Ethics And The Perfect Moral Law -- By: Harry Bunting

Journal: Tyndale Bulletin
Volume: TYNBUL 51:2 (NA 2000)
Article: Ethics And The Perfect Moral Law
Author: Harry Bunting

Ethics And The Perfect Moral Law1

Harry Bunting


This paper examines contemporary virtue ethics and the claim that Christian ethics is a virtue ethic. Three central theses are identified as being central to virtue ethics: a priority thesis, a perfectionist thesis and a communitarian thesis. It is argued that defences of the priority thesis—it best addresses the moral crisis in our society, it does justice to historical consciousness and it remedies the incompleteness in deontic ethics—are unconvincing. It is argued that virtue and moral perfection are best understood in terms of psychologically appropriate dispositions to act in accordance with moral principles. It is further argued that the communitarian thesis raises relativist difficulties and fails to do justice to the universal elements of morality. Each of these arguments is developed philosophically and the implications for Christian ethics are explored. In light of the theory of virtue sketched in the paper it is concluded that the independence thesis, upon which virtue ethics rests, is untenable and that an examination of the structure of the universal moral principles underlying the Christian faith remains the proper subject matter for Christian ethics.

I. Introduction

It is recorded in Holy Scripture that when God told the prophet Samuel to anoint a King of Israel from amongst the sons of Jesse the Bethlehemite, seven of Jesse’s sons were considered and all seven rejected. Unexpectedly, God instructed Samuel to appoint as King the youngest son—David—because, we read: ‘man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart’ (1 Sa. 16:7).

At an early point in the unfolding of God’s purposes, therefore, we

are introduced to a moral distinction between appearance and reality, between an outward self and an inward self which is the true self; and we are cautioned that it is the inner self which is of primary moral importance. The distinction between how people appear and how they truly are appears again and again in Scripture; it is prominent both in modern and in ancient culture, and it is a distinction which is as central to common sense as to academic reflection. At the level of common sense the distinction appears when we reflect on the multiplicity of motives, good and bad, which may be behind apparently identical actions; and it is most keenly felt when we encounter hypocrisy in others or in ourselves. The distinction provides one of the grand themes of fiction, the delicious details of whose infinite permutations have fascinated countless generations of dramatists ...

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