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 likely begin by discussing the relationship between morality and emotions.

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s