Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Day with Ben Witherington: Ethics and Act

At the end of this series on A Day with Ben Witherington (which has ironically lasted for a full week now), I would actually like to turn to ethics proper. In particular, I will argue that the ethicality of an act is not limited to the outward appearance of that act. I wish on this point I could engage Witherington more directly, either critiquing him as an opponent or drawing on him as a source. Unfortunately, he seemed to be occupying different opinions at different times. At least I can say that, regardless of where he stands, he acted as the catalyst for my formulating these thoughts more concretely.

At one point Witherington made the claim that he knew many good people who were not Christians. By this he meant that there were people who did not murder, who did not steal, who did not X (where X is some feature of the Christian ethos). It strikes me that the very fact that someone does not steal does not make their stance on personal property ethical necessarily. Ethics extends beyond the mere act. For example, a man who refuses to steal because it is wrong is generally considered to be more ethical than a man who refuses to steal because he fears he will be caught. The motive for the ethical act bears on the ethicality of the behavior.

This is the essence of virtue ethics, and later on Witherington would say that he believes that virtue ethics align most closely with the biblical view of ethics. The focus on the character and motive of the moral actor are legitimate, but they do not necessarily preclude the sentiment that there are many good non-Christians. Witherington, as a self-described good Weslyan, believes that grace pervades creation allowing for humanity to do good that would otherwise be impossible. It is possible for an atheist and a Christian alike to operate out of a genuine motive of self-sacrifical love.

Yet, I would go further still and argue that a common motive or a common virtue still does not ensure a common rightness in an act. Just as the motive for the act must be examined, so too must the ground for the motive be examined. Motives of self-sacrifice can be derived from a belief in the virtue of self-abasement because the self does not truly exist. It is an illusion. Therefore, self-sacrifice is no more or less self-interested than selfishness, since there is no self. It is only more enlightened and therefore nearer to escape. Such a self-sacrifice is not truly ethical. The motive is grounded in a lie, which precludes the possibility of virtue.

In short, it seems to me that to achieve the belief that there can be truly ethical acts performed by non-Christians, we must be willing to admit one of two things. ON the one hand, God does not need to be the grounds for ethicality (which Witherington rejects), in which case our own ground for ethics has been undermined and we are undone. On the other, God must be the ground of ethicality but that humanity need not be conscious of it (which Witherington accepts), in which case we have allowed that we may be accidentally virtuous and eliminated any full volitional activity from ethics. The latter suggestion seems to run startlingly contrary to the Arminian views of Witherington.

Regardless, I have serious doubts as to whether anything can be said to be good without God and whether any activity born out of a ground which rejects God can be said to be ethical.

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