Why we’re ethically incomprehensible to each other

Why we’re ethically incomprehensible to each other May 12, 2016

"3D Scales of Justice," Chris Potter, Flickr C.C.
“3D Scales of Justice,” Chris Potter, Flickr C.C.

A recent commenter brought up an important point that provides a different angle for understanding the conflict between conservative and progressive Christians. This may not be true of everyone in both camps and in between, but I think we’re operating with two completely different ethical systems. Conservatives tend to use a deontological ethics, in which you find an authority figure to give you a duty to obey. Progressives tend to use a consequentialist ethics, in which you decide what to do on the basis of what will cause the most good and least harm.

When I say that the Bible is an authority for my life, I mean something different than a person operating with deontological ethics. I don’t do what the Bible says because it says so. I consider the Bible to be the most authoritative resource for learning how to live with the most love. I believe that all of it is “God-breathed and useful” (2 Timothy 3:16). And when Paul says “useful,” I see that as a confirmation of his consequentialism.

To a deontological perspective, my consequentialism looks like I’m refusing to submit to the Bible’s authority. People with deontological ethics only feel assured that they are submitting fully to an authority if they perform duties that make no sense from a consequentialist perspective. The duty must be opaque to be fully deontological. Deontological ethics says that unless I do what makes no sense to me, then my sense is my authority rather than the Bible.

Hence, the biblical opposition to homosexuality is the ultimate line in the sand. The fact that this prohibition makes no sense to a consequentialist like me makes it the perfect litmus test of a person’s submission to the Bible’s authority from a deontological perspective. The consequentialists are weeded out so that only people who believe what makes no sense to postmodern sensibilities remain in the church.

My contention is that everything the Bible teaches makes sense from a consequentialist perspective. Even the laws of the old covenant have the purpose of establishing a distinction between sacred and profane (Leviticus 10:10) that is critically important to the Israelites’ encounter with the holy. Without the temple that can only be established with the Levitical code, there would be no basis for the blood sacrifice that provided atonement and catharsis for the Israelite community and no foundation for the ultimate atonement of Jesus’ cross. For deontological ethics, it’s scandalous that I would try to come up with a pragmatic explanation for Biblical law.

To me, Jesus’ clash with the Pharisees is a clash between consequential ethics and deontological ethics, especially their arguments over the Sabbath. Mark 3:1-6 offers an excellent illustration:

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

For the Pharisees, the Sabbath is an opaque duty. The test of whether you’re honoring the Sabbath or not is whether you avoid doing even virtuous deeds for the sake of honoring God. When Jesus puts the Sabbath in terms of “doing good or doing harm,” he’s making the Sabbath consequentialist rather than deontological. The Pharisees would say that Jesus is offering a false choice. The cessation of work on the Sabbath is a duty. Making the Sabbath pragmatic destroys the deontological authority of the law.

Jesus makes his consequentialist stance explicit when he says, “The Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath, and the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). So to me, respecting Jesus’ lordship as the chief interpreter of scripture means reading it consequentially rather than deontologically.

Similarly, Paul takes a consequentialist stance rather than a deontological one. Consider 1 Corinthians 6:12-14:

All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be dominated by anything. Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power.

Some interpreters try to mitigate this passage by putting the phrase “All things are lawful for me” inside quotes to indicate that Paul doesn’t endorse it. Whether or not this is a Corinthian slogan Paul is rebuking, he doesn’t challenge it from a deontological perspective, but from a consequentialist one. The reason not to pursue porneia (which gets translated as “fornication” but refers to all forms of sexual deviancy) is because it is not “beneficial” and it “dominates” our bodies.

Pursuing holiness with our bodies is not an opaque duty; it has the glorious goal of being resurrected with Christ. Paul isn’t saying, “Obey the law and don’t ask questions.” Paul is rather saying, “Just because all things are lawful doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pursue the Lord with your body.” He’s arguing that a consequentialist morality is actually more robust than a deontological one, which is precisely the point he makes throughout his letter to the Romans about the futility of the law to sanctify. What this means however is that we cannot take refuge in moral legalism; we must step into the terrifying wide-open space of a world where all things are lawful but not all things are beneficial.

I’m sure that you could find other scriptures to support the deontological perspective. Hopefully this is at least enough for you to see that consequentialist progressives like me have valid support for our position in the model of both Jesus and Paul. So when I interpret the Bible like a consequentialist, it’s not because I disrespect the Bible’s authority; it’s because I understand the concept of Biblical authority differently.

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