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The Moral Life
Being good in the moral life through God’s work means two things: moral character and moral actions. Both are integral to each other. Throughout much of the modern world, the focus of philosophers and theologians was on moral actions and the decisions we must make in the complex world in which we live. Moral character was hardly on the radar screen. In recent years there has been a recovery of character or virtue ethics, an emphasis that goes way back in history to philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, and certainly to the Bible. Unfortunately, some recent advocates of character/virtue ethics play down the need for an ethic of decision making. Both, I believe, are needed.
Character ethics refers to the more inward side of the ethical life. It embodies those habits and virtues that come to form the core of who we are. Embedded character then flows almost spontaneously into the tough ethical decisions we must make. Character ethics is well reflected in the statement by philosopher Iris Murdoch, “At crucial moments of choice, most of the business of choosing is already over.” Had the corporate leaders involved in recent scandals had deep moral character, they would have been more prone to choose the right path when faced with enticements to fudge the numbers or pad their pockets. Character ethics in the Christian perspective is rooted in the biblical idea of the heart, the core inner self that reflects who we really are, for as Jesus put it, “The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good” (Luke 6:45).
But the moral life is not only about character. It is also about wise and good decisions. Sometimes those decisions are straightforward and without difficulty in their discernment and course of action. At other times decisions are complex, and we are not always immediately clear as to the right, just, and good path. In politics, business, education, the sciences, the arts, and spheres of everyday living, we are often faced with dilemmas that embody multiple ethical principles, competing moral responsibilities, or situations the Bible does not clearly address.
While moral character is certainly important for predisposing us in a certain direction in these tough decisions, we need more. We need to develop, through broad biblical directions, a Christian worldview and solid thinking, the ability to discern the good, wise, and just. In other words, we have to learn to make the right choices through reflection on the dilemmas themselves, and through discernment from the foundations of our biblical faith. It is important to realize that the great crisis at Enron, Adelphia, WorldCom, Global Crossing, and Arthur Andersen is far more than just lack of knowledge in business ethics. Most likely the culprits in the scandals have had such seminars and courses. The fundamental issue is the need for a clear foundation on which to build.
Facing a Secular, Pluralistic World
If being good in character and action is ultimately the work of God, what do we do in a world that is largely characterized by unbelief? What can we expect from those who lack a moral foundation rooted in God? How do we operate in a secular, pluralistic society?
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