How do Christian and secular ethicists diverge in their approaches to moral questions, and in what ways can they align? This article tries to clarify some of the differences and similarities between Christian ethicists and secular ethicists. However, it is still worth noting that modern ethics is largely a secular discipline, even among those who practice the Christian faith.
When studying Christian ethics, we need to distinguish those who decide to arrange evidence and arguments derived from or supported by distinctly Christian sources of authority (such as biblical texts), from those who do not. Using scripture to support an argument will only be persuasive if the authority of scripture is already, to some extent, accepted by a reader.
Of course, even those Christian ethicists who choose not to draw on scripture in order to make an argument have likely shaped their own moral outlook in response to scripture, and other theological sources. Yet here it is important to clarify that not all uses of scripture or theology require an appeal to its authority.
It is possible to draw on examples or principles based on these sources, and then attempt to justify it in a way which does not rely on the authority of those sources. Equally, it is possible to develop a positive ethical theory which does rely on the authority of these sources, and yet develop criticisms of other ethical positions which are purely critical – relying on no particular positive stance, perhaps because the criticism points out an internal contradiction. These interventions might have an underlying Christian motivation, but take a very similar form to criticisms that a secular philosopher might make.
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Defining secular ethics might seem like a very simple question to answer: secular ethicists don’t believe in God, and naturally their ethical theories reflect that. Unfortunately, that is probably a misleading way of framing the distinction between secular and Christian ethics.
For instance, one of the most influential secular ethical approaches comes from Immanuel Kant, who was nonetheless an avowed Christian. Kant was a rationalist, Enlightenment-era Christian, to be sure, but a Christian nonetheless. It would be better to define secular ethics not in light of the religious beliefs held by particular moral philosophers, but in light of the way in which they allow those beliefs to influence their ethical theories in a clear and direct way.
Some Key Similarities
Christians and non-Christians can also draw on some of the same sources, and develop shared approaches to ethics. Elizabeth Anscombe and Alasdair MacIntyre are two Christian philosophers who have made substantial contributions to ethical theory from a Christian perspective without supporting their arguments with scripture.
This distinction arguably cleaves to another relevant one, which distinguishes Christian ethicists who are writing for other Christians from those who are hoping to speak to those who are not Christians. Probably the most prominent example of this nowadays is the virtue-theoretic approach to ethics.
To offer a very basic definition, virtue ethics is the school of ethics which places an emphasis on a description of a good character, rather than right action, moral rules or the best consequences. This is a method with its roots in Aristotelianism (a pre-Christian school), but also owes a great deal to the development of virtue ethics by theologians (Thomas Aquinas would be a prominent example).
Nowadays, it has prominent Christian adherents (the aforementioned Alasdair MacIntyre) and many secular ones. Of course, the account of character different virtue ethicists develop might well depend on their religious affiliation.
For most of human history, attempts to pose and answer moral questions have been fundamentally intertwined with religious conceptions of what it is to lead a good life, the limits and permutations of right actions, and other related questions. Secular and Christian ethicists are pursuing the same task, but drawing on very different sources.
The differences between secular and religious ethics are not simply methodological. Christian ethicists often tend to favor certain positions on practical issues – such as pro-life on abortion – which have only a very limited appeal to most secular ethicists.
Equally, although there is a broad compatibility between secular and religious positions when it comes to virtue ethics, certain other moral theories are near-incompatible with a religious point of view. Consequentialism, and especially utilitarianism, is of very limited appeal to Christian ethicists, and indeed many Christian ethicists are very critical of the perceived utilitarianism of contemporary society.