Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Styles of Moral Reasoning/Modes of Moral Discourse

With this post, we come to the final dimension of the 4-dimensions of moral discernment, according to Glen Stassen, Christian ethicist and my mentor.  I will  index this series and place it on a page of “popular posts and series” for easy reference for future readers. That’s because of the importance I attach to this topic. I will undoubtedly refer to this series in future discussions of ethical issues.

The top right box in the 4-dimensional chart  denotes one’s “style of moral reasoning” or “mode of moral discourse.” I saved this dimension for last precisely because in far too many textbooks on moral philosophy (ethics) ALL the discussion is here and the other dimensions of moral discernment are neglected–as if people were disembodied reasoners. (Likewise, the “Chicago School of Economics” begun by Milton Friedman along classic libertarian lines mistakenly assumes human beings to be disinterested minds who seek to “maximize personal profit” in all transactions.  Since we are far more complex, the entire economic school of thought based on this is flawed–yet it dominates both the academic and political landscape in the U.S. today–and is behind the mistaken view that economics can be a “science” divorced from ethical consideration.)

Generally speaking, moral reasoning takes one of two BROAD forms:  deontological forms of moral reasoning focus on whether a particular moral action is intrinsically “right” or “wrong.” In English, the terms “right” and “wrong” refer to deontological categories.  The most famous Western philosophical version of this is the work of German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).  Kant argued that actions were either right or wrong regardless of consequences.  He argued that one could deduce unbreakable moral rules from a universal categorical imperative. (However, Kant formulated the categorical imperative in two very different fashions. He thought they were just two different versions of the same thing, but not all have agreed. Some have affirmed one version without affirming the other.)  1. To be moral, an action must be universalizable, i.e., one must be willing that everyone should do it.  Examples: One can affirm that everyone should tell the truth, but one cannot affirm that everyone should lie, ergo lies are always immoral and special pleading for one’s own self is wrong.  2. An action is moral if it never treats persons merely as means to an end, but always treats persons as ends in themselves.  A Kantian would say that torture is wrong, no matter any ticking time bomb scenarios, because it treats the one tortured as a mere means to an end. A Kantian who also believed that fetuses were persons from conception onward (once again, we see how the different dimensions intersect–here the basic convictions dimension influences the style of moral reasoning) would argue against abortion in all circumstances because such a Kantian would see all abortions as treating unborn persons as means to an end. (On the other hand, a Kantian who did not share that metaphysical view of fetal life, may come to a very different conclusion.)

Almost all forms of arguments for universal human rights are deontological to some degree or another. These often grow out of the natural rights tradition with its roots in Medieval nominalist philosophy and going through the -Leveller Richard Overton (c. 1599-1644) to the later John Locke(1634-1704). In a different fashion, the French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) is also rooted in a natural rights form of deontology.

In theology, Divine Command approaches to ethics tend also to be deontological in approach. Something is moral because God commands it. Something is immoral because God forbids it. Period.  (This takes varied shape from Calvin to Barth.)  Natural law approaches tend also to take deontological shape. 

By contrast, teleogical approaches to ethics look to goals or outcomes.  The most famous modern version of teleological ethics is utilitarianism.  An action is Good (“good” and “bad” are teological terms as “right “and “wrong” are deontological terms) if it leads to the most happiness for the most people with the least unhappiness for the least people.  Utiltarianism is associated with the British lawyer Jeremy Bentham(1748-1832) and his disciple, the civil  libertarian John Stuart Mill(1806-1873).    More recent famous utilitarians include Australia’s Peter Singer (now at Princeton University)  and the pioneer of modern medical ethics, Joseph Fletcher(1905-1991).

Because American society is highly pragmatist (focusing on “what works”), there is much utilitarian thinking in American public moral reasoning–e.g., the arguments between those who claim that torture is ineffective as an information gathering tool (e.g., most American military commanders and FBI interrogators) and those who claim (e.g., Dick Cheney) that torture is effective in interrogation and therefore justified in saving lives by foiling furture terrorist plots.

(This is  a good place to point out that few people are consistent in their style of moral reasoning.  I often notice conservatives denounce utilitarian reasoning when it comes to stem cell research, but embrace it when it comes to torture.  Many liberals are mirror images–embracing stem cell research despite the destruction of embryonic life because of the potential good, while denouncing torture no matter if it is effective or not.  There may be consistent ways to consider both ends and means, but most people simply are not being consistent in their mode of moral discourse.)

A very different form of teleological ethics focuses not on the end or goal of an action (in terms of consequences), but of the end or goal of a person or community.  This kind of teleology asks about the purpose and goal of the moral life. The ways to that end are found in the practices and habits that form the person or community in certain virtues, i.e., moral qualities of excellence such as honesty, courage, wisdom, peaceableness, kindness, etc.  Almost all religions take some thought to the virtues, to moral character formation.  In Paul’ s Epistles, they are listed as “fruit of the Spirit.” (Paul also has vice lists–immoral qualities he wants churches and their members to avoid).  There are  similar concerns in Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc.

Note: This does not mean that all religions teach the same thing morally.  The shape of the virtues is narrative dependent, i.e., dependent on the shape of the story being lived out. (We are back to basic convictions, again.) Do different moral and religious systems mean the same thing by particular virtues given the same name?  It’s a difficult question that is highly contested in current philosophical, theological, and interfaith discussions.  Example of a major difference:  The ancient Romans greatly valued the virtue of courage–but courage was usually seen in terms of ARMED RESISTANCE TO AGGRESSION.  Thus, the nonviolence of the early Christians was often viewed as cowardice.  We see similar differences today in the debate over whether talking with enemies (which Jesus commanded) is a sign of weakness or strength in foreign policy.  However, I am among those who claim that this need not mean that no communication can happen between moral systems:  some Roman soldiers recognized the courage of the Christian martyrs–and it sometimes led to conversions.

Another critical variable in this dimension of moral discernment is the level on which one is discussing. I don’t mean intellectual level, but level of concreteness.  Situationists believe every moral act must be judged separately, usually with guidance from only a very broad rule of thumb, such as “love” or “compassion.”  Legalists focus on the level of moral rules.  If they are Christians, they tend to see the Bible as primarily a rulebook.   Principlists do not neglect moral rules, but when moral rules conflict, they reach back to the broader principles behind the rules.  E.g,, behind the rule “thou shalt not kill,” one might find the principle “Respect for human life.”    Still broader are those who function at the paradigmatic level, or the level of basic convictions.  Behind the principle, “respect for human life,” for instance, might be the basic conviction that all humans are created in the image of God and/or that all humans are persons for whom Christ died.  This is a narrative or ground of meaning level, again.

Often in moral discourse persons talk past one another because they use different levels of moral reasoning.  One is speaking in terms of rules, while another is speaking in terms of principles, and a third is outlining a broad theological or philosophical narrative paradigm.

I should note that these descriptions are fairly male-dominant.  Feminist theologians and philosophers (as well as female psychologists like Carol Gilligan) have noted that women’s moral reasoning is somewhat different–though whether this is cultural or genetic or what is a huge debate that I am NOT qualifed to answer.  Basically, women tend to be more relational in moral thought.  If posed a moral dilemma, men will often weigh conflicting moral principles “like math problems with human variables.” Women do not.  They seek win-win solutions rather than either-or answers to dilemmas.  They tend to reason morally in ways that keep families and communities together.  The moral world is a world of relationships, a web.  Few ethics texts, whether philosophical or theological, written by men, have yet to attempt a deep integration of feminist perspectives.

With this we have examined the critical variables in the 4 dimensions of moral discernment or judgment.  I want to emphasize again that EACH dimension influence every other dimension.  Look back at the chart in our opening discussion. Remember that I said that there should be arrows drawn that connect each dimension or box with each other–visually displaying the fact that every dimension of moral discernment (convictions, loyalties & interests, perception of the situation/issues, style of moral reasoning) inflences each of the others–and one’s conclusions or moral decisions.  Further,  “history is the laboratory of ideas” (H. Richard Niebuhr) and our encounters with the realities/outcomes of particular moral judgements acts as a “feedback loop” to influence every variable of all the dimensions–whether to reinforce previous conclusions or to challenge and modify them.  So, imagine a dotted-line with an arrow looping back from the particular moral judgment(s) to each dimension on the chart.   Hopefully, people and communities seek to grow as moral agents–to learn from mistakes, errors, sins.  The biblical name for such a “feedback loop” is “repentance.” 🙂  And without repentance no individual or community can have moral growth.  All of us, Christian and otherwise, need to be far more willing to say the following words about our moral judgments and actions, “I was wrong.”


March 21, 2010 - Posted by | blog series, ethics, moral discernment

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