By Norman Midgette
While attending the University of Richmond (Virginia) I was required to take a course in Classical Greek. It was a study of Plato’s Euthyphro, his Apology and Crito. The setting was Greece; the story was about Socrates and the time approximated that of Malachi. The writings were of Socrates’ philosophy, teaching, trial, and death.
Many who write on ethics consider Socrates the “father of moral philosophy.” A brief analysis of the reasoning which led to his death and the reasoning of others who tried to convince him to escape death shows the weakness of trying to use human wisdom alone to decide what is morally right and wrong. To study ethics is to study what is morally right and wrong. It also is a study of the reasoning used to determine what is right or wrong. If there is a difference in what is ethical and moral, it is very slight. Webster suggests that ethical may suggest the involvement of more difficult and subtle questions of rightness, fairness, and equity.
Now to the moral reasoning of Socrates as reported by Plato. Suppose you are a teacher trying to live a good life and do what is beneficial for your fellow-countrymen. But some of them dislike you and consider you a danger to society though there is no proof. You are arrested, tried and condemned to death and in a way that is unjust. While you are awaiting execution your friends offer you an escape that will give you a longer life to continue with your family. So you consider the offer. You know that most people think you should escape and that you are guilty of no crime. You have not harmed anyone but have only tried to help your country. If you live you can continue to teach and do good and, furthermore, your family and friends need you. Should you take the opportunity and escape? Socrates said, “No!, I cannot escape.” He drank the hemlock and died. However, before he died he gave us some of the rules he followed in deciding what was morally right for him. Here are the main ones. (1) Moral decisions cannot be decided or affected by emotion but must be settled by reason. (2) We should never act in such a way as to harm anyone. By escaping he reasoned he would be harming the state. (3) Always keep a promise. He reasoned, by staying in Greece when he was free to go elsewhere he was “promising” to keep the laws of the country. (4) Always obey your superiors. He considered his country, his parents and teacher. He would not disobey its laws. (5) He said moral questions could not be answered by a public vote of the majority of people. The fact that most people thought he should be free did not justify him escaping.
But his friends reasoned he should escape and here, in part, is their reasoning. (1) Socrates believed he had been “called” to teach by the god Apollo and that should weigh heavier than any other consideration. However, Socrates argues that what is right and what is commanded by the gods are not synonymous. They also reasoned, (2) Your teaching is for the good of the state. If you surrender and do not teach you are not really helping the state but hurting it. Socrates recognized and acknowledged that conflict in this thinking but further reasoned there are times when one standard had to take precedence over another. Socrates’ self-imposed standard of morality in this given set of circumstances led to his death. His friends’ ethical reasoning by their self-imposed standard would have led to their escape. Conflicting judgments, conclusions and actions have always followed where moral standards of right and wrong have been left to the human will. It is the same today.
One group today contends that the ultimate criterion for determining what is morally right is the standard of good. This is called by the moral philosophers the teleological theory. To them an act is right if and only if the standard and the act will produce or is intended to produce more good than evil or bad. An act is wrong “if and only if it does not do so.” But, these moralists differ on the question, “Good for who? “John Stuart Mill argues it has to be the greatest personal good. The reasoning of Hitler made mass murder of the Jews morally right because he reasoned it was for the greatest national good. Such reasoning is logically possible under this theory or morality.
A second theory says theory one is fallible. It argues an act may be morally right if it does not promote the personal or general good as judged by men. To them an act toward others or self is morally right if it keeps a promise, is just as commanded by God or by the state. However, they also have a problem of trying to decide if (l) “1 must always do what is just,” or if, (2) “In this particular situation I must do what is just.” Those who follow this theory of morality are called deontologists. There is no absolute answer for them so they also become a law each to himself.
A third group today says simply, “If it is the loving thing to do it is right.” This moral theory has made greater inroads into the seminaries, church leadership and moral religious writings than either of the first two. Armed with this moral standard, a preacher for the United Church in Chatham, Ontario, made available to young unmarried couples a room for sexual revelry. This was shortly after the book, Situation Ethics, became popular. This philosophy of morality says love, not God, determines what is right and wrong.
There is another alternative to this moral dilemma. It is a standard much easier to understand. It is the standard that will establish the greatest good for all, not just for now but for eternity. There is a single standard of ethics for the Christian, for all Christians. But, equally important are the reasons this single standard must be accepted.
One is the limitation and ignorance of man. This should be evident to the smart men who are floundering around in the various moral theories with all their unanswered questions and conflicts. There is no agreement among them and no possibility of agreement unless, that is, everybody agrees to submit their thinking to the thinking of one man. Experience shows that this is not going to happen.
God pointed out in the Bible what many should have learned from repeated experiences. We are limited in our ability and wisdom. God has said, “. . . it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps” (Jer. 10:23). Yet the, “. . . way of a fool is right in his own eyes” (Prov. 12:15). We are further informed, “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes . . .” (Prov. 21:2). But the fact remains, we know not what is right and best without help from God. When men alone have tried to give that help and moral direction confusion has resulted. So one of the major reasons we need a standard is because we are unable within ourselves to know the answers. And it is not a matter of willful ignorance, but rather a matter of mortal inability.
The second reason we need that standard established by God is because of His inherent authority. The irreligious and those with their backs toward God will not accept this fact. It will not be accepted until one is willing to take a good look at the evidence for God and His rights and give them a fair hearing. Once His being and works are accepted, His authority to direct and guide of necessity follows. The last verse of Hosea says, “Who is wise, and he shall understand these things? prudent and he shall know them: for the ways of the Lord are right, and the just shall walk in them: but the transgressors shall fall therein” (Hos. 14:9). Because of His authority and supreme position over the universe His ways are right.
In the coming of Christ ” all authority” (Matt. 28:18) was given to Him by God and that is why our only standard of moral authority for the exercise of moral rightness is found in the doctrine of Christ. It is His word that will finally judge (Jn. 12:48).
That foundation on which Christian Ethics is built is the Revelation of God, the Bible. And the reason we gladly accept this basis is because of our mortal inability to know and because of the Right of God. Peter gave our marching orders and pointed our direction when he said, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:14).
Socrates had his rules; John Stuart Mill his standard, and Hobbes and Hitler rationalized morality to their satisfaction. But, Christ has revealed God’s will and it is not only more beneficial and humanly considerate than all the rest but most of all He has the authority to enforce it and hold us accountable for it.
- Define “ethics.”
- Explain the basis for determining right and wrong in the teleological theory of ethics.
- What problems face the teleological ethicist?
- Explain the basis for determining right and wrong for the deontologists.
- What is the basis for determining right and wrong for the situation ethicist?
- What standard does the Christian use for deter mining right and wrong?
- Name two reasons why this standard should be accepted.
Truth Magazine XXIII: 20, pp. 325-327
May 17, 1979