Tag Archives: General Ethics

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.

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.