I have been receiving a lot of dismayed, uncomprehending and perhaps angry emails in the last week. My correspondents appear bewildered at why Orthodox Christian ethics does not share the conclusions of popular secular ethics. After all, they both appear to share many of the same values. Both ethical systems value “equality,” “freedom of choice,” “human brotherhood,” “fairness” and “justice.” So if they share these values, why doesn’t Orthodox Christianity support the same conclusions?
Professor David Frost, Principal of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge, England, delivered a lecture entitled “The Basics of Christian Ethics: Part I” in which he sought to answer this question. Professor Frost’s conclusion is as follows:
- Popular secular ethics shares similar values, because popular secular ethics directly borrowed some of its values from Orthodox Christianity.
- Popular secular ethics now reaches very different conclusions because it borrowed only some aspects of Christian teaching.
- Borrowing Christian ideals but divorcing them from the context of a loving relationship with God radically changes the ethical system.
The reason for the dismay and confusion among my correspondents is because they know we share many of the same values, but simply do not understand why Christianity reaches such significantly different conclusions. You simply can’t blame them, either, because many Christians appear to be just as confused. Recently, the rector of Xavier College was quoted in The Age as saying,
In my experience, there is almost total unanimity amongst the young in favour of same-sex marriage, and arguments against it have almost no impact on them.
They are driven by a strong emotional commitment to equality, and this is surely something to respect and admire. They are idealistic in the value they ascribe to love, the primary gospel value.
All their lives, the young have been surrounded by the influence of media, an educational system, political activists and peak industry representatives all pushing popular secular ethics. One of my parishioners, in her early twenties, reports that in school teachers would regularly give the students essay questions like, “Should homosexual marriage be legalised?” The teacher would allow students to choose to argue for or against the proposition. But if any student were unwise enough to argue against, their fellow students would mercilessly bully them.
I know of one adopted child who had to write an essay on abortion and argued strongly against it, knowing that his birth mother could easily have aborted him. He was told that his essay would fail unless he resubmitted it and included arguments for abortion.
Given extreme levels of social conformance within the education system and media, having parents who are unwilling or unable to express traditional Christian ethics, seeing no or few role models who can adequately both live and defend traditional Christian ethics, of course the young are going to hold the views they do. The news media are quite willing to point to the indoctrination of Chinese students, but less willing to highlight that Australian society indoctrinates our young just as surely as Chinese society does.
So let’s explore Professor Frost’s argument:
- How is popular secular ethics dependent on Christian values?
- Why does divorcing these values from Christianity lead to radically different conclusions?
The preamble to the American Declaration of Independence contains these words:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …
This is an assertion that virtually everyone I know would agree with. Yet through the vast sweep of history, most people would find this statement to be quite strange. It wasn’t self-evident to Aristotle that all men were created equal, because Aristotle taught that some races of men were naturally “slavish” and other races more inclined to “freedom.” It wasn’t evident to pagan Vikings who took to the sea to capture slaves. The Vikings would hold these slaves as thralls, and would regularly subject them to beatings and even beheadings. Even in our day, it is likely that the neo-Nazi marchers or the radical left protestors in Charlottesville simply do not recognise the equality of mankind.
The idea that men are created equal is not something that can be demonstrated from evidence. Evidence only points to our differences:
- Some of us are stronger
- Some of us are larger
- Some of us are more athletically gifted
- Some of us more inclined to academics
- Some of us more inclined to leadership
Where then, does this idea—and it only is an ethical idea, not something that can be scientifically demonstrated—come from?
It comes from the Christian teaching that God loves everyone equally. The equality that was self-evident to the writers of the Declaration of Independence was only self-evident because they lived and worked within a Christian culture.
The French Revolution produced the rallying cry, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” It is a rallying cry that we can all assent to. Professor Frost, however, points out that the concept of fraternité—the brotherhood of mankind—is a particularly Christian ethic. Professor Frost says he regularly challenges his audiences to name one ethical system that encompassed the brotherhood of mankind before Christianity taught it.
Christianity introduced to the world the brotherhood of mankind because the Holy Spirit communicated the Gospel to every person within earshot of the Jerusalem temple complex in their own language on the day of Pentecost. The Apostles knew that not only were all families of humans descended from a single family of humans, but that the Gospel called all humans to a brotherhood—and “brotherhood” includes females—within the Life of Christ.
Freedom of choice is consistently taught within Orthodox Christianity. Freedom of choice is a Christian teaching rooted in the story of Creation, and intrinsic to the teaching of the Gospel. Humans are free to make moral choices—to love whom they choose and to give thanks for their blessings as they see fit.
So where are the differences?
Liberty, equality and brotherhood are ethical values that are shared between Orthodox Christianity and popular secular ethics. They are the values that underpin what we today call human rights. And Professor Frost quite convincingly argues that equality and brotherhood originated within Christianity.
So what causes the difference between these ethical systems? The differences are caused by the lifting of these particular ideas out of the broader range of Christian teachings. By providing a new context for these values they created quite a different ethical system. Let’s explore some of these differences.
What is the unit of analysis?
Popular secular ethics places the individual as the unit of analysis. Liberty means liberty for an individual. The individual is made the recipient of human rights. This allows popular secular ethicists to argue that the absolute claim of liberty for an individual allows an absolute right to end human life (e.g. abortion, euthanasia).
Orthodox Christianity, on the other hand, does not define the unit of analysis as an “individual,” but as a “person.” What we mean by “person” is the individual in the context of all social relationships: a person’s privileges from and duties toward God; a person’s benefits from and duties towards their parents, their children, their friends, their work colleagues.
We understand that people are equal—not because of any inherent attribute within themselves—but because God loves all equally, and calls humans to love as He loves.
We recognise freedom of choice, but because we recognise the claims of an unborn child to life and liberty and happiness as being an intrinsic part of what makes a mother a person, we cannot agree that abortion is morally neutral. The child is equally as much a person as is the mother. The child is equal in value before God. The child’s life is as valuable as the mother’s life. Because we see a mother not as a discrete individual, but as a holistic person, Orthodox Christianity derives a very different conclusion.
What are human rights?
In 1948 the United Nations published the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This seminal declaration assigned inherent value to individuals and introduced human rights as being foundational for international law.
If you look at C.S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity, which was published only a few years before the United Nations’ declaration, you’ll see that Lewis naturally describes human duty. For Christians have never asked, “what rights do humans have?” Christians have always asked, “What are the Christian duties?”
Christianity asks the question in this way because Christian ethics are inherently kenotic (i.e. self-giving). Kenotic ethics are far more stable than demanding one's own human rights. For enjoying one’s human rights depends on the behaviour of others; whereas observing Christian duties depends on no one other than you. Is it easier for an individual to change, or for that individual to get the entire world to change? The Christian ethic, therefore, produces a more stable effect, because an individual can live it, and by living it, can start a change in the world that depends on no one else’s prior choice.
Here’s a concrete example.
The Christian duty of a husband toward a wife is to love his wife as much as he loves his own body (Ephesians 5:28). What if the wife doesn’t love or respect him back? Saint John Chrysostom, writing in the fourth century, teaches that the husband must still love his wife, regardless of her behaviour (Homily XX).
Today’s secular ethics say that not feeling loved is a valid reason to end the marriage (i.e. “love is a human right” / “marriage shows we’re in love”), whereas Christian ethics says that “to love” is the duty of a husband toward a wife. A man may “fulfil his duty to love” his wife regardless of her behaviour. This is a hard teaching, and a particularly counter-cultural teaching today, but it produces far more stable outcomes than demanding one’s rights.
What is good?
Professor Frost states that Christian ethics has a very simple definition of good and bad. “Good is what is consistent with God’s will. Bad is what is inconsistent with His will.”
In contrast, popular secular ethics is consequentialist. That is, actions have no inherent “goodness” or “badness” within themselves, their “goodness” and “badness” derive purely from their consequences.
We see the angst produced by consequentialism in the AFL every week. Perfectly legal tackles began to result in regular suspensions in 2017 when they were judged almost exclusively on their results. When a legal tackle resulted in a concussion in 2017, the tackling player began to be routinely suspended. The problem that AFL players are faced with is that their tackles are no longer judged by the technique (i.e. “what they do”) but now judged almost entirely by the consequences (i.e. “what was the result”). And—here's the rub—consequences are difficult to predict.
Predicting the outcome isn’t the only difficulty with consequentialism. Consequentialism also imposes a significant burden in trying to calculate pros and cons of an action. Calculating “the greatest benefit to the greatest good,” or “the least harm to the least number of people” is very difficult.
Within consequentialism (e.g. as expressed by the French Declaration of the Rights of Man), the only limit to human freedom is causing harm to others. Yet it is incredibly difficult to understand ahead of time whether or to what extent actions might cause harm to others. Consequentialism requires an inhuman level of prediction and calculation.
What is natural?
Popular secular ethics define anything that commonly occurs among humans or within the animal kingdom as being ‘natural.’ And what is deemed natural is deemed justifiable. For example, when some chimpanzees were identified as having some level of lesbian activity social activists were ecstatic. They interpret the presence of the behaviour within the chimp population as demonstrating how natural the activity is for humans.
Any level of desire—whether it be sexual fetishes, escapism, plastic surgery, drugs and alcohol, gambling—are deemed to be ‘natural.’ So long as these desires fall short of addictive behaviour, their ‘naturalness’ provides a justification for them.
Yet Orthodox Christianity does not see things this way. Orthodox Christianity recognises that commonly observable behaviour—both by humans and animals—falls short of the will of our Creator. These ‘natural’ desires are commonly called ‘passions’ within Orthodox Christianity. Our understanding is that passions are good when they return praise and thanks giving towards God; whereas when they are turned inward, satisfying desires only for our own pleasure, then they begin to enslave us.
Orthodox Christianity understands human passions to be problematic long before the behaviour turns addictive. Here we stand apart from popular secular ethicists and perhaps share more in common with ancient Stoic philosophers who understood a spiritual manner of living requires rising above our base desires.
Many of the values of popular secular ethics are directly dependent on Christian ideals. By borrowing only some Christian concepts, however, secular ethicists create a very different ethical system that reaches very different conclusions.
Secular ethics argues that any human desire not harming others is permissible, despite the difficulty of determining the extent of harm. Orthodox Christianity recognises that people, places and actions provide sacred boundaries; and that unless human desire is directed God-ward, then it is likely to be harmful.
Secular ethics argues that individuals inherently have iron-clad rights. Orthodox Christianity recognises not the individual, but the person—taking into account the full measure of vertical and horizontal social relationships. Moreover, Orthodox Christianity does not recognise inherent rights, but recognises that God has mercy on us all. Orthodox Christianity does not demand rights but seeks to fulfil duties to God and fellow man. Duties, rather than rights, provides a much more stable framework for guiding ethical decision-making.
Despite the shared heritage in some of the ideas, popular secular ethics has radically diverged from traditional Orthodox Christian ethics. The reason Orthodox Christianity arrives at different conclusions is that its fundamental world view encompasses not:
- individualism, pleasure-seeking and human rights; but
- full personhood, thanksgiving and Christian duties.
- What the Orthodox Church teaches on Euthanasia
- The Church Fathers’ High View of Marriage
- The ‘Dull Dogma’ of Christianity
- Physics points to the existence of God
- Australian scientist discovers the Eastern Orthodox Church
This article adapted from a lecture delivered by Professor David Frost to the Cambridge Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies entitled, “The Basis of Christian Ethics: Part I.”