Ed Giese's Web Log

Christians Have their own Ethics

Posted on 2020-12-01 05:30:00 in Spirituality

David responded to my earlier post by raising some questions and objections. I'll try to answer these point-by-point.

To make reading this easier, here is David's original, short, post in full:

Two people do the same good deed—the first believes they will be rewarded, while the second is unsure. Which deed is more righteous?

Two people live equally charitable lives—the first is a Christian with a strong faith, the second is an agnostic. Which person is more righteous?

To summarize my original response, linked above, I assert as a fact that Christians and non-Christians are operating under different ethical frameworks, and so comparisons between them must take that into account.

Here is David's response to my post, with inline responses:

I don’t think the Christian is necessarily less righteous than the agnostic; I only think they are at most equally righteous. I think some believers are like “rascally children.” I know some who are explicit about this. There are also many believers who are utterly sincere in their motives. I would say these Christians are equally righteous. Thus, your assumption is mostly correct, but not [quite].

Furthermore, at least to some degree, the question really is posed as a question. I’m not pretending that the implication isn’t there, but I think you jumped past the question too quickly. A utilitarian would say the two acts and the two people are equally righteous. The two acts are no longer equal if you say the intentions matter too. Would you agree with this: If you are an atheist but an intentionalist, and if two people do the same good deed—the first believing they will be rewarded while the second is unsure, then the second person is more righteous? If not, why?

These paragraphs are a little frustrating. My first impression here was that you want to have it both ways -- to deny that you are claiming moral superiority for an agnostic, and then to assert it anyway. When you say you personally know Christians who are "rascally children," (a reference to a hypothetical in my earlier post) you are implying that at least some Christians have self-interested motives. Leaving aside the unfairness of judging a belief system by the weaknesses of some of its adherents, you seem to be saying that a Christian has an obligation to rid herself of such impure motives, while an agnostic need never wrestle with motive at all. How else do you conclude that "they are at most equally righteous?" For I can see no possibility in either your original questions or your argument above that the agnostic is ever less righteous than the Christian, given equal utilitarian outcomes.

When you write, "at least to some degree, the question really is posed as a question," then you definitely are trying to have it both ways. Your original questions posit as a given (which I did not challenge) that the actions of two people are equally good. Who decides that? I was granting that perhaps in some utilitarian way, they were the same. What other standard could there be between a believer and an unbeliever? Without granting this, the questions as posed are meaningless. What is left is motive. It is the whole reason for the questions. You have just confirmed in your response that the inferior motives of Christians are your concern here, so how can you possibly claim, then, that your questions are not rhetorical? Unless this is some strange way to tip your hat to utilitarianism.

If, in fact, you are really curious whether a simple utilitarian calculus is a sufficient basis for morality, you chose a very odd set of questions to pose it. And to say that the overtone of curiosity is there seems odd.

I think you make an interesting point when you say righteousness can be decreased by purely mental motivations. I certainly agree that doing good works publicly is less righteous than doing them privately.

Wasn't this the entire point of your questions? It is confusing here, because you appear to be switching between two different worldviews without always recognizing it. If there is no God, then I would assert far lower importance to motive, and quite possibly there is none at all. I don't know anyone's motives but my own, and so how am I to judge a person by them? I can certainly judge motives in the abstract. It isn't hard to think of cases where knowing someone's motive may put their seemingly virtuous acts in a worse light. Still, it is impossible to judge a person on that basis because motives are never truly known, even to the person who holds them.

On the other hand, if there is a God who has revealed a preference for actions and attitudes, and who can see the motivations, then this becomes the basis for all righteousness.

It seems that you are generalizing this even further so that only someone who is doing good works unconsciously is fully righteous. I agree that if this is how you define righteousness, than an agnostic may be less righteous than a Christian. I’d like to think more about the implications of such a definition, since I hadn’t heard it before.

Perhaps to begin with, what makes you think that this is what Jesus meant in Matthew 6:3? It seems to me that verse 1 is providing a general principle—don’t do righteous acts in front of others. Then there are a few examples. The other examples involve praying in front of others and fasting in front of others. It seems unlikely that prayer or fasting could be unconscious deeds, thus it feels like you are reading more into the text than is there. Are there other verses that make similar claims?

You are correct in your conclusion about my argument, and I'm very pleased that you saw it! My point was primarily based on Matthew 25, and not Matthew 6, because the account of the final judgment specifically excludes all deeds that were consciously done. How else could the believers be surprised that they had done them? It is what we do without thinking, I would argue, that shows what we really are -- as horrible as that thought is. Otherwise, Matthew 25 leaves us with a question, "how many good deeds must a goat perform to turn itself into a sheep?" One doesn't need modern biology to know the answer.

Regarding your objection, even prayer and fasting can be done unconsciously, at least with regard to motive. The repeated refrain in the Sermon on the Mount, "you have received your reward," ought to lend clarity to that. My point from before stands: even an agnostic can receive his reward, if the deed is done for the sake of conscience or self-image. Take away all of those deeds, for both Christian and non-Christian alike, and you have a very different picture. It is these ethics that matter to a Christian, I would argue, because they are based on relationship, and not some abstract deontology. One might reject the entire framework and still do some good things -- even unconsciously -- but something done outside of that framework will always remain outside of it.