A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Steve West
The first edition of Scott Rae’s Moral Choices was published over twenty years ago, and every subsequent edition has been well received and widely used. Sometimes new editions of standard textbooks contain only the smallest number of changes—making the purchase of the new volume hardly worthwhile—but this is not the case with this 4th Edition of Rae’s book. This latest edition of Moral Choices contains new chapters, addresses new issues, and provides extremely recent examples as illustrations. For example, Rae refers to the #metoo movement, specific mass shootings that have recently occurred, and certain policies of President Trump. He provides substantial new work on environmental ethics, gun control, and issues involving immigration and refugees. The result is a book that readers, especially students, will find as current as is possible for a printed textbook. It is not so current, however, as to be merely trendy: this is a book that will have staying power due to its general content.
One of the hallmarks of this text is that it is even-handed when it comes to presenting arguments for and against various conclusions on issues where there is room for genuine disagreement amongst Christians. Rae is able to present his own views without caricaturing the views of those with whom he disagrees. He is willing to present multiple perspectives fairly and respectfully. In doing so, he guides the reader, rather than spoon-feeding them all the “right” answers. This is especially helpful in a book that can be used in classroom settings. However, where there are clear moral stances that Christians ought to take (e.g. on an issue like abortion), Rae does not hesitate to argue for a philosophically sound and explicitly biblical conclusion.
In terms of structure, Moral Choices helpfully charts out different approaches to ethics, articulates the biblical-theological foundation for ethics, and presents a methodology for weighing data and arriving at ethical conclusions. The methodology can be useful, especially for those who are beginning to learn how to evaluate data, and how to locate particular facts and arguments in an overarching and coherent framework. Too often people are given an array of arguments and data, but without any help in terms of how to arrange the material in a logical fashion. After having established philosophical, biblical, and theological foundations for ethics and moral reasoning, Rae provides a wealth of solid material on a host of important ethical issues. Although the maximum benefit from the book only comes through reading it entirely, if a reader is interested in one particular issue, they could simply read the relevant chapter and find a great deal of helpful material.
Rae’s conclusions on practical ethical issues are, as expected, in line with mainstream evangelical thinking. He reasons as a Christian ethicist, and his conclusions do not fall outside of the spectrum of acceptable evangelical belief. What is refreshing, however, is that when he deals with ethical topics that are also hot-button political issues, one does not get the impression that he has tied his ethics to the political platform of a particular political party. This is especially apparent when he deals with environmental issues, business ethics, immigration, and gun control. Rae does not write as a Republican ethicist or as a Democrat moralist. Frankly, as a Canadian reviewer, this makes the book far more useable in my own non-American context. It also builds credibility, since it helps alleviate the suspicion that certain moral stances may be taken more for political than evangelical reasons.
One particular example of this is found in Rae’s chapter on gun control. Many people who do not live in the United States find American debates about gun control extremely strange, not to mention often troubling. The cultural context in which Americans discuss guns is unique; in many nations, it wouldn’t even occur to the majority of people that gun control is an ethical issue, since the types of problems Americans have with gun control are simply not issues in many other socities. As a result, this was the chapter of the book that I approached with lower expectations than the rest of the chapters. Yet, I found myself surprisingly pleased with Rae’s treatment—there was balance. Given the American context and heated rhetoric about gun control (on both sides), Rae’s approach was refreshingly respectful and fair. Gun control is irrelevant in terms of an ethical social issue in many nations, but recognizing its importance in America, Rae does a fine job in actually presenting points for and against without falling into rhetoric or politicking.
In any book that covers the range of issues that Rae explores, there will always be places where readers will disagree with particular points that the author makes. Even where this occurs, however, Rae’s point of view cannot be merely dismissed. Instructors who already use Rae’s book as a classroom text will welcome this new edition as a genuine improvement over previous versions. It is a very good introduction to ethics from an evangelical perspective, and will prove helpful to anyone who wants to learn about systems of ethics, Christian morality, moral reasoning, and a variety of particular issues. It will be, deservedly, a standard text for years to come.
Stephen West is Lead Pastor at Crestwicke Baptist Church in Guelph, Ontario, and Adjunct Professor of Apologetics at Toronto Baptist Seminary.
Buy the books
Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics