Apologetics Christian Philosophy Metaphysics Moral Theology

Four Domains of Christian Knowledge: Apologetics (Ethics)

Continuing in this series on four, core domains of Christian Discipleship, I now sketch a brief overview of the third area of philosophical Apologetics, Ethics.


The moral argument is perhaps the most concrete and powerful argument for the existence of God. The first five chapters of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity is still one of the most common-sense, and forceful defenses of objective moral values and duties ever written. But ethics has not only to do with the source or grounds of moral values and duties, but also with the application of those values and duties, should they actually exist.

As such, ethics is often categorized into two main divisions: Normative Theories, and Applied Ethics. A third, overarching category, Metaethics, is what ultimately will interest us as theological Apologists, since it has to do with the source of morality and the nature of moral discourse. However, both normative ethical systems and applied ethical issues are tightly related to our work as defenders of the truth, and the goodness, of the Christian faith.

Types of Ethical Systems: Cognitive and Non-Cognitive

One way to categorize normative systems of ethics is either as cognitive, meaning that moral statements have actual truth values, or as non-cognitive, meaning that moral statement are, by and large, mere projections or expressions of feelings about a particular state of affairs, i.e. they are neither true, nor false. Let’s look at the non-cognitive systems first.

The most general non-cognitive system of ethics is called Emotivism. In brief, Emotivism is the idea that there are no real moral facts about the world. Emotivism tends to go hand in hand with metaphysical naturalism, or the belief that there are only physical things, since if ultimately only the physical world exists, it is difficult, if not impossible, to see how we could derive objective (mind independent) moral values and obligations, i.e. “oughts,” from brute facts about mere “stuff.” After all, what could the random motion and accidental collocation of sub-atomic particles tell us about what we should, or should not do? Of course, this is not to say that all metaphysical naturalists are emotivists. In fact, there is a trend back to moral realism, even among naturalists.

Non-Cognitive: Emotivism

As such, on Emotivism, to make a moral claim about, say torturing baby kittens, is akin to saying nothing more than “Torturing baby kittens…yuck!” On this view I simply feel that torturing animals is wrong, but if I were to formulate the proposition “it is wrong to torture baby kittens” I am not saying anything more than “I just don’t like the feeling I have when I see or think about baby kittens being tortured.” There are other kinds of non-cognitive systems of morality, but all of them reject the idea that a moral statement can be true or false. They just are expressions of emotional distaste, or affirmation.

Cognitive Systems: Teleological, Deontological, and Virtue Based

Cognitive systems, on the other hand, argue that there are truths about moral claims. That something is really either morally right, or morally wrong, and that one can give reasons to support one or the other. Cognitive systems can be categorized into three broad domains: teleological, deontological, and virtue ethical systems.

Teleological systems are ones that see the attainment of a fundamental goal or end as the primary determiner of moral actions. Some teleological systems are: ethical egoism, psychological egoism, and utilitarianism. Of these teleological systems the one that tends to reign supreme in Western culture, and that for roughly two and a half centuries, is utilitarianism, or the idea that whatever actions cause the greatest number of people to enjoy the maximum amount of happiness or pleasure over the longest period of time, are morally good actions. Conversely, any action that precludes the greatest number of people from enjoying the greatest amount or degree of happiness for extended periods of time, is immoral or wrong. Utilitarianism is sometimes known as “Consequentialism,” as moral actions become either good or bad depending on the consequences they produce. For obvious reasons, Christians have always been wary of Consequentialism as a theory of moral action, as it can easily degrade into an “ends justifies the means” kind of thinking. Nonetheless, consequentialist views of ethics have dominated Western democracies’ public life for generations.

Deontological systems, made famous by the work of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), focus not on an end goal of moral action, but focus on duty or moral obligation. In a sense deontological ethics is about following certain rules, regardless of the outcome, and in following those rules, one acts morally. In contrast to Consequentialism, deontological ethics can almost neglect the outcomes of actions. Thus, if Consequentialism can degrade into a system that allows for what would seem to be evil acts just in case there are good results, deonotolgical ethics can come off as a system that is so duty-bound that it neglects how one’s moral activity might cause great harm. For example, on a very strict deontological system, should Nazis soldiers come to one’s door looking for hidden Jews they intend to haul off to a concentration camp, one would be duty-bound to tell the Nazis where the hapless victims are hidden, since lying is a universal “no-no.” Kant believed that pure reason alone could determine what were the universal moral truths human beings were to live by, and this without recourse to anything like Special Revelation from God. Most today think that this project, however, has failed, since reason alone is not up to the task of determining universal moral obligations. However, there are forms of deontological systems that are still robustly defended in secular culture today, most of which revolve around some kind of contract theory, also known as Social Contractualism.

Virtue Ethical, or character-based, systems of Ethics are as ancient as Aristotle, actually more ancient. In fact, most classical philosophy, even abstract metaphysics and epistemology, was aimed at the ultimate goal of developing the moral character of the individual citizen of the Greek polis. This was known as aretaic, or character, ethics, and to build virtue was part and parcel of living “the good life,” itself the primary focus of all classical philosophy. For the ancient Greeks, the idea of building virtues was more important than either the consequences of actions, or the rules of the nation or culture. Classical virtues like temperance, prudence, courage and justice were to be pursued through the cultivation of certain habits and practice. Of course, in turn, one would expect a city, or nation, to be healthier were it to possess many virtuous citizens, as opposed to few. Also, since obedience to norms and traditions could be considered a virtuous disposition, virtue ethics can incorporate aspects of utilitarianism and deontology into its system. Since the work of C.S. Lewis’ contemporary at Oxford, Elizabeth Anscombe, and Alasdair MacIntyre more recently, Virtue Ethics as a system of Christian ethics has become a popular philosophical position.

Metaethics: Divine Command Theory, Realism, and Biblical Ethics

When it comes to Ethics, there is always the more fundamental question of where do moral values and obligations, if they do exist, come from? The ancient debate of whether moral values are grounded in something like the physical structure of the universe, or a Divine Mind, or whether they are nothing more than cultural conventions that change and shift over time, is still hotly debated today. Do our moral values come from a transcendent moral law giver who has designed the fabric of reality? Or are they derivable from purely natural facts about the world, and the neurological makeup we happen to have through the process of evolution? Or, perhaps most “spooky,” are they instantiations of Platonic forms that exist in an otherwise inaccessible transcendent realm?

As Christian apologists it is clear that option 1 is fundamental to our defense of the Christian faith. That God is the source of all moral values and duties, and that He gives explicit commands about those values and duties, is derived immediately, and with little confusion from the pages of Holy Scripture (see Exodus 20:1-21). However, this is not to say that there aren’t also some values and obligations that are relative to changes in cultural context, or particular situations (take our aforementioned Nazi scenario as an example of moral relativism with regards to lying). Still, that some form of Divine Command Theory is usually required for a proper articulation of Christian ethics, seems to be the case for any defender of Christian orthodoxy. That said, Divine Command Theory need not stand alone, and one of the logical counterparts to supplement any DCT view is, as alluded above, a theory of virtue ethics.

Finally, if Christianity is true, then we should all be moral realists, meaning that if God exists, moral facts and obligations are themselves real. They are not just conventions that emerge out of the minds of men, or their communities, or that shift and change over time without any fixed point. While there is room for things like morally complex or ambiguous situations or conditions, there are nevertheless objective values that accord with the divine nature of God, and that impose moral duties upon us. Thus, to be an anti-realist about morality as a Christian is akin to rejecting fundamental, metaphysical claims about God (e.g. God is triune, the triune God is eternal). After all, if man is the sole source of moral values and duties, then why did Christ have to die? If there are no objective moral values and duties, then whatever morality was in fashion then, or now, would not require such a great sacrifice!

In sum, most serious Christians are moral realists who defend some kind of Divine Command Theory that perhaps also incorporates virtue ethics into its model. C. Stephen Evans has written one of the best defenses of a modified Divine Command Theory in his God and Moral Obligations. Finally, when it comes to applied ethics, it is the role of the New Testament scholar and the local pastor to help elucidate to the Church what are the divine precepts that God expects us to live up to, and how we are empowered by the Spirit to do so. The Bible should be our primary source of moral knowledge, and when it comes to any issue of character, or action, we should be mining its pages for wisdom and truth about what is good, and what is our moral duty in light of that Good. One of the most comprehensive accounts so far with regard to deducing moral guidelines from Scripture and applying them to contemporary ethical cases is Richard B. Hays’ The Moral Vision of the New Testament.

Leave a Reply