When I am dead I hope the people who knew me well will say I lived a “good life.”
For the ancient Greek philosophers, a “good life” meant a life of deep reflection about the big questions of human existence. It also involved the active pursuit of moral goodness. In fact, the early philosophers of Athens defined ethics as “the study of the good.” Philosophy (the love of wisdom) itself was even viewed as consisting of an ethical education.
Christian philosophers through the centuries have also highly prized the role of ethics. Christianity may even be defined as consisting of a set of beliefs, a collection of values, and a way of life (or worldview). To be a Christian involves coming to grips with the question of moral goodness in our relationship to God. As sinners, we lack a sufficient level of moral goodness in ourselves in order to be acceptable before a perfectly holy, righteous, and just God. Thus, it is God’s goodness and love in Jesus Christ that bestows salvation on all who believe the Gospel message (John 3:16).
In later installments of the series I will identify fundamental questions that the study of ethics presupposes. I will also introduce how historic Christianity has approached the study of the good. However, allow me to begin our brief study of this topic by defining some key terms that are used in the formal study of ethics.
Defining Key Ethical Terms
1. Ethics (Greek: ethos): The systematic study of what constitutes good and bad (or right and wrong) human conduct, including related action and values.
While the terms ethics and morals are often used interchangeably in popular discourse, ethics more properly refers to a code of conduct. A person’s ethics describes the reasons (or rationale) that stand behind that person’s moral actions. Ethics, therefore, involve the systematic justification or warrant for moral action and behavior. In other words, ethics are the reasons why a person does what he does.
2. Morals (Latin: moralis): The individual or specific actions of a person within a moral context, including attitudes and motives.
If ethics constitute the reasons why a person does what he does (a code), then morals are what the person actually does (actions or behavior).
Of course, ethics and morals function together. People’s moral behavior clearly flows from their ethical consideration. Consider the following chart:
Ethical deliberation => Moral action
For example, Roman Catholic ethical teaching declares that God created all human beings in his image and that human life begins at conception. It further states that all human life is sacred and valuable. The moral expectation on the part of the individual Catholic believer is to promote a “culture of life” and, thus, repudiate the practice of abortion. The ethics would reflect a “pro-life” viewpoint, while the morals would result in the condemnation of abortion and the promotion of adoption as a moral alternative.
3. Values: An estimation of the worth or importance of an idea, action, or thing. This criterion includes moral values, value theory (the importance of things in general), and aesthetics (the study of beauty and taste).
The term value is connected to ethics because people typically orient their lives around what they consider to be of most importance. For example, parents who value their children will make decisions based upon the best interest of their kids.
To tie these three important terms together, our values (deemed of greatest worth) inform our ethics (code of conduct) that in turn leads to our morals (actions and behavior).
Christianity is a faith that has much to say about truth, goodness, and appropriate human conduct. It behooves believers to be clear in their thinking on important topics like ethics.
The next installment in this series features definitions of three more important ethical terms.
For more on the study of ethics, see chapters 16 and 18 of my book Without a Doubt: Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions and chapters 1 and 11 of my book A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test.
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