Monday, January 22, 2007

Is ethics about hard cases, or about character?

A word about your textbooks

Many years ago now, my husband Steve wrote a paper, "Christian Ethics and the Ethics of Virtue," on this very question. It first appeared in The Covenant Quarterly (August 1987), pp. 125-134, then was anthologized in Readings in Christian Ethics, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994), pp. 257-266. You can read it here: It will give you a window on the options Christians now deal with in a world where ethical theories lie about like broken shards.

Basically, ever since Kant and Mill ethics has focused on "hard cases," dilemmas and case studies. The question,"what should I do?" swells to become the single overriding concern of ethics. What is the right thing to do? eclipses the premodern question, "what is the good life? what does a virtuous person look like?"

The Premodernist Christian assumes that what is most fundamental is the kind of persons we are; and that our actions flow from our character. On the other hand, Modernism fixates on action, and ignores being.

One of our textbooks, Ethical Issues in Modern Medicine, is written from a modernist/postmodernist point of view. Thus you will see it worries a lot about autonomy, and delights in case studies and difficult situations. Our other textbook, Bioethics: A Primer for Christians, is written from a premodernist point of view. As a book written "by a Christian for Christians," it discusses the virtues that should characterize us as followers of Christ, and only then does it attempt to discern the sort of actions that fall out from that character.

What do you think? Is ethics only about asking the question, "what should I do?" Or, before you ask that question, is it about answering an even more fundamental one: "Who do you say I am? " (Matthew 16:15) and ordering your being in accord with the answer you give?

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