What’s so good about being good? - An Excerpt from Introducing Christian Ethics
Introducing Christian Ethics: A Short Guide to Making Moral Choices is based on the best-selling college and seminary ethics textbook Moral Choices and distills nearly two decades of teaching and study into a succinct and user-friendly volume. In today's excerpt, author Scott Rae explores moral being, the good life, and what it means to be human.
Imagine that you live in a world where you can do anything you want, and no matter what you do, you will never get caught. Nor will you ever have to worry about any consequences for these actions. For example, you can rob a bank, cheat in school, take revenge on whomever you want to, commit violent crimes, lie whenever you want, go back on your word whenever convenient, or sleep with whomever you choose. Would you do any, or all, of those things?
I suspect many of you would be tempted to do at least some things commonly regarded as immoral, not to mention some of the illegal things. But I also suspect most of you would not do them. Why not? Although you might not be able to express it precisely, I would bet that many people would not do these things because they consider being a good person to be an important part of living a good life. That is, you consider it a good thing to be a good person.
MORALITY AND THE GOOD LIFE
But let’s think about that a bit more. What is it about morality, or virtue, that is bound up with living a good life? The ancient philosophers affirmed that being a good person and living a good life went together and that success in life was measured by what kind of person you were as opposed to what you accomplished or accumulated. For example, Aristotle connected happiness with being a good person. He said, “Happiness is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.” Epicurus put it this way: “It is not possible to live pleasantly without living prudently, honorably and justly.” This certainly reflects the teaching of Jesus himself when he said to his disciples, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul [a part of which includes their character]?” (Mark 8:36).
Even today, most people, at least intuitively, make that connection between good character and a good life. This is why we admire the moral heroes of our time, and conversely, why we look skeptically at someone who achieves much but is devoid of character. For example, Mother Teresa remains one of the most admired people in the world, even though she had little of what counts for success in our culture. On the other hand, the person who is at the top of his or her profession but who got there by running over people, has had multiple failed marriages, and is alienated from his or her children—we have a harder time thinking of this person as being successful in life. We often say of this person that “they got to the top of the ladder, only to realize it was leaning against the wrong wall.”
I heard a vivid example of this when I was a PhD student some years ago. It made an indelible impact on me, and I vowed not to repeat the mistakes I had learned about. I was the teaching assistant for a distinguished professor in our department, and part of that responsibility involved attending all the class sessions. On the final day of class for that term, the professor was making a point and used his personal life as an example. He told his students about how he had ordered his life early in his career, when his children were young. He spoke with great regret about how he had spent far too many evenings and weekends in his study, writing books and articles to establish himself professionally, at which he had succeeded, since he was well respected in his field.
But he also spoke of how he was alienated from all his children today, and it broke his heart to recognize that those two things were connected. I suspect he would admit that he was a professional success but that no amount of professional success compensated for his failures as a father. He realized that professional success and life success were two different things. I suspect he might have seen himself in Jesus’s statement, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”
WE ARE MORAL BEINGS
So we tend to connect being moral to having a good life. That’s a good reason to be moral. But that’s not the only reason to think morality is important. From a Christian worldview, morality is built into the fabric of the universe and is built into our constitution as human beings. It is an integral part of what it means to be human. This is certainly the idea of the moral law being written on our hearts, as described in Romans 2:14–15. Paul here is arguing for the pervasiveness and universality of sin by maintaining that we all violate God’s law, whether we have access to it or not: “Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.”
The point of the text is that the demands of morality are imprinted internally on each person, giving him or her an inherent sense of right and wrong. This is one way that God communicates the requirement of morality. As we will see in chapter 2, in the discussion of natural law ethics, God reveals his moral program for human beings in a variety of ways, both inside and outside the Bible.
Of course, this does not mean that everyone always sees morality the same way, since, in a Christian worldview, our moral constitution is also broken because of the reality of sin in the world. (We will discuss other ways of viewing morality, including relativism, in chapter 3.) But sin did not eradicate the moral sense of human beings; that moral sense remains part and parcel of what it means to be human. In this sense, asking the question, why be moral?
Interested in learning more about how to make moral choices? Buy your copy of Introducing Christian Ethics at Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Christian Book.
Teaching and study resources for the book, including additional video clips based on the questions corresponding to each chapter, make it ideal for use in the classroom as well as for pastors and for teaching settings within the church. Resources are available through www.ZondervanAcademic.com.
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