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Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

Christ is our righteousness, not that we should escape punishment, still less escape being righteous, but as the live potent creator of righteousness in us, so that we, with our wills receiving His spirit, shall like Him resist unto blood, striving against sin.

— George MacDonald

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Cupidity vs. Charity

Within ancient Christian tradition, cupidity was associated with lust and ambition, the counterpart of the virtue of charity or godly love. Augustine explains that love is the “impulse” to “enjoy God on his own account and one’s neighbor on account of God.” In contrast, cupidity (or lust) is “the impulse of one’s mind to enjoy oneself and one’s neighbor and any corporeal thing not on account of God.” While charity is desire that moves us toward God, cupidity is desire that moves us away from God. Thus, while there are many kinds of loves that are proper and many things that are proper to love, to love well requires the proper ordering of these loves, Augustine says.

— Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books

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Brave is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days. Pretty much anyone—particularly a woman, it seems—who tells a personal story, changes a view, or bucks a trend (which is itself a trend) is likely to earn the accolade brave.

Although bravery and courage are often used synonymously today, the history of the word brave has some interesting differences from courage. The older meanings of brave include some that are far from virtuous: “cutthroat,” “villain,” “crooked,” and “depraved.” The current meaning of brave is closely allied to the word bold, which isn’t attached to virtue or vice. Boldness can be bad just as it can be good. In a culture as fragmented as ours, nearly anyone who takes a stand on something can find support somewhere. Right or wrong, anyone who is bold will be considered brave by someone.

Virtuous courage, in contrast, is more than boldness for boldness’s sake. Courage is measured not by the risk it entails but by the good it preserves.

— Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books

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We do like our rules. Some rules are strict, some unspoken; some apply to everyone, some to only a few. Some of us like rigid moral rules. Some of us like unwritten rules of political correctness. No matter what, adhering to rules is much easier than exercising wisdom.

A society couldn’t exist without the rule of law, of course. And a civilization wouldn’t be civil without its informal expectations. The Christian faith is built on laws that Jesus came not to abolish but to fulfill. Yet, because no number of rules or laws could cover every moral or ethical choice we face, virtue picks up where rules leave off. And where rules abound, virtue, like an underused muscle, atrophies.

— Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books

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We are what we repeatedly do

A famous passage on the relationship of virtue, or excellence, to practice comes from Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy in his chapter on Aristotle, in which Durant quotes from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics:

Excellence is an art won by training and habituation: we do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have these because we have acted rightly; “these virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions”; we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit: “the good of man is a working of the soul in the way of excellence in a complete life . . . for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or short time that makes a man blessed and happy.”

— Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books

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A natural consequence of being mentally engaged all the time is, first, that it is easy for us to live with internal conflicts and contradictions with little cognitive dissonance. When confronted with a deficiency in our ethical code, it takes no real effort to ignore it. Imagine, for example, someone who believes that people who rely on government assistance are freeloaders, but then this same person cheats on her taxes in little ways. Her hypocrisy should cause her a pang of guilt, but guilt requires attention in order to grow into reflection and repentance. And the structure of our day and our bodily habits are so oriented toward the next thing that she soon finds herself onto some other concern. We are certainly still capable of reflection and meditation, but our default response to cognitive dissonance is to simply do something else. The rhythms and practices of our modern world militate against reflection. There are so many immediate incentives for going with the flow; meanwhile, the recognition that we are not living up to the moral standards we identify with is costly. It certainly requires time, but it may also require changes to our lifestyle or to our moral standards. When we think of cognitive dissonance as the problem, rather than a symptom of an incoherent belief system, there are a number of effective and less costly ways of fixing things by moving on.

So, a belief in the essential goodness of humanity can live quite comfortably alongside a racist suspicion that certain people are inherently more prone to criminality. We are not interested in sorting through the validity of our convictions. We are about the next thing.

A superficial but constant engagement with media also invites us to unreflectively adopt ethical and political positions, creating a hodgepodge worldview. From a film on the treatment of animals in amusement parks we develop a fleeting concern for animal rights. A documentary on modern farming practices makes us see shopping local and organic as a moral issue. A hashtag campaign draws our attention to the evils of human trafficking, perhaps even while we look at porn on another browser tab. Causes are as easy to pick up as they are to put down. Or, more accurately, we don’t put causes down so much as we forget them. Putting them down would require some intentional meditation on the validity of the cause. Instead, we simply move on to something else. Humans are tremendously gifted at hypocrisy and inconsistency, but a ubiquitous, powerful stream of information and interaction driven by technology enables these gifts to flourish. And that is precisely the problem.

— Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness

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Keller, discussing William Kingdon Clifford’s famous essay “The Ethics of Belief”, espousing exclusive rationality:

[F]ew of our convictions about truth can be proven scientifically. While we may be able to demonstrably prove to any rational person that substance X will boil at temperature Y at elevation Z, we cannot so prove what we believe about justice and human rights, or that people are all equal in dignity and worth, or what we think is good and evil human behavior. If we used the same standard of evidence on our other beliefs that many secular people use to reject belief in God, no one would be able to justify much of anything. The only things that would be “ethical” to believe in would be things that could be proven in a laboratory. Philosopher Peter van Inwagen points out that the Clifford essay is often assigned in religion classes today but never in classes on epistemology (which addresses how we know what we know). That is because, Van Inwagen says, there are almost no teachers of philosophy in the West who believe in Clifford’s view of reason anymore.

Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical 

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