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Socrates’ Ethical Dilemma & the Mere Christian
by Graeme Hunter
Are ordinary Christians ethical? It partly depends on whom you mean by ordinary Christians. And the way I use the term is growing less common, since I neither mean “Christian” as a term of abuse nor “ordinary” as a term of praise. By “ordinary Christians” I mean people who in earlier times would have described themselves as “God-fearing” or perhaps “Bible believing”; the term signifies men and women who identify right conduct with submission to the will of God. Whether or not such people are statistically ordinary is of no concern. They are ordinary in the sense of being theologically unremarkable; they are the ones the New Testament describes as “salt of the earth,” whom Dryden says “plod on to glory,” in contrast to theological highflyers, who so often wing toward self-destruction.
The ordinary Christians I have in mind would not typically theorize or debate about questions of right living, but they would nevertheless be highly principled in their lives. Their most fundamental concern is to please God and to be obedient to what he commands. Where they are able to discern God’s will, they feel no need of theorizing.
Many such people probably consider themselves ethical. But I shall disagree. I shall argue that when they are ethical it is only by accident. If correct, however, my argument will merely establish a fact; it will not be a reproach. If ordinary Christians are not ethical I shall try to show that it is because they are something else, which may be better.
The Dilemma of Divine Command Theory
But why should ordinary Christians not be ethical? Professors of ethics love to explain this, and they do so often and well. It is their particular joy to do it in freshman ethics courses where they feel duty-bound to deflect students from what they believe to be the myopic and dangerous path of ordinary Christianity. For these professors hold that ordinary Christians are not ethical, a point with which I shall agree. But they also assume, as I do not, that only immoral monsters could knowingly be unethical.
A fine example in print of this outlook is James Rachels’s popular introductory text The Elements of Moral Philosophy (1993). Rachels devotes a chapter to the question of whether or not ethics depends on religion and a subchapter deals with the outlook of what I have called ordinary Christianity.
Following a widespread practice Rachels calls the attempt of ordinary Christians to live in obedience to God “Divine Command Theory.” Now to elevate the behavior of ordinary Christians to the height of theory is something of an exaggeration since, as I already mentioned, they do not typically theorize about what they do. But for present purposes we may concede the term to Rachels.
Divine Command Theory, then, is the view that what is right depends on what God commands us to do. But according to Rachels, and to unnumbered professors of ethics across the continent, this submissive view is ethically untenable. Rachels explains with admirable patience and lucidity how Divine Command Theory inevitably founders on an ancient objection the philosopher Socrates once made to the seer Euthyphro. As was his way, Socrates asked his friend a hard question: “Tell me Euthyphro, he said, are actions good because God commands them or does God command them because they are good?”
The philosophically astute can see at once that Socrates is posing a dilemma. If actions are good merely because God commands them, then goodness becomes something arbitrary. Whatever God had commanded would have been just as good. Had he ordered us to steal, rather than to refrain from stealing, that would have been good. Had God bidden us to commit adultery, to commit murder or to dishonor our parents, it would have been good in the same way that it is now good to do the opposite. Arbitrariness is the inevitable result of saying that the good is simply whatever God commands. But this is a hard saying and few ordinary Christians can bring themselves to believe it.
It is true that, when you raise it in an ethics class, there are sure to be one or two freshmen who will truculently claim to believe it, their faces rigid with pious determination. Yes, they will say, with all the wooden conviction of a spin doctor, bad would be good if God commanded it. But they do not really believe it. They secretly believe they have been manipulated by the words of another logic-chopping professor. Here they are mistaken, however; in this case the ethics professor is right. He’s the exception that proves the rule.
But to their credit, most ordinary Christians who stray into ethics courses ultimately accept Socrates’s and Rachels’s point. They do not try to swallow the bitter pill of arbitrariness. Most say instead that God would never command us to do something like steal or kill or commit adultery, because such things are evil. Unfortunately, however, that answer plays equally well into the hand of the professor of ethics who then deftly impales his Christian students on the other horn of Socrates’s dilemma. If there are things that would not be good even if God commanded them, then there must be a standard of goodness independent of God’s commands. And that means that things are not good just because God commands them.
The upshot of Socrates’s dilemma, then, is this: it forces divine command theorists to give up something that they want to believe. If they say that whatever God commands would be good, then they make goodness arbitrary, which seems wrong. If they say that God first sees what is good and then commands it, they make the authority of goodness itself superior to that of God’s commands. Finally, if they try to weasel out of it by saying that divine commands are simply a shortcut to ethical knowledge provided only to Christians, then they make the application of divine commands less than universal. So, however they try to preserve Divine Command Theory, they are left with a moral standard that is either arbitrary or lacking in authority or lacking in universality. It fails therefore to meet even what Professor Rachels calls “minimum standards” for ethical behavior, which are that we simply “do what there are the best reasons for doing” (p. 13). Given the weaknesses just mentioned, following divine commands could never be the best reason for doing anything. In the end, Rachels’s argument comes to this: “even if [Christianity] is true, morality remains an independent matter” (p. 61). Thus those who are divine command theorists, the ones I am calling ordinary Christians, can act ethically only by accident, that is, only when divine commands coincide with what is ethical.
Ethics Without the Bible?
I believe Professor Rachels is right to imply as he does that ordinary Christians are unethical, but I shall argue that he is wrong to think of this dilemma as a reason for abandoning ordinary Christianity. It does lead some Christians in that direction, however.
Socrates’s dilemma is so wonderfully persuasive that those who take the time to understand it are easily led by it in one of two ways. Some simply accept it and make themselves over as what I shall call ethical Christians. The moral they draw is that one ought always to argue for one’s ethical views on purely ethical grounds. And that is just what they do. I once saw a sample letter that circulated through one of the major denominations instructing parishioners on how to write to politicians about matters of ethical concern. “By no means mention the Bible!” it told them. “To do so will be perceived as bigoted and your letter will simply be thrown away. Find reasons of social prudence in support of your ethical view; show that it would be in the honorable member’s own self-interest to act in the way you suggest. Set out your views plainly and politely.” And so forth.
Sound advice without a doubt. But it does not circulate in the churches of ordinary Christians, as I understand them. They would neither write such letters nor heed such instructions. If they object to any of the sinful activities that are glorified in our time, as many ordinary Christians do, it is not because such practices are unhygienic, or produce social problems, or run counter to the rational self-interest of politicians, though many of them do all those things. But ordinary Christians object primarily because they find such conduct to be contrary to the will of God. Hence that is what they would also say to their political leaders, were they ever seized by the futile wish to write them letters.
Ethical Christians are not so. They will argue ethical positions on purely ethical grounds and write accordingly to their political representatives. By such devices they escape being tossed on the horns of Socrates’s dilemma. Strange are the ways of paradox, however. Avoiding semantic entanglement at that point pushes them toward pragmatic difficulty elsewhere. Having taken ethics alone as the measure, they inevitably come to occupy the same range of ethical positions as do the nonbelievers with whom they normally argue and correspond. And so their contribution to political debate is often Christian only in the letterhead under which it appears.
But not everyone who takes the trouble to understand Socrates’s dilemma feels forced to become an ethical Christian. It is also possible to devise a more sophisticated version of Divine Command Theory to meet the requirements of rationality, universality, and authoritativeness that the simple version appears to lack. An excellent example of this is the theory of “theistic ethics” outlined by Peter Byrne (The Philosophical and Theological Foundations of Ethics ), which attempts to resolve the problem by showing God’s commands to be necessarily in conformity with ethical standards.
Ethical Christianity and intellectual Divine Command Theory are thus equally possible concessions to Socrates’s dilemma; they are also equally permissible moves in the ethical conversation of our day. Ethical Christianity fits faith into ethics; intellectual Divine Command Theory fits ethics into faith. Though not exactly equivalent, the two responses are alike in that each attempts to close the gap between faith and ethics that Socrates’s dilemma seems to open up.
A Parable of Good & Evil
The people I am calling ordinary Christians, however, take no step in either direction. They have little in common with ethical Christians, and they do not typically even try to meet intellectual challenges to their faith and practice. Why?
Media pundits and other observers of contemporary culture often charge that ordinary Christians fail to rise to such challenges because they are mentally feeble, or lazy, or downright anti-intellectual. And examples of each type exist in sufficient numbers to lend credibility to the stereotype. But would these be the only attitudes that could explain the refusal of ordinary Christians either to embrace ethical Christianity or to confront intellectual criticisms of their Christian practice? I think another explanation is possible, and I can introduce it most easily in the form of a parable.
Two trees predominate in the story of the Garden of Eden—the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life. But readers rarely notice a point that is of great significance to the present question: that only the tree of life is explicitly said to be at the center of the garden (Gen. 2:9).1
The Bible has many symbols for life, though the tree is one of the most important. Many images are employed because life is one of the central concepts of the Christian faith, one major object of Scripture being to explain what the Creator meant life to be. In the Old Testament, which is essentially a collection of Hebrew Scriptures, it is equated with wisdom (Prov. 3:18). After sin enters the world that wisdom is mainly expressed as the fear of God and obedience to his commandments (e.g., Ps. 111:10). In the New Testament, which announces a new dispensation beginning with the advent of Christ, obedience to the law is superseded by obedience to the Lord, who is the fulfillment of the law. In a nutshell, then, the biblical picture of right living involves conformity with the law of God, finally understood to be obedience to the will of Christ.
The importance of the fact that only the tree of life is said to be at the center of the garden can now be explained. When Eve is tempted by the serpent she says that she has been forbidden to eat of the tree that is at the center of the garden (Gen. 3:3). But Eve does not mean the tree of life, the garden’s real center; she means the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Even prior to the fall, then, there is in Eve an error that, though not itself culpable, nevertheless prefigures the entire history of the human struggle with good and evil. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil, though not at the center of the garden, is at the center of Eve’s thoughts and aspirations. This presents in symbolic form a truth that Aristotle places at the beginning of his Metaphysics: “Men by their nature want to know.” And the knowledge we most keenly desire concerns what is good and bad for ourselves. We desire not merely to live well, but to live well out of our own knowledge. We want our right living to be the fruit of our own unaided understanding. By our very nature it seems to us that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, a perfect symbol of ethical knowledge, is the centerpiece of paradise.
Only immoral monsters desire evil for its own sake. Eve was far from that. Instead she symbolizes a great psychological insight applicable to all mankind: the good we desire most, the good we desire by nature, is the one that is first discovered by our own understanding. Translated into the terms of the present discussion Eve’s mistake about the garden’s true center is symbolic of placing ethics higher than the wisdom of life.
One major theme of the Bible is the contrast of these two types of wisdom, each symbolized by a tree. The tree of life represents wisdom about how to live derived from a source that is ultimately noncognitive; the tree of ethics represents a fully cognitive wisdom about the same thing. The Bible is often silent about ethical wisdom, but where the rival wisdoms are contrasted, especially in the letters of St. Paul, it is invariably to the advantage of the wisdom of life (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:19–25). Paul calls ethical wisdom philosophy, or the wisdom of this world, or the wisdom of the Greeks. He has in mind the great Hellenistic schools of ethical thought that vied for followers in his own time, each of which called Socrates its father. For Paul, however, the wisdom of life is superior to every version of Greek ethics. At its best Greek wisdom can only equip us for the present existence, whereas the wisdom of life prepares us for and even affords us immortality (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:51–58).
Wisdom for Ordinary Christians
Such is the parable of the two trees. But philosophers will ask whether any such noncognitive wisdom of life can be shown to exist. Can the sources of our knowledge of how to act be anything other than fully cognitive? Unlike the media commentators and others referred to earlier, I do not think it ridiculous to believe in wisdom derived from noncognitive sources. In fact, it would be quite rational to believe in and pursue such wisdom, provided just three things can be taken for granted about the world, things that ordinary Christians do in fact take for granted.
1. Sometimes a certain course of action is morally best.
2. Sometimes ethical reflection alone cannot discover the best course of action, at least not in time to act on it.
3. God exists, knows what we ought to do in such cases, wants us to do it, and at least occasionally reveals his will to us.
These assumptions are far from absurd. Only moral relativists and nihilists deny that there is ever a best course of action. Thus most people admit condition number 1. And condition number 2, that some questions either do not yield to human ethical reflection at all or do not yield in time to provide answers in concrete situations, is simply part of common experience. Questions of abortion, euthanasia, genetic engineering, and others are textbook examples where ethical reasoning has produced no definitive ethical insight, though millions of people must make life-and-death decisions involving these matters all the time. Only condition number 3, the existence of a personal God who can and does reveal what is good, is particularly controversial. But even it is far from absurd. Indeed many of the most discerning thinkers of every age have held it to be not just true, but provable.
The first thing to understand, then, about such noncognitive wisdom is that its existence is perfectly possible and that one need not be an obscurantist to believe in it. My next claim, however, is more likely to engender controversy. It is that wisdom of life can also be productive of a kind of knowledge that ethical wisdom does not make available. And yet this claim can easily be demonstrated by a pre-Christian example known to all philosophers.
Speaking in his own defense at his trial in Athens in 399 B.C., Socrates explained to the jury how it came about that he led the peculiar life that ultimately brought him before them. Socrates had not willingly chosen to be poor, to neglect his family, or to live off the handouts of the idle rich, he told the jurors. One is not to think of him as resembling the later Cynics who in their reverence for Socrates would proudly refer to such conditions as emblems of their devotion. No, Socrates was forced to accept these humiliations because of a calling laid upon him by a god.
Socrates’s friend Chairephon had gone to consult the oracle at Delphi in an effort to discover who was wise, and the oracle had replied that Socrates was the wisest man in Athens. No one was more surprised by this saying than the man the oracle named. Except by revelation Socrates would never have conceived it. His own assessment of himself had been, on the contrary, that he was void of both wisdom and knowledge. Only his piety prevented him from thrusting the oracular message contemptuously aside. Only because it was the word of a god, did he undertake to investigate it, knowing it must conceal some deeper meaning. Since Socrates knew the oracle had not spoken in any straightforward or literal sense, he devised a simple test for proving its literal falsehood, with the vague intention of then returning to the oracle, proof in hand, and asking for clarification. His plan was simply to question prominent Athenians with a reputation for wisdom until he found one wiser than himself. It was the single-minded pursuit of that plan that caused Socrates to neglect his family and his work and to alienate those whom his questioning unmasked and humiliated. But in pursuing this hard and lonely way Socrates discovered a universal truth that was to become the cornerstone of philosophical inquiry. He learned that, despite appearances to the contrary, none is wise. And in learning this he also found the meaning of the oracle. Socrates was superior to the rest, not because he had any positive wisdom of the kind all men lack, but because he alone was fully conscious of his ignorance.
Faith Seeking Wisdom
Socrates’s discovery of the secret of his own negative wisdom is a pivotal moment in history. Its importance to the development not just of philosophy but of civilization itself can hardly be questioned. But it is often overlooked that his hypothesis (that he was the wisest of men) would never have been formed, had it not been revealed by a god.
Moreover, even if per impossibile it had been formed, it could never have been proved in the manner Socrates chose. I could hardly prove that I was the wisest man in Canada by besting in argument a few time-serving politicians, prevaricating sophists, and other interlocutors, though the marketplace of Ottawa could no doubt furnish them in ample numbers. To conclude that I was the wisest Canadian on the basis of such encounters would be a hasty generalization of the grossest sort. Maybe some of them just had a bad day, people would say. Maybe they are more at home writing than speaking. Or maybe the wisest Canadian lives in the bonnie highlands of Nova Scotia.
But Socrates was not seeking inductive evidence for a hypothesis; he was merely verifying in experience an oracle of a god. He knew in advance that it was true. He only needed to discover what it meant. And he pursued enlightenment single-mindedly, even against the obvious interests of his natural life. When God speaks, his Word does not need to be proven; it needs only to be understood.
Socrates’s reaction to the oracle is thus a perfect illustration of what the Augustinian tradition would later call faith seeking understanding. And that is the light in which the noncognitive wisdom of life is, I think, best understood. That such wisdom is possible, that it is capable of giving rise not only to good conduct but also to knowledge not available to ethical reflection, I take the case of Socrates to demonstrate. And yet I have already claimed that someone living according to the wisdom of life in the manner just explained would not necessarily be living an ethical life. I would now like to develop that idea more fully.
The Disintegration of Ethics
Since Kant, philosophers like to think of ethics as an autonomous field of inquiry. This is taken to mean that ethics is independent of other disciplines in its objects and principles in much the same way as, for example, the natural sciences are. But this newfound independence is more cherished in some contexts than in others. Just as Canada has traditionally valued its independence from the United States more highly than its independence from Britain, so the independence of ethics has primarily been asserted with respect to religion. Obviously, therefore, those whose first concern is to conform their behavior to the will of God cannot be living ethically in the modern sense.
Ordinary Christians will not much mind being called “unethical,” however. Indeed it is one of the most innocuous of the epithets customarily applied to them. And to be unethical in the technical sense intended here is not necessarily even a bad thing. It merely means that one’s actions in morally sensitive situations are motivated by extra-ethical, in this case religious, considerations. But I promised to go further and to argue that being unethical in this sense may be better than indifferent, that it may be a good thing. My reason for thinking so is simple and it is the point with which I shall close.
Post-Kantian modern philosophers were keen to establish ethics as a domain without religious foundation. However, their success allowed the further question to be raised of whether the now autonomous field of ethics had foundations of any kind whatever. To date no unique ones have been discovered. At its best ethics today seems only capable of multiple foundations, a position held by many, but brilliantly defended by John Kekes in The Morality of Pluralism (1993). At its worst and most vulgar level, however, contemporary ethics is simply relativistic. Now relativists are unwilling, and pluralists were hitherto unable, to prevent the decay of the field of ethics into an unlovely chaos of subdisciplines of doubtful compatibility. On the shelves of most university libraries will be found books on such bizarre topics as business ethics, evolutionary ethics, environmental ethics, animal ethics, and lesbian ethics, to name only some of the more comical examples. And some lively minds, seizing on the general confusion, can even envision such wonders as ethics without pain and ethics without principles.
The Choice of Ordinary Christians
Ironically we also find abundant books on Christian ethics cheek by jowl among these strange companions. Of course in one respect that is quite as it should be. Since ethics has become a party anyone can attend, there is certainly no reason for Christians to stay home. They can, to vary the metaphor, sit at the multicultural table and bring home whatever portion of the political stakes can be negotiated in that way. But the aim of a pluralistic conversation cannot go beyond staking out and defending political turf. A participant who wanted to convert another would show himself unfit for such an assembly; to proselytize is to reveal that you don’t get it. For that reason, the Christians at the table will not be ordinary ones as I understand them.
Now it is quite true that by not participating in the ethical conversation ordinary Christians cut themselves off from an often diverting and sometimes even edifying exchange. For ethics is the main flashpoint of contemporary philosophical interest, and some very capable people are writing about it. But it would be harder to argue that abstainers miss anything of importance in life. This is where I think ordinary Christians are a little better off.
Ordinary Christians take it on faith that the wisdom associated with the tree of life will ultimately turn out to be rational, authoritative, and universal. Perhaps they are wrong and their faith will not issue in understanding. But they can take comfort from what St. Paul calls “the cloud of witnesses,” that innumerable succession of faithful people, including even the pagan philosopher Socrates, who have understood through believing.
What is not surprising is that ordinary Christians expect no help in their pursuits from ethical thinkers whose considered opinion is that nothing is rational, authoritative, and universal. “Who seeks direction,” asked Tertullian, “from those who have lost their way?” If the darker shadow is cast by the tree of knowledge, it is hardly surprising that some choose to dwell beneath the tree of life.
1. I am grateful for this observation to a keen reader of Scripture, my friend Dr. Chris Willis.
A version of this article was presented as a public lecture during the author’s term as Father Edo Gatto Chair of Christian Studies at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia.
Graeme Hunter teaches philosophy at the University of Ottawa. He is the author of Radical Protestantism in Spinoza's Thought (Ashgate). He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.