Christianity's Contribution to the History of Ethics

"God cannot talk about anything but Himself.” Léon Bloy’s remark about the Bible is an important half-truth. The Bible is a story about God in which human beings appear as incidental characters. That which is omitted by Bloy’s epigram is the rich foreground of tribal saga, Middle Eastern kingship, prophesying and ritual, eating, drinking, sex, and death, which constitute the incidents. But that these constitute only the foreground becomes obvious if we remove God from the story: for what is then left is a jumble of characters and events in which all connection is lost. It is easy to underestimate this unity of the Bible; one way to bring out its importance is to reconsider some sociological theses about religion.

Myths, as anthropologists tell us, exhibit social pattern and structure. Myth and ritual together provide a means whereby men can exhibit to themselves the forms of their collective life. If we ask the key question of a society, What is holy to whom, we shall lay bare the different norms that inform social life. This is the thought that inspired Durkheim and his pupils in their work on religion, and especially on relatively primitive religion. It is a thought equally applicable to modern American religion, if we consider the way in which American religion acquired its hegemony by its key role in the work of imposing the norms of American homogeneity upon immigrant variety, and how, in filling this role, it transformed its own content. But it is equally clearly a source of great misunderstanding, if we suppose that this kind of analysis could afford us an exhaustive understanding of religion in the case of those religions which outlast a single people or society. In such religions we find built up a set of beliefs and ways of behaving which become relatively independent of particular, specific forms of social life. For this very reason we shall expect to find built into such religions enormous flexibility and adaptability with regard to behavior. We shall expect to discover a great capacity for coming to terms with quite different sets of moral standards in different times and places.

If this is the kind of expectation that we ought to have about religions which have a longer history than had the societies they outlasted, then it is pre-eminently the kind of expectation that we ought to form of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. We shall not be disappointed. The successive expression of the forms of life of Hebraic tribalism, Hellenistic monarchy, the Roman imperial proletariat, Constantinian bureaucrats, and the long list of their successors results in a theology which can accommodate a wide range of views in ethics. To an age which, like our own, has been continually exhorted to find the solutions to its own problems in Christian morality, it will perhaps come as a relief to consider that the whole problem of Christian morality is to discover just what it is. What bishops and journalists suppose to exist somewhere–if not on tables of stone, at least in materials of undoubted durability–turns out to be almost as elusive as the snark. And yet in speaking of a continuous tradition and of a single religion we appear to presuppose some sort of unity. This unity consists in certain themes which, although they can provide a context for very different sorts of norm and behavior, still furnish an entirely distinctive context. These themes are essentially as follows.

God is our father. God commands us to obey him. We ought to obey God because he knows what is best for us, and what is best for us is to obey him. We fail to obey him and so become estranged from him. We therefore need to learn how to be reconciled to God so that we can once more live in a familial relationship with him. These themes are of course susceptible of doctrinal development in a number of quite different directions. But what every such development necessarily embodies is the problem of reconciling two quite different models for understanding moral concepts and moral precepts.

The first of these conceives of moral precepts in terms of commandments and of moral goodness in terms of obedience. Why should I do that? “Because God says so.” This at once raises the question, But why should I do what God commands? and to this there are three possible kinds of answer. The first points to God’s holiness, the second to his goodness, the third to his power. I may answer “Just because he is God,” and refuse to amplify this in any way. By this refusal I remain within the closed circle of religious concepts. The presupposition of the use of such concepts is that worship is a rational activity (“our reasonable service,” as it is called in the New Testament) and God is defined as an adequate object of worship. Since worship involves a total abasement before and a total obedience to its object, in calling something or someone God I commit myself to obey its or his commandments. But it does not follow from this, as might be thought, that once I have accepted the practices of worship I am irremediably committed to an incorrigible religious dogmatism. For I can ask of any proposed object of worship, Is this an adequate object? Among the criteria of adequacy both the power and the knowledge that can be credibly ascribed to the object will appear, and since for any finite identifiable object it will be possible to conceive of some object that is more powerful and knows more, it will always be the case that any finite object is a less worthy object of worship than some other which can be conceived to exist. The ascent of this particular scale continues indefinitely to the point at which worshipers realize that only a nonfinite object, not identifiable as a particular being, is secure from displacement as God and characterization as mere idol. But, of course, by losing particularity, by becoming in the religious sense infinite, God becomes also questionable. For existence and particularity appear inextricably bound together. The leap from theism to monotheism prefigures the leap from theism to atheism; but, happily for religion, usually by some thousands of years.

Up to this point I have intentionally avoided remarking that among the criteria of adequacy by which the object of worship is judged, moral criteria normally appear. For at this point the first type of answer to the question, Why should I do what God commands? passes over into the second type of answer, “Because he is good.” Since this answer has to function as a reason for obedience to God, it follows that good must be defined in terms other than those of obedience to God if we are to avoid a vacuous circularity. It follows that I must have access to criteria of goodness which are independent of my awareness of divinity. But if I possess such criteria, I am surely in a position to judge of good and evil on my own account, without consulting the divine commandments. To this the believer will correctly reply that if God is not only good, but also omniscient, his knowledge of effects and consequences will make him a better moral guide than anyone else. What one should note about this reply is that although it provides us with a reason for doing what God commands, if we act only for this reason, we shall be in the position of taking God’s advice rather than of being obedient to him. But this is normally impossible in actual religions on other specifically religious grounds. For, first of all, God does not only know better than we what the outcomes of alternative courses of action will be; it is he who makes these alternative outcomes be what they are. And where, as often, God makes it a condition of a favorable outcome for us that we obey him, he provides us with quite another sort of reason for obeying him. If God’s goodness makes it reasonable to do what he commands, his power makes it reasonable to do this in a spirit of obedience. But at this point we have already passed on to the third type of answer to the question, Why should I do what God commands?–namely, “Because of his power.”

The power of God is both a useful and a dangerous concept in morals. The danger lies partly in this: if I am liable to be sent to hell for not doing what God commands, I am thereby provided with a corrupting, because totally self-interested, motive for pursuing the good. When self-interest is made as central as this, other motives are likely to dwindle in importance and a religious morality becomes self-defeating, at least insofar as it was originally designed to condemn pure self-interest. At the same time, however, the power of God is a useful, and for certain periods of history, morally indispensable concept. I have already suggested that the connection between virtue and happiness is one which can be made out more or less plausibly depending upon the rules and the ends which are advanced in a particular form of society. When social life is so organized that virtue and happiness appear in fact to have no connection, the conceptual relationships will be altered, for it will become impossible to argue that the appropriate form of justification for the conventional and established rules of virtue is to appeal to the happiness or the satisfaction to be obtained by following them. At this point either some justification is found for the conventional rules of virtue (for example, that they are to be followed “for their own sake”) or the rules are abandoned. The danger lies in the possibility that all sight of the connection will be lost, that virtue appear independent of and even contrary to happiness, and that desires become primarily material for repression. The utility of the concept of the power of God is that it may help to keep alive belief in and an elementary understanding of the connection in social conditions where any relationship between virtue and happiness appears accidental. In a society where disease, famine, hunger, and death at any early age are among the staple components of human life, as they have been for the vast majority of people throughout history, belief in the power of God to make happiness coincide with virtue, at least in another world, if not in this, keeps open the question of the point of moral rules. Even this usefulness of the concept has of course its concomitant danger: that belief in the power of God should breed a belief that the connection between virtue and happiness is made only in heaven, and not on earth. It at best belongs to the class of desperate remedies for morality in impoverished and disordered societies; but this should not obscure the fact that it has provided such a remedy.

This view of the role of the concept of the power of God may suggest that religious conceptions of morality are intelligible only insofar as they complement or otherwise elaborate upon existing secular conceptions. This suggestion is surely correct. If religion is to propound a set of rules or a set of goals successfully, it must do so by showing that to live in the light of such rules and goals will be productive of what men can independently judge to be good. It would be absurd to deny that the world religions, and more especially Christianity, have been the bearers of new values. But these new values have to commend themselves by reason of the role that they can have in human life. There is, for example, no reason to quarrel with the contention that Christianity introduced even more strongly than the Stoics did the concept of every man as somehow equal before God. Even if, from St. Paul to Martin Luther, this conviction appeared compatible with the institutions of slavery and serfdom, it provided a ground for attacking those institutions whenever their abolition appeared remotely possible. But insofar as the notion of the equality of men before God has moral content, it has so because it implies a type of human community in which nobody has superior rights of a moral or political kind to anyone else, but need is the criterion of one’s claim upon other people, and the type of community is to be commended or otherwise insofar as it provides a better or worse framework within which men’s ideals for themselves and for others can be realized.

In fact, the distinctive values of equality and of the criteria of need which Christianity in large part begot could not possibly commend themselves as general values for human life until it began to appear possible for the basic material inequalities of human life to be abolished. So long as men produce such a small economic surplus that most men have to live at or near subsistence level and only a few can enjoy much more than this, so long must the form of the consumption entrench an inequality of rights in social life. Equality under such conditions has to be a vision at best, and to give that vision religious sanction is the only way of maintaining it. It is only in small, separated communities that values of fraternity and equality can be incarnated; they cannot provide a program for society as a whole.

The paradox of Christian ethics is precisely that it has always tried to devise a code for society as a whole from pronouncements which were addressed to individuals or small communities to separate themselves off from the rest of society. This is true both of the ethics of Jesus and of the ethics of St. Paul. Both Jesus and St. Paul preached an ethics devised for a short interim period before God finally inaugurated the Messianic kingdom and history was brought to a conclusion. We cannot, therefore, expect to find in what they say a basis for life in a continuing society. Moreover, Jesus is, in any case, concerned not to expound a self-sufficient code, but to provide a corrective for the Pharisaic morality, a corrective which is partly a matter of bringing the point of the Pharisaic rules into the picture and partly a matter of showing how the rules must be construed if the coming of the kingdom is imminent. Hence the only form of prudence is to look to the kingdom. To take thought for the morrow, to lay up treasure on earth, not to sell all you have and give to the poor–these are essentially imprudent policies. You will lose your own soul if you pursue such policies, precisely because the world you gain is not going to last. The appeal of the Gospels to self-love, and their assumption of a basic self-love in human nature, is frank. The command to love one’s neighbor as oneself could scarcely have force otherwise. Equally, St. Paul is misunderstood if he is taken to be issuing injunctions on other than an interim basis; St. Paul’s dislike of marriage as other than an expedient (“It is better to marry than to burn”) is not so inhumane as unhistorically minded secularists have made it out to be, if it is understood in terms of the pointlessness of satisfying desires and creating relationships now which will hinder one from obtaining the rewards of eternal glory in the very near future. But this kind of apology for St. Paul is, of course, more fatal to Pauline ethics than the conventional secularist attack. For the crucial fact is that the Messianic kingdom did not come, and that therefore the Christian church ever since has been preaching an ethics which could not find application in a world where history had not come to an end. Modern sophisticated Christians tend to be highly contemptuous about those who assign a date to the Second Coming; yet their own, not only dateless, but undatable, conception of that Coming is far more foreign to the New Testament.

It is therefore not surprising that insofar as Christianity has propounded moral beliefs and elaborated moral concepts for ordinary human life, it has been content to accept conceptual frameworks from elsewhere. We should notice three main examples of this. The first is the borrowing from feudal social life of concepts of hierarchy and role. When St. Anselm explains man’s relationship to God he does so in terms of the relationship of disobedient tenants to a feudal lord. When he explains the different services owed to God by angels, monastics, and laity, he compares them respectively to the services of those who hold a fief permanently in return for services, of those who serve in the hope of receiving such a fief, and of those who are paid wages for services performed but have no hope of permanence. It is crucial to note that a Christianity which in order to provide norms, has to be expressed in feudal terms thereby deprives itself of every opportunity for criticizing feudal social relations. But this is not the whole story. The theories of atonement and redemption, not only in Anselm but in other medieval theologians, depend on their conception of obedience or disobedience to the will of God. How are the values which God enjoins to be understood? The unsurprising answer is that the medieval God is always a compromise between the commanding voice of Jahweh upon Sinai and the god of the philosophers. Which philosophers? Either Plato or Aristotle.

The Platonic dichotomy between the world of sense perception and the realm of Forms is Christianized by St. Augustine into a dichotomy between the world of the natural desires and the realm of divine order. The world of the natural desires is that of his love for his mistress before his conversion and that of the Realpolitik of the earthly as against the heavenly city (“What are empires but great robberies?”). By an ascetic discipline, one ascends in the scale of reason, receiving illumination not from that Platonic anticipation, the Form of the Good, but from God. The illuminated mind is enabled to choose rightly between the various objects of desire which confront it. Cupiditas, the desire for earthly things, is gradually defeated by caritas, the desire for heavenly, in what is essentially a Christianized version of Diotima’s message in the Symposium.

The Aristotelianism of Aquinas is far more interesting, for it is concerned not with escaping from the snares of the world and of desire, but with transforming desire for moral ends. It differs from the Aristotelianism of Aristotle in three main ways. Theoria becomes that vision of God which is the goal and satisfaction of human desire; the list of the virtues is modified and extended; and both the concept of the telos and that of the virtues are interpreted in a framework of law which has both Stoic and Hebraic origins. The natural law is that code to which we incline by nature; the supernatural law of revelation complements but does not replace it. The first injunction of the natural law is self-preservation; but the self which has to be preserved is the self of an immortal soul whose nature is violated by irrational slavery to impulse. The virtues are both an expression of and a means to obedience to the commandments of the natural law; and to the natural virtues are added the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity. The key difference between Aristotle and Aquinas lies in the relationship which each takes to hold between the descriptive and the narrative elements of his analysis. Aristotle describes the virtues of the polis, and takes them to be normative for human nature as such; Aquinas describes the norms for human nature as such, and expects to find them exemplified in human life in particular societies. Aquinas cannot treat the descriptive task with the confidence of Aristotle because he has a belief in original sin; human nature as it ought to be, not human nature as it is, is the norm. But because he has neither the earlier Augustinian nor the later Protestant belief in the wholesale corruption of human desires and choices, he can treat human nature as it is as a tolerably reliable guide to human nature as it ought to be. As a Christian he, unlike Aristotle, although like the Stoics, treats human nature as one in all men. There are no slaves by nature. Moreover the table of the virtues is different. Humility takes its place; and so does religion in the sense of a disposition to perform the practices of due worship. But what is important in Aquinas is not so much the particular amendments which he makes to the Aristotelian scheme as the way in which he exhibits the flexibility of Aristotelianism. Aristotle’s concepts can provide a rational framework for moralities very different from Aristotle’s own. Aquinas, in fact, shows us how the conceptual links between virtue and happiness forged by Aristotle are a permanent acquisition for those who want to exhibit these links without admiring the great-souled man or without accepting the framework of the fourth-century polis.

Aquinas’ theological ethics is such as to preserve the nontheological meaning of the word good. “Good is that to which desire tends.” To call God good is to name him as the goal of desire. Thus the criterion of goodness is essentially nontheological. The natural man, without revelation, can know what is good, and the point of moral rules is to achieve goods, that is to achieve what satisfies desire. So “God is good” is a synthetic proposition, and to cite God’s goodness is to give a reason for obeying his commandments. This view is replaced in the later Middle Ages by a quite different doctrine. Rapid transformation of the social order is always apt to make earlier formulation of natural law doctrine seem inapplicable. Men begin to look for the end of their life not within the forms of human community, but in some mode of individual salvation outside them. Natural religion and natural law are replaced by an appeal to divine revelation and to mystical experience. The distance between God and man is emphasized. Man’s finitude and sinfulness entail that he can have no knowledge of God but what he receives by grace, and man is held to possess by nature no criteria by which he can judge what God says, or is alleged to say. Good is defined in terms of God’s commandments: “God is good” becomes analytic, and so does “We ought to do what God commands.” The rules which God enjoins upon us can have no further justification in terms of our desires. Indeed, both in social life and in the conceptual scheme, the opposition between rules and desires becomes paramount. Asceticism and overasceticism (which Aquinas had characterized as “giving stolen gifts to God”) become prominent in religion. The reasons for obeying God have to be in terms of his power and his numinous holiness rather than of his goodness.

The most notable philosopher who makes God’s commandment the basis of goodness, rather than God’s goodness a reason for obeying him, is William of Occam. Occam’s attempt to base morals upon revelation is the counterpart of his restriction in theology upon what can be known by nature. Philosophical skepticism about some of the arguments of natural theology combines with theological fideism to make grace and revelation the sources for our knowledge of God’s will. The oddity of Occam’s critical rationalism is that it leaves the divine commandments as arbitrary edicts which demand a nonrational obedience. In Aquinas’ Christianity room is left for an Aristotelian rationality; in Occam’s there is none. The conclusion is perhaps that on an issue of this kind it matters more what kind of Christian or of non-Christian morality we are offered than whether the morality is Christian or not. And this view is not itself incompatible with a Thomist Christianity which exhibits more of a kinship with certain kinds of secular rationalism than with certain kinds of Christian irrationalism.

Nonetheless, this very fact makes it difficult to give an adequate account of the contribution of theism to the history of ethics. If one abstracts, for example, Abelard’s early analysis of rightness (right action depends wholly on intention) or Grotius’ later development of Aquinas’ view of natural law into a law for the nations, one picks out what is not specifically theistic. If one develops in detail the morality of Augustinianism, one is expounding theology which appeals to revelation rather than a philosophical ethics. Hence one must err on the Middle Ages either by being encyclopedic or by being marginal. If, as I have done, one chooses the latter error, it is not as the lesser, but as the more manageable of two evils.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This excerpt of Chapter 9 from Alasdair MacIntyre's early book (originally published in 1966, many years before he converted to Catholicism), A Short History of Ethics, is part of an ongoing collaboration with the University of Notre Dame Press. It is our aim to introduce our readers to the full range of MacIntyre's thought. We hope this endeavor will help our audience nuance the many public debates that use MacIntyre's thought to address pressing contemporary issues. Essays from the series will be collected here.

You can watch Alasdair MacIntyre's plenary lecture at this years Fall Conference on 11/8/19 at 1:30PM via a live feed.

Featured Image: Petar Milošević, Mosaic of Theodora in Ravenna, 6th century, taken on 27 April 2015; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.


Alasdair MacIntyre

Alasdair MacIntyre is a Permanent Senior Distinguished Research Fellow at the University of Notre Dame de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture. He is the author of classics such as After VirtueMarxism and ChristianityWhose Justice? Which Rationality?, and Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry.

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Marxism and Religion

Alasdair MacIntyre, Distinguished Research Fellow at the ND Center for Ethics & Culture, compares Marxist hope to Christian ideals.

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