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Christian Ethics: An Ambiguous Legacy

Terri Murray tells the story of how St. Paul hijacked a religion.

Recently some authors have suggested that Christianity offers a rapprochement between an actcentred ethics and agent-centred ethics. The alleged dichotomy between these two ethics hinges on methodology: Is it preferable to see ethics as concerned with actions or with character? Which question does ethics attempt to answer: ‘What ought I to do?’ or ‘What sort of person ought I to be?’

Actions and character overlap in important ways, however, and it is not yet clear that these two approaches are necessarily antagonistic, except where one or the other is misrepresented or over-simplified, as seems to be the case in many recent arguments. Virtue proponents betray a superficial familiarity with Kant’s moral philosophy when they contrast it sharply with an agent-centred ethic. Kantian ethics is often equated with a rather crude understanding of his famous ‘categorical imperative’. Virtue ethicists often fail to recognise that Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was concerned less with actions per se than with motives.

In stressing the importance of motives, moral philosophy overlaps in interesting ways with psychology – a relationship between being and doing, between my subjectivity and my activity, which informs my understanding of my ‘self’ and my identity. To complicate matters slightly, even inactivity – the refusal to act – is intentional behaviour, which is why we can be ‘guilty’ of omissions as well as acts. The distance between our subjectivity (agency) and our actions is nevertheless something over which we have rather liberal control, and this is what separates human beings from other species of animals. We do not bring criminal charges against a lion for killing and eating a gazelle because we assume that the lion’s behaviour is instinctual, a reflex reaction to hunger over which he has no self-conscious control. Unlike the lion, I have subjective desires which are not controlled by my immediate needs, instincts, and fears. My will is autonomous. I can choose whether or not to act on my immediate desires.

As a human being, my desires are of two kinds: I have material and emotional needs, and I have moral needs, such as the need to respect myself, and to feel that I am living a life worthy of my potentials. The latter kind of needs cannot be calculated in terms of tangible consequences or rewards. Fulfilling this kind of need may leave other kinds of needs unfulfilled. This dilemma gives me, and all human beings, a unique degree of freedom. Only I know which kinds of needs motivate my actions. Only I know whether, to use existentialist jargon, I am acting in ‘bad faith’ or living authentically. This is something which is not immediately discernible to others merely on the basis of my actions. Actions in their external aspect reveal nothing about the motives behind them. We can tell very little about the human meaning of an action until we probe deeper into the circumstances and the individuals involved. Westerners attempt to do something of this sort in their law courts. They try to establish guilt or innocence based on the interior aspects of a particular action or event. Prior to this kind of investigation we do not have a moral basis for evaluating the behaviour in question. ‘Murder’ is wrong, but whether or not a particular act of killing is correctly interpreted as such is not selfevident, and usually requires a certain degree of scrutiny.

Kant was well aware of this dualism in human motivation, and felt that only the kind of motivation based on an agent’s moral well-being could serve as a universal basis for human behaviour. He formulated his moral theory in reaction to the sceptical and ultimately reductionist anthropology typical of David Hume (1711-76). Hume’s view of human nature was monistic (i.e. one-dimensional). For Hume, judgements of value simply reflect our sentiments and have no independent, transcendent moral force. For Hume morality is merely a branch of anthropology. For Hume your motive for action comes from your immediate desires, from what you want. Reason is simply an instrument to help you get what you happen to want, but it is not an independent impetus to action. Hume had plainly stated that “reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.”

Kant rejected this model of the human psyche. It stated some undeniable facts, but it was incomplete and reductionist. In particular, Kant was disturbed by the paramount role Hume gave to feelings, over and above rationality. For Kant, ‘rationality’ is tantamount to human freedom. To equate ‘rationality’ with some sort of cerebral access to external knowledge is to emaciate it. It is better described as an internal potential common to all human beings. It is what allows us to be distanced from our immediate feelings and to be motivated to act independently of them. Feelings differ dramatically from one person to the next. They offer no common criterion by which to judge human behaviour. A moral philosophy oriented around feeling very quickly turns into relativism.

Like Hume, Kant was a modern thinker. Both men were writing in an era of unprecedented scientific progress. Isaac Newton’s mechanics and astronomy had replaced the categories of divine purpose and final causes with a new set of epistemological principles. His science of nature gave men new understanding of the world around them, and this understanding differed dramatically from the enchantment which had dominated the Middle Ages. Now men could explain for themselves, without need of superstition, the properties and causes of natural phenomena. In keeping with the times, David Hume would attempt to explain morality as a branch of the social sciences. Morality was for Hume a descriptive account of human pleasure or repulsion, not a prescriptive account of what, given their nature, humans ought or ought not to desire.

But Kant was perhaps more modern than Hume in that he also embraced the Cartesian dualism of mind and matter. René Descartes (1591-1650) made a clear distinction between the physical laws of causality, which explain bodies in space, and strictly mental categories of purpose and will. In the pre-Cartesian anthropology there had been no separation of mind and matter. There was not, as yet, any differentiation between the causal laws which operate in the realm of human behaviour and the causal laws which govern the natural universe. Human behaviour was not particularly associated with human subjectivity or responsibility, but rather as a kind of conformity to one’s ‘natural’ preordained purpose in an ordered and coherent universe. Human individuals were thought to be subject in a determinate way to the ‘natural’ laws of the universe, leaving little room for any coherent concept of moral agency. In this view of human nature, what you are is not contingent on what you make of yourself, nor on what you chose to do: what you are is a natural fact. Good and evil are therefore strongly associated with conformity to or deviance from that preordained design.

Islam and fundamentalist Christianity still operate under this pre-Cartesian anthropology, when, for example, they begin from a conventional definition of ‘womanhood’ and then impose this definition on individual women, who are coerced to imitate or participate in this idealised description of their essential nature. Individual women are respected (and safe) only to the degree that they participate in this abstract definition of their nature. A special social status is given to individual women who conform to the definition. Punitive measures are in place for those who do not. Ironically, these socially erected incentives and deterrents actually create the ‘value’ of the definition – a value which its proponents claim exists independently.

For Kant, moral truths do not negate the truths of the empirical realm, they simply operate independently of them. Kant gives the empiricists their due. Nevertheless, he differentiated between the moral world and the world governed by the causal laws of Newtonian mechanics. There is, he claimed, a separate ‘noumenal’ (spiritual) world – the realm of freedom and morality. Kant was a very religious thinker as opposed to Hume. In order to get a moral theory off the ground we are going to have to acknowledge that our nature makes it possible for metaphysical (i.e. non-material) realities to have a real claim on us. Henceforth we are not going to judge our actions by their consequences, nor by the way they make us feel, but by the intention with which we perform them. This is clear in his famous statement: “It is impossible to conceive anything in the world, or even out of it, which can be taken as good without limitation, save only a good will.”

Many Christians would identify strongly with this idea, attributing it to the teaching of Jesus as recorded in the New Testament. We know, from reading what certain evangelists recorded about the life and teaching of Jesus, that his ethic was not reducible to exterior rules of normative behaviour, but emphasised the intention of the agent over the rightness of the physical act itself.

Each of the evangelists point in their distinctive ways to some common principles which distinguished Jesus’ treatment of purity ethics from the traditional purity system of the Torah. Luke, for example, has Jesus distinguishing between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ in relation to the Pharisees, who are said to be externally pure, but inwardly rapacious and evil. The point of many of Jesus’ parables and sayings is that physical purity is radically subordinate to another kind of purity subsisting on the level of intention. Jesus makes a radical separation between the dirtiness or cleanliness of acts in themselves on the one hand, and the intent to do good or harm by means of those acts, on the other. The problem with any ethic of physical purity is that conformity to it is a matter of externals.

Moreover, the ancient Jewish world-view allowed for no distinction between physical and moral evil. The God of ancient Israel acted in the world. He caused floods, famine, and pestilence. These were not seen as ‘natural’ phenomena belonging to a scientifically explicable realm. The explanations for them were moral/religious explanations. God was expressing, by means of these ‘natural’ phenomena, his anger, his favouritism, or his providence. Accordingly, innocent suffering was a contradiction in terms. We see this in the Book of Job, where Job’s theologian friends construe his suffering as God’s punishment, and equate Job’s physical vulnerability to moral vulnerability. The story ends with God vindicating Job’s innocence, making this book a rare exception to the predominant theory of justice in the Old Testament.

It was against this judicial background that Jesus was teaching, and it was in defence of Jesus’ teachings that his dissident Jewish disciples were writing their gospels. For them, Jesus’ death had demonstrated that suffering could be a means to moral good, and that a human will motivated only by the good could accept suffering as its price. A ‘theodicy’ is a theory of divine justice; by rejecting the theodicy which made pleasure the basis of ethics, Jesus had deprived the calculus of pleasure and pain of all religious significance. Both his actions and his teachings radically refuted the doctrine that suffering (or death) and evil are inseparable phenomena.

Theologically, Jesus’ innocence presented an insurmountable problem for proponents of the traditional Jewish theodicy. The traditional theodicy dictated that Jesus’ death had to be a punishment. But Jesus had been influential and public opinion was turning away from this logic. The gospel writers are clear in their conviction of Jesus’ ultimate innocence, despite the fact that it clashed with the material facts of his torture and death. Luke is at pains in his passion narrative to stress Jesus’ innocence: “The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, ‘Surely this was a righteous man’.” [Luke 23:47]. This reiterates Luke’s preoccupation in 23:22 to vindicate Jesus to his readers. According to Jesus’ radical theodicy, it is those who crucify him that need forgiveness [23:43]. To our modern Christian thinking this may all seem fairly obvious, but from the religious world-view of ancient Judaism, it was a foregone conclusion that the righteous would be spared such suffering. Luke has a group of spectators express this logic: “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God.” Luke drives home the pervasiveness of this theodicy by attributing it to Jews and non-Jews alike, and even to the victims of violence, as opposed to just the perpetrators of it. Jesus was not just preaching a sentimental philosophy of warm and fuzzy love; he was unhinging the theory of ‘justice’ on which an entire culture had been erected, and according to which it had been legislated.

The early Christians who wrote the gospels met severe resistance from the traditionalists. Among these traditionalists was an educated and urbane Jew named Saul. Saul led a violent campaign against Jesus’ disciples. Yet strangely, mainstream Christianity as we now know it was founded on the ministry and teachings of this Saul (St. Paul). According to the mainstream Christian reading of history, Saul underwent a sudden and radical conversion in the midst of persecuting the Jewish disciples of Jesus. Instead of persecuting them, he suddenly decided to defend them. But strangely, it seems that he did so without their co-operation, and at a considerable geographical distance from their sphere of influence.

Paul’s evangelism severed the ties between Jesus and Judaism when he preached a gospel to the Gentile world. Yet strangely, Christian scholars agree that Paul shows astonishingly little interest in the teachings of Jesus. Moreover, Paul’s doctrine of atonement seems inimical to the new theodicy of Jesus’ disciples. To maintain the traditional nexus between death and punishment, Paul reasoned that Jesus was indeed guilty, just not for his own sins. His death was punishment for the guilt of the entire human race. This abstraction preserved the link between suffering and guilt which was so crucial to the traditional theodicy. Unable to refute Jesus’ moral innocence, the only politically viable option for a traditionalist like Paul was to deny Jesus’ humanity, and his human agency. He made Jesus an instrument of God’s agency. Causally, the human will could not bring about good without God’s assistance. This move redeemed the mediating power of the religious authorities, and protected the theocratic form of government from the imminent threat of democracy.

Nevertheless the seeds of humanism had been planted by the disciples of Jesus, and remained in tension with the theocratic Pauline doctrine until the modern era. This inherent tension allowed Christianity to survive the enlightenment and to remain viable in Western democracies, but it also threatens democracy in places like the United States where religion plays a strong political role in society.

It is difficult to piece together an objective account of the events which led to Paul’s success as the founder of Christianity because conflicting records have been conveniently ‘lost’ to posterity. We do have evidence, however, that early Jewish disciples of Jesus known as the ‘ebionites’ (from the Hebrew word for ‘poor’) very probably distinguished their Jewish ‘Christianity’ sharply from the heretical Christianity taught by Paul. But even if historical grounds for suspicion about the authenticity of Paul’s apostleship to the Gentiles are dismissed as the fantasies of a conspiracy theorist, the philosophical differences between the Pauline doctrine of salvation and the teachings of Jesus are strong enough to establish a conflict independently.

Traditional wisdom holds that Paul’s Christian ethics is consistent with the ethics of Jesus. Modern Christian authors present Christianity as a unified, coherent system of thought whose principle conflicts arise from tensions between itself and external systems of thought which differ from it. Nevertheless, it is possible to reconstruct historical events differently than under the dominant paradigm, with the result that the perplexing methodological discrepancies within the source of Christian ethics – the New Testament – can be accounted for with unprecedented simplicity.

Orthodox Christian theology is tantamount to a defence of St. Paul’s apostleship, and hence his salvational theology. This is accomplished by focusing inordinate attention on the occasional nature of Paul’s letters, a practice which minimises their overall inconsistency when read as an independent expression of one man’s views. For, to his readers, Paul is not one man; he is a chameleon who changes his tune with every changing situation he addresses. One could say that he is a very flexible thinker, or one could suspect that he says whatever is expedient to his immediate success.

The occasion for his letter to the Galatians, for example, was to respond to the circumcision party – those allegedly ‘heretical’ Jewish Christians who insisted on keeping the covenant commandment at the expense of the true ‘spirit’ of community. Christian ‘scholarship’ portrays the ‘Judaisers’ as a group of rigid Jews, obsessed with the kind of petty legalism (and act-centred ethics) which in the gospels is associated with the Pharisees. By contrast, Paul’s position in Galatians appears relatively humane and tolerant, and hence, the argument goes, it should be equated with the moderate, and agent-centred, views of Jesus. Paul’s position is that dietary stipulations and circumcision are obsolete under the new order established by Jesus: “For there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” [Gal. 3:23]

If Paul had encouraged one kind of community spirit which surpassed petty customs and which allowed him to recruit Gentiles into his own sphere of influence unhindered by the reluctance of non-Jewish adult males to undergo the pain of circumcision, he also encouraged divisiveness on other grounds: “I wrote to you in my last letter not to associate with immoral men … not even to eat with such a one.” [1 Cor. 5:9, 11] “Drive out the wicked person from among you” [1 Cor. 5:13] “Do not be mismated with unbelievers. For what partnership have righteousness and iniquity? Or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever?” [2 Cor. 6:14-15]

Paul is no enemy of legalism when it is expedient to reinforcing the social hierarchy within his new Christian communities or consolidating his power, as when, for example, in 1 Cor. 14 he exhorts the women to keep silence in church and remain subordinate to their male counterparts. On this occasion Paul invokes the law to add authority to his proclamations. Whatever he may have said elsewhere (“there is neither male nor female…” ) certainly does not apply in this context!

Paul contrasts flesh and spirit in an apparent dualism of body and soul. But unlike Jesus, whose humanism had made morality a matter of personal responsibility, Paul’s sense of responsibility is equated with accountability to a God whose will is external and superior to the human will. Paul’s estimation of human nature is so low that only God can redeem it. Obedience thus becomes the only means to a good life. It follows from this that obedience to the Scriptures and their laws is paramount, since it is only through such means that God’s will is mediated.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul everywhere expresses his conviction that human beings are incapable of responsibly exercising free will. “Let not sin,” he wrote, “dwell in your mortal bodies to make you obey their passions” [Romans 6:12]. He even renounces consciousness of his actions, making nonsense of moral agency: “I am carnal, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions…” [Romans 7: 14, 15]. “Nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right but I cannot do it” [Romans 7: 18]. “I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am!” [Romans 7: 21- 24]. With this statement Paul asserts his biological reductionism in unequivocal terms. Paul’s premise is that the ‘flesh’ dominates human nature and thus his dualism is not between body and soul, or mind and matter. His dualism is not within human nature but between humans and ‘God’ – an external authority whose will can only be discerned by mediators, like Paul himself, who interpret obedient behaviour in terms of an acts-centred ethic. Pauline ethics is the antithesis of the radical humanism proposed by Jesus.

© T.M. Murray 1999

Theresa Murray is an American-born scholar and philosopher. She has lived in London since 1991, where she earned an undergraduate degree in Philosophy & Theology and a MTh in Christian Ethics, both from Heythrop College, University of London. She is the coauthor of Moral Panic: Exposing the Religious Right’s Agenda on Sexuality (Cassell, Listen Up! Series, 1995).

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