Values and Virtues part 1: Morality and Ethics

According to legend, when architect Christopher Wren completed the new St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Queen Anne’s response was that the edifice was “awful, artificial, and amusing.” Wren went from that encounter not to mourn but to rejoice over the royal response. After all, her (legendary) evaluation, at first glance quite insulting in the English of only 200 years later (Wren’s builders finished the cathedral in 1708), was that the cathedral struck the eye sublimely (awful), exhibited the highest of craftsmanship (artificial), and transported the soul that beheld it (amusing.)

I realize that as I write these things, I am breaking no new ground. Such is not always the office of the teacher; sometimes (more often than not) our job is to remind. This little set of posts will attempt to remind the reader about words’ etymologies and how they can help us think about how we live as Christians in the world.

Sometimes Words Have Two Meanings

Overinterpreting can sometimes be worse than misinterpreting, so I must first, in the interest of honesty, note that the Romans (they and the Greeks always come up in my posts, don’t they?) saw mos and its forms as perfectly suitable translations for the Greek ethika. Hence Latin editions refer without much of a second thought to Aristotle’s famous work on ethics (Greek Ta Ethika) as the Moribus ad Nicomachum. I say this largely to avoid the error of assuming that some vast genetic gap exists between ethics and morality.

That said, some more modern developments in right-and-wrong talk might prove helpful as I explore the languages of values and of virtues, so for the purposes of this little piece, I will use ethics to refer to that body of expectations that defines a class of people within a larger community and morality to indicate a set of expectations that, according to those who still speak of morality, binds all people irrespective of their roles in the community.

Such a distinction is not entirely arbitrary: in modern universities many departments offer courses on business ethics, legal ethics, bioethics, and other sorts of ethics. That one can distinguish between business and legal ethics indicates that one can expect different sorts of things from a physician than from a lawyer and that the character of the position to some extent determines the expectations. On the other hand, aside from joking contexts, one less frequently hears about morality specific to a profession. When writers write about a decline in morality, they generally mean a trend in behavior common to all kinds of people.

The distinction is important, I think, because given such a distinction, we Christians have a duty both to talk about morality and about Christian ethics, and the two are not always the same.

With regards to morality, I will not here advance any suggestions as to the content of morality but will insist that we Christians should indeed have something to say about it. To say that one’s tradition speaks truthfully about what makes human life good is not the imperialistic claim that folks often lay at the feet of Christians. It is simply to say that one has a philosophy worth calling a philosophy. Whatever morality is, Christians have a stake in its shape.

That said, whatever Christians say about morality, we should say it assuming that not everyone is among those chosen to be God’s city on a hill. (Old Calvinists might say that not all are elect.) Morality as a category applies to a good life that is common to a community and ultimately to any given community. If we Christians decline to speak about human good, we’ll be the only ones who have dropped out of that race; the Marxists and agnostics and capitalists have already spoken and will continue to speak.

But for the moment, I will set morality aside and talk about what it might mean to speak and write about Christian ethics.

The Priesthood of the Faithful

I realize that most Protestants prefer to talk about the Priesthood of Believers, but allow me for a moment to shift the focus of that concept from cognition to life more broadly considered. When Martin Luther articulated this concept in Babylonian Captivity of the Church, his point seems to be that while a congregation can and perhaps ought to choose from among itself members who will be ministers, Christ has lain priestly responsibilities and priestly functions upon all whom Christ claims as followers.

In Luther’s polemic the target seems to be the hierarchy of Rome; however, if I might reduce for a moment the phrase’s proximity to those disputes, I will note that in Exodus 19 (later to be echoed in 1 Peter 2 and Revelation 5), Ha-Shem gives the people a role relative to the nations that are not Israel. For a nation to be priestly means that what God expects of them differs from and stands related to the good life for humanity in general.

Such is the beginning of Christian ethics. In Romans and 1 Peter among other places, the New Testament indicates that the Church has taken on the priestly responsibility that characterizes God’s people on earth. Because of that role in the world, Christian ethics has to do not only with how we live as individual consciousnesses before God but also with how we live as priest to the nations.

To delve into the content of Christian ethics would also go beyond the scope of a blog post. As a matter of form, Christian ethics would have to take into account those three important entities: the World, broadly conceived; the Church; and God known as Father and Son and Spirit. It would have to give a compelling account of how the Christian remains in the world (as an American, a female, a lawyer, a vegetarian) while being not-of-the-world.

Moreover, Christian ethics must, I think, have something to do with the shape of everyday life, those practices that both mark us off as the priestly people and constitute our priestly role in the lives of the nations. In the next part of this series of posts, I will talk for a bit about the virtues and Virtue and how they play out in a priestly ethics.


About Nathan Gilmour

Nathan P. Gilmour is a Christian, a husband, a father, and a college English teacher. He tries to do all of that and write something worthwhile on occasion.


2 thoughts on “Values and Virtues part 1: Morality and Ethics

  1. >So what do you think about the basic taxonomy that I set up in this series? Does my distinction between morality and Christian ethics make sense? And do you reckon I located values properly relative to those two?

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | October 11, 2007, 9:54 pm
  2. >It appears that most Christians today aren’t prepared to talk about ethics. Shame.

    Posted by Berny | October 11, 2007, 3:35 pm

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