What are the five fundamental philosophical questions concerning ethics?
In part three of this series I began exploring “the five problems of ethics.” These questions raise critical philosophical issues relating to the overall study of ethics. The first two questions were addressed in the previous installment:
1. What characterizes human nature?
2. What is the greatest good?
This article will address a third philosophical question that helps illumine the subject of ethics.
3. How is the greatest good known?
Philosophers refer to the greatest good (Latin: summum bonum) as the highest value of life. This supreme good should be humankind’s ultimate concern in life. People typically identify the greatest good and then orient their life around it. The ancient Greek philosophers identified ethics as the pursuit of the good.
Different philosophical and religious schools of thought identify the greatest good variously (pleasure, power, virtue, enlightenment, God, etc.).
The question considered here, however, relates to how the ultimate good is known. Questions about knowledge claims involve the field of philosophy known as epistemology. This area of philosophy examines the origin, nature, limits, and validity of knowledge. It is important to appreciate that questions about what is good (ethics) cannot be separated from questions about knowledge (epistemology) and questions about reality (metaphysics).
Some philosophical systems insist that the greatest good is known through human experience. Others assert that it is derived through the deliverances of reason. Still others suggest that the greatest good is known through a form of human intuition.
Biblical religious traditions (Judaism and Christianity) proclaim that the greatest good, God, is known through revelation (God unveiling himself). That revelation includes the created order (such as conscience and reason) as well as the special form of revelation known as sacred Scripture (the Bible).
From a Christian perspective, God, the greatest good, is revealed to human beings both externally and internally. God has revealed his existence through the externally created cosmos (Romans 1:18-21) as well as through the internally created conscience (Romans 2:14-15). Being created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27) ensures that human beings are both capable of knowing God and of forming beliefs about what is authentically good.
Historic Christianity has always affirmed that God is the greatest good and that ethics flow from the eternal moral character of God. Many Christian philosophers have embraced what is known as Divine Command Theory. This ethical theory affirms that moral duty is defined in terms of God’s commands.
The last article in the series discusses the two remaining questions of “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.
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