So What Difference Does Theology Make for Ethics, Really?

My non-stipendiary contract with DET stipulates that I publish every Thursday, so I wrote a post for this week.
This is not that post. The other post, frankly, was boring and not quite clicking. So you can read it next week, instead.

By way of substitution, I'd like to offer some musings on a topic that has exercised me considerably over the past several years: To wit, Do theological beliefs really have any decisive role whatsoever in determining ethical decision making? I have been writing posts around this topic pretty much solidly since I started blogging here regularly a year ago, but to be honest, I'm not sure I've made that much progress in answering that basic question.

The problem rears its head again and again with a rising, sometimes almost plaintive urgency in many blog posts and articles I've read in recent months. An increasingly common genre is the type of article that ponders whether an atheist can be an actually morally decent person, or the perennial piece about how membership in this or that religious community seems to correlate with climate change denial, scroogely ungenerosity, gay-bashing and the like. Is it true that without belief in God, everything is permitted? And now we have the privilege of having moral philosophers of the caliber of Bill Maher and Ben Affleck pontificating about the religious ethics of Islam.

The issue of how theology and ethics are related has arisen pointedly in the fine series of posts at DET by Nathan Hitchcock (click here for the most recent one, with links to the earlier two; and be sure to check out the lively comment threads.) In discussing the Christian practice of replacing "bad" debt with "good" debt as a form of faithfulness the mirrors divine action, Hitchcock writes:

Occasionally the heathen act surprisingly Christian, as in the remarkable case of Arunachalam Muruganantham in the documentary Menstrual Man, who has repeatedly sacrificed his own social standing in order to help businesswomen in rural India manufacture sanitary pads.

So what difference does one's theological orientation make in one's life praxis? Try out this thought experiment:

Imagine a community where the persistent problem of homelessness remains a blight on society. As it happens, mine is such a community, and likely yours is too. Let's say a number of civic and religious leaders organize a meeting to consider the prospects for building a year-round shelter to mitigate this problem. A reporter for the local newspaper interviews several prominent participants of the meeting: 1) an American Baptist deacon; 2) a Buddhist monk; 3) a Roman Catholic priest; 4) a Unitarian minister (or whatever they're called), 5) a city councilwoman, who is a Rawlsian (John Rawls is liberal political thinker who argues that religious folks should keep their personal religious beliefs separate from their civic lives); 6) the mayor, who's a Machiavellian; 7) the president of the chamber of commerce, who's a Marxist (haha, just kidding!); and 8) U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, (R-Kentucky, a follower of philosopher Ayn Rand).

So the reporter asks each interviewee, "What motivates you to engage in this project?" Their answers are as follows:

  • American Baptist: "In the Gospels, Jesus instructs us to protect the powerless as a supreme act of devotion to him; and besides that, the persistent problem of homelessness remains a blight on society.
  • Buddhist: "The supreme act of a boddhisatva is to demonstrate compassion by striving to decrease the suffering of all sentient beings; thus, we strive to relieve the persistent problem of homelessness, which remains a blight on society."
  • Catholic: "The church's rich social teachings, including pronouncements of popes and the magesterium as a whole (not to mention Jesus himself) instruct the faithful to care for the weak and destitute; thus we are moved to show charity by addressing the persistent problem of homelessness, which remains a blight on society."
  • Unitarian: "The enlightened spirit of humankind yearns for the equality of all people; moreover, how can that happen as long as the persistent problem of homelessness remains a blight on society?"
  • Mayor: "In this year when I am running for reelection, it is important for all residents to remember that our city takes care of all our citizens. I commit the resources of this administration to building this shelter because the persistent problem of homelessness remains a blight on society."
  • Chamber President: "The persistent problem of homelessness, which remains a blight on society, is also really bad for the economy, as it drives away tourists from the business district."
  • Councilwomman: "We should act now because the persistent problem of homelessness remains a blight on society."
  • Sen. Paul: "The persistent problem of homelessness may be a blight on society, but what the heck does that have to do with the government?"

Get the point? Despite whatever secular or religious tradition each participant hails from, most of them -- at least in the context of this public discussion -- are guided by some sort of generic humanitarian or pragmatic impulse. Is this a Q.E.D. for the Rawlsians, then?

But this is a silly and simplistic thought experiment, you might object. I concede that the real world tussle of beliefs and actions is much more complex and fraught than this little exercise would suggest. Religious beliefs and ethical commitments are woven together into a much more complex tapestry than even Bill Maher's more sophisticated theories can explain.

But others might object that this example merely illustrates ad hoc moral reasoning on the fly; This is not a proposal for how to integrate formal systematic theology and ethics. Perhaps.
Ayn Rand, "Philosopher"
But what are theology and ethics if not somehow ultimately rooted just such quotidien experience? Even so, the project of unifying theology and ethics (including social ethics and political theology) is a common move among many paradigmatic modern and contemporary Christian thinkers -- such as Barth, Bonhoeffer, Gutierrez, Moltmann and Ruether. Following the great German sociologist Max Weber, I do believe that powerful ideas, rooted in yet also shaping social contexts, can provide a profound catalyst for directing human behavior. But how, exactly? Put another way, what does theology add to moral reasoning and action that's not already intrinsic in moral praxis in an of itself?

I'm not sure, but pondering this exercise makes me more suspicious of ethical reductionism. Schleiermacher, the father of modern theology himself, (in)famously posited (or "made up") this notion that all human experience is rooted in an priori, transcendental self-consciousness called "feeling" (Gefühl). The English term "feeling" is misleading here, as it intends something much more comprehensive than "emotion", as in the famous song by Morris Albert (So, Millenials,...Oh just nevermind!). But that's not important right now. What is significant here is that Schleiermacher distinguishes feeling from the faculties of knowing and doing (including morality) and claims that feeling is the true locus of religious experience. Christian theology, he argues, consists in the critical exposition of that religious experience as it has been molded and determined by the saving influence of Christ. Now whatever reservations one might have about this proposal, Schleiermacher might be onto something in this regard: Perhaps it's simply impossible to reduce theology to ethics, and perhaps the relationships between the two disciplines are more tenuous and subtle even for a DET post to untangle.

So no ethical reductionism then; rather, onward into the conflict of interpretations!

My apologies to the Kantians and (a little begrugingly) to the Rawlsians. But as for you Randians...I can't even!



Matthew Frost said…
Ethics is—at least, as far as I'm concerned—the signal realm of "conflict of interpretations." One might suggest politics instead, but if politics isn't ethics I'll eat my hat. (And I think you've given a nice illustration of how politics is the realm of ethical deliberation.)

So much of the rhetoric about it, though, isn't about whether theology has an impact on ethics, but whether people who subscribe to one authoritative ethos are better or worse than people that subscribe to another. At that point it is no longer a conflict of interpretations; it is a conflict of ideologies. A struggle for power.

The answer should be obvious: everything has an influence on ethics. The question is not whether thus-and-such a person can be moral, judged by whether they will respond in a canonically-acceptable way to a canonical problem. The real question, as to whether someone who belongs to a given ideology can actually do ethics, is whether they can break canon through genuine performance of ethical deliberation. Whether or not they arrive at any sort of canonical answer, ethics is about how we handle value and meaning, not which values and meanings.
Matthew Frost said…
(Of course, by my standard, very few people are actually moral.)
Good points, all. I think by my standards perhaps no one is moral.

The relationship between ethos and politics is an interesting one too, distinguishable from the theology bit. Reading a bit of Niebuhr has made the issue of relating ethics to politics a little more troublesome for me.

But you say, "Whether or not they arrive at any sort of canonical answer, ethics is about how we handle value and meaning, not which values and meanings." Not sure I quite agree with that. So where do we get the norms then?
Matthew Frost said…
Where do we get the norms? We make them up! We always have. There's nothing else. Even if we take them from other people, that's where they come from. Even if we take them from the divine subjectivity, that's still where they come from. Someone makes them up. The universe provides no values or meanings, apart from interpretation.
Matthew Frost said…
Put in less radically-heretical sounding terms: ethics is a product of thinking.
Okay, Friedrich, I get it. But my question was more along the lines of why ethics as a discipline should only be concerned with how those norms are deployed and not with how they are derived. Why wouldn't ethics include a moment of evaluating the norms themselves?
Matthew Frost said…
Yes! Friedrich! :) At sea, out of sight of all land.

You have missed me, and hit the target, in one stroke. Ethics isn't about deployment of norms unless and until it is about understanding what norms are, how they come to exist, and that they are the leaves and fruit of the tree, not the tree itself.
"a product of thinking" - of course. I'm not suggesting anything more grandiose than that -- not in this post, at least. ;)
So what discipline, if any, deals with the trees in themselves, if it isn't ethics?
Matthew Frost said…
Right. I didn't assume you were, at this point; and of course, there are many directions to go from any chosen spot of ground in meta-ethics.

What are the trees, from which moralities bloom? And what discipline isn't engaged in studying or informing the growth of some part of one of those trees?
Matthew Frost said…
Ethics studies what people in cultures do, and why they choose to do it, and what the options are, and how the matrix of options is created and processed, etc., yeah, so it studies the trees as much as the fruit and leaves they produce. But we often prescribe very restricted foundations for ethics, in order to produce trees that can only produce prescribed fruit. Which loops back into the problem you point out in the post. The people who force the conditions call those trees and their fruit moral, while continuing to cull undesirable fruit, but the world is more forest than orchard.
N Hitchcock said…
Great and serious play going on in this article. And I love the exchange in the comment section.

In my imagination I can’t help but insert two elements into your hypothetical city meeting, Scott. First, a stock phrase on everyone’s lips: “We should help the homeless.” Second, Stanley Hauerwas, who chimes in with, “Fine. But who the hell is we?

Actually, he would probably get cranky about the words “we,” “should,” and “help” alike. That is why we need more theological ethicists at meetings.
Thanks, Nathan. I like your amendments. "We should help the homeless." -- Perhaps common grace is sufficient when it comes to building homeless shelters?

Touche on Hauerwas! I imagine he's not on speaking terms with the Rawlsian Councilwoman -- a clash of two "we"s. And yes, he's probably grousing the whole time but in the end does the right thing and pitches in, analogous to the way he talks anabaptist but ends up worshiping in an Episcopal church.

I might imagine Hauerwas at the meeting making
(ignore the last line -- not a philosophical fragment, just bad editing)
N Hitchcock said…
Your example is not far off the mark. Here in Sioux Falls, South Dakota I end up in similar civic forums. Some may relish lengthy meetings, but I'm not in attendance because I covet the civic pronoun "we." The reason why is simpler: the homeless are here, and they are really, really cold this time of year.

People show up to address the situation. Is that common grace, or just a common problem?
Just to tie this stimulating conversation back to cold, hard dogmatics (as is my wont): what exactly do we mean when we say "common grace"? Are we using this in a Kyperian sense of a non-saving and yet unmerited work of the Spirit shared by elect and non-elect alike? Are us using it as shorthand to refer to the persisting goodness of creation despite its radical deformity by sin (I would lean toward this one)? Or are we using it in another way that I haven't thought of yet?
Interesting. Are these two senses of the term necessarily mutually exclusive?

I think the notion "unmerited" would be analytic to any definition of the term "grace" I would entertain. I have no problem, as a Christian, discerning the mysterious work of the Spirit among "heathen" civic deliberations. Nor would I have any problems embedding this notion of a graced (if anonymous) working of the Spirit within an explicitly Christian doctrine of creation and providence.

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