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Moral Reasoning

Moral Reasoning is Complicated

Moral reasoning is often complicated. Sure, many people claim to have a moral center which guides their actions, but is this really so? Perhaps a prior question would be, where do we learn our moral reasoning? Some might say, we learn moral reasoning in our religious community. Others will decide that their basic moral reasoning grew out of their education. Still others may point to several examples which show moral reasoning is inborn.

That’s Not Fair!

image of child crying, it's not fair
Boy, been there, heard that

One does not need to look too far afield to see that children have a certain sense of justice very early in their lives. For example, a youngster whose parents may not have tried teaching moral reasoning discover that their child is doing just that. At a “play date,” little Jenny and her friend Ava get into a squabble over the toy truck they both desire to play with.  Ava comes running to her Daddy with these words, “Jenny’s not fair.”

“Jenny’s not fair” is the result of basic moral reasoning. Fair dealing in our relations with others is a sound moral principle. But where did Ava get that idea and how does she arrive at Jenny’s fairness failure? Daddy Michael looks over at the other parent (Melissa)  and asks why Jenny is not sharing with Ava?  At that point both Michael and Melissa are confronted with the question, what is fair? That question is at the heart of most discussions of justice. And that question undergirds much of moral reasoning. The two children are forcing the parents to grapple with a question that has confronted humanity since the dawn of time.

Where does that concept come from?

One could spin this scenario out much further to include the thoughts racing through Melissa’s mind that this will be the last play date with the bully Ava who has previously fought with Jenny.  Also, how does the idea of what is fair or not fair arise in a child’s mind?

Now, I do not claim to be a person who can answer this question directly from research into the brain development side of things. Instead, I begin from the theological idea that humanity is created in God’s image. One aspect of that is our ability to know the difference between good and evil. We know what it means to be obedient to the divine order of the world, its moral structure. And we know what it is to disregard that moral order.

Is moral reasoning instinctive?

Instinct is defined as “a natural tendency to behave in a particular way that people and animals are born with and that they obey without knowing why. For example the maternal instinct is a woman’s natural tendency to behave like a mother.”

image of moral reasoning

The significant element in this is the idea that one does something but does not know why. When a child is exclaiming over the lack of fairness in another, it seems to arise from an instinctive knowledge of fairness. It is born into us.

To be human means …

Again, this becomes a philosophical issue when we try to define what it is to be human. Are we born as the so-called blank slate or do we have instincts? Since anyone who has witnessed a new-born immediately begin to nurse at the mother’s breast, it is difficult to deny at least some instinctual patterns. Yet we also know from easy observation that we instinctively know very little about how to survive in the world we live in.

These are topics for further investigation as we engage in an examination of moral reasoning. What do you think? Where does Ava’s insistence that Jenny is not playing fairly come from? Any thoughts?

Running The Country

Some History

Great Seal of the United States

Back in the days following Richard Nixon’s resignation, there was a lot of discussion about whether Gerald Ford should or should not grant Nixon a pardon. Once that pardon became a fact, the consensus among news reporters went something like this: The Nation has been traumatized by the Watergate scandal, and needs to stop obsessing over it. Therefore, Ford has done the right thing. Instead of focusing on past wrongs, the Presidency is now free to get back to running the country. (Italics added) For an idea on how pervasive this phrase is, google the phrase “running the country” and see how many places those words appear.

It’s the last phrase of that opinion I want to call attention to, because it has recently surfaced again. In his interview with George Stephanopoulos last week, President Trump said: “I do a good job running the country.

Not the same as the Nation

What I’m about to say about that expression should not be taken as mere carping about words. The words phrasing a belief reflect how we think about it. The inaccurate phrase alters the belief itself over time when not phrased accurately . So the first thing I point to is that the Federal Government is not the same thing as our nation. The nation is made up of individuals who are members of many types of social communities, in addition to being citizen-participants in its government. For example, the nation includes marriages, families, schools, and churches. It also includes businesses, charity and artistic organizations, as well as unions, political parties, and clubs of various kinds.

We also point to the fact that the President does not even run the entire Federal Government. Whoever holds that office is the chief of the executive branch of the Federal Government, but does not “run” its two other components: the legislature (Congress) and the courts. And those limitations don’t yet include the fact that each state in the US also has its own government, which the President also doesn’t “run.”

Limits on Government

Limits on running the government
Is the Federal Government Limited?

The idea of limits to executive power goes back a long way in the history of the US and of its ancestry in British common law. For centuries, a King or Queen of England was under legal restraints concerning entering a private home, for example. A King of England could knock at the door of a family’s dwelling, but needed permission to enter. The monarch is the head of the government. However, families (and other social communities) are not parts of the government. That is a fact even though these communities are surely included in the nation.

Abraham Kuyper

It was the Christian political thinker Abraham Kuyper who gave this idea its most cogent development in the early 20th century. Kuyper noticed that the scriptures recognize a number of different kinds of authority in social life. He pointed to the authority of the parents in a family or the owners in a business. The teachers in a school and the clergy in a church have a delimited sphere. This holds as well for the elected officials in government. He spoke of each distinct kind of authority as a “sphere” of life. He taught that each authority proper to a particular sphere had a God-given immunity from interference from authorities in other spheres. No one sphere can claim to be running the country.

Sphere Sovereignty

We call this “sphere sovereignty.” It’s the reasoning behind our sense that something is wrong in certain situation. For example, when the government rather than parents tries to say what sort of education their children should have. Or when the government tries to require membership in a particular church. It’s also a violation of sphere sovereignty when special interest groups attempt to influence a government legislature in their favor,. Why? The task of the legislature is to achieve the common good. (for more on this, click here and here) As I put the point in The Myth of Religious Neutrality: “The Christian view of [government] is that [the government] should not favor Christianity…  [It] requires that government… concentrate on the goal of bringing about a maximally just society for all people, whether they believe in God or not” (p. 319).

God is in Charge

This is why it’s so important not to let the expression “runs the country” get off without being called up short. On the Christian view, “there is no single social institution or [human] authority that is supreme over all the rest. And assigning such a status to any community is to have it usurp a status that belongs only to God” (p. 298).

there is no app for a moral compass

My Moral Ethical Musings

Ethics and History

There is no app you can download top your phone which will function as your moral compass

In our consideration of the place of ethics and our understanding of ethics, I have been playing around with some considerations from history.  I would like to turn now to see how the Word of God addresses ethical issues. I’m going to call these next several blog entries my moral musings. (just to have some alliteration!)

Micah 6:8

In one of my earlier ponderings on ethics, I stated that, for me, a central text for my own understanding of what is ethical and moral arises from the prophet Micah’s declaration (in chapter 6:8),

He has told you, O man, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

Chinese Exclusion Act 1882

I pondered this precept from God for many years already. I came to the realization that many who might quote this as their moral center, have failed to put it into practice.  Too many of us have come to the point, along with much of Western culture, that if you are not caught and punished for some deed, it must be “OK.” The result? The laws of one’s land are the arbiter of what is good, moral, and just.   

Celebrating the Chines Exclusion Act

Here is one example that occurred in my country, the USA. In 1882, the Congress of the United States passed a law. It was called the Chinese Exclusion Act. The law suspended all immigration into the United States from China. It was only supposed to be in effect for 10 years, but actually remained in effect for 61 years. It was changed in 1943 when China allied itself with the United States in World War II.

Was that ethical?

Now was the law moral, or ethical, or just? Many in that day thought the law was just. Why? Because, anyone with Asian features aroused deep suspicion among the rest of the population. Chinese people “flooded” into California following the 1849 Gold Rush. The populace already in California said the Chinese were “causing social disruption” to their communities. By 1943, much of the anti-Chinese sentiment had faded. And immigration began again with 105 (yes you read that correctly) Chinese allowed to immigrate every year.

Again, I have to wonder, why did those in authority believe that someone of Asian origin was suspect? How did they manage to listen to sermons on Micah 6? Did they not ask themselves if the laws of the nation in which they lived reflected God’s will for the nation as much as for an individual? Where does the pursuit of what is right: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God stop and the law of a country begin?

Is Morality only Personal?

Let’s ask ourselves, Do the laws of God extend to only me as a single person or are God’s laws also intended for the good of a whole society? As we muse on morality further in posts to come, let’s try to see how and if God’s will extends to counties as well as people.  I hope you will join the discussion.

Prayer Incense

Image of incense rising from a censor

Biblical Usage

Let’s start with this: Did you know that the Bible mentions prayer incense as part of worship over 100 times? Are you aware that the use of prayer incense was ordered by God Himself for the Tabernacle worship under Moses? Recall, this was hundreds of years before its use in the Temple built by Solomon.  Do you ever consider that it was part of Jesus’ own worship when he visited the Temple?

It seems a pity, then, that so many churches have no place for this ancient symbol of prayer. I suspect that is largely because so many churches nowadays think of worship as no more than a praise service.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a service of praise. My point is that there is much more to worship than just praise. In addition, there are – at least – confession, contrition, absolution, intercession, and the Eucharist.

Worship as Foretaste of Heaven

I believe that the church as an institution, as the vestibule to heaven, should be as unlike the rest of everyday life as possible. The church should have its own architecture. Create its own dress. Its own calendar. Compose its own sound. Develop its own vocabulary. And, yes, even its own smell.

Some Examples

incense and icon image

*In the world ofArchitecture, the church can have many styles, but they can still all be cruciform: in the shape of a cross.

*When consideringDress, what has developed over the centuries is robed choirs and clergy, and a clerical collar for the clergy, to set them off from everyday life.

*The LiturgicalCalendar, the traditional Ordo which begins the church year with four Sundays looking forward to Christ’s birth (Christmas). The calendar then follows the rest of his life through the year: his ministry, arrest, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, followed by the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the founding of his Church.

*As to sound, church music has a long and distinguished history that culminates in the chorales of Bach. And hymns by Beethoven, Mendlessohn, Brahms, Handel, and Williams – to name but a few. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that music developed within the four walls of the church.

*And when it comes to language – especially the words that constitute the worship service – there is nothing that matches the dignity and power of the liturgy to be found in The Book of Common Prayer. There is a time for praise, to be sure. But there is also a time for worship to be serious – what the framers of the BCP called “solemnity.”

*Of course, the church smell is the incense – which brings us back to our title. Incense has been part of the worship of God’s people since very ancient times. Prayer incense was used at the time of Jesus’ birth (Luke 1: 9,10).

Prayer Incense in The Apocylypse

And Revelation 8: 3,4 tells us it is part of the worship of God as that is conducted heaven.

Another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a golden        censer; and much incense was given him, so that he might           add it to the prayers of all the saints… and the smoke of the   incense, with the prayers of the saints, went up before God          out of the angel’s hand.

Artistic depiction of incense rising

What Revelation describes in heaven is no different from what now takes place on earth. As the smoke of incense rises toward the ceiling of the place of worship, it makes visible the prayers of God’s people as they rise to heaven. In addition, incense is also a symbol of our reverence of God. Think of the Christmas carol, We Three Kings. One of its lines goes: “incense owns a Deity nigh,” that is, “incense acknowledges that God is near.”

Conclusion

Many of our brothers and sisters in Christ gave up the use of prayer incense. I see that as a pity. So many of the historic things that can make the church and its worship distinct from everyday life have lost their place. Let us hope and pray that as our sisters and brothers reconsider their forms of worship, they will re-institute the ancient practice of using prayer incense.

Virtue Ethics In Our Culture

Do the right thing

Virtue ethics can be thought of as an ethics of doing the right thing (See previous post) In the Encyclopedia of Philosophy we find the following:

Most virtue ethics theories take their inspiration from Aristotle who declared that a virtuous person is someone who has ideal character traits. These traits derive from natural internal tendencies, but need to be nurtured; however, once established, they will become stable. For example,  a virtuous person is someone who is kind across many situations over a lifetime because that is her character and not because she wants to maximize utility or gain favors or simply do her duty.   

To Have a Noble Character

The ideal character traits are the focus of virtue ethics.  These traits have the effect of others looking upon one as a person of noble character.

It is interesting to me how often the concept of virtue and the ethics which follow upon the pursuit of virtue are central to the stories we find intriguing.  Will the (dark) Empire overthrow the Rebellion? Will the good and virtuous Snow White survive the evil intentions of the wicked Queen? The conflict of the good and the bad, the virtuous and the evil informs the story lines of most stories. It is by means of our engagement in these themes that we form our own ideas of what is right or wrong.  We are, normally, going to identify with law enforcement over against the bank robbers. We want the NCIS teams to triumph over the bad guys who are trying to disrupt society or who have murdered someone to hide their own evil acts.

Bennett’s Books on Virtue Ethics

Bill Bennett's Book of Virtues

When we read children’s literature, we often hope that the story will subtly (or pointedly) promote good and hold it up as something to be pursued. In addition, however, children need to have adults in their lives who are good.  William J. Bennett the former Secretary of Education for the USA put it this way: “For children to take morality seriously they must be in the presence of adults who take morality seriously. And with their own eyes they must see adults take morality seriously.”
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/authors/william_bennett

Virtue ethics, then, are a way for adults to shape the moral sensitivity of children.  By acting virtuously they will be handing on the traditions of what is good and morally right.

Is Artemis Fowl a Virtue Ethicist?

At times, however, there is a conflict which arises in our perceptions of what is good.  For example, in the series of young adult novels about Artemis Fowl, we are drawn into admiring and rooting for a young man who is a criminal genius. For all his evil intentions, young Artemis finds himself doing what is right and virtuous because of how his mother would want him to live.

book Cover of Artemis Fowl

He is further influenced by his fairy companion, Holly Short, toward acting for the good. The novels all are filled with the conflicted sense in Artemis that what he is doing is wrong, while at the same time hiding it from his mother who would be very disappointed in him if he were to be found doing things which would end up on the evil side of the moral ledger. And finally, in the final book, he acts for the good without thought of great personal gain.

Some Proponents

When we evaluate the actions of others, we often use the virtue ethics of Aristotle or his philosophical heirs of our day. Those heirs include these who are named in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Anscombe, G.E. M., “Modern Moral Philosophy”, Philosophy, 33 (1958).  This article is the original call for a return to Aristotelian ethics.

MacIntyre, A., After Virtue (London: Duckworth, 1985). In this book MacIntyre provides us with the first outline of his account of the virtues.

Murdoch, I., The Sovereignty of Good (London: Ark, 1985)

Williams, B., Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (London: Fontana, 1985).

As we can readily see, these were written in the latter part of the 20th century, with the exception of Anscombe who published his call for virtue ethics in 1958. The virtue ethicists have had a significant influence because the idea of doing the right thing is deeply embedded in our (western) cultural consciousness by means of literature, television, and movies.  

What do you think? Should a Christian approach to ethics follow the line of moral reasoning that the virtue ethicists do? Or is our call to morality something else? Join the discussion!