Reasons to Believe

Thinking About Ethics Part 5

What are the critical questions to ask when examining a system of ethics? What worldview implications stand behind the issue of morality?

In parts three and four of this series I began exploring what is called the five problems of ethics. These questions raise critical philosophical issues relating to the overall study of ethics. The first three questions (which were addressed in the previous installments) consist of the following:

1. What characterizes human nature? 2. What is the greatest good? 3. How is the greatest good known?

In this article I will address the final two philosophical questions that help to illumine the subject of ethics.

4. What motivates and restrains moral choices?

People often do what they do for specific reasons. This also holds true in the area of ethics. Seeking gain or avoiding loss are normal human incentives and even serve to motivate or restrain moral action.

People can be motivated and/or restrained in ethical terms based upon reward or punishment. Obedience and desire can also serve to encourage or discourage moral behavior.

In a biblical context, however, love for God and one’s fellow man is identified as the greatest motive in living an ethical life.

According to the Gospels ([Mark 12:28-34] and [Matthew 22:34-40]), an expert on Jewish law asked Jesus a challenging question:

“Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

Jesus responsed:

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

Historic Christianity affirms that the ultimate motive and restraint for living an ethical life as a believer should be one’s love for God and, by extension, one’s love for other people. However, the ability to love God and one’s neighbor is made possible only by God’s enabling grace ([1 John 4:10]).

Many Christian theologians have argued that when God rewards his children in the next life for living lives of obedience he will be, in effect, crowning his own gifts.

5. Do human beings possess the freedom of the will?

The question of human free will is a hotly contested issue in both philosophy and theology. Some philosophers grant humans a liberty of the will and insist that morality is impossible without it. Others insist on some form of determinism (all acts result from prior causes). Still others embrace what amounts to a form of fatalism (either materialistic or theological in nature).

Within historic Christianity there has existed a healthy debate through the centuries over the freedom of the will. Some have sought to maximize human freedom (libertarian free will). Others have argued for compatibility between God’s sovereignty on one hand and man’s responsibility on the other. Clearly, ethical considerations are closely connected to one’s view of man’s nature and will.

These five questions help one to appreciate that the field of ethics is impacted by other weighty philosophical and theological issues. For the Christian, however, thinking about what is good in life is a biblical mandate.

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.