the prudent considerations of a Christian in order to avoid infecting others and causing their death.[iii] He then says, “See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.” As Jesus said, we are to “be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). I would argue from considerations throughout this article that not getting the vaccine is neither wise nor innocent.

With respect to wisdom specifically, we can consider that, though God may take us at any time, he may preserve our life, that does not give us reason to go run in front of a moving train or bus. Yes, God can choose to preserve our life and we would live. God could take us immediately beforehand. But is there any good reason to run in front of a moving bus? Or, perhaps more analogously to inaction rather than action, does knowing God’s in control mean we should not hit the eject button on a plane heading straight for the ground?  Or should we not steer a car away from a group a people it is heading toward because “God will take them when he wants”? Of course not. That is not only silly, but horribly unethical. Thus, this response fails. Now, I have yet to show that vaccine saves lives, but I will do that later.

c. We Should Not Fear Death or the Virus

A third line of religious opposition focuses on the fear aspect of the virus and getting the vaccine: Christians do not need to be afraid of dying, so we do not need to get the vaccine. Of course, this reasoning does not follow at all, but this is much more than an invalid argument; it is horrendous reasoning with abominable consequences.

We can start with a basic exercise. Proof by inspection shows that the latest mandate does not include fear explicitly as part of the requirements of or motivation for the vaccine mandate.[iv] But could it be implied? I do not see it, but I will leave it to a reader to give a proposal for this possibility.

Perhaps another charge is that certain political subsets, news media, or vaccine advocates have used fear as a tactic to convince people to get the vaccine, perhaps to the point of being labeled as “fearmongering.” My general response to this concern about fear tactics is, “So what? Who cares?” Even assuming fear is not a good reason to take action, that does not automatically imply there are not good reasons to take the same action. Just because some people use hell as a motivator for becoming a Christian, that doesn’t mean there aren’t good reasons to be a Christian. I personally care very little about politicians or newscasters have to say about vaccine effectiveness, and their behavior does not erase the obvious positive reasons for getting the vaccine. I also think that fear is, at times, a perfectly legitimate means of motivation. Who doesn’t? Who hasn’t paid attention to a danger sign, warning not to get too close to a cliff edge?

(As for the specific charge of fearmongering, I do not have much to say. Since fearmongering, by definition, includes exaggeration, I do not think it is the best approach. If someone lied about data regarding vaccine effectiveness and implications, I obviously think that is a bad thing. Fake news is prevalent, so always check your sources.)

Getting the vaccine does not require being afraid of the virus or of death. When you walk up to the table, they do not ask you to make sure you are afraid of the virus, about your views on the afterlife, or about your faith in God. Don’t worry, there’s not a God’s Not Dead scene happening at every vaccine table, making you sign away your faith in God or your lack of fear of death.

Lives have value. Human lives have extreme value, and humans are made in the image of God. As Christians, we do not want humans to die if they do not have to. We want to help those in poverty. We want to help those who are suffering. Suffering is bad. These simple and obvious points serve as the basis for Christian support for the vaccine. The proponents are 100% correct in their starting point: Christians do not have to fear death or the virus. God is in control, and there is an afterlife. However, the issue is that there are no vaccine-hesitant or vaccine-resistant conclusions from this. There is absolutely zero tension in complete lack of fear of death and getting the vaccine. There is, however, substantial tension in thinking that human lives are valuable and refusing the vaccine, given that vaccines decrease expected human death and suffering.  

Thus, independent of whether some people want you to be afraid of the virus and death, we want to decrease the amount of death in the world, not because we are afraid of death or suffering, but because we think human lives are valuable and worth preserving if we can, and thus we get the vaccine.

Let’s say you are going skydiving with a group of Christian friends. You put your parachute on, as do most of your friends. However, one of your friends says, “Wow, you’re wearing a parachute, really? Are you afraid of death or something?” You get to the peak of the flight, and the door opens up. Your parachute-less friend, so excited, yells, “I AM NOT AFRAID OF DEATH!” and runs and jumps out of the plane. No, it is not guaranteed he will die, but things are really not looking good for him. Are you betraying your fear of death by wearing a parachute in this scenario? Is your friend behaving a) fearlessly, b) foolishly, c) wisely, or d) faithfully? I think the answer that most fits is (b). The same is true of wearing seat belts in a car, etc. There are countless easy safety precautions we do and should take every day that have negligible cost to us, and the vaccine is a simple safety precaution.

In fact, when seatbelts became mandatory in the early 80s, people offered the same arguments as above for why they should not be required. As recent as 2006 in this article, those poor arguments have been repeated. Thankfully, we have realized such arguments are silly and embarrassing, and wearing a seatbelt is common sense.

Figure 1: A collection of prudent sayings. Source: https://bengreenfieldfitness.com/article/sabbathramblings/trust-god/

What a vaccine does is substantially decrease the probability of death, hospitalization, or infection from COVID. It does not guarantee anything, but, like a parachute, will decrease your chances of dying. (Unfortunately, the parachute analogy is conservative in one respect. Unlike when you’re wearing a parachute, without a vaccine you increase the chances of those around you dying in addition to yourself.)

d. Mark of the Beast

Although it does not warrant any space whatsoever, the prevalence of the belief that the vaccine itself is or is connected to the mark of the beast necessitates a few sentences about it. There is no good reason to think the vaccine is in any way whatsoever connected even remotely to the mark of the beast. Why is that? Because people who are getting the mark of the beast know that what they are getting is the mark of the beast before getting it. The mark of the beast is described in Revelation 13, where the beast has authority over all the earth, utters blasphemies, has power specifically for 42 months, wages war against God’s holy people, people (non-Christians) worship the beast, the beast gives signs, and orders setting up an image like him. Is any of that happening now? No. Also, you can still buy and sell just fine. One may respond by saying that vaccine passports are required for buying and selling. However, that’s not even happening most places and is an after-the-fact response. Finally, none of these things are on your right hand or on your forehead, which Revelation 13:16 says it will be.

One thing I am certain about is that Christians are not going to get tricked into getting the mark of the beast. The beast is not going to pop out of nowhere and say, “Oh you know that vaccine/credit card/RFID tag/insert other claim about the mark that you got without any reasonable connection to the beast, that was actually the mark of the beast! Surprise! Now you are destined to hell because you can only get the mark if you’re not written in the book of life.”

A much better explanation of the mark or number of the beast is that it is a reference to the past to emperor Nero. The number of the beast is “calculated” as 666 (Revelation 13:18), which is the value of Nero in gematria (the common practice of assigning numerical values to the alphabet). This also explains the variant 616 in early Revelation manuscripts, which is the gematrical value of Nero in its variant spelling form. I explore this idea more fully in an endnote.[v]

e. Christian Denominations

Some Christian groups are more well-known for rejecting standard medicinal practices and relying on prayer instead. I will focus on examining Dutch Reformed, Jehovah’s Witness (JW), and Christian Science, though the latter two I may count as fringe Christian groups, given that they borderline (debatably) deny essential Christian doctrine. While the vast majority of Christian denominations have no theological objection to vaccination, some groups have historically claimed a religious exemption more frequently than others.[vi] I was even surprised to see that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints officially encouraged vaccination and refused to approve religious exemptions, and they officially donate substantial money to worldwide vaccination and immunization programs for preventable diseases.[vii]

I was disappointed to see that some Dutch Reformed church members refuse vaccination “on the basis that it interferes with divine providence,” though others accept vaccination with gratitude. If God truly has providence and sovereignty, then there is no basis for claiming that my getting the vaccine can interfere with God’s providence, since my getting the vaccine can be considered part of God’s providence. As someone coming broadly from the Reformed tradition who believes in a strong version of God’s sovereignty and providence (predestination and theological determinism), in alignment with the Dutch Reformed tradition to my knowledge, I find this opposition baseless.

Regarding Jehovah’s Witness, they were previously opposed to vaccination as a derivative consequence of their opposition to blood transfusions, but JW modified their doctrine in 1952 to allow for vaccination. Now, JW sees vaccination as a personal choice and is not opposed to vaccination,[viii] which means that it is not a candidate for a religious exemption for a vaccine mandate since there is no doctrinal conflict. JW has also encouraged vaccination in a newsletter.[ix] 

Perhaps the most well-known religious opposition to modern medicine comes from Christian Scientists (i.e. the denomination of Christian Science, not to be confused with scientists who are Christian). Christian Science bases their doctrine on the Bible and the “textbook of Christian Science,” Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, written by Mary Baker Eddy. This book is the lens through which Christian Scientists read the Scriptures, which can be seen in the title, “Key to the Scriptures.” Christian Science emphasizes faith-healing, as Eddy herself was reportedly miraculously healed from prayer and Scripture reading.

Christian Science holds that sickness is an illusion and that prayer is most effective without medicine, so prayer should be preferred. That sickness is an “illusion” follows from a commitment to idealism, which is that the world is inherently mental and all of physical reality is illusory. There is no doctrinal commitment to avoiding modern medicine, including vaccination, but since many individuals are directly opposed on this reasoning, they have “appreciated vaccination exemptions and sought to use them conscientiously and responsibly, when they have been granted.”[x] At the same time, they recognize that “public health concerns relating to vaccinations have risen as exemptions from them have been claimed by larger numbers.”[xi] They also emphasize that freedom of choice is “not imposed by their church,” but should be made “in obedience to the law.”[xii] Additionally, Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, when battling over smallpox vaccine mandates, stated, “Rather than quarrel over being vaccinated, I recommend that, if the law demands an individual to submit to this process, he obey the law; and then appeal to the gospel to save him from any bad results.”[xiii]

There is also a more general point to make here about the role of centralized church government and its relation to official doctrine. While churches that have a centralized government may not want to make a specific stance on an issue, that does not automatically mean that the issue is solely an issue of conscience. There may be doctrinal commitments that large churches do not want nor need to take specific stances on in light of enhancing Christian unity. These doctrinal issues that churches may not take specific stances on, such as whether the Trinity has three wills or one will, are not a matter of conviction or conscience. The truth value of doctrines like pre/post/amillennialism are the same for all people, though matters of conviction are true relative to individuals and thus not directly supported by doctrine. As was stated earlier, matters of conviction only apply if there are no other commands to obey, like a government mandate, on that topic. If there is no official doctrinal stance of opposition to vaccination, I see no reason to think there should be a religious exemption to any vaccine mandate.

Summary and Outlook

We have seen that the purely religious arguments against getting the vaccine do not hold water when subject to even minor scrutiny. Thankfully, some Christian leaders are speaking out against religious exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine, saying that “there is no evident basis for religious exemption.”[xiv] No considerations from Christian liberty, faith in God over man, lack of fear, mark of the beast, or specific Christian denominations give any substantive reason to think there is legitimate Christian opposition to the vaccine mandate.

Endnotes


[i] For more in-depth discussion on Christian faith from a philosophical standpoint, I recommend the work of Liz Jackson and Lara Buchak. They both talk about different features of faith and how it works into religious epistemology, including as being robust to a certain degree against counterevidence, being belief-like rather than credence-like, and can allow situations where credence is less than 0.5 but rationally allow belief.

[ii] Read a larger excerpt at https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2020/may-web-only/martin-luther-plague-pandemic-coronavirus-covid-flee-letter.html

[iii] In the interest of clarity, here is the next part of Luther’s quote: “If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely, as stated above.”

He, seeing his neighbors suffering, decided not to flee and help take care of the sick since there was not much healthcare available.

[iv] https://www.whitehouse.gov/covidplan/. Accessed 9.19.2021.

[v] Revelation 13:18 says, “This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666.” This verse is very insightful. It says 1) the number can be calculated, 2) it is a reference to a man, and 3) the number is calculated to be 666. What do they mean by calculate? Well, it was common practice in the time to assign numerical values to letters of the alphabet, called gematria, and take special significance in the sum of values of a word. For example, the gematrical value of David is 14, and, given Matthew’s rhetorical emphasis on Jesus being the Son of David, explains why Matthew wanted to group Jesus’ chronology in sets of 14 generations.

The gematrical value of Nero is calculated to be 666 (I believe from Latin, which was the main language of the Romans in the Roman Empire). There are also very early variants in the manuscripts of Revelation where the value is 616, not 666. Well, a common variant spelling of Nero adds up to 616 rather than 666. Nero is also a specific man in reference, so it satisfies all three criteria from Revelation 13:18. Additionally, Revelation is an apocalyptic book, so it likely has substantial references to the past, even if some parts of it are eschatological in nature. This hybrid view of past and future interpretations of Revelation is called partial Preterism.

Furthermore, one could potentially explain the mark of the beast as being completely referring to the past, which aligns well with the number of the beast referring to the past. Since the Roman empire used coins that had Roman emperors’ faces on them, it would literally be a “mark” of the “beast” if the beast is referring to Nero. The mark of his face was quite literally required to buy or sell anything, and Roman emperors were considered divine and worshiped, in a sense, by many. I am not sure if I am sold on this yet, as there is at least an issue with it not being on people’s right hands or foreheads, but it does make some sense of the apocalyptic past-looking nature of the book.

[vi] https://www.vumc.org/health-wellness/news-resource-articles/immunizations-and-religion. Accessed 10.10.21.

[vii] https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/first-presidency-message-covid-19-august-2021 and https://www.fox13now.com/news/coronavirus/lds-church-tells-california-leaders-to-not-approve-religious-exemption-to-covid-19-vaccine-mandates and https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/church/news/church-makes-immunizations-an-official-initiative-provides-social-mobilization?lang=eng&query=vaccination. Accessed 10.10.21.

[viii] https://www.jw.org/en/jehovahs-witnesses/faq/jw-vaccines-immunization/. Accessed 10.10.21.

[ix] https://www.jw.org/en/library/magazines/g201103/protect-your-health/#?insight%5bsearch_id%5d=d0c40694-0b06-4343-82b7-321abed5f19f%26insight%5bsearch_result_index%5d=1. Accessed 10.10.21.

[x] https://www.christianscience.com/press-room/a-christian-science-perspective-on-vaccination-and-public-health. Accessed 10.10.21.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] https://www.marybakereddylibrary.org/research/what-did-eddy-say-about-vaccination/. Accessed 10.10.21.

[xiv] https://dnews.com/local/many-faith-leaders-in-america-say-no-to-endorsing-vaccine-exemptions/article_5bb15b7c-acd7-5dd5-b4cf-ef016eb2175a.html. Accessed 10.10.21.

Defining Objective Morality, Subjectivism, Relativism, and More

Introduction

If you have ever been confused trying to figure out what someone means by “objective morality,” or got mixed up between moral subjectivism and relativism, you are not alone. Here, I will first define is meant by “objective morality” (or moral realism as it is known to ethicists), as well as subjectivism, relativism, absolute vs contextual moral claims, and first- and second-order moral judgments. In short, objective morality (or “moral realism”) is the view that there are true moral statements that are true independent of anyone’s desires, beliefs, or subjective states about those moral truths.

Defining Objective Morality

When people talking about objectivity, or objective facts, they are talking about things that are independent of what people believe or feel. Feelings and desires can be called “subjective states,” where subjective is the opposite of objective and depends on the individual. Gravity holds a person walking on Earth down, even if that person believes they can fly or not. In metaethics, objective morality often goes by another name, which is moral realism. “Realism” is a term used about pretty much every field, such as scientific realism. It implies that certain things exist.

Objective morality, or moral realism,[1] is taken to be the combination of three claims about moral reality: a semantic, alethic (this has to do with what things are possibly true), and metaphysical claim,[2] which together can be summarized as saying “there are objective moral truths.”[3]

  1. Semantic: Moral claims are either true or false
  2. Alethic: Some moral claims are true
  3. Metaphysical: Moral facts are objective (independent of subjective states about that fact), relevantly similar to certain amoral [non-moral] facts  

Objective morality means there are some moral truths that are independent of anyone’s beliefs, feelings, or preferences about that truth

The semantic thesis is that moral claims (or propositions) are the type of thing that can be true or false, as opposed to something like an emotion, which cannot be true or false. In other words, moral claims are truth-apt. The semantic thesis distinguishes cognitivism (moral propositions represent cognitive states) from non-cognitivism (moral propositions represent subjective states). This truth-aptness is consistent with moral relativism, as they can identity moral claims as true relative to some framework.[4]

The alethic thesis is that some moral propositions are true, as opposed to all of them being false. All moral propositions being false is called “moral error theory.” The most famous defender (and the first proposal to my knowledge) of moral error theory is J.L. Mackie in Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong.[5] Error theory is cognitivist, since it says they are either true or false, but the alethic claim that some are true distinguishes realism from error theory.

Finally, the metaphysical thesis is that moral facts are similar to amoral [non-moral] facts in that they are objective, independent of any subjective states about those facts.[6] Objective facts are taken to be “mind-independent.”[7] There are also subjective facts, such as I am happy, which depend on subjective states. However, the metaphysical thesis is limited to the types of amoral facts that are not dependent on subjective states. Another way to phrase this objectivity thesis is, “Which moral judgments are true does not depend on what we (either individually or collectively) accept.”[8] Additionally, the caveat that moral facts are independent of subjective states about those facts is important. If “torture is wrong” is true independent of any subjective states whatsoever, then we cannot say, “Torture is wrong because it causes unnecessary suffering or pain,” because suffering is itself a subjective state. Torture may be wrong in virtue of subjective states of suffering, but not in virtue of my approval of the statement “torture is wrong” or my disapproval of torture.  

Overall, objective morality is the claim that there are some moral truths (i.e. values or duties) that are objective, which means that they are independent of any beliefs, feelings, or preferences about the claim’s truth value. There are additional technicalities to consider on these semantics (independent of human subjective states vs any subjective states, including those of aliens, God, or an ideal observer) when considering some edge cases, including theistic morality.[9] The arguments for objective morality need to be carefully analyzed to consider whether they are arguments for independence from any subjective states or only independence from human subjective states while possibly leaving other subjective dependencies open.[10]

It is common in Christian circles to hear that ‘of course, morality is objective’ and also that without God, there are no objective moral values and duties. Given the frequency of this claim, and the centrality of ethical discussion in the Christian life, I am interested to see what the Bible has to say on the topic of the objectivity of Christian morality. This topic I take up in a future post.

Distinguishing Objective/Subjective, Universal/Relative, and Absolute/Contextual

Above we distinguished objective from subjective, but we need to introduce two more distinctions that are important and often get confused and intermixed with the objective/subjective distinction. Namely, we need to clarify the distinction between universal and relative moral theories, as well as absolute and contextual moral theories.

  • Objective moral truth = moral truth independent of any beliefs, feelings, or preferences about the claim’s truth value
  • Subjective moral truth = moral truth dependent on a belief, feeling, or preference about the claim’s truth value
  • Universal moral truth = moral truth that applies to all moral agents (usually an ethical theory)
  • Relative moral truth = moral truth that is true relative to a framework (individual or culture)
  • Absolute moral truth = moral truth that that holds for all agents in all contexts at all times
  • Contextual moral truth = moral truth that holds depending on the situational context

Subjective vs Relative

The first thing I want to emphasize is that moral relativism is logically independent of moral subjectivism. Neither implies the other, either can be true while the other one is false, both can be true, or both can be false. The Ethics Toolkit states that “it’s wrong to identify, as so many do, relativism with subjectivism.”[11] The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) states, “the subjectivist need not be a relativist.”[12] Susan Wolf states, “In principle, one may be a subjectivist without being a relativist.”[13] The ideas of subjective and relative truths are fairly well-defined ideas from epistemology, and these are the adaptation specific to moral truths. 

First, an ethical theory can be subjective but not relative. There is a prominent ethical theory, ideal observer theory, that is subjective but not relative (thus a form of universal subjectivism). It says that moral truths represent the preferences of a hypothetical “ideal observer,” where an ideal observer is one is neutral, fully informed, dispassionate, etc. In other words, when considering right and wrong, you ask, “What would an ideal observer do?” Ideal observer theory is also an example of the distinction between “independent of human subjective states” and “independent of all subjective states.” Ideal observer theory is consistently identified as a universal subjectivist theory, so its closely resembling theistic version, divine preference theory, is also universal subjectivist. Ideal observer theory is an example of why subjectivism cannot be equated with or logically connected to relativism.

Secondly, an ethical theory can also be relative but not subjective. As The Ethics Toolkit says, “Different societies might have different moralities for different objective reasons.”[14] For example, those reasons could include “the objective conditions of scarcity, the distribution of wealth, or, as some have argued, even the climate of that society.”[15] The SEP states, “It may be that what determines the difference in the two contexts [different individuals or cultures] is something ‘mind-dependent’—in which case it would be subjectivist relativism—but it need not be. Perhaps what determines the relevant difference is an entirely mind-independent affair, making for an objectivist relativism.”[16] Susan Wolf has a section in her paper “Two Levels of Pluralism” dedicated to explaining a form of “Relativism Without Subjectivism.”[17]

As Richard Joyce summarizes, “In short, the subjectivism vs. objectivism and the relativism vs. absolutism polarities are orthogonal to each other, and it is the former pair that matters when it comes to characterizing anti-realism.”[18] That moral relativism is (or can be) a form of moral realism, or objective morality, was also made by Gilbert Harman (though this reflects a recent change of mind).[19]

Although we have seen that subjectivism is or can be independent of relativism, they are often combined (call this subjectivist relativism or relativist subjectivism), since most theories that are relative are based on the preferences of individuals or cultures, and most of the time, theories that are subjective also hold that moral truth is relative to individual or culture. Susan Wolf states that “commonly relativism and subjectivism are linked: one suspects that moral standards may legitimately differ from one individual or society to another and” the offered explanation for why and how they differ is the “subjective judgments of the people to whom the standards apply.”[20] I think this common linkage between subjectivism and relativism is why they so often get confused,[21] even in philosophy or ethics journals or books.[22]

Absolute/Contextual Distinction

The last distinction to make is between absolute and contextual moral truths. Is it ever okay to lie? Most people would say yes, depending on the context. Consider the dreaded words, “Do I look fat in this dress?” Do you really need to think about it? The correct answer is always no. More seriously, the most common example of when it is considered okay to lie is if a Nazi came to your door asking if there were any Jews home. A true absolutist, such as Immanuel Kant, would have to say it is wrong to lie in this scenario, even if it resulted in the deaths of one or more people as a (more or less) direct result.[23] But just how far can this ‘context’ go?

We can distinguish between two types of context, agential context and situational context. There may be other types of context we can discuss, such as spatiotemporal context,[24] but this is less helpful for producing a taxonomy of ethical views. Agential context is what distinguishes between relative and universal ethical truths, and situational context is what distinguishes between contextual and absolute truths.

Agential context addresses how many agents and on which agents the moral truth depends. Starting small and expanding our scope, we can go from individuals, to cultures, to the universal. Thus, we have the two types of relativism: individual relativism and cultural relativism, where truth is relative to the individual and culture, respectively. In relativism, the same ethical claim (e.g. abortion is wrong) can be true relative to America and false relative to Africa. That is, true for an American and false for an African, given their cultural context. A universal morality, which applies to all moral agents, is not considered a form of relativism.

By situational context, I mean different general situations or states of affairs that one may find oneself in or choose to do. For example, cheating on the ACT (versus cheating simpliciter, aka cheating without qualification), or killing during war (versus killing simpliciter). The situational context might be significant to moral truths. It may be morally permissible to kill someone for self-defense or during war, but not as a hitman or just for fun. If you agree, then you think context is important and are not a true absolutist. Situational context can get even more specific, such as hurting Susy’s feelings, which can potentially be a combination of agential and situational context where all the relationships involved matter.

However, the absolute-contextual spectrum is just that – it is a spectrum, and it is based on how much context is taken into consideration for the rightness or wrongness of an action. As you move up the ladder from individual to universal, you think ethical truths are less agent-specific, and up from contextual to absolute, you think ethical truths are less situation-specific. Most ethical theories are universal theories (though they can be relativized), meaning they intend to apply to all moral agents, or at least all human moral agents, and they take some type of situational context into consideration and are contextual theories. Act utilitarianism is about as contextual as you can get, where each action is evaluated completely independently, whereas rule utilitarianism generalizes this a bit. Graded absolutism, which is probably the most prominent evangelical Christian ethic, resolves some moral dilemmas by permitting violations of divine commands as long as it is required to obey some other divine command of greater magnitude. Figure 1 displays the relative-universal and contextual-absolute scales, where agential and situation context are shown is the relevant factors in distinguishing these scales, respectively.

Figure 1: Spectra representing the (left) universal vs relative distinction, which depends on agential context, and (right) the absolute vs contextual distinction, which depends on situational context.

In an approximate sense, the entire contextual spectrum, including agential and situational context, ranges from relative to contextual to absolute (which may be preferred since absolute is often understood as the opposite of relative), which is shown in Figure 2. Since most ethical theories that are universal are also contextual, this is not too problematic. It is conceptually possible to have a form of cultural or individual relativism that ignore situational context (and would be absolute in this respect), but this would be widely implausible and not worth discussing.[25] Another way of putting this is that only universal theories tend to restrict context even further beyond agents into specific situations, getting into forms of graded or ungraded absolutism. Cultural and individual relativism also contextualize with respect to situations, so they should be lower down the overall contextual spectrum, below “contextual.”

Figure 2: The full relative-absolute spectrum, including agential and situational context.

Overall, we have a continuous restriction of context from individual relativism to absolute, starting with ethical truths relative to specific agential frameworks in specific situations and then being true for all agents in relevant situations, finally ending in ethical truths that do not depend on the agent or the situation. In the next section, we look at three types of moral judgments: first- and second-order moral judgments as well as moral principles.

Types of Moral Judgments

Philosophers like to distinguish between first-order and second-order things, such as beliefs, evidence, or ethical judgments. A first-order belief would be something like “I believe there is an apple on the table.” Symbolically, this could be represented as Bp, or belief B in some proposition p. A second order belief would be “I believe that I believe there is an apple on the table.” Symbolically, this is BBp. You can have parallel results for knowledge, knowing that you know p would be KKp. Second order evidence, or evidence of evidence, might be a book that documents arguments and evidence against the textual reliability of the Bible; however, you have not read it so you do not know what first-order evidence the book presents. Knowing that there is first-order evidence for or against a position is second-order evidence. The first-order evidence could be the papyrus manuscripts from the first three centuries CE, for example.

Similarly, you can talk of first- and second-order ethical (or moral) judgments, which, roughly, correspond to applied ethics and metaethics, respectively. “Cheating on a test is wrong” is a first-order ethical judgment, while “moral truths are objective” is a second-order ethical judgment. Additionally, we can talk about moral principles, which are general principles that are prominent in normative ethics. Thus, we can give definitions of these three types of moral claims, noting that “judgments” here could just as easily be replaced with “facts,” “propositions,” or “truths.”

  • first-order ethical judgments = ethical judgments with a specific context, such as those in thought experiments like the trolley problem, drowning child, violinist argument, etc.
  • second-order ethical judgments = ethical judgments about first-order ethical judgments (metaethical judgments), such as “ethical facts are relative to the individual”
  • moral principles = general abstract principles in ethical theories, such as “maximize the good”

These three types of moral claims are important in ethics for various reasons. For example, it is (or may be) consistent for a relativist to claim that first-order moral truths are relative to specific frameworks, but second-order moral truths are absolutely true (true in all frameworks). Thus, moral relativism may not be self-defeating.[26]

Let’s talk more about the distinction between moral principles and first-order ethical judgments, as their difference is not well-defined. If push came to shove, moral principles should probably be classified as a subset of first-order ethical judgments, as first- and second-order judgments should be mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive of morality (at least, of the relevant moral claims of interest to us). However, it is helpful to distinguish the “up-close-and-personal” judgments of the first-order, those arising frequently in thought experiments, and the “impersonal” judgments of abstract moral principles, usually seen in the broad statements of normative ethical theories. This difference is important in moral epistemology and our reliance on intuitions during thought experiments. For example, Peter Singer is skeptical of the reliability of intuitions in thought experiments, but he accepts intuitions about abstract moral principles.[27] I think I tend to agree with this.

Conclusion

Various questions for the Christian arise upon investigation of the above topics, such as the objectivity of Christian morality. Additionally, the above distinctions raise the question of where the proper Christian ethic lies on the full relative-absolute spectrum, and why. I hope to investigate these questions and others in the future.  

This blog post set out to establish some working definitions to have more rigorous and productive conversation around objective morality (moral realism), moral subjectivism and relativism, absolute and contextual moral truths, and types of moral judgments. All of these definitions will important as to dive into arguments for and against objective morality and relativism, as well as other metaethical topics.

In sum, objective morality (moral realism) is the commitment to the view that there are some objective moral truths, truths that are independent of any subjective states about the claim’s truth value. Subjective moral truths are those that depend on someone’s beliefs, feelings, or preferences about the moral claim in question.  Subjectivism is distinct from relativism, where relativism says that moral truths are true relative to a framework, either individual or cultural. Absolute moral truths do not consider any context, while contextual moral truths consider situational context. There are first-order moral judgments, which are up-close-and-personal judgments with specific context, while second-order moral judgments (metaethical judgments) are moral judgments about first-order moral judgments. Finally, there moral principles, which are general abstract principles used in ethical theories.

In upcoming posts, we will explore various arguments for objective morality as well as whether the Bible teaches objective morality or not.  

Endnotes

[1] Moral realism and objective morality (moral objectivism) are not exactly synonyms, but we are simplifying terms for now. I elaborate on some of the complications with terms such as minimalism moral realism, moral universalism (moral objectivism), universal subjectivism, and more throughout the other footnotes.

[2] Simplified from Väyrynen, Pekka. “Moral Realism” in Borchert, Donald M. (ed.) Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2nd Edition. Vol. 6. (2005), p. 379-380.

[3] McGrath, Sarah. “Moral realism without convergence.” Philosophical Topics 38.2 (2010): 59-90, p. 61

[4] If we used “objectively” true rather than true in the semantic thesis, then the combination of (1) and (2) would be objective morality, and then (3) could be the distinguishing factor for “robust” moral realism (1-3) vs minimal moral realism (1 and 2). Moral relativists would still say moral truths are “really true,” so torturing children is “really wrong” to (presumably most or all) moral relativists, so the charge that moral relativists cannot say what Hitler did is “really wrong” is false. It is just that the claim is made relative to a framework. I can’t remember or find where I saw this point made, but unfortunately this idea still seemingly pervades the metaethical literature, where “really” is often (intentionally) assumed as a synonym for “objectively.” However, to say something is “really” true just is to affirm its truth. If by really you mean objectively, then just say “objectively.” Then, obviously relativists would disagree but the point is obscured by this handwaving tactic. The claim “you can’t call the Nazis really wrong” reduces to “you can’t call the Nazis objectively wrong” and the reasonable response is, “Uh yeah, that’s the definition of relativism.” A similar point is made on IEP.

This assumption of equating “really” and “objectively” is made by Tan, Seow Hon. “The problems with moral subjectivism.” Think 46 (2016): 25-36, p. 31, 34-35; Dworkin, Ronald. “Objectivity and truth: You’d better believe it.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 25.2 (1996): 87-139, throughout; Bennigson, Thomas. “Is relativism really self-refuting?.” Philosophical Studies (1999): 211-236, p. 211 (this paper defends moral relativism but says relativism claims, “There is no sense to, or at least no answer to, the question of which is really right – there are no framework-neutral facts.”); Kramer, Matthew H. Moral Realism as a Moral Doctrine. Vol. 3. John Wiley & Sons, 2009, p. 200-201. Strangely, Kramer cites Simon Blackburn (a quasi-realist) in support of his reasoning here when Blackburn is essentially making the same point that I am making. Claims about what is “really true” reduce to things that are “true.” Blackburn talks about these word additions, “We can add flowers without end.” Relativists affirm that there are moral truths, just that they depend on what people believe. To claim that it is objectively true is to claim more than just that something is true (in the strictest sense and in the dialectical context here it is relevant). I think Blackburn may be assuming a type of truth minimalism here though, which I do not defend. In sum, saying relativists can’t say Nazism was “really wrong” is mere rhetoric and not substance.

[5] Mackie, John. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. Penguin UK, (1990). His main argument is 1) moral propositions aim to be objective (they are implicitly objective truth claims), 2) there are no objective moral propositions (i.e. moral values or duties), 3) therefore, all moral propositions are false. He summarizes the argument on p. 35 as “But the denial of objective values will have to be put forward not as the result of an analytic approach, but as an ‘error theory’, a theory that although most people in making moral judgements implicitly claim, among other things, to be pointing to something objectively prescriptive, these claims are all false. It is this that makes the name ‘moral scepticism’ appropriate.” He then uses two arguments for the second proposition, that there are no objective moral values or duties, which are the argument from relativity (which is really from disagreement), and the argument from queerness.

[6] There are also substantial metaphysical complications that I would prefer to minimize. First, there is the question of whether there are moral properties in the external world (in the fabric of reality). The “metaphysical thesis” from the Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s “Moral Realism” article affirms moral properties, which is what makes moral facts “obtain,” but I wanted to ensure this wording does not commit myself to a particular metaphysics like truthmaker theory. If we say there are moral properties, there are still “robust” or “modest” forms of moral realism referring to primary vs secondary status of these properties, where secondary properties may be response-dependent, such as color properties. A final problem with identifying moral properties is that it is hard to make sense of a very prominent understanding of substances (Aristotle’s substance theory) with this (as opposed to Hume’s bundle theory). Moral discourse is covered with identifying actions as having properties, but on substance theory objects have properties but an action (as an event) does not (I may return to this problem in the future). If we neglect the idea of moral properties, a difficulty comes here when we consider non-human subjective states, such as the subjective states of an “ideal observer” or God. If a moral truth is categorical in the Kantian sense, then it is independent of any rational agent’s subjective states; this truth would be objective in a rationalist sense, then. I will only really be considering the rationalist or robust ontological senses of objectivity.

On any understanding of objective morality, with or without identifying moral properties, “There is some ‘reality’…that ‘makes true’ certain claims.” (Horgan, Terry, and Mark Timmons. “What does moral phenomenology tell us about moral objectivity?” Social Philosophy & Policy 25.1 (2008), p. 272.)

[7] A final problem arises from the generic definition of objective as “mind-independent.” If God is a mind, then everything in the universe is mind-dependent in some sense because a (disembodied) mind created the entire universe. Does that mean that all facts about the world are subjective? This hardly makes any sense. A parallel is seen when taking about mental causation: human minds can exert causal effects resulting in changes in the external world that is mind-independent, but this causal type of mind-dependence is not the sense in what we mean by mind-independent. This point is made by William Lane Craig here. Thus, it is better to explicitly render “mind-independent” as independent of any subjective states.

[8] McGrath, Sarah. “Moral realism without convergence.” Philosophical Topics 38.2 (2010): 59-90, p. 61.

[9] A less robust definition would be to say that objective morality is independent of any human subjective states. However, this could leave the option of alien preferences being the guidelines of morality. Additionally, one moral theory, ideal observer theory, identifies moral truths with the preferences of an ideal observer (the question of the existence of the ideal observer is irrelevant). This theory is called a universal subjectivist theory since it is independent of any human and thus applies to all (i.e. universally), but it depends on subjective states of an observer. If one affirms that the ideal observer exists and is God, it is called divine preference theory (see Thomas Carson’s work). However, there is a substantial distinction between divine preferences and divine commands. Divine preferences are clearly subjective, but divine commands are not clearly dependent on God’s subjective states. For example, William of Ockham famously bit the bullet on the arbitrariness objection by not allowing any restriction on God’s commands from God’s moral nature, which maximizes God’s freedom. Therefore, an Ockhamist DCT would seem to be independent of any subjective states (since commands are not subjective states, especially when one identifies those commands as exegeted from the biblical text).

However, most modern DCTs are not Ockhamist and have a grounding relation between God’s commands and God’s nature or His commands and His will. A grounding relation (I think) confers a dependence of some sort, especially in this sense because God’s nature or His will puts a restriction on the range of possible divine commands (if this is included in the grounding relation). A grounding relation between God’s commands and God’s nature would allow for DCT to remain objective, and this view is considered a hybrid view where moral values are based on God’s nature and moral obligations come from God’s commands, and values are more fundamental than obligations. This view is presented by Adams’ Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics, William Lane Craig accepts and defends this view, and this is a plausible solution to the Euthyphro Dilemma.

The grounding or identification of moral obligations in or with the divine will, however, is more likely to still be considered subjectivist. I don’t know enough about this view (defended by Mark Murphy and Philip Quinn) to say much. Christian Miller in “Divine Will Theory: Desires or Intentions?” suggests that while Murphy and Quinn focus on grounding moral obligations in divine intentions, it would be better to focus on divine desires. I think now (according to Christian Miller’s “Divine Desire Theory and Obligation”) these theories are considered distinctly and identified by divine intention theory and divine desire theory, respectively. Either way, my understanding is that intentional states are very much mind-dependent and subjective, and desires are explicitly subjective states. Therefore, it seems like divine will theory in either desire or intentions form would be a type of universal subjectivism. However, a divine command theory with commands grounded in God’s nature (or ungrounded) would remain objective. I will investigate these ideas more in-depth when investigating theistic morality and its objectivity.

[10] Additionally, perhaps “subjective” could mean subject-dependent, dependent on anything about some subject, instead of dependent on the subjective states of some subject. That would be a different story, as subject-dependent is different than mind-dependent. However, I have never seen anyone ever use this definition, so I will not consider this further.

[11] Baggini, Julian, and Peter S. Fosl. The Ethics toolkit: A compendium of ethical concepts and methods. Wiley-Blackwell, 2007, p. 130. All references are to the pdf of the epub version (no page numbers are given).

[12] https://stanford.library.sydney.edu.au/archives/win2014/entries/moral-anti-realism/moral-subjectivism-versus-relativism.html

[13] Wolf, Susan. “Two levels of pluralism.” Ethics 102.4 (1992): 785-798, p. 786.

[14] The Ethics Toolkit, p. 133.  

[15] Ibid, p. 130.

[16] https://stanford.library.sydney.edu.au/archives/win2014/entries/moral-anti-realism/moral-subjectivism-versus-relativism.html (Emphasis in original).  

[17] Wolf, Susan. “Two levels of pluralism.” Ethics 102.4 (1992): 785-798, pp. 792-797.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Harman, Gilbert. “Moral relativism is moral realism.” Philosophical Studies 172.4 (2015): 855-863.

[20] Wolf, Susan. “Two levels of pluralism.” Ethics 102.4 (1992): 785-798, p. 786. She explains the full line of reasoning to get to subjectivism as (p. 786), “Pondering the existence of persistent disagreement leads one to relativism. Pondering the conditions under which relativism would be true leads one to subjectivism.”

[21] This agrees with a point made in The Ethics Toolkit on p. 133. “Tt may be possible to speak of a subjectivism that’s collective or social. For this reason many conflate social relativism with social subjectivism. But while different social subjects are likely, according to subjectivism, to yield different moralities, relativism is possible even if subjectivism is wrong. Different societies might have different moralities for different objective reasons.”

[22] I might prepare a giant list of all the places I have seen relativism confused with subjectivism or vice versa, as this distinction has caused me much pain to sort out (and is in part why I was so delayed in finishing this post). Two such places I have seen it that are absolutely inexcusable are The Professional Ethics Toolkit and Michael Huemer’s Ethical Intuitionism.

[23] Kant himself used an example of lying to a murderer at your door who is looking for the would-be victim, and he says it is wrong to lie in such a scenario. This example was, post-World War II, adapted to be a Nazi at the door looking for Jews, and this example is commonly used to show the absurdity of Kant’s absolutist deontology. However, this seemingly obvious extrapolation of Kant’s views has been challenged, see Varden, H. (2010), “Kant and Lying to the Murderer at the Door…One More Time: Kant’s Legal Philosophy and Lies to Murderers and Nazis.” Journal of Social Philosophy, 41: 403-421. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9833.2010.01507.x. I do not know enough to comment.

[24] By spatiotemporal context, I mean something like “France in the 1800s” or “1920s USA” or “at the McDonalds down the street in Texas in 2021.” These give a time (or time period) and spatial location or geography. This type of context is likely more important for a cultural relativist that thinks moral truths are relative to a culture (or a subjectivist who thinks moral truths depend on cultural subjective states), which usually has spatiotemporally significant moral factors that contribute to moral truth values according to a relativist or subjectivist.

[25] An example would be saying that lying is always wrong for Bob, but lying is always permissible for Alice, no matter the situation of either of them. Another example could be that in France, abortion is always wrong no matter the reasoning, but in China, abortion is always permissible for any reason whatsoever.

[26] I will likely revisit this in the future to see how well a relativist can hold her ground here. There are different ways of pushing on this claim. I am not sure if it works or not. Naïve global relativism is straightforwardly self-defeating, though.

[27] Singer may use a strong intuition to justify the principle, “We ought to be preventing as much suffering as we can without sacrificing something else of comparable moral importance,” but reject the reliability of intuitions in his own Drowning Child thought experiment. Singer even offers an evolutionary debunking argument for these types of intuitions in Singer, Peter. “Ethics and Intuitions.” The Journal of Ethics 9.3-4 (2005): 331-352. However, this is consistent for Singer to offer an argument of this sort, since his interlocuters accept the reliability of first-order contextual intuitions. This point was made in my least favorite paper ever: Timmerman, Travis. “Sometimes there is nothing wrong with letting a child drown.” Analysis 75.2 (2015): 204-212, p. 211. The way he words it is that Singer “famously rejects the reliability of intuitions about first-order normative judgments” but “is not similarly skeptical of the reliability of intuitions about abstract moral principles.” It is for this reason I mention this dichotomy, with which I have great sympathies. This is the same idea behind talking about “up-close-and-personal” intuitions versus “impersonal” intuitions, which I take to correspond to first-order moral claims and moral principles, respectively. These two ‘types’ of intuitions, in connection to Singer’s views and evolutionary debunking argument, was discussed but challenged in Holtzman, Geoffrey S. “Famine, Affluence and Intuitions: Evolutionary Debunking Proves Too Much.” Disputatio 10.48 (2018): 57-70.

A Roadmap into Ethics

Introduction

Questions of morality enter our lives every single day. For any adult, breaking the speed limit or paying taxes. For student, cheating on exams or homework. For an academic, plagiarizing someone else’s work or finding. Or how about, should I call in sick to work today so I can relax? How much of my work time can I spend on personal issues and phone calls, even if my boss will never know?

How about more general questions: how do I decide what is the right thing to do in any of the above situations? Do I base it on what I feel like doing in the moment? Should I have a robust system in place? Is something only wrong if I get caught?

Now even more general questions: where do moral obligations come from? Are moral values and obligations specific to me, or are they the same for every human? Did God implant these values and duties, did they evolve over time for survival, or do humans just make up a system and run with it?

Each of these sets of questions corresponds to the three subfields of ethics: applied ethics, normative ethics, and metaethics, respectively. In this article, I will outline and describe these topics and how I will approach them systematically in this blog.

Outline of Ethics

Ethics is broken down into three subfields (given in my first post):

  • Metaethics (what are morals, and what grounds them?)
  • Normative ethics (how do we decide what is moral?)
  • Applied ethics (what specific action is moral?)
Figure 1: Outline of Ethics

These fields flow naturally into each other, but your stance in one field does not usually commit you to particular views in other fields (though this is less clear-cut from meta- to normative ethics). For example, I can be a moral objectivist and hold to utilitarianism or virtue ethics. I can be a deontologist and be for or against abortion. Any normative ethical theory can be used to analyze any particular applied ethical issue.  

Metaethics

The most fundamental problem in metaethics, and perhaps ethics as a whole, is the “is-ought problem” (attributed to Hume): how can we derive moral obligations from mere factual statements? It is a fact that the dirty dishes are piled high by the sink. Does that necessarily imply that that I am obligated to wash the dishes today? It is a fact that this person on the street is choking and will die unless I perform the Heimlich. Does that mean that I am obligated to perform the Heimlich? Does the answer change if I do not know how to perform the Heimlich (this is Kant’s “ought implies can” principle)? These questions populate the realm of metaethics.

Metaethics also asks questions like, “Is morality objective or relative?” “Is moral obligation actually just emotion?” “Can there be a secular grounding for objective morality?” “Is objective morality only possible if there is a God?” These questions and their connection to Christianity is quite obvious. Additionally, there is the area of moral epistemology: how do we know right and wrong or the moral guiding principles for ascertaining right and wrong? Finally, moral psychology discusses our motivations for performing moral actions.

From where do moral obligations originate? How do I decide when action is necessary?

Normative Ethics

The connections between normative ethics and Christianity may be less obvious. This might explain why I felt no compelling interest to explore the ethical theories once I learned about them in my Ethics and Engineering class. I thought the ethic of the Christian life was pretty much “Obey God; therefore, follow the commands in the Bible” – that is what makes a faithful Christian.  This roughly translates to divine command theory as a normative ethical theory. Right and wrong, aka moral obligation, is based on God’s commands. This is a form of deontological ethics and is the predominate Protestant view, which can be seen in a psychological study on Christian opposition to consequentialist reasoning.[1] However, Western Christianity was dominated by a completely different view for over 1,000 years, natural law ethics, [2] which says that the right thing to do is based on properly seeking the ‘end’ of humanity, which is happiness.[3] The most predominate thinkers in this tradition are St. Augustine (4th century) and Thomas Aquinas (12th century).[4] This type of ethical norm is of a completely different sort, teleological rather than deontological. Now, this is still grounded (in metaethical terms) by God creating humans and empowering them with reason and grace. Therefore, we have two examples of Christian normative ethical theories (divine command ethics and natural law ethics) with two opposing frameworks: deontology and teleology. Which, if either, is correct?

Therefore, normative ethics seeks to find guiding principles for ascertaining what is right or wrong. The key disagreement is if the justification for the right action should be based on consequences (consequentialism), rules (deontological ethics), or character (virtue ethics). There are many variants and disagreements within each of these umbrellas, and they are not 100% separate (pluralist consequentialism can draw on multiple virtues, rule-consequentialism can implement rules), but their framework remains distinct. Normative ethics also seeks to understand the importance of intentions or motivations when performing any ethical action. 

Applied Ethics

Next, there is applied ethics. This topic is usually where the rage comes flying out. Merely the words abortion, homosexuality, or racism can bring substantial emotional baggage to the forefront (not saying it isn’t deserved!). It is often and increasingly associated with political association, unfortunately.[5] I am interested in a robust analysis of a variety of these practical issues from a purely ethical perspective. The “correct” answer to the applied ethical questions hinge on what we take to be the best normative theory, so we need to know how to evaluate normative theories (and whether or not there is a “correct” answer depends on our metaethical views).

Christians and non-Christians end up on all sides of any number of modern ethical issues, including abortion, animal rights, gay marriage, wealth and altruism, etc. I plan to be very selective about topics in applied ethics, as they are quite controversial and I want to only talk about those things I am informed about (i.e. can adequately engage with what contemporary ethicists have written on the topic). Therefore, for the foreseeable future, I only plan to talk about 1) wealth and altruism/theology of possessions, 2) abortion, and (probably) 3) animal rights and human dignity (which relate closely to abortion). These topics played an important role in how I got interested in ethics in the first place.

Beyond these highly controversial practical questions, ethics can be applied to things like Christian doctrine or philosophy of religion in a multidisciplinary setting (not technically the conventional ‘applied ethics’). I find two topics particularly interesting here: the atonement and the problem of evil. The problem of evil is rich with ethical thought and extends to other questions about God’s nature, such as God’s own moral obligations and moral agency. I plan to address both of these topics, the atonement and the problem of evil, in detail.

My Approach to This Blog

There are many possible topics to discuss, and I very much like a systematic approach. Therefore, I will be systematically working through the field of ethics from the top down (metaethics > normative ethics > applied ethics), exploring various topics and connecting the ideas to Christian thought as we go. I will likely do a detailed “first pass,” hitting on the most interesting and central ideas in each of the 3 fields, and then come back and revisit other relevant issues that warrant further attention.

Next time, I will be kicking off our series on metaethics, which consistent of some of the deepest and toughest questions in all of ethics. I will begin by discussing arguments for the objectivity of morality.

In what topics or questions are you particularly interested? Do you have any suggestions for things you would really like me to discuss or (attempt to) address? Let me know!


[1] Piazza, Jared. ““If you love me keep my commandments”: Religiosity increases preference for rule-based moral arguments.” International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 22.4 (2012): 285-302. Piazza, Jared, and Justin Landy. “” Lean not on your own understanding”: belief that morality is founded on divine authority and non-utilitarian moral thinking.” Judgment and Decision making 8.6 (2013): 639-661.

[2] “Natural law ethics – Christianized and church-controlled – more or less dominated the West for over a millennium.” in Perry, John, ed. God, the Good, and Utilitarianism: Perspectives on Peter Singer. Cambridge University Press, 2014, p. 21.

[3] Summa Theologiae, First Part of Second Part, Question 1, Article 8. https://www.newadvent.org/summa/2001.htm

[4] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aquinas/#NatLaw

[5] For a collection of essays and critical responses that are ethical analyses on important political issues, such as immigration, minimum wage, environmental regulation, health care, abortion, privilege, feminism, affirmative action, racial profiling, and more, see Fischer, Bob (ed.). Ethics, Left and Right: The Moral Issues that Divide Us. Oxford University Press (2019). For a discussion on how people end up so up in arms with their tribe about this stuff, see Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Vintage, 2012.

My Winding Journey into Ethics

Upon reflection, it is surprising to me that it took me so long to get interested in the academic field of ethics. I have been interested in and passionate about many issues in ethics since high school, long before I knew what the field of “ethics” actually included. I will give some background on my life, especially how a preliminary (unknown) interest in ethics developed into an academic interest in ethics (in other words, how we got here).

Background

For starters, ethical issues surrounding the Atonement and their beautiful coherency[1] were the biggest reason I became a Christian 16 years ago (16 years to this day: September 13, 2004). The parallel ethical issues in Islam of sin, judgment, and the afterlife remain, by far, my biggest concern with Islam, given their apparent incoherence.[2] My “extreme views”[3] on the ethics of wealth and possessions has caused a couple of Sunday School teachers, a pastor, and several friends to be uncomfortable or upset. I debated the ethics of abortion in my high school debate club. I made a survey of questions on abortion as a project in my sophomore government class that was intended to show the immoral absurdity of abortion. Abortion also played a central role in an admissions essay[4] to my current university (Texas A&M).

The ethics of the the Atonement was the biggest reason I became a Christian 16 years ago.

Given all this, you would think ethics would be a natural extension of the above; however, my actual journey into academic ethics was a bit more complicated. My first encounter with ethics as a field of philosophy was a class called “Ethics and Engineering” during my sophomore year. I was the only person I knew that enjoyed that class[5] and learning about the ethical theories (ethical egoism, utilitarianism, and virtue ethics specifically). I did not find any of them compelling in and of themselves though, mostly because I saw no connection at all to what I viewed as correct ethic and decision-making framework, which was following Christianity/the Bible. However, I did “incorporate some of the framework of utilitarianism into my life philosophy.”[6]

At this point in time, my only knowledge about philosophy came from twice-a-year discussions with my cousin Nathan, who was already interested in philosophy. In fact, I likely would not have gotten interested in philosophy at all if it were not for my cousin Nathan and the very difficult questions he was refusing to leave inadequately answered, especially on issues of epistemology (how do we know anything?), predestination, free will, and arguments for God’s existence. I would thus mark my true initial interest in philosophy probably with watching the William Lane Craig vs Christopher Hitchens debate in July of 2017 (which I re-watched last month to see how I felt after studying the arguments in depth for 3 years).[7] The next step for me was listening to Craig’s Reasonable Faith podcast (which I highly recommend), which talks about a wide range of issues in philosophy and Christianity. This led me to considering issues of logic, epistemology, and the cosmological argument for God’s existence more in depth by reading Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, books, and academic papers. This, in turn, lead to the avalanche that resulted in where I am today. Thankfully, this journey was taking place parallel with my doing undergraduate research and literature reviews, so I was learning how to ‘Google things’ at a scholarly level. My philosophical interests, therefore, reside pretty squarely within philosophy of religion, epistemology, and ethics.

Into Academic Ethics

It was not until my last semester of undergrad (January 2020) that my political science professor’s silly comments about abortion gave me the prompting I needed to do a rigorous investigation into abortion (now that I knew how to do a rigorous investigation). It started with legal issues and the history of abortion,[8] then into metaphysical issues about personhood.[9] A couple of the latter papers mentioned the ethical impact, but not often. I was also first exposed to the violinist argument at this point. In the summer, I finally was able to dive into the ethical aspect, including the arguments from the violinist, embryo rescue case, future-like-ours, and much more. However, I did not recognize at this time that I was reading applied ethics papers. I was just so engrossed in a topic that I was passionate about that I wasn’t paying attention to what journals these papers were being published in or the broader field in question. In my mind, I was just reading “papers on abortion.” Thus, the ethics of abortion was the real breaking ground into the field of ethics. It helped me realize that thought in applied ethics could even help us tease out the ethical implications of Scripture and the relationship between ethical intuitionism, divine command theory, and situational ethics.

The next stage of ethical inquiry came from my friend Emily sharing her moral case for veganism. She mentioned the name Peter Singer several times, whom I had not heard of previously (or, at least, I thought I had not).[10] I began to (try to) think seriously about these ideas, which is still an ongoing process. I watched a video on Singer’s ideas, and his name came up several times by CosmicSkeptic (a vegan, atheist YouTuber) in his 50 book recommendations. I began reading a little bit on the moral argument for veganism based on opposition to industrial animal farming practices that result in massive amounts of animal suffering. I have not quite come to a position on this topic.

I soon realized via his website that Singer was not just the guy who is the front-man for principles that can support abortion, selective infanticide, and euthanasia, but also for ideas that support substantial giving to charities under the name of effective altruism (see his book, which you can get for free, The Life You Can Save). At this point, I was extremely intrigued: there are secular proponents of giving substantial amounts of our income to charities? There are secular arguments for a moral obligation for the wealthy to give possibly a majority of their income to charity? I had discovered plenty of secular pro-life organizations via Twitter,[11] but I was honestly surprised at this.

I found out that Peter Singer wrote a game-changing paper in 1972 called “Famine, affluence, and morality” (cited over 3500 times!), and this paper has inspired many critiques, further development by Singer, and more. I think the effective altruism was really the cake that led me to really jump into ethics, knowing I wanted to go deeper. But it wasn’t Singer’s positive arguments that really sealed the deal, it was two revolting responses I read that were so incredibly stupid I couldn’t believe they existed. Namely, “Sometimes there is nothing wrong with letting a child drown”[12] and “On the supposed obligation to relieve famine.”[13]

Figure 1: Probably my least favorite philosophy paper in the world. I label it as the philosophy paper that annoyed me the most, even beating out all the abortion papers I’ve read.

This made me start thinking back to my plans I made a long time ago. During my sophomore year of college, after being influenced by David Platt (which I will elaborate on in the next post), I started studying theology of possessions, which could be considered an area of applied Christian ethics. A prominent Christian view is stewardship theology, which says that God made us stewards over the planet (which gives us an obligation to take care of animals and the environment) as well as of our money and our possessions. In practice (not necessarily in theory), this seems to be taken to mean that I can pretty much do what I want with my money and you can’t tell me anything I ought to do because “Christian liberty.” I find this both revolting and starkly unbiblical. The short version is, I thought of a stronger form of a theology of possessions and developed it slightly along with my dad (who even gave presentations on it to at least one church). I made plans to come back and study the topic more rigorously in the future, even contemplating doing a master’s degree in theology where my thesis would be on this topic. This discovery of effective altruism and applied ethics, however, made me realize that I could incorporate Singer and related arguments into a type of theology of possessions for an even stronger case.

During this same timeframe, I was also beginning to study metaethics. I was introduced to William Lane Craig’s moral argument for God’s existence awhile back. I plan to study some of the other moral arguments for (and against) God’s existence in the future and discuss them here. I read Andrew Fisher’s introduction to metaethics this summer and saw a lot of interesting questions there, especially those surrounding divine command theory. I started to think about the connections between metaethics and normative ethics. Can someone believe in subjective morality and still think right and wrong is based on God’s commands? Can someone think morality is grounded in God but think that right and wrong is based on “natural law?”

At some point during this process, the two strands above (theology of possessions and meta-normative connections) came together such that I realized that I could turn some theological ideas that I’ve had, namely the ones about our purpose in life and my “life philosophy,” into a normative ethical theory. Glorifying God is really what I saw as our primary obligation the whole time, but I only recently began thinking about it in terms of an ethical framework. Divine glory utilitarianism is the result.

Glorifying God is what I saw as our primary obligation, but I only recently began thinking about it in terms of an ethical framework. Divine glory utilitarianism is the result.

Next, I was looking into normative ethical theories, especially utilitarianism, and came across the demandingness objection frequently. I started thinking about how that objection would apply to Christianity and Christian ethics, which made me think of the name What the Gospel Demands, then I had this idea for a blog! I started the website two years ago, as I originally set out to start a blog on discipleship and missional community, but I didn’t have/make the time and energy to do this. So this is take two. Considering I didn’t even make it to my first blog post last time, we’re doing great so far.

Conclusion

Here we are today! In summary, my pathway into ethics was abortion > animal rights > altruism > theology of possessions > normative ethics. As you can see, I have interests in all three fields of ethics: meta, normative, and applied. I just started diving into academic ethics this summer, so I’m still kind of a n00b. It’s been a good journey to get here, and I’m excited for the path forward, exploring many new ideas.

What areas or questions in ethics do you find interesting? How did you get interested in ethics?


[1] In Christianity, God rewards every good deed and punishes every wrongdoing (e.g. Romans 2:6, Ephesians 6:8, Revelation 22:12). Given that this is the definition of justice, God is perfectly just. God’s perfect mercy is displayed by Jesus voluntarily taking on the sin of humanity to offer forgiveness to all. There are complications here worth exploring, but in the end, only the innocent are rewarded and only the guilty are punished, and yet all have the opportunity for reconciliation.

[2] In Islam, God does not reward every good deed nor punish every wrongdoing. The two most problematic cases are 1) nullification and 2) the 70,000 that skip Judgment Day. Nullification refers to the 10 or so groups of people (based on specific sins they have committed) who will have their good deeds “nullified,” i.e. cancelled or ignored, on Judgment Day. Secondly, there are 70,000 individuals who will not have an account of their good or bad deeds, and will be sent to heaven regardless (source: the most authentic Islamic tradition collection, Sahih al-Bukhari). There are more problems to be explored here.  

[3] See Divine Glory Utilitarianism for my proposal of Christian ethics and its application to wealth and possessions at the end.

[4] When I reread this essay, which was on interacting with people of different beliefs, I cringed at my use of language and terminology. My entrance into philosophy, especially analytic philosophy that emphasizes clarity and precise argumentation, has made me a bit more careful about definitions and precision in speech (and not being so unnecessarily charged).

[5] This is probably because every other person in the class were graduating seniors, to whom the class is normally restricted. By the grace of God, they let me take it as a sophomore because I had no other options.

[6] This is what I told the teaching assistant of my 2016 Ethics and Engineering class in an email dated January 2019. It is clear that at this point, the seeds of ‘divine glory utilitarianism’ had already taken hold. I did not yet think of it as an ethical framework, but more about the purpose of our lives being to maximize God’s glory rather than that being our (primary) moral obligation and reason for things being right or wrong. It is worth noting that Alasdair MacIntyre argued in After Virtue that the purpose of our lives (aka the telos of humanity) informs and should be the source of our moral obligation, which would connect my understanding of ‘life philosophy’ and ethical framework.

[7] In case you were wondering, like most debates involving Craig, Craig was victorious and widely admitted as such on both sides due to his precise and (relatively) rigorous philosophical argumentation. Though, I find who “won” a debate to be irrelevant, but the soundness of the arguments is what matters. The funniest part when re-watching was Hitchens’ summaries of free will. He describes free will on atheism as, “We have no choice but to have free will,” and on theism as, “Of course we have free will. The boss demands it.”

[8] See this video for example. It is made from a very pro-life organization, Live Action, but I was surprised to see that a preliminary investigation confirmed pieces that I had time to look at. It was confirmed in part, for example, by the whopping 1200 page book Dispelling the Myths of Abortion History by Joseph Dellapenna published by Carolina Academic Press.  

[9] Usually humans are seen as “persons” when they have a certain developed form of rationality. It is usually said that “persons” have rights, rather than humans, including the right to life.

[10] It turns out, I wrote a response essay to Singer’s “All Animals are Equal” in my Ethics and Engineering class, but I had no recollection of this whatsoever.

[11] Especially Secular Pro-Life, Feminists for Life, and Pro-Life Humanists.

[12] Timmerman, Travis. “Sometimes there is nothing wrong with letting a child drown.” Analysis 75.2 (2015): 204-212.

[13] Kekes, John. “On the supposed obligation to relieve famine.” Philosophy 77.302 (2002): 503-517.

Welcome to “What the Gospel Demands”

Is morality absolute, objective, or subjective? How do we know what is right and wrong? Is morality rooted in God’s commands, God’s will, or something else? What should be our decision-making criteria? How do we import morals from the Bible into principles or specific applications? What is the importance of ethical intuition and situational context? If these types of questions pique your interest at all, you’re in the right place.

Welcome to What the Gospel Demands! This blog will be talking about issues in ethics (also known as moral philosophy) and how those issues intersect with Christian thought. When I initially heard about “ethics,” I thought to myself, “How boring. My ‘ethic’ is to live by the Bible. The end.” My mind has since changed (on the first part, at least). I have also found the wondrous ways in which ethical theory intersects important Christian issues and greatly affects how we understand the relationship between God and morality, obedience to God, decision-making criteria, and how these apply to specific (and often controversial) issues like abortion, death penalty, wealth, war, animals, and more.

Is morality absolute, objective, or subjective? How do we know what is right and wrong?

This project is now very different than how I originally conceived it in 2018 (and when I bought the domain name). However, I realized that the name, What the Gospel Demands, still applies quite nicely (see my next post to learn the origin of the name). “Demandingness” is one of the most discussed topics in ethics when evaluating ethical theories and applications of those theories. It is often posed as an objection (the demandingness objection) and is the subject of entire books, such as The Limits of Morality by Shelly Kagan. In popular discourse, the “demandingness” of Christian morals is perceived negatively as disgruntled obedience to a list of rules. However, the transformative life-change from the Holy Spirit causes a decrease in the desire for worldly things and a desire to mimic God and obey Him. One way this is reflected in the Psalms when David perceives God’s laws as beautiful, refreshing, and as a means of meditation. There is much more to be said here that I will leave for another time.

One thing I want to clarify is that I will be discussing “ethics and Christianity” rather than “Christian ethics.” The difference is that “Christian ethics” is its own field, with which I am much less familiar, but “ethics” is the broader field in academic philosophy. There is obvious substantial overlap, and I am interested in exploring this area. One reason I am focusing on the broader field is that it has a well-defined structure and seems to cover many more topics, and they are all relevant to Christianity.

Ethics is broken down into three main fields: metaethics (what is the source of moral values and duties, and what grounds them?), normative ethics (how do we decide what is moral?), and applied ethics (what specific action is moral?). A fourth field is sometimes included, descriptive ethics, which is more of an empirical social science focused on what people believe about morality. We will focus on the first three. There are questions in each of these fields that are (or at least should be) important to every person on Earth, especially to the Christian.

Figure 1: Outline of the Field of Ethics. Thanks to Abner Telan for the design.

If these topics interest you, then great! This blog is for anyone who wants to join me on this journey as I navigate the various topics within ethics and how they relate to Christianity. Really, I think one reason I’m doing this blog is to help me formulate and refine my own thoughts on these issues both through the writing process and also from getting feedback and pushback on my ideas from readers (you guys and gals). Along the way, perhaps someone can learn from my always-tortuous journey of trying to learn far too many things.

I hope to connect and engage with you. Feedback is appreciated and encouraged. Let me know if you disagree and why. You can reach out by filling out the contact form, leaving comments, or at my Twitter, @AStrasser116.