Ethics is also part of philosophy. The first Greek philosophers, like Thales, were mainly interested in the material composition of the world. But with Heraclitus, and especially with Plato and Aristotle, people tried to learn from philosophers how to live.
Philosophers have typically offered one of three general theories of ethics, sometimes coordinating two of these theories (rarely three of them) together.
In teleological ethics (a modern variant is utilitarianism), human behavior seeks to achieve a goal, a telos. The goal is usually (as in Aristotle) happiness.
But then epistemological questions intervene. How can I know what state of mind is a worthy goal for me to pursue? Who is to say what pleasures are worth pursuing, and which should be deferred? What account should I take of other people, their pleasures, their happiness? What if it appears that I must sacrifice my own pleasure, even my life, for someone else?
At best, teleological ethics takes the “ought” for granted, thinking everybody knows that we ought to pursue pleasure. It takes for granted that only happiness is good in itself. But many of us cannot assume that.
So other philosophers have said that ethics is really about “oughts,” obligations, duties. Deontological comes from the Greek deo, which means “owe,” “ought,” or “must.”
Modern deontologism owes much to Immanuel Kant, for whom ethics is based on categorical imperatives—commands that we must obey unconditionally. Kant was an opponent of the teleological tradition. For him, ethical imperatives typically contradict our self-interest, our judgments of what is pleasurable or useful.
But the problem in deontological ethics typically emerges when we try to state what our duties are. Kant thought they could be derived by a logical deduction from a few obvious axioms, such as a version of the Golden Rule. But other philosophers have questioned both these axioms and Kant’s deductions from them.
So many have given up on trying to identify authoritatively the categorical norms of ethics, and they have reverted to what most humans would prefer to do anyway—namely to do whatever they please. Or, to put it more philosophically, they follow their own subjectivity as their only ethical guide. They despise any claims that some person or principle has the right to tell us how to live.
Some existentialists, however, try to bring in other considerations. Jean-Paul Sartre says that we ought to live authentically, in such a way that we display our true selves with honesty. But where do these appeals to authenticity and honesty come from? Why do we have an obligation to be authentic, if subjectivity is our only guide? Also, how do I know which of my desires is authentic when my desires conflict?
It seems that the existentialist cannot do without deontologism, without an appeal to norms that stand above us and define what our true selves ought to be. But the deontologists and the teleologists do such a poor job at defending their duties and their pleasures that their own ethics reduces to existential-subjectivism. And subjectivism boils down to badly disguised versions of deontologism and teleologism.
Why this confusion? Again, I have recourse to a very different worldview, the biblical theism of Scripture. According to the Bible, God orchestrates the purposes of mankind, his own ethical commands, and human subjectivity to work together. We can ask, “What will bring the greatest happiness?” “What are the duties commanded by the highest authority?” and “What fits best with my inner subjectivity?” and arrive at the same place. In a biblical worldview, teleologism, deontologism, and existentialism converge. They provide us with three perspectives on ethics, three different emphases, and three ways of checking and balancing our initial judgments. But in the end, they view the same ethical principles, God’s revelation, from three different angles.
In a biblical teleologism, we seek the goal of God’s glory in all that we do (1 Cor 10:31). When we glorify God, we find happiness, even pleasure. So we seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matt 6:33), knowing that all other blessings will be added unto us.
In a biblical deontologism, we obey God’s commands. These include the two Great Commandments, to love God with all our hearts and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt 22:37–40), and the many applications of these commandments throughout Scripture. One particularly notable group of applications is the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:1–17, Deut 5:6–21).
In a biblical existential ethic, we focus on our heart, as Jesus did in the Sermon on the Mount. He taught there that if we truly want to keep the sixth commandment, we must deal with the anger in our hearts (Matt 5:21–26). And if we want to guard against adultery, our hearts must be purified of lust (Matt 5:27–30).
In this biblical ethic, there is no tension between human happiness, normative principles, and subjective authenticity. That is because God is sovereign over all three areas: he governs history so that those who seek God’s glory will eventually be blessed (despite ups and downs); he commands those principles that bring him glory; and he creates us so that we are made to live that way.
We see that secular philosophy goes around in circles. Unwilling to accept the revelation of the biblical God, it absolutizes goals, then principles, then subjective feelings, then back again, without finding any assurance about how to live. Certainly philosophers in each of the three major strains of thought above have found part of the truth, in that they have isolated the three factors that deserve consideration in our ethical quest. But those factors will always war for supremacy, until they find their consistency under a tri-personal God.
This post is adapted from We Are All Philosophers by John M. Frame (Lexham Press, 2019).