Published on June 20, 2019 by Joshua R Monroe

Crossway, 2013 | 111 pages

A Brief Book Summary from Books At a Glance  

By Greg Cochran


Table of Contents

Chapter One: The Challenges of a Relativist World
Chapter Two: The History of Moral Reasoning, Part 1
Chapter Three: The History of Moral Reasoning, Part 2
Chapter Four: Enlightenment Ethics
Chapter Five: Evangelical Ethics
Chapter Six: Using the Bible in Moral Decision Making


Book Summary


The concept of “reclaiming” has built into it the belief that something has been lost. David Dockery edits the Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition series for Crossway out of fear that something has in fact been lost in the Christian intellectual tradition. The series seeks to reclaim ground lost in history, art, music, communication, journalism, philosophy, science, and ethics.

In harmony with the series editor, Ben Mitchell has written a volume which recognizes that something has been lost and desperately needs to be regained in the area of moral reasoning and action. Mitchell’s volume, Ethics and Moral Reasoning: A Student’s Guide, hopes to reinvigorate Christian thinking in the area of moral actions. Not only have Christians lost ground in ethics, but the culture itself has disintegrated quickly into relativism at a time when new moral dilemmas such as gay marriage and drone warfare arise with breathtaking speed.

For Mitchell, students and others associated with colleges and universities need to be the first to reinvigorate the Christian tradition in ethics. Mitchell argues that few people would doubt the need for ethics. Everyone knows personally good behavior against bad. We know ethics is important at all levels of society (15).

The problem of ethics today is its lack of unity. In fact the prevailing thought in ethics is that there can be no consensus, no agreed upon standards, and no agreed upon means by which to develop ethical norms. Drawing on the work of sociologist Christian Smith, Mitchell points out that our culture holds a deep skepticism about moral agreement.

Mitchell says, “This state of affairs sounds dire because it is. This is the world many of my students inhabit. And, in most cases, it’s not their fault. They have inherited this worldview from social media, schoolmates, pop culture, and sometimes even from their parents” (16). As a result of this loss of ethical moorings, the culture tends to conflate ethics to legality, where notions of right and wrong are lost to the simpler concepts of legal and illegal. Mitchell points out, however, the inadequacy of such an approach. Hitler’s actions were legal in Germany just as slavery was legal in the Antebellum South. But these actions were neither right nor good.


Chapter 1: Challenges of Relativism

With that introduction, Mitchell orients the readers to the language of ethics. The field of ethics has a language all its own. In fact, ethics is a subfield of axiology–which is a study of value. Typically, Christian ethics tends to formulate actions in relation to the highest “good.” Ethics is thinking about what is good. Descriptive ethics attempts to describe what is good.

Prescriptive (or normative ethics) moves forward to describe what ought to be considered good actions or good behaviors. Mitchell uses the illustration of Jack Kevorkian. Descriptive ethics might say Jack Kevorkian took the lives of 130 patients through physician assisted suicide. Prescriptive ethics, on the other hand, might say, “Dr. Jack Kevorkian should not have ended the life of his patients” (18). Prescriptive ethics adds the value judgment “should not have.”

Applied ethics brings “the tools of prescriptive ethics to bear on issues or disciplines such that we talk about the ethics of abortion, capital punishment, war, the environment, or genetic engineering” (18). Simply put, applied ethics applies prescriptive oughts to particular ethical questions.

Finally, metaethics studies the different theories attempting to define what is good. How do people know what is good? Goodness itself must be understood in terms of conduct, attitude, and character. In Christianity, the good must relate to God, to others, and toward the self. Scriptures command love to God and to others and point to God Himself as the fulfillment of goodness, beauty, and truth.

After offering thanks and acknowledgements, Mitchell moves in chapter one to unpacking the various ways in which relativism has affected moral thinking. Moral values today are considered relative–human inventions which vary from community to community. Relativism begs two questions: First, what is normative (how things ought to be)? Second, to whom does the norm apply (to everyone at all times or just to some)?

Mitchell follows the argument of philosopher Louis Pojman who refers to these two questions as the Diversity thesis and the Dependency thesis. The Diversity thesis argues that right and wrong differ from person to person and culture to culture. Mitchell notes, “This premise does not by itself make the moral claim that that is the way it ought to be” (25).

The Dependency thesis argues that concepts of right and wrong depend on human nature, the human condition, or specific circumstances. For instance, some argue that right and wrong depend on the human ability to experience pleasure or pain. Thus a system like “ethical hedonism” develops–which says that causing pain is wrong and causing pleasure is good. But this system has its flaws. As Mitchell notes, Peter Singer uses this argument to claim that eating meat is immoral. Other systems focus attention on human mortality. Because humans are subject to death, certain behaviors–namely, those which aid survival–are considered good.

Relativists offer a number of conditions which might stipulate ethics: family upbringing or society’s values (usually called cultural relativism). The main point of the dependency thesis is that morality should differ from culture to culture. “The notion that one’s ethical views could be right–everywhere, for everyone, at all times–is mistaken at best and fascist at worst” (27). Thus, criticizing another person’s morality is likely a moral assault.

Relativism rules the day. The question is how might Christian ethicists best respond. Mitchell argues that saying relativism is wrong makes no sense to relativists because it is an assertion, not an argument. What needs to be offered, then, are counter arguments. John Hospers, former chair of philosophy at USC, offered counter arguments to relativism worth considering. Hospers notes that people belong to many groups at the same time, while also belonging to the single group homo sapien. Thus, the problem is which group governs ethical norms? Why one group over the other? And, is the behavior moral just because the group says it is (cannibalism, slavery)?

Other problems for relativism include the fact that there could be no moral wrongs if relativism were true (but isn’t child abuse wrong everywhere?). Relativism also discourages moral reformers like Abraham Lincoln. Relativism has trouble explaining why relativism is true. The fact that communities have different ethics does not prove the conclusion that it ought to be that way. Some communities may be wrong. Some may be right. And relativism fails to account for motives underlying actions.


Chapter 2: History of Moral Reasoning, Part 1

While there are many differences across cultures and communities, the truth is that profound similarities exist on fundamental ethical priorities. Rather than attempting to enumerate the similarities (as James Q. Wilson has done in The Moral Sense), Mitchell moves on in chapter two to focus specifically on the roots of Christian moral reasoning. Digging into the history of Judaism, Mitchell notes how the Old Testament frames major ethical considerations like marriage and family, labor and vocation, infanticide and abortion, sanctity and dignity (of human life).

Mitchell notes how Judeo-Christian ethics on the sanctity of all human life led to the dissolution of the barbaric Gladiator games in Rome. Likewise, Mitchell points out how Christianity increased esteem for women (in contrast to Greek and Roman cultures, as well as practices in African, Muslim, and Hindu cultures). Despite the later practice of slavery in cultures claiming to be Christian, the history of Christianity is. . .

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Ethics And Moral Reasoning: A Student's Guide

Crossway, 2013 | 111 pages

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