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Ethics is the study of right and wrong, of the most desirable manner of life, and of the most worthy motivation. More profound than specific moral rules and guidance in particulars is that part of ethics that attempts to answer the question, Why? Why is stealing wrong? Why is honesty right? What makes one type of life higher or better than another?

This article is divided into two parts: first, a summary of the history of ethical theory, which is perforce largely secular; and, second, a discussion of Christian principles.

History of ethics

From the ancient period

Plato (427-347 B.C.).

Plato lived at the time the OT canon was completed. He was the first philosopher to discuss ethics in a somewhat systematic fashion. His ethics, far from being a mere appendage to his system or even an honorable part of it, permeated and controlled it.

In his early years he seems to have considered pleasure to be man’s chief and only good, and the solution to ethical problems consisted of calculating the amount of pleasures and pains to be derived from alternative courses of action. This theory, called Hedonism, reappeared in the ancient Epicureans and the modern Utilitarians.

On a journey to Italy, after the death of Socrates in 399 b.c., Plato was converted by the Pythagoreans to a vigorous belief in the immortality of the soul. The Pythagoreans, descendants of the Orphics, were a religio-mathematical brotherhood that believed in knowledge as the way of salvation. Mathematics and certain ethical and cultic rules, if followed, would guarantee a happy immortality (see GREEK RELIGION).

Plato’s conversion compelled him to repudiate hedonism and to adopt a form of asceticism. In the Gorgias, he argued that it is better to be the victim of injustice than to be its perpetrator. Contrary to the views of Callicles Plato held that a dictator, whose every command must be obeyed and who can be unjust with impunity, harms himself more than he harms others. This argument was supported by an appeal to rewards and punishments in the life after death. In the Phaedo, asceticism is more pronounced. Not only is pleasure not man’s only good; pleasure is positively evil. This does not mean that pain is good. The point is that pleasures, pains, and all sensations rivet men’s souls to their bodies. This is evil, for the body is a tomb (σω̂μα σήμα); life on earth is a punishment for previous sins; and a philosopher strives to free his soul from contamination with the body. A philosopher is one who loves truth, but truth is not obtainable by sensation. Hence, love of truth and hatred of evil are both motives for wishing to die. A philosopher must try to die. He may not, however, commit suicide, i.e. deliberately escape from his prison house, for the gods have put man on earth for a purpose, just as the Athenians imprisoned Socrates, and it is unjust to defeat the purposes of proper authority. But by philosophic study, by the avoidance of pleasures, and by a disregard for the body, a philosopher can prepare for death, gently loosen his soul from its rivets, and anticipate a pure intellectual or spiritual existence in the higher world.

In the Republic, Plato described man’s soul as divided in three parts. The lowest of the three is the appetitive function, concupiscence, or, simply, desire; the next may be named “spunk,” or the spirited principle; and the highest is reason, or the intellect. This psychology is Plato’s key to his theory of virtues. Temperance is the virtue of the lowest part of the soul and consists in its obedience to the higher functions. Similarly, courage is the virtue of the second part, and wisdom is the virtue of the intellect. Then there is a fourth virtue, justice, which consists in each part minding its own business and not interfering with or disobeying the principles above it.

Plato had a parallel theory of politics. The lowest social class, the business man, must be temperate and obedient to superiors. The soldiers must be courageous and obey the rulers. The rulers are the philosophers, who alone possess wisdom. And justice is the harmony between all the classes.

In addition to such definitions of virtue, ethics must provide some implementation of morality. How is it that not all people are virtuous? Plato included the story of Leontius, who, on a walk, observed some dead bodies and the executioner standing by them. Leontius immediately had a desire to look at them, but at the same time loathing the thought, he tried to divert himself, and covered his eyes. At length he was overmastered by desire; he opened his eyes wide with his fingers and exclaimed, “There, you wretches, gaze your fill at the repulsive spectacle.”

Vice then occurs when desire, either alone or with the help of the spirited element, usurps the rule of reason. A deeper question, however, is, why does not reason always rule? What enables desire to usurp the soul’s throne?

Plato’s answer to this question seems to have been inherited from Socrates; it is given in the early dialogue, Lesser Hippias, and though never later emphasized, it was never retracted.

Socrates and Plato thought that no one ever does wrong voluntarily. Evil always harms him who commits it, and no one wants to harm himself. If he does so, it must be involuntarily. That is to say, the person who does wrong does so because he thinks an evil act is good. In this he is mistaken. If he knew what was good for him, he would choose it. Choosing evil is evidence that he does not know. Ignorance therefore is the cause of vice; knowledge guarantees moral action.

In the case cited above, Leontius desired to gaze upon the corpses, and he experienced a loathing at the same time. The loathing derived from the common opinion that it is degrading to enjoy brutality, tragedy, or death. This opinion may well be true, but as long as it is merely common opinion, it is not knowledge. Therefore Leontius’ desire conquered the loathing. Desire could not have conquered knowledge.

To this, the reply is often given that men and women know that cigarettes cause cancer, and yet they continue to smoke. This reply, however, is superficial because it fails to understand Plato’s strict view of what knowledge is.

Christian moralists, going beyond this supperficiality, often criticize Plato’s theory, not only as an inherent defect of paganism, but also as a defect in Plato’s analysis of the will. It is held, and with fair reason, that the peculiar function of the will remained unrecognized until the advent of Christianity.

Another Christian objection is that Plato made the norms of morality independent of the will of God. His world of Ideas, which contains moral concepts as well as mathematical and zoological concepts, is an eternal reality superior to and independent of God. Because of the fundamental nature of this question, its discussion will be reserved for the second part of this article. Though it is easy to criticize Plato, it is more profitable at this point to consider something in Christianity that resembles what is taken to be a defect in his view of knowledge and the will. Of course, Christianity recognizes the conflict of reason and desire. This conflict is in fact sharpened by regeneration, so that Paul wrote, “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate....For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Rom 7:15, 19).

In addition to this psychological observation, there is something akin to Plato’s view of knowledge in the doctrine of justification by faith. Romans 6 teaches that faith inevitably produces sanctification. Other passages say that faith without works is dead, and a dead faith is simply not faith at all. Therefore when a man says he has faith, but he is devoid of works, others judge that he has no faith. This situation is sometimes called dead orthodoxy. An orthodoxy that is dead is simply not orthodoxy, which is synonymous with right thinking.

So also would Plato argue. The man who does wrong may say he knows, but he does not know; for if he knew, virtuous action would be forthcoming.


Aristotle, unlike Plato, had very little interest in religion. Morality for him had no connection with a future life; in fact his few references to “immortality” are so vague, it is unlikely that he had any belief at all in the future existence of an individual person. For Aristotle, morality was social custom, refined of its inconsistencies by reason, and based on a view of human nature.

Aristotle formulated the problem of ethics as the search for the Good—the Good for man. In other words, there is a desire to know that for which man does everything else. It is the end, or purpose, of all human action.

Purposes are ordered in series. A man walks to his garage for the purpose of getting his car for the purpose of driving downtown for the purpose of getting to work on time. Whereas ethics gives proper consideration to immediate purposes, which then become the means to a more distant end, the culmination of the study is the absolutely final end, the end that is never a means to anything else, namely, Happiness.

Happiness does not mean pleasure. It is true that men choose pleasure for its own sake, as they also choose health for its own sake, but they choose health and pleasure for the sake of other things as well. Amusement and pleasure are forms of rest, and men rest, or take recreation, because they cannot go on working without relief. Pleasure, therefore, is a means to further activity. Some pleasures actually cause harm; these should be avoided. Thus it is clear that pleasure is not Happiness; the absolutely final end—Happiness—is never chosen as a means to anything else.

To ascertain the nature of Happiness, one must analyze, rather than simply accept pleasure. The way to arrive at its meaning is to see that the Good for man is related to man’s ultimate purpose. Happiness is not a matter of individual choice; it is determined by human nature; it is defined by the function of man as man. The goodness of a flutist or a shoemaker resides in his function. If the flutist plays well, he is a good flutist. If flutists and shoemakers have definite functions, would it not seem strange if man as man has none and is not designed by nature to fulfill any function? If also each part of the body, the eye or the hand, has a particular function of its own, surely the human being as a whole must have a function. The good man, then, as the example of the flutist shows, is the man who performs his function well.

In a generic sense, man has many functions, including nutrition, growth, and sensation. Man, however, has these in common with plants or animals. Ethics must determine the function peculiar to man; and this is to be found, not in mere life nor even in sensation, but in rationality. Because reason, therefore, is the specific function of man, and because a thing is good if it performs its function well, it follows that the good for man is the active exercise of his soul’s faculties in conformity with reason.

Such active exercise has two forms: moral and intellectual virtue. Moral virtue is not a natural property, but one acquired by habit. Since it is the nature of a stone to fall downward, and since it cannot be trained to fall upward, it is clear that natural properties cannot be altered by habit. But morality is produced, altered, and brought to maturity by habit. In the case of natural actions, the capacity precedes the activity; for example, no one acquires the faculty of sight by repeatedly seeing. It is the reverse: Man first had the senses and then used them. But with virtue, man first goes through the motions and by doing so acquires the capacity, just as one does in learning to play the piano. By acting courageously or temperately, a man becomes courageous or temperate.

Action thus produces character. If anyone practices bad fingering on the piano, he becomes a poor musician. No one begins as either a good or bad musician. Habituation determines what he becomes.

Moral virtue is a mean between two extremes, for morality has to do with feelings and actions, of which a man may have an excess or a deficiency. For example, if in a given situation a man is too fearful, he is called a coward; on the other hand, if he has no fear at all, when bullets are whistling by, he is considered foolhardy. Courage consists in feeling the right amount of fear, neither too much nor too little. This right amount is relative to the situation and to the person. More fear is proper in battle, less in a less dangerous situation. Similarly, what is courageous for an elderly person may be cowardly for a young athlete whose physical powers are so much greater.

For this same reason, practical advice on how to become virtuous would be to counteract one’s inclinations. Usually this would require a greater risk of being a little too rash than a little too cowardly. If, however, anyone knew he was inclined to rashness, he should run the risk of a little cowardice, and so possibly hit the mean. The same considerations apply to temperance, liberality, and all the moral virtues.

Higher on the scale than moral virtue is intellectual virtue; for the highest level of human nature is reason, and its proper functioning is the highest purpose of man. Contemplation, therefore, is the highest activity. Its objects are the highest objects, and its exercise is more continuous than any other human function can be. It is also most self-sufficient; for whereas the moral virtues require either the presence of other people, as in the case of justice, or the possession of goods, or both, as in the case of liberality, the wise man can think and contemplate by himself, and the more he does so, the wiser he becomes.

Furthermore, contemplation is the only activity that is loved for its own sake alone. It produces no result beyond the actual act of contemplation. The moral virtues are, to be sure, loved for their own sakes; they are ends, but they are also means to other good ends, and therefore are not absolutely final as is contemplation.

Once again, contemplation is the most godlike virtue. It is man’s nearest approach to immortality. Obviously the gods cannot be moral; they cannot make contracts, restore deposits, endure terrors, run risks, or temperately restrain evil desires. Contemplation can be their only activity. Hence, contemplation is man’s greatest source of happiness.

In the section on Plato, the problem of the will and its relation to knowledge was discussed. Aristotle also examined the subject. Christians may be a little disappointed because his interest was more political than theological or metaphysical, or even psychological; yet his arguments are well worth studying.

Feelings and actions, which constitute the area of morality, may be voluntary or involuntary. The former are praised or blamed, the latter pardoned and sometimes pitied. Therefore ethics must study volition and choice.

Involuntary actions are those done through (1) force or (2) ignorance. A forced action is one whose principle of initiation is entirely external to the man, who contributes nothing. Compulsion by threat or by fear, is not pure compulsion; a tyrant may threaten, or a storm at sea may “force” one to throw the cargo overboard. Such actions are partly voluntary, but are more similar to involuntary actions. They are given a measure of praise or blame according to the circumstances because the initiation of the motion is in the man.

The claim that pleasure forces a man into immorality implies that all action would be compulsory, and no one would be responsible for anything.

Ignorance is the second cause of involuntary actions, but there is a distinction. All acts done through ignorance are nonvoluntary; only when pain and repentance follow do they become involuntary. Further, acting in ignorance is not the same as acting through ignorance. The drunk acts in ignorance but through drunkenness. Every wicked man is ignorant of what he ought to do. This ignorance does not cause involuntary action; it causes wickedness. The ignorance that causes involuntary action needs further specification.

An action is involuntary if the agent is ignorant of who is doing the act. This point of ignorance occurs only in insanity. The action is involuntary also if the agent is ignorant of the thing done, as in the case of Aeschylus who did not know he was revealing the mysteries, or in the case of a man who did not know the gun was loaded; similarly, if the agent does not know the object of the action, whether a person or a thing, as, for example, a man mistakes his son for a robber in the night, or mistakes a rapier for a foil, or poison for medicine.

Therefore, “Since that which is done under compulsion or through ignorance is involuntary, the voluntary would seem to be that of which the moving principle is in the agent himself, when he is aware of the particular circumstances of the action.”

In this discussion Aristotle insisted on distinguishing between an act being voluntary and its being good or evil. There is a common tendency to dodge responsibility by blaming evil actions on force or ignorance, while taking credit for good actions. Similarly, modern liberal penology tends to excuse the criminal because he was either raised in a slum or pampered in a wealthy home. But, to be consistent, this destroys responsibility for evil actions and credit for good actions alike, and dehumanizes everybody.

Next, a subspecies of the voluntary, called deliberate choice, is a better criterion of morality than feelings and actions. Children and some animals act voluntarily, but never by choice. Sudden actions also may be voluntary, but they are not deliberately chosen. What then is choice?

Choice is a subdivision within the area of the voluntary because both children and animals can act voluntarily, but not by choice. Acts done on the spur of the moment also are voluntary, but they are not chosen. Nor is choice the same as desire, anger, wish, or opinion, for animals experience desire and anger. Similarly an incontinent man acts from desire, but not from choice. Conversely, the continent man acts from choice, not from desire.

Choice is not the same as wish because one may sometimes wish for the impossible, but he never chooses it. Further, wish relates to the end of an action, whereas choice selects the means; for example, one may wish to be happy, but one must choose the method to obtain that happiness.

Nor is choice opinion. Opinion is concerned about everything, including both the impossible and the eternal. Opinion is true or false, not good or bad. Character is the result of choice, but not of opinion. Man chooses to take or avoid something, but man holds an opinion of what a thing is. Indeed, some people have fairly sound opinions, but by reason of vice choose what they should not.

Choice, then, is what is decided upon by previous deliberation. To make the concept clearer, it is necessary to describe deliberation.

Aristotle discussed the objects of deliberation and its mode of operation. The objects do not include the impossible, the eternal, nor the invariable laws of astronomy, for they cannot be altered. Nor does a man deliberate about chance events, nor about many human affairs beyond his control. Deliberation, therefore, concerns things that are in man’s power, not those that occur always in the same way, but those that are variable—matters of medicine, business, and navigation, but not mathematics and spelling.

This identification of the objects of deliberation is the key to the manner or mode of deliberation. If deliberation concerns the variable, and centers on means rather than on ends, the process consists of a search for the series of means that will produce an end. In a temporal sense, the search goes backward. For example, a man decides to purchase a necklace (the object of his deliberation) as an anniversary gift for his wife. Working backward, he next selects the store where he will purchase the necklace. The store selected, he then chooses the means of transportation, to drive his car or go by bus. The goal determines the choices.

The object of deliberation and of choice is the same object, except that the object of choice has already been determined as the result of deliberation. A man stops thinking how to act when he has brought the moving principle back to himself.

Aristotle continued in much more detail which cannot be included here. To conclude this section, a comparison with the Bible may be made. The Bible does not work out a theory of voluntary action and deliberate choice. It does, however, base responsibility on knowledge, and allows for greater responsibility, greater sin, and greater punishment in proportion to the amount of knowledge. The idea is clearly expressed in Romans 1:18, 19, 32; 2:12, 13, 15. Also, Christ said, “that servant who knew his master’s will, but did not make ready...shall receive a severe beating. But he who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, shall receive a light beating. Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required” (Luke 12:47, 48).

(For later theories of ethics in pagan antiquity, see Epicureans, also Stoics.)

From the medieval period

Augustine (354-430).

In patristic and medieval Christianity, Augustine and Aquinas developed fullfledged theories by interpreting Scripture, contrasting it with and defending it against the pagan theories, but sometimes utilizing pagan theories with Biblical teachings.

Aristotle’s view that the highest type of life is contemplation of truth is sometimes exaggerated, if not caricatured, as a withdrawal from the practical activities of life. Augustine’s view, determined by Scripture and to a certain extent also influenced by Plato, rejects this exaggerated position. Knowledge pure and simple is not the end of life. Knowledge itself is a means to an end, and this end is blessedness. This basic Augustinian principle is embedded in the Protestant phrases, “Truth is in order to goodness,” and “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.”

If knowledge were for the sake of knowledge only, it would have no purpose, no end, and therefore no direction—for example, one could spend one’s time counting the blades of grass on the front lawn or measuring the lengths of random bits of string. If knowledge has a purpose, however, one will not waste time contemplating useless information.

Philosophy is not the love of knowledge, but the love of wisdom. Though wisdom is a kind of knowledge and must possess the certitude of science, there is a distinction between them, as hinted in 1 Corinthians 12:8. Not all knowledge leads to blessedness; wisdom does.

Man is both corporeal and spiritual. If the mind were divorced from the body, it would no doubt attend only to the divine Ideas; but actually one of the soul’s functions is to rule the body. Therefore man must know not only the divine Ideas, but things and bodies as well. He must act, and this requires thought of inferior objects and lower ends. Of course, even Aristotle did not deny the need for moral virtues as distinct from intellectual virtues.

The concern with corporeal affairs, however, is a means to higher intellectual activity. Thought leads to action only to prepare for contemplation. Action is work, effort, pursuit. Contemplation is reward, rest, vision. The distinction is illustrated in Scripture in the persons of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42). During a Christian’s earthly life, there is action in view of heavenly contemplation. Morality is the preparation for the vision of God.

Attention to bodily things is legitimate, if this interest is kept in proper perspective. If a man restricts himself to the lower sphere, he is guilty of pride, avarice, and personal cupidity. Instead of subordinating himself to God, he tries to subordinate the universe to himself. Science itself is good, but man easily abuses science.

Wisdom, on the other hand, turns man from things to God. Pride is replaced by humility. Science is necessary to arrange temporal affairs, but when people subordinate themselves to God, they put their various activities in their proper places.

Why isn’t everyone wise? Plato had tried to answer this question in terms of a conflict between reason and desire. Christianity, however, although it does not deny a conflict between desire and reason, has a different psychology that requires a profounder explanation of evil. This difference in psychology is revealed in an emphasis on the will. Such emphasis was lacking, or at most, rudimentary, in Plato and Aristotle; although the Stoics advanced over their predecessors in the matter of the will, there are other differences.

All things, man included, are subject to the order God has imposed on the world. Each thing, so Augustine teaches, has its proper place in the universal hierarchy. Nevertheless, for morality, man must act and act voluntarily. Even intellectual learning depends on the will. One can almost say that a man is his will. In sensation the will is required to sustain attention. A person’s fingers may be in contact with an object, or his eyes may be fixed on an object, yet if he does not attend to it, he does not perceive it. Memory also requires attention, and neither understanding nor belief takes place without an act of will.

Modern terminology might define volition as a natural drive. It is a principle of action. According to Aristotle, earth, air, fire, and water have a natural tendency to seek their proper places. Earth naturally falls, and fire by nature rises. As earth has weight, Augustine felt, so man has love. Love is man’s natural motor power.

Parenthetically, it should be noted that in orthodox theology, love is a volition, not an emotion. Contemporary references to God’s love and man’s love for God often go astray because of faulty psychology. Love toward God consists in voluntary obedience to His laws (John 14:15, 21, 23; 1 John 2:4, 5). Emotion has little to do with it.

Accordingly, Augustine argues that the moral problem is not whether to love or not to love. This would be like asking whether earth should have weight or not have weight. The problem is to love what one ought to love, for this is virtue. Because men continually fail, the problem arises whether a natural principle of motion can go astray.

The difficulty was sharper for the Christian Augustine than it was for the pagan Plato, for in addition to the psychology of the will, Augustine had to operate with the theological concept of sin. This does not refer simply to the fact that men choose evil. The pagans knew that much. The Christian concept of sin is based on original sin and the inheritance of it. Aristotle had explained evil actions as the result of bad habits, such as poor fingering on a piano. At the start, a prospective musician has neither good nor bad habits. He is neutral, and practice makes him what he becomes. But Christianity teaches that man is born in sin; he has bad habits at the outset, and this together with guilt is inherited from Adam. Therefore, sin is a much more radical defect than is acknowledged by the pagan view of evil.

Augustine gives a memorable example. When he was a boy, he and his gang stole some pears from a nearby orchard. He did not steal because he was hungry for he had pears at home; in fact, much better pears, for the stolen pears were so bad that the boys threw them to the pigs. It is wrong to steal, but if one steals because he is hungry, or even because the pears taste good, there is some superficial plausibility in the theft. Augustine’s theft, however, was not so motivated. He stole simply for the fun of stealing; he enjoyed evil for its own sake; and he enjoyed it all the more because he did it with his friends who also enjoyed evil just because it was evil. Stealing pears may not be a great sin, but what depravity could be greater than a love of evil for its own sake.

The passage (Confessions, Book II) containing this psychological analysis of the motives of sin does not itself refer to original sin. The immediate point is merely the perversity of the human heart. This depravity cannot be accounted for on Aristotelian principles, though even at this late date some professing Christians still say that a child becomes sinful only upon committing a voluntary transgression at or after the so-called age of accountability.

Those who deny that men are dead in sin hold also that sin is not merely voluntary, but is particularly an act of free will. Volition and free will are not the same, as the article on Stoicism shows. Free will, that is, a choice that is not caused either by God, by character, by motives, or anything else, is substituted for knowledge as the basis for responsibility. Moreover, the problem is complicated by the fact that God is omnipotent. He could have made men sinless, had He so desired. This is not the case in Platonism, where God is conceived as limited in power; Plato’s god does his best to restrain evil and impose order on the visible world, but the opposing forces are sometimes too much for him. Christianity teaches that God is omnipotent, so that He could even now eradicate evil. Superficial thinking attempts to say that God limited Himself. The infinite made itself finite. God undeified Himself, and hence there is sin. This reply is inadequate because limited omnipotence is a contradiction in terms, but also because it does not answer the original question: why does not God now unlimit Himself and make all men sinless? The problem is difficult, and Augustine changed his views, beginning as a new Christian with a certain form of free will and then developing a more consistently Christian and Biblical solution.

Augustine’s first attack on this basic problem of ethics, On Free Will, was written about a.d. 390. The question is, “If sins come from the souls which God has created, and these souls are from God, how explain that sin is not borne back upon God (referantur in Deum)?” Or in other words, how is God not responsible for sin?

By a.d. 390, Augustine had made such little progress in grasping Christian doctrine and was still so under the influence of Plato that he denied the sovereignty of God by adopting the Platonic view that an action is wrong not because God forbids it, but God forbids it because it is wrong i.e. or some other principle independent of God. This error subtly influenced his arguments, but gradually he was able to discard Platonism.

He next contended that things superior to the human mind, i.e. God, cannot subject a man to sin or lust because being superior they are good and would not do so. Things inferior to the mind cannot do so because they are inferior and weaker. Therefore the mind or will itself causes sin, and God is not responsible.

Yet if God created the will of man good, how could man ever choose evil? Conversely, if men are born unwise and never have a good will, why are they punished? Augustine replied with another bit of Platonism that he later discarded. He wrote that perhaps souls lived in a preexistent state before birth, and that this fact (somehow, not too clearly) answers the questions (Book I, 12). In fact he soon repeated the question (I, 16): If God gave men free will, is He not responsible for their sins; for if He had not given them free will, they would not have sinned?

This is an unfortunate flaw in Augustine’s argumentation. He nowhere defined free will, and without an explicit definition, one can only guess what he means. Presumably he meant an uncaused or unmotivated will. But if so, the flaw takes the form of assuming without proof that a will can operate without a cause. Therefore Augustine’s immediate remark is irrelevant: God gave man a free will so that he might live righteously (which contradicts the previous statement that without a free will no one would sin), and God is not to blame if man uses free will for the wrong purpose (II, 1), just as one cannot object to wine because some use it wrongly (II, 18).

The argument becomes more theological as it progresses. If God foreknew Adam’s sin, was it not inevitable? And must not man will as God foreknows? No, replied Augustine, because must means no will; therefore foreknowledge does not conflict with human ability. For example, if one man foreknows that another will sin, the former’s knowledge is not the cause of the sin. As memory of the past does not exert force on the past, so knowledge of the future does not determine the future.

Apparently Augustine assumed that a man can know the future and that God discovers an independent future the way a man does. Neither of these assumptions seems sound.

For such reasons as these, Augustine concluded that it is unwise to seek a cause of volitions. When one asks what causes the will to choose, one is led into an infinite regress. The will itself is the cause, and further search is useless.

Nevertheless Augustine went further. He admitted that sinning is inevitable, for he could not escape Romans 7:18. Therefore man does not have free will; strictly speaking only Adam had free will (III, 18). Adam’s descendants are punished as Adam himself was, because the descendants of a sinner are of necessity sinful. If all souls have descended from one soul, then all have sinned and deserve punishment. Furthermore, because virtue can be acquired by God’s grace, the sinful state is a stimulus to progress.

Late in life, after he had gone through the Pelagian controversy (cf. Pelagius), Augustine wrote two more books on the same subject: Grace and Free Will in a.d. 426, and Predestination of the Saints in a.d. 429. In the former, he still used the phrase “free will,” but the discussion no longer denied a divine cause of the will’s action. Chapter 29 stated that God is able to convert opposing wills and to take away their hardness; otherwise, if God could exercise no causative power on the will, it would be useless to pray for the conversion of anyone. It is certain, he continued, that it is men who will when they will, but it is God who makes them will what is good. It is God who makes them act by applying efficacious powers to their wills. The Scripture “shows us that not only men’s good wills, which God converts from bad ones...but also those who follow the world are so entirely at the disposal of God that he turns them whithersoever he wills and whensoever he wills....For the Almighty sets in motion even in the innermost hearts of men the movement of their will so that he does through their agency whatsoever he wishes to perform through them” (chs. 41, 42).

In the latter book he wrote against semi-Pelagianism and insisted that faith is a gift of God. God causes men to believe. Augustine confessed that he had not always understood the doctrines of grace: he had thought that Romans 7 referred to the unregenerate; he had denied prevenient grace; but now he retracted his earlier errors, for he obtained mercy to be a believer—not because he had believed.

Christ Himself is the best example of predestination, for if He had had free will, He could have sinned; but Christ could not have sinned, therefore He did not have free will, but was predestinated in all that He did. In fact, in both of these books, but esp. in the last one, Augustine taught the full Protestant position, forgotten during the Middle Ages, but rediscovered by Luther and Calvin.

After Augustine, the Rom. empire in the W disintegrated under the advances of the barbarians, and learning became almost extinct. As church superstitions multiplied, theology became semi-Pelagian or worse, though what philosophy survived was mildly Augustinian.

In the 13th cent., however, Thomas Aquinas succeeded in overthrowing Augustinianism and in establishing Aristotelianism.

His ethics is based on the fact of a similarity and a difference between human beings and inanimate objects. The similarity, on which the difference is built, lies in the possession of a natural tendency or inclination. Earth has a natural tendency to fall. In inanimate things these tendencies are unconscious and are not subject to the being’s control. Man also has a natural inclination, but it is a higher form because man is rational and volitional. He inclines to what he knows, and he controls his own conduct.

Appetite or desire is proportionate to knowledge. In animals, the knowledge is merely sense knowledge, and since this requires a bodily organ, it follows that if a dog sees or smells a bone, he automatically desires it. Man, however, has rational knowledge, which does not immediately depend on any bodily organ; therefore the will or rational appetite does not act automatically. Nevertheless the object chosen must be known.

The will naturally or automatically inclines toward the good. Just as each plant or animal naturally tends to the preservation of itself and of the species, so too man is directed to the good. In actual life, however, man is not confronted so much with the Good as with particular goods. These are not completely satisfying, and hence they do not compel the will.

In fact, not even God can compel the will. The reason is that

what is done voluntarily is not done of necessity. Now, whatever is done under compulsion is done of necessity, and consequently what is done by the will cannot be compelled....The will can suffer violence insofar as violence can prevent the exterior members from executing the will’s command. But as to the will’s own proper act, violence cannot be done to the will....God, who is more powerful than the human will, can move the will of man....But if this were by compulsion, it would no longer be by an act of will, nor would the will itself be moved, but something else against the will (Summa Theol. II i, 2.6, Art. 4).

On a later page (2.10, Art. 4), Thomas considered the objection,

It would seem that the will is moved of necessity by God. For every agent that cannot be resisted moves of necessity. But God cannot be resisted, because his power is infinite; and so it is written (Rom 9:19) “who resisteth his will?”

In reply to this quotation from the canonical Bible, Thomas uses a verse from an apocryphal book:

On the contrary, it is written (Ecclus. 15:14) “God made man from the beginning and left him in the hand of his own counsel.”

Natural inclinations, as in inanimate things, tend toward a form existing in nature; the sensitive appetite and all the more the rational appetite tend toward an apprehended form. Therefore the will chooses, not the universal good as such, but an apparent good. The agent intends the good; he never voluntarily chooses evil; when he chooses a particular apparent good that turns out to be evil, the evil is unintentional.

The intellect therefore moves the will, but not necessarily, by presenting an object to it. If the intellect offered to the will an object good universally and from every point of view, the will would choose it of necessity, if it chose at all, for it cannot choose the opposite. If, on the other hand, the will is offered an object that is not good in every respect it will not tend toward it of necessity. Hence the will can either accept or reject particular goods.

Choice is an act of both the intellect and the will. The matter of the choice comes from the intellect, but the form of the choice comes from the will. Intellect and will interact, but their acts are not to be confused. The intellect may even command the will and say, “Do this!” Even when the will obeys, it does so freely.

With all their interaction, more complicated than this brief essay indicates, Thomas steadfastly maintained the distinction between intellect and will. Augustine, as said above, virtually identified man with his will, in which case intellectual acts are simply particular volitions. After the time of Thomas, the discussion intensified. Descartes, at the beginning of the modern period, returned to a position somewhat similar to Augustine’s, but these intricacies can be followed no further here.

One who has not read Thomas can have no idea of the immense amount of detail he incorporated in his writings. Basing his views on Aristotle, he argued that habit is a quality, a species of quality, which implies order to an act; it is necessary that there be habits; some habits are bodily, some exist in the soul; some habits, such as temperance and fortitude, belong to the sensitive and irrational part of the soul; science and wisdom are habits of the intellect; justice, however, is a habit of the will; and even angels have habits.

Thomas then discussed whether any habit is from nature; whether any is caused by acts; whether a habit can be caused by one act; whether any habits are infused by God; whether habits increase (which he answers in the affirmative, for faith is a habit and faith increases); and so on until he is able to show that virtue is a habit. He then continued for many long pages on virtue in general, and had something to say about a few particular virtues.

One basic factor in the ethics of Thomas, a factor that seems to deal more closely with the particular decisions of everyday morality, is the theory of natural law.

There are several types of law: eternal law, natural law, and civil law. A law is a rule that prescribes or forbids an action; it is an obligation founded on reason. There is no other regulative principle of action than reason. The unreasonable commands of a tyrant are not laws, but merely usurp that appellation.

So completely is reason the source of law that a private person is not competent to make laws. He can give advice but he cannot efficaciously lead anyone to virtue. Coercive power is vested in a public power. A father cannot give laws even to his family, for a family is part of the state. The father can indeed issue certain commands to his children, but they do not have the nature of law.

Furthermore, although there are various precepts of prudence, the first principle in practical affairs is the highest end—happiness or beatitude. Therefore law is chiefly ordained to the common, rather than to the individual, good.

The first of the three types of law is the eternal law. Since this is the plan of government laid down by God, the Chief Governor, all the plans of inferior governors must be derived from this eternal law.

Insofar as the eternal law applies to the conduct of men, it has been inscribed in man’s substance and is called natural law. Because this law causes men to be what they are—it takes the form of a human inclination toward certain ends—they obey it when they yield to the legitimate tendencies of their nature.

The first and basic principle is that good should be done and evil avoided. All other precepts depend on this. Since good has the nature of an end, “all those things to which man has a natural inclination are naturally apprehended by reason as being good, and consequently as objects of pursuit” (Summa Theol. II, I, 2. 94, Art. 2). Thus self-preservation is the basic inclination; next comes reproduction and the care of children; in short, all virtuous acts are covered by natural law.

These laws are indelibly written in the human heart. They cannot be effaced. Men need only to observe themselves to discover them, or in Thomas’ own words, “The natural law is promulgated by the very fact that God instilled it into man’s mind so as to be known by him naturally” (ibid. Q. 90, Art. 4). Thomas also extended the details of what man ought to do by including the theological virtues taught by Revelation. These make his good life more Christian than that of an Aristotelian gentleman, but they are not logically deduced from his philosophic system.

Two criticisms of Thomism should be considered—one theological, one philosophical. The first is that Christian theology is inconsistent with Aristotelian ethics. The discussion of ethics depends on an assertion of free will with the assumption that man is able by practice to make himself virtuous. Man may “naturally” seek the good, but since the Fall no one is “natural.” All are born in sin and are in need of grace. Therefore they cannot will to be virtuous. Although Thomas never achieved the full Christian vision of Augustine’s later works, he nevertheless had some notion of predestination and reprobation. Whether the latter can be consistently combined with free will is the question. At least the consistency is not clear in the following: “When it is said that the reprobated cannot obtain grace, this must not be understood as implying absolute impossibility, but only conditional impossibility; just as it was said above that the predestined must necessarily be saved, yet by a conditional necessity that does not do away with liberty of choice” (Summa Theol. I, Q.23, Art. 3). Also, “Man’s turning to God is by free choice; and thus man is bidden to turn himself to God. But free choice can be turned to God only when God turns it...man can do nothing unless moved by God....It is the part of man to prepare his soul, since he does this by free choice. And yet he does not do this without the help of God moving him and drawing him to himself” (ibid. II, I, 2. 109, Art. 6).

The inconsistency involved here seems to be that Thomas made a good case for freedom from coercion, and that this freedom is compatible with predestination, for God is not a mechanical agent. Yet Thomas also held that for responsibility and morality, the freedom of an uncaused cause is required, and this is not compatible with predestination. Until a theologian clarifies himself out on these points, neither his theology nor his ethics will escape confusion.

The second objection to be considered is philosophical and ethical—the question whether Aristotle or Thomas can build an ethics on natural law. Is it actually true that men can observe what is written on their heart and discover that adultery and theft are forbidden?

It is plausible that natural law would prescribe the care and education of children. Animals instinctively care for their young, but they are not for that reason monogamous. If it be replied that a human child requires a longer period of care and that therefore a human family ought to remain together for this longer period, neither monogamy nor permanent union is thereby established. Indeed, since the state, on Thomistic principles, is to spell out most of the details left obscure in natural law, could not a rational ruler establish communal nurseries? Who is to say that Soviet laws are less rational than American?

This includes the question of theft. If property is a creation of the state, confiscatory taxation is as reasonable as Jeffersonian democracy, and laissez faire as collectivism. Thomas admits that it is always dangerous to rebel, even when a tyrant violates natural law; but how can one distinguish between a just rebellion and an unjust usurpation?

Even self-preservation is not clearly an inviolable law of nature. Military service is considered a duty, but this can lead to death. If natural law obliges, a young man would be obliged to dodge the draft. Or, on the other hand, why must suicide be considered wrong? There may be an instinct of self-preservation, but some unfortunate people have concluded that the conditions of life were so onerous that it was rational to kill themselves. This was a definite part of Stoic philosophy, and the Stoics prescribed a life of reason as strongly as Aristotle did. But if natural law cannot absolutely prescribe self-preservation, it would seem that ethics needs find a better foundation.

From the modern period

English ethics.

a. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). In the history of English ethics, the approach differs from that of medieval times and antiquity. Thomas Hobbes aimed to make ethics scientific. Thus he held that all forms of life are but complicated relationships among particles of matter in motion. This materialism serves as a basis for his psychological hedonism. Hobbes professes to have discovered by scientific observation that all men naturally desire and are motivated only by personal pleasure. Man is essentially self-seeking. “Pity is imagination or fiction of future calamity to ourselves proceeding from the sense of another man’s calamity”; and “The passion of laughter proceedeth from the sudden imagination of our own odds and eminency; for what is else the recommending of ourselves to our own good opinion by the comparison of another man’s inferiority or absurdity.”

For Hobbes, ethics is descriptive rather than normative. He did not say what men ought to do; he described their actual conduct. Surreptitiously, perhaps he made some recommendations.

Thus he argued that the condition most unfavorable to obtaining pleasure is political anarchy. To be sure the war of each against all is man’s natural state; but it is an intolerable one. No one’s life is safe; and without life pleasure is impossible. Therefore everyone must surrender all his rights to the government, preferably by selecting one man and making him an absolute monarch.

This is a form of the social contract theory of government. The people enter into a covenant with each other to set up a king. Forever after it will be wrong to rebel: by the contract they retain no rights at all—therefore no right to rebel. Nor can they later claim that the king has broken the contract, for the king was never a party to the contract.

The king now, as selfish as anyone else, protects his property, i.e. his subjects, for his own good. He enforces laws that preserve life and protect property, and under such a totalitarian government man can best enjoy himself. To rebel against the king and to diminish his authority would be to revert to anarchy and misery.

Hobbes had some reason to be apprehensive of social disturbances. His age was one of confusion in England—the disaffection of the Scottish army toward the perfidious Charles I in England and the Puritans’ hostility toward the Arminian and Romish tendencies in the Anglican Church. Civil war was on its way. Foreseeing this, Hobbes contended that the principle of private conscience, by which the Puritans read the Bible for themselves, conflicted with governmental authority. Similarly, the independent conscience of the Pope was destructive of peace. Therefore Puritans and Romanists were both to be repressed, and the king by his supremacy could not only legislate the rules of morality as he saw fit, but he could even decide what books make up the Bible and what they mean.

The immediate reaction to Hobbes, on the surface at least, was an attack on his egoism. More fundamental was a rejection of scientific observation as a basis for morality. If a sense of obligation is to be maintained, if the concept of duty and the authority of normative principles is to be defended, mere factual descriptions of what is are not enough; something more is needed to show what ought to be.

b. Ralph Cudworth (1617-1688). Therefore Ralph Cudworth returned to a Platonic or Neoplatonic theory of suprasensible Ideas. For him as for Plato, the Good—and its derivative forms—are independent of both human and divine volition: an action is not wrong because God forbids it, but God, Himself subject to the Ideas, forbids it because it is wrong.

c. Henry More (1614-1687). Henry More based morality on intuitions. As one knows a rock or a mountain simply by seeing it, so in somewhat similar fashion he can have an intellectual vision of first principles. They are not deduced from anything prior or more certain: they are simply seen. Most philosophers, except the most extremely scientific, will acknowledge the legitimacy of undemonstrable axioms, but More’s two dozen moral intuitions seem unnecessarily abundant.

d. Shaftesbury (1671-1713) and Hutcheson (1694-1747). Shaftesbury and Hutcheson paid more attention to the conflict between egoism and altruism. If men had no sense of good distinct from personal advantage, is their argument, they would hold in equal esteem a fruitful field and a generous friend. One would hold in equal esteem a man who serves him with delight and a man who brings him the same advantage by constraint. But one does not esteem these equally. Therefore we have a sense of good other than egoistic advantage.

e. Joseph Butler (1692-1752). A much more important writer was Bishop Joseph Butler. His most influential work, used as a textbook for over a century in many seminaries, was The Analogy of Religion to the Constitution and Course of Nature. His system of ethics is expounded in Fifteen Sermons. Neither of these is founded on Platonic or intuitionist principles. Bishop Butler believed that moral obligation, and the basic theses of Christianity too, can be established by observation. Whereas not so attached to the materialistic mechanism of Thomas Hobbes, he still depended on scientific methods. This procedure served him well in his Analogy, for he was able to destroy English Deism on its own grounds. He could show, for example, that the immortality of the soul was a reasonable conclusion, at least as reasonable as the opposite. This, however, may be the fallacy in his thinking. Pure, unmixed observation can just as reasonably arrive at either of two incompatible positions, and arrive at them by equally reasonable, that is equally unreasonable, arguments. Similarly, in ethics one must always scrutinize an argument that professes to deduce what ought to be from what merely is.

In the second of his Fifteen Sermons, using the text, “For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves” (Rom 2:14 KJV), Joseph Butler, not noticing the intuitional or a priori thrust of the verse, argues that the purpose of man can be discovered by observation, or, more particularly, introspection, and that this purpose reveals man’s nature and fixes his obligations.

Man has a conscience as truly as he has eyes; and as the purpose of the eye is to see trees and houses, so the purpose of the conscience is to see right and wrong. Furthermore, man’s instincts lead him to contribute to the happiness of society in a way and with a force that no inward principle leads him to evil. Hence, man is at least more altruistic than selfish.

If it be replied that evil and selfish instincts are also natural, and that we therefore follow nature in following them, the reply is, first, that such an argument would destroy all distinctions between good and evil—everything would be indifferently natural; and, second, that observation of human nature did not result merely in the discovery that both altruistic and selfish inclinations equally exist, but rather that conscience exists as a superior, governing principle—its purpose is to sit in judgment over the others.

Butler is quite confident of the rectitude of conscientious judgments: “Let any plain, honest man, before he engages in any course of action, ask himself, Is this I am going about right, or is it wrong? Is it good, or is it evil? I do not in the least doubt, but that this question would be answered agreeably to truth and virtue, by almost any fair man in almost any circumstance.”

A person, whose viewpoint is not so restricted to Eng. common opinion in the 18th cent. may wonder whether all the world in all ages has enjoyed such a universal agreement. Without pressing the Scriptural revelation of the total depravity and desperate wickedness of the human heart, but adhering solely to observation “exclusive of revelation” as Butler insists (Sermon II, paragraph 20), an observer of humanity also notes that some widows have conscientiously mounted the funeral pyres of their husbands, that some military nations have taught that suicide is honorable, that Congolese savages regard cannibalism as normal. Observation, it would seem, allows for incompatible results.

Butler next considered a most important objection. Suppose, the objection runs, that conscience prescribes for a person a line of action that would injure him. Why should he be concerned about anything other than his own personal good? If he discovers in his makeup certain restrictions of conscience, why should he not endeavor to suppress them?

Butler’s answer is that personal happiness and the good of other people coincide. All the common enjoyments of life, and, even the pleasures of vice, depend on a person’s regard of his fellow creatures. The satisfactions of selfishness are not to be assumed superior to the satisfaction of acting justly and benevolently. Butler wrote, “It is manifest that, in the common course of life, there is seldom any inconsistency between our duty and what is called interest: it is much seldomer that there is an inconsistency between duty and what is really our present interest....But whatever exceptions there are to this...all shall be set right at the final distribution of things. It is a manifest absurdity to suppose evil prevailing finally over good, under the conduct and administration of a perfect mind” (Sermon II, paragraph 28).

Some puzzles emerge in the study of Butler’s arguments. Altruism and selfishness, conscience and “reasonable self-love” may coincide, but when they do not seem to—and in the 20th cent., duty does not speak so clearly as it did in his day—should a man follow what seems to be his interest or what seems to be his duty? Is duty in fact more clearly discernible than interest? Again, “a final distribution of things” that will equalize the temporary inconsistencies is not a principle to be derived from observation. Butler’s argument is circular: he must appeal to divine Providence to save his ethical theory, although he cannot prove the existence of Providence except by observing the uniform and inviolate coincidence of conscience and self-love.


a. Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). In 19th cent. England Jeremy Bentham propounded the theory of utilitarianism. Based on psychological hedonism, as was the theory of Thomas Hobbes, it, too, claimed to be observational, descriptive, and scientific. From the thesis that everyone as a matter of fact seeks nothing but pleasure, Bentham somehow arrived at the position that one ought to seek, not only his own pleasure, but the greatest pleasure of the greatest number.

“Nature,” writes Bentham, “has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do....They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think.”

The pleasure to be expected from prospective lines of action is to be measured by seven parameters: intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity, fecundity, purity, and extent. The latter is the number of persons to whom the pleasure extends. By calculating the amounts of pleasure to be produced from alternate lines of action, anyone should know which action he should choose.

The right action is enforced by four sanctions. Consequences, painful or pleasurable, derived through the ordinary course of nature, presumably physiological, issue from or belong to the physical sanction. Consequences derived through the actions of the police, the courts, and the state form the political sanction. Pleasures and pain received at the hands of such chance persons who spontaneously react to our conduct form the moral or social sanction. Bentham also makes religion a fourth sanction; but this religious sanction operates only through the other three. Bentham gives lip service to the possibility of divine rewards and punishments in a future life, but these can have no effect on man’s present choices. Such consequences are not open to observation; men cannot calculate the amounts—whether those pains and pleasures are like or unlike the present kind is something beyond the realm of discovery by observation.

Bentham’s utilitarianism provides a good opportunity for showing the weakness of many secular systems. In the first place, the calculation of future pleasures, on which choice and the knowledge of obligation depend, is impossible. Only in a few simple instances, and in these only roughly, can anyone estimate the amount of pleasure he as an individual will enjoy from a particular choice. To suppose that anyone can calculate the sum total of pleasures accruing to the whole human race is utterly and obviously impossible. Let anyone who wishes, try measuring along the seven parameters.

The principle of the greatest good for the greatest number is one by which dictators can justify their cruelty. When the communists starved to death millions of Ukrainians, massacred thousands of Polish officers, murdered possibly twenty million Chinese, and slaughered the Tibetans, they could justify themselves on the ground that the pleasure of future generations of communists would outweigh the temporary pain. Certainly no scientific observation can prove the contrary.

Less gruesome but even more fundamentally destructive of utilitarianism is the fact that descriptive science can discover no reason for aiming at the good of all society. Plato, Aristotle, Butler, all agree that men should seek their own good; who can urge them to seek their own harm? Why should anyone govern his actions by the good of another person? If perchance, as Butler asserted, there is never any conflict between a man’s good and the good of every other human being, then self-seeking and altruism will both prescribe the same choices. But this utopian assumption contradicts observable evidence. Personal jealousies and international conflicts alike demonstrate the incompatibility of goods. Actual life is much more like Hobbes’ war of each against all than like a perfect universal harmony.

b. Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900). To avoid this disastrous argument against utilitarianism, Henry Sidgwick, whose Methods of Ethics is the best analysis of ethical methodology so far written, relinquished the descriptive basis Bentham used, and tried to found utilitarianism on intuitions. He urged his readers to look at the matter “from the point of view, if I may say so, of the Universe.” But unfortunately no one man is the universe, and therefore no one man can see things from its point of view; nor is it easy to learn why anyone ought to take any other point of view than his own. For another person’s pleasure, enjoyment, or good cannot be mine.

Sidgwick was honest enough to admit that the compatibility of all individual goods can be maintained only on the basis of God’s rewards and punishments. It is incapable of empirical proof. Therefore, much to his distaste, he is forced to admit the question whether a theory of ethics can be constructed on an independent basis, or whether it is forced to borrow a fundamental principle from theology (Methods of Ethics, pp. 506-509). His modesty, his honesty, and his almost superhuman effort to save utilitarianism seal its doom.

Hedonism in any of its forms is a teleological system. Moral acts have the purpose of producing pleasure, and they are tested by their actual consequences.

A century earlier Immanuel Kant, of Germany, constructed a nonhedonistic, nonteleological system, in which the moral quality of an act was entirely independent of actual consequences.

One of Kant’s chief objections to an ethics of calculation was that on such an arrangement only those who are brilliant mathematicians can be moral. On the contrary, morality ought to be within the abilities of every humble person. Furthermore, common opinion never regards a man as immoral just because he fails to obtain a great deal of pleasure. He may be imprudent or stupid, but if his intentions are sincere and good, he is considered moral. Conversely, successful calculation may prove a man clever, but is no basis for judging him to be particularly moral.

In opposition to empirical ethics, therefore, Kant put forward a theory of a priori duty. A moral precept is such because it is a categorical imperative. Some imperatives are merely hypothetical: to bisect a line, one must draw certain arcs. Such imperatives are scientific, and if anyone does not wish to bisect an arc, no obligation exists. Moral, or categorical imperatives, however, do not depend on ifs. It is “immoral” to say that if a person wants a good reputation, he should be honest and tell the truth. One ought to be honest and tell the truth regardless of consequences, and even without being so motivated. A moral act must be motivated only by reverence for duty.

Duty then is determined, not by any pleasure accruing to the individual, but by maxims that can be universalized. If I tell a lie by making a promise I do not intend to keep, I make myself an exception to a universal maxim. The only reason I can deceive anyone by a false promise is that people expect promises to be kept. If all or even most promises were broken, there would be no promises at all because no one would believe them. Hence the intent to deceive depends on the maxim of non-deception. An individual cannot universalize the maxim of false promises because such an attempt is self-contradictory. A false promise is always and of necessity an exception and can never be a general rule. Universalization therefore, or the absence of self-contradiction, is the test of morality. The results of the action have nothing to do with it.

Kant’s example of truth-telling is the best one he could have used. Others are not so convincing. For example, the maxim, “Be a miser,” can be universalized; so also “Be a spendthrift.” Neither of these requires the agent to be an exception to the general rule; neither is self-destructive. Similarly the maxim, “Commit suicide,” contains no self-contradictions. Or, if the maxim applied to children so that the human race would become extinct, in which case suicides would no longer be possible, the maxim can be replaced, “Commit suicide on your forty-fifth birthday.” Kant tried his best to show that suicide is immoral, but if he succeeded it is because of an appeal to God and not because of a categorical imperative. Kant’s ethics can be saved, then, only by an admission that suicide is right and that a miser and a spendthrift are morally equal.

However, Kant’s thesis faces even greater difficulties. Morality seems to presuppose freedom. Ask a man, wrote Kant, whether he can refuse to bear false witness in court when his king requires it; and the man might doubt that he would refuse, but he would not doubt that he could refuse. Duty and the categorical imperative depend on freedom.

At the same time, Kant, to escape Hume’s empirical skepticism, worked out a system of epistemology, by which every atom, every motion, every physiological change, every natural desire is determined by mathematical, mechanical law. Freedom is physically, scientifically impossible. How then can freedom and morality be saved?

It must be insisted upon that free will is not the ability to indulge one’s desires and natural impulses. Natural impulses are natural; they are caused by physiological conditions. A will is free only when self-caused—independent of all influences external to itself. Such freedom is impossible in the physical, visible world.

In this predicament Kant asserts that men are citizens of two worlds. Beyond the visible world there is an intelligible world, where neither matter nor mechanism can corrupt, and where causality does not break through and steal man’s freedom. In that world, morality is possible.

In this world, where men’s bodies are and where men’s actions occur, is morality possible? Consider a particular act of theft. A man breaks the lock on a door, enters a house, and steals some cash and jewelry. All these actions are physical actions in time and space. Now Kant is adamant. There can be no freedom, he says, for bodies or actions in time; all temporal factors are mechanically determined. Some moralists have tried to preserve freedom by denying that the motions of the theft are physically necessitated, by asserting that they are produced by some sort of psychological causation. The thief is said to be free because he acts according to his own character. Kant calls this theory a wretched subterfuge. Psychological states are as much necessitated as physical motions. Logically, it follows therefore that the theft itself could have been avoided in the higher world, although the motions of the theft could not have been avoided in this world.

This conclusion is paradoxical, to say the least; and Kant refused to explain it. He wrote, “Reason would therefore completely transcend its proper limits, if it should undertake to explain how pure reason can be practical, or what is the same thing, to explain how freedom is possible...while therefore it is true that we cannot comprehend this practical unconditioned necessity of the moral imperative, it is also true that we can comprehend its incomprehensibility; and this is all that can fairly be demanded of a philosophy which seeks to reach the principles which determine the limits of human reason” (Critique of Practical Reason, T. K. Abbot’s tr., pp. 189-191).

Instrumentalism—John Dewey (1859-1952).

For American readers something needs to be said about John Dewey. He offered an empirical, scientific ethics, and therefore the criticism must center on points previously discussed; but he is not a utilitarian and his details are significantly different.

In fact, his details and their practical application may overshadow the pure theory. For example, much of the agitation against capital punishment, which is a Biblical provision for the administration of justice, stems from Dewey’s teaching. Capital punishment, he argued, ignores the fact, or alleged fact, that society is as much to blame for crime as is the criminal. Criminals should not be punished—this is irrational vengeance—they should be rehabilitated and paroled. (That the solicitude of the liberals for criminals and their callousness toward the victims result in a sharply rising crime rate never occurs to such penologists.)

This loose attitude toward crime seems to contrast with an insistence on stringent government controls over all business transactions. Rejecting the ideal of liberty, Dewey, the liberal, wrote, “Find a man who believes that all men need is freedom from oppressive legal and political measures, and you have a man who, unless he is merely obstinately maintaining his own private privileges, carries at the back of his head some heritage of the metaphysical doctrine of free will, plus an optimistic confidence in natural harmony” (Human Nature and Conduct, IV. iii). That power corrupts and that politicians are as depraved as other men, and that therefore the extent of government regulation should be minimal is too theological an argument to impress Dewey. In fact, Dewey looked forward to the day when the government would control, not merely many human activities, but even men’s thoughts and wishes. He saw in the future a scientific advance that would enable politicians to manipulate men as we now manipulate physical things (Problems of Men, pp. 178, 179).

As a pragmatist, or instrumentalist, Dewey did not believe in fixed ethical principles any more than he believed in fixed truth of any sort. “We institute standards of justice, truth, esthetic quality, etc....exactly as we set up a platinum bar as a standard measurer of lengths. The superiority of one conception of justice to another is of the same order as the superiority of the metric system” (Logic, The Theory of Inquiry, p. 216).

Dewey used an even better analogy. Moral standards are like the rules of grammar. They are both the result of custom. Language evolved from unintelligent babblings; then came grammar. But language continues to change and grammar changes with it. So too, the rules of morality change with changing customs, from which it may be inferred, though Dewey does not explicitly use the example, that cannibalism and rape would be moral wherever they occurred frequently enough.

In consonance with this, Dewey held that nothing is intrinsically good or bad; nothing is valuable in and of itself alone; all beliefs, all actions, and all values are instrumental. They are judged by their consequences. If they solve human problems, they are good instruments.

Unless the solution sought is itself an independent or intrinsic value, it is hard to see how it can confer value on the means. For example, chess can be considered as an instrument in cementing friendships. Yet this is hardly the reason why anyone plays chess. Usually its intrinsic merit is the motivation.

Dewey, in strange company with Aristotle, might have spurned this illustration on the ground that games are too trivial. As Aristotle said, recreation is for the sake of serious work. But Aristotle said this out of a theory of human nature that Dewey could not consistently use. If nothing is intrinsically valuable, there is no ground for distinguishing recreation from serious work.

In particular, Dewey could not accept Aristotle’s view that knowledge is intrinsically valuable. He castigated such a view as a retreat to an ivory tower. Knowledge and going to college are instrumental. For a young man, they are instrumental in getting a job. For a young woman, they are instrumental in getting a young man. But the job and the marriage also are merely instrumental—to raising a family and sending the children to college. Chess, however, is instrumental in restricting social contacts, therefore in avoiding marriage and its expenses, and this saving is instrumental in buying a more handsome set of chessmen. Nowhere is there any intrinsic value. The choice therefore between marriage and chess is entirely irrational.

Dewey tried to escape this criticism by asserting that there are evil ideals. Without aesthetic enjoyment, mankind might become a race of economic monsters (Reconstruction in Philosophy, p. 127). But could Dewey consistently maintain that monsters are intrinsically bad?

In another place he relied on common opinion and declared that no honest person can think that murder is instrumental to anything good and that everybody resents acts of wanton cruelty (Dewey and Tufts, Ethics, pp. 251, 265, 292). Yet it is known that the communists and other radicals use assassination as a political device (cf. Hermann Raschhofer, Political Assassination, Tübingen [1964]); and some Latins enjoy the wanton cruelty of bullfights.

In his opposition to wanton cruelty, Dewey has inherited a Puritan ideal. In addition to the inconsistency of relying on Protestant ethics, there is the more formidable question as to how one decides between incompatible ideals: assassination, equal justice, minority rights, wanton cruelty, and kindness. If nothing is intrinsically valuable, how could Dewey choose?

In fact, how could Dewey choose to do anything? If there are no intrinsic values, if there is no final goal, like Aristotelian Happiness, if man has no chief end, by which alone subordinate means become worthwhile, the ultimate ethical question arises in full force: Why continue living—why not commit suicide?

The value of life is not just one more point of detail, as if a group would discuss theft and honesty, brutality and kindness, and then discuss suicide. These particular details are subsidiary to the all-embracing question of the reason for living. Obviously a man can choose neither honesty nor theft, unless he has first chosen to continue living.

Many modern moralists, unlike Kant, refuse to face this question. F. C. S. Schiller, a pragmatist like Dewey, notes the logical possibility of a pessimism that holds life to be, not necessarily painful, but merely too dreary and boring to be worth the trouble. On the other hand, he offers no argument against this position.

This pessimistic view is not an odd affectation of a few publicity seekers. Buddhism, with its millions, is a close approximation. Granted, the Buddhists do not approve of suicide—but not because they think life is worthwhile. Suicide is rejected because they think it is not effective enough. It does not extinguish life. Hence, they try to suppress all desire, try to make no choices, and thus attain the “extinction” of Nirvana.

The failure to give a rational refutation of pessimism is the final refutation of instrumentalistic ethics. To choose an action as a means to another ad infinitum, and to find value nowhere, resembles nothing so much as the frustration of Sisyphus.

Contemporary ethics.

One more contemporary view of ethics needs to be included, and it is the one that crowns the whole history of secular ethics with failure. The view (for it is not a theory but the absence of all theory) has a negative and a positive stage.

a. Negatively, P. H. Howell-Smith in his Ethics writes, “Moral philosophy is a practical science; its aim is to answer questions in the form ‘What shall I do?’ But no general answer can be given to this type of question. The most a moral philosopher can do is to paint a picture of various types of life...and ask which type of life you really want to lead.” Ethical choices are therefore personal preferences, and no one can question another’s preference for murder and rape anymore than his preference for olives and onions.”

b. W. H. F. Barnes. The positive stage of this viewpoint is expressed by W. H. F. Barnes, A. J. Ayer, and C. L. Stevenson. Their point is that ethical propositions are emotional ejaculations. Barnes writes, “Many [and I do not see why he does not say ‘all’] controversies arising out of value judgments are settled by saying, ‘I like it and you don’t, and that’s the end of the matter.’”

c. A. J. Ayer. Ayer is more explicit: “If I say to someone, ‘You acted wrongly in stealing that money,’ I am not stating anything more than if I had simply said, ‘You stole that money.’ In adding that this action is wrong I am not making any further statement about it. I am simply evincing my moral disapproval of it. It is as if I had said, ‘You stole that money’ in a peculiar tone of horror...the tone...adds nothing to the literal meaning of the sentence.”

d. C. L. Stevenson. Stevenson goes beyond Ayer in that he emphasizes, not merely one’s own approval or disapproval, but chiefly one’s attempt to induce the same feeling in other people. When an individual says, “Stealing is wrong,” he not only means that he does not like it, but in addition he is trying to persuade someone else to dislike it also. It is similar to the ejaculation “onions taste horrible.” This conveys no information about onions; it is merely an attempt to persuade another person to eat olives instead.

Suppose that the other person insists on liking and eating onions. Suppose that the other person insists on thievery and bullfights. What is to be done in such cases of moral disagreement? Here Stevenson frankly admits that there is no rational method for settling such a disagreement. The only method is eloquence and emotional persuasion.

It is true that persuasion, like bribery, sometimes works; but it does not support the conclusion that the action recommended is good or obligatory. It is not obligatory for the person persuaded, but, more to the point, it is not obligatory even for the first person. The only problem Stevenson has solved is the problem of getting other unprincipled people to do what the unprincipled persuader wants done. The real problem of ethics, however, is how to decide which action and which principles ought to be acknowledged. In the failure to solve this problem is where Stevenson, emotional ethics, and secularism all fail.

Some Christian principles

A satisfactory ethics needs principles for systematic consistency and details for practical application. Omitting the former produces chaos; omitting the latter removes all guidelines for choice and action.

The Decalogue and its implications.

During the first cent. and a half of the Protestant Reformation, the Calvinists (Reformed, Presbyterian, and Puritan) distinguished themselves by their stress on ethics. They not only emphasized the Ten Commandments—one would naturally expect any form of Christian ethics to acknowledge the Ten Commandments as basic obligations—but they took the trouble to outline their implications. This work, initiated by Calvin in the Institutes, II, viii, is summarized in the Westminster Larger Catechism, from which several following quotations illustrate the detailed application of divine law to the moral situations of life.

“Q. 93. What is the moral law? A. The moral law is the declaration of the will of God to mankind, directing and binding every one to personal, perfect, and perpetual conformity and obedience thereunto, in the frame and disposition of the whole man, soul and body, and in performance of all those duties of holiness and righteousness which he oweth to God and man: promising life upon the fulfilling, and threatening death upon the breach of it.”

“Q. 99. What rules are to be observed for the right understanding of the ten commandments? A. For the right understanding of the ten commandments, these rules are to be observed:—1. That the law is perfect, and bindeth every one to full conformity in the whole man unto righteousness thereof, and unto entire obedience for ever; so as to require the utmost perfection of every duty, and to forbid the least degree of every sin. 2. That it is spiritual, and so reacheth the understanding, will, affections, and all other powers of the soul; as well as words, works, and gestures. 3. That one and the same thing, in divers respects, is required or forbidden in several commandments. 4. That, where a duty is commanded, the contrary sin is forbidden; and, where a sin is forbidden, the contrary duty is commanded: so, where a promise is annexed, the contrary threatening is included; and, where a threatening is annexed, the contrary promise is included. 5. That what God forbids, is at no time to be done; what he commands is always our duty; and yet every particular duty is not to be done at all times. 6. That, under one sin or duty, all of the same kind are forbidden or commanded; together with all the causes, means, occasions, and appearances thereof, and provocations thereunto. 7. That what is forbidden or commanded to ourselves, we are bound, according to our places, to endeavor that it may be avoided or performed by others, according to the duty of their places. 8. That in what is commanded to others, we are bound, according to our places and callings, to be helpful to them; and to take heed of partaking with others in what is forbidden them.”

“Q. 134. Which is the sixth commandment? A. The sixth commandment is, Thou shalt not kill.”

“Q. 135. What are the duties required in the sixth commandment? A. The duties required in the sixth commandment are, all careful studies, and lawful endeavors, to preserve the life of ourselves and others, by resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions, and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any; by just defense thereof against violence; patient bearing of the hand of God, quietness of mind, cheerfulness of spirit; a sober use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labor, and recreation; by charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild, and courteous speeches and behavior: forbearing, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil; comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent.”

“Q. 136. What are the sins forbidden in the sixth commandment? A. The sins forbidden in the sixth commandment are, all taking away the life of ourselves, or of others, except in case of public justice, lawful war, or necessary defense; the neglecting or withdrawing the lawful or necessary means of preservation of life; sinful anger, hatred, envy, desire of revenge; all excessive passions, distracting cares; immoderate use of meat, drink, labor, and recreations; provoking words; oppression, quarreling, striking, wounding, and whatsoever else tends to the destruction of the life of any.”

“Q. 140. Which is the eighth commandment? A. The eighth commandment is, Thou shalt not steal.”

“Q. 141. What are the duties required in the eighth commandment? A. The duties required in the eighth commandment are, truth, faithfulness, and justice in contracts and commerce between man and man; rendering to every one his due; restitution of goods unlawfully detained from the right owners thereof; giving and lending freely, according to our abilities, and the necessities of others; moderation of our judgments, wills, and affections, concerning worldly goods; a provident care and study to get, keep, use, and dispose of those things which are necessary and convenient for the sustentation of our nature, and suitable to our condition; a lawful calling, and diligence in it; frugality, avoiding unnecessary law-suits, and suretyship, or other like engagements; and an endeavor by all just and lawful means to procure, preserve, and further the wealth and outward estate of others, as well as our own.”

“Q. 142. What are the sins forbidden in the eighth commandment? A. The sins forbidden in the eighth commandment, beside the neglect of the duties required, are theft, robbery, man-stealing, and receiving any thing that is stolen; fraudulent dealing; false weights and measures; removing landmarks; injustice and unfaithfulness in contracts between man and man, or in matters of trust; oppression; extortion; usury; bribery; vexatious lawsuits; unjust enclosures and depredation; engrossing commodities to enhance the price, unlawful callings, and all other unjust or sinful ways of taking or withholding from our neighbor what belongs to him, or of enriching ourselves; covetousness; inordinate prizing and affecting worldly goods; distrustful and distracting cares and studies in getting, keeping, and using them; envying at the prosperity of others: as likewise idleness, prodigality, wasteful gaming, and all other ways whereby we do unduly prejudice our own outward estate: and defrauding ourselves of the due use and comfort of that estate which God hath given us.”

In addition to official and therefore brief expositions of ethics, there are innumerable books, either on Christian ethics as a whole, or on particular problems, such as divorce, the family, alcoholism, etc., or on such Biblical sections as the ethics of the gospels and the ethics of the OT. Some of these are Biblical and orthodox; others are liberal. In general they show how much detail can be derived by implication from the Biblical material (see Bibliography).

Christian presuppositions.

If one of the purposes of ethics is to furnish concrete instruction applicable to everyday living, the superiority of Christianity over secular attempts is unmistakable. The Ten Commandments, however, rest on certain presuppositions that provide the more theoretical or theological basis for Biblical ethics.


The Ten Commandments derive their validity from Biblical authority. If the Bible is composed of myths, and superstitions—the product of ingenious human construction—no one would be obliged to obey its commands. Aside from the secular systems previously discussed, men could choose the Code of Hammurabi or could consider the claims of the Koran, the Vedas, and other sacred books. Christian morality, therefore, depends on Christian Revelation.

For further material on Biblical authority, see Bible, Inspiration, Infallibility.

Underlying the authority of the Bible is the authority of God who gave the Bible; and the God who gave the Bible is not just any kind of deity, but is One with definite characteristics.


It is almost repetitious to insist that one of God’s characteristics is the ability to speak. But the repetition is excusable because many contemporary theologians deny that God can speak. They may try to find some place for Revelation in their theology, but it is a nonverbal revelation, something other than a communication of truth. Revelation in these theologies may be the mighty acts of God in history, or some mystic experience of encounter or confrontation.

This view of revelation is worthless. Without information divinely given man could not discern which historical events were mighty acts of God—the Exodus, perhaps; but why not also Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon and Stalin’s capture of Berlin? What is worse, after selecting a series of events, man would be at a loss to interpret them. Would there be any difference in value between Moses’ crossing the Red Sea and Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon? Do these events mean that no one should eat pork, or that everyone should support civil rights, or that attendance at football games is acceptable worship? Attempts to draw practical implications from these historical events would only revert to the secular theories of developing ethics out of experience, which has been shown to be impossible.

Ethics requires definite information as to what is right and wrong, and such information can be revealed only by a living, communicating God.


In the present decade several books have been published on theological ethics, presumably in opposition to irreligious secularism. The type of ethics depends on the type of theology. One such book defends the concept of the “New Morality,” which in these days is offered as a substitute for the Ten Commandments. Dr. James Sellers declares that men need a new morality, a new ethics, and a new theology. In support of a changing ethics he approves Paul Ramsey’s statement: “At the level of theory itself, any formulation of Christian social ethics is always in need of reformulation” (Theological Ethics, pp. ix, 39).

The notion that the principles of ethics (not merely their applications to changing social forms, but the basic principles themselves) must always be changing requires belief in a changing God and a changing revelation. Obviously this necessitates a rejection of the Ten Commandments and derivative Biblical precepts. Though Dr. Sellers is not too clear on the nature of God, he could not be clearer in his rejection of Scripture. He defines revelation as “something [that] has happened to us in our history which conditions all our thinking” (ibid. p. 71); as for example, the death of one’s mother. Concerning the Bible he says, “worse, in some places where it is not silent, it gives us advice that is manifestly bad if taken literally”; and “the Bible also illustrates its insights with outmoded or downright unacceptable examples of morality” (pp. 88, 92).

The notion of a changing morality presupposes belief in a changing God, and raises theological issues (see Eternity and Immutability). If, on the other hand, men accept the Ten Commandments as permanent obligations, they must also accept the Biblical concept of an immutable God. Biblical morality and Biblical theology are inseparable.

The idea that the firm morality of the Bible must now be replaced with something loose is a practical danger of this present age. In opposition to Christ’s specific instructions about divorce and remarriage, some denominations officially encourage their ministers to substitute their own permissive judgment; and individual ministers of various denominations approve of adultery if the two people “really love each other.” All this “new morality”—actually as old as the Canaanites—stems from a rejection of the God of the Bible.

Immutability, however, is not the only divine characteristic needed for a systematic Christian ethics. Sovereignty is even more important.

In the Platonic philosophy, the principles of ethics, though they differ in detail from those of Christianity, are sufficiently immutable. But God, the maker of heaven and earth, is not sovereign according to Plato; above God is an immutable World of Ideas to which even He must submit.

In modern times, the point at issue is exemplified in the philosophy of Leibniz. His famous phrase that this is the best of all possible worlds, a phrase Voltaire’s Candide ridicules with brutal force, depends on the notion that various possible worlds exist in a sort of blueprint form independently of God. Because God is good, He naturally chose the best blueprint at the time of creation. Therefore the actual world is the best possible. This exactly follows Plato, who, in his Euthyphro, asserted that good is not good because God approves of it, but that God approves of it because it is antecedently and independently good.

The Jewish philosopher Philo, who lived at the time of Christ, though profoundly influenced by Plato, made an alteration that completely reversed Platonic and Leibnizian theology. This alteration consisted in making God supreme and in placing the World of Ideas in God’s mind. Philo wrote, “God has been ranked according to the one and the unit; or rather, even the unit has been ranked according to the one God, for all number, like time, is younger than the cosmos.” In this quotation, Philo subjects mathematics to the thinking activity of God. Similarly, God does not will the good because it is independently good, but on the contrary the good is good because God wills it.

To the same effect Calvin (Institutes, I, xiv, 1) wrote, “Augustine justly complains that it is an offense against God to inquire for any cause of things higher than his will.” Later (III, xxii, 2) he says, “how exceedingly presumptuous it is only to inquire into the causes of the Divine will, which is in fact and is justly entitled to be the cause of everything that exists. For if it has any cause, then there must be something antecedent, on which it depends; which it is impious to suppose. For the will of God is the highest rule of justice; so that what he wills must be considered just, for this very reason, because he wills it.”

The sovereignty of God is the key to the basic problem of ethics. Why is anything good, right, or obligatory? Neither utilitarianism, nor pragmatism, nor emotionalism can give a rational answer. Calvin has given the answer in very precise language: “the will of God is the highest rule of justice; so that what he wills must be considered just, for this very reason, because he wills it.” God establishes moral norms by sovereign decree.

That this principle permeates the Bible can easily be seen. No devout Christian holds that anything external to God compelled or induced Him to create a certain number of solar satellites rather than a different number. God could have created water with a different freezing point. Similarly, there was no external cause of His choice of detail in the Mosaic ritual. Could He not have willed the Tabernacle to have been hexagonal instead of rectangular? Similarly could He not have imposed on man other commandments rather than the Ten? Was it not merely His decision to have one Sabbath each week instead of two? Or could He not have created the world in five days and have substituted a different fourth commandment to fit a six-day week? Is it not due to God’s will that man differs from the animals, and could not man have been made so that, as in their case, the sixth, seventh, and eighth commandments would not apply?

The omnipotence and sovereignty of God, as the controlling concept of Christianity, solve the problems of every sphere. The power of God is the answer to scientific objections against miracles; His will is the authority for civil government and the key to political science; and similarly His precepts constitute ethics. The good or the right is not the pleasure of the greatest number, to be determined by an impossible calculation; right or justice is what God commands, to be discovered by reading the written Revelation. The sanctions are not Bentham’s, nor is virtue its own reward; on the contrary, God enforces moral obligation by the joys of heaven and the pains of hell. Here is logical consistency unmatched by either the rationalist Leibniz or the emotionalist Stevenson; here is the practical detail absent in secularism; here are the sanctions Stalin and Hitler could not escape. Such is Christian ethics.


H. Sidgwick, A History of Ethics (1886); N. Smyth, Christian Ethics (1892); W. S. Bruce, The Ethics of the Old Testament (1909); D. S. Adam, A Handbook of Christian Ethics (1925); E. W. Burch, The Ethical Teaching of the Gospels (1925); A. C. Knudsen, The Principles of Christian Ethics (1943); C. F. H. Henry, Christian Personal Ethics (1957); J. Murray, Principles of Conduct (1957); J. Sellers, Theological Ethics (1966); G. F. Woods, A Defence of Theological Ethics (1966).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

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.

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.

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.

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.

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:

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.

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.

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).

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 (eg. 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.

Historical Sketch of Ethics

A comprehensive treatment of our subject would naturally include a history of ethics from the earliest times to the present. For ethics as a branch of philosophical inquiry partakes of the historical development of all thought, and the problems which it presents to our day can be rightly appreciated only in the light of certain categories and concepts--such as end, good, virtue, duty, pleasure, egoism and altruism--which have been evolved through the successive stages of the movement of ethical thoughts. All we can attempt here, however, is the baldest outline of the different epochs of ethical inquiry as indicating the preparatory stages which lead up to and find their solution in the ethics of Christianity.

Greek Philosophy

All the great religions of the world--of India, Persia and Egypt--have had their ethical implicates, but these have consisted for the most part of loosely connected moral precepts or adages. Before the golden age of Greek philosophy there were no ethics in the strict sense. The moral consciousness of the Greeks takes its rise with the Sophists, and particularly with Socrates, who were the first to protest against the long-established customs and traditions of their land. The so-called "wise men" were in part moralists, but their sayings are but isolated maxims presenting no unity or connection. Philosophy proper occupied itself primarily with purely metaphysical or ontological questions as to the nature of being, the form and origin and primal elements of the world. It was only when Greek religion and poetry had lost their hold upon the cultured and the beliefs of the past had come to be doubted, that questions as to the meaning of life and conduct arose.

Already the Sophists had drawn attention to the vagueness and inconsistency of common opinion, and had begun to teach the art of conduct, but it was Socrates who, as it was said, first brought philosophy down from heaven to the sphere of the earth and directed men’s minds from merely natural things to human life. He was indeed the first moral philosopher, inasmuch as, while the Sophists talked about justice and law and temperance, they could not tell, when pressed, what these things were. The first task of Socrates, therefore, was to expose human ignorance. All our confusion and disputes about good arise, says. Socrates, from want of clear knowledge. He aimed, therefore, at producing knowledge, not merely for its own sake, but because he believed it to be the ground of all right conduct. Nobody does wrong willingly. Let a man know what is good, that is, what is truly beneficial, and he will do it. Hence, the famous Socratic dictum, "Virtue is knowledge and vice is ignorance." With all his intellectualism Socrates was really a hedonist, believing that pleasure was the ultimate end of life. For it must not be imagined that he conceived of knowledge of virtue as distinct from interest. Everyone naturally seeks the good because the good is really identified with his happiness. The wise man is necessarily the happy man, and hence, "to know one’s self" is to learn the secret of well-being.

While Socrates was the first to direct attention to the nature of virtue, his one-sided and fragmentary conception of it received a more systematic treatment from Plato, who attempted to define the nature and end of man by his place in the cosmos. Plato thus brought ethics into intimate connection with metaphysics. He conceived an ideal world in which everything earthly and human had its prototype. The human soul is derived from the world-soul and, like it, is a mixture of two elements. On the one side, in virtue of reason, it participates in the world of ideas, or the life of God; and on the other, by virtue of its animal impulses, it partakes of the world of decay, the corporeal world. These two dissimilar parts are connected by an intermediate element, which Plato calls thumos, embracing courage, the love of honor and the affections of the heart--a term which may be translated by the will. The constitution of the inner man is manifested in his outward organization. The head is the seat of reason, the breast of the heart and the affections, and the lower part of the body of the organs of animal desire. If we ask, Who is the just man? Plato answers, The man in whom the three elements just mentioned harmonize. We thus arrive at the scheme of the so-called "cardinal virtues" which have persisted through all ages and have given direction to all ethical discussion--wisdom, courage, temperance which, in combination, give us justice. It will thus be observed that virtue is no longer simply identified with knowledge; but another form of bad conduct besides ignorance is assumed, namely, the internal disorder and conflict of the soul, in which the lower impulses war with the higher. This, it will be seen, is a distinct advance on the one-sided position of Socrates; but in his attempt to reconcile the two movements in the conflict of life, Plato does not succeed in overcoming the duality. The inner impulses are ever dragging man down, and man’s true well-being lies in the attainment of the life of reason. But though there are gleams of a higher solution in Plato, as a rule he falls back upon the idea that virtue is to be attained only by the suppression of the animal passions and the mortifying of the lower life. Plato affords us also the primal elements of social ethics. Morality as conceived by him is not something belonging merely to the individual, but has its full realization in the state. Man is indeed but-a type of the larger cosmos, and it is not as an individual but as a citizen that he is capable of realizing his true life.

The ethics of Aristotle, while it completes, does not essentially differ from that of Plato. He is the first to treat of the subject formally as a science, which assumes in his hands a division of politics. For, as he says, man is really "a social animal"; and, even more decisively than Plato, he treats of man as a part of society. Aristotle begins his great work on ethics with the discussion of the chief good, which he declares to be happiness or well-being. Happiness does not consist, however, in sensual pleasure, or even in the pursuit of honor, but in a life of well-ordered contemplation, "an activity of the soul in accordance with reason" (Nic. Eth., I, chapter v). But to reach the goal of right thinking and right doing, both favorable surroundings and proper instruction are required. Virtue is not virtue until it is a habit, and the only way to become virtuous is to practice virtue. It will thus be seen that Aristotle balances the one-sided emphasis of Socrates and Plato upon knowledge by the insistence upon habit. Activity must be combined with reason. The past and the present, environment and knowledge, must both be acknowledged as elements in the making of life. The virtues are thus habits, but habits of deliberate choice. Virtue is therefore an activity which at every point seeks to strike the mean between two opposite excesses. Plato’s list of virtues had the merit of simplicity, but Aristotle’s, though fuller, lacks system and consists generally of right actions which are determined in reference to two extremes. One defect which strikes a modern is that among the virtues benevolence is not recognized except obscurely as a form of liberality; and in general the gentler self-sacrificing virtues so prominent in Christianity have no place. The virtues. are chiefly aristocratic and are impossible for a slave. Again while Aristotle did well, in opposition to previous philosophy, to recognize the function of habit, it must be pointed out that habit of itself cannot make a man virtuous. Mere habit may be a hindrance and not a help to higher attainment. You cannot reduce morality to a succession of customary acts. But the main defect of Aristotle’s treatment of virtue is that he regards the passions as wholly irrational and immoral. He does not see that passion in this sense can have no mean. If you may have too much of a good thing, you cannot have even a little of a bad thing. In man the desires and impulses are never purely irrational. Reason enters into all his appetites and gives to the body and all the physical powers an ethical value and a moral use. We do not become virtuous by curbing the passions but by transfiguring them into the vehicle of good. Aristotle, not less than Plato, is affected by the Greek duality which makes an antithesis between reason and impulse, and imparts to the former an external supremacy.

The two conflicting elements of reason and impulse which neither Plato nor Aristotle succeeded in harmonizing ultimately gave rise to two opposite interpretations of the moral life. The Stoics selected the rational nature as the true guide to an ethical system, but they gave to it a supremacy so rigid as to threaten the extinction of the affections. The Epicureans, on the other hand, seizing the doctrine that happiness is the chief good, so accentuated the emotional side of nature as to open the door for all manner of sensual enjoyment. Both agree in determining the happiness of the individual as the final goal of moral conduct. It, is not necessary to dwell upon the particular tenets of Epicurus and his followers. For though both Epicureanism and Stoicism, as representing the chief tendencies of ethical inquiry, have exercised incalculable influence upon speculation and practical morals of later ages, it is the doctrines of Stoicism which have more specially come into contact with Christianity.

Without dwelling upon the stoic conception of the world, according to which the universe was a whole, interpenetrated and controlled by an inherent spirit, and the consequent view of life as proceeding from God and being in all its parts equally Divine, we may note that the Stoics, like Plato and Aristotle, regarded the realization of man’s natural purpose as the true well-being or highest good. This idea they formulated into a principle: "Life according to Nature." The wise man is he who strives to live in agreement with his rational nature in all the circumstances of life. The law of Nature is to avoid what is hurtful and strive for what is appropriate; and pleasure arises as an accompaniment when a being obtains that which is fitting. Pleasure and pain are, however, to be regarded as mere accidents or incidents of life and to be met by the wise man with indifference. He alone is free, the master of himself and the world, who acknowledges the absolute supremacy of reason and makes himself independent of earthly desires. This life of freedom is open to all, for all men are equal, members of one great body. The slave may be as free as the consul and each can make the world his servant by living in harmony with it.

There is a certain sublimity in the ethics of Stoicism. It was a philosophy which appealed to noble minds and "it inspired nearly all the great characters of the early Roman empire and nerved every attempt to maintain the dignity and freedom of the human soul" (Lecky, History of European Morals, I, chapter ii). We cannot, however, be blind to its defects. With all their talk of Divine immanence and providence, it was nothing but an impersonal destiny which the Stoics recognized as governing the universe. "Harmony with Nature" was simply a sense of proud self-sufficiency. Stoicism is the glorification of reason, even to the extent of suppressing all emotion. It has no real sense of sin. Sin is un-reason, and salvation lies in the external control of the passions, in indifference and apathy begotten of the atrophy of desire. The great merit of the Stoics is that they emphasized inner moral integrity as the one condition of all right action and true happiness, and in an age of degeneracy insisted on the necessity of virtue. In its preference for the joys of the inner life and its scorn of the delights of sense; in its emphasis upon duty and its advocacy of a common humanity, together with its belief in the direct relation of each human soul to God, Stoicism, as revealed in the writings of a Seneca, a Marcus Aurelius and an Epictetus, not only showed how high paganism at its best could reach, but proved in a measure a preparation for Christianity with whose practical tenets, in spite of its imperfections, it had much in common.

That there are remarkable affinities between Stoicism and Pauline ethics has frequently been pointed out. The similarity both in language and sentiment can scarcely be accounted for by mere coincidence. There were elements in Stoic philosophy which Paul would not have dreamed of assimilating, and features with which he could have no sympathy. The pantheistic view of God and the material conception of the world, the self-conscious pride, the absence of all sense of sin and need of pardon, the temper of apathy and the unnatural suppression of feelings--these were features which could not but rouse in the apostle’s mind strong antagonism. But on the other hand there were certain well-known characteristics of a nobler order in Stoic morality which we may believe Paul found ready to his hand, ideas which he did not hesitate to incorporate in his teaching and employ in the service of the gospel. Without enlarging upon this line of thought (compare Alexander, Ethics of Paul), of these we may mention the immanence of God as the pervading cause of all life and activity; the idea of wisdom or knowledge as the ideal of man; the conception of freedom as the prerogative of the individual; and the notion of brotherhood as the goal of humanity.


It will be possible only to sketch in a few rapid strokes the subsequent development of ethical thought. After the varied life of the early centuries had passed, Christian ethic (so prominent in the Gospels and Epistles), like Christian theology, fell under the blight of Gnostieism (Alexandrian philosophy; compare Hatch, Hibbert Lectures) and latterly, of Scholasticism. Christian truth stiffened into a cumbrous catalogue of ecclesiastical observances. In the early Fathers (Barnabas, Clement, Origen, Gregory), dogmatic and ethical teaching were hardly distinguished. Cyprian discussed moral questions from the standpoint of church discipline.

The first real attempt at a Christian ethic was made by Ambrose, whose treatise on the Duties is an imitation of Cicero’s work of the same title. Even Augustine, notwithstanding his profound insight into the nature of sin, treats of moral questions incidentally. Perhaps the only writers among the schoolmen, except Alcuin (Virtues and Vices), who afford anything like elaborate moral treatises, are Abelard (Ethica, or Scito te Ipsum), Peter Lombard (Sentences), and, above all, Thomas Aquinas (Summa, II).


Emancipation from a legal dogmatism first came with the Reformation which was in essence a moral revival. The relation of God and man came to be re-stated under the inspiration of Biblical truth, and the value and rights of man as man, so long obscured, were disclosed. The conscience was liberated and Luther became the champion of individual liberty. Descartes and Spinoza.

The philosophical writers who most fully express in the domain of pure thought the protestant spirit are Descartes and Spinoza, with whom speculation with regard to man’s distinctive nature and obligations took a new departure. Without following the fortunes of philosophy on the continent of Europe, which took a pantheistic form in Germany and a materialistic tone in France (though Rousseau directed the thought of Europe to the constitution of man), we may remark that in England thought assumed a practical complexion, and on the basis of the inquiries of Locke, Berkeley and Hume into the nature and limits of the human understanding, the quest. ions as to the source of moral obligation and the faculty of moral judgment came to the front.

English Moralists

British moralists may be classified mainly cording to their views on this subject. Beginning with Hobbes, who maintained that man was naturally selfish and that all his actions were self-regarding, Cudworth, More, Wallaston, Shaftesbury, Hutchison, Adam Smith and others discussed the problem, with varying success, of the relation of individual and social virtues, agreeing generally that the right balance between the two is due’ to moral sense which, like taste or perception of beauty, guides us in things moral. All these intuitional writers fall back upon a native selfish instinct. Selfishness, disguise it as we may, or, as it came to be called, utility, is really the spring and standard of action. Butler in his contention for the supremacy and uniqueness of conscience took an independent but scarcely more logical attitude. Both he and all the later British moralists, Paley, Bentham, Mill, suffer from a narrow, artificial psychology which conceives of the various faculties as separate and independent elements lying in man.


Utilitarianism is a scheme of consequences which finds the moral quality of conduct in the effects and feelings created in the subject. With all their differences of detail the representatives of theory are at one in regarding the chief end of man as happiness. Bentham and Mill made the attempt to deduce benevolence from the egoistic startingpoint. "No reason can be given," says Mill (Utilitarianism, chapter iv), "why the general happiness is desirable except that each person .... desires his own happiness .... and the general happiness therefore is a good to the aggregate of all persons." Late utilitarians, dissatisfied with this non-sequitur and renouncing the dogma of personal pleasure, maintain that we ought to derive universal happiness because reason bids us (compare Sidgwick, Methods of Ethics, III, xiii). But what, we may ask, is this reason, and why should I listen to her voice?

Evolutionary Ethics

The intuitional theory has more recently allied itself with the hypothesis of organic evolution. "These feelings of self- love and benevolence are really," says Spencer, "the products of development. The natural instincts and impulses to social good, though existent in a rudimentary animal form, have been evolved through environment, heredity and social institutions to which man through his long history has been subject." But this theory only carries the problem farther back, for, as Green well says (Proleg. to Ethics), "that countless generations should have passed during which a transmitted organism was progressively modified by reaction on its surroundings till an eternal consciousness could realize itself .... might add to the wonder, but it could not alter the results."


The great rival of the pleasure-philosophy is that which has been styled "duty for duty’s sake." This position was first taken by Kant whose principle of the "Categorical Imperative" utterly broke down theory of "pleasure for pleasure’s sake." For Kant, conscience is simply practical reason; and its laws by him are reduced to unity. Reason, though limited in its knowledge of objects to phenomena of the senses, in the region of practice transcends the phenomenal and attains the real. The autonomy of the will carries us beyond the phenomenal into the supersensible world. Here the "Categorical Imperative" or moral law utters its "thou shalt" and prescribes’ a principle of conduct irrespective of desire or ulterior end. In accordance with the nature of the Categorical Imperative, the formula of all morality is, "Act from a maxim at all times fit for law universal" (Kritik d. praktischen Vernunft and Grundlage zur Metaphysik der Sitten).

This principle is, however, defective. For while it determines the subjective or formal side of duty, it tells us nothing of the objective side, of the content of duty. We may learn from Kant the grandeur of duty in the abstract and the need of obedience to it, but we do not learn what duty is. Kant’s law remains formal, abstract and contentless, without relation to the matter of practical life.

German Idealists

To overcome this abstraction, to give content to the law of reason and find its realization in the institutions and relationships of life and society, has been the aim of the later idealistic philosophy which starts from Kant.

Following Fichte, for whom morality is action according to the ideas of reason--selfconsciousness finding itself in and through a world of deeds--Hegel starts with the Idea as the source of all reality, and develops the conception of Conscious Personality which, by overcoming the antithesis of impulse and thought, gradually attains to the full unity and realization of self in the consciousness of the world and of God. The law of Right or of all ethical ideal is, "Be a person and respect others as persons" (Hegel, Philosophic des Rechtes, section 31). These views have been worked out in recent British and American works of speculative ethics by Green, Bradley, Caird, McTaggart, Harris, Royce, Dewey, Watson. Man as a self is rooted in an infinite self or personality. Our individual self-consciousness is derived from and maintained by an infinite eternal and universal self-consciousness. Knowledge is, therefore, but the gradual discovery of mind in things, the progressive realization of the world as the self-manifestation of an infinite Personality with whom the finite intelligence of man is one. Hence, morality is the gradual unfolding of an eternal purpose whose whole is the perfection of man.

We have thus seen that in the history of ethics two great rival watchwords have been sounded--pleasure and duty, or, to put it another way, egoism and altruism. Both have their justification, yet each taken separately is abstract and one-sided. The problem of ethics is how to harmonize without suppressing these two extremes, how to unite social duty and individual right in a higher unity. We have seen that philosophical ethics has sought a synthesis of these conflicting moments in the higher and more adequate conception of human personality--a personality whose ideals and activities are identified with the eternal and universal personality of God. Christianity also recognizes the truth contained in the several types of ethical philosophy which we have passed under review, but it adds something which is distinctively its own, and thereby gives a new meaning to happiness and to duty, to self and to others.

Christian synthesis:

Christianity also emphasizes the realization of personality with all that it implies as the true goal of man; but while Christ bids man "be perfect as God is perfect," He shows us that we only find ourselves as we find ourselves in others; only by dying do we live; and only through profound self-surrender and sacrifice do we become ourselves and achieve the highest good.

Principles and Characteristics of Biblical Ethics

The sketch of the history of ethics just offered, brief as it necessarily is, may serve to indicate the ideas which have shaped modern thought and helped toward the interpretation of the Christian view of life which claims to be the fulfillment of all human attempts to explain the highest good. We now enter upon the third division of our subject which embraces a discussion generally of Biblical ethics, dealing first with the ethics of the Old Testament and next with the leading ideas of the New Testament.

Ethics of the Old Testament

The gospel of Christ stands in the closest relation with Hebrew religion, and revelation in the New Testament fulfils and completes the promise given in the Old Testament. We have seen that the thinkers of Greece and Rome have contributed much to Christendom, and have helped to interpret Bible teaching with regard to truth and duty; but there is no such inward relation between them as that which connects Christian ethics with Old Testament morality. Christ himself, and still more the apostle Paul, assumed as a substratum of his teaching the revelation which had been granted to the Jews. The moral and religious doctrines which were comprehended under the designation of "the Law" formed for them, as Paul said (Ga 3:24,25), a paidagogos, or servant whose function it was to lead them to the school of Christ. In estimating the special character of Old Testament ethics, we are not concerned with questions as to authenticity and dates of the various books, nor with the manifold problems raised by modern Biblical criticism. While not forgetting the very long period which these books cover, involving changes of belief and life and embracing successive stages of political society, it is possible to regard the Old Testament simply as a body of writings which represent the successive ethical ideas of the Hebrews as a people.

At the outset we are impressed by the fact that the moral ideal of Judaism was distinctly religious. The moral obligations were conceived as Divine commands and the moral law as a revelation of the Divine will. The religion was monotheistic. At first Yahweh may have been regarded merely as a tribal Deity, but gradually this restricted view gave place to a wider conception of God as the God of all men; and as such He was presented by the later prophets. God was for the Jew the supreme source and author of the moral law, and throughout his history duty was embodied in the Divine will. Early in the Pentateuch the note of law is struck, and the fundamental elements of Jewish morality are embedded in the story of Eden and the Fall. God’s commandment is the criterion and measure of man’s obedience. Evil which has its source and head in a hostile though subsidiary power consists in violation of Yahweh’s will.

(a) The Decalogue:

First among the various stages of Old Testament ethic must be mentioned the Mosaic legislation centering in the Decalogue (Ex 20; De 5). Whether the Ten Commandments issue from the time of Moses, or are a later summary of duty, they hold a supreme and formative place in the moral teaching of the Old Testament. All, including even the 4th, are purely moral enactments. But they are largely negative, only the 5th rising to positive duty. They are also chiefly external, regulative of outward conduct, forbidding acts but not taking note of intent and desire. The 6th and 7th commandments protect the rights of persons, while the 8th guards outward property. Though these laws may be shown to have their roots and sanctions in the moral consciousness of mankind and as such are applicable to all times and all men, it is clear that they were at first conceived by the Israelites to be restricted in their scope and practice to their own tribes.

(b) Civil Laws:

A further factor in the ethical education of Israel arose from the civil laws of the land. The Book of the Covenant (Ex 20:23), as revealing a certain advance in political legislation and jurisprudence, may be regarded as of this kind. Still the hard legal law of retaliation--"an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth"--discloses a barbarous conception of right. But along with the more primitive enactments of revenge and stern justice there are not wanting provisions of a kindlier nature, such as the law of release, the protection of the fugitive, the arrangements for the gleaner and the institution of the Year of Jubilee.

(c) Ceremonial Laws:

Closely connected with the civil laws must be mentioned the ceremonial laws as an element in the moral life of Israel. If the civil laws had reference to the relation of man to his fellows, the ceremonial laws referred rather to the relation of man to God. The prevailing idea with regard to God, next to that of sovereign might, was holiness or separateness. The so- called Priestly Code, consisting of a number of ceremonial enactments, gradually took its place alongside of the Mosaic law, and was established to guard the being of God and the persons of the worshippers from profanation. These had to do (a) with sacrifices and offerings and forms of ritual which, while they typified and preshadowed the ideas of spiritual sanctity, often degenerated into superstitious practices (compare Am 5:25,26; Ho 6:6; Isa 1:11-13); (b) commands and prohibitions with regard to personal deportment--"meats and drinks and divers washings." Some of these had a sanitary significance; others guarded the habits of daily life from heathen defilement.

(d) Prophecy:

The dominant factor of Old Testament ethics lay in the influence of the prophets. They and not the priests were the great moralists of Israel. They are the champions of righteousness and integrity in political life, not less than of purity in the individual. They are the witnesses for God and the ruthless denouncers of all idolatry and defection from Him. They comment upon the social vices to which a more developed people is liable. They preach a social gospel and condemn wrongs done by man to man. Government and people are summoned to instant amendment and before the nation is held up a lofty ideal. The prophets are not only the, preachers, but also the philosophers of the people, and they direct men’s minds to the spiritual and ideal side of things, inveighing against worldliness and materialism.

Under their reflection, theories as to the origin and nature of evil begin to emerge, and the solemnity and worth of life are emphasized. While on the one hand the sense of individual responsibility is dwelt upon, on the other the idea of a hereditary taint of soul is developed, and it is shown that the consequences of sin may affect even the innocent. A man may inherit suffering and incur penalties, not apparently through any fault of his own, but simply by reason of his place in the solidarity of the race. Problems like these awaken deep perplexity which finds a voice not only in the Prophets but also in the Book of Job and in many of the Psalms. The solution is sought in the thought that God works through evil, and by its effects evolves man’s highest good. These conceptions reach their climax in the Second Isa, and particularly in chapter 53. God is constantly represented as longing to pardon and reinstate man in His favor; and the inadequacy of mere ceremonial as well as the failure of all material means of intercourse with Yahweh are repeatedly dwelt upon as preparing the way for the doctrine of salvation. In the Book of Pss--the devotional manual of the people reflecting the moral and religious life of the nation at various stages of its development--the same exalted character of God as a God of righteousness and holiness, hating evil and jealous for devotion, the same profound scorn of sin and the same high vocation of man are prevalent.

(e) Books of Wisdom:

Without dwelling at length on the ethical ideas of the other writings of the Old Testament--the Books of Wisdom, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes--we may remark that the teaching is addressed more to individuals than prophecy is; while not being particularly lofty it is healthy and practical, shrewd, homely common sense. While the motives appealed to are not always the highest and have regard frequently to earthly prosperity and worldly policy, it must not be overlooked that moral practice is also frequently allied with the fear of God, and the fight choice of wisdom is represented as the dictate of piety not less than of prudence.

It is to the sapiential books (canonical and apocryphal) that we owe the most significant ethical figures of the Old Testament--the wise man and the fool. The wise man is he who orders his life in accordance with the laws of God. The fool is the self-willed man, whose life, lacking principle, fails of success. The nature of wisdom lies not in intellectual knowledge so much as in the control of passion and the prudent regulation of desire. The idea of human wisdom is connected in these books with the sublime conception of Divine wisdom which colors both them and the Psalms. In some of the finest passages, Wisdom is personified as the counselor of God in the creation of the world (Pr 8; Wisdom 10; Job 28), or the guide which guards the destinies of man (The Wisdom of Solomon 10:15 ff).

If the sapiential books are utilitarian in tone the Book of Ecclesiastes is pessimistic. The writer is impressed with the futility of life. Neither pursuit of knowledge nor indulgence in pleasure affords satisfaction. All is vanity. Yet there is an element of submission in this book which only escapes despair by a grim and stolid inculcation of obedience to Divine command.

(f) Apocryphal Books:

In an article on the Ethics of the Bible some allusion ought to be made to the spirit of the apocryphal books, reflecting as they do the ideas of a considerable period of Jewish history immediately before and contemporaneous with the advent of Christ. While in general there is a distinct recognition of true moral life and a high regard for the moral law, there is no system of ethics nor even a prevailing ethical principle in these books. The collection presents the ideas of no one man or party, or even of one period or locality. The moral ideas of each book require to be considered separately (see special articles), and they ought to be studied in connection with the philosophy of Philo and generally with the speculation of Alexandria, upon which they exercised considerable influence. The Wisdom of Solomon is supposed by Pfieiderer and others to have affected the Hellenic complexion of Paul’s thought and also to have colored the stoic philosophy.

The apocryphal books as a whole do not give prominence to the idea of an ancient covenant and are not dominated by the notion of a redemptive climax to which the other Old Testament books bear witness. As a consequence their moral teaching lacks the spirituality of the Old Testament; and there is an insistence upon outward works rather than inward disposition as essential to righteousness. While wisdom and justice are commended, there is a certain self-satisfaction and pride in one’s own virtue, together with, on the part of the few select spirits which attain to virtue, a corresponding disparagement of and even contempt for the folly of the many. In Sirach especially this tone of self-righteous complacency is observable. There is a manifest lack of humility and sense of sin, while the attainment of happiness is represented as the direct result of personal virtue (Sirach 14:14 ff).

The Book of The Wisdom of Solomon shows traces of neo-Platonic influences and recognizes the four Platonic virtues (8:7) and while admitting the corruption of all men (9:12 ff) attributes the causes of evil to other sources than the will, maintaining the Greek dualism of body and soul and the inherent evil of the physical nature of man. The Book of Judith presents in narrative form a highly questionable morality. On the whole it must be recognized that the moral teaching of the Apocrypha is much below the best teaching of the Old Testament. While Sirach gives expression to a true piety, it manifests its want of depth in its treatment of sin and in the inculcation of merely prudential motives to goodness. In general the essence of love is unknown, and the moral temper is far inferior to the ethics of Jesus. It is a mundane morality that is preached. Hope is absent and righteousness is rewarded by long life and prosperity (Tobit). Legalism is the chief characteristic (Baruch), and Pharisaic ceremonialism on the one hand, and Sadducaic rationalism on the other are the natural and historical consequences of apocryphal teachings.

In estimating the ethics of the Old Testament as a whole the fact must not be forgotten that it was preparatory, a stage in the progressive revelation of God’s will. We are not surprised, therefore, that, judged by the absolute standard of the New Testament, the morality of the Old Testament comes short in some particulars. Both in intent and extent, in spirit and in scope, it is lacking.

(a) As to intent:

Material motives:

Again we have already remarked that the motives to which the Old Testament appeals are often mercenary and material. Material prosperity plays an important part as an inducement to moral conduct, and the good which the pious patriarch contemplates is earthly plenty, something which will enrich himself and his family. At the same time we must not forget that the revelation of God’s purpose is progressive, and His dealing with men educative. There is naturally therefore a certain accommodation of the Divine law to the various stages of moral apprehension of the Jewish people, and on the human side a growing sense of the meaning of life as well as an advancing appreciation of the nature of righteousness. Gradually the nation is being carried forward by the promise of material benefits to the spiritual blessings which they enshrine. If even in the messages of the prophets there is not wanting some measure of threats and penalties, we must remember the character of the people they were dealing with--a people wayward and stubborn, whose imaginations could scarcely rise above the material and the temporal. We must judge prophecy by its best, and we shall see that these penalties and rewards which undoubtedly occupy a prominent place in Old Testament ethics were but goads to spur the apathetic. They were not ends in themselves, nor mere arbitrary promises or threats, but instruments subservient to higher ideals.

(b) As to extent:

Outline of New Testament Ethics

We are now prepared to indicate briefly the distinctive features of the ethics of Christianity. As this article is, however, professedly introductory, and as the ethics of Jesus forms the subject of a separate treatment (see Ethics of Jesus), it will not be necessary to offer an elaborate statement of the subject. It will be sufficient to suggest the formative principles and main characteristics. What we have to say may conveniently be divided under three heads:

(1) the Christian ideal;

(2) the dynamic power;

(3) the virtues, duties and spheres of Christian activity.

Before, however, entering upon these details, a few words may fittingly be said upon the relation of the ethics of Jesus to those of Paul. It has been recently alleged that a marked contrast is perceptible between the teaching of Jesus and that of Paul, and that there is a great gulf fixed between the Gospels and the Epistles. Jesus is a moralist, Paul a theologian. The Master is concerned with the conditions of life and conduct; the disciple is occupied with the elaboration of dogma. This view seems to us to be greatly exaggerated. No one can read the Epistles without perceiving the ethical character of a large portion of their teaching and noticing how even the great theological principles which Paul enunciates have a profound moral import. Nor does it seem to us that there is any radical difference in the ethical teaching of Christ and that of the Apostle.

Both lay emphasis on character, and the great words of Christ are the great words of Paul. The inmost spring of the new life of love is the same for both. The great object of the Pauline dialectic is to place man emptied of self in a condition of receptiveness before God. But this idea, fundamental in Paul, is fundamental also in the teaching of Jesus. It is the very first law of the kingdom. With it the Sermon on the Mount begins: "Blessed are the poor in spirit." If we analyze this great saying it surely yields the whole principle of the Pauline argument and the living heart of the Pauline religion. In perfect agreement with this is the fundamental importance assigned both by Jesus and Paul to faith. With both it is something more than mental assent or even implicit confidence in providence. It is the spiritual vision in man of the ideal, the inspiration of life, the principle of conduct.

Again the distinctive note of Christ’s ethic is the inwardness of the moral law as distinguished from the externality of the cereMonial law. Almost in identical terms Paul insists upon the need of inward purity, the purity of the inner man of the heart. Once more both lay emphasis upon the fulfillment of our duties to our fellow-men, and both are at one in declaring that man owes to others an even greater debt than duty. Christ’s principle is, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself"; Paul’s injunction is "Owe no man anything but to love one another." Christ transforms morality from a routine into a life; and with Paul also goodness ceases to be a thing of outward rule and becomes the spontaneous energy of the soul. For both all virtues are but the various expressions of a single vital principle. "Love is the fulfilling of the law." The dynamic of devotion according to Christ is, "God’s love toward us"; according to Paul, "The love of Christ constraineth us."

Ideal of Life:

And if we turn from the motive and spring of service to the purpose of life, again we find substantial agreement: "Be ye perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect" is the standard of Christ; to attain to the perfect life--"the prize of the high calling of God in Christ"--is the aim of Paul.

Nor do they differ in their conception of the ultimate good of the world. Christ’s ethical ideal, which He worked for as the realization of the object of His mission, was a redeemed humanity, a reestablishment of human society, which He designated "the kingdom of God." Paul with his splendid conception of humanity sees that kingdom typified and realized in the Risen Life of his Lord. It is by growing up in all things unto Him who is the Head that the whole body will be perfected in the perfection of its members. And this is what Paul means when he sums up the goal and ideal of all human faith and endeavor--"till we all attain .... unto a fullgrown man, unto .... the fullness of Christ" (Eph 4:13). Paul everywhere acknowledges himself to be a pupil of the Master and a teacher of His ways (1Co 4:17). Without pursuing this subject there can be no doubt that in their hidden depths and in their practical life the precepts of the apostle are in essential agreement with those of the Sermon on the Mount, and have a dommon purpose--the presenting of every man perfect before God (compare Alexander, Ethics of Paul).

The Ethical Ideal

The ethical ideal of the New Testament is thus indicated. The chief business of ethics is to answer the question, What is man’s supreme good? For what should a man live? What, in short, is the ideal of life? A careful study of the New Testament discloses three main statements implied in what Christ designates "the kingdom of God": man’s highest good consists generally in doing God’s will and more particularly in the attainment of likeness to Christ and in the realization of human brotherhood--a relation to God, to Christ and to man. The first is the pure white light of the ideal; the second is the ideal realized in the one perfect life which is viewed as standard or norm; the third is the progressive realization of the ideal in the life of humanity which is the sphere of the new life.

Holiness as the fulfillment of the Divine will is, as we have seen, Christ’s own ideal--Be ye perfect as your Father; and it is Paul’s--This also we wish, even your perfection (2Co 13:11). The ideas of righteousness and holiness as the attributes of God are the features of the kingdom of God or of heaven, the realization of which Jesus continually set forth as the highest aim of man; and running through all the epistles of Paul the constant refrain is that ye might walk worthy of God who hath called you unto His kingdom and glory. To walk worthy of God, to fulfill His will in all sincerity and purity, is for the Christian as for the Jew the end of all morality. Life has a supreme worth and sacredness because God is its end. To be a man is to fulfill in his own person God’s idea of humanity. Before every man, just because he is man with the touch of the Divine hand upon him and his Maker’s end to serve, lies this ultimate goal of existence--the realization of the perfect life-according to the idea of God.

If Godlikeness or holiness is the end, Christlikeness is the norm or standard in which that end is presented in the Gospel. In Christianity God is revealed to us through Jesus Christ, and the abstract impersonal ideas of holiness and righteousness are transmuted into the features of a living personality whose spirit is to be reproduced in the lives of men. In two different ways Christ is presented in the New Testament as ideal. He is at once the Pattern and the Principle or Power of the new life.

(a) He is the Pattern of goodness which is to be reproduced in human lives. It would lead us to trench on the succeeding article if we were to attempt here a portrayal of the character of Jesus as it is revealed in the Gospels. We only note that it is characteristic of the New Testament writers that they do not content themselves with imaginative descriptions of goodness, but present a living ideal in the historical person of Jesus Christ.

(b) He is also Principle of the new life--not example only, but power--the inspiration and cause of life to all who believe (Eph 1:19,20). Paul says not, "Be like Christ," but "Have the mind in you which was also in Christ." The literal imitation of an example has but a limited reign. To be a Christian is not the mechanical work of a copyist. Kant goes the length of saying that "imitation finds no place in all morality" (Metaphysics of Ethics, section ii). Certainly the imitation of Christ as a test of conduct covers a quite inadequate conception of the intimate and vital relation Christ bears to humanity. "It is not to copy after Him," says Schultz (Grundriss d. evangelischen Ethik, 5), "but to let His life take form in us, to receive His spirit and make it effective, which is the moral task of the Christian." It is as its motive and creative power that Paul presents Him. "Let Christ be born in you." We could not even imitate Christ if He were not already within us. He is our example only because He is something more, the principle of the new life, the higher and diviner self of every man. "He is our life"; "Christ in us the hope of glory."

The emphasis hitherto has been laid on the perfection of the individual. But both Christ and His apostles imply that the individual is not to be perfected alone. No man finds himself till he finds his duties. The single soul is completed only in the brotherhood of the race. The social element is implied in Christ’s idea of the Kingdom, and many of the apostolic precepts refer not to individuals but to humanity as an organic whole. The church is Christ’s body of which individuals are the members, necessary to one another and deriving their life from the head. The gospel is social as well as individual, and the goal is the kingdom of God, the brotherhood of man. Paul proclaims the unity and equality before God of Greek and Roman, bond and free.

The Dynamic Power of the New Life

In the dynamic power of the new life we reach the central and distinguishing feature of Christian ethics. Imposing as was the ethic of Greece, it simply hangs in the air. Plato’s ideal state remains a theory only. Aristotle’s "virtuous man" exists only in the mind of his creator. Nor was the Stoic more successful in making his philosophy a thing of actuality. Beautiful as these old-time ideals were, they lacked impelling force, the power to change dreams into realities. The problems which baffled Greek philosophy it is the glory of Christianity to have solved. Christian ethics is not a theory. The good has been manifested in a life. The Word was made flesh. It was a new creative force--a spirit given and received, to be worked out and realized in the actual life of common men.

The problem with Paul was, How can man achieve that good which has been embodied in the life and example of Jesus Christ? Without entering into the details of this question it may be said at once that the originality of the gospel lies in this, that it not only reveals the good but discloses the power which makes the good possible in the hitherto unattempted derivation of the new life from a new birth under the influence of the Spirit of God. Following his Master, when Paul speaks of the new ethical state of believers he represents it as a renewal or rebirth of the Holy Spirit. It is an act of Divine creative power.

Without following out the Pauline argument we may say he connects the working of the Holy Spirit with two facts in the life of Christ, for him the most important in history--the death and resurrection of our Lord. Here we are in the region of dogmatics, and it does not concern us to present a theory of the atonement. All we have to do with is the fact that between man and the new life lies sin, which must be overcome and removed, both in the form of guilt and power, before reconciliation with God can be effected. The deed which alone meets the case is the sacrifice of Christ. In virtue of what Christ has achieved by His death a fundamentally new relationship exists. God and man are now in full moral accord and vital union.

But not less important as a factor in creating the new life is the resurrection. It is the seal and crown of the sacrifice. It was the certainty that He had risen that gave to Christ’s death its sacrificial value. "If Christ be not risen ye are yet in your sins." The new creature is the work of Christ. But His creative power is not an external influence. It is an inner spirit of life. All that makes life life indeed--an exalted, harmonious and completed existence--is derived from the Holy Spirit through the working of the crucified risen Christ.

Possession of power implies obligation to use it. The force is given; it has to be appropriated. The spirit of Christ is not offered to free a man from the duties and endeavors of the moral life. Man is not simply the passive recipient of the Divine energy. He has to make it his own and work it out by an act of free resolution. When we inquire what constitutes the subjective or human element, we find in the New Testament two actions which belong to the soul entering upon the new world in Christ--repentance and faith. These are complementary and constitute what is commonly called conversion. Repentance in the New Testament is a turning away in sorrow and contrition from a life of sin and a breaking with evil under the influence of Christ. If repentance looks back and forsakes, faith looks forward and accepts. In general it is the outgoing of the whole man toward his Lord, the human power or energy by which the individual receives and makes his own the life in Christ. It is not merely intellectual acceptance or moral trust; it is above all appropriating energy. It is the power of a new obedience. As the principle of moral appropriation it has its root in personal trust and its fruit in Christian service. Faith, in short, is the characteristic attitude and action of the whole Christian personality in its relation to the spiritual good offered to it in Christ.

Virtues, Duties and Spheres of the New Life

It but remains to indicate how this new power manifests itself in character and in practical conduct. Character is expressed in virtue, and duty is conditioned by station and relationships.

The systematic enumeration of the virtues is one of the most difficult tasks of ethics. Neither in ancient nor in modern times has complete success attended attempts at classification. Plato’s list is too meager. Aristotle’s lacks system and is marred by omission. Nowhere in Scripture is there offered a complete description of all the virtues that flow from faith. But by bringing Christ’s words and the apostolic precepts together we have a rich and suggestive cluster (Mt 5; 6; Ga 5:22,23; Col 3:12,13; Php 4:8; 1Pe 2:18,19; 4:7,8; 2Pe 15-8; 1; Joh 3;). We may make a threefold classification:

(a) The Heroic Virtues:

The heroic virtues, sometimes called the cardinal, handed down from antiquity - wisdom, fortitude, temperance, justice. While these were accepted and dwelt upon, Christianity profoundly modified their character so that they became largely new creations. "The old moral currency was still kept in circulation, but it was gradually minted anew" (Strong).

(b) The Amiable Virtues:

The amiable virtues, which are not merely added on to the pagan, but being incorporated with them, give an entirely new meaning to those already in vogue. While Plato lays stress on the intellectual or heroic features of character, Christianity brings to the foreground the gentler virtues. Two reasons may have induced the Christian writers to dwell more on the self-effacing side of character: partly as a protest against the spirit of militarism and the worship of material power prevalent in the ancient world; and chiefly because the gentler self-sacrificing virtues more truly expressed the spirit of Christ. The one element in character which makes it beautiful and effective and Christlike is love--the element of sacrifice. Love evinces itself in humility which lays low all vaunting ambition and proud selfsufficiency. Closely allied to humility are meekhess and its sister, long-suffering--the attitude of the Christian in the presence of trial and wrong. With these again are connected contentment and patience and forbearance, gentle and kindly consideration for others. Lastly there is the virtue of forgiveness. For it is not enough to be humble and meek; we have a duty toward wrongdoers. We must be ready to forget and forgive (Ro 12:20). "Be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, even as God also in Christ forgave you" (Eph 4:32).

(c) The Theological Virtues:

The theological virtues or Christian graces-faith, hope, charity. Some have been content to see in these three graces the summary of Christian excellence. They are fundamental in Christ’s teaching and the apostolic combination of them may have had its basis in some lost word of the Master (Harnack). These graces cannot be separated. They are all of a piece. He who has faith has also love, and he who has faith and love cannot be devoid of hope. Love is the first and last word of apostolic Christianity. No term is more expressive of the spirit of Christ. Love was practically unknown in the ancient world. Pre-Christian philosophy exalted the intellect but left the heart cold. Love in the highest sense is the discovery and creation of the gospel, and it was reserved for the followers of Jesus to teach men the meaning of charity and to find in it the law of freedom. It is indispensable to true Christian character. Without it no profession of faith or practice of good deeds has any value (1Co 13). It is the fruitful source of all else that is beautiful in conduct. Faith itself works through love and finds in its activity its outlet and exercise. If character is formed by faith it lives in love. And the same may be said of hope. It is a particular form of faith which looks forward to a life that is to be perfectly developed and completed in the future. Hope is faith turned to the future--a vision inspired and sustained by love.

Of the duties of the Christian life it is enough to say that they find their activity in the threefold relationship of the Christian to self, to his fellow-men and to God. This distinction is not of course quite logical. The one involves the other. Self-love implies love of others, and all duty may be regarded as duty to God. The individual and society are so inextricably bound together in the kingdom of love that neither can reach its goal without the other.

(a) Duties Toward Self:

Duties toward self are, however, plainly recognized in the New Testament. our Lord’s commandment, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself," makes a rightly conceived self-love the measure of love to one’s neighbor. But the duties of self- regard are only lightly touched upon, and while the truth that the soul has an inalienable worth is insisted upon, to be constantly occupied with the thought of oneself is a symptom of morbid egoism and not a sign of healthy personality. But the chief reason why the New Testament does not enlarge upon the duty of self-culture is that according to the spirit of the gospel the true realization of self is identical with self-sacrifice. Only as a man loses his life does he find it. Not by anxiously standing guard over one’s soul but by dedicating it freely to the good of others does one realize one’s true self. At the same time several self-respecting duties are recognized, of which mention may be made:

(i) stability of purpose or singleness of aim;

(ii) independence of other’s opinion;

(iii) supremacy of conscience and a proper self-estimate.

In this connection may be noticed also the Christian’s proper regard for the body which, as the temple of God, is not to be despised but presented as a living sacrifice; his attitude to worldly goods; his obligation to work; his right to recreation; and his contentment with his station--all of which duties are to be interpreted by the apostolic principle, "Use the world as not abusing it." The Christian ideal is not asceticism or denial for its own sake. Each must make the best of himself and the most of life’s trust. All the faculties, possessions, pursuits and joys of life are to be used as vehicles of spiritual service, instruments which make a man a fit subject of the kingdom of God to which he belongs.

(b) Duties in Relation to Others:

Duties in relation to others, or brotherly love, are defined as to their extent and limit by the Christian’s relation to Christ. Their chief manifestations are:

(i) justice, involving respect for others, negatively refraining from injury and positively yielding deference and honor, truthfulness, in word and deed, "speaking the truth in love," just judgment, avoiding censoriousness and intolerance;

(ii) kindness or goodness, embracing sympathy, service and practical beneficence which provides for physical need, administers comfort and gives, by example and direct instruction, edification;

(iii) patience, comprising forbearance, peaceableness.

(c) Duties in Relation to God:

Here morality runs up into religion and duty passes into love. Love rests on knowledge of God as revealed in Christ, and expresses itself in devotion. Love to God is expressed generally in

(i) thankfulness,

(ii) humility,

(iii) trustfulness; and particularly in worship (sacraments and prayers), and in witness-bearing--adorning the doctrine by beauty of life.

Of the various spheres and relationships in which the Christian finds opportunity for the exercise and cultivation of his spiritual life we can only name, without enlarging upon them, the family, the state and the church. Each of these spheres demands its own special duties and involves its own peculiar discipline. While parents owe to their children care and godly nurture, children owe their parents obedience. The attitude of the individual to the state and of the state to the individual are inferences which may be legitimately drawn from New Testament teaching. It is the function of the state not merely to administer iustice but to create and foster those agencies and institutions which work for the amelioration of the lot and the development of the weal of its citizens, securing for each full liberty to make the best of his life. On the other hand it is the duty of the individual to realize his civic obligations as a member of the social organism. The state makes its will dominant through the voice of the people, and as the individuals are so the commonwealth will be.


Absoluteness, Inwardness and Universality.

In closing we may say that the three dominant notes of Christian ethics are, its absoluteness, its inwardness and its universality. The gospel claims to be supreme in life and morals. For the Christian no incident of experience is secular and no duty insignificant, because all things belong to God and all life is dominated by the Spirit of Christ. The uniqueness and originality of the ethics of Christianity are to be sought, however, not so much in the range of its practical application as in the unfolding of an ideal which is at once the power and pattern of the new life. That ideal is Christ in whom the perfect life is disclosed and through whom the power for its realization is communicated. Life is a force, and character is a growth which takes its rise in and expands from a hidden seed. Hence, in Christian ethics all apathy, passivity and inaction, which occupy an important place in the moral systems of Buddhism, Stoicism, and even medieval Catholicism, play no part. On the contrary all is life, energy and unceasing endeavor.

There are many details of modern social life with which the New Testament does not deal: problems of presentday ethics and economics which cannot be decided by a direct reference to chapter and verse, either of the Gospels or Epistles. But Paul’s great principles of human solidarity; of equality in Christ; of freedom of service and love; his teachings concerning the church and the kingdom of God, the family and the state; his precepts with regard to personal purity, the use of wealth and the duty of work, contained the germs of the subsequent renewal of Europe and still contain the potency of social and political transformation.


General Works on Ethics: Lotze, Paulsen, Wundt, Green, Sidgwick, Stephen, Dewey and Tufts, Palmer, Bowne, Mezer; Harris, Moral Evolution; Dubois; Randall, Theory of Good and Evil; Calderwood, Handbook of Moral Philosophy; Muirhead, Elementary Ethics; Sutherland, Origin and Growth of Moral Instinct; Simmel, Einleitung in die Moralwissenschaft; Givycky, Moralphilosophic; Guyot, La morale; Janet, Theory Morals (translation); Mackenzie, Manual of Ethics; Eucken, works generally; Hensel, Hauptproblem der Ethik; Lipps, Die ethischen Grundfragen; Natorp, Socialpadagogik; Schuppe, Grundzuge der Ethik u. Rechtsphilosophie; Schwarz, Das sittliche Leben; Wentscher, Ethik.

General History

See Histories of Philosophy; Zeller, Erdmann, Windelband, Maurice, Turner, Weber, Rogers, Alexander; Jodl, Geschichte der Ethik in der neueren Philosophic. Works on Theological or Christian Ethics Old Testament: Dillmann, Baudissin, Bertmann, Geschichte der christlichen Sitte; Konig, Hauptprobleme der Altes Testament Religions-Geschichte; Delitzsch, Riehm, Kuenen; Mozley, Ruling Ideas in Early Ages; Hessey, Moral Difficulties in the Bible; Moore, in Lux mundi; Ladd, Doctrine of Sacred Scripture; Robertson, Early Religion of Israel; Caillard, Progressive Revelation; Schultz, Old Testament Theology (English translation); Bruce, Ethics of the Old Testament; N. Smyth, Christian Ethics; Startton; Strong.

New Testament and Christianity

Martinsen, Wuttke, Schletermacher, Rothe, Dorner, H. Weiss, Harlen, Hofmann, Frank, Luthardt, Beck, Kiibel, Kahler, Pfieiderer, Schultz, Kostlin; Herrmann, Faith and Morals; Communion of the Christian with God; Thomas, Jacoby, Lemme, Strong, Knight, N. Smyth; Ottley in Lux mundi and Christian Ideas and Ideals; W. L. Davidson, Christian Ethics, Guild Series; W. T. Davidson, Christian Interpretation of Life and Christian Conscience; Mackintosh; Murray, Handbook of Christian Ethics; Maurice, Social Morality; Nash, Ethics and Revelation; Dobschiitz, Christian Life in the Primitive Church; Clark, Christian Method of Ethics; Mathews, The Church and the Changing Order; Freemantle, The World as the Subject of Redemption; The Gospel in Secular Life; Sladden, Applied Christianity; Leckie, Life and Religion; Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Order; Peile, The Reproach of the Gospel; Coe, Education in Religion and Morals; Haering, The Ethics of the Christian Life (English translation); Tymms, Ancient Faith in Modern Light; Harris, God, the Creator; Bovon, Morale chretienne; Wace, Christianity and Morality; Kidd, Morality and Religion; Drummond, Via, Veritas, Vita; Hatch, Greek Ideas and the Christian Church; Matheson, Landmarks of New Testament Morality.

Also contain section on Ethics; Weiss, Holtzmann, Beyschlag; Harnack, Das Wesen, or What Is Christianity?; Stevens; Wernle, The Beginnings of Christianity; Adeney, Gould, Gardner, Bosworth, Briggs; Caird, Evolution of Religion. Works on the Teaching of Jesus: Especially Wendt, Bruce, Stevens, Horton, Jackson, Swete, Latham, Pastor Pastorum; Tolstoy; Julicher. See next article for the works on the Ethics of Jesus. Special Works on Apostolic Ethics: Ernesti, Ethik des Apostels Paulus; A. Alexander, The Ethics of Paul; Weinel, Paul; Baur, Paulinismus; Joh. Weiss, Paul and Jesus. History of Christian Ethics:

Wuttke, Sidgwick, Ziegler, Luthardt, Thomas; Martineau, Types of Ethical Theory; Gass; Scharling, Christliche Sittenlehre; Lecky, History of European Morals; Pfleiderer.

Arch. B. D. Alexander

See also

  • Christian Ethics