Ethics is, in plain terms, simply the study of morality. Morality is one of those issues which every worldview addresses, but which has no empirical basis for its answers. Every worldview has an approach to figuring out what should be considered right and wrong, but the basis for understanding it does not come from any kind of empirically provable foundation. It is based on the assumptions of the worldview itself.
Understanding the place of ethics in a worldview system is critical in understanding the system. That is because this is an areas which gets expressed overtly in the lives of every human being. Without a means of understanding the foundation for ethics, human beings are simply left to flounder in life when moral issues come up which have to be dealt with. Lets begin by looking at how the four worldviews deal with the topic of ethics.
How Do the Four Worldviews Approach Ethics?
Naturalistic ethics is based on the principle of moral relativism. Since the entire foundation of Naturalism is based on the premise that no transcendent reality exists, there is no place for an outside, authoritative moral code to come from. As such, all morality and ethics must be decided upon by human beings. This is true whether one is working from the level of the individual or society. For society specifically, its ethical codes must be developed either by societal consensus or by the imposition of a moral code by those in power.
The relativistic part of the equation is also very prominent. In Naturalistic ethics, the standards are changeable over time. As society changes, it is appropriate that the moral codes also change. In the same way, various cultures or societies may appropriately have different moral standards based on the perceived needs of the society or the desires of those in power.
An Animistic ethical system recognizes moral absolutes within boundaries. The boundaries are, of course, dictated by the particular gods that the people worship.
The foundation for this lies within the order of nature – which includes both the natural and supernatural worlds. Humans are believed to have obligations toward the spirits in the spirit world, and the spirits have obligations toward humanity. Ethics are governed by these obligations. Each Animistic group evaluates nature based on their perspective and develops an ethical code based on what they believe the gods approve of. They then organize their society based on that perception.
Far Eastern Thought
The foundation for Far Eastern Thought ethics is based in the concept of karma. While the expression is a bit different than in Naturalism, this too is based on a form of moral relativism. The karmic system asserts that reality does have an objective structure, and in order to advance to higher levels within that structure individuals must live life in accordance with that reality. When one lives properly, positive karma is accumulated. Likewise, when one lives wrongly, negative karma is collected. Ones progression through the life cycles is helped or hindered by the karma compiled.
However, there is a problem in that there is no transcendent being to pass this information on to humanity. As such, individuals must depend on their own personal sense of right and wrong to make ethical determinations. Thus, while a collective sense of right an wrong does emerge within a society, the ultimate understanding of this is necessarily relative to the individual.
Theistic ethics is firmly based on moral absolutes. Every Theistic system, regardless of its specifics, asserts that there is a transcendent God who has determined what is right and wrong and has, in some way, revealed that information to mankind. Ethics and morality are understood to be based on that revelation. Whatever God has revealed to be right is right, and anything that runs contrary to that is considered wrong.
Ethics can be defined as a system of moral principles and rules of conduct which are recognized and followed by a group of people. It deals with the values which underlie human conduct – specifically related to what is right and wrong, good and bad.
The moral principles which determine what is ethical and what is not ethical is squarely based upon the group’s worldview assumptions. Above we have already looked at the worldview assumptions and implications of the four foundational worldviews. Now we want to turn our attention specifically to an understanding of ethics from a Christian perspective.
The Christian worldview is firmly in the camp of Theism. Right off the bat, Christians do not acknowledge the legitimacy of the ethical foundation of the three worldviews outside of Theism. And while we do agree with the approach to understanding ethics found in generic Theism, it is necessary to go a step further and say that the specific authority we consider valid for our ethical base is not generic.
The Source of Christian Ethics
When it comes to Christian ethics, we are dealing with a worldview foundation which has its source specifically in the Bible. The teachings of the Bible acknowledge a transcendent God who is understood to have a particular way that he wants mankind to act, and has revealed that desire to mankind. This revelation is special in the sense that God has intentionally given it to mankind in propositional form – in language. This is commonly referred to as special revelation.
While we come to understand this moral foundation from what is written in the Bible, the foundation itself emerges from the very character of God. He has not merely made up rules for mankind to follow. Rather, he has described his own character and set that as the standard for human ethics. God has revealed himself to be holy; that is morally perfect. He has, then, revealed to man what that holiness looks like.
There is an element of God’s revelation which is general in nature. This is commonly referred to as general revelation. God has revealed himself through the universe he has created. As a part of that, he as placed within the spirit of every person a conscience which gives a sense of right and wrong. However, it is very possible for a person’s conscience to become seared and distorted by suppressing it. But even if a person’s conscience is not severely depressed, it is still impossible for an individual to completely understand the holiness of God. This is because God is so far beyond our natural understanding that he can only be fully known if he takes the initiative and somehow shares that information with us. He exists outside of our material universe, so for specific information about his character to become known to us it must be revealed.
As a result, the true knowledge of morality, and the ethical understanding which emerges out of it, can only be known by special revelation – God’s direct communication of that information to mankind. And God has specifically revealed to us what is right and wrong, good and bad, through the Bible.
The Inevitability of Sin
But the fact that we have knowledge of what is right and good does not mean that we will follow it – even if that is the deepest desire of our hearts. From the time of the fall, sin has permeated our very existence and has created in us the tendency to commit offenses against God. And we do that on a continuing basis – even the best of us.
The big problem that we run into is that God cannot allow sin to stand. Any and every offense against God must and will be judged by him. There is no human being who can escape this judgment in and of his or her own power. Ethical lapses are an expression of sin and every person sins. As a result, we also find ourselves under the judgment of God because of our sin.
But the sin problem does not leave us without hope. The work of Jesus Christ on the cross was God’s way of providing a means for mankind to receive forgiveness for these spiritual offenses against him. When an individual recognizes his sin, repents from it and asks God’s forgiveness, God applies the fix to our lives.
Our understanding of ethics, then, is a recognition that there is a good and right way to live and that it is based on the very character of God. If we want to express his ethics in our lives, we must know who he is and imitate him.
Then when we fail, as we inevitably will, Christian ethics requires that we acknowledge our failure to God and make it right, whatever that takes. When that ethical failure has an effect on another person, we have to make that right, as well.
Christian Responsibility in Ethics
When it comes to lapses in ethics because of sin, even though it is an integral part of our earthly existence, we are still responsible for it when it happens. When we sin, we have made a choice not to follow God and are responsible for our choice. There are, though, things we can do to more effectively make right choices.
First, we must learn what is right. God has revealed that knowledge to us in Scripture, so we can acquaint ourselves with that information. In processing this, though, we need to realize that an understanding of ethics is not simply a matter of picking out religious laws written in the Bible and following them. Of course, where specific actions are prescribed we must be willing to acknowledge and follow them. However, much of the ethical foundation found in the Bible is an expression of principles. As such, we must understand the principles and apply them to our various life situations, even if those situations are not specifically mentioned in the Bible.
A second thing we can do to become more effective in making right choices is to make an intentional decision to live rightly. The actions we take in life are based on the free will decisions we make. When we decide to live by the knowledge of God’s revelation, we put ourselves in a position to live in fellowship with him.
Finally, we must have an attitude of gratitude to God. Simply knowing what is right does not give us the power to live rightly. That power only comes as we live in relationship with him. When we have an attitude which acknowledges our dependence on him and we live our lives based on that attitude, we cannot help but be grateful for the fact that he has made it possible for us to follow the ethical principles which he has revealed to us.
Christian ethics are a concrete expression of an objective reality. A way is good and right only if it reflects the character of God, himself. Since God exists outside of our ability to know him by natural means, we must depend on his revelation of himself for our understanding of ethics. Since he has revealed himself, it is up to us to make the choice to learn about him and to live by the revelation he has given.
© 2010 Freddy Davis