Essentials of Christian Ethics - Lesson 1

Introduction, Plato and Aristotle

In this lesson, you will gain an understanding of ethics, the branch of philosophy that deals with issues of right and wrong conduct, as it pertains to the thought of four major thinkers: Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas. The provided transcript mainly focuses on Plato's ethics, including his opposition to ethical relativism, the relationship between goodness and God, the importance of virtue, and the concept of the three parts of the human soul. While studying the ethical views of these thinkers, you will notice how often their perspectives align with Christian beliefs, despite some of them not being Christian themselves.

Ronald Nash
Essentials of Christian Ethics
Lesson 1
Watching Now
Introduction, Plato and Aristotle

I. Introduction to Ethics

A. Definition and Purpose of Ethics

B. Overview of the Course

II. Plato's Ethics

A. Opposition to Ethical Relativism

B. Goodness and God

C. Virtue and Commands

D. Three Parts of the Human Soul

III. Aristotle's Ethics (not covered in the provided transcript)

IV. Augustine's Ethics (not covered in the provided transcript)

V. Thomas Aquinas' Ethics (not covered in the provided transcript)

  • 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
Introduction, Plato and Aristotle
Lesson Transcript

[00:00:01] The following lecture is provided by biblical training. The speaker is Dr. Ronald Nash. More information is available at WW w dot Biblical training dot org. You're about to listen to a three hour tape that summarizes my biblical training course on ethics. Ethics, of course, is that branch of philosophy that deals with issues of right and wrong conduct. And of course, it also deals with even more fundamental issues than naming the kinds of behavior that are good or bad or right or wrong. It's concerned with the reasons why certain kinds of behavior are right or wrong. One purpose of this course is to give you enough information about ethics for you to decide whether you want to listen to the entire long 40 hour tape. Of course, one of the nice things about the biblical training courses is that you can just sit and listen to them without reading any books. But I think you probably all recognize that if you've got some reading that accompanies the tapes, that it can provide a little more help for you if you're interested in seeking that. The book of mind that would, I think, best fit. What I'm going to do in this short summary version is my book, Life's Ultimate Questions, which is available from Amazon.com and other Internet booksellers. Here's how I'm going to proceed here. So I'm going to start at least I'm going to look at the ethical systems of four major thinkers Plato, Aristotle and Augustine, who was, of course, a Christian, and Thomas Aquinas, who, of course, was a Christian. This will serve as a kind of introduction to how thinkers from a variety of perspectives, thinkers from a variety of worldviews have approached ethical concerns. One thing that always impresses me about ethics is that even when I'm studying the ethical views of non-Christians like Aristotle and Plato, it is interesting to observe how often they agree with us that some kinds of behavior are always wrong and how they often encourage us to pursue the kinds of virtues, the traits of character that interest Christians.

[00:02:39] I'm going to begin with the ethics of Plato. I deal with Plato's other important ideas in my course on the history of philosophy and Christian thought. But I've never had the time in that course to deal with the ethics of Plato and Aristotle and some of the other thinkers that we're going to mention. So let's begin with Plato's ethics. The first thing that I find very interesting about Plato is his opposition to ethical relativism. Plato believed that there were absolute and unchanging standards of such moral concepts as goodness and justice and virtue. Plato was a committed opponent of ethical relativism. One of Plato's early writings is called the Youth of Pharaoh. And it is interesting because it raises an issue in ethics that is of interest to a great many Christians. Let me start talking about that. In his youth, the fro Plato touches briefly on the relationship between moral goodness and God. Plato does this by asking What has become a well-known question is something good simply because God commands it? Or does God commanded because it is good? Let me give you a way to visualize these two options. First of all, imagine a line with the word God above the line in the word goodness below the line might even help if you draw that line. Then in the second case, draw a similar line. But in this case, put the word goodness above the line and the word God beneath the line. Okay. In Plato's dialog, the youth of Rho, he recommends the second situation, the one to the right. If God wills x where X is some act, it must be because x is good prior to an independent of God's willing it get the picture. Goodness is above God.

[00:05:00] Therefore, if God wills X, it must be because x is good before prior to God's willing it. Plato rejected the first option where God is above the good that X is. Good solely because God wills it, because Plato thought that made ethics arbitrary and capricious. If something is good, only because God will sit. Plato thought, what would prevent God from willing something else? In other words, let us say that God has willed that murder be wrong. But if there is nothing constraining God's will in these matters could not. God has also willed murder to be good. Or so Plato thought. Suppose God were to will one kind of behavior on even days of the month and the opposite kind of conduct on odd days. This would make possible days on which God commands murder, stealing and adultery instead of forbidding them as He does in the Ten Commandments. If morality is grounded on nothing more than an arbitrary command of God, it is possible that God could have commanded us to perform actions that we recognize as immoral. So that first option where God is above the good, makes ethics capricious and arbitrary. That seems unsatisfactory. But the other option is equally unsatisfactory. If the only alternative to viewing ethics as capricious and arbitrary is believing that what God wills must be subordinate to a standard of goodness that is above and superior to God, then an important feature of Jewish and Christian belief must be abandoned, namely the conviction that God is supreme and sovereign and that nothing is higher than God. So Plato's two options seem to have trapped us on the horns of a dilemma. If we accept the first one, ethics as arbitrary and capricious, God could will absolutely anything. Murder, rape, lying, stealing to be good.

[00:07:15] But if we choose the other option, God is neither supreme nor sovereign. The two options that Plato presents and the user fro, however, are not exclusive. And people need to realize that Plato changed his mind. Both of Plato's options at that time in his thinking are inconsistent with the important Christian beliefs, namely that God's moral commands are not capricious and that nothing is higher than God and stands in judgment over God's actions. Rather, in Christian theology, the good or the moral law functions on the same level with God. The precise sense in which this is true will become clearer later in the tape. What God wills can never conflict with what God is. There is nothing higher than God, but neither is what God wills. Arbitrary. What God wills reflects and is consistent with His own eternal nature, which is immutably and necessarily good. Now, what I'm suggesting here is there's a third alternative to these two options that we've already explored. The third alternative holds that the good is what God wills. This third position goes on to add, however, that God's willing is never arbitrary. The good is defined not merely by God's will, but also by God's eternal and unchanging nature. This third alternative views the good as identical in some way with God. The good is identical with God's nature, what God is and with what God wills. Which is always consistent with God's nature. There is no fundamental conflict between what God is and what God does. If there is no fundamental conflict between what God is and what God does, and if the good is defined in terms of God's nature, it is impossible for God's moral commands to be arbitrary. Since they have a ground. Moreover, it is also impossible for God's moral commands to be grounded on anything higher than himself.

[00:09:35] God's moral law is not arbitrary. It does have a ground. God does have a reason for his commands. But that reason is not something higher than God himself. Now, there's some irony here because Plato himself actually moved towards a position similar to this move, towards a position like this third alternative, when in his great book, The Republic, Plato identified God with the good. Another issue that arises out of Plato's ethic is his understanding of the relationship between virtue and commands. Plato's ethic has nothing to do with commandments, such as we find in Judaism and Christianity. Plato ignores commands and places all of his emphasis upon the importance of virtue or excellence, believing that if human beings possess a virtuous character, their conduct will be morally acceptable. A so-called virtue ethic has become popular in some contemporary circles. Students of the New Testament cannot help but notice the Bible's emphasis upon character and virtue. It is important what kind of people we are. See Galatians Chapter five versus 22 and 23. But talk about virtue is not sufficient since any trait of character will do. There are reasons why some human character is deemed a virtue rather than a vice. A properly virtuous person will behave in ways that obey God's commandments. John Disagreeing with Plato here, I'm saying you cannot separate virtue from commandments. Both are important in the Bible, and commandments will help steer us in the direction of the proper virtues. Another important part of Plato's ethic plays a major role in his great book, The Republic. He talks about the three parts of the human soul. Now, in one way, I have difficulty recommending everything that Plato says on this subject, but nonetheless it is of interest and it's worth thinking about.

[00:11:58] Plato noted that while there are two parts of a human being, body and soul, he thought there were three parts to the human soul. Plato provides an illustration of this last point. He asks us to imagine a charioteer driving a chariot pulled by two winged horses, one white and the other black. The relevant passage here is Plato's Phaedrus. 254 to 256. As one commentator explains, the black horse is ill bred and ignoble, inclined to pursue brutish pleasures. This one symbolizes the imperative part of the soul. The white horse is well-bred and noble, inclined to soar upward toward honor and glory. This is the spirited part of man's soul. Obviously, they represent two appetites in man the desire for sensual satisfaction, the black horse, and the aspiration for success and fame. The white horse. The driver of these two horses must know where he is going. Must love the better things and must assert his orderly control over his unruly steeds. The charioteer represents reason. This is the highest part of man's soul. Philosophy is designed to train man's soul so that all three parts of the soul work together for happiness. Plato makes this threefold distinction of the soul because of the obvious conflict humans sense within themselves the rational part of the human soul. The charioteer seeks the truth and acquires knowledge. The rational part of the soul is the seat of human immortality for Plato. No animals possess this faculty. The spirited and passionate parts of the soul are faculties of its irrational side, the spirited part of the soul. The white horse exemplifies anger, resentment and the desire to excel. The passionate part of the soul. The black horse pursues the pleasures of food, sex, and the satisfaction of other bodily desires.

[00:14:15] It is easy to understand why Plato thought it necessary to make a distinction between the spirit and passions. When people yield to temptation, they can become angry with themselves. Plato then went on to talk about what he called the four cardinal virtues. For Plato, there are four basic kinds of virtue called the cardinal virtues. They are temperance, courage, wisdom and justice. Temperance or self-control is the proper virtue of the passions. Courage means fortitude in the face of adversity, which is what the spirited part of the human soul requires. Wisdom means excellence and selecting the proper means to an end. Its relation to the rational part of the soul should be obvious. The fourth virtue, what Plato calls justice, is the overarching virtue that is present when humans are temperate, courageous and wise. Plato's account of the righteous or just human person takes us back to his example of the charioteer and the two horses. To assure that Chariot reaches its destination, the charioteer must know when to rein in one horse and when to give rein to its partner. Plato's picture allows him to say that the just man or woman is one in whom reason rules the passion and the spirit. Well, those are some of the highlights of Plato's thinking about ethics. Of course, it represents a classically Greek way of thinking. There's no recognition of human sinfulness, the need of human beings for help from God. And so Plato's view leaves a great deal, a great deal to be desired. But of course, we're dealing with a secular man here, a secular understanding of human beings. Plato, of course, was followed by his great pupil, Aristotle, who studied in Plato's Academy for many years and then began his own university in Athens that was called the Lyceum.

[00:16:42] In the first book of his ethical treatise, the Night Committee and Ethics, Aristotle begins by observing that all human action is directed at an end or a goal when we act intentionally. Aristotle said, we act with the aim of accomplishing a particular objective. Aristotle wonders if we can discover any single goal towards which all human beings aim. Is there any single goal so superior to every other goal that it is what every human being desires? Aristotle decides the answer is yes and identifies the supreme good as happiness. The Greek word for happiness eudaimonia means more than happiness usually connotes. For most people. It carries with it the idea of the truly good life. Saying that the supreme good is happiness doesn't help as much, since people disagree over the nature of happiness. There are too many conflicting notions of what happiness is. Some confuse it with pleasure, money, fame, position and power. None of these attempted identifications is correct, however. One problem with these identifications of happiness is that all of them are but means to an end. Whatever happiness is, it must be intrinsically good. It must be good in itself, instead of being merely good as a means to something else. The opposite of an intrinsic good is an instrumental good something that is desired because it is a means to an end. True happiness must be good as an end in itself. For this reason, Aristotle rejects money as the ground of happiness. Money possesses only instrumental value. It is good only as a means to other things. Nothing can be the highest good if it is chosen for the sake of something else. Happiness is the supreme good because it is sought for itself. It is self-sufficient. And it is that towards which all humans aim.

[00:19:00] Whatever the supreme good is, it must also be self-sufficient. This means that it must be so good that nothing can be added to make it any better. This criterion disqualifies virtue then, as the essence of happiness. It is possible for a person to be virtuous but still be miserable because of bad health or poverty, for example. It is possible to add other things to virtue to improve the quality of life. But this cannot be true of the supreme good. Eudaimonia. Happiness must also be connected with humankind's distinctive feature. Reason Eudaimonia is acting in accord with a human being's highest virtue. Reason Aristotle never identifies what he believes happiness is until the end of his book. Then I comic he and ethics. Incidentally, I often recommend to students that if they're ever going to read only one of Aristotle's books, it ought to be the Knight Comic and Ethics. Much of Aristotle's other writings are repetitive and boring and quite difficult. That's not to say they're not worth reading, but if you're only going to read one work by Aristotle, it ought to be his night become and ethics. Because I think. Most college students can understand it and enjoy it. Now back to Aristotle. It is impossible to judge a life happy until that life is over, he said. One swallow does not make us summer, Aristotle says. Likewise, one happy moment or day does not make a happy life. Only after a life is over can one evaluate that life and judge whether the person was happy. According to Aristotle, one commentator writes, Man has a nature. There is something definite and worthwhile that it is to be a human being. Happiness consists in living this noble life, in satisfying the desires that are necessary for man to have in order to live a full, rich life.

[00:21:10] One of Aristotle's most interesting discussions in his book on ethics concerns the virtues. Aristotle's ethical theory has nothing to say about moral law, commandments, and their relationship to God. We noticed this same situation in the case of Plato. Aristotle focuses instead on human traits of character, upon dispositions to behave in certain ways that he discusses under the heading of virtue. As one discussant on Aristotle explains, quote, The virtues are stable states of the soul which enable a person to make the right decision about how to act in the circumstances and which motivate him so to act. It is these stable states of the soul that we think of as constituting a person's character. Aristotle does not write about rules which would tell virtuous people how to live in book2 of the night comedy and ethics. Aristotle distinguishes two kinds of virtue, moral and intellectual. They are virtues or excellences of different parts of the soul. There are two ways in which a person can be said to excel with respect to morality and with respect to intellectual matters. A part of us is concerned primarily with thinking and the acquisition of knowledge. Another part of us is concerned with doing what our reason tells us to do with choosing or willing. Moral and intellectual virtues are acquired in different ways. Moral virtue is acquired by habit, while intellectual virtue is acquired by teaching truly virtuous people. In the moral sense, people who have moral virtues have over time developed certain traits of character or dispositions. This is done by repeating certain kinds of behavior, thus establishing a habit. If we repeat certain kinds of conduct often enough, it becomes easier to do them. Only when a person's conduct flows from a fixed and constant disposition.

[00:23:31] Can we regard that person as morally virtuous. This led Aristotle then to introduce the notion of what he called the golden mean. Moral virtue, you see normally relates to behavior that is a mean between two extremes. This is sometimes called Aristotle's doctrine of the golden mean. Moral virtue is a mean between two extremes, both of which are vices. Consider the matter of amusing other people. One extreme kind of behavior in such cases would be buffoonery. Making a fool of yourself. This kind of person goes much too far in an attempt to make himself popular. But at the other extreme, you have another vice, which is boorishness. You have someone making a fool of himself. You have somebody putting everybody in the room to sleep somewhere between boorishness and buffoonery. Is the proper mean something Aristotle calls wittiness, which means namely knowing when to be entertaining and funny and when to be serious. Knowing when to open your mouth and when to keep your mouth shut. Now, let me give you some other examples of the golden mean where you must recognize on one side you have too much of something which is a vice, and on the other side you have too little of something which is a vice. And then the virtue is somewhere in the middle. In one case here, the vice that illustrates having too much of something would be rashness and having too little. Of something would be cowardice and just right in the middle, you would have the proper virtue of courage. Courage is a golden mean between rash behavior and cowardice. Liberality would be a golden mean between prodigal ality being wasteful with your money and ill liberality being too stingy with your money. Friendship would be the golden mean between flattery on one side and morose ness on the other.

[00:25:53] Modesty would be a golden mean between bashful illness on one side and shamelessness on the other. That's worth thinking about. Aristotle, however, seems involved in a contradiction. We must do virtuous acts in order to establish a virtuous disposition, he says. But we cannot act in a virtuous way unless our action flows from a fixed and constant disposition. How, then, can we ever make progress toward attaining the virtuous disposition we seek? His answer. We should perform acts that resemble virtuous acts that resemble what we would do if we had the disposition. In this way, we build up the right habits. If the disposition I wish to acquire is liberality, the way to acquire it is to ask how I would behave if I possessed the habit and continued to behave that way. Aristotle does qualify his doctrine of the golden mean. In some cases, some actions he believes are always wrong. One example he gives is adultery. In such cases, there is no golden mean. It would be quite improper. Aristotle says, for a man to ask what is the best number of adulterous acts to perform on a particular week? What is the golden mean with respect to adultery? No. For Aristotle, sexual impurity is always, always wrong. One final thing Aristotle offered a very interesting critique of hedonism. Now I will be talking about hedonism later in the tape. But this is the best time, I think, to offer this criticism. Hedonism, of course, is the belief that pleasure is the highest good. And Aristotle warned people about hedonism. For example, he said, Aristotle said the single minded pursuit of pleasure is self defeating. The more you seek pleasure, the less pleasure you're likely to experience. Imagine a person whose entire life is directed toward the attainment of pleasure.

[00:28:24] This person is totally uninterested in books or sports or music or art or companionship. All the person wants is pleasure. Will such a person ever experience much pleasure Pleasure accompanies other activities? The more a person seeks pleasure, the less pleasure he will receive. It is the person who forgets pleasure and loses himself and other activities who suddenly finds himself experiencing pleasure. For Aristotle, pleasure is an ingredient of the good life. It is a part of the good life, but it must not make up the whole of the good life. One cannot bake a cake without putting baking soda in it. But few of us would enjoy eating cake composed entirely of baking soda. So for Aristotle, happiness is not money or success or pleasure. Aristotle thinks happiness is contemplation, an activity in accordance with man's highest function reason an activity that is intrinsically good, only intrinsically good and self-sufficient. Contemplation is the only activity that satisfies all these criteria. It is also a rare coincidence that contemplation Aristotle's recommended way of attaining happiness happens to be the one activity God engages in. When humans contemplate, they engage in the same kind of activity as does God. True happiness consists then in thinking about God. It is also comforting to know that the person most likely to achieve happiness is a philosopher like Aristotle. That coincidence, maybe more than some people can tolerate.