Basic Morality

Defining Basic Morality

The term “basic morality” is one which I think of as the basis for ethical positions taken on any number of subjects.  Basic morality is the moral vision which is shared by a whole community. Ethics is a shared group of moral values which help a community to exist. Basic morality is the foundation for a society that can function justly.  Basic morality is the shared understanding of what is expected from all members of society.

An Illustration

Cartoon of landscaper and tools

Perhaps an illustration is called for here. As I write this, there is a group of five men working on the landscaping at a property I own. Basic morality says that since they are working, they are to be paid for their work. It would not be just for me to refuse to pay them. But I am going to only pay the company itself for the work. There is one man who is the owner of the company, therefore I am fulfilling my moral obligation in extending payment to the company through him. The company, in turn, is expected to pay the employees. That is the moral thing to do.  The company cannot withhold payment from the workers without incurring moral judgement which could lead to legal judgement in a court of law.

There are several places in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures which call upon a person who employs another to pay that worker for his/her efforts.  That is the “right thing” to do.  Jesus (in Luke 10) referred to a verse in Deuteronomy when he said, “A workman is worthy of his hire.” When a person gives of her time for another, it is a basic morality obligation to remunerate her for her work.

All of this requires a mutually agreed upon basic morality. I did not ask each of the men who are working for me to arrive such and such a day at this time, and work. They arrived by agreement with the owner of the business. The various workmen do not expect me to pay them for their labor. It is understood by all of us that the company will pay them. Therefore, my observation is that basic morality leads to a system that is deemed to have justice at its core.

Incarnational Ethics

When we seek justice, we embody basic morality for our community. The commonly agreed upon moral order needs people who will “en-flesh” that moral order. The principles of the moral order need embodiment in society.  The principles must be put into practice by people who are moral agents fully aware of the implications of their actions for society.

planting a shrub

So, when you decide on a certain course of action for your life as a laborer, you are expecting (rightly so) that the person who hires you will treat you honestly. However, there are far too many occasions where employers are less than honest when dealing with their employees. It is when that happens that we all become moral/ethical  thinkers who rely on a philosophical outlook to shape our response to the situation.  

What is your take on this? Were you aware of being a philosopher when asking for a paycheck? Philosophy is not so abstract after all!

introduce idea of fairness

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?

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.

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:

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!

Virtue Ethics

What is virtue ethics is the subject of this blog entry.

Aristotle has influenced people down to our very day. He lived about 2500 years ago in Greece. His works on ethics have been used to challenge people over the centuries to discover the virtuous life. His approach is called the ethics of virtue.  In virtue ethics the goal is not so much to follow one’s duties as given by God – the deontological ethic.  Nor to examine the teleological effects or the outcomes of various actions as the basis for deciding the best course of action today – the teleological ethic. Virtue ethics are something different.

So we take a look today at the concept of virtue based ethics. The ancient

Greek philosopher Aristotle was a proponent of a life of virtue. He taught that a virtuous person was the one who could best live a life of happiness. The excellent person was the person of virtue. Aristotle wanted his students to come to the understanding that the man of virtue was a person who did the right thing, at the right time, and in the right way.

I’m sure that many of you have heard, or possibly used, the phrase, “You have to do the right thing.” has this quote from an American politician, “We need to have a purpose in this life. I’m pleading with you, I’m begging with you to do the right thing. And do it not for the sake of how it will impact your own lives, but only for the sake of doing the right thing.”  James McGreevey

Virtue Ethics — Do the Right Thing

Do you notice this person is pleading with us to do the right thing? He gives us the reason for doing the right thing.  It is to do the right thing.  The

Image result for do the right thing ethics

biggest ethical problem that people face in our world today, I think, is knowing what might possibly constitute the right thing.  How can I know if I am doing the right thing? Will the right thing change from day to day? If my conclusion as to what the right thing is conflicts with yours, how do we decide what is the right thing? Is there such a concept as a virtuous action that is right for me, but wrong for you? Here is a quote from a person writing about corporate ethics, “Indeed, much of what is considered moral through the lens of duty ethics looks decidedly immoral through the lens of virtue ethics.”Peter Tunjic

As you can tell, this can go around and around.  But it need not be so. The aim of ethical decision-making is to become a person who lives with excellence. Aristotle teaches excellence as a concept that means I will control my bodily appetites so that I live in moderation. I will work hard at physical toil. AND I will also take time for my mind and my intellect to flourish. It seems to me that Aristotle would look at our Western culture today and remind us that doing the right thing is not all there is. I think he would mourn the empty souls inside of so many of us.

For further study

We need to look at this more.  Because the lives we live before the face of God are lives that (hopefully) model virtue. And our lives will model a soul satisfying dedication to God. We will discover that to live out the words of Jesus just might be a virtuous way of life. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.” Therefore, both the vertical and the horizontal are needed to get life right and to do the right thing. Check in again for more later. Better yet, write up a response and join in our dialogue!