Sunday, February 14, 2010

Ethics and Morality


I recently finished reading Scott Gustafson’s latest book, Behind Good and Evil. It is a quick read, but well-reasoned, thoughtful and thought provoking. Gustafson is perhaps too fond of double exclamation marks (!!) but this is a quibble over style in a book that is long on substance.

Gustafson makes a distinction between morality and ethics. Morality draws lines between good and evil, right and wrong, worthy and unworthy. Morality serves the purposes of civilization, and civilization is built upon what Gustafson calls the “dominator model” with its unilateral relationships of power. The character of morality is death-dealing.

Gustafson argues persuasively and at length that Nazi Germany was neither a failure of morality nor a collapse of civilization. Rather the Third Reich, with its strict distinctions of acceptable and unacceptable persons, was hyper-moral. The Nazi bureaucracy, which exterminated unacceptable persons with horrible efficiency, was a sign of civilization.

Ethics, on the other hand, serves what Gustafson calls “partnership ways.” Ethics identifies with the marginalized, not the powerful. Ethics serves culture without civilization. It derives power from community and values humility, compassion and forgiveness. Ethics is life-giving.

According to Gustafson, Jesus was not moral, but he was ethical.

To Gustafson’s insights I would tentatively add a few of my own. It seems to me that morality is always imposed from the outside. Ethics arises from within. Some individuals, feeling themselves or the world around them to be out of control, require an external sense of morality to feel secure. I understand the Gospel to be a message of eternal security that frees us from the need for an imposed morality and opens us to the possibility of ethical living.

Scott Gustafson’s descriptions of ethics and morality should give Christians pause as they consider how to deal with questions of homosexuality, and more importantly, how to deal with homosexual persons.

You might want to check out Scott Gustafson’s website, He has several resources posted there, including a downloadable essay titled “On Good and Evil”, which is a good introduction to his thinking.

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