Ethics, I



1. Rise of Ethics

2. Ethics as a Science

3. A Normative Science

4. Relation to Cognate Sciences

(1) Ethics and Metaphysics

(2) Ethics and Psychology

The "Ought"

5. Relation of Christian Ethics to Moral Philosophy

(1) Not an Opposition

(2) Philosophical Postulates

(3) Method

6. Relation of Christian Ethics to Dogmatics

(1) The Connection

(2) The Distinction

(3) Theological Postulates

(a) The Christian Idea of God

(b) The Christian Doctrine of Sin

(c) The Responsibility of Man


1. Greek Philosophy

(1) Sophists

(2) Socrates

(3) Plato

(4) Aristotle

(5) Stoics and Epicureans

(6) Stoicism

(7) Stoicism and Paul

2. Scholasticism

3. Reformation

Descartes and Spinoza

4. English Moralists

5. Utilitarianism

6. Evolutionary Ethics

7. Kant

8. German Idealists

(1) Hegel

(2) Watchwords: Pleasure and Duty


1. Ethics of the Old Testament

(1) Religious Characteristics of Hebrew Ethics

(a) The Decalogue

(b) Civil Laws

(c) Ceremonial Laws

(d) Prophecy

(e) Books of Wisdom

(f) Apocryphal Books

(2) Limitations of Old Testament Ethics

(a) As to Intent

(b) As to Extent

2. Outline of New Testament Ethics

(1) Ethics of Jesus and Paul

(2) Character

(3) Inwardness of Motive

(4) Ultimate End

3. The Ethical Ideal

(1) Holiness

(2) Christlikeness

(3) Brotherhood and Unity of Man

4. The Dynamic Power of the New Life

(1) The Dynamic on Its Divine Side

(2) The Dynamic on Its Human Side

5. Virtues, Duties and Spheres of the New Life

(1) The Virtues

(a) The Heroic Virtues

(b) The Amiable Virtues

(c) The Theological Virtues

(2) The Duties

(a) Duties toward Self

(b) Duties in Relation to Others

(c) Duties in Relation to God

(3) Spheres and Relationships

6. Conclusion

Absoluteness, Inwardness and Universality


In this article, which proposes to be of a general and introductory character, we shall first deal with the nature and function of ethics generally, showing its difference from and relation to other cognate branches of inquiry. Secondly, we shall sketch briefly the history of ethics in so far as the various stages of its development bear upon and prepare the way for Christian ethics, indicating also the subsequent course of ethical speculation. Thirdly, we shall give some account of Biblical ethics; treating first of the main moral ideas contained in the Old Testament, and enumerating, secondly, the general principles and leading characteristics which underlie the ethical teaching of the New Testament.

See also the McClintock and Strong Biblical Cyclopedia.

I. Nature and Function of Ethics.

Ethics is that branch of philosophy which is concerned with human character and conduct. It deals with man, not so much as a subject of knowledge, as a source of action. It has to do with life or personality in its inward dispositions, outward manifestations and social relations. It was Aristotle who first gave to this study its name and systematic form. According to the Greek signification of the term, it is the science of customs (ethika, from ethos, "custom," "habit," "disposition"). But inasmuch as the words "custom" and "habit" seem to refer only to outward manners or usages, the mere etymology would limit the nature of the inquiry. The same limitation exists in the Latin designation, "moral," since mores concerns primarily manners.

1. Rise of Ethics:

Men live before they reflect, and act before they examine the grounds of action. So long as there is a congruity between the habits of an individual or a people and the practical requirements of life, ethical questions do not occur. It is only when difficulties arise and new problems appear as to right and duty in which the existing customs of life offer no solution, that doubt awakes, and with doubt reflection upon the actual morality which governs life. It is when men begin to call in question their past usages and institutions and to read-just their attitude to old traditions and new interests that ethics appears. Ethics is not morality but reflection upon morality. When, therefore, Aristotle, following Socrates and Plato, employed the term, he had in view not merely a description of the outward life of man, but rather the sources of action and the objects as ends which ought to guide him in the proper conduct of life. According to the best usage the names Moral Philosophy and Ethics are equivalent and mean generally the rational explanation of our nature, actions and relations as moral and responsible beings. Ethics therefore may be defined as the systematic study of human character, and its function is to show how human life must be fashioned to realize its end or purpose.

2. Ethics as a Science:

But accepting this general definition, how, it may be asked, can we speak of a science of conduct at all? Has not science to do with necessary truths, to trace effects from causes, to formulate general laws according to which these causes act, and to draw inevitable and necessary consequences? But is not character just that concerning which no definite conclusions can be predicted? Is not conduct, dependent as it is on the human will, just that which cannot be explained as the resultant of calculable forces? If the will is free then you cannot decide beforehand what line it will take, or predict what shape character must assume. The whole conception of a science of ethics, it is contended, must fall to the ground if we admit an invariable and calculable element in conduct. But this objection is based partly upon a misconception of the function of science and partly upon a too narrow classification of the sciences. Science has not only to do with cause and effect and the laws according to which phenomena actually occur. Science seeks to deal systematically with all truths that are presented to us; and there is a large class of truths not belonging indeed to the realm of natural and physical events which, however, may be studied and correlated. Ethics is not indeed concerned with conduct, as a natural fact, as something done here and now following from certain causes in the past and succeeded by certain results in the future. It is concerned with judgments upon conduct--the judgment that such conduct is right or wrong as measured by a certain standard or end. Hence, a distinction has been made between the physical sciences and what are called normative sciences.

3. A Normative Science:

The natural or physical sciences are concerned simply with phenomena of Nature or mind, actual occurrences which have to be analyzed and classified. The normative sciences, on the other hand, have to do not with mere facts in time or space, but with judgments about these facts, with certain standards or ends (norms, from norma, "a rule") in accordance with which the facts are to be valued. Man cannot be explained by natural law. He is not simply a part of the world, a link in the chain of causality. When we reflect upon his life and his relation to the world we find that he is conscious of himself as an end and that he is capable of forming purposes, of proposing new ends and of directing his thoughts and actions with a view to the attainment of these ends, and making things subservient to him. Such an end or purpose thus forms a norm for the regulation of life; and the laws which must be observed for the attainment of such an end form the subjects of a normal or normative science. Ethics therefore has to do with the norm or standard of right or wrong, and is concerned primarily with the laws which regulate our judgments and guide our actions.

4. Relation to Cognate Sciences:

Man is of course a unity, but it is possible to view his self-consciousness in three different aspects, and to regard his personality as constituted of an intellectual, sentient and volitional element. Roughly corresponding to these three aspects, one in reality but separable in thought, there arise three distinct though interdependent mental sciences: metaphysics, which has to do with man's relation to the universe of which he forms a part; psychology, which deals with the nature, constitution and evolution of his faculties and feelings as a psychical being; and ethics, which treats of him as a volitional being, possessing will or determining activity.

(1) Ethics and Metaphysics.

Ethics, though distinct from, is closely connected with metaphysics on the one hand, and psychology on the other. If we take metaphysics in its widest sense as including natural theology and as positing some ultimate end to the realization of which the whole process of the world is somehow a means, we may easily see how it is a necessary presupposition or basis of ethical inquiry. The world as made and governed by and for an intelligent purpose, and man as a part of it, having his place and function in a great teleological cosmos, are postulates of the moral life and must be accepted as a basis of all ethical study. The distinction between ethics and metaphysics did not arise at once. In early Greek philosophy they were closely united. Even now the two subjects cannot be completely dissociated. Ethics invariably runs back into metaphysics, or at least into theology, and in every philosophical system in which the universe is regarded as having an ultimate end or good, the good of human beings is conceived as identical with or included in the universal good (see Ziegler, Gesch. der christlichen Ethik; also Sidgwick, History of Ethics).

(2) Ethics and Psychology.

On the other hand ethics is closely associated with, though distinguishable from, psychology. Questions of conduct inevitably lead to inquiries as to certain states of the agent's mind, for we cannot pronounce an action morally good or bad until we have investigated the qualities of intention, purpose, motive and disposition which lie at the root of the action. Hence, all students of ethics are agreed that the main object of their investigation must belong to the psychical side of human life, whether they hold that man's ultimate end is to be found in the sphere of pleasure or they maintain that his well-being lies in the realization of virtue. Questions as to existence, evolution and adequacy of a moral faculty (see CONSCIENCE); as to the relation of pleasure and desire; as to the meaning of validity of voluntary action; as to the historical evolution of moral customs and ideals, and man's relation at each stage of his being to the social, political and religious institutions, belong indeed to a science of ethics, but they have their roots in psychology as a study of the human soul.

The very existence of a science of ethics depends upon the answers which psychology gives to such questions. If, for example, we decide that there is no such faculty in man as conscience and that the moral sense is but a natural manifestation which has gradually evolved with the physical and social evolution of man (Darwin, Spencer); or if we deny the self-determining power of human beings and assume that the freedom of the will is a delusion, or in the last resort a negligible element, and treat man as one of the many phenomena of a physical universe, then indeed we may continue to speak of a science of the moral life as some naturalistic writers do, but such a science would not be a science of ethics as we understand it. Whatever be our explanation of conscience and freedom, no theory as to these powers must depersonalize man, and we may be justly suspicious of any system of psychology which undermines the authority of the moral sense or paves the way for a complete irresponsibility.

The "Ought."

Ethics is based on the assumption that man is a person possessing rights and having duties--responsible therefore for his intentions as well as his actions. The idea of personality involves not only a sense of accountability but carries with it also the conception of a law to which man is to conform, an ideal at which he is to aim. The end of life with all its implications forms the subject of ethics. It is concerned not simply with what a man is or does, but more particularly with what he should be and do. Hence, the word "ought" is the most distinctive term of ethics. The "ought" of life constitutes at once the end or ideal and the law of man. It comprises end, rule and motive of action. Thus the problem of ethics comes to be regarded as the highest good of man, the to agathon, of the Greeks, the summum bonum of Latin philosophy.

5. Relation of Christian Ethics to Moral Philosophy:

If ethics generally is based upon the postulates of philosophy and psychology, and at each stage of human consciousness grounds its principles of life upon the view of the world and of man to which it has attained, Christian ethics presupposes the Christian view of life as revealed by Christ, and its definition must be in harmony with the Christian ideal. Christian ethics is the science of morals conditioned by Christianity, and the problems which it discusses are the nature, laws and duties of the moral life as dominated by the Supreme Good which Christians believe to have been revealed in and through the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. Christian ethics is thus a branch or particular application of general ethics. So far from being opposed to moral philosophy it is the inevitable outcome of the evolution of thought. For if the revelation of God through Christ is true, then it is a factor, and the greatest in life and destiny, which must condition man's entire outlook and give a new value to his aims and duties.

(1) Not an Opposition.

In Christianity we are confronted with the motive power of a great Personality entering into the current of human history, and by His preeminent spiritual force giving a direction to the moral life of man. This means that the moral life can only be understood by reference to the creative power of this Personality. If there is any place at all for a distinct science of Christian ethics, that place can be indicated only by starting from the ethical ideal embodied in Christ, and working out from that point a code of morality for the practical guidance of the Christian life. But while this truth gives to Christian ethics its distinctive character and preeminent worth, it neither throws discredit upon philosophical ethics nor separates the two sciences by any hard-and-fast lines. They have much in common. A large domain of conduct is covered by both. The so-called pagan virtues have their worth for Christian character and are in the line of Christian virtues. Man even in his natural state is constituted for the moral life and is not without some knowledge of right and wrong (Ro 1:20). The moral attainments of the ancients are not simply "splendid vices." Duty may differ in content, but it is of the same kind under every system. Purity is purity, and benevolence benevolence, and both are excellences, whether manifested in a heathen or a Christian. While therefore Christian ethics takes its point of departure from the revelation of God and the manifestation of man's possibilities in Christ, it accepts and uses the results of moral philosophy in so far as they throw light upon the fundamental facts of human nature. As a system of morals Christianity claims to be inclusive. It takes cognizance of all the data of consciousness, and assumes all ascertained truth as its own. It completes what is lacking in other systems in so far as their conclusions are based on an incomplete survey of facts. Christian morals, in short, deal with personality in its highest ranges of moral power and spiritual consciousness, and seek to interpret life by its greatest possibilities and loftiest attainments as they have been revealed in Christ.

(2) Philosophical Postulates.

As illustrating what has just been said two distinctive features of Christian morals may be noted, of which philosophical ethics takes little or no account:

(a) Christian ethics assumes a latent spirituality in man awaiting the Spirit of God to call it forth. "Human nature," says Newman Smyth, "has its existence in an ethical sphere and for moral ends of being." There is a natural capacity for ethical life to which man's whole constitution points. Matter itself may be said to exist ultimately for spirit, and the spirit of man for the Holy Spirit (compare Rothe, Theologische Ethik, I, 459). No theory of man's physical beginning can interfere with the assumption that man stands upon a moral plane and is capable of a life which shapes itself to spiritual ends. Whatever be man's history and evolution, he has from the beginning been made in God's image, and he bears the Divine impress in all the lineaments of his body and soul. His degradation cannot wholly obliterate his nobility, and his actual corruption bears witness to his possible holiness. Christian morality is therefore nothing else than the morality prepared from all eternity, and is but the highest realization of that which heathen virtue was striving after. This is the Pauline view of human nature. Jesus Christ, according to the apostle, is the end and consummation of the whole creation. Everywhere there is a capacity for Christ. Man is not simply what he now is, but all that he is yet to be (1Co 15:47-49).

(b) Connected with this peculiarity is another which further differentiates Christian ethics from philosophical--the problem of the re-creation of character. Speculative systems do not advance beyond the formation of moral requirements; they prescribe what ought ideally to be done or avoided. Christianity, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with the question, By what power can I achieve the right and the good? (compare Ottley, Christian Ideas and Ideals, 22). It regards human nature as in need of renewal and recovery. It points to a process by which character can be restored and transformed. It claims to be the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth (Ro 1:16). Christian ethics thus makes the twofold assumption, and in this its contrast to philosophical ethics is disclosed, that the ideal of humanity has been revealed in Jesus Christ and that in Him also there is supplied a power by which man may become his true self, all that his natural life gives promise of and potentially is.

(3) Method.

Passing from a consideration of the data of Christian ethics to its method, we find that here again there is much that is common to philosophy and Christian morals. The method in both is the rational method. The Christian ideal, though given in Christ, has to be examined, analyzed and applied by the very same faculties as man employs in regard to speculative problems. All science must be furnished with facts, and its task is to give a consistent explanation of them. While the speculative thinker finds his facts in the constitution of the moral world at large, the Christian discovers his in Scripture, and more particularly in the teachings of Christ. But it is sufficient to point out that while the New Testament is largely occupied with ethical matters, there is no attempt at a scientific formulation of them. The materials of systematic treatment are there, but the task of coordinating and classifying principles is the work of the expositor. The data are supplied but these data require to be interpreted, unified and applied so as to form a system of ethics. Consequently in dealing with his facts, the same method must be employed by the Christian expositor as by the student of science. That is the method of rational inquiry and inductive procedure--the method imposed upon all mental problems by the essential nature of the mind itself. The authority to which Christian ethics appeals is not an external oracle which imposes its dictates in a mechanical way. It is an authority embodied in intelligible forms and appealing to the reasoning faculties of man. Christian ethics is not a cut-and-dried, ready-made code. It has to be thought out by man and brought to bear, through the instrumentality of his thinking powers, upon all the relationships of life. According to the Protestant view, at least, ethics is no stereotyped compendium of rules which the Bible or the church supplies to save a man from the trouble of thinking. It is a complete misapprehension of the nature of Scripture and of the purpose of Christ's example and teaching to assume that they afford a mechanical standard which must be copied or obeyed in a slavish way. Christ appeals to the rational nature of man, and His words are life and spirit only as they are apprehended in an intelligent way and become by inner conviction and personal appropriation the principles of thought and action:

6. Relation of Christian Ethics to Dogmatics:

Within the domain of theology the two main constituents of Christian of teaching are dogmatics and ethics, or doctrine and morals. Though it is convenient to treat these separately, they really form a whole, and are but two sides of one subject. It is difficult to define their limits, and to say where dogmatics ends and ethics begins.

The distinction has sometimes been expressed by saying that dogmatics is a theoretic, while ethics is a practical science. It is true that ethics stands nearer to everyday life and deals with methods of practical conduct, while dogmatics is concerned with beliefs and treats of their origin and elucidation. But on the other hand ethics discusses thoughts as well as actions, and is interested in inner judgments not less than outward achievements. There is a practical side to all doctrine; and there is a theoretic side of all morals. In proportion as dogmatic theology becomes divorced from practical interest there is a danger that it may become mere pedantry. Even the most theoretic of sciences, metaphysics, while, as Novalis said, it bakes no bread, has its justification in its bearing upon life. On the other hand, ethics would lose all scientific value and would sink into a mere enumeration of duties if it had no dogmatic basis and did not draw its motives from beliefs. The common statement that dogmatics shows what we should believe and ethics what we should do is only approximately true and is inadequate. For moral laws and precepts are also objects of faith, and what we should believe involves a moral requirement and has a moral character.

(1) The Connection.

Schleiermacher has been frequently charged with ignoring the differences between the two disciplines, but with scant justice; for while he regards the two studies as but different branches of Christian doctrine and while emphasizing their intimate connection, he by no means neglects their differences (compare Schleiermacher, Christliche Lehre, 1-24). Recent Christian moralists (Dorner, Martensen, Wuttke, Haering, Lemme) tend to accentuate the distinction and claim for them a separate discussion. The ultimate connection cannot indeed be overlooked without loss to both. It leads only to confusion to talk of a creedless morality, and the attempt to deal with moral questions without reference to their dogmatic implication will not only rob Christian ethics of its distinctive character and justification, but will reduce the exposition to a mere system of emotionalism. Dogmatics and ethics may be regarded as interdependent and mutually serviceable. On the one hand, ethics saves dogmatics from evaporating into unsubstantial speculation, and, by affording the test of life and workableness, keeps it upon the solid foundation of fact. On the other hand, dogmatics supplies ethics with its formative principles and normative standards, and preserves the moral life from degenerating into the vagaries of fanaticism or the apathy of fatalism.

(2) The Distinction.

While both sciences form the complementary sides of theology, and stand in the relation of mutual service, ethics presupposes dogmatics and is based upon its postulates. Dogmatics presents the essence, contents and object of the religious consciousness; ethics presents this consciousness as a power determining the human will (Wuttke). In the one, the Christian life is regarded from the standpoint of dependence on God; in the other, from the standpoint of human freedom. Dogmatics deals with faith in relation to God, and as the receptive organ of Divine grace; ethics considers it rather in its relation to man as a human activity, and as the organ of conduct (compare Lemme, Christliche Ethik, I, 15). Doctrine shows us how our adoption into the kingdom of God is the work of Divine love; ethics shows us how this knowledge of salvation manifests itself in love to God and our neighbor and must be worked out through all the relationships of life (compare Haering).

(3) Theological Postulates.

From this point of view we may see how dogmatics supplies to ethics certain postulates which may briefly be enumerated.

(a) The Christian Idea of God:

God is not merely a force or even a creator as He is presented in philosophy. Divine power must be qualified by what we term the moral attributes of God. We do not deny His omnipotence, but we look beyond it to "the love that tops the power, the Christ in God." Moreover we recognize a gradation in God's moral qualities: (a) benevolence or kindness; (b) more deeply ethical and in seeming contrast to His benevolence, Divine justice--not mere blind benevolence but a kindness which is wise and discriminating (compare Butler); (c) highest in the scale of Divine attributes, uniting in one comprehensive quality kindness and justice, stands Divine love or grace. The God whom dogmatics postulates to ethics is God in Christ.

(b) The Christian Doctrine of Sin.

It is not the province of ethics to discuss the origin of evil or propound a theory of sin. But it must see to it that the view it takes is consistent with the truths of revelation and in harmony with the facts of life. A false or inadequate conception of sin is as detrimental for ethics as it is for dogmatics, and upon our doctrine of evil depends very largely our view of life as to its difficulties and purposes, its trials and triumphs. Three views of sin have been held. According to some (e.g. the ancient Greeks) sin is simply a defect or shortcoming, a missing of the mark (hamartia, the active principle, or hamartema, the result); according to others, it is a disease, a thing latent in the constitution or at least an infirmity or limitation inherent in the flesh and resulting from heredity and environment (see EVOLUTION).

While there is truth in both of these views, by themselves, each separately, or both in combination, is defective. They do not sufficiently take account of the personal self-determinative element in all sin. It is a misfortune, a fate from which the notion of guilt is absent. The Christian view implies these conceptions, but it adds its own distinctive note which gives to them their value. Sin is not merely a negative thing, it is something positive, an inward dominating force. It is not merely an imperfection, or want; it is an excess, a trespass. It is not simply an inherited and inherent malady; it is a self-chosen perversion. It is not inherent in the flesh or animal impulses and physical passions: it belongs rather to the mind and will. Its essence lies in selfishness. It is the deliberate choice of self in preference to God. It is personal and willful rebellion. It is to be overcome, therefore, not by the suppression of the body or the excision of the passions, but by the acceptance of a new principle of life and a transformation of the whole man. There are of course degrees and stages of wrongdoing, and there are compensating circumstances which must be taken into account in estimating the significance of evil; but in its last resort Christian ethics postulates the fact of sin and regards it as personal rebellion against the holiness of God, as the deliberate choice of self and the willful perversion of all the powers of man into instruments of unrighteousness.

(c) The Responsibility of Man:

A third postulate arises as a consequence from the Christian view of God and the Christian view of sin, namely, the responsibility of man. Christian ethics treats every man as accountable for his thoughts and actions, and therefore capable of choosing the good as revealed in Christ. While not denying the sovereignty of God or minimizing the mystery of evil and clearly recognizing the universality of sin, Christianity firmly maintains the doctrine of human freedom and accountability. An ethic would be impossible if, on the one side, grace were absolutely irresistible, and if, on the other, sin were necessitated, if at any single point wrongdoing were inevitable. Whatever be our doctrine on these subjects, ethics demands that freedom of the will be safeguarded.

At this point an interesting question emerges as to the possibility, apart from a knowledge of Christ, of choosing the good. Difficult as this question is, and though it was answered by Augustine and many of the early Fathers in the negative, the modern, and probably the more just, view is that we cannot hold mankind responsible unless we accord to all men the larger freedom. If non-Christians are fated to do evil, then no guilt can be imputed. History shows that a love for goodness has sometimes existed, and that many isolated acts of purity and kindness have been done, among people who have known nothing of the historical Christ. The New Testament recognizes degrees of depravity in nations and individuals and a measure of noble aspiration and earnest effort in ordinary human nature. Paul plainly assumes some knowledge and performance on the part of the heathen, and though he denounces their immorality in unsparing terms he does not affirm that pagan society was so utterly corrupt that it had lost all knowledge of moral good.

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