Reasons to Believe

Thinking About Ethics Part 3

Photo of Kenneth SamplesThe laws of physics are discovered by human beings, not invented. But would you say the same about ethical laws? Are ethical principles invented or discovered?

What is good (ethics) cannot exist in a metaphysical (relating to reality) and epistemological (relating to truth) vacuum. One’s view of appropriate human conduct will have a lot to do with what a person thinks about the nature of reality and truth. In other words, one’s ethical views are greatly impacted by one’s broader and more comprehensive worldview.

In the first two articles in this series I provided definitions of key terms used in the formal study of ethics. This article will begin exploring five critical questions that show how a formal system of ethics is impacted by other philosophical considerations.

The Five Problems of Ethics

1. What characterizes human nature?

An adequate worldview should illumine the human condition. A particular worldview’s anthropology (view of humanity) will orient human nature in a specific direction. There are some critical questions that need to be asked about the nature of humanity. Consider the following:

Are human beings born morally good, bad (sinful), or neutral?

It is interesting that the three Middle Eastern monotheistic religions provide three different answers to this important question. Islam strongly asserts that mankind is morally good. Historic Christianity, on the other hand, proclaims that humankind is sinful by nature. Modern-day Judaism insists that human nature is morally neutral. Obviously all three positions cannot be correct.

Another question relates to man’s basic rationality. Judaism and Christianity say that human beings are rational in nature because humans were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27). The Eastern religion of Hinduism, on the other hand, asserts that human beings are unenlightened as to their true nature (man is divine and has forgotten it—a type of cosmic amnesia).

The naturalistic worldview that posits the physical cosmos as the only reality struggles to explain man’s apparent rationality. How can the rational enterprises of logic, math, and science come from a world resulting from a physical accident? And isn’t the mind of human beings also the product of that evolutionary accident?

Identifying human nature is a very important issue in developing a system of ethics.

2. What is the greatest good?

This is where values directly impact ethical considerations. The study of ethics seeks to identify the greatest good (Latin: summum bonum). The philosophical presumption is that life is about identifying the greatest good and appropriately orienting one’s life around it.

But just what is the greatest good? What is the ultimate concern for human beings? What is the goal or object of life itself?

Naturalistic evolutionists insist that life is all about physical survival. Hedonistic philosophers maintain that pleasure is the main goal. Still others contend that gaining power, wealth, and fame is the primary objective. Eastern religion claims that life is about becoming spiritually enlightened and ultimately becoming one with an impersonal deity (pantheism).

The Bible, however, reveals the greatest good as being God himself (an infinite, eternal, and morally perfect being, the Creator of the cosmos, and the Redeemer of lost sinners). A saving relationship with God through the gospel is central to the historic Christian message. The Bible describes salvation as enjoying a loving relationship with God forever (John 3:16).

In ensuing articles I will explore the three other questions that make up “the five problems of ethics.”

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.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

Subjects: Ethics

Kenneth R. Samples

I believe deeply that “all truth is God’s truth.” As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity’s truth-claims. Read more about Kenneth Samples.