It has been a while since I made a post. My graduate studies have been keeping me very busy. I will be posting three papers I recently wrote on issues relating to social ethics. The first is on Capitalism and its ability to meet the needs of the poor (Avoiding the Bern, part One). I will follow that up with a post on socialism and the redistribution of wealth (Avoiding the Bern, part Two), and then one dealing with the issue of affirmative action (I’m still working on a catchy title for that one). I may sprinkle in a few other things along the way. Enjoy!
The title for this one was born out of the frustration I felt hearing about how some young Christians have decided to support Bernie Sanders. It seems that these Christians have come to think of capitalism as so evil, that our best recourse is to abandon it altogether and fully embrace socialism. Sanders has openly called himself a Democratic Socialist. The only difference between regular socialism and Sanders’s democratic version, is in how they achieve the re-distribution of wealth. I will talk more about that in part two. But before you go giving up on capitalism because you think it’s contrary to your Christian faith, you may want to read Austin Hill and Scott Rae’s book The Virtues of Capitalism. Below is a summary and evaluation of the book.
It may seem counter-intuitive to write a book calling for Christians to become advocates for the moral value of capitalism. After all, the moral values most often associated with capitalism are greed and selfishness. These are the kind of values Christians are traditionally known for condemning, not defending. The Church, rightfully so, has been quite vocal about the right to life, traditional marriage, stem cell research, and even the evils of gambling. When it comes to saying positive things about capitalism, she has largely been silent. Austin Hill and Scott Rae, authors of The Virtues of Capitalism, are convinced that this shouldn’t be the case. Economics touches upon every aspect of society and therefore has the power to impact every facet of an individual’s life. This means it has the ability to mold morality. If our overall end is a “good” society filled with morally good people (who love and serve Christ), then it stands to reason that Christians ought to be very concerned with the type of economic system in place in the country. Not all economic systems are created equal. Some are better suited for promoting good behavior, while others promoting the bad. According to Hill and Rae, capitalism (contrary to popular belief) is on the side of promoting good. While capitalism may not be a perfect economic system, for the authors, it is not only the best system available for generating wealth and diminishing poverty, it is the best system when it comes to championing the moral values most important to Christians.
The authors begin by looking at what the Bible has to say about economics. Of course, the Bible’s overall approach when speaking about economics is to treat it as a moral issue. In this sense, the Bible clearly supports one of the fundamental beliefs of the authors: Economics and morality are intimately connected. On the one hand, wealth and prosperity can lead to idolatry and the oppression of the poor. This was as much a problem in ancient Israel as it is today. The Old Testament prophets frequently condemned economic injustice and the exploitation of the disadvantaged amongst the Israelites. On the other hand, the scriptures encourage the use of one’s affluence as a source of blessing to the underprivileged. Proverbs 14:31 indicates that one shows honor to God when they are generous to the poor. Jeremiah 22:16 reveals a strong connection between helping the poor and knowing God. “[King Josiah] pled the cause of the afflicted and needy . . . is not that what it means to know me.?” How God’s people used their wealth was a direct reflection upon how well they knew him and manifested his righteousness. At no point does the Bible support the idea that wealth necessarily leads to greed and corruption. From God’s perspective, it all comes down to what his people choose to do with their treasure. Do they allow it to become an idol in their life, or do they use it as a tool for serving him and helping the less fortunate in society? In the New Testament, Paul tells Timothy that it is not money that is evil. “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.” Economics, more specifically how we relate to it, has the power to mold faith and morality.
The authors then move beyond this connection between economics and morality, to asserting that the most biblically consistent economic system is that of capitalism. This is not to say that the Bible specifically teaches capitalism, but rather that the Bible teaches general economic principles that are best embodied in a free market system. Christians should favor an economic system that provides the opportunity for all members of society to flourish (achieve economic well-being), and properly meets the needs of the poor in a manner consistent with the scripture’s emphasis on personal responsibility. For the authors, capitalism is that system. To be more specific, while a socialistic economic system seeks to care for the poor by simply redistributing wealth, a free market system seeks to care for the poor by providing the means for each individual to support themselves and their dependents. And when it is not possible for an individual to care for their own needs, Hill and Rae are quick to point out that capitalism provides the abundant resources to fuel charitable giving. Additionally, capitalism seems to promote the kind of personal qualities that the Bible holds as desirable. The entrepreneurial spirit so essential to the free market system personifies the characteristics of initiative, perseverance, and diligence so prominently encouraged throughout the Old and New Testaments. It also seems to encompass the creative implications of being made in the image of God.
In chapter three, the authors look at what kind of moral virtues are required in order for capitalism to exist and thrive. At a foundational level, capitalism needs social stability, particularly in the form of a democracy upholding a true sense of human rights and dignity. The authors later maintain that where this does not exist, capitalism should not be attempted. While the authors go on to list creativity, initiative, cooperation, civility, and personal responsibility as additional values required for capitalism to function effectively, they also seem to be arguing that a free market economy will gives rise to these attributes. This is not as contradictory as it seems. There exists a symbiotic relationship between these virtues and capitalism. On the one hand, if these virtues are not initially present within a society, at least in a nascent form, capitalism will likely fail to fully develop. On the other hand, capitalism necessarily generates these virtues. Of course, it is important to distinguish that capitalism itself is not moral. The system does not guarantee that all those working within will be morally virtuous. However, it is not entirely appropriate to say that capitalism is morally neutral. To be sure, the prospect of increased wealth can fuel greed, as noted above. But by virtue of how it is designed (being based on competition, the division of labor, and the production of wealth), it more often than not leads to the cultivation of virtue and the common good.
Capitalism gives people an incentive to pursue excellence . . . [it] creates an environment that, as philosopher Adam Smith envisioned, allows self-interest to be harnessed in such a way that it promotes the common good.
While it seems odd to talk of a system based upon self-interest resulting in moral virtue and human flourishing for all members of society, this is exactly what Smith had in mind when writing The Wealth of Nations. Smith believed that the self-interest of the individual, and ultimately her well-being, was best served by a society where the “greater part” benefited.
But what improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconvenience to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part [servants, labourers, and workmen of different kinds] of the members are poor and miserable.
So it would seem that Hill and Rae are arguing for the value of Capitalism purely on utilitarian grounds. The authors are not claiming that capitalism is an end in and of itself, or that it is even a perfect system. They are simply stating that it is the best possible means toward an end to which all Christians should strive: moral virtue and human flourishing.
Up until this point, the authors have attempted to provide a largely positive apologetic defense for capitalism. Chapter four presents a negative apologetic, attempting to refute the common criticisms leveled against a free market economy. This is a significant challenge in that the perceived faults of capitalism are well known, if not axiomatic in the minds of most. First and foremost is the idea that capitalism is based upon greed and necessarily results in materialism and overconsumption. Hill and Rae are quick to make the distinction between the sin of greed and Adam Smith’s notion of self-interest. They believe, it is a misunderstanding to equate the two. Greed is a problem of the heart and not a necessary by-product, or foundational principle, of capitalism. Nowhere in the writings of Smith is “greed” cited as something good. Instead, he talks a great deal about self-interest.
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.
Of course, it is important to view Smith’s understanding of self-interest within the context of his moral philosophy. As a moral philosopher, Smith balanced his notion of self-interest with sympathy, prudence, cooperation, benevolence, and justice, all of which were equally as influential. It would be better to characterize Smith’s foundational economic principle as an enlightened form of egoism, “in which a person possessed the internal resources necessary to provide checks and balances on his or her self-interest.” The opening line from Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (his work published prior to Wealth of Nations) says it best:
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, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.
For Smith, egoism and altruism are balanced within human nature, both for the benefit of the individual and society. The point the authors are trying to make is that Smith’s concept of self-interest is not the same thing as selfishness. In fact, they argue that philanthropy is far more identifiable as a characteristic of capitalism than is greed. While greed, materialism and overconsumption may be more of a temptation in a capitalist nation, it also generates greater opportunity for charity. Hill and Rae rightly point out that the U.S. is more than twice as charitable as any other nation.
Even if capitalism is not based upon greed, is self-interest a value that Christians can legitimately champion? After all, isn’t Christianity more about self-sacrifice? The authors utilize Philippians 2:4 to argue that scripture unambiguously supports both self-sacrifice and self-interest. “Do not merely look out for your own personal interests . . .” This verse seems to imply that we are to look out for our own self-interests. Of course, it challenges us to go beyond this, and also look out for the interests of others. One might even argue that if we are going to properly look out for the interests of others, we must first have a clear understanding of what it means to look after ourselves. Did not Jesus challenge us to love others as we love ourselves? Is not the essence of the Golden Rule to treat others as we would want them to treat us? Looking out for the interests of others is not contrary to capitalism, at least not the idea of it articulated by Adam Smith. Likewise, self-interest is not contrary to Christianity. Christians ought to be concerned with looking out for their own interests, having the desire to better themselves, and taking care of the needs of their family. To the authors, this is not a bad thing.
Next, the authors dismiss the criticism that capitalism necessarily leads to the rich getting richer, and the poor getting poorer. Contrary to this belief, they argue that capitalism is the most productive way of generating wealth and lifting the majority of people out of poverty. The mistaken idea that the prosperity of the wealthy causes the poverty of the poor is rooted in a zero-sum game model of economics. While from a global perspective it’s certainly true that the world has a fixed pool of resources (which fuels the notion that when one gets more, someone else gets less), the reality is that the creative spirit that drives a free market economy finds ways of utilizing previously unused resources. In this way, wealth in a capitalistic economy is not static; new ways are constantly being developed to create it.
Somewhat related is the criticism that capitalism leads to significant inequities in wealth. Politicians often talk about the shrinking middle class and the widening disparity between the very rich and the very poor. Hill and Rae cite various statistics that poverty in America, and the world for that matter, is shrinking. Additionally, they argue that those at the bottom of the economic spectrum, at least in America, are far better off than the poor in other countries. They maintain that this is all due to capitalism. Seen through this lens, inequities between the most and least wealthy do not necessarily mean an injustice has occurred. In a free market economy, inequities of outcome will exist, even if everyone is ensured equality of opportunity. Some inequalities “are the result of a difference in effort, hard work, and diligence.” Still other inequities are the result of differences in natural abilities, or are simply the result of poor choices. Some are simply smarter, more creative, have higher energy, or are more competitive by nature. Some desire to pursue a career writing poetry, while others desire to start a business. All these factors will necessarily result in inequities of wealth, but should not be considered unjust. Hill and Rae assert that nowhere does the Bible condemn inequity of wealth. What is condemned in scripture is the exploitation of others and the failure to address the needs of the poor. Again, the authors maintain that capitalism provides the best means of addressing the needs of those at the bottom.
Perhaps the greatest criticism of capitalism is the growing belief that it has failed. Chapters five through seven confront this idea, especially in light of recent economic failures. An overview is provided of the dotcom bubble bust in 2001, the housing market collapse post 2008, and the corporate corruption of Enron, Peregrine Systems and Countrywide Financial. The authors’ goal is to illustrate that contrary to growing public opinion, these failures are more the result of too much government involvement (or in the case of the Enron scandal, government overreaction to bad behavior), and less a byproduct of capitalism itself. For example, the authors do an exceptional job of illustrating exactly how government involvement in pushing for increased home ownership and the issuance of risky, sub-prime mortgage loans specifically led to the housing market crash. Hill and Rae go on to argue that the government bailouts that followed simply magnified the problem, by creating an atmosphere of moral hazard.
As a general principle that influences our evaluation, we regard it as a destructive thing when the government intervenes in the economy and tries to “protect” individuals and businesses from experiencing the effects of their own behavior.
Moral hazard occurs when people are shielded from the negative consequences that they would normally suffer from bad behavior. While this might seem compassionate, the authors believe that “rewarding bad behavior generally ensures more bad behavior, not good behavior, in the future.”
Of course, Hill and Rae are not arguing against all government involvement in the economy. They do not believe that the market is self-regulating. In fact, the final chapter of the book delineates several essential, albeit limited, elements that government needs to provide. These include setting policies that regulate commerce, ensuring that some goods and services remain “off the market,” and protecting individual and corporate rights. The most significant role of government is in how it contributes to the overall moral climate of society. Certain social structures are needed in order for capitalism to be successful (as discussed earlier in the book), and government cannot supply these on its own. Government involvement necessarily needs to be augmented by religious and voluntary organizations that nurture the values and virtues that capitalism needs to prosper. This closing chapter harkens back to Michael Novak’s Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, in which Novak emphasizes the importance of the “moral-cultural system” of the country to “create the proper context in which the economic system operates.” Unfortunately, just as government can over-regulate the market, it can also over-regulate religious and voluntary organizations, ultimately limiting their ability to provide support and incentives for virtuous behavior, and checks and balances for bad behavior.
Novak would argue that it is no coincidence that democratic capitalism has thrived in Jewish-Christian lands. The doctrines and values of the Christian faith have “helped to supply the ideas through which democratic capitalism has emerged in history.” Therefore, Hill and Rae are not arguing that Christians stop advocating for the moral causes that they have become known for, focusing instead on defending a free market economy. That would be counter-productive. They maintain that the church simply needs to include a defense of capitalism to what they are already championing.
Overall, I find myself agreeing with the basic premise of the book. Christians cannot remain silent at a time when the economic future of our country is being heavily debated in the current presidential campaign. A greater shift toward socialism would be detrimental to the values and virtues that we Christians find most important. The time has come for Christians to include a defense of the free market in their apologetics courses and bible studies. While it may be hard to see economic issues as just as important as defending the veracity of scripture or the historicity of the resurrection, we must keep in mind that we are not defending capitalism, per se. We are defending the positive moral values and virtues that capitalism necessarily nurtures. We are also taking seriously our call to take care of the needs of the less fortunate in our society. History has clearly demonstrated that capitalism is the best way to bring economic flourishing to the largest number of people in a society.
Having said that, I am reminded of a quote by Ronald Sider in Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, where he comments on Christian efforts to speak favorably of capitalism. “We must end the outrage of Christians celebrating the market economy.” While I believe that Sider’s sentiment is rooted in a mistaken notion of capitalism, it represents genuine hostility that exists in the minds and hearts of many. The baggage that capitalism carries is real. Regardless of whether such hostility is justified, Christians defending capitalism have the potential of appearing celebratory of riches and insensitive to poverty. This unfortunately seems evident in this volume in two specific ways.
First, Hill and Rae exhibit a bit too much confidence in capitalism’s ability. While the authors do at times include token reference to Christian compassion for the poor, that message is largely drowned out by their exuberance for capitalism. At times they convey the notion that the needs of the poor will best be met by market forces. The final words of the book sum up this sentiment: “. . . we insist that capitalism is indeed the best hope for the poor around the world.” From an economic standpoint, this is certainly the case. But without any other qualification to this statement, it comes across as simply echoing an enormous amount of faith in the “invisible hand” of the free market economy. Smith discusses this briefly in both The Wealth of Nations and Moral Sentiments.
… every individual necessarily labors to render the annual revenue of the society, as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it… he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.
Smith is saying that the common good that results in a free market economy is not the result of intentional effort on the part of individuals. The distribution of wealth to all levels of society is simply the happy by-product of pursuing one’s own gain. Put self-love first and everything else magically works itself out. Perhaps, it is unfair to characterize Hill and Rae as embracing a laissez-faire approach to helping the poor. However, the book clearly does not include an emphatic call for Christians to be more engaged in voluntary efforts to reach out to the poor, or to support public policies that help those at the bottom. In other words, the book comes across as declaring capitalism, and not Christ or the Church, as the poor’s only and best hope. From a Christian perspective, this seems incongruent with the very scriptures the authors survey. The authors’ handling of Philippians 2 is a perfect example of this. While they are certainly right that it is acceptable for the Christian to have a level of self-interest, using this passage to primarily defend Christian self-interest diminishes the true meaning and emphasis of Paul’s words. Christians are called to put the needs and interests of others ahead of their own. The emphasis of the Bible is not upon an economic system working out the status of the poor, but rather on the behavior of believers proactively engaging the problem of poverty. Hill and Rae come across as putting more trust in the “invisible hand” of market forces, rather than the active responsibility that God’s people have to be agents of change. It is not an option for the responsible Christian to simply let market forces work things out. That being said, Christians working under the umbrella of a capitalistic system, taking full advantage of its strengths and benefits, have an even greater ability to combat poverty.
The second way that Hill and Rae come across as insensitive to the needs of the poor is in their discussion of the issue of moral hazard. The authors are correct that shielding people from the consequences of bad choices can lead to increased bad behavior and even more bad choices. The Bible is clear that God disciplines those whom he loves, and that the purpose of such discipline is to train us to do the right things. However, the Bible also talks about restoration and redemption, even for those who make bad choices. While the authors touch briefly on the issue of Jubilee, they fail to distinguish in what sense this law wouldn’t also count as moral hazard, according to their own definition. Jubilee required land to be returned to the original owners regardless of what originally led to them having to sell it in the first place. Might this somehow be construed as the kind of policy that contributes to moral hazard? Unlikely, as the potential existed for the individual or family to lose the use of the land for as much as 49 years. Consequences were undoubtedly felt, as often those selling the land would have to hire themselves out as indentured servants to make ends meet. However, through this law God also provided a way of redemption, the possibility for them to regain their land and the means of economic prosperity. The year of Jubilee, clearly represents a safety net policy. The authors acknowledge as much. Unfortunately, they refuse to discuss how something like this might be applicable to modern society. It comes across as insensitive and judgmental to cite moral hazard as the reason for not wanting to help people in times of financial crises. As Christians, we shouldn’t be hiding behind such flimsy justifications for sitting back and allowing people to remain in poverty. Instead, we should be proactively seeking out ways to elevate the economic status of the poor.
So given these concerns, how can Christians legitimately defend capitalism? They can do so by honestly pointing out the weaknesses of capitalism, by coupling their defense of a market economy with an emphatic call for radical generosity and outreach to the poor, and by offering practical proposals to help the financially challenged find economic redemption and restoration.
I end this first part by letting God’s word challenge us to greater generosity:
If there is a poor man with you, one of your brothers, in any of your towns in your land which the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand from your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and shall generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks. Beware that there is no base thought in your heart, saying, ‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,’ and your eye is hostile toward your poor brother, and you give him nothing; then he may cry to the Lord against you, and it will be a sin in you. You shall generously give to him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all your undertakings. For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.’
 Austin Hill and Scott Rae, The Virtues of Capitalism: A Moral Case for Free Markets (Chicago: Northfield Publishing, 2010), 18, iBooks.
 Ibid., 47.
 Prov. 14:31 (English Standard Version). Emphases mine.
 Jer. 22:16 (New American Standard Bible).
 1 Tim. 6:10 (English Standard Version).
 Deut. 15:4 states, “There shall be no poor among you.” Prov. 10:4 says, “Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth.”
 2 Thess. 3:10 states, “If anyone will not work, neither let him eat.” Prov. 14:23 says, “In all labor there is profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.”
 Hill and Rae, Virtues of Capitalism, 138.
 Robert A. Sirico, “The Moral Potential of the Free Economy,” in For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty, ed. Anne Bradley and Art Lindsley (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 160, iBooks.
 Hill and Rae, Virtues of Capitalism, 45.
 Adam Smith, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (New York: The Modern Library, 1937), 78-79.
 This reflects the utilitarian argument that Smith himself is making, by arguing that the market alone ensures the greatest amount of prosperity for the greatest number of citizens. Robert Solomon and Mark C. Murphy, eds., What is Justice? Classic and Contemporary Readings (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 143-144.
 Hill and Rae, Virtues of Capitalism, 63.
 Smith, Wealth of Nations, 14.
 Hill and Rae, Virtues of Capitalism, 65.
 Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), 34.
 Sherwin Klein, “The Natural Roots of Capitalism and Its Virtues and Values,” Journal of Business Ethics 45, no. 4 (July 2003): 390.
 Hill and Rae, Virtues of Capitalism, 63
 Phil. 2:4 (New American Standard Bible).
 Klein, 391. Klein specifically makes this connection with Puritanism and the Protestant ethic.
 Hill and Rae, Virtues of Capitalism, 65-66.
 Ibid., 70.
 Ibid., 102.
 Ibid., 110.
 Ibid., 139.
 Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (Lanham, Maryland: Madison Books, 1991), 334, Kindle.
 Novak spectacularly makes this case in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism.
 Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 230.
 Hill and Rae, Virtues of Capitalism, 122.
 Smith, Wealth of Nations, 423.
 Heb. 12:6-11 (New American Standard Bible).
 Michael A. Harbin, “Jubilee and Social Justice,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 54, no. 4 (December 2011): 695.
 Hill and Rae, Virtues of Capitalism, 30.
 Deut. 15:7-11 (New American Standard Bible).
A belief in universal, absolute moral values is central to Christian theism. It is the necessary by-product of belief in an absolute, unchanging God. Undermine belief in the one, and the collapse of the other is sure to follow. The notion that one can build an ethical system that is rooted in scientific experimentation, or that empirical research should have any bearing on our moral deliberations and judgments, would seem to do just that. With this in mind, the goal of Experiments in Ethics is to present a positive case for just such an ethical naturalism. Arguing against any notion of a transcendent, autonomous ethic, Kwame Anthony Appiah sets out to construct a more immanent one, removing the wedge between moral value and science (185) and returning philosophical ethics to its scientific roots (when psychology, economics, anthropology and sociology were commonly referred to as the “moral sciences”). His premise is simple: what we should do depends on how the world is. Appiah begins this task by acknowledging the worrisome questions that such a venture may elicit. “What happens when moral theory is called before the tribunal of psychology – when fact interrogates value? Will the blurring of boundaries advance the aims of ethics or lead to its eclipse? Can moral philosophy be naturalized?” As Christian Theists, it is up to us to determine just how far the relationship between ethics and science should be taken and what our response to naturalism should be. While it is clear that Appiah does not have a Christian audience in mind, it is fitting that this work has its origins as a lecture series given at Bryn Mawr College, as part of the 2005 Mary Flexner Lectures. Bryn Mawr’s Quaker history was not lost on Appiah, especially since he cites the Quaker abolition movement in one of his illustrations. Given his propensity to incorporate numerous allusions to popular and intellectual culture throughout this work, I do see several veiled references to religious ideas, and feel that he is most certainly challenging the traditional notions of morality most commonly articulated by those who would denounce science as quickly as they “denounce Satan.”
This book will force Christians to re-examine the question of the compatibility of science and ethics. While Christian philosophers have been making significant ground in regard to the integration of science and Christian faith as a whole, much more needs to be said concerning the appropriate relationship between science and Christian morality. With the rise of naturalistic ethics and experimental philosophy, the question of whether Christian ethics should maintain a noninteracting, compartmentalized approach to science needs to be adequately addressed. J.P. Moreland states in Christianity and the Nature of Science, “If the church is to speak to the modern world and interact with it responsibly, it must interact with modern science.” While such words have generally been misinterpreted to apply only to the integration of science and the question of origins, it is time for the Christian intellectual community to more fully explore their application to the field of ethics. Albeit, not in the manner in which Appiah suggests. Why should this one area of theology continue to be dichotomized from science? I believe it has a great deal to do with fear and bad theology.
In regard to the fears we have, one can see many dangerous ideas present in Appiah’s proposal. The ethical world which he advocates is one which is heavily influenced by the situation. For Appiah, this is a natural conclusion based upon empirical research demonstrating that moral intuitions fluctuate and depend upon circumstances (most of which are insignificant, yet have substantial impact). This is the point of his chapter entitled The Case Against Intuition, which does not set out to destroy intuitions all together, but seeks to redefine them in light of scientific investigation and observation, ultimately showing that they can’t be trusted as reliable guides. Far from being self-evident transcendent absolutes, intuitions are little more than primal gut reactions that have been shaped by our “evolutionary and cultural histories,” changing on the basis of such things as circumstances, framing effects, cue words and ordering, emotional traction, and the like. In other words, our morality is a function of whatever situation in which we find ourselves. This has significant consequences. How we are psychologically constructed and the cultural context in which we live cannot be irrelevant to how we should be expected to conduct ourselves. Stated more bluntly, “we cannot be obligated to be a kind of creature that we have realized we cannot become.”
Out of the moral flux generated by incoherent subjective intuitions, Appiah turns to psychology for assistance. “Empirical moral psychology can help us think about how to manage our lives, how to become better people.” It does this, not through character education, but through behavioral engineering. It seems the new moral authorities are not self-evident absolutes, but rather lab-coated psychologists seeking to discover the circumstantial stimuli that trigger desirable tendencies in human behavior, adjusting the environment accordingly. Appiah enthusiastically quotes Gil Harman, who says we need to have “‘more emphasis on trying to arrange social institutions so that human beings are not placed in situations in which they will act badly.'” Here, psychological considerations and our cultural/communal situations merge. “What would be the point of norms that human beings were psychologically incapable of obeying? . . . If you say somebody ought to do something, you must be supposing that it is something they can do.” Appiah is proposing the derivation of an “ought” from an “is.” This exposes ethical naturalism to the criticism that it commits the naturalistic fallacy. Appiah vigorously defends this jump from the observation of what is, to the conclusion of what ought to be, on the basis of the practical nature of ethics.
In regard to bad theology, let me refer to Appiah’s use of Socrates’ question in the Euthypho: “Is an act loved by the gods because it is good or is it good because it is loved by the gods?” This question harkens to the essentialist/voluntarist debate. Is something good simply because it is willed thus by God, or does God will something as good because it is already essentially so, in accordance with his nature? William of Ockham maintained the voluntarist position, arguing that if he so willed, God could have decided differently about what he declared to be right and wrong. Empirical research seems to support the criticism that such a view is arbitrary. Appiah makes reference to a survey of Amish students conducted by Shaun Nichols. One hundred percent of these students responded that it would be all right to work on Sunday if God had made no such rule against it. When asked how they would react if God made no rule against hitting, the majority responded that hitting would still be wrong. This seems to reinforce the essentialist position that things are right or wrong regardless of any divine pronouncement. Universal moral values flow from God’s rational, moral character, and are thus essentially good. While it is inappropriate to adopt Appiah’s approach and build an ethic from the bottom up, basing it on what is, it seems theologically correct to expect a correlation between morals and science, built from the top down. Faith is not blind and opposed to reason and scientific evidence, as many would suppose. If God created the universe and it bears his imprint, then it cannot be contrary to him. Science will support morality as an apologetic of moral absolutism. What we should do, will correspond to how the world is.
This fact is demonstrated in an interesting chapter on the varieties of moral experience (although Appiah is setting out to demonstrate the exact opposite). Appiah draws upon recent developments in experimental moral psychology to provide the reader with a rudimentary “taxonomy of moral cognition.” He cites several specific moral modules, originally elaborated by psychologist Johnathan Haidt. Among these are compassion, reciprocity, and purity. Taking compassion for example, we see that the human psyche is hardwired such that “people everywhere seem to be able to distinguish between violations involving harm or suffering and violations of convention.” Reciprocity helps explain our universal intuitions about fairness and the notion that we should act as we would have others act. As expected, Appiah approaches this from the perspective of evolutionary psychology, maintaining that these phenomena are the result of natural selection genetically inscribing behavioral dispositions. However, might these moral modules also reinforce the theistic contention that we are designed by God? If Christ’s command that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us is to be taken as a moral law of the universe, then might we expect to find it hardwired into our minds (as part of the neural architecture of the brain)? This is exactly what the moral module of reciprocity shows. To play on Appiah’s words cited earlier, God is not going to give us a command that we are not able to obey.
One interesting facet of Appiah’s work is its analysis of what is referred to as “quandary ethics.” At times Experiments in Ethics comes across as a sort of compendium of moral dilemmas. All of the most famous dilemmas make an appearance, most notably is Philippa Foot and Judith Jarvis Thompson’s runaway trolley and footbridge scenarios. While “trolleyology” makes for fascinating discussion, Appiah points out that such moral problems are “too abstract,” ignore “our particularity,” and make the mistake of presenting “moral judgment as a solitary act.” These weaknesses strike at the very heart of what Appiah is hoping to accomplish in arguing that ethics is a shared human endeavor. However, they do serve a valuable role in making his overall thesis for ethical naturalism. Surveyed responses to these and other such conundrums reveal the shortcomings of basing our moral judgments on intuition. Appiah argues that intuition must be brought under the authority of rational reflection and empirical research. We must draw upon the perspective of the Sinnenwelt, the world of the senses, making use of scientific data to confirm, refine or reject our subjective moral evaluations to make a better life.
There is at least one thing in Appiah that the Christian ethicist can find agreeable: moral dilemmas reduce morality to a form of “clinical intervention.” This is dangerous because it gives students the false idea that ethics is only concerned with moral emergencies that are far removed from the reality of everyday life (practical for generating lively discussions, impractical for real life application). The truth is that ethical considerations should pervade every aspect of our lives. If our goal is to get students to be moral people, then we need to present a picture of ethics that is true to its nature.
With this in mind, I believe that this book presents a popular case for naturalism and would thus be a fitting secondary text for an undergraduate course in Christian ethics. Appiah’s clear and engaging style makes for an enjoyable read, at least for those theists whose skin is not too thin. While he makes frequent references and allusions to key philosophers and ethical concepts, he does so in a manner that even the philosophically uninitiated may understand. Appiah provides approximately fifty pages of notes that are equally lucid, providing additional commentary to help fill in any gaps that a novice may encounter. Let us not repeat the mistakes of the past in putting up a dividing line between Christian faith and science. Doing so will result in religious leaders (the traditional beacons of moral guidance) being left out of the contemporary discussion. We can embrace the findings of the moral sciences, knowing that they provide much needed support for ethical absolutism. We can be confident that in this rationally constructed universe, faith and science should naturally work hand in hand. In our apologetic endeavors, we must incorporate a proper understanding of the relationship between ethics and science, and be able to articulate a proper response to Appiah and other naturalists. In the final chapter Appiah dares us to take on this challenge, quoting philosopher Richard Joyce, who says, “‘If uncomfortable truths are out there, we should seek them and face them like intellectual adults.'”
Experiments In Ethics. By Kwame Anthony Appiah. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2008. 274 pages.
At the risk of offending many of my Christian friends, I would like to offer the following thought experiment on gay marriage.
- First, as a Christian, Billy Ray believes that homosexuality is a sin. He just can’t seem to get around the fact that this is what the Bible teaches. What the Bible teaches about this issue (or any issue for that matter) is important to Billy. While that may seem foreign to some people, for him it is a core belief.
- Second, as an American citizen, Billy Ray supports the right for gay couples to marry. This is not a new position that he has only recently adopted in light of legal developments. Billy Ray has held this view for well over twenty years. While he has had no problem letting people know that he holds homosexuality to be sinful, he has rarely let it be know that he supports these rights for homosexual couples.
Is Billy Ray confused? Do his views indicate a lack of reflection and internal consistency? Has he gone liberal?
I think not. In fact, it may well be that Billy Ray is on to something. It can be argued that his views are actually more consistent than the views of all those Christians upset that gay marriage has been legalized. This is the point where some of you start to wonder if I’ve gone liberal. For those of you who truly know me, you shouldn’t be surprised at all. You may even be thinking there is more to this discussion than meets the eye. Yes, I am intentionally being controversial. Remember, I told you this would be a thought experiment. It is designed to grab your attention and get your hackles up. I want you to think hard and evaluate your previously held views. Are you being consistent?
Now let’s get our thinking caps on.
Let’s start with some background beliefs that are possibly fueling Billy Ray’s seemingly contradictory views:
- Billy Ray believes in the autonomy of the local church. He is not alone in this belief, as most churches of a “baptistic” nature hold this view. It’s the belief that each individual church has the right to decide what they believe about the Bible, and how they will function as a Church body. Long before the Supreme Court made the decision to legalize same sex marriage, and long before DOMA was a twinkle in representative Bob Barr’s eye, churches all across America were marrying same sex couples. They were exercising their religious autonomy. These marriages were not recognized by the government (and the vast majority of employers), but they were still being performed. Christians were not lobbying for these churches to be shut down. Even in the cases where a particular church was part of an ecclesiastical organization that didn’t recognize gay marriage (or the autonomy of the local church), there were still pastors performing these ceremonies. If it was your church and you disagreed with the practice, you simply left. If it wasn’t your church and you disagreed with the practice, you simply never had to attend. Billy Ray may think the Church down the street is wrong when it comes to the belief that gay marriage is ordained by God, but he believes they still have the right to hold that belief. He simply chooses not to attend. Likewise, Billy Ray is adamant that churches that refuse to perform same sex marriages (like the one he attends) should not be penalized for their beliefs. Personally, Billy Ray could never see himself as a member of a church that performs gay marriages or that believes homosexuality is not a sin. This is not because he hates homosexuals. It is because he is constrained to adhere to what the Bible teaches.
Billy Ray believes that the Church is the true authority when it comes to marriage. If the government decided tomorrow to no longer recognize any marriages conducted in churches that refuse to perform gay marriages (and retroactively enforced it), Billy Ray wouldn’t be worried. He believes that no decision the government makes about marriage could render his own marriage null and void. The government doesn’t have that kind of authority. Marriage is ordained by God. It wasn’t the marriage license filed after his wedding that guaranteed the union Billy Ray established with his wife, it was the vows he and Lucy Mae spoke while standing at the alter. Billy Ray does understand that such a policy might effect certain benefits afforded only to married couples. While these developments would upset him, it wouldn’t take away from the fact that he is still married in the eyes of God. God is the only authority that matters when it comes to marriage. In fact, Billy Ray has long believed that government needs to get out of the marriage business all together. Despite the fact that Tony Campola has recently changed his views on homosexuality, he still said it best: I propose that the government should get out of the business of marrying people and, instead, only give legal status to civil unions. The government should do this for both gay couples and straight couples and, leave marriage in the hands of the Church and other religious entities. Amen! For this reason, Billy Ray was never in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
Billy Ray believes in the founding principles of this country. He believes that discrimination, regardless of who it’s against, is wrong. He also believes that everyone should be free to live life as they choose, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else. As a good student of American history, Billy Ray is well aware that his baptist ancestors fled Europe for this very reason. They believed in the autonomy of the local church and didn’t want any government or ecclesiastical authority telling them what they could and couldn’t do. Billy Ray has often used the following example: I disagree with atheists. I think they are severely misguided. It saddens me when they become militant in their attacks against Christians. I do not support any legislation that would criminalize atheism or prevent them from espousing their views. I am against workplace discrimination of atheists. The sole exception to this would be if a person’s beliefs about God were essential to a particular job. For example, a Christian school should not be penalized for refusing to hire an atheist as a teacher. Why should my views about homosexuals be any different? Just because I think they are wrong, does not mean they should be discriminated against.
Once you understand the convictions that lie behind his views, Billy Ray suddenly seems very consistent. In fact, his views make a great deal of sense.
But let me muddy the waters a bit more before concluding this thought experiment.
We have established that Billy Ray is not against gay marriage, but he is still very concerned about the Supreme Court’s recent decision to legalize it. In fact, he thinks it could very well be a bad thing. Have I completely confused you? Now he’s being inconsistent, right? Not really. Remember, Billy Ray doesn’t believe the government should have the authority to define or enforce marriage. That’s the role of the church. The reason for Billy Ray’s dismay? He is very worried that the government will use its authority to penalize churches that refuse to perform gay marriages.
Unfortunately, when Christians turned to the government to define and defend marriage, they ceded their authority to elected officials. They gave government the power to set the rules and enforce them. That was a bad decision. Christians should have been the biggest opponents of DOMA. Oh, it seemed right to support it back when traditional values reigned supreme. The hammer of governmental power was being wielded on behalf of the Christian. Fast forward twenty years and values have now changed. The majority of Americans support gay marriage. Guess who’s still holding the hammer? Only now, the hammer is coming down on Christians. Bad choices always come back to haunt you.
Now the challenging part of this thought experiment. Do you think Billy Ray is right? It’s one thing to begrudgingly acknowledge that he’s being consistent. It’s quite another thing to accept what he believes as true. Do his views represent what all Christians ought to believe?
I find myself agreeing with Billy Ray.
I believe that the Bible teaches homosexuality is a sin. If we are going to call ourselves Christian, then we have to stand firm on this belief. We cannot compromise. However, just because we believe homosexuality is a sin, it doesn’t give us the right to treat homosexuals differently than any other people in this world. We are all sinners. God’s love extends to us all. And as Christians, we are called to take his love to others. That includes homosexuals.
The bottom line is that we have been fighting the wrong battle when it comes to homosexuality. We were trying to outlaw gay marriage by telling our elected officials to support traditional marriage. The battle we should have been fighting was for our constitutional right to believe what the Bible teaches regarding homosexuality. We needed to protect each church’s ability to decide whom it marries and whom it doesn’t.
Marriage wasn’t established by government, it was established by God. It should be defined by churches, not by government. And, each church has the right to define it as they see fit. They answer to God, not man. Frankly, we should be far more disturbed by houses of worship performing gay marriages than the Government recognizing them. I am not upset that the Supreme Court has legalized gay marriage, but I am concerned about the impact that it will have on Christians who hold to the traditional view of marriage, believe that homosexuality is a sin, and refuse to perform gay marriages. Will it effect the tax exempt status of churches and Christian schools? It will. Of that you can be sure. Bad choices always come back to haunt you. If you need biblical confirmation of that, go back and read the story about Israel’s insistence that God give them a king. If I remember correctly, God warned then it was a bad idea. How did that turn out for Israel?
Let me end with a post I made to Facebook shortly after the Supreme Court’s recent decision on gay marriage. I think it says it best:
To all my Christian brothers and sisters who are still upset about the recent Supreme Court decision on gay marriage. Please do not jump on the bandwagon to try and find some way to have this decision overturned. That is not the answer. We should not be turning to the government to define or defend the Biblical idea of marriage. We made that mistake before, let’s not make it again. This is solely the province of individual churches, not the state. We should instead be pushing for legislation that protects our religious freedom to define marriage as we see fit (in accordance with Scripture). Yes, I see the irony in such an approach. We are asking the gay community to extend to us a courtesy that was never extended to them. I will not apologize for my views on marriage and homosexuality, for I am bound by what the Scripture teaches. However, I will apologize for the way that many Christians have engaged the homosexual community in the past. We are called to be servants of all, to love all, to bring the light of Christ to all, regardless of their beliefs or practices. I am not sure we have done a very good job of that. Please support candidates who are advocating for the protection of our religious freedom and who are not resorting to vitriolic attacks against the proponents of gay marriage.
Whether you agree with me or not, this approach is our best option. The fight is on! But before we turn to the government for help, let’s turn to God in prayer.
“And seeing the multitudes he felt compassion for them, for they were distressed and downcast like sheep without a shepherd.”
What do you see when you look at other people? What do you see when you look at your best friend? The man or woman of your dreams? The teacher who always seemed to go the extra mile to make sure you passed Algebra 2? What do you see when you look at the drug addict? The homosexual? The atheist? The adulterer? The guy who just cut you off in traffic and angrily flipped you the middle finger? Often what we see when we look at someone depends upon what we know of them personally, or how we feel about them. We form judgments. We react with either repulsion or acceptance based upon how we perceive them as moral beings. Once upon a time you may have looked up to Jared Fogle and admired the determination he displayed in losing over 200 pounds. You saw him as a role model for obese children. Now you only see him as a child predator. The natural response is disgust. Is it wrong to feel that way? We should be repulsed by the sexual abuse of children. We ought to hate adultery and the devastating effects it has on families. We should avoid the casual company of immoral people who would influence us to join them in their bad behavior. It would be wrong to hire Jared Fogle as your sixteen year old daughter’s private tutor. There is something deep inside of us that hates sin, even though we, ourselves are personally plagued by it. It is part of being made in the image of God. Even though we are fallen, the moral law within still speaks to us. It judges us. And thus, we are prone to judge others.
The problem is that most people don’t openly display their moral flaws. Instead they put on a moral front; displaying the admirable qualities, hiding the ones they know others will find unacceptable. In other words, all of us are very good at hiding the sins with which we struggle. If you suddenly had the power of omniscience and could know everything there is to know about the people that surround you, and the people that you come into contact with on a daily basis, how would it change your perception of them? Not only would you see all their good qualities, but you would also see every flaw. You would know every sin that they have committed, and every sin that they have yet to commit. Every secret thought would be on display. In short, you would see everything . . . The good, the bad and the ugly. And believe me, there would be a whole lot of ugly. How would you see them? More than likely, it would change the way you react to and interact with them. Would the affections you have for someone suddenly morph into hatred if you discovered that they secretly wished you ill will? That two-faced #%$&! Would you think twice about hugging your dear uncle if you knew that he was viewing child porn on his computer each night? Creepy, right? Would you shake the hand of the smiling stranger who you suddenly knew was involved in human trafficking? Slapping cuffs on their wrists would be more fitting. Thank God we do not have the power of omniscience! If we did, we would find it impossible to form any kind of loving relationships with others.
Of course, there was one person who had this ability. Jesus was God incarnate. He had the ability to see anything and everything. He often demonstrated this ability when he encountered people in the New Testament. The woman at the well is a perfect example. The verse above is from Matthew 9. The latter half of the chapter reflects back upon Jesus’ interactions with the many groups he encountered as he was going about teaching and healing. It tells us in verse 36 that each time he encountered a different crowd, he had compassion on them – every single one of them. He could see every secret sin in their lives; the verse above even hints at that. He saw their sin-plagued condition. They were distressed and downcast, much like fallen sheep who are in need of someone to help them get back up. The ESV uses the words “harassed and helpless.” The idea is that he saw every one of them as being in bondage to sin, and suffering the consequences. He saw it all.
Matthew is very clear in telling us how Jesus reacted upon seeing the multitudes in this way: he felt compassion. He understood their condition and wanted to do something about it. In the very next verse he issues a call for God to raise up laborers who will go out into the crowds and continue his work. We should react the same way our Savior reacted. The God of the universe, the one who sees all, and who hates sin, reacted far differently than what one might expect. Instead of revulsion, we get compassion, and the compulsion to reach out and help the afflicted. He was gripped with a love that would eventually send him to the cross to redeem his creation and free them from the power of sin. Contrast this to how we humans react upon seeing the sinful multitudes. The God of the universe who sees far more sin than any of us, and hates it far more deeply, reacted with compassion. Not hate. Not judgment. Not rejection. He went to them. He healed them. And he asks us to do the same.
Returning to my questions above, what do you see when you look at the multitudes? What do you feel when you see a group of people protesting in favor of gay marriage and equal rights for homosexuals and transgenders? If it is anything less than compassion and love, and the compulsion to minister to their needs, then you need to ask Jesus to soften your hardened heart. But keep this in mind: Jesus felt compassion because he saw their sinful condition. He didn’t overlook it or deny it. It was the very thing that drove his compassion. The call to go out into the harvest is not to simply be among the people, taking up their cause. Our task is not to try and convince people that they really aren’t distressed and downcast, harassed and helpless. It is not a call to show solidarity for our fellow man. How shallow is that? It is a call to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom and to heal “every disease and affliction,” as verse 35 clearly indicates. This is what Jesus did. It is what he is calling his laborers to do as well. Anything less than freeing people from the sin that harasses them, is not showing love and compassion.