Christian Agapistic Ethics

From Marbaniang, Domenic. Ethics (1998). Published as Philosophical Ethics (2012) Christianity and Normative Ethics

Christian ethics, as the author believes, is a mean between Teleological and Deontological Ethics. The concept is that of a God who wills a universal law for all humans, at all times, a Will that is in accordance to His own nature and, therefore, a necessary, for all existence contingent on Him. Any being that rebels against this Will rebels against its own well-being or good, that is contingent on the Creator. The good expresses the teleological dimension and the necessary will expresses the deontological dimensions of Christian ethics. Since this Will is of Divine nature, it must be revealed by the illumination of the Spirit in man. Since man, as the Revelation (Scripture) tells us, is created in the image and likeness of God, he is able to know and choose this will for his life. However, the fallennes of man has alienated him from the divine will. Therefore, for the unsaved, the ethical code is terrestrially oriented or teleological. Thus, the five general laws: one for honor of parents, and four against falsehood, murder, theft, and adultery.

The above laws are not absolutes: they are externals of an intrinsic Law that is an attribute of the Creator Himself. The Biblical word used is agape. This view of Biblical ethics is also known as the Ethics of Love, or Judeo-Christian Agapistic Ethics.[1]

The basis of Biblical ethics is Matthew 22: 37 – 40.

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and the great commandment. And the second is like unto it. And the second is like unto it. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Hunnex outlines four lines of interpretations of Biblical agapistic ethics within Christianity: Traditional, Evangelical, nontraditional, and Pure agapism. Traditional Agapistic Ethics

Based on the rule “Love the Lord thy God with all your being” (it implies obedience to His commands) and “Love your neighbor as yourself,”it is also known as deontological agapism , or act deontology because of its emphasis on the ought, which originates in the divine command. Evangelical Agapistic Ethics

According to Evangelical agapistic ethics, the indwelling Christ is the source of that supernatural love that produces acts in conformity to Biblical imperatives. This is also known as authoritarian agapism. Those without the indwelling Christ have the moral law “written in their hearts” that distinguishes right from wrong (Rom. 2. 14 – 15). Nontraditional Agapistic Ethics

The focus on the present human reality or situations gives rise to a form of act deontology or situation ethics (e.g., in Fletcher, Gustafson, Tillich, or Lehmann) or utilitarianism, wherein man becomes the measure of all things and loving one’s neighbor is equal to loving God. The law of love, here, becomes or approximates the principle of benevolence. Pure Agapism

Pure agapism frees love from any objects such as God or neighbor and considers love by itself alone as the only moral absolute; thus, pure. However, love can not be understood by itself alone. Love must either be understood as love-acts or love-rules; therefore, Act agapism and Rule agapism. Act Agapism

Love rather than rules becomes the determiner of right or wrong  acts in any given situation (situationism, religious existentialism, antinomianism). Rule Agapism

One should only follow love-producing or love-embodying rules.


[1] Hunnex, Charts, p. 26.

The Absolute Law of God and Christian Ethics

The desire of man for the good is often clouded by his immediate responses to things and experiences immediate, which he thinks and feels are good. Impatience and lack of self-restraint together with ignorance and lack of discretion are the main reasons for such deviations. Theistic absolutism offers the solution to this problem by stating that the God of this creation has given us His moral laws which are absolute; adherence to His laws is the solution to life’s problems.

That is a wonderful solution; for here man is no longer called to drag on his autonomous reason, but confidently walk according to the revealed laws of God. But, as we have already seen in Chapter two, theistic absolutism raises two problems:

(1)   Knowledge of the law is not enough. Wisdom and the ability and strength to perform must accompany it.
(2)   That the moral laws of God (especially the Ten Commandments) are absolutes and yet conflict at times.

Let us deal with problem #2 first, and then proceed on to the first. Are the moral laws of God [all of them] absolutes? The answer is “No”. [Some] are relative to people, circumstances, places, and times; so that “Do not kill” is relative to the true Israelite brotherhood, and “Kill the Amalekites” is relative to the people circumstances of Amalekites. There is only one law that is absolute, unchanging, unconditional, and commanding the strictest obedience: “You shall worship the Lord your God and Him alone shall you serve.” (Deuteronomy 6:13; Matthew 4:10). It is unconditional and absolute without exceptions (Romans 1:18-24; 25-32). This is the standard whereby all other laws gain their position. This is the King of the laws, the others are servants and subjects. That doesn’t disvalue them. They serve their purpose in their own limitations. They “ought” to be followed without exceptions, but in their own limitations, as the law of gravity functions within its own limitations; the law of aerodynamics within its own area and position. We need to understand which of these laws are to be followed in a given situation.

The second problem (the first one, actually for it’s the prime) is the insufficiency to fulfill the command. Christians call it “the fallen nature of man” that cannot fulfill the law of God. This time the Christian denies his autonomous reasoning and clings to the God-given solution – the Cross of Christ. The laws of God have found their perfection in Jesus Christ. Those who believe in Him and walk in His footsteps (in His manner, as He would do it if He were here) obey the Father and do His will. On the Cross, the old man (sin-nature) has died – the penalty of sin removed [God’s law makes man responsible to His Court of Justice]. Today the power of sin is being removed. The Holy Spirit’s power is available for our strength and sufficiency, His guidance to direct us to do what is “right”, what is “good” in the sight of the Lord; for what is good is what is approved as good by God: HE IS GOOD HIMSELF and the creator of all good things.

Christian ethics is Christo-centric ethics, not man-dependent ethics.   Reason and experience are directed by the Holy Spirit as you give Him freedom to do so. “What must I do in this situation?” then finds its answer in the love of Christ, and so of His children, the willingness to do as He would do, and the guidance and strength from the Holy Spirit. To deny this is to deny Christianity. To deny this is to deny Christ and His Cross. To deny this is to deny God and His Holy Spirit.

“What I ought to do” is “what God decides”, not “what I decide” in Christian ethics – the ethics of Faith, Love, and Loyalty. “Not by sight, do we walk, but by faith”, “We make it our aim to please Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:7, 9).

Naturalistic Ethics

From Marbaniang, Domenic. Ethics (1998), Published as Philosophical Ethics (2012)

3. Applied Ethics in a Naturalistic Autonomous Society

This chapter is important before we move into the next chapter where we will be dealing mainly with the importance of God, Scripture, Church, and Evangelical Christianity in relation to ethics.

3.1. Naturalistic Autonomous Society

It wouldn’t be appropriate to call this society godless; for man at times tends to look to a greater power beyond him in awe or aspiration. But, it is necessary to say that here is no impulsion to follow any kind of divine edict or law under fear of punishment: the idea of God, practically, seems nonsensical in this setting.

This society, thus, is naturalistic and autonomous. Human reason, emotions, experiences, and aesthetic contemplation play an important role in making ethical decisions.

3.2. The Knowledge of an “Ought”

An understanding of “ought” is impossible without the knowledge of good and evil. An understanding of “ought” is also impossible without the realization of and reality of freewill and volition. “Freedom of will” is knowledge a priori: a man need not be told he has freewill to know that he has it for sure (the linguistic term may be new to him but the concept of “freedom” is there a priori). The knowledge of good[1] is knowledge a priori; for without an a priori knowledge of “good” there wouldn’t be any problem of evil. This knowledge is basic, from where we begin to make any meaningful ethical statement. It can neither be proved nor denied, but is assumed and known in making any aesthetic or ethical statement. Here we arrive at our main question: “Is the knowledge of an “ought” a priori? “Ought” reflects desire for the good and so an attitude of duty or obligation that arises out of the desire for the good. So, the question may be recast as: “Is the desire and inclination for the “good” innate [a priori]?” The answer should be “Yes.” To deny this is to affirm it: the denial shows a desire for the good that the denial is good, well-desired, and rightly done (was ought to be done).[2] From this concept of “ought” a priori  proceeds statements of “what ought to be” (a posteriori).

Therefore, the knowledge of “ought” by knowledge of “good” a priori and knowledge of “freedom” a priori is a priori. The knowledge, forms, ideas of “good”, “just”, “truth” existing in the mind a priori, reason evaluating experience to see what things etc conform to these forms and thus are “good”, “just”, or “true”.[3]

3.3. The Knowledge of What is the Good

Now, there is the desire for the good and a knowledge that things ought to be good; there is the freewill to choose what is the good: but the problem to solve is, “What is the good?” And here we face an epistemological problem: “How do we know what’s good?” The best answer, I believe, is: “By the consequences” – whether that be of an act or of a rule.

If the rule is good and the act is good, the consequence is good.
If the rule is good and the act is bad, the consequence is bad.
If the rule is bad and the act is bad, the consequence is bad.

Note: The consequences justify the act or the rule. A thing is called good or bad by its functional consequence.

That consequences, results, or ends show whether an act or a rule was right or not cannot be denied sufficiently. So, the knowledge of what is good and what is evil becomes knowledge a posteriori. In such a situation, knowledge becomes relative and the thing, act, and rule are neither good nor bad in themselves [i.e intrinsically; they are only so in relation to the results].

3.4. The Autonomous Society and Its Ethics

The impulsion of “God’s Law”, as we have already said, is absent from an autonomous society. Ethics, then in such a setting is relative due to the limitation of human reason, knowledge, and experience. It should be noted that the notion of ethics implies a step towards betterment and positivity; not towards destruction. It arises from the very nature of man’s desire for sublimity. “Good” evidently is objective – that which enhances one’s total capacities and brings him happiness or the enhancement of one’s total capacities and the bringing of happiness. Man, being finite [his short life, limited experience, knowledge, etc], his knowledge of what’s good and what’s right is limited to speculation, assumptions, analysis, and judgement by knowledge of consequences a posteriori; the experience itself being not always totally adequate and complete. And, so it is natural that ethical principles and moral judgement in such society tends to change, vary, and fluctuate.

There are three levels of compulsion or moral obligation in an autonomous society. The three of them result from egoistic and utilitarianistic dispositions. The third one results from the first and the second.

3.4.1. Compulsion by self-dignity or dignity value. At the root of self-dignity is an egoistic tendency; at the root of dignity value, a utilitarian tendency.

There may be many factors that back an egoistic tendency of self-dignity; but one of the strongest of these is possession. Now possession would mean anything that comes under “my” (my car, my land, my money, my house, my wife, my husband, my children, my self). The principle “none should trespass my territory” arises from this tendency. The compulsion factor of self-dignity is like “I cannot help guarding my… and keeping my self-respect, for if I do not do that I lose my self-dignity”, “What will he think of me if I do this or eat this?” “Regardless of what I like or dislike, my position must be secure” etc. Two main factors guide the decisions: “ought”, “dutymindedness” instilled by parents, guardians, teachers, and elders; reason based on experience.

The dignity value tendency may arise from autonomous reasoning, but most of the time results from instilled morality. Each person has a distinct dignity in the society and should be so valued accordingly. Our actions should be an expression of our value of their dignity. This sense is by compulsion – to be self-secured and desire other’s happiness.

3.4.2. Compulsion by aesthetic, axiological, or emotive contemplation and by compassion and desire for truth, beauty, peace, justice. Phrases like “I love,” “I like” have an aesthetic connotation. Ethical decisions are then in response to such contemplations. Something seems to me wonderful; what “ought” I to do for it?

Aesthetic Contemplation: This butterfly is beautiful. I like it.
Aesthetic Desire: I desire it to be so, beautiful. It pleases me.
Aesthetic Obligation/Ethical Desire [Principle]: It “ought” not be killed and deformed. None ought to destroy its beauty.  I do not want to destroy it.
Emotive Contemplation: I do not like pain. What pains me surely pains others.
Emotive Desire: I do not desire others to suffer pain; it’s bad, I feel it.
Ethical Obligation [Principle]: I ought not [do not] want to hurt others.

This level of obligation is not so much duty-bound, but arises direct out of one’s emotional responses. There is one particular problem at this level. Our likes and dislikes are not always stable; they also tend to wear out with time and in repeated encounters – it is natural that they change and fluctuate with time.

3.4.3. Compulsion by society’s law, legalistic obligation. As has already been observed, discretion and experience play an important role in understanding and following what is good. It is also necessary to be said that a higher moral society would be that in which the majority rulers are wise, experiences, and well-trained in knowledge and discernment. The morality of a society depends on the nature of majority discretion. The more unreasonable, stupid, and darkened is the thinking, the more depraved is the morality. As a matter of fact,  where the majority do not exhibit discretion, legalistic obligation is also deemed foolishness; for only the wise understand the significance of law and restraint in society [Fools ought to be restrained or else they may prove too dangerous to the society].

The laws of the autonomous society depend mainly on reason and so are not free from error. The limitations of reason and knowledge can’t be denied. How are consequences judged or foreseen before they come to pass? But should we always wait till the consequences take place? When some government legalizes drinking liquor [In the state of Andhra Pradesh, India, liquor had to be forbidden], on what basis does it do that; has it evaluated the consequences adequately and found them good (psychologically, physically, sociologically)? Well, that was not a compulsory law, but hasn’t that got an influence in society? Can homosexuality be authoritatively legalized without understanding the total consequences?

It must of necessity be understood that within the self of man, or within the structure of society there is a battle between the desire for good versus the desire for immediate satisfaction – and the latter is stronger; the desire for wisdom versus the presence of ignorance and blurred vision; the desire for the eternal versus the appeal of the temporal…. It is evident that the discrepancy of facts is abounding. Man’s limitations, lack of sufficient knowledge, self-control, and power of discernment do not allow him to reach to the objective Good – that which makes him perfect, sound, complete, and flawless. There can be no solution in an autonomous society; for what is “the good” is not so easily apprehended and followed.

[1] “Good”: the positive, sound, beneficial quality [of act, rule, or consequence]; the absence of evil [evil: pain, injury, hurt, the negation of good]. The good mentioned is not what is good, referring to an act or thing; but the concept and idea of good, innate.
[2] Now to say that I do not desire the good is self-contradictory [If good is not spoken of as what good is objectively, but as meaning “the better”]. For desire implies desire for the good. A person who says he doesn’t desire the good actually means that his not desiring the good is good, which is self-contradictory. When someone says that he has no desire either for good or for evil, we can’t refute him unless we see whether he proves his point in practice. But to say that one should not have any desire at all (e.g. as in Buddhism) or any desire for the good (Bhagavad Gita) implies that such desire is evil (i.e. not good), [which means to say] “Let us desire the good, the good is not to desire the good” – This is self-contradictory.
[3] Reason, then, evaluating experience produces the “ought to be” which reflects the idea of “ought”  a priori.[Platonic sense]

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