As a young evangelical Christian, I was taught early on that Barth’s neoorthodoxy was the cause of liberalism in the Church today. Of course, I had never personally read Barth, only encountering him through conservative secondary sources. Preparing this essay forced me to read Barth for myself, as well as learn a great deal about his historical situation. I was surprised to learn three things. First, I enjoyed Barth’s writing style and his emphasis on Christ and the Holy Spirit. It was evident that Barth was devout and committed to the supernatural nature of the Christian faith. Second, Barth was writing in reaction to the growing liberalism within the Church. He very much saw himself as a conservative. And finally, I found his view on scripture to be highly inventive. I found myself repeatedly wonder if Barth had a high view of scripture, even though he declared it a fallible historical document. I do not claim to be a Barthian scholar by virtue of my limited study. However, I do feel I understand him a great deal more. I hope you find this essay as fascinating as I found preparing it.
There is little doubt that Karl Barth has had a substantial impact on the landscape of evangelical theology. Can the same be said for his ethics? Yes and no. On the one hand, Barth lays out an ethical vision that has had far reaching implications for Christian moral theory. There can be no question that the nature of contemporary Christian ethics is more situationally minded, giving greater attention to the historical particularity of the ethical agent. While Barth cannot be solely credited with this turn from the absolute toward that which is more relative, his focus on the command of God to each individual has certainly fomented its growth. On the other hand, Barth’s ethical teachings are ambiguous (at times even contradictory), lacking the kind of practical specificity that would render them useful in making actual decisions. As such, Barth’s ethical teachings are often overlooked, only recently receiving significant scholarly analysis. This essay will humbly attempt to present Barth’s ethical position in as positive a light as possible, especially in response to criticisms that it is too subjective and essentially impractical. The goal is to determine whether Barth is successful in overcoming these criticisms (revealing him as merely the victim of fundamentalist butchers and cannibals), or whether he truly was a wolf in sheep’s clothing leading Evangelical Christianity down the road of moral relativism.
Before analyzing these criticisms I will attempt to provide a brief summary of Barth’s position, primarily in his own words, and primarily as stated in his Church Dogmatics. Despite most scholars agreeing that Barth’s ethical views evolve over the years, I will incorporate a few notations from his early works, particularly when they are in agreement with what is stated in greater detail in the Dogmatics. It is fitting that we look to Barth’s systematic theology for ethics; for him, the Christian approach to morality is grounded in doctrine. Specifically, it is the command of God to elect and sanctify man through Jesus Christ that becomes the determining doctrine for Barth’s ethics. The Gospel and the grace of God revealed in Christ’s work on the cross become the foundation upon which his theological ethics is established.
BARTH AND ABSOLUTE ETHICS
Given that some have charged Barth with being ambiguous, it may be easier to begin by defining his ethical approach in terms of what it is not. First and foremost, Barth stood against moral absolutes that delineated timeless and general rules of moral behavior. Barth emphatically tells us that obedience to the command of God is not found in a universal principle but is instead “a very particular matter –something which comes to each individual in a highly particular way in his own particular time and situation.” This emphasis on the historical particularity of the ethical agent directly flows from Barth’s conception of God. In his brilliant book, Being in Action, Paul Nimmo argues that Barth sees God as a dynamic, living being in action “who speaks through the Word of God and exists in relationship with creatures.” Barth says of God that
His eternal being of and by Himself has not to be understood as a being which is inactive because of its pure deity, but as a being which is supremely active in a positing of itself which is eternally new.
Barth does not hold a rigid or static conception of God. God is a being who acts in the lives of his creatures anew each day. As such, understanding how we are to act cannot be separated from our personal encounter with God in our historical particularity. Alexander Massmann tells us that for Barth, “morals are not about action, but about an encounter with God.” Once the ethical agent is claimed by God through divine election, her ontological status corresponds to God’s. She is transformed into a being in action, just as God is in action.
Barth saw the delineation of ethical principles as undercutting this dynamic relationship between God and man. Barth tells us that moral principles,
are instruments of the misinterpretation and misapplication of the command, provoking the very desires which are excluded by the command, the very attempt at human self-justification and sanctification which is forbidden by God and absolutely fatal.
This naturally invites the question of how Barth deals with passages of scripture which seem to present us with universal moral principles, such as the Ten Commandments or The Sermon on the Mount. Barth explains that these kinds of passages can only be understood in their specific historical and concrete particularity. What these texts do reveal is the moral ontology underlying a personal encounter between God and specific ethical agents. As such, they are merely summaries of God’s specific will being made known to specific individuals at a specific time. Barth cautions that we must never view the command of God as remaining “somewhere behind us as the past of an instruction and conversion already accomplished.” We must instead ask what God wills for us today. While these rules, axioms and commands are clearly good, Barth tells us that we must “bracket and hold in reserve all that we think we know” about them, understanding that God has a specific will for us today. “None of these has an unlimited claim to be valid again today as it was valid yesterday.”
This can be illustrated by pointing to the common Christian goal of imitating Christ and all that he commanded his disciples. Barth sees this as an aspiration based upon the view that scripture consists of universal commands and principles that are to be timelessly followed. Instead, he argues that we need to view these texts as showing what Christ required of his followers at that specific time. What he requires of us today will likely be similar, but simply imitating what Christ commanded his disciples may very well put us out of God’s will for our own life. Our circumstances are different, thus God’s command to us will necessarily be different (albeit retaining a degree of similarity). Barth says,
the action of man must be one which always and in all directions is open, eager to learn, capable of modification, perpetually ready, in obedience to the exclusively sovereign command of God, to allow itself to be orientated afresh and in very different ways from those which might have seemed possible and necessary on the basis of man’s own ideas of his ability and capacity.
The Bible should not be approached as an ethical rule book from which we retrieve timeless moral principles. Instead the Bible is a witness to God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. The Bible recounts stories of God revealing himself to particular human beings in particular historical contexts. The most important of these revelatory stories is that of Jesus. Viewing scripture as communicating eternal truths for all people, places the focus of scripture on man. Instead, Barth tells us to place the focus on God. The specific commands of scripture are not about man and what he needs to do, but rather about God and who he is. The “particular commands” revealed in scripture should be seen as bringing us face to face with the person of God. This shifts the moral vision away from principles and rules to having a vision of a living God who actively speaks afresh to each individual. Barth is therefore not concerned with delineating the content of ethics. Instead, he is concerned with the form it takes, as revelation of who God is.
The concept of the command of God denotes a dynamic reality. … The command of God is the event in which God commands. It is a specific command of God in each specific form of his dealings with man, in each specific time, in relation to the presuppositions and consequences of each specific existence of each man. It is the one very definite thing that God demands for this or that man. The command of God is not a principle of action . . . God in his command, however, tells him very concretely what he is to do or not do here and now in these or those particular circumstances.
BARTH AND NATURAL LAW
Next, Barth was a fierce critic of natural law. Natural law ethicists contend that by virtue of creating the universe, God has imbued it with an order that reflects his rational and moral nature. Therefore, there is a point of contact between God, creation, and mankind, enabling the rational discernment of general moral principles. For advocates of natural law, this point of contact is the analogia entis. David Haddorff tells us that, “Regarding moral knowledge, this presumes that persons can objectively discover the human good through natural reason or experience or through some “moral order” established through God’s creation (order of creation).” Barth famously referred to this doctrine as the invention of the anti-Christ, specifically in that it made claim to know the good apart from the revelation of God. Barth vigorously maintained that there can be no understanding of morality in abstraction of revelation; to suggest otherwise ascribes an ability to man which he simply does not possess. Barth felt that natural law interposed general moral truths between God and man, which then dictated how God should act apart from the individual’s historical particularity. This gives us a static, rationalistic conception of God, rather than a living and active God that personally engages with humanity.
Barth, however, should not be viewed as entirely negating so-called orders of creation. For example, there does seem to be tension between Barth’s repudiation of natural law seen in CD II/2, and his acknowledgement of the constant character of the command of God in CD III/4. Nigel Biggar reconciles this tension by pointing out that Barth never intended to repudiate the “ontological notion that moral law is based, proximately and in part, on human nature.” According to him, Barth merely intended to highlight the insufficiency of human reason and reflection to know such orders of creation apart from the Word of God in Jesus Christ. Biggar reads Barth as pointing to humanity’s quest for what is good as indicating some kind of inherent contact between God and man. Regarding this aspect of human nature, early in his career Barth writes, “The ethical question is obviously not just one question among many others but is in an eminent sense the question of human existence.” Building on this idea, Alexander Massmann tells us,
After the universal moral question has been raised in every human person, God asserts God’s self successfully in gospel and commandment, since only God’s grace and command provide an answer to this question.
In the place of the analogia entis Barth substitutes the analogia fidei, which posits an analogy, “not between divine and human being, but between divine and human action.” Human nature becomes a suitable medium for God’s revelation only after the work of election, as the I-Thou relationship is established between God and man. This forms the analogy upon which revelation becomes possible. Barth himself maintains,
If there is a real analogy between God and man … what other analogy can it be than the analogy of being which is posited and created by the work and action of God Himself, the analogy which has its actuality from God and from God alone, and therefore in faith and in faith alone? How can we assert any other analogy …?
This means that Barth views the image of God in man, not as something inherent at birth, but “exclusively the affair of God Himself in His disposing of man in incomprehensible mercy.” Only through this divine act can humans share in what God is and have an ontological connection with the divine. Nimmo tells us, “It is revealed in this very particular history –in which humanity is elected in Jesus Christ –that individuals share in what He is and therefore in the history actualized in Him.” The image of God is constituted in man only as an act of transformation, as the result of God’s sovereign decision of election. Barth uses the language of the imago Dei when he writes that the ethical agent “should become the image of God: the reflection which represents, although in itself it is completely different from, God and His action; the reflection in which God recognizes Himself and His action.” This actualization of the imago Dei in the ethical agent is the goal of her election.
Barth’s rejection of natural law also explains his distaste for casuistry, which Barth sees as putting man in the position of God, distinguishing between good and evil. Barth viewed casuistry as setting up ethical rationalism independent of God, where sinful humans deduce rules and their application on the basis of first principles.
BARTH AND DIVINE COMMAND ETHICS
Finally, while it may be tempting to do, Barth’s ethics should not be viewed as a version of divine command theory. Simply put, divine command ethics understands moral obligation on the sole basis of what God chooses to command. Good does not exist independently of God’s will, the good is what God wills. Theoretically, since God is not bound to any external duties, he can command whatever he wills. Divine command ethicists typically assert that what God has commanded in scripture represents his will toward man. Those viewing Barth in this way see a voluntaristic bent in his emphasis on the command of God, especially since he has little place for constant orders of creation. Biggar tells us that such a voluntaristic approach would mean that “since right and wrong are decided by God’s commanding, and since God is free to command as he pleases, there can be no constant features of the nature of created reality from which we can rationally derive reliable ethical principles.”
However, Barth does not use the language of command in a voluntaristic or Occamist sense. According to Haddorff, Barth’s command prioritizes divine action which stresses “a living God’s engagement with persons, society and the world.” Contrary to traditional divine command theory, Barth’s command of God is not a proposition grasped by reason. Barth himself states that, “we never at any point know the divine command in itself and as such, but only in its relations.” God’s command does not present itself in the form of a principle or timeless imperative that is revealed in scripture; it is God meeting the individual in a deeply personal way. If we are to view Barth as a divine command theorist, then this subjective aspect becomes highly problematic, as what God commands to one person could very well be the exact opposite of what he commands to another. To avoid the charge that God’s command is arbitrary, Barth will need to provide some kind of ‘objective’ grounding.
BARTH AND THE PROBLEM OF SUBJECTIVITY
Having a relatively clear understanding of what Barth’s ethical vision does and does not entail, we can now consider the most significant criticisms of his approach. The first is that his position is too subjective, depending upon the individual’s affirmation of the command of God to them. If Barth is unable to overcome this charge, then his theological ethics is essentially tantamount to relativism.
For Barth, “theological ethics is itself dogmatics, not an independent discipline alongside it.” This aphorism indicates that theology must be the engine that drives and informs ethical development. Theological reasons are Barth’s primary justification for his positions. Barth never accepted the idea that ethics was somehow a separate discipline from theology, characterizing any attempt to split the two as insidious.
We regard all these attempts at a methodological distinction between dogmatics and ethics as ethically suspect because with great regularity there takes place in all of them a suspicious change in direction, a suspicious exchange of subjects, namely, of God and man . . . 
In his early ethical lectures at Münster (1928) and Bonn (1930), Barth was already beginning to assert ethics as an auxiliary science of dogmatics. If dogmatics shows us how and what we are to believe, then how we should act can proceed only on the basis of those beliefs. Barth very clearly tied this to an “old Augustinian theme that we must view together divine and human action in grace as two sides of one and the same event.” But ethics is not a mere flip to the other side “once enough has been said about what God has done for and to and in us.” To separate the behavior of the Christian from the behavior of God is an ontological abstraction that fails to see the ethical agent as a being in action, “called to correspond to the being in action of God.” For Barth, the question of human existence has its origin in the Word of God, which is the theme of theology and dogmatics. Theological ethics is therefore never justified within the sphere of philosophical ethics. Theological ethics is obedience to the Word of God. Unfortunately, theology is never produced in a philosophical vacuum. Despite Barth’s efforts to remain grounded in scripture alone, philosophical beliefs permeate his thinking.
Many evangelicals have embraced Barth because of his rejection of the immanentistic theology of modern liberal Protestantism. Liberal theology tended to either downplay God’s transcendence, or simply deny it altogether. This tradition was clearly shaped by the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, who reduced religion entirely to the realm of the ethical. For Kant and the liberal theologians who followed his thinking, prayer and worship were specifically idle distractions from what Christianity was truly about: duty to moral truth. It was Christianity within the confines of reason, albeit practical reason. To Barth’s credit, his Church Dogmatics is very much a reaction against this thinking. While a Kantian sense of duty is retained in his theology, it is duty to the command of God. Barth shifts the moral discussion back to the realm of the metaphysical. In direct contrast to this liberal tradition, Barth constructs his ethics on a transcendent, living and active God, in which prayer and worship remain integral (as will be shown below). If rationalistic liberalism made God in man’s image (often entirely rejecting any supernatural element), then Barth’s approach returns man to being transformed supernaturally into the image of God.
One of the earliest criticisms of Barth’s approach was that he went too far in denying the immanence of God, emphasizing him as the “wholly other.” Cornelius Van Til’s 1946 book The New Modernism, specifically took Barth to task for rejecting the orthodox understanding that God retains a direct revelational presence in the universe. Van Til maintained that by virtue of creating the temporal, a permanent and objectively accessible revelation of God is available to man. Far from a rejection of Kantian thought, Van Til saw Barth as completely embodying Kant’s metaphysical skepticism.
Barth has repeatedly asserted his desire to construct his theology in total independence of all the philosophical schools. Yet he has also admitted that in his earlier writings he had been influenced by modern epistemology. Indeed he has been keenly aware of the fact that his theology at every stage has taken a definite attitude toward, and has at least been negatively oriented to, the modern epistemological debate. The Ritschlian theology in which Barth was nurtured was controlled by a modern form of the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant.
To be sure, Kant’s distinction between the noumenal and phenomenal realms does bolster a theology of radical transcendence and likely informs Barth’s theology to some degree. Kant believed that if we can only have conceptual knowledge of sensory experience, then we are in essence “cut off” from knowing the world as it truly is. Therefore, knowledge of transcendental reality is utterly incomprehensible. On the one hand, it can be said that Barth accepted Kant’s skepticism about reason’s ability to know God (which likely fueled his criticism of the analogia entis). Van Til and others saw this reflected in his “theology of crisis,” which painted God as a distant stranger to humans, who because of sin and the finitude of human nature cannot unambiguously comprehend God’s will. For Van Til, this radical overemphasis on divine transcendence was neither based on Christian scripture nor theistic.
On the other hand, Barth is in clear disagreement with Kantian idealism and the notion that humans are the ultimate interpreters of reality (which appears to be the concern of Van Til). For Barth, man is not entirely cut off from God and left on his own to forge “his own” morality. God is able to bridge the epistemological gulf by speaking to man revelationally, through a direct command of God. Though man cannot know God, God can make himself (and his will) known to man. In this sense, Barth cannot properly be accused of personalism. But it is precisely this theological approach that leads Carl F. H. Henry to criticize Barth as being too subjective (the ethics of revelation reduces ethical action to a subjective experience which the individual embraces on blind faith). For Henry, this is nothing more than theological existentialism. Existentialism emphasizes the individual particularity of the ethical being. The theological existentialist asks, “What is God speaking to me? What is right for me in this particular situation?”
Barth professes to derive ethics from the sovereign transcendent command of God alone. The Word of God seeks man out and confronts him from above. No point-of-contact in man’s moral life supplies continuity between God and man. The Wholly Other shapes his own point of contact in the confrontation. It is in the spirit’s address that man in the midst of his existential involvement deals with God.
Barth may not side with Kant in justifying the discovery of moral truth “by means of a process of autonomous reasoning,” but the influence of Kant is undeniable. Because we are alienated from God, we can only discover ethical truth in a personal encounter with God in which the divine invades the here and now of the individual. The result is an emphasis on the subjective particularity of morality rather than an objective comprehension of universal principle. While this is clearly Kierkegaardian in its emphasis, one must remember that Kierkegaard’s subjective supra-rational turn was formulated in response to the metaphysical skepticism of Kant. Kierkegaard’s contrast between religious-ethical knowledge and empirical knowledge reflects Kant’s division of the noumenal and phenomenal. Kierkegaard’s influence is reflected in Barth’s preface to his second edition to Romans, where he cites the Dane’s “infinite qualitative distinction” between God and humanity. For Henry, such an emphasis is problematic in that it makes ethics purely subjective, with man being “related to moral claims only by non-cognitive decision.”
It is important to note that these philosophical and theological underpinnings directly impacted how Barth approached the Bible, likely necessitating his unique view of the command of God. While he may have rejected the immanentistic theology of liberal Protestantism, he did not fully reject the liberal skepticism regarding the supernatural nature of scripture. Given his acceptance of the “infinite qualitative difference” between God and man, it is not surprising that Barth believed the Bible to contain errors. As the product of finite, sinful humans, how could it be anything other than fallible? But despite his acceptance of scripture’s fallibility, he still considered it authoritative. When Barth speaks of the command of God or the word of God, he is not speaking of the words of scripture. Instead, he is referring to a divinely supernatural revelation to a specific person.
For Barth, the Bible should not be viewed as the revelation of God (the actual words), but as a witness to the revelation of God to particular people in particular times. This entails that there is no such thing as revelation “in itself.” Thus, while the Bible may contain historical inaccuracies, it is a profoundly historical work. Massmann says of Barth’s position,
When the Bible gives an account of revelation it means to narrate history, i.e., not to tell of a relation between God and man that exists generally in every time and place and that is always in process, but to tell of an event that takes place there and only there, then and only then, between God and certain very specific men.
This reduces the Biblical texts to a strictly personalistic encounter between an individual person and God. Barth claims that “A real witness is not identical with that to which it witnesses, but it sets it before us.” This means that divine revelation can only be conceived actualistically. According to Barth, “It is only by revelation that revelation can be spoken in the Bible and that it can be heard as the real substance of the Bible.” It is then that the Holy Spirit “actually reveals and makes known and imparts and writes on our heart and conscience the will of God.” Because of this, Barth tells us that “in Holy Scripture the command of God does not confront us in the guise of rules, principles, axioms and general moral truths, but purely in the form of concrete, historical, unique and singular orders, prohibitions and directions.” Barth claims we do damage to scripture when we attempt to “generalize and transform them into universally valid principles.”
But where does all this discussion leave us? Given Barth’s views on transcendence and scripture, I can only know God through individual subjective experience, via a personal revelation of the command of God to me. The Bible should not be viewed as anything more than an historical record of one subjective encounter with God after another, which God then uses as a tool to subjectively speak to me when I read it. In a very real sense, Barth is basing our own subjective encounter with God upon the subjective encounter of others. How does Barth escape all this subjectivity?
BARTH AND CHRISTOLOGY
In light of these views, it is easy to see how some could charge Barth with removing all objectivity and continuity for ethics and relegating it to relativistic subjectivity. Given Barth’s emphasis upon the personal self-authenticating nature of the divine command, it is only natural to wonder how one can distinguish between an authentic command of God and mere personal desire. Bartholomew Carey asks,
The question I have is this: is it possible that one could be absolutely, subjectively certain that one had heard the command of God, when in fact one had heard only the echo of one’s own desires? The testimony of history seems to answer this question with a “yes.” (The history of religious fanaticism is a long and not so venerable one. And it is usually characterized by its insistence on a Biblical authenticity and by an immediate divine authorization, i.e., by an absolute “certainty” of the divine command).
Biggar indicates that this is the most obvious problem facing Barth’s approach: “[I]t is difﬁcult to locate an event of hearing a command of God in ordinary human experience. Even if one does regard God as a real, living super-Person, one is not aware of being constantly confronted by divine commands to do this or that.” Thus, how can we know we are not simply deceiving ourselves when we claim to hear the command of God? If the command of God is self-attesting, and if there is no other criterion by which to determine its authenticity other than its origin, then how can it be distinguished from relativism? Barth seems to recognize this danger.
If this is so, it might easily be asked whether this does not amount in practice to a Direction to let oneself be governed from moment to moment and situation to situation by a kind of direct and particular divine inspiration and guidance, and to prepare oneself, to make and keep oneself fit and ready, for the reception of such guidance, perhaps by quiet times or similar exercises.
In order to overcome this charge, Barth must provide a qualification. Here, Barth’s Christological approach places the command of God securely in Christ. Biggar tells us that the person of Christ “not only reveals the benevolent form of God’s commanding, but also informs its content.” Therefore the command of God can never be seen in isolation as the command of the Creator, but rather as the command of all members of the Trinity: the creator, reconciler, and the redeemer. Massmann tells us that Jesus Christ is indeed the beginning of God. By electing humanity from eternity, God has eternally put himself in relationship with humanity. As Colossians 2:9 tells us, “In Christ the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” Likewise, Nimmo concludes that “for Barth, the beginning of all the ways and works of God, and therefore of the identity of God, is the self-giving of God in Jesus Christ.”
By adding this qualification, Barth seems to avoid the claim that God is capricious, confirming a certain material continuity between the divine command in Scripture and the divine command today. The constancy and content of the command of God is guaranteed in Christ. What is the command of God for us? Barth tells us it “is the word and work of God in Jesus Christ, in which the right action of man has already been performed and therefore waits only to be confirmed by our action.” Jesus Christ is the only ultimate determination for the life of the believer. Barth says, “All the new and inconceivable predicates of our life are real because they are the predicates of Jesus Christ.” God’s will is that our ethical actions correspond to our election in Christ. Barth affirms that “out of man’s life there should come a repetition, an analogy, a parallel to His own being –that he should be conformable to Christ.” The pattern of God’s command is Christ. Therefore, Barth is able to posit that “the divine command which can and will be given to us and heard by us … cannot either formally or materially differ from that which was given to them and heard by them,” in scripture. When this is properly grasped, it becomes clear how Barth can write that “In different times and circumstances [the command of God] is the same and not the same.” While continuity is retained, the power of the Holy Spirit “produces the same effect in continually new forms.”
BARTH AND THE PROBLEM OF ETHICAL RELEVANCE
The second major criticism of Barth’s ethical vision is that it is simply that . . . a vision. Given the above discussion, it’s easy to see how Barth’s ethics may be accused of being of little use to the Christian looking for answers on what to do in a certain situation. It should be clear that providing answers was not a part of Barth’s agenda. He was determined to present an ethic of transformation, where the elect in Christ share an ontological grounding with the God who has claimed them as his own. However, Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas believes that while this may provide a compelling ethical vision, it remains too abstract. Nigel Biggar goes further, suggesting that unless we can find principles in Barth’s ethics, “a novel by Trollope would be more useful in the moral education of the young than selections from the Church Dogmatics.” Of course, Biggar is optimistic that the reader can find practical principles for ethical decision making and identifying the command of God.
So where does the Christian seeking ethical guidance begin? Barth himself characterizes the search as beginning with surrender. Barth says that we can be sure that we have a
Father in Heaven who, in a way that far transcends that of any earthly father, is ready to give the good to those who ask him. . . The man who does all this can grasp the fact that God never makes a mistake, and that for all his fallibility he himself will not make a mistake. Asking, seeking and knocking, he will definitely do the will of God.
This means that the Christian begins with an attitude of submission expressed in humble prayer to God. Barth states that prayer is “the normal action corresponding to the fulfillment of the covenant in Jesus Christ” For him it is the most effective thing that the Christian can do and is the most fundamental of actions. Barth writes of prayer that it is “the one thing necessary, the one thing that is demanded of the Christian, the one service that is required of him.”
It is interesting to note that because of the fundamental nature of prayer, Barth views the Sabbath day of rest as one of the most extensive commands of scripture. In keeping the Sabbath, the Christian cultivates a life characterized by prayer and worship. Far from being a negative command requiring the believer to withdraw from culture for twenty-four hours, it is a positive action in which the Christian seeks out and celebrates the command of God. Thus, the Sabbath becomes an effective tool in orienting the believer in prayer and surrender to God.
Barth then directs the Christian to the scriptures, where they are to pray that “the Bible may be the Word of God here and now.” Even though it is only God who can open the door to a revelation event in scripture, it is up to us as to whether we “wait at this door or leave it for other doors, whether we want to enter and knock or sit idly facing it.” And for Barth this requires prayer. “[W]e cannot read and understand Holy Scripture without prayer, that is, without invoking the grace of God.” Nimmo tells us that “while the divine command is to be heard afresh in every new moment, the ethical agent who is commanded lives in and with a history that cannot and should not be excluded in the practice of theological ethics.” This means that the Christian is to approach the scripture in a particular way, understanding that she is part of a larger history of God’s action. While Barth tells us of the vertical command of God, God speaking directly to an individual in their historical particularity, there is also the horizontal element of the command, which places the individual within the entire history of God commanding his people.
Barth addresses the problem of an arbitrary command in not only speaking of a vertical dimension of God’s command, which denotes the irreducible character of the event, but also of its horizontal aspect, in which God’s commanding constitutes a continuity. The continuity of God’s command consists in God’s faithfulness as the Creator, Reconciler, and Redeemer.
Each individual encounter in this history represents a distinct moment in the larger context of the divine order. It is this horizontal dimension that accounts for “the constancy and continuity both of the divine command and human action.”
In CD II/ 2, Massmann argues that Barth delineates a few simple rules which help the reader avoid the possibility of distorting scripture. First, the reader should not come to the scriptures with a high-handed attitude of judgment. The Bible must be approached in prayerful surrender. The reader must cast aside any presuppositions about what the Bible says and be open to hearing the individual command of God. Second, the reader must become contemporaneous with the text. Here Barth tells us that
The Bible wills that we should be contemporaneous with and of the same mind as these other men in regard to the divine command, our hearing and understanding of it, and our situation as affected by it. In this connection we are to be in every sense the contemporaries of these men. Whether or not we comply with this biblical intention is another question. But it cannot well be denied that this is its intention, and that its texts were conceived and written down with the object of exercising this influence upon its readers and hearers.
This means that we are to identify features within the text that resemble features of our own experience, “in a way resembling a judge who explores the extent to which a case matches with an existing legal precedent, or, in continental law, subsumes a particular case under a general rule specified by a law.” Finally, Barth affirms the classic Protestant doctrines of the sufficiency, perspicuity, and self-imposition of Scripture. The scriptures can be easily understood by any layperson, and even works to correct us when we misinterpret the text. As sinners we are prone to make mistakes, but the Bible will defend itself “against the encroachments of individual or total periods and tendencies in the Church.”
In keeping with his views on the particularity of the command of God, Barth is quick to remind us that placing oneself within the horizontal outline of God’s history provides “guidance to the individual in the form of an approximation to the knowledge of the divine command and right human action.” He refers to it as a definite lead, but not a determination. Nimmo directs us to Bruce McCormack who notes that “what God has said through the prophets and apostles to the Church in the past may give hints of what he will say through the same to the Church in our own day, but he is not bound to repeat himself.” But the Christian does not simply look at the horizontal history of scripture. We must also be mindful of how the command of God has addressed us in the past.
[W]hat we will and do should take place in this self-examination –with a glance backward at what we willed and did formerly, and forward to what we shall will and do in the path that is now to be pursued or not, and therefore with a readiness for the next thing, or rather for the judgment which we approach in and with it –this is our proper attitude to the divine decision which awaits our own decision in God’s command.
But just as God’s consistency does not guarantee that the command of God to the individual will be in keeping with how God has commanded others in the past, it likewise does not guarantee that it will be in keeping with how he has commanded the individual in the past. Barth tells us that “even if our enquiry as to God’s command leads us necessarily to a different answer today from that of yesterday, then no wrong is done to the former.”
It would seem that these criticisms of subjectivity and irrelevance are necessarily tied together. Even though Barth provides helpful guidelines in seeking out and hearing the command of God (he should be applauded for the reverence that is reflected in the guidance discussed above), and even though he grounds the subjective command of God firmly in Christ, he never fully escapes his ultimate qualification that God is free to command otherwise.
In regard to the criticism of subjectivity, Barth answers that we can find constancy in God’s commands because of his Christological qualification, as well as his emphasis on the horizontal continuity of scripture. But neither of these preclude God’s command to us being different than what we might expect given these qualifications. As was noted earlier, Barth tells us that none of these considerations provides “an unlimited claim” to validate today what was valid yesterday. Barth’s qualification has a qualification of its own. Any attempt to find objective stability in the command of God is overridden by the qualification of God’s freedom to act anew. In regard to the criticism of irrelevance and impracticability, even when we follow the steps delineated above and turn to scripture for guidance, we can have no confidence that God’s command to them will be the same to us. The result is that even if one can claim that Barth’s theological ethics does provide specific guidance for today’s Christian, his emphasis on subjectivity undermines it.
Barth is never able to overcome the fundamental weakness of his approach: our inability to distinguish between a genuine command of God and personal whim. Even if someone commits an action entirely “out of step” with the teachings of scripture, if they are certain in their assertion that it is an authentic command of God, on what basis can their claim be refuted? Certainly not because it conflicts with scripture, and certainly not because it conflicts with the way God has commanded the individual in the past. It seems that Barth fell victim to this weakness in his own personal life. Even though he wrote extensively about the significance of monogamous matrimony, he maintained a decades long adulterous relationship with his personal secretary which he justified as decreed by God. While the moral failings of an individual should never be the grounds upon which to invalidate teachings, in the case of Barth his polyamorous relationship with his wife and mistress illustrate that his theological ethics can be used to justify any behavior.
I had mentioned earlier that Barth’s theological ethics should not be viewed as a version of divine command theory. Given the above criticisms, one might argue that I was wrong in that assertion. I stand by it on the basis of the following distinction: The divine command ethicist will either objectively ground God’s command in scripture or in natural law; Barth does neither. Barth grounds the divine command in the certainty of a private supernatural revelation. Is that private experience authentic? Perhaps, but can we ever really know for sure? All we are left with is an existential leap of faith and an assertion of the will. It is for this reason that I see Barth’s ethical vision as essentially relativistic, grounded in an existentialist approach to truth.
It is beyond the scope of this paper to provide an analysis of the varieties of existentialism. Whether one considers themselves a Christian existentialist, or an atheistic existentialist, the starting point is subjectivity. In the case of Barth, it is the subjective experience of the command of God. In the case of the atheist, it is the subjective experience of coming to believe that there is no God. Both are subjective leaps of faith where the individual decides what is true for them personally, and then acts in accordance. I agree with Sartre’s assessment of existentialism that the question of God’s existence is irrelevant. For Sartre, there was essentially no distinction between the atheist and Christian existentialist: at the end of the day, both make a subjective choice to believe what they will. For both, there is no reality except in action. The Barthian may protest that it is the prompting of the Holy Spirit that offers guidance and encouragement to accept the command of God as true. But again, it is the individual who makes the subjective determination as to what the Spirit might be prompting. How are we to discern between a legitimate prompting of the Spirit and a mere will to power? Barth himself seems to recognize this risk when he says of the Spirit’s leading,
[E]ven in giving this encouragement, it can not save man from what is expected of him, namely, to dare to make for himself the leap of choice, decision and action, which he must make for himself and on his own responsibility . . . and it cannot conceal from him that this leap, if it is not one of obedience, can only be a leap in the dark in the worst sense of the term.
Regardless of the many admirable and ingenious aspects of Barth’s theology, using it as a guide for ethical decision-making has the very real potential of leading the Christian down the dark road of moral relativism. Perhaps, we can find no better warning of this than what Anna Katharina Barth wrote in a personal letter to her son, dated 1933. Barth’s mother expressed her disapproval with Karl’s behavior, directing him back to the universally binding commandments found in God’s word. She very pointedly asked him, “What is the most brilliant theology good for, if it is to be shipwrecked in one’s own house?” The simple response should be that it is good for nothing.
Joseph Fletcher talks about the influence of Barth in his seminal work, Situation Ethics. While he acknowledges the insights of Barth regarding the situational nature of ethical decisions, he criticizes Barth for retaining belief in the intrinsic nature of good and bad.
I have chosen to primarily focus on scholarly analysis within the last twenty years.
The allusion here is to Barth’s own characterization of his critics, and to Van Til’s characterization of Barth.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics. eds. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1967), IV/2: 547.
Paul T. Nimmo, Being in Action: The Theological Shape of Barth’s Ethical Vision (London: T & T Clark, 2007), 6.
Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/1:561
Alexander Massmann, Citizenship in Heaven and on Earth: Karl Barth’s Ethics (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015), 62.
Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/2:727.
Karl Barth, The Christian Life, ed. G. W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981), 33.
David Haddorff, Christian Ethics as Witness: Barth’s Ethics for a World at Risk (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010), 204.
Nimmo, Being in Action, 48.
Nigel Biggar, “Barth’s Trinitarian Ethic,” in The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, ed. John Webster (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 218.
Karl Barth and Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Ethics ed. Dietrich Braun (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1981), 16. Emphasis is mine.
Massmann, Citizenship, 191.
Haddorff, Christian Ethics, 204.
Massmann, Citizenship, 78.
Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/1:83.
Nimmo, Being in Action, 94.
Barth, Church Dogmatics, CD II/2:575.
Biggar, “Trinitarian Ethic.” 217.
Haddorff, Christian Ethics, 208.
Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/ 2:550.
Barth, Ethics, 18.
Nimmo, Being in Action, 1.
Cornelius Van Til, The New Modernism: An Appraisal of the Theology of Barth and Brunner (Philadelphia, PA: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1946), 5.
George Harinck, “How can an Elephant Understand a Whale and Vice Versa? The Dutch Origins of Cornelius Van Til’s Appraisal of Karl Barth,” in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism, eds. Bruce L. McCormack and Clifford B. Anderson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 25.
John E. Hare, “Karl Barth, American Evangelicalism, and Kant,” in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism, eds. Bruce L. McCormack and Clifford B. Anderson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 77.
Carl F. H. Henry, Christian Personal Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1957), 134.
Biggar, “Trinitarian Ethic.” 214.
Henry, Personal Ethics, 135.
D.G. Hart, “Beyond the Battle for the Bible: What Evangelicals Missed in Van Til’s Critique of Barth,” in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism, eds. Bruce L. McCormack and Clifford B. Anderson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 51.
Nimmo, Being in Action, 26.
Massmann, Citizenship, 92.
Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/2:463.
Nimmo, Being in Action, 26.
Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/2:469.
Ibid., IV/2: 372.
Bartholomew Carey, “God’s Command and Human Judgment: The Problem of Karl Barth’s Command Category in his Doctrine of Theological Ethics,” Dominicana 52, no. 1 (Spring 1967): 64.
Biggar, “Trinitarian Ethic.” 214.
Barth, Church Dogmatics, III/4:15.
Biggar, “Trinitarian Ethic.” 216.
Massmann, Citizenship, 172.
Nimmo, Being in Action, 8.
Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/2:543.
Nimmo, Being in Action, 74.
Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/2:695.
Barth, Christian Life, 43.
Barth, Church Dogmatics, III/3:265.
Massmann, Citizenship, 278.
Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/2: 514.
Nimmo, Being in Action, 64.
Massmann, Citizenship, 270.
Barth, Church Dogmatics, III/4:17.
Massmann, Citizenship, 235.
Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/2:701-702.
Massmann, Citizenship, 225.
Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/1:106.
Nimmo, Being in Action, 36.
Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/2:635.
For a complete analysis of the letters between Barth, his wife, and his mistress, see Christiane Tietz, “Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum,” Theology Today, vol. 74 (2) (2017): 86-111
I am thinking here of Sartre’s comments in his 1946 lecture, Existentialism is a Humanism.
Tietz, “Barth and Kirschbaum,” 106-107.
This is part two of my analysis of Alasdair MacIntyre’s approach to virtue ethics. This part focuses on Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry. Click here to view part one.
We are faced with a variety of competing views of morality within our society. There are many who would like us to believe that no one view is superior to another, or that all views are equally valid. This is problematic. On an intuitive level we somehow know this is not the way it should be. There remains within us the desire to resolve our differences – to enter discussion and debate for the intended purpose of convincing others that our view is correct (and theirs mistaken). But this problem goes deeper than simply having different starting points and perspectives. Every other person is convinced that their view is best, that it makes the most sense, that it is entirely rational, and in fact, more rational than any other. The result is that we are locked in a moral standoff, where no amount of arguing is likely to convince our counterparts. In Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, Alasdair MacIntyre provides an excellent summation of this moral mess.
Debate between fundamentally opposed standpoints does occur; But it is inevitably inconclusive. Each warring position characteristically appears irrefutable to its own adherents; Indeed in its own terms and by its own standards of argument it is in practice irrefutable. But each warring position seems to its opponent to be insufficiently warranted by rational argument.
How did we get to this point? More importantly, how do we get out of this predicament? MacIntyre’s purpose in writing is to answer these questions and further develop the vision of virtue ethics that he initially articulated in After Virtue.
If After Virtue is perceived as an incomplete work, as I believe it should, then Three Rival Versions should be viewed as bringing MacIntyre’s aretaic vision to completion, providing the metaphysical grounding for objective virtues and providing us the means of arbitrating between competing moral views. Of course, MacIntyre’s proposed solution is not without its critics. The first, is the more serious charge that MacIntyre’s solution simply doesn’t provide enough clarity to make any difference in our moral standoff. I say this is more serious, in that if true, then the work is inconsequential. Second, is the charge that MacIntyre’s vision is essentially postmodern. This concern has been expressed by several prominent Christian philosophers. What one thinks of postmodernism, and the extent to which MacIntyre is thought to incorporate aspects of it into his position, will determine if this is a serious charge or not.
So, how did we get to this point? MacIntyre begins Three Rival Versions by delineating the development and presuppositions of three different conceptions of moral inquiry: Encyclopaedia, which is named for the 9th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica; Genealogy, after Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals; and Tradition, representing the Thomism put forth by Pope Leo XIII as the official doctrine of the Catholic Church. By tracing these three views, MacIntyre demonstrates that moral enquiry has progressed from objectivity, to subjectivity, to complete incommensurability and untranslatability of rival conceptions of morality. The essential move being the genealogist’s rejection of any theoretically neutral, pretheoretical ground by which all competing claims can be judged. So while contemporary moral theorists still cling to the idea that we can enter rational discussion with those who hold different points of view (a weak conception of rationality left over from the Enlightenment project), they deny the ability to reach rational conclusions and resolve differences (the strong conception of rationality that Nietzsche rejected). MacIntyre’s point here is to expose the irrationality of clinging to this weaker conception of rationality, if no such independent standard of adjudication can be found.
It is precisely here that MacIntyre challenges the conclusion of the Nietzschean genealogist, pointing to the example of Aquinas. By resolving the conflicting issues between Augustinianism and Aristotelianism, Aquinas proves that one tradition can be demonstrated as rationally superior to another. In MacIntyre’s thinking, Thomism provides us with the philosophical craft-methodology of how to engage morally incommensurable views. Thomas was able to articulate problems within both these rival traditions in terms internal to each system, demonstrating how each lacked the necessary resources to resolve those problems. He was able to demonstrate how the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition was then able to provide solutions to those same problems. And finally, Aquinas anticipated his critics best counterarguments (framed again in terms of these rival views) and emerged with a superior response. This alone is a significant contribution to moral discussion. But MacIntyre believes that Thomism provides more than just this methodological approach; it is also the tradition which offers the metaphysical grounding required to provide an objective standard for the virtues, something that was lacking in After Virtue.
At this point, some have raised concerns that MacIntyre has not sufficiently delineated the finer points of his moral theory. As Richard T. De George has pointed out, “MacIntyre never makes clear how we are to use whatever in Thomism he believes valuable.” But this doesn’t seem to be an accurate assessment. MacIntyre discusses at length several key features of Thomism that are essential in demonstrating its superiority to other views. For example, just as Aquinas argued on the basis of natural law, MacIntyre states that contemporary society’s unwillingness to discard the fragments of morality is evidence of its metaphysical grounding in human nature.
The Thomist . . . discerns in the continuous reappropriation of the rules, and in the recurring resistance to discarding them, evidence of the work of synderesis, of that fundamental initial grasp of the primary precepts of the natural law, to which cultural degeneration can partially or temporarily blind us but which can never be obliterated.
Synderesis is the idea that human consciousness has an innate inclination toward the good. MacIntyre is therefore arguing that our intuitive desire to determine a morally superior view is grounded in human nature, an insight he sees as essential to Thomism. MacIntyre states elsewhere,
The plain person initially, as plain child, exhibits his or her knowledge of the principium of the natural law, which is the principium of practical reasoning, in the same way that he or she exhibits his or her knowledge of the principle of noncontradiction, that is to say, not in any ability to formulate the principle explicitly, but by showing a potentiality to do just that, in the way in which the truth of the principle is presupposed in a multiplicity of particular practical judgments.
Additionally, MacIntyre identifies Thomism as providing both a human telos which is eternal and the virtues and right actions required to direct humanity towards that telos. De George concurs with MacIntyre that Thomism provides the philosophical and methodological activity necessary to conduct moral enquiry, but he conveniently overlooks the metaphysical contributions of Thomism. It is these two Thomistic contributions that allow us to not only arbitrate between rival moral theories, but also between rival approaches to the virtues. In this regard, it doesn’t seem possible to view Three Rival Views as an inconsequential work, especially when read in conjunction with After Virtue.
But what of the criticism that MacIntyre’s view is postmodern? Thomas S. Hibbs argues that MacIntyre’s overall body of work has presented a postmodern Thomism, prominently featuring three postmodern motifs: namely, the emphasis on tradition and authority, the role narrative plays in shaping thought and culture, and the part community plays in shaping one’s personal identity. But, does simply using these motifs make MacIntyre postmodern? Given MacIntyre’s commitment to essentialism, the belief that we can arbitrate between competing moral claims, as well as his intimations about the authority of scripture, it is hard to see how this can be the case. For example, both William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland have characterized MacIntyre’s overall approach as presenting virtues as mere “linguistic constructions relative to the valuations and commitments of different traditions.” While one might be able to make this case solely based on After Virtue, it cannot be maintained given the contributions of Three Rival Versions. In this latter work, MacIntyre has demonstrated a commitment to the idea that human nature provides an objective grounding for the virtues. Essential to who we are as human beings, is an innate knowledge of what is good and virtuous. This belief would certainly seem to undermine the idea that he is postmodern, or, at the very least, Craig and Moreland’s charge that he is anti-essentialist. While it is true that, for MacIntyre, community plays an important role in cultivating the virtues, he clearly establishes nature as providing the objective grounding and impetus for such cultivation. As such, a fully orbed postmodern rejection of a transcendent, overarching telos/narrative cannot be harmonized with what MacIntyre is presenting.
I have stated elsewhere that the overall contribution of this work, in conjunction with After Virtue, provides Christians with a viable alternative to deontological approaches to moral theory. Virtue theory, properly grounded in the objective understanding of the human good afforded by MacIntyre’s reading of Aquinas, could provide a better way of reconciling the tension between transcendent moral values and the application of those values to various circumstances and contexts. This is not to say that MacIntyre’s approach should be adopted wholesale. However, the groundwork presented in Three Rival Views should guide our consideration. Christians, who fear that wading into such waters would open them to the influence of postmodern thinking, must keep in mind that simply borrowing common motifs from postmodernism does not make one postmodern. If anything, MacIntyre has demonstrated that these motifs are premodern, being originally found in the writings of both Aristotle and Aquinas.
Alasdair MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), 7.
MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions, 75. Even the Thomistic tradition which factors heavily into MacIntyre’s proposed solution, has not escaped “the indefinite multiplication of disagreements,” by wrongly giving priority to epistemological questions. It is important to note that when MacIntyre advocates for Thomism, he is advocating the version articulated by Thomas himself.
Richard T. De George, review of Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition, by Alasdair MacIntyre, Faith and Philosophy 8, no. 4 (1991): 542. De George is actually quite emphatic in making this point, going on to claim that “If MacIntyre wants to be heard more, he must produce the substantive theory that will engage his opponents. Simply to claim that Saint Thomas has the solution to the ethical and philosophical problems of our times is a move that has been tried in Catholic schools for over a hundred years, with less than compelling success.” And then a few lines later, “This volume argues for a method. The proof of whether it is in fact superior to alternative and opposing methods will be whether it can yield a moral theory adequate to the times. This series of lectures claims that it can; but the lectures contain only a promise.” Ibid., 545.
MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions, 170.
Thomas S. Hibbs, “MacIntyre’s Postmodern Thomism: Reflections on Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry,” The Thomist: A Speculative Quarterly Review 57, no. 2 (1993): 277.
J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 455.
A brief review of MacIntyre’s seminal work on Virtue Ethics, After Virtue. This is part one of a two part analysis of MacIntyre’s overall theory of ethics.
There is no question that Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue is a significant work in moral philosophy, if not the most significant moral work of the 20th century. While it certainly figures as a major contributor to the modern revival of aretaic ethics, its true value can only be assessed within the larger context of MacIntyre’s follow-up works, particularly Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry. On its own, After Virtue presents an incomplete rendering of the virtues that not only falls short of the Aristotelian variety that MacIntyre professes to be offering, but that additionally runs the risk of contributing to the very moral quagmire from which MacIntyre is attempting to deliver his readers. Despite these concerns, After Virtue offers the aspiring Christian moral theorist an attractive alternative to the deontological approaches that have dominated Christian ethics for much of the church’s history.
There are two heroes in this book. The first is Friedrich Nietzsche, whom MacIntyre views as a hero of sorts; not because he is right, but because he takes the moral discussion in the modern period to its logical end. Nietzsche properly discerned that the rise of emotivism had effectively undermined the Enlightenment project’s attempt to craft an objective science of ethics. If all assertions of morality are nothing more than mere expressions of will, then better for us simply to abandon all pretense of objectivity and embrace our autonomy. MacIntyre understands Nietzsche as saying,
. . . my morality can only be what my will creates. There can be no place for such fictions as natural rights, utility, the greatest happiness of the greatest number. I myself must now bring into existence ‘new tables of what is good.’
In other words, there is no transcendent moral truths to which we can turn for guidance. What is good, is what the individual wills it to be. While Nietzsche is not responsible for morality devolving into utter subjectivity (MacIntyre places that responsibility on those who came before), he is responsible for justifying its acceptance. The result is the moral theorist’s complete inability to arbitrate between rival expressions of morality; moral discussion and debate is effectively halted.
Those thinking that Aristotle is the other hero in this book, better think again. That honor falls squarely upon MacIntyre himself. If Nietzsche is the King Kamehameha II of the European tradition because he awakened the world to the fiction of what morality had become, then what are we to make of MacIntyre? In like fashion, MacIntyre stands as a Nietzschean type hero, conducting his own genealogy of moral theory and awakening the world to the moral morass of modernity.
What then the conjunction of philosophical and historical argument reveals is that either one must follow through the aspirations and the collapse of the different versions of the Enlightenment project until there remains only the Nietzschean diagnosis and the Nietzschean problematic or one must hold that the Enlightenment project was not only mistaken, but should never have been commenced in the first place.
We can either follow Nietzsche or follow MacIntyre as he takes us back to a theory of morality rooted in Aristotelian virtues. MacIntyre plays the role of Nietzschean prophet, delineating the problems of modernity, and claiming to offer a solution far better than Nietzsche himself ever offered. What MacIntyre has done, as Richard Bernstein so ably points out, is to present us with a choice between morality and no morality. The question is whether he has sufficiently convinced his readers why they should choose the former and not simply embrace the liberation that the latter promises. Even if MacIntyre is successful in exposing modernity as devoid of morality, and even if countless moralists are awakened to realize their present condition for what it is, what’s to stop them from simply declaring, “Thanks, but no thanks.” There is no doubt that MacIntyre has laid out a substantial vision for moral theory, but why is it better than Nietzsche’s opposing vision? Why should we choose MacIntyre over Nietzsche?
The answer to this question hinges on one task. If MacIntyre is successful in presenting his readers with a teleology common to all of humanity, a shared telos such that it necessitates everyone embracing an objective catalog of core virtues, then I think they have no choice but to choose MacIntyre. To do otherwise would be to go contrary to nature and undermine the very idea of what it means to live in community. However, this is a big if. As it turns out, the most significant criticism of MacIntyre is that he has failed to do just that, instead leaving many to wonder if his account is more relativistic than objective. This charge of relativism is not entirely unjustified, and MacIntyre seems to have anticipated it. After reviewing various historical traditions related to the virtues, he finds incompatible lists and differences in rank order, acknowledging that it would be all too easy to draw the conclusion that no “single core conception” of the virtues can be found.
MacIntyre attempts to avoid this conclusion by providing a three-tiered account of the virtues, placing them within the context of practices, traditions, and the narrative unity of human lives. But it is precisely here, with MacIntyre’s emphasis on goods and standards internal to practices, that the charge of relativism is introduced. Martha Nussbaum characterizes MacIntyre’s approach as a clear turn toward relativism, in which “the only appropriate criteria of ethical goodness are local ones internal to the traditions and practices of each local society or group that has questions about the good.” Part of this criticism is grounded in the fact that MacIntyre’s vision does not seem to rule out practices that adopt vices rather than virtues. Building upon MacIntyre’s own speculation about the possibility of evil practices, Bernstein raises the prospect of a practice aimed at international espionage which requires excelling at dishonesty in appropriate situations. He, too, claims that MacIntyre’s position is in danger of being relativistic “because there is no reason to believe that the ‘acquired human qualities’ required to excel in one practice are the same as, or even similar to, those required for other, incompatible practices.” He rightly concludes that what seems to be missing is a clear objective standard to arbitrate between rival traditions and practices, the very task MacIntyre’s whole work hinges upon. To summarize this criticism in MacIntyre’s own words:
I have suggested so far that unless there is a telos which transcends the limited goods of practices by constituting the good of a whole human life, the good of a human life conceived as a unity, it will both be the case that a certain subversive arbitrariness will invade the moral life and that we shall be unable to specify the context of certain virtues adequately.
The fundamental problem with MacIntyre’s approach is his insistence on rejecting Aristotle’s metaphysical grounding of the human telos. If MacIntyre were truly harkening the reader back to a thoroughgoing Aristotelian approach to the virtues, then he would need to embrace an essentialist view of human beings that includes what it means to properly function and flourish as a person. Defending the notion of an objective teleology without grounding it firmly in human nature denies MacIntyre of the one feature that could tie all local traditions and practices together and provide them with an external referent by which to judge the value of conflicting virtues. This is a problem that MacIntyre seems to recognize and acknowledge in his prologue to the third addition of After Virtue.
. . . my attempt to provide an account of the human good purely in social terms, in terms of practices, traditions, and the narrative unity of human lives, was bound to be inadequate until I had provided it with a metaphysical grounding. It is only because human beings have an end towards which they are directed by reason of their specific nature, that practices, traditions, and the like are able to function as they do.
It is only in MacIntyre’s later works that this deficiency is definitively addressed. In this sense, After Virtue is an incomplete work.
No one should interpret this to mean that After Virtue is an inconsequential contribution to moral discussion. While MacIntyre might have downplayed the need to provide a metaphysical and biological grounding of the good, he was correct in emphasizing its inherent social context. Our conception of the good cannot be articulated apart from what it means to live the good in community. This is a contribution that Christian moralists cannot afford to overlook. Virtue theory, properly grounded in an objective understanding of the human good, provides a better way of reconciling the tension between transcendent moral values and the application of those values to various circumstances and contexts. Remaining fixed in a mindset that absolutizes all the individual commands and truths of scripture will take us down the path of developing curious theological schemes for arbitrating the conflicts that necessarily result. In this sense, MacIntyre’s approach retains a degree of relativism, but it is a relativism we Christians should not be afraid to embrace. Applying moral values differently to different contexts does not deny the existence of objective moral truths. Even one of MacIntyre’s harshest critics acknowledges this. Nussbaum concludes, “The fact that a good and virtuous decision is context-sensitive does not imply that it is right only relative to, or inside, a limited context . . . It is right absolutely, objectively, from anywhere in the human world, to attend to the particular features of one’s context.” Of course, the fundamental problem with extending relativism to all moral truth is that it prevents us from judging which application is appropriate, and which misses the mark. In the larger context of his writings on the virtues, no one should be charging MacIntyre with making this error.
Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 118. I am thinking here of MacIntyre’s own claim to be presenting something like that of Aristotle’s approach, as well as his rejection of Aristotle’s metaphysical grounding of the virtues which will be addressed more fully later in this review.
MacIntyre, After Virtue, 113-114.
Richard J. Bernstein, “Nietzsche or Aristotle? Reflections on Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue,” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 100, no. 4 (2017): 296.
MacIntyre, After Virtue, 181.
Martha Nussbaum, “Non-Relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach,” in Ethical Theory: An Anthology, ed. Russ Shafer-Landau (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 2013), 631.
Bernstein, “Nietzsche or Aristotle,” 304.
MacIntyre, After Virtue, 203.
I am thinking here of conflicting, non-conflicting and graded absolutism.
Nussbaum, “Non-Relative Virtues,” 639.
J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 455. In my opinion, the criticisms leveled by Craig and Moreland are a bit too harsh. They read MacIntyre as presenting the virtues as “linguistic constructions relative to the valuations and commitments of different traditions.” On a simple reading of After Virtue, that seems a fair criticism. However, they most certainly have failed to take MacIntyre’s later works into consideration in making this assessment.
My commentary on a recent article I ran across.
“Dennis Prager Doth Protest Too Much,” by Jeff Jacoby
The Boston Globe, 23 October 2016 (view article here)
How should we view ethicists and moral experts who fail to live up to their own standard of ethics? Does it discredit the moral views they espouse?
For moral and religious leaders, this past presidential election was a challenge. Conservative Christians were faced with having to choose between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. On the Democratic side, the candidate not only stood opposed to the vast majority of views that Christians hold dear (i.e. abortion, gay marriage, immigration, etc.), but her campaign was mired in accusations of corruption and abuse involving both her and the former president. On the Republican side, the candidate was beset with recriminations of sexual harassment, adultery, and financial misconduct. What was a good Christian to do? Pick the lesser of two evils and hope for the best? Or, vote for a third party candidate and potentially hand the election to Clinton? Six months into the Trump presidency, and it’s obvious which path most Christians chose. Following the example of prominent Christians who publicly endorsed Trump, as well as conservative leaders such as Dennis Prager, evangelical Christians overwhelming voted for Trump.
Jeff Jacoby finds this troubling. Dennis Prager does not. Dennis Prager is a conservativeradio talk show host and nationally syndicated columnist. Jacoby describes him as “an important ethicist on the Jewish right” whose work has focused “on goodness and decent values as the most important ingredients in a healthy society.” Jacoby, himself a syndicated conservative columnist, criticized Christian and conservative leaders for being hypocritical. His basis for such an accusation? Many of these Trump supporters, were the same ones who declared Bill Clinton unfit for office back in the late 90s, and for virtually the same behavior.
While Jacoby did not name Prager in his original column denouncing “those in the highest ranks of the religious right,” in this article he responds to Prager’s claim that the accusation of pharisaism was an expression of gratuitous hatred. Jacoby is convinced that integrity and decency are indispensable qualities for those in leadership. Speaking in terms that he knows Prager will understand, he makes reference to Deuteronomy 16: 18-20, pointing out that God charged Israel with appointing judges and officers who were impartial, incorruptible and righteous. In supporting Trump, Jacoby sees Prager clearly violating this principle. And the result? When those who stand for morality support candidates who violate practically every standard of good character and decency, they damage their own reputation and influence. Jacoby fears that such inconsistency ultimately undermines the moral message of these leaders.
But is Jacoby’s fear misguided? Does the inconsistency of Christian leaders supportingTrump serve to impeach their testimony as moral authorities and undermine their message? While Jacoby’s reasoning is based upon an ad hominin argument, a noted fallacy, it doesn’t necessarily follow that he is wrong. Mark Coppenger points out in Moral Apologetics for Contemporary Christians, “if someone proposes to instruct others in how to live, his behavior is fair game for scrutiny.” But, while examining the moral credentials of an ethicist is valid, it cannot be said to carry the argument. Jacoby is right that the man on the street may well conclude that these moral leaders have damaged their authority, and that is unfortunate. But his inference that their moral message may also be damaged is a leap.
Here is the reality: Christians are not only capable of hypocrisy, we should expect it. At the heart of the Christian ethic is the message that humans are fallible creatures. It is not possible for us to live up to the moral standards that God sets out in his word, and inscribes upon our hearts. This shouldn’t surprise us, given how every moral example put forth in the Bible (with the exception of Christ) suffered from moral failure. But our ethic is not truly about living up to a standard of what is right; it’s about receiving God’s forgiveness and allowing him to live through us. So while some may be disappointed in those who threw their support behind Donald Trump, they shouldn’t be too quick to cast aspersions. After all, they were imperfect people, in imperfect circumstances, making an imperfect choice. Ultimately, in a fallen world we shouldn’t put our confidence in fallen people. We can, however, put our confidence in God and the truths expressed in his Word. As such, Prager does not view his own support of Trump, and prior condemnation of Bill Clinton, as hypocritical. He views it as standing up for principles greater than any one individual. According to him, “defeating Hillary Clinton, the Democrats, and the left is also a principle.” In fact, Prager calls it a higher principle.
The following is my review of Michael Shermer’s book, The Moral Arc: How Science Makes us Better People. The book was a gift from one of my professors at Southern and sat on my shelf for nearly a year before I decided to take on this review. I must admit that after my initial read, I was very troubled about the potential impact this book might have in Christian circles (especially among young believers heading off to college). I found Shermer’s arguments compelling, and his overall thesis challenging to my own faith. That doesn’t happen often, so it had me concerned. This is not a subject that should be taken lightly for Christian educators and pastors. If we fail to confront the moral claims of the new atheists (Shermer is not alone in his argument that objective moral values can exist apart from God and his message is becoming increasingly prevelant), the Church runs the risk of becoming irrelevant in the eyes of the educated world. We can’t let that happen. Taking on Shermer’s book is no small task, but I can assure you that we have nothing to fear from his claims. As is the pattern with most of the work being generated by popular atheist authors, its bark is much worse than its bite.
It used to be that if you found yourself reading a book that argued for the existence of universal, objective moral values, then you were likely reading something written by a theist. In his classic work Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, atheist J. L. Mackey opens with the definitive assertion, “There are no objective values.” Perhaps no other philosopher better articulated the connection between moral objectivism and belief in God.
If we adopted moral objectivism, we should have to regard the relations of supervenience which connect values and obligations with their natural grounds as synthetic; they would then be in principle something that a god might conceivably create; and since they would otherwise be a very odd sort of thing, the admitting of them would be an inductive ground for admitting also a god to create them.
For Mackie, the only way to avoid this problem would be to adopt ethical subjectivism. Oh, how times have changed. Michael Shermer represents a growing trend among contemporary atheists, who argue for ethical naturalism (the view that ethics can be understood in terms of natural science). It is a trend that threatens to undermine one of the strongest arguments for theism: The moral argument for the existence of God. In The Moral Arc: How Science Makes Us Better People, Shermer, an atheist, makes the claim that morality is not relative, and moral judgments are not arbitrary. Universal, objective moral values exist, and are not the result of religion; they are the result of secular forces emerging from the Age of Reason, namely, science and reason. While morality has long been the province of religion, according to Shermer, it now belongs to science. The new moral authority in this world is not the minister wearing a collar, but the scientist in a lab coat. No longer is science confined to simply describing how the world functions and how we live, it can now inform us on how we should live. The goal of this paper is to provide an overview of Shermer’s argument, pointing out what I believe to be its major weaknesses.
Clearing a Humean Hurdle
Before attempting to construct a system of morality based entirely upon the scientific method and empirical data, Shermer needs to address what is commonly referred to as the naturalistic fallacy. Is it possible to derive an “ought,” a statement about how we should behave, from an “is,” an observation about how we do behave? Shermer concedes that science has traditionally steered clear of morality.
. . . most scientists have conceded the high ground of determining human values, morals, and ethics to philosophers, agreeing that science can only describe the way things are but never tell us how they ought to be. This is a mistake.
The great debate in philosophy is whether Hume, for which the distinction first receives attention (often referred to as Hume’s Law), actually held it to constitute an unbridgeable gap. Shermer addresses this issue in the very first chapter of the book, and rightly so. For if the naturalistic fallacy establishes that observations about the way things are have nothing to say about the way things should be, then his whole enterprise fails and science cannot play a role in determining moral values.
Not surprisingly, Shermer doesn’t agree that the naturalistic fallacy actually constitutes a fallacy. Giving considerable attention to what Hume actually says, Shermer quotes him at length.
In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d,
that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning. . . when of a sudden I am surpris’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.
Many would agree with Shermer that Hume is not saying that a leap from “is” to “ought” is impossible, simply that it must be made carefully, with adequate justification. In other words, when shifting from observation to valuation, reason and evidence must be provided. Otherwise, one would simply be asserting opinion and preference. Shermer provides an example to make his point,
If you agree that it is better that millions of people no longer die of yellow fever and smallpox, cholera and bronchitis, dysentery and diarrhea, consumption and tuberculosis, measles and mumps, gangrene and gastritis, and many other assaults on the human body, then you have offered your assent that the way something is (diseases such as yellow fever and smallpox kill people) means we ought to prevent them through vaccinations and other medical and public health technologies.
But in justifying his use of science to make moral valuations, Shermer has fallen prey to what Hume is actually cautioning against. Hume is calling out the imperceptible shift that both scientists and ethicists are prone to make, and Shermer’s own example highlights this error. The true shift from “is” to “ought” is not in wanting to stop millions of people from dying of terrible diseases. Who wouldn’t want that? The shift is in making the valuation that diseases are “bad things” and that people dying is a “moral evil.” On what basis is this valuation made? From where does he get the ideas of good and bad? As Hume says, we cannot deduce the non-material (such as moral valuations) from something that is material – the two are entirely different. The imperceptible shift that Shermer makes, and fails to justify, is from the observational fact that people die every day from disease, to the valuation that we ought to view this as wrong.
It isn’t surprising that Shermer feels the need to do this, or that he is able to make moral valuations. Epistemologically speaking, because all human beings are made in the image of God, all human beings (including the atheist) can know the difference between good and bad. They are able to see the world as it is, and recognize how we ought to respond. Not even Hume would deny this. However, ontologically speaking, upon what is this knowledge based? Whenever the shift is made from is to ought, epistemological assertion is not enough; ontological justification must be provided.
For the theist, this shift is explained; such valuations are made against, and grounded in, a transcendent moral standard of right and wrong. But how do the atheist and scientist justify such a shift? What standard are they using to make this determination? The scientist can point out what is happening, even offer ideas on how to stop what is happening (as science rightly does), but she cannot sneak in her valuation that natural processes are either good or bad, without shifting to an non-material explanation. In the absence of such an explanation, her valuation is reduced to mere opinion or preference. Of course, admitting that would be to admit that moral valuations are not objective – something Shermer does not want to do. Philosopher Rachel Cohon states, “It is not simply by reasoning from the abstract and causal relations one has discovered that one comes to have the ideas of virtue and vice; one must respond to such information with feelings of approval and disapproval.” The issue is identifying where these moral sentiments originate. How can we assign moral properties to non-moral observations? For the Christian, the answer is obvious: the standard of moral goodness is grounded in God. For Shermer, he just assumes that we already know what is good and bad, without explaining where he derives such notions. Hume’s guillotine claims another victim. Unfortunately, Shermer doesn’t see the problem. He has stated elsewhere,
The Is-Ought problem is itself a fallacy. Morals and values must be based on the way things are in order to establish the best conditions for human flourishing. Before we abandon the ship just as it leaves port, let’s give science a chance to steer a course toward a destination where scientists at least have a voice in the conversation on how best we should live.
Moral Improvement as an Empirical Fact
Believing he has adequately addressed the issue of the possibility of ethical naturalism, Shermer begins constructing his moral system on a key observational fact: the world is becoming an increasingly moral (and less violent) place. He believes this to be “the most moral period in our species’ history,” readily acknowledging that many will find such a claim to be absurd. If the mainstream media is to be believed, we appear to be on the brink of destruction (and apparently Donald Trump is to blame). Shermer reminds us, and rightly so, that the media focuses on what brings in the highest ratings, asserting that the reason the negative gets so much attention is that it is so uncommon. Much of The Moral Arc is focused on proving this overall point, and Shermer has plenty of statistics to back up his argument. Take terrorism for example. Doesn’t the rise in terrorist activity refute the idea that the world is becoming less violent? Shermer cites that 13,700 people die each year in the United States from homicide. Compare that with the 340 people who died in the 38 years prior to 9/11, and the 33 that have died since (these statistics are based on data at the time of publication), and the situation is not as dire as it first seems. Shermer adds that violent crime rates in major US cities have fallen by as much as 75%, the overall rate of rape has decreased by 58% since 1995, and domestic abuse has fallen 21 % nationally. And what about war? Shermer states that it’s simply not true that more people are dying today from state sponsored conflicts than in the past, especially when computed “as a percentage of the population killed.” Then there are the many advances in civil rights, treatment of women, gay rights, animal rights, the reduction in human trafficking, the rise in liberal democracies, and a decrease in the number of people living in poverty. Of course, all of this invites the question, why? Why are we becoming less violent? For Shermer, the answer is obvious: we are becoming more moral, and the clear cause of this moral progress is scientific rationalism.
I demonstrate that the arc of the moral universe bends not merely toward justice, but also toward truth and freedom, and that these positive outcomes have largely been the product of societies moving toward more secular forms of governance and politics, law and jurisprudence, moral reasoning and ethical analysis.
Evolutionary Biology as a Means of Explaining Moral Improvement
Essential to Shermer’s theory of scientific morality, are the notions of survival and flourishing, which he sees as part of human nature. Humanity has an instinctive drive to survive, the result of evolutionary biology. Because this is part of our essence, hardwired into our DNA, it is universal and inalienable. As such, it’s not relative, or based upon a particular culture or period of time; it is firmly entrenched in who we are. Therefore, as Shermer sees it, the most fundamental right is the freedom to pursue survival and flourishing. This, however, is not something that should be viewed in terms of the community as a whole. For Shermer, this is an individual right. When we link morality to what is good for the group, morality is relative to what the group decides, and individuals are sacrificed for the sake of the many (which is why he sees ethical systems such as utilitarianism as deficient). “We are first and foremost individual within social groups and therefore ought not to be subservient to the collective.” This in turn leads Shermer to conclude that the personal autonomy of the individual is the standard by which all actions are judged as right or wrong. “Do they increase or decrease the survival and flourishing of individual sentient beings?” This is the fundamental moral principle that science produces.
The Scientific Method as a Means of Explaining Moral Improvement
But doesn’t this simply result in ethical egoism and social anarchy, with everyone living and making choices on the basis of their own needs? At first, yes. We come into this world selfish, but based upon our interactions with other people, along with our rational reflection upon those relations, we evolve toward what is beneficial to all. Much of Shermer’s thinking is based upon Steven Pinker’s analysis in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined.
If the members of species have the power to reason with one another, and enough opportunities to exercise that power, sooner or later they will stumble upon the mutual benefits of nonviolence and other forms of reciprocal consideration, and apply them more and more broadly.
Here, through a process of trial and error (not unlike the scientific method), a secondary moral principle emerges: reciprocity and mutual beneficence. In a strange way, looking out for our own selfish interests leads to us helping others. Shermer refers to this as reciprocal altruism: we help ourselves by helping others. In this sense, humans are not altruistic for the sake of altruism, but rather because it “pays” to help others. Shermer draws insight from moral philosopher Adam Smith (known mostly for his writings on capitalism). These ideas of reciprocity and mutual beneficence are reflected in Smith’s two great works. First, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith states,
How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him.
In his later work, Wealth of Nations, Smith again echoes this sentiment.
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantage.
It is important to note here, that Shermer’s views have evolved from his previous work on objective moral values. In The Science of Good and Evil, Shermer provides an entirely evolutionary account of morality, where certain characteristics and traits (such as beneficence and altruism) become dominant (and thereby firmly entrenched in human nature) through the process of natural selection. The change here is subtle, and more so a matter of emphasis for Shermer. Instead of having evolutionary biology determine which characteristics survive, elevating them to the status of being “good,” these values emerge through a de facto scientific process of trial and error. It is then human reason that identifies these values as the most rational means of survival. So while evolutionary biology supplied the foundational drive to “thrive and survive,” it does not provide the objective moral values of reciprocity and beneficence. What is good and moral in Shermer’s system, is simply a matter of what works for human flourishing. I am convinced that Shermer makes this shift in emphasis as an attempt to circumvent the primary criticism of any evolutionary account of moral values, namely, that it leads to ethical skepticism. If objective values have arisen from an evolutionary process, then they are arbitrary and could just as easily have turned out to be different. Ultimately, Shermer fails to escape this criticism, as his moral values still ultimately originate through a process of random mutation. Again, we find ourselves asking the same question we did when considering Shermer’s response to the is-ought fallacy: why should we consider these values “good,” when they just as easily could have been entirely different?
The Age of Reason as a Means of Explaining Moral Improvement
This development toward a more benevolent society slowly evolved over the course of human history, with sporadic and intermittent success. However, Shermer believes that following the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment (the Age of Reason), this process of moral development accelerated greatly, especially as humanity began to depend less and less on superstition and religious belief, and more and more on science and reason. To illustrate this point, Shermer uses the medieval example of burning witches, which he refers to as the Witch Theory of Causality. People burned witches, not because they were blood-thirsty, but because they had a faulty understanding of the universe. Witches were burned because people believed they caused bad things to happen in the world. In other words, these immoral actions were the direct result of faulty causal reasoning. “My point here is that beliefs such as witchcraft are not immoral so much as they are mistaken.” Magical and supernatural superstition is based upon uncertainty and unpredictability. The scientific revolution led the drive to better understand our world, ultimately disproving the witch theory of causality (as well as countless other errors of understanding).
The Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire explicated the problem succinctly: “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” One path (among many) to a more moral world is to get people to quit believing in absurdities. Science and reason are the best methods for doing that.
The scientific revolution and the Enlightenment led people to question Christianity’s emphasis on the Bible as the ultimate authority, and instead check assumptions on the basis of rational reflection and empirical data. For Shermer, the Age of Reason was the age when “humanity was born again, not from original sin, but from original ignorance and dependence on authority and superstition.”
This emphasis on science and reason has in turn led to better education, increased literacy, better living conditions, and ultimately less crime and violence against other people. As a result, we are more rational than at any other time in our history. Shermer cites evidence demonstrating that the average IQ has risen 30 points over the last 100 years (at a rate of 3 points per year). The specific rise is in abstract reasoning. “I claim that our improvement in abstract reasoning generally has translated into a specific improvement in abstract moral reasoning, particularly about other people who are not our immediate kith and kin.” Science has increased our rational ability to better consider the needs and perspectives of others. For Shermer, this is an essential skill in the process of reciprocity and mutual beneficence.
No doubt, the influence of science has been great, and the subsequent gains to humanity significant. Unfortunately, what Shermer fails to do in touting the values of science and reason, is analyze the environment that gave rise to these values. The drive to understand our world and use our rational faculties to a greater extent did not arise in a vacuum. It is far beyond the scope of this paper to present an argument detailing Christianity’s contributions to the birth of the scientific movement. However, all that is truly sufficient here is to disprove the negative assertion that Shermer is making. The fact is that science was born in a Christian culture, that the first scientists were largely Christian, and that the Church encouraged study of the created order in order to achieve greater understanding of God (a value they took from the Bible). While these facts do not prove a direct causal link, it makes it significantly more difficult to maintain, as Shermer does in the next section of his book, that Christianity was an obstacle to scientific progress.
The Failure of Religion to Contribute to Moral Progress
Shermer spends a great deal of the time challenging the assumption that religion is the source of moral value and the best facilitator of moral development. While he acknowledges that religion can and does motivate people to do good works, he is convinced that religion is the primary contributor to moral regress. To demonstrate, he examines the biblical record of Christianity, declaring the Bible to be one of the most immoral books in history. Just as we see many things we dislike in modern Islam tracing back to the teachings of the Quran, Shermer points out that most of the disagreeable things that society has condemned today, can be found commanded in the Bible.
The handful of positive moral commands in the Old Testament are desultory and scattered among a sea of violent stories of murder, rape, torture, slavery, and all manner of violence . . .
Shermer argues that when Christians hold up the Bible as the ultimate moral standard, they are conveniently overlooking the record of the text. The Bible, as characterized by Shermer, endorses slavery, the selling of virgin daughters, the killing of headstrong children, the stoning of homosexuals, the condemnation of interracial marriages, and the suppression of women’s rights. When Christians complain that such a characterization is unfair, Shermer adds that they are conveniently overlooking the record of history. The Bible was used by devout Christians to justify slavery in the South, stand in the way of racial desegregation, argue against women’s suffrage, and condemn gay marriage. In response to those who would argue that these were all textual misinterpretations on the part of the faithful, Shermer wonders why God’s word wasn’t more specific. If the Bible espouses a radical ethic, wonders Shermer, then why doesn’t it categorically denounce slavery? If it had just been clearer, maybe a little more emphatic, then generations could have been spared this immoral practice. “The kind of moral clarity one might expect to find in a book purported to be the final authority on the subject is nowhere to be found . . .” Arguing largely against Dinesh D’Souza’s claim that Christianity has been a major contributor to the moral progress that we see in Western society, Shermer writes,
D’Souza’s claim that the Bible points toward equality is especially nonsensical in light of the fact that slaves remained slaves for eighteen more centuries, and women remained little more than property for nineteen more centuries in Christian countries around the world. Clearly, even if Paul’s message were interpreted to mean that we’re all equal, absolutely no one took it seriously.
It is not surprising that Shermer shows such a lack of understanding and scholarship when it comes to representing the Bible, even given his evangelical past. It’s a common tactic on the part of atheists to paint the Bible in as negative a picture as possible. Take for instance the issue of slavery, for which Shermer dedicates an entire chapter. It is simply not the case that the biblical practice of indentured service was anything like southern slavery. Servant-hood in the Old Testament was a voluntary arrangement that served primarily as a means of debt repayment. Experientially, it was on the level of paid employment. Anyone taking the time to study the text would see that it was far from the barbarism to which Shermer equates it. Given that the Old Testament was written a very long time ago, in a culture very different from the present, and in an ancient language, would it be too much to ask that it be approached with the same care and scholarship that would be taken in approaching any other ancient work? It is unlikely that Shermer would approach Aristotle’s Physics or Copernicus’s Revolutions with such lack of scholarship. But then, treating the biblical text fairly wouldn’t fit his purpose.
In light of how Shermer views the morality of the Bible, it is only natural to find him concluding that today’s society is morally better. According to Shermer’s thesis, the reason the Bible does not condemn slavery, is because it reflects the values and moral beliefs that were prevalent at the time it was written. The Bible reflects a pre-enlightenment stage of moral development. And because the Church is continually struggling to maintain this antiquated scriptural tradition, it is more often than not a late adopter of moral progress.
Once moral progress in a particular area is under way, most religions eventually get on board—as in the abolition of slavery in the nineteenth century, women’s rights in the twentieth century, and gay rights in the twenty-first century—but this often happens after a shamefully protracted lag time.
While Shermer doesn’t agree with fellow atheist Christopher Hitchens that religion poisons everything, he does believe it to be harmful enough to merit its elimination from society. He rounds out his critique of the Bible with a deconstruction of the Ten Commandments, which he sees as immoral and violating the liberties delineated in the US constitution. In its place he offers an alternate, secular Ten Provisional Moral Principles.
The problem with any religious moral code that is set in stone is just that—it is set in stone. Anything that can never be changed has within its DNA the seeds of its own extinction. A science-based morality has the virtue of having built into it a self-correcting mechanism that does not just allow redaction, correction, and improvement; it insists upon it. Science and reason can be employed to inform—and in some cases even determine—moral values. Science thrives on change, on improvement, on updating and upgrading its methods and conclusions.
It’s in this section of the book that we see one of Shermer’s greatest flaws revealed. Virtually every secular principle that he delineates is simply a restatement of a value or principle found in the Bible. For example, let’s evaluate what he refers to as The Responsibility and Forgiveness Principle:
Take full responsibility for your own moral actions and be prepared to be genuinely sorry and make restitution for your own wrongdoing to others; hold others fully accountable for their moral actions and be open to forgiving moral transgressors who are genuinely sorry and prepared to make restitution for their wrongdoing.
Sound familiar? These are values that go all the way back to the Old Testament, the very one he referred to as the most immoral book in history. It also has the Gold Rule embedded within it – forgive others just as you would like them to forgive you. Next he presents The Golden Rule Principle: behave toward others as you would desire that they behave toward you. Again, Shermer is not even trying to hide where he gets this value from, changing only a few words from what Jesus originally said in the Gospels. It’s amazing how far 2,000 years of moral progress has brought us! He accepts the Golden Rule because it’s essentially a principle of reciprocity and reciprocal altruism. Of course, although he elevates it to the level of moral principle, he argues that it’s in need of a correction. Shermer questions, “What if the moral receiver thinks differently from the moral doer? What if you would not mind having action X done unto you, but someone else would mind it?” In response, he offers The Ask First Principle: to find out whether an action is right or wrong, ask first. Unfortunately, Shermer fails to see that this is also covered under the original Golden Rule, which fundamentally asks people to never disregard how others would want to be treated. If you don’t want your preferences disregarded, don’t disregard the preferences of others. The fact that Shermer is so clearly borrowing moral values from the Bible, undermines his main assertions. First, Shermer wants us to believe that moral values and behavior are improving, and yet he goes back to texts thousands of years old to borrow their values. Secondly, he wants us to believe that his provisional moral principles are the products of science and reason, and yet as we have seen, they clearly predate the Age of Reason. Going back to the start of this paper, I wondered where Shermer was able to get his valuation that diseases were bad and that saving lives was good. Now it is obvious. The reality is that Shermer gets his universal, objective moral values from the same place as the Christian: God. He is able to shift from “is” to “ought” on the basis of non-material moral standards, grounded in the nature of a transcendent, divine moral law giver. He is just not willing to admit it.
The remainder of the book is an application of his previously stated principles to the issues of gay rights, abortion, capital punishment and animal rights. While a full evaluation of everything Shermer addresses is simply not possible (the book exceeds five hundred pages and includes over a thousand footnotes, many of which extend the discussion), I have attempted to provide a response to the essential elements of his overall argument. Ultimately, Shermer’s account of ethical naturalism is self-defeating. The idea that objective moral values exist, independent of God, is at odds with the very first moral principle that Shermer puts forth – that the personal autonomy of the individual is the standard by which all actions are judged as right or wrong. What does the individual do when this principle clashes with those that later emerge under Shermer’s account? There will inevitably be times when self-interest runs contrary to upholding an objective moral value. Given the fundamental premise of autonomy, the individual acting in violation of these other objective moral principles cannot be accused of having done something wrong. So, if upholding an objective moral principle is the right thing to do, and acting in such a way that violates an objective moral principle can also be the right thing to do, then Shermer has essentially laid out a relativistic moral system. So, why the pretense of claiming that moral values are objective and universal? Perhaps, it is simply a ruse designed to play upon our intuitions regarding moral objectivity and undermine the moral argument for the existence of God. Shermer’s system simply leads back to the place that J. L. Mackey indicated it would – moral subjectivism. Without God, objective moral values cannot survive.
Overall, The Moral Arc is well written, is considerably less acerbic than similar works written by contemporary atheists, and comes across as well documented and researched. Unfortunately, the book has more bark than bite. Its general size, the amount of data and statistics included, and its intellectually sober tone, should not intimidate the Christian reader. Instead, the Christian can give thanks that once again, atheism has proven that objective moral values cannot exist without reference to an objective reality beyond the material world. Rest assured, the moral argument for God’s existence is as formidable as ever.
J. L. Mackey, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (London: Penguin Books, 1977), 15.
J. L. Mackey, The Miracle of Theism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 118.
Michael Shermer, The Moral Arc: How Science Makes us Better People (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2015), 2.
David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (London: John Noon, 1739), 335.
Antony Flew, A Dictionary of Philosophy (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984), 240-241. Flew discusses the difference in interpretation, noting that some believe Hume to be saying it is not a fallacy. Of course others, take Hume to be saying that the world is forever divided into statements of is, and statements of ought, and that the former are statements of fact, and the latter statements of opinion.
James Rachels, “Naturalism,” in The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory, ed. Hugh LaFollette, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing , 2000), 75. Rachels takes the view that Hume was in fact making the claim that we can never move from an ought to an is, to which he responds, “Hume was wrong.” If our premises (based upon factual information) include information about a person’s relevant desires, then we may draw conclusions about what we ought to do.
Shermer, The Moral Arc, 35.
Rachels, “Naturalism,” 90. If I’m reading Rachels correctly, he is saying that scientific facts can very well inform us about what we should do, especially when the scientific information takes into consideration our own desires. Shermer certainly does this. Where he runs into trouble is when he seeks to place a moral value of good or bad, right or wrong on the action.
Paul Copan, “God, Naturalism, and the Foundations of Morality,” in The Future of Atheism: Alister McGrath and Daniel Dennett in Dialogue, ed. Robert B. Stewart (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 146.
Rachel Cohon, “Hume’s Moral Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2010/entries/hume-moral/.
Michael Shermer, “Morality is Real, Objective, and Natural,” Annals of New York Academy of Sciences 1385 (November 2016): 57.
Shermer, The Moral Arc, 83
Shermer, “Morality is Real,” 58.
Shermer, The Moral Arc, 92
Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: Viking Press, 2011), 16. Pinker has actually stated that he considers Shermer’s book as a continuation of his own.
Shermer, The Moral Arc, 39. It is this kind of thinking that leads Shermer to argue much later that a free market economy is the best economic means of furthering moral development in society.
Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), 34.
Adam Smith, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (New York: The Modern Library, 1937), 14.
Michael Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil (New York: Times Books, 2004), 56.
Copan, “God, Naturalism,” 152.
Shermer, The Moral Arc, 114.
Ibid., 165. See D’Souza’s What’s So Great About Christianity? (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2008).
Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 125.
 Shermer sees the Tenth commandment treating women as property, and the fifth commandment punishing descendants for the sins of their ancestors – something he states is intuitively immoral.
Affirmative Action once again finds itself in the news, as the Supreme Court just upheld admission policies at the University of Texas that take race into consideration. The following post was written about a month before this decision was handed down and is intended to get Christians to re-think how they approach so-called affirmative action policies. I think the default position for most conservative Christians is to label all such policies as reverse discrimination. I’m not sure my approach was well received when I presented it to a group of colleagues. I’ll let you decide for yourself.
In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson delivered a speech that has proven pivotal in shaping modern American policy regarding affirmative action. The goal of this post is to take a closer look at the content of his speech, and see if today’s Christian might gain insight regarding how to approach the issue of affirmative action. Do affirmative action programs represent a legitimate avenue for redressing the problems of past discrimination and eliminating racial inequities in the workplace? I want to be very clear in what I am proposing in this essay. First, I maintain that Christians should be advocating for what I consider to be the spirit and intention of affirmative action: the desire to help groups that have traditionally suffered from discrimination. I believe this to be in keeping with the Church’s call to help the poor and persecuted. Second, I want to specifically propose that affirmative action programs only be implemented at the most basic levels of education. Equality in the workplace, as a fact, can only be accomplished if all members of society are provided equality of opportunity to build knowledge, skill and ability. Following this course of action will avoid the kind of programs that involve reverse discrimination and show preference to the less qualified.
The term affirmative action was first used by President John F. Kennedy in an executive order from 1961 requiring federal contractors to take “affirmative steps” and “affirmative action” to ensure equal opportunity in the hiring of minorities. The word affirmative was merely used as an adjective describing the need to be proactive in ending workplace discrimination and inequities. After this order, the phrase quickly became the official nomenclature for any such policy aimed at ending discrimination and cultivating diversity. This order actually provides an early articulation of the goal of affirmative action policies.
. . . it is the plain and positive obligation of the United States Government to promote and ensure equal opportunity for all qualified persons, without regard to race, creed, color, or national origin, employed or seeking employment . . .
The early focus of affirmative action was clearly upon ending current workplace discrimination. As the policy would develop over subsequent years, employers could potentially lose government contracts if it was demonstrated that they were discriminating against minorities (or the disabled) in their hiring practices. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 cemented these policies, in addition to ending segregation policies in schools and places of public accommodation.
President Johnson’s landmark speech at Howard University (June 4, 1965) was perhaps the first time the issue of affirmative action was clearly and persuasively brought to the attention of the American public. While the nation as a whole was wrestling with the civil rights movement and the implications of the Civil Rights Act, Johnson articulated a vision that charted the course of future affirmative action policy and has sustained it to this day. Even though he signed the Civil Rights Act into law, Johnson deemed it to be insufficient legislation.
. . . freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please. You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, “you are free to compete with all the others,” and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates. This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.
While Johnson never uses the phrase “affirmative action,” he is clearly talking about the ability of minorities (specifically blacks) to adequately compete for jobs in the workplace. Reflecting back on the definition of affirmative action in Kennedy’s executive order, we can see that Johnson has added a new dimension. Johnson shifts the focus of affirmation action away from simply ending current discriminatory practices, to somehow compensating for past discrimination. This would later be articulated in 1977, when the United States Commission on Civil Rights issued a statement specifically defining affirmative action as,
. . . any measure, beyond simple termination of a discriminatory practice, adopted to correct or compensate for past or present discrimination or to prevent discrimination from recurring in the future.
Johnson is arguing that simply giving minorities freedom from discriminatory hiring practices is not enough. If the minority applicant does not have the proper education or skills needed to compete for a job, they will likely not be hired. Quite naturally, it is the hope of every employer to hire the best qualified person for a job. Likewise, the perception is that most colleges want to admit the best students, as determined by standardized entrance tests and performance in high school. In this kind of environment, how can a minority applicant or student properly compete? Since minorities have a higher chance of coming from a single parent home, living well below the poverty line, and not having access to the best education, more than likely they will not be as well-equipped as those they are competing against.
The illustration Johnson provides in order to make his point (a runner being released from his chains and being asked to compete at the same level as those who never had chains), echoes the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., when he used a similar analogy.
Being a Negro in America means trying to smile when you want to cry. It means trying to hold on to physical life amid psychological death. It means the pain of watching your children grow up with clouds of inferiority in their mental skies. It means having their legs off, and then being condemned for being a cripple.
While certainly not logical arguments for affirmative action, both analogies go a long way toward explaining the intent behind the policy. Johnson and King are both trying to justify that affirmative action is needed in our society to recompense for past discrimination. More than 50 years later, it seems the need still exists. The most recent census data supports that 27% of blacks and 25% of Hispanics earn an annual income below the poverty line, as compared to only 12% of whites. The same data also shows that 67% of black children, and 42% of Hispanic children are born in single parent homes, as compared to 25% of non-Hispanic whites and 17% of Asian Americans. It becomes very difficult to maintain that the economic and social status of minorities today, particularly blacks and Hispanics, is not somehow related to past injustices.
For those who have not had to endure the challenges that have faced minorities, it is easy to take lightly the impact of past discrimination. Take the heritage of African Americans for example. Slavery in America officially began in 1619 when African slaves were first brought to Jamestown, Virginia. It was not until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, that this practice officially ended. That means that the institution of slavery formally existed in America for nearly 250 years. What followed was a century of laws institutionalizing racism (preventing minorities from voting, attaining an equal education, etc.), the continued practice of peonage and involuntary servitude, public lynching (which was overwhelmingly carried out against African Americans), and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and other organized hate groups. The 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act put an end to this era of slavery and discrimination, which all together comprised approximately 350 years of American History. How do we quantify the impact that kind of history still has on today’s blacks? How does nearly four centuries of having no freedom, being the objects of hatred, and having doors of opportunity continually slammed in your face, affect the psyche of a people group? Putting it in this context, we can more fully appreciate what King is referring to when he talks about black children growing up “with clouds of inferiority in their mental skies.” Author Lisa Sharon Harper acknowledges that the black community has made great strides in overcoming racial discrimination. But she is quick to caution those who think we have outgrown the need for affirmative action programs. “We have made only two generations of progress after 17 generations of comprehensive, structural, systematized, and racialized oppression.” She is not arguing for a balancing of the scales that would require minorities to receive 17 generations of protected status. However, she is trying to convey the enormity of the impairment that needs to be overcome. Returning to Johnson’s speech, he touches on this by acknowledging that blacks in particular have suffered from “a devastating heritage of long years of slavery; and a century of oppression, hatred and injustice.” Can we honestly claim that the poverty that still exists in the black community is not a direct result of this history?
Imagine a society where the local government adopts a policy of chopping off the left hand of all left handed citizens. For a variety of reasons, the right handed members of the community, who vastly outnumber their left handed neighbors, argue that such a policy actually helps the left handed by forcing them to learn to use their right hand. This will ultimately allow them to better adapt to the way society operates. The federal government becomes aware of this deplorable policy and intervenes by outlawing the practice. Unfortunately, this intervention only comes after every left handed citizen has already suffered the debilitating amputation. Now imagine two formerly left handed members of the community, John and Sally, applying for jobs. The federal government has rightly implemented anti-discrimination policies, making it illegal for employers to not hire the left handed. However, when John applies to the local supermarket, he is informed that he will not be considered for the job, as it requires the use of two hands (a requirement he obviously does not meet). There are simply too many boxes that need to be lifted and items that need to be handled. And so the job goes to a right handed applicant, not because he is right handed, but because he is more qualified. Likewise, Sally applies for a job that requires data entry. Because of her educational background, she is given an assessment that involves manually entering figures into a spreadsheet. While an applicant only needs one hand to do this, Sally’s right handed motor skills and dexterity are not as developed as the other applicants. Like John, she is not being discriminated against because she was formerly left handed. She is simply not as fast as the others taking the test.
The above illustration is an attempt to better elaborate on Johnson and King’s analogies. Minority applicants can’t get the best jobs, not because they are non-white, but because they don’t have the skills and background needed to qualify for the job. This is the most compelling implication of Johnson’s speech. The issue minorities in America now face is not primarily racial. Certainly, most Americans would agree that there is no inherent inferiority in a person due to the color of their skin. The fact that the majority of Americans elected a black president, twice, somewhat illustrates this point. Race is not the primary reason that minorities struggle to find quality paying jobs and earn a decent living. For Johnson, this problem is due to a deficit in ability. Rather than being discriminated on the basis of race, it is more likely that minority applicants are discriminated on the basis of not having an adequate resume. To be sure, this lack of “merit” is rooted in past racial discrimination. But simply removing the barriers of racial discrimination in the workplace, has failed to truly solve the problem of enabling minorities to actually take advantage of their new found opportunities. Minorities are not competing on a level playing field because they have been historically cut off from the means of developing their abilities, have had to deal with persistent poverty, and have suffered from a wounded spirit.
Ability is stretched or stunted by the family that you live with, and the neighborhood you live in – by the school you go to and the poverty or the richness of your surroundings. It is the product of a hundred unseen forces playing upon the little infant, the child, and finally the man.
Here Johnson again stresses ability. How can the majority of minorities be expected to have the same chance as their white counterparts, if their ability has been stunted by a heritage of discrimination? For Johnson “equal opportunity is essential, but not enough.” Johnson is saying that it is necessary to go beyond simply providing equality of opportunity; society must somehow guarantee equality of result.
Unfortunately the development of affirmative action following this speech did not properly focus on the problem of developing ability, choosing instead to focus on guaranteeing equality as a result through de facto quotas and reverse discrimination. It is no surprise that a few months after giving this speech, Johnson signed executive order 11246 greatly expanding the government’s ability to enforce affirmative action in the workplace. From this, government policy began requiring federal contractors to establish goals and timetables for the hiring of qualified minority or disabled workers, and also required annual reports indicating the number of qualifying hires, in proportion to the number of total hires in a given year. Affirmative action policy was moving closer to fulfilling Johnson’s vision of guaranteeing equality of result; it was simply going about it in the wrong way. Commenting on Johnson’s message, political scientist Edward J. Erler states, “some form of unequal opportunity is necessary to achieve equality of result.” If we are to focus only on equality as an end result, then we will necessarily find ourselves limiting the freedoms of some, in order to make room for the advancement of others. Erler finds, as have many others, that this is a blatant violation of the 14th amendment, as it establishes discrimination on the basis of race.
Christian ethicist Mark Coppenger has no problem understanding Johnson’s reasoning.
It is undeniable that for many years blacks were denied many freedoms by whites . . . The suppression of blacks was so thorough that they were unable to spring forward when the pressure was released. Generations of injustice had caused significant loss of capacity and confidence among blacks. The external limitations generated internal limitations. In short, blacks were not instantly ready to compete with a change in law.
What is problematic for Coppenger, and should be for all Christians, is the approach that the Johnson administration and later affirmative action policy took in order to address this situation. There is no question that the discrimination historically carried out against blacks constituted an unjust harm to innocents. However, Coppenger refers to affirmative action policies that resort to reverse discrimination as “doing justice unjustly . . . a good aim pursued in the wrong fashion.”
Philosopher Robert Nozick attempts to convey the complex nature of trying to compensate for past wrongs.
If past injustice has shaped present holdings in various ways, some identifiable and some not, what now, if anything, ought to be done to rectify those injustices? What obligations do the performers of injustice have toward those whose position is worse than it would have been had the injustice not been done? . . . How, if at all, do things change if the beneficiaries and those made worse off are not the direct parties in the act of injustice, but, for example, their descendants?
Answering such questions proves difficult. But one thing is certain: society will not tolerate a plan for restitution that appears unfair. A preference program operating on behalf of whites would not be tolerated. Why should society tolerate one that operates on behalf of select minorities? Forcing employers to hire less than qualified applicants simply to meet a racial quota seems inherently wrong. This is clearly the conundrum we find ourselves in today. Is it right to discriminate against others in order to make up for past discrimination? In 1995, the Clinton administration conducted a review of government affirmative action programs. The official report of the study clarified that affirmative action programs entail a “national effort to remedy subjugation of racial and ethnic minorities and of women – subjugation in place at our nation’s founding” and that still continues to this day. However, the report affirmed a commitment to discontinue any program that “creates a quota; creates preference for unqualified individuals; creates reverse discrimination; or continues even after its equal opportunity purposes have been achieved.”
All of these undesirable ramifications of affirmative action policy have come about as a result of failing to properly focus on what Johnson identified as the real problem facing minorities: stunted ability. “The next and more profound stage of the battle for Civil Rights,” as Johnson put it, should have been on redressing the underdeveloped ability of minorities rather than resorting to quotas. If society can place the emphasis on building human ability, as LBJ implies in his speech, then policies can be developed that address the problem at its root. In order to achieve equality as a result (or, equality as a fact), equality of opportunity is necessary. But, an individual must have the ability to satisfy the conditions required to take advantage of an opportunity. Moral philosopher Bernard Williams states that
[Equality of opportunity] requires not merely that there should be no exclusion from access on grounds other than those appropriate or rational for the good in question, but that the grounds considered appropriate for the good should themselves be such that people from all sections of society have an equal chance of satisfying them.
This is where affirmative action policies must be aimed: leveling the competitive job market by building up the ability of minorities. Equality of result can only be achieved if every member of society has an equal chance. This means that the focus of affirmative action programs needs to involve education and job training. In this way, minorities will be hired on the basis of merit, not because of the color of their skin. This will also insure that innocent applicants do not suffer from reverse discrimination. If someone fails to get a particular job, it will be because someone better qualified was hired.
Affirmative action is best directed at redressing inequities of opportunity in education, at the most elementary levels. True equality of result can only be achieved in the workplace if there is first and foremost equality of opportunity in the building of human ability. Johnson hints at this in his speech when he says, “the task is to give 20 million Negroes the same chance . . . to develop their abilities – physical, mental and spiritual.” Again, Coppenger would agree, saying that society needs to “make every effort to give black children a first-rate education . . .” A year after her retirement from the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor reflected back upon the Grutter case, declaring that deficiencies in education are preventing minorities from achieving success. She very clearly suggested that the success or failure of affirmative action depends upon its ability to target this as the real issue. But in making her point, she highlights the importance of early education, as opposed to higher education, which the Grutter case involved. “We have to make sure we are maximizing their educational potential when they are 8 rather than when they are 18 . . . we are falling down in that area.” Applying affirmative action quotas to college acceptances possesses all of the same problems inherent with doing it in the workplace. But if affirmative action programs can be focused on building the potential of minorities, at the very beginning of their educational journey, then that foundation will lead to better performance in high school, higher scores on college entrance exams (eventually being, on average, as good as their white counterparts), fewer college drop outs (a significant problem for minority students admitted on the basis of racial preference criteria), and higher paying jobs.
On a practical level, focusing affirmative action efforts on education will necessarily involve investing more money and ingenuity in developing quality early childhood and elementary age programs in minority neighborhoods. It will also involve investing in support systems that ensure maturing minority students don’t fall through the cracks and drop out of school early. Magnet programs designed to target minority students is a great way of building upon a strong early education foundation. In order to pay for this, one might be tempted to advocate for equality in spending in all public schools. Schools in wealthy suburbs provide predominately white students with better educational opportunities due largely to the higher taxes paid by their wealthy families. Meanwhile, inner city schools in impoverished neighborhoods suffer from a lack of funding and offer inferior educational opportunities. Do we remedy this by equally redistributing tax funds from wealthier districts, effectively reducing the quality of educational opportunities for their families? It seems that we are facing the same fundamental problem with any affirmative action policy – limiting the freedom of some to advance the freedom of others. This may be an inescapable. If so, that is why affirmative action programs must be limited to this rudimentary level. However, I remain optimistic that our leaders can find creative ways to fund these programs, without limiting the opportunity of others.
It is important to note that true equality as a result will never fully be achieved, even if affirmative action programs are properly directed at education. Inequality in regard to human ability is a fact of life and should not be considered unjust. We are all gifted with different skills and abilities. While I can be subject to the same educational opportunities as Stephen Hawking, I will never attain the level of knowledge and insight that he possesses. Nevertheless, this reality should not dissuade us. Equality of educational opportunities will bring us closer to equality of result and fact.
At the heart of affirmative action policies is a desire to help the less fortunate, especially those who have suffered as a result of past discriminatory practices. The goal of this paper is to assert that Christians should at the very least share this same desire and advocate for policies that proactively seek to right past wrongs and provide every American an equal opportunity to achieve the American dream. As Christians, we have a moral obligation to help the poor and disadvantaged in our society, finding ways to restore them as valued members of the community.
 Executive Order no. 10925, accessed May 23, 2016, https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/history/35th/thelaw/eo-10925.html.
 Edward J. Erler, “Is the Constitution Color-blind?” USA Today Magazine, July 2004, 62.
 “Commencement Address at Howard University: To Fulfill These Rights,” LBJ Library Archives, last modified June 6, 2007, accessed May 20, 2016, http://www.lbjlib.utexas.edu/johnson/archives.hom/speeches.hom/650604.asp. All subsequent quotes from Johnson come from this source.
 Coretta Scott King, ed., The Words of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: New Market Press, 1987), p. 31.
 Carmen DeNavas-Walt, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Jessica C. Smith, Income, Poverty and health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2012 (Washington D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau, September 2013), 14.
 Joyce A. Martin, Brandy E. Hamilton, Stephanie J. Ventura, et al., “Births: Final Data for 2010,” National Vital Statistics Reports 61, no. 1 (Hyattsville, MD: National center for Health Statistics, 2012), 43.
 Slavery did continue in some places in the south, and was not officially eradicated until the thirteenth amendment was formally ratified in December 1865.
 This was not just against blacks. It also included Asians, Native Americans and Hispanics.
 “Jesus and Affirmative Action,” Sojourners Articles, last modified June 25, 2013, accessed May 28, 2016, https://sojo.net/articles/jesus-and-affirmative-action.
 The 1972 Vietnam Era Veterans Readjustment Assistance Act is an example of such requirements.
 Erler, “Is the Constitution Color-blind,” 63.
 Mark T. Coppenger, A Christian View of Justice (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1983), 142-142.
 Ibid., 143.
 Robert Nozick, “The Entitlement Theory,” in What is Justice? Classic and Contemporary Readings, eds. Robert C. Solomon and Mark C. Murphy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 303.
 George Stephanopoulos and Christopher Edley, Jr., Review of Federal Affirmative Action Programs (June 1995), Section 2.1.
 Ibid., Section 11.4.
 Bernard Williams, “Equality,” in What is Justice? Classic and Contemporary Readings, eds. Robert C. Solomon and Mark C. Murphy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 192.
 Coppenger, Christian View of Justice, 143.
 John Fund, “Getting Beyond Race.”
This is part two in my series of posts exploring issues on social justice. Regarding our Christian responsibility toward the poor and oppressed, there is a much larger conversation to be had. Here, I wish to limit the discussion to what role government should play in helping the impoverished, and to what degree Christians should support such programs. To facilitate the discussion, I focus on reviewing a single chapter from a larger work. The original work by Dr. Art Lindsley has been made available as a separate essay, and can be downloaded from the Institute for Faith, Work and Economics (https://tifwe.org/resource/five-myths-about-jubilee/).
“Does God Require the State to Redistribute Wealth?” is one of the introductory chapters in the book For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty, edited by Anne R. Bradley and Arthur W. Lindsley. The overall goal of the book is to guide Christians in determining the best means for carrying out the church’s call to help the poor in our society. Given the recent popularity of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, more and more Americans are buying into the notion that capitalism has failed in its ability to overcome poverty, and that the country would be better served by adopting an economic system more in line with democratic socialism. The contributors to this volume do not shy away from endorsing the belief that not only is capitalism still the best economic system for helping the poor, but it is the system most in keeping with the teachings of the Bible. Art Lindsley’s goal in contributing this chapter is to refute the mistaken belief that both the Levitical law of Jubilee (found in Leviticus 25) and the practice of the early church in Acts 2-5 somehow teach the redistribution of wealth, a key component of socialism. Not only are there authoritative voices in the Christian community advocating this idea, but many Christians mistakenly come to this conclusion upon simply reading these texts (more so the latter than the former). While it is up to the individual Christian voter to decide whether or not to support a greater shift toward socialism as a means of addressing the needs of the poor, such a decision should be based upon a proper understanding and interpretation of scripture, rather than simply on the basis of political rhetoric. The Bible must be the foundation for social action.
Lindsley begins the chapter by addressing several popular myths about the Jubilee. His intention in handling these myths is not to provide a point by point counter argument against those who advocate for distributive justice. Take the first myth for example. Lindsley simply quotes numerous commentators to support the interpretation that Jubilee has nothing to do with the blanket forgiveness of debt (myth number one). It appears that Lindsley’s goal is to show that any other interpretation of this passage would be contrary to the vast majority of biblical scholarship. However, this approach highlights a weakness of the chapter as a whole. Lindsley includes Ronald Sider, one of the leading figures supposedly espousing a redistribution of wealth interpretation, as one of the commentators supporting this majority interpretation of Jubilee. If Sider is supporting Lindsley, then who is the author actually arguing against? This opens Lindsley to the criticism that he may be misrepresenting how proponents of distributive justice utilize this passage. Had he instead presented a summary of the arguments of Sider (and others), rather than relying on statements like “some argue” and “I’ve heard it said,” then the discussion would have been better served.
What Lindsley does well throughout this chapter is to allow the plain meaning of the scripture to be heard. The reader comes away with a clear understanding of what the Jubilee law entailed. Leviticus 25:15-16 is clearly addressing “the completed payment of a debt, not its forgiveness.” The law specifically allowed those who owned land to sell the number of crops, or the use of the land, up until the Year of Jubilee. The law did not permit the actual sale of the land. In essence, the land was being leased out. This is what is meant in verse 16 when it says, “If the years [until the Year of Jubilee] are many, you shall increase the price, and if the years are few, you shall reduce the price.” Lindsley puts it into modern context.. . . if you have a debt of $250,000, there are five years prior to the Jubilee, each crop is worth $50,000, then the lender (or buyer) would give you $250,000 for the rights to farm the land, and at the time of Jubilee you would receive your land back because the debt had been paid off.
This more accurately describes the expiring of a lease, rather than the forgiveness of a debt. Therefore, Jubilee cannot be interpreted as the redistribution of land (myth number two), because the land “never left the ownership of the original family.” In fact, the law kept land ownership exactly where it originally started.
So how does one utilize this passage to argue for wealth redistribution, if it so clearly doesn’t involve the actual redistribution of land? To get that answer, the reader must look elsewhere. Unfortunately, it is not clear if this is what anyone reputable is actually arguing. John Anderson, former senior economist with the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, instead sees the Jubilee as a means of ensuring that no members of society were cut off from the means of obtaining wealth.
. . . the law provided a system that prevented a family’s complete loss of its economic base . . . [it] provided an institutional means by which families were provided economic protection. They could not be deprived of the ability to care for themselves. If the law was followed, there were protections assured.
This seems more in line with how Sider and others actually interpret this passage. If anything is being redistributed, it is the means of obtaining wealth, and not the actual wealth itself. As Christopher Wright characterizes it in God’s People in God’s Land, Jubilee was a means of restoring the “economic viability” of all members of society.
In this sense, Jubilee helped Israelites who for whatever reason got into a situation where they needed money to pay off a debt or weather a financial difficulty. Regardless of how bad their situation was, they could never permanently lose their land, which was the primary source for obtaining wealth in ancient times. Sider states in Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger,
Today’s wealth is divided in a way that flatly contradicts the Bible. God wants every family to have the basic capital – land, money, knowledge, to earn their own way and be dignified, participating members of society.
Lindsley is correct in arguing that the Jubilee does not indicate God’s desire for equality of income (myth number four), but he may be downplaying the fact that it does indicate God’s desire for equality of opportunity, which is essentially what Sider is advocating. No Israelite was ever to lose access to the means of capital. As Rabbi Jill Jacobs states, Jubilee ensures “that the market does not allow the poorest members of society to end up with nothing.” Again, Sider offers additional insight.
God wants society’s pool of productive assets to be distributed so that everyone has the resources to earn his or her own way. When members of a society lose their assets, by whatever means, it is difficult for them to participate in economic activity. People with no assets starve.
It is important to put the deliverance of this law in its proper context. Given at Mt. Sinai prior to entering the Promised Land, the Israelites owned only what they could carry. There were no slaves, no land owners, and no debt. Through God’s original distribution of land, no one was intended to start off poor. Through the law of Jubilee, no one was intended to return to poverty. Jubilee served as an economic safety net for the people of Israel.
Lindsley concludes this section of the chapter by questioning the applicability of Jubilee to modern society (the final myth). Here he points out that since Jubilee only applied to the Israelites, and not to sojourners in the land, it is not clear how it can be applied to society today. Michael Harbin makes a much stronger assertion, maintaining that Jubilee would only be valid “in a society that collectively recognizes God as sovereign.” But while Lindsley and Harbin may believe that there are too many difficulties in trying to apply Jubilee to government programs in America, Sider and ethicist Stephen Mott do not. In Leviticus 25, they argue that God essentially “institutionalized structures to prevent poverty.” In order for the law of Jubilee to be enforced, the leadership of Israel would have been required to step in as an intervening power to prevent exploitation of the financially challenged. In other words, Sider and Mott believe it is entirely acceptable for Christians to not only support government programs aimed at helping those in poverty, but to proactively recruit governmental support and the formation of new policies. While it may not be appropriate for us to apply the specific mechanism of Jubilee to government policy, we can apply the paradigmatic principle embedded within the law. For Sider and Mott, that normative paradigm is clear:
Justice demands that every person or family has access to the productive resources (land, money, knowledge) so they have the opportunity to earn a generous sufficiency of material necessities and be dignified participating members of society.
It is not necessary to read Sider’s previous challenge for the distribution of assets in Rich Christians, and the statement above with Mott, as advocating equality of assets or resources. They are not advocating the total redistribution of resources and wealth so that everyone has an equal share. All that is required is a sufficiency of resources enabling all to have the opportunity to earn a decent living, receive a quality education, and obtain the prospect of social mobility. No one should be locked into poverty with no hope of escape. This seems to be what politicians like Sanders are arguing to be the case in America. At a minimum, this should be a principle used in guiding our evaluation and support of both government and non-government programs aimed at helping the poor. We should not be supporting policies aimed at the redistribution of wealth, but should support policies that provide safety nets and ensure all have the opportunity to flourish. We should also not support programs that involve a “hand out” rather than a “hand up.” Under the law of Jubilee, the original owners of the land simply retained access to the resources they would need to flourish. It was still upon them to take advantage of that opportunity, work the land, and avoid future financial pitfalls. At any rate, if Christian supporters of capitalism are to effectively stave off the growing sentiment for socialism, they must do more than simply provide critiques of liberal social policy. Asserting that capitalism is the best solution to poverty in America is not enough. Jubilee calls God’s people to stand behind policy that actually provides support for the poor.
The second half of the chapter focuses exclusively on Acts chapters two through five, and the notion that the early church practiced socialism. Before analyzing these passages to determine if such an assertion has merit, it is important to ask if it is possible to derive a command (or obligation) from a mere description of behavior. Lindsley speculates that even if the early church was practicing a form of wealth redistribution, it does not necessarily mean that such a practice is normative for the church in general. To make this leap would be a violation of the is/ought fallacy, which states that it is impossible to deduce an “ought” (a normative statement or command), from an “is” (a mere description of something). In exegetical terms, narrative (descriptive) passages of scripture should not be taken as normative, unless there are textual clues to indicate such is intended. In regard to the Church’s practice in Acts, Lindsley asserts that “the only way you could cross this divide is by showing that other biblical passages command socialism.” No such passages exist.
Turning to the actual text itself, those who assert that the early church practiced socialism focus primarily on verses 44 and 45 in chapter two.
And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.
Again, Lindsley does an exceptional job of simply letting the scripture speak for itself. Upon first glance, the text seems to indicate that members of the early church only sold their possessions, as there was need. Lindsley points out that this is supported by the tenses of the verbs selling and distributing. This was not a once for all action, but rather something that was ongoing, as needs arose within the church. The implication is that members did not sell everything that they owned in order to redistribute their wealth. This is reflected in the very next verse (v. 46) when it mentions members continuing to break bread in their own homes. Home ownership was retained. The New International Version clearly reinforces the occasional nature of this in its translation of Acts 4:34. “From time to time those who owned land or houses sold them.” Lindsley speculates that this is more than likely wealthier members of the church selling off surplus property holdings; a point that seems almost certain given the example of Barnabas (just a few verses later) selling “a field that belonged to him.”
The text also seems to clearly indicate that this giving was of a voluntary nature. In the opening verses of chapter five, the account of the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira is often pointed to as indicating that members were required to sell all of their possessions. The implication is that these two were struck dead because they refused to comply with the requirement to give all their possessions to the church. Once again, the plain reading of the text does not support this.
Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet. Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.
Peter acknowledges that Ananias and his wife owned the land and could have done with it whatever they so desired. Their possessions were at their disposal. He does not rebuke them for giving only a portion of the sale; he rebukes them for lying about it. These two were obviously attempting to deceive everyone into thinking they were giving all of their proceeds to the church, perhaps in an effort to appear as more generous than others in the congregation. It was this deception that was their undoing. If it was required that Christians sell off all of their possessions and donate all the proceeds to the church, then why does Paul tell the church at Corinth that they are not under compulsion to give to the Macedonians? Giving has always been seen as voluntary in the Church.
Lindsley finishes this section by asserting that Acts 2-5 simply recounts the church’s response to a temporal need that arose in the days following Pentecost. At this time, the city of Jerusalem was packed with visitors in town for the festival. With thousands coming to Christ and remaining in the city to hear the teachings of the Apostles, the needs must have been staggering. Where were they going to be housed? How were they going to be fed? The newly formed church gladly took on this challenge and began selling assets in an attempt to meet this temporary need. Eventually, the new believers would leave the city, return to their own homes, and take the message of the Gospel with them.
Overall, this chapter presents a compelling case for rejecting the notion that the Bible supports socialism and the redistribution of wealth. If the individual Christian is going to support a socialist candidate such as Bernie Sanders, they will have to do it on grounds other than scripture. Having said that, these passages of scripture ought to challenge the church to reevaluate how she has traditionally responded to the poor and needy in our society. The church in Acts was decidedly radical in their generosity in helping those in need. They didn’t hesitate in parting with personal possessions in order to help a brother or sister in Christ. Can we honestly say that the church today is equally as radical? Reflecting back on Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians, we see that in the midst of challenging the church to be cheerful givers, Paul talks openly about grace abounding, seeds multiplying, and harvests increasing. To be sure, he is primarily discussing the increase of the Gospel, good deeds and righteousness that will come from their giving. However, he also clearly states that they “will be enriched in everything for all liberality.” Capitalism may well be the best system for cultivating economic flourishing. To make that case, Lindsley leaves it to the other contributors in this volume. But economic prosperity is only part of the flourishing that God wants his people to experience. Absent radical generosity and compassion for the poor, all our great wealth will afford us is empty materialism. There is no question that the impact of the church is waning in our society. Might this be due to our lack of generosity toward the poor? I can’t help but think of how those early converts in Jerusalem went out and turned the world upside down with the message of Christ, no doubt powered by the love and sacrifice they experienced among the fellowship of believers in Christ.
 Anne R. Bradley and Arthur W. Lindsley, eds., For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2014), 9. It is important to note that the book does not solely focus on the issue of defending capitalism and free enterprise. The latter half of the book focuses exclusively on practical solutions for addressing the issue of poverty. However, this is a decidedly pro-free market work.
 In a recent gathering of friends, someone confidently voiced the belief that the early church was socialistic. The majority of those in attendance simply nodded their heads in approval.
 Lindsley, For the Least of These, 73-74. Lindsley provides somewhat lengthy quotations from Matthew Henry, R. K. Harrison, Gordon Wenham, and Walter Kaiser.
 Ibid., 74.
 Lev. 25:16 (English Standard Version).
 Lindsley, For the Least of These, 72.
 Ibid., 75.
 John E. Anderson, “A Biblical and Economic Analysis of Jubilee Property Provisions,” Faith and Economics 46 (Fall 2005): 29. Italics mine.
 Christopher J. H. Wright, God’s People in God’s Land: Family, Land, and Property in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1990), 124.
 Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 230. Italics mine.
 Jill Jacobs, There Shall be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2009), 20.
 Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, 161.
 Michael A. Harbin, “Jubilee and Social Justice,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 54, no. 4 (December 2011): 695.
 Lindsley, For the Least of These, 79.
 Harbin, 697. Whereas Lindsley fails to provide any attempt at modern day application, Harbin offers several principles derived from Jubilee. For him, the foundational principle is that people were to treat others “fairly, ethically, and compassionately.”
 Stephen Mott and Ronald J. Sider, “Economic Justice: A Biblical Paradigm,” in Toward a Just and Caring Society: Christian Responses to Poverty in America, ed. David P. Gushee (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1999), 39.
 Ibid., 40. Italics mine.
 Lindsley, For the Least of These, 83.
 Ibid., 83-84.
 Acts 2:44-45 (English Standard Version).
 Lindsley, For the Least of These, 80-81. The verbs selling and distributing are in the imperfect tense, as opposed to the aorist, which would indicate a once-for-all, completed action.
 Acts 4:34 (New International Version).
 Acts 4:36 (New International Version).
 Acts 5:1-4 (New International Version).
 2 Cor. 9:7 (New American Standard). This verse cannot possibly read as Paul telling the church as a whole that they are not under compulsion to give a gift. Verse seven begins with Paul saying “let each one . . .” give as he has purposed in his heart.
 Lindsley, For the Least of These, 82.
 2 Cor. 9:11 (New American Standard Bible).