Essentials of Christian Ethics - Lesson 3

Five Mistaken Approaches to Ethics

In this lesson, you'll learn about five mistaken approaches to ethics: legalism, antinomianism, situationism, generalism, and particularism. By understanding these flawed approaches, you'll gain valuable insights into how to avoid the pitfalls associated with them. Legalism emphasizes strict adherence to rules, while antinomianism completely rejects rules. Situationism focuses on individual situations, whereas generalism seeks universal principles. Particularism, on the other hand, insists on unique and unrepeatable ethical decisions. Through examining these approaches, you'll develop a stronger foundation for your own ethical decision-making.

Ronald Nash
Essentials of Christian Ethics
Lesson 3
Watching Now
Five Mistaken Approaches to Ethics

ET101-03: Five Mistaken Approaches to Ethics

I. Introduction to Ethical Mistakes

A. Importance of Identifying Mistakes

B. Overview of the Five Mistaken Approaches

II. Legalism

A. Definition and Characteristics

B. Dangers and Consequences

III. Antinomianism

A. Definition and Characteristics

B. Dangers and Consequences

IV. Situationism

A. Definition and Characteristics

B. Dangers and Consequences

V. Generalism

A. Definition and Characteristics

B. Dangers and Consequences

VI. Particularism

A. Definition and Characteristics

B. Dangers and Consequences

  • This lesson delves into the ethical thought of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas, highlighting the similarities and differences in their perspectives on right and wrong conduct, the relationship between goodness and God, and the importance of virtues in shaping human behavior.
  • This lesson provides an in-depth analysis of the ethical theories of Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, exploring their perspectives on the Christian view of God, human nature, moral laws, happiness, and virtues, and how these concepts impact human well-being and moral behavior.
  • This lesson equips you to identify and avoid the pitfalls of five mistaken ethical approaches: legalism, antinomianism, situationism, generalism, and particularism, ultimately strengthening your ethical decision-making process.

Christian ethics is that branch of philosophy that deals with issues of right and wrong, true and false, and the reasons why certain behavior is right or wrong.

Dr. Ronald Nash
Essentials of Christian Ethics
Five Mistaken Approaches to Ethics
Lesson Transcript

[00:00:01] The following lecture is provided by biblical training. The speaker is Dr. Ronald Nash. More information is available at W WW dot Biblical training dot org. Well, we have one more set of ethical beliefs that I want to consider before we turn our attention to a collection of ethical views that are more consistent with the biblical worldview. And one of those non-Christian ethical theories that we're going to examine is hedonism. But before I get to the whole path of hedonism, I want to deal with hedonism as a part of a larger collection of beliefs that I sometimes call the downward path of the ethical life. And after I finish that section, which may take me quite a bit of time, I want to begin to look at what we could call the upward path of the ethical life. And it is in that second section in which I will offer some more observations about the Christian ethic. So I begin now a discussion of five mistaken approaches to ethics, several of which appear to be very popular today, especially on college campuses and in our nation's capital. The topics that I will discover in order are ethical subjectivism, ethical relativism, situation, ethics, hedonism and utilitarianism. At the moment that I'm speaking here, I believe that this unit of this material will cover the first three of those ethical subjectivism ethical relativism and situation ethics. And then we'll take a break. And when we come back after the break, we'll then turn our attention to hedonism and utilitarianism. There is an important difference between ethical subjectivism and ethical relativism. And I'm going to spend a little time exploring that difference. Let me deal first with ethical subjectivism. Ethical subjectivism is the belief that whenever people say something is morally good, they mean nothing more than that they like it or that they approve it.

[00:02:31] Take the proposition X is good. What that means is what the person saying it really means is I like it. I like it. I approve of it. The key to understanding ethical subjectivism and then grasping its failings is seeing that moral judgments on this view refer not to the objective, good or evil of actions, but the real referent of moral judgments. Is the inner subjective feelings on the part of the speaker. People who declare an action as right or wrong are doing nothing more than asserting that they, the speakers, feel positively or negatively toward the action. In the view of such a person, the claim that, for example, partial birth abortions are immoral. That claim means nothing more than that. The speaker disapproves of the practice. It doesn't say anything about the objective immorality of the practice. The counter claim that partial birth abortions are good must mean nothing more than that. The speaker likes it or approves of the practice. Do you understand? Under ethical subjectivism as the dominant theory that we're considering here. All anybody means when he makes a moral claim is declaring whether or not he likes it or dislikes it. That's what ethical Subjectivism boils down to. Now, there are five paradoxical consequences of this theory. Five Bad consequences. Number one on this theory, a person is always correct when making ethical judgments. The only way to be wrong is to make a mistake about what your feelings are on the matter. And since that is hard to do, every ethical judgment turns out to be true since debates over abortion get intense at times. I should think that pro-choice advocates would eschew ethical subjectivism, which carries the conviction that the moral judgments of pro-life advocates are also correct. You see.

[00:04:49] It's a bad move. It's a foolish move for a hardcore abortion advocate to adopt ethical subjectivism, because that means that anybody who disagrees with a proponent of abortion is also right. I have never met a pro-choice or pro-life person willing to make that kind of concession. Therefore, anyone who believes that even one person who holds a conflicting moral opinion is objectively wrong cannot, if he is consistent, be an ethical subjectivist. Here's the second problem with ethical subjectivism. All moral actions are good and bad at the same time. The reason is that people who think they're involved in a moral disagreement are only describing their own subjective states. If Jones says capital punishment is wrong and Smith says capital punishment is good, there is no real disagreement. Jones is saying nothing more than I dislike capital punishment, while Smith is saying nothing more than I like capital punishment. The fact that ethical subjectivism entails that both people in a moral dispute are right ought to disqualify this position from serious consideration. Whoever you are, whatever you are, don't be an ethical subjectivist. That's utter madness. It is also important to note that many people inconsistently hold ethical subjectivism in the case of some moral issues and abandoned it in others. That is, some people say, Well. I want to be an ethical subjectivist with respect to my sexual conduct, but I don't want to be an ethical subjectivist when it comes, for example, to the matter of abortion. This is not the behavior of a reflective person. Here's the third issue note to people. That is if one assumes ethical subjectivism. No two people ever disagree about over moral matters. No two people ever disagree over moral matters. This follows logically from the discussion in point to imagine a case where Smith says, I have blue eyes and Jones objects by saying, No, I have brown eyes.

[00:07:11] There's no more disagreement than if Jones had said, I like broccoli. And Smith said, I don't like broccoli. Point four According to ethical Subjectivism no two people ever mean the same thing when they make ethical judgments. Imagine two White House advisers who both say telling the truth is bad. Each person is doing nothing more than describing his own subjective state. Neither person is saying the same thing. Point five Ethical Subjectivism turns apparently significant moral judgments into either vacuous tautology or into contradictions. Consider a person who says, I like to get drunk, but I know what's wrong. In ethical subjectivism, this kind of utterance turns out to be a contradiction. To wit, I like to get drunk, but I don't like to get drunk. Or take the case of a person who says I like to do what is right, which on subjectivist terms reduces to the vacuous claim that I like to do what I like to do. Isn't that clever? Since all of my listeners should by now be experts on using the reductio ad absurdum argument, the absurd consequences implied by ethical subjectivism should lead us to look elsewhere for an adequate moral theory. So that's the first of these bad ethical theories that we're looking at. The next one is called ethical relativism. And please be sure that you know the difference between ethical relativism and ethical subjectivism. The attacks against one may not work with the other. Ethical relativism is the belief that conflicting moral beliefs can be true at the same time and in the same sense. Conflicting moral beliefs can be true at the same time and in the same sense. These conflicting moral beliefs may exist in the case of two or more individuals or in different cultures, which would give you cultural relativism or indifferent historical epics, which would give you historical relativism.

[00:09:31] Many attempts have been made to undermine the claim that there is an objective moral law that is the same for all human beings. Theists should be encouraged by the weakness of these countermoves. For example, some attempt to argue that human moral consciousness results from learning or conditioning, but this would undermine the presumed objectivity of objective moral laws. Philosopher Ed Miller notes one serious weakness in this line of thinking. He writes, quote, The fact that something is learned is hardly evidence against its objective, truth and validity. We learn that two plus two equals four. We learn that war is bad and we learn all kinds of things which we believe to be nonetheless true. Is there in fact, anything that we claim to know that we have not learned in one way or another? And though people may disagree about their interpretation of good, it does not follow from this that there is no objective good. We may just as easily conclude from the fact that people often disagree in their interpretations of the world. That the world doesn't exist, which would be absurd, or from the fact that some people cannot see that two plus two equals four. But perhaps it doesn't equal four. That's the end of that quote. So far as objective truth is concerned, nothing follows from the fact that two individuals or two cultures disagree over the morality of a particular action. Any more than that, their disagreement over a non ethical issue might be thought to imply the absence of any objective truth in this non ethical case. For example, when a person a says the world is flat and person B claims the world is round, it hardly follows that there is no objective truth about this issue. Similarly, when person A says that abortion on demand is morally acceptable and Person B says that abortion on demand is wrong.

[00:11:41] It doesn't follow that the morality of the practice is relative. In both cases, we are dealing with beliefs. A believes the world is flat, while B believes otherwise. As we know, there is an objective truth on this issue. Therefore, one person's belief is correct and the other person's belief is not correct. Likewise, ethical disputes involve conflicting beliefs, even in especially difficult cases where we may have trouble knowing which belief is correct. It is difficult to see what would justify the conclusion that an ethical disputes no beliefs are objectively true. Really bad arguing. Equally implausible are attempts to explain moral beliefs in terms of the supposed evolution of instincts or social feelings. According to Stephen Evans, whom I quote, The moral order does not seem to consist of any such things. That is, instincts and feelings. It is not an instinct because it is itself the standard by which we judge our instincts to be good and bad. And it is not merely a social impulse or feeling. People who have dulled their consciences often are in fact obligated to do things yet have no such feelings of obligation whatsoever. On the other hand, people with tender consciences often feel obligated to do things which no reasonable person would claim they really ought to do. Feelings and real obligations cannot be identical. Now I want to push this matter of relativism a bit further. As is the case with ethical subjectivism, ethical relativism also gives rise to a number of paradoxical consequences. Let me mention several. Number one, if we accept ethical relativism, then no moral code can be better than any other. We have no grounds for criticizing other people. As Scott Ray points out, quote, The relativists cannot morally evaluate any clearly oppressive culture or more specifically, any obvious tyrant.

[00:14:02] The relativist cannot pass judgment on someone like Hitler, who oppressed a minority with the permission, if not the approval of the majority. Since no moral absolute that transcends culture exists to which the relativist can appeal as a basis for that judgment. If there are no transcendent, objective grounds for moral criticism, no side can be more right than the other point to. If we accept ethical relativism, there can be no such thing as moral progress, either for individuals or for larger social groups. This would mean that the end of slavery in the United States was not a sign of moral advancement, nor could it ever be possible for a human being to become a better person. Genuine moral progress cannot exist in a universe without there being some transcendent and objective moral standard by which we can judge progress. Point three If we accept ethical relativism, moral effort becomes meaningless. Why strive to become a better person or bring about a better society? If moral progress is impossible, or if we accept ethical relativism, then no human is better than any other. And five. If we accept ethical relativism, then we are wrong in believing that moral reformers are possible. Listen to this quote from J.P. Morgan. He says, If relativism is true, then it is impossible in principle to have a true moral reformer who changes a society's code and does not merely bring out what was already implicit in that code. For moral reformers, by definition, change a society's code by arguing that it is right if and only if it is in the society's code. So the reformer is by definition, immoral, since he adopts a set of values outside that society's code and attempts to change that code in keeping with these values, Mallen continues.

[00:16:10] It is odd, to say the least, for someone to hold that every moral reformer who ever lived Moses, Jesus, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr. That every moral reformer who ever lived was immoral by definition. Any moral view which implies that is surely false. Six. If relativism is true, then all choices are equally good. If all choices are equally good. Even intolerance toward other beliefs can be morally correct. Why, then, should anyone practice tolerance? Once again, the kind of argument known as reductio ad absurdum reducing a position to absurdity can come to our aid if we retain our ability to think. Why can ethical relativists not recognize the absurd consequences of their position? Let me give you a few other objections to ethical relativism as we move on. As we know, many people cling to a kind of ethical relativism in which different groups or cultures or nations are entitled to hold conflicting moral beliefs. But there is a serious problem in linking relative ethical standards to different groups. Where do we draw the moral boundaries? Where do we draw the moral boundaries between groups? Once again, J.P. Morgan gives us help. Quote It is difficult to define what a society or moral group is, and even if that can be done, it is difficult in many cases to identify the morally relevant society. Some acts are done in more than one society at the same time. Suppose there is a community of fairly wealthy, sexually liberated adults who hold it. Adultery is actually a virtue since it is a sign of escape from sexual repression. Now suppose there is a community ten miles away which is more conservative and has in its code the statement of adultery is wrong. If a man from the first society, Mr.

[00:18:21] Jones, has intercourse with Mrs. Smith, a member of the Second Society, at a motel halfway between the two societies, which society is the normative one? Furthermore, Mallen contends, some moral agents can belong to more than one group or society at a time. Suppose Fred is an 18 year old college freshman who was a member of a social fraternity and a member of a Baptist church. His social fraternity may hold that it is morally obligatory to get drunk at parties. The university may hold that such acts are not obligatory, but are at least permissible. And the Baptist Church may hold that such an act is morally forbidden. It is hard to tell which society is the morally relevant one. So these objections point out that even if we have a clear notion of what constitutes a society and this is a difficult task, we still have the problem that some acts are done in more than one society by people who belong to more than one society. Look, some acts are always wrong. The war crimes committed by the Germans and the Japanese during World War Two were wrong, regardless of what their social codes were at that time. The atrocities committed in the areas of the former Yugoslavia are immoral, regardless of what social codes may exist in that region. The killing of babies is wrong, regardless of possible sentiment to the contrary. There are lots of ethical relativists in the world, but it is difficult to imagine a supposed set of claims more problematic than the belief that all moral claims are true. Now we have one more short theory to examine in this part of my lecture. I want to talk about a theory called situation ethics. It used to be, and probably is still very popular on many college campuses, including in the lives of many university professors.

[00:20:31] Perhaps more than 30 years ago, a professor of ethics at Episcopal Seminary in Boston named Joseph Fletcher published a book titled Situation Ethics. Fletcher's position was picked up by many other religious liberals in the English speaking world. The theory became popular because it talked about love while effectively allowing people to do almost anything they wanted. All they had to do was find a way to say that their actions were, quote, the loving thing to do. End quote. The theory also became popular because it came in a religious package that allowed people to think they were being religious, even as they continued to act as rebels against God's moral law. Some leaders of the movement falsely claimed Augustine as a forerunner of their view, for Augustine had once said that humans could love God and do as they please. But what Augustine meant was miles removed from the moral relativism of situation ethics. When Augustine talked about loving God, he meant loving the pure and Holy God of the Bible who had revealed his will, including the Ten Commandments in the words and the propositions of Scripture. Augustine would have delivered an anathema against the purveyors of situation Ethics. Situation. Ethics asserts that Christian ethics imposes no duty other than the duty to love. In determining what we should do. The Situationist declares that Christians should face the moral situation and ask themselves, What is the loving thing to do in this case? There are no rules or principles that prescribe how love will act. Indeed, each loving individual is free to act in any way he thinks is consistent with love. Has he understands it? Wow. The point to situation ethics is that Christian ethics provides no universal principles or rules for these people. Nothing is intrinsically good except love.

[00:22:39] Nothing is intrinsically bad except non love. One can never prescribe in advance what a Christian should do depending on the situation. Love may find it necessary to lie, to steal, even presumably to fornicate, to blaspheme and to worship false gods. The only absolute is love. Well, regrettably, love is a word that has no specific content in the vacuous dictums of the Situationists. A proper response to situation ethics will begin by pointing out that love is insufficient in itself to provide moral guidance for each and every moral decision. Love requires the further specification of principles or rules that suggest the proper ways in which love should be manifested. Because human beings are fallen creatures whose judgments on important moral matters may be affected by moral weakness. Love needs guidance from divinely revealed moral truth. Fortunately, Christians believe this content is provided in the moral principles revealed in Scripture. Thank you for listening to this lecture brought to you by biblical training, dawg. Feel free to make copies of this lecture to give to others. But please do not charge for these copies or alter the content in any way without permission. We invite you to visit our web site at WW W dot Biblical training, dawg. There you will find the finest in evangelical teaching for use in the home and the church. And it is absolutely free. Our curriculum includes classes for new believers, lay education classes, and seminary level classes taught by some of the finest seminary teachers drawn from a wide range of evangelical traditions. Our mailing address is Post Office Box 28428. Spokane, Washington 99228 USA.