Thoughts on Ethics and Virtue

Is it okay to work for a reward (internal or external) as long as you have a proper perspective on it, as Aristotle says? I don’t think so. I do think, however, that honor and happiness are a couple of the rewards of virtue (and other blessings from God), I just don’t think that they should be the point of virtue. So while rewards should not be our goal they are still or gain when we have the right motivation.

I think people get a sort of fulfillment or peace of mind when they do good things for others because we all do have a conscience (aka “moral code”) placed in us by our Creator so we know the difference between right and wrong. I think a lot of “good” people think they should treat others well without really knowing why it’s important. If they really came down to their reasoning, I believe they would realize that all they do is for themselves – that they do good so they have a good reputation, they are kind so they are treated kindly (for we all intrinsically know that we will be treated the way we treat others), they keep up friendships so they have friends and they obey laws so they aren’t thrown into jail or killed (which is referred to as consequentialism ethics), etc.  I would say that all unregenerate (and many regenerated) people who act virtuously do so for rewards.

When I mentioned earlier that we could work for an external reward I was referring to utilitarianism which is the belief that the value of an action is determined by how much good it can do to the greatest amount of people. The goal of this is for social and personal pleasure which still gets right back to working for rewards and the telos is the same as Aristotle’s – that of happiness. I strongly disagree with the utilitarian view for it would wipe out the sick, the old, the disabled, and otherwise inconvenient from our culture.

Should I agree with Immanuel Kant then when he says in his deontological belief that the motive and reason for virtue should be more of a moral obligation than working for a reward? I don’t know for sure what Kant meant by ‘obligation’ but I choose to think of it in regard to God and the conscience (aka “moral code”) he put in us. I don’t see a big difference between these two motivations. Peoples’ “moral code” is what they feel obliged to follow and they want to for the rewards. An important question now arises: does a sense of obligation or duty for Christians towards God mean a rejection of his grace?

Some people say there’s a distinction between moral obligation and Christian obligation and that anyone can act morally, but I think people’s definition of ‘morality’ can be very different. I don’t see how anyone has an obligation of any sort without a god. Why and how could they? Obligation implies a debt. Who sets the values and standards? Are they from a man or God? Who would we owe if there was no God? Now, I’m not saying we owe God anything because the one and true God is a God of grace who has paid our debts but generally throughout history people have believed that gods are to be appeased and served because they have done something for us or they could bless us if we pleased them. In regard to moral obligation then, I conclude that it’s null and void, lacking a creditor who demands payment.

Motive and reasoning are very important to action. The action itself may not turn out differently if a person thinks in one way or another when they’re performing it but for their own morality it will do them no good if they have no desire to do what’s right but rather a feeling of obligation or a greed for reward. I don’t think that virtuous acts done for these reasons would truly be advantageous to the person’s character at all, it would only result in drudgery and grief but in comparison, a willingness and desire to do what’s right regardless of obligation or reward will result in joy. Motive and reason are crucial then and the target of our aim should not be ourselves but God.

To truly want what one should want for the right reasons (obeying God in everything for the sole purpose of God’s glory) is sometimes a very difficult task and I can’t explain it in any better way than John Piper does: “If you don’t feel strong desires for the manifestation of the glory of God, it is not because you have drunk deeply and are satisfied. It is because you have nibbled so long at the table of the world. Your soul is stuffed with small things, and there is no room for the great.”

“Our obedience is God’s pleasure when it proves that God is our treasure. This is good news, because it means very simply that the command to obey is the command to be happy in God. The commandments of God are only as hard to obey as the promises of God are hard to believe. The Word of God is only as hard to obey as the beauty of God is hard to cherish.”

I’ve briefly discussed consequentialism, utilitarianism, Nicomachean, and deontological ethics and yes, there are differences but I find them strangely similar in that none of them speak of God; they are all practical rather than theological and so I think they are all missing the main point.

Note on text: In this writing the words “moral”, “virtue” and “good” are for the most part used as synonyms.

Side note: (or in this case it’s a below note) After all this, I don’t want to make it sound like I think we can have faith without works for I believe what it says in James 1:22-27 and 2:21-26 is true:

“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

“Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rehab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.”

I don’t pretend to have this all figured out just right so I am very welcome to anyone’s ideas or opinions. I am pretty new to this subject but enjoy thinking about it.


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