Victor Lee Austin, Christian Ethics: A Guide for the Perplexed. chapters 1 and 2

Notes on Victor Lee Austin, Christian Ethics: A Guide for the Perplexed, chapters 1 and 2

  • Quotations from the book are in italics
  • (page numbers are in parentheses)

1. Can We Talk?  [Is Christian Ethics Reasonable?]

  • Challenges to the reasonableness of ethics (5)
  • There’s no such thing as moral right and wrong (7)
  • There’s no such thing as freedom (9)
  • All morality is subjective (11)
  • All morality is culturally relative (14)
  • Christian ethics, like all theology, defends reason (17)

It does seem that that a very effective way to answer such questions and challenges is to appeal to the questioner’s own behavior and preferences. No one really wants to live amongst neighbors who don’t believe in right and wrong. No one really wants to have parents, or a spouse, who don’t believe in the solemn moral obligations of parenthood and marriage, etc. Everyone would love to live amongst neighbors who really live by the Sermon on the Mount.

Would this way of responding to such challenges count as an example of the Tu quoque fallacy? If I appeal to my challenger’s hypocrisy, I haven’t logically proven that there is no such thing as moral right and wrong. Purely as a matter of logiche could be correct that there is no such thing as right and wrong, and incorrect to live as though there is such a thing.

But I’m not making a logical argument here. I’m trying to make a Bayesian inference(?) that if we don’t know whether there is such a thing as moral right and wrong, my opponent’s failure to live as though “there is no such thing as right and wrong” is a point against the latter proposition.

I think this relates to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s popular discussion of “skin in the game.” People have more credibility, if and when they are personally invested in the ideas that they promote. (This also lies behind Charles Murray’s urging American liberal elites to “preach what they practice”: since the traditional personal and communal virtues of industry, fidelity, temperance, etc. are essential to the success of these very elites, they should get over their reluctance to urge said virtues on the lower orders out of a misplaced concern for tolerance and pluralism.)

(Also by this standard, of course, God sending his own son to be crucified for the sins of all mankind would be an unsurpassable example of skin in the game.)

Is it another signal that right and wrong exist, that people have strong intuitions about right and wrong, even when they can’t clearly articulate their reasons why (a.k.a. “moral dumbfounding“?) Which is more likely: that the ancient, millennia-old moral traditions of my ancestors have some good reason for existing, even if I personally can’t rationalize it at the moment (a.k.a. “Chesterton’s fence“), or that my own reasoning ability is adequate and correct in any given case?

If right and wrong are exterior to, and anterior to, my own capacity to reason and articulate moral judgments at any given time, that would be another good reason to follow Elisabeth Elliot‘s rule of thumb (paraphrased): obey, obey, obey. The Ten Commandments outlasted Nietzsche and Joseph Fletcher, and they will outlast me too.


On a practical level, it does seem that there are some areas of Christian ethics that the liberal mainstream of Today’s World does have a very hard time seeing as “reasonable,” maybe above all sexual ethics, or specifically, any dissent from the Sexual Revolution. There may in principle be many good arguments for traditional views on abortion, homosexuality, pornography, fornication, etc., that don’t appeal to Christianity or even to theism, but in practice, they will usually be met with, at best, “Those are just your own personal, private (i.e. irrational and indefensible) religious views,” or at worst, “You’re an agent of theocratic patriarchal oppression.”

So, is there any way to have a discussion? Perhaps the “tu quoque” approach of appealing to people’s own experience can foster some sort of conversation, on the proposition that sexual liberalism tends to make people at best unfulfilled, and at worst totally miserable. This is the argument that Ross Douthat makes about Lena Dunham’s HBO series “Girls” (centered on female perspectives), as well as that suggested by the many protagonists of Michel Houellebecq’s novels (from a male perspective).

That said, (here following Tim Keller’s argument in his 2004 sermon “Sexuality and Christian Hope”) as Saint Paul reminded the Corinthians (1 Cor 6-7), although true happiness is not to be found through expressive individualism (i.e. remaining a Swinging Single and escaping the bonds of traditional marriage), it is also not to be found by following the traditional instructions to bear children and take one’s place within the collectivity of the extended family. Rather, it is to be found, for both married people and single people, within the new family of the church, the body/bride of Christ.


2. What’s Christian About Christian Ethics? 

  • Different meanings of “Christian Ethics” (23)
  • Christian ethics and the Bible (26)
  • Narrative and community (30)
  • There are rules in the Bible, but the Bible is more than rules (32)
  • Critique of both narratives and rules (34)
  • “There’s no such thing as Christian ethics” (36)
  • The fully human character who transcends the narrative  (40)

Christian ethics is the ethics of a people elected by the grace of God to receive new birth and a new life in Christ through the Holy Spirit. That explains where Christian ethics comes from, but leaves many questions to answer. Is it just a matter of greater strictness about interior motivations and thoughts, e.g. “You have heard it said, do not murder, but I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment; You have heard it said, do not commit adultery, but I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery”?

Stanley Hauerwas argues that Christian ethics is defined by the church, which is a community constituted by a narrative. So Christian ethics is based on the story of Christ (as opposed to modern liberal Kant-Rawls universalism, which is based on “the story that we have no story”). But the story can’t just exist “out there”; it must be taken in by the individual and the community, and lived out by them (liturgically).

What are people outside the community to make of this? Hauerwas hopes that this will produce good, virtuous [Christian] neighbors, whom pagans will be happy to have in their communities — people you would want as next-door neighbors (like Ned Flanders on the Simpsons.

Another point of view: Christian ethics is formed by what you see and what you want (Jonathan Edwards, Rene Girard). If you really see what God has done for you in Christ, you are overwhelmed with gratitude and joy, and can’t help but share this with others in love, providing an authentic, skin-in-the-game testimony to the gospel. It is good not to murder your neighbor, and even better not to be angry with him, but if you really receive the good news of Christ, you want nothing more than to love God and love your neighbor in response.

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