About Me

Montgomery, Alabama, United States

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Historical Development of Philosophical Ethics

About a week ago, a former student named Lauren Horn sent me an email regarding an assignment she received for her History of Moral Philosophy class. The context of the question was the recent controversy surrounding the John Collins announcement and the Chris Broussard response. She was asked to work from her course readings to, "show how the foundations of moral thought have shifted to the point where claims to transcendent, universally valid principles are considered outdated and out of step with the times."  
I thought the question was fascinating, and knew Lauren's answer would be interesting. Therefore, I asked her to send me the paper when she finished. After reading her paper, I was reminded how essential an understanding of the historical development of philosophical ethics is in discussing moral issues with the larger culture. I immediately saw how the brief refresher course would be a helpful reference in several conversations I had been a part of, or had ongoing. I asked her if I could publish it here for that purposes, and hopefully for the edification of any who might read it. She gave me permission, with one note, "I had to remove my Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, and Kant sections and severely reduce all the others." I asked for the full version, but am afraid it was unavailable. 

Homosexuality has been around for almost as long as people have, but at no time during the history of Western Civilization has it achieved more public tolerance in Christian circles than today.  The on-going debate on the acceptance of homosexuality declares anti-homosexual attitudes to be outdated, and even pro-gay Christians declare practicing homosexuality to be an inclusion of expressing God’s love and not a sinful act.  This debate is only a reflection of the deep shift in thought that has taken place in the Western culture today, a thought that has denied transcendent universal absolutes and replaced them with subjective sentiments.  The debate of pro-homosexuality did not happen overnight, however.  Ideas, like bricks, build upon one another, and create worldviews that overtime create cultures in the same way bricks make walls that make buildings.  The growing acceptance of homosexuality in the Western world and Christian church is a result of a progression of ideas that have slowly stacked upon one another to deny innate transcendental truths but have constructed a building that at its foundation leans on them for support.  This paper will 1) ground truth and morality in Scripture, 2) trace a history of ideas from many Western thinkers showing how this conclusion arrived at a denial of transcendental truths, and 3) apply the result to the debate of homosexuality. 
For Christians, if ideas build upon one another to create walls, then Scripture must be the plumb line that tests their verticality to truth.  The Christian’s worldview must be shaped in light of Revelation as well as natural law.  Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, espouses that “the natural law is nothing else than the rational creature’s participation of the eternal law” (Question 91, Second Article). Unfortunately, humans do not always rightly participate in the eternal law and comments that it was “necessary for the directing of human conduct to have a Divine law” (Question 91, Fourth Article).  Similarly, Paul wrote to Timothy, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).  One of the reasons Jesus gives for his coming is to “testify to the truth” (John 18:37) and indeed, he is truth incarnate (John 14:6).  It is necessary to moral principles that they be grounded in the person of Jesus and aligned with the Bible.  The Divine law becomes necessary because of man’s fall in Genesis 3 where they become sinful and destined for eternal separation from God.  Romans 1 supports both God’s revelation of the natural law and the necessity of Divine law because of man’s propensity to unrighteousness: “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen being understood through what has been made, so that they [ungodly men] are without excuse.” (Verse 20)  He further explains in Verse 25 that “God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie.”  God’s Word becomes necessary for how one ought to ground moral principles because without it man’s reasoning capacities would most likely lead away from the truth.  
Setting the first brick in place, Plato pens The Republic.  In this, Plato introduces his concept of the ‘Forms’, the immaterial, transcendent, and perfect ideas of things that exist on earth.  The ‘Forms’ are the highest form of the good and are recognized because they are innate in man.  Plato does not successfully explain however the origin of these ‘Forms’, but does recognize that they do not come from the physical world.  Plato believed that man lived a previous life in the Forms and that man was trying to recollect what they had already seen.  For example, man recognizes a tree because one has seen the perfect tree before in the realm of the ‘Forms’. The soul for Plato was fastened to a dying animal but would be released upon death.  It consisted of three parts, the Will, the Appetite, and Reason.  The Will was seen as good, the Appetite as unruly and negative, and Reason as the means to be virtuous.   His pupil, Aristotle, partially disagreed arguing that there were no perfect Forms and that though there were three distinct souls, all were mortal.  
Epicurus, however, carries on Aristotle’s mortality of the soul.  In fact, Epicurus argues for a purely naturalistic world comprised of atoms, and though many in his day disregarded his ideas, they became popular when Lucretius’s poem On the Nature of Things was rediscovered in the fifteenth century.  This meant deriving truth was solely empirical, and there was nothing beyond this world that had imparted it to man.  Once man died, his soul died as well and returned back into the material world of atoms.  Epicurus then determined that the greatest good was for man to live absent of pain or disturbances.  Living an ascetic life was usually the best way to ensure this.  Pursuing sensual pleasure most often would lead to pain because man could not limit himself.   
During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, men such as John Hobbs, John Locke, and Jean Jacques Rousseau attempted to hedge themselves against Epicurean materialism but still maintained the notion that truth was solely empirical.  Hobbs carried it further deeming truth invalid and fictitious.  Justice and injustices are things that people construct, and the purpose of government is essentially to aid in man’s survival.  Morality is agreed upon by the people through their universal ability to reason, and all men are born with rights.  Jean Jacque Rousseau contributed his social contract theory, but unlike Hobbs, supported a higher view of people.  While Hobbs saw people as violent, Rousseau argued that it was civilizations that corrupted men.  Men are “noble savages” until society changes them.  Their ideas resulted in an inversion of natural rights over natural law where there is no acknowledgment of a God designed ordering of nature.  This conclusion diverges from Epicurus mainly in that morality is not characterized by asceticism but was moving towards hedonism.
The pontifications of these three are carried on with David Hume who remarks, “Truth is disputable; what exists in nature of things is the standard of our judgment; what each man feels within himself is the standard of sentiment.”  Hume grounds morality in his reason and sentiment but believes the senses cannot be absolutely trusted to perceive reality. As a result he ultimately grounds his morality in sentiment, and similar to Rousseau, believes these are derived from charity for others.  Hume naturally fixes his ethics in his sentiment because he can only trust in his opinion because it is his.  He makes himself autonomous and the result of his philosophy is seen in his view of justice.  Laying another brick in the mortar, justice becomes a utilitarian idea, coming and going as the state of men change.  These conclusions would have been in direct contrast with Plato who believed that justice was the greatest good and existed perfectly and forever in the spiritual realm.
John Stuart Mill is a culmination of much of the previous philosophy.  Pulling from Epicurean ideas, he determines that the feelings of pleasure and pain determine morality.  He remarks, “Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce happiness the reverse of happiness.  By ‘happiness’ is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by ‘unhappiness,’ pain, and the privation of pleasure.”  By pleasure, however, Mill is not defining this as a restraint in sensual pleasure.  He concludes that there are greater intellectual pleasures but that most people cannot obtain these and therefore settle for physical pleasures.  Contrary to Epicurus, Mill moved from ascetics and into the arms of hedonism.  
In 1859 The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin made its entry into the history of ideas.  Though this was a book on science, it revealed Darwin’s beliefs on metaphysics and anthropology that clearly banished any notion of absolute truths from a transcendent Creator.  Darwin writes from a purely naturalistic worldview that explains man’s evolutionary process of his coming into being.  Though Darwin postulates that there might be a Creator, he sets Nature up as a sovereign autonomous being that acts to keep the earth from becoming over populated with creatures.  He, in line with Epicurus, states that man has no purpose and no afterlife.  The only purpose he could possibly have is to survive and progress the species.  This ‘Survival of the Fittest’ denies any morality and aims at producing a perfect and pure species at whatever means it takes.
Sigmund Freud assumes a Darwinian naturalistic worldview and understanding the conflict between Darwin and Christianity, sets out in his Civilization and Its Discontents to explain Christianity and religion as “patently infantile” and “incongruous with reality” and laments that most will never be able to rise above this.  Freud explains that suffering is a result of Religion’s and specifically Christianity’s oppressive nature of man’s instinctual desires.  Since Christianity is not true, man has no purpose because religion is the only thing that gives man a purpose.  Man is then free to completely act to fulfill his desires.  Freud, unlike Epicurus, finds the greatest happiness in unrestraint in sensual pleasure.  Sensual pleasure can express itself in any sexual behavior and acting completely on one’s instincts is the greatest happiness and good for everyone involved.  The result of denying transcendent truths from a Creator has found itself in unbridled hedonism as a result of self-autonomy and a loss of man’s purpose.
Concluding with the final philosopher, Nietzsche, with a bang, sets the final brick in mortar with his famous “God is dead.”  With a “Hobbsian” evaluation of human nature, he describes the violent and power hungry nature of man but remarks that this is virtuous and should not be governed.  His contribution of the ‘Transvaluation of Values’ embraces the existentialist conclusion that life is absurd.  This idea encourages the intellectually elite “to get rid of the humdrum character of old valuations” which he means to be the morality found in the Bible and tradition Western civilization.  Since life is nothing and purposeless, the ‘will to power’ or domination of creation is the only thing for man to do.  Embracing the irrational and purposeless universe is true morality.       
In light of these ideas, one can see that many in the Western world have abandoned the designed, ordered, and purposed world found in Genesis1:27-28a and welcomed a nihilistic irrational worldview that has no thought of appropriate sexuality.  There are no absolutes in this ridiculous world.  Man is autonomous and should be allowed to express sexuality freely.  The reality though is that man does not live this way.  The current debate regarding John Collins’ announcement of his homosexuality and the angry response that Chris Broussard received from pro-gay supporters when calling it a “rebellion against God” proves that man adheres to some concept of fairness or rightness in the world.  By arguing for autonomy they actually undermine it by denying another’s autonomy.  It’s a classic case of wanting one’s cake and eating it too.  To return to the wall analogy, they are walking up stairs of a building they have not built nor do they own.  They are constantly categorizing a right and a wrong in their mind whether it is expressive of what Aquinas’ calls ‘eternal law’ or not.  Now this is what one could call absurd.    

Monday, May 13, 2013

A Mother's Day Message

I was given the honor of filling the pulpit at Morningview Baptist Church on Mother's Day this past Sunday. The audio has been posted on the church website, and I wanted to share it here, with an outline.

Why Did God Make Women? Genesis 1:26-31

I. God's Purpose for Creating Mankind (26-27)
A. Image: 
B. Dominion: 

II. God's Purpose for Making Them Male and Female (28-31)
A. Be Fruitful:
B. Multiply:
C. Fill the earth:
D. Subdue the earth:

III. A Biblical Picture of Womanhood
A. The Church as Bride:
B. The Church as Wife:
C. The Church as Mother: