08 May 2011

Guest Post: Jesus and Ethics

Religious 5 Comments

[Brian Shelley had made some interesting remarks on previous religious posts, and I asked him to elaborate. — RPM]

What Jesus introduces in the Sermon on the Mount and then the Apostle Paul expounds
on in Romans is an exposition on why personal ethics are of limited value and
unnecessary. This is what separates Christianity so dramatically from Judaism and Islam.
Jesus replaces ethics with two concepts:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your
mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your
neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Matthew 22: 37-40

The problem with personal ethics or moral laws is that they are poor at producing the
desired ends. Even though moral attitudes against stealing are pretty universal, it still
happens with frequency. The underlying premise to this moral law is that stealing feels
really good, but you shouldn’t do it because of some altruistic reasoning or supernatural
punishment. As economists know, altruism is a poor motivator. Exhortations
like, “What if everyone stole?” sound nice, but because the idea offers no personal
incentive, it fails to produce the desired result. A far off hell or ethereal cosmic forces of
justice clearly haven’t cured us.

At the core of any ethical system are logical presuppositions. Mises folk like to
say, “Taxation is theft,” and as Gene Callahan likes to say, “Only if you accept the
Rothbardian worldview.” There are no objective ethics, they are chosen to fit our desires.
We want to live, ergo killing people is wrong. Intense desires and emotions can make
us drop our ethics in the blink of an eye. A building gets blown up and suddenly we can
kill foreigners without due process. The stock market plunges so now we can confiscate
private property. We do it as a society and we surely do it as individuals.

It’s unlikely that any man has ever woken up in the morning and thinks to
himself, “Today, I will cheat on my wife.” It’s a slow rationalizing progression. He
meets a pretty woman, decides that it’s okay to flirt, then it’s okay to e-mail, then it’s okay to
go to lunch, then it’s okay to call, then it’s okay to have dinner while his wife’s out of town,
then it’s okay to lie about working late so that he can meet her, and after quite some time he
is finally convinced that it’s okay for him to sleep with her. His mind slowly rationalized
what he wanted to do, while not intending at first to go so far. His ethics might have
slowed him down, but they are no guarantee to stop him. Our minds will change our
ethics to achieve the things we desire.

The Pharisees of ancient Israel recognized this phenomenon and put up extra rules
beyond those that God had given to the Israelites in the Old Testament. Rules-based
religions fall prey to the habit of adding extra rules so you don’t break the “real” rules.
You can’t flirt with a pretty woman if you ban women from working in the same office,
refuse to eat at the same table with them, or hide them with yards of fabric.

What Jesus says is, “…anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed
adultery with her in his heart.” For the Pharisee this is a frighteningly strict expansion of
adultery. What they misunderstand is the overall point that Jesus was making. You don’t
need rules, you need to change your desires. You need redemption. Stop trying not to
cheat, remove the lust from your heart. Paul corroborates the need for redemption over
ethics when he says that the law was powerless to do what was accomplished by Christ’s
redemption of man on the cross.

Jesus also tells us of personal incentives to righteous living, in the form of the Kingdom
of God and eternal life. He could be speaking strictly of heaven, but I doubt it. He told
the woman at the well, “…whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed,
the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
The reward appears to be fulfillment and purposefulness. Paul also speaks of rewards
with, “The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is
life and peace.”

What Jesus is saying is the opposite of what many Christians think today. We often
treat righteousness as an onerous burden of arbitrary rules that we suffer through until
we die and go to heaven. Both Jesus and Paul give clear indication that rewards for
righteousness begin now, not after death. Sin is therefore unmasked as a fraud. If
righteousness yields life, fulfillment and purpose, then sin yields death, emptiness and

This reward is not some ethereal experience, but an outflow of how we and the world
around us were designed. You hate, you suffer. You lust, you suffer. You covet,
you suffer. You love, you feel joy. You follow Christ, you feel joy. We become
disconnected from this truth because we idolize things other than God. In our arrogance
we have decided that we already know the answers and we cloud our minds with
cognitive bias, seeking only the evidence that reinforces the truth we “know.” Until we
submit to Christ’s redemptive power, we will rationalize ourselves away from joy and the
ultimate satisfaction we all long for.

5 Responses to “Guest Post: Jesus and Ethics”

  1. Michael J. Green says:

    Sounds like socialism.

    By which I mean, isn’t this just assuming certain facets of human nature away? Ethics are unnecessary if Christians can just will away their propensity to lie, steal, cheat, etc., just as several property and the market process are unnecessary if the new Socialist Man can just will away the incentive and information problems. It would be great if people could remove lust, vengeance, whatever, from their heart. Until that happens, personal ethics and moral laws are the best we got – that’s why they exist in the first place.

    If Jesus was telling us to scrap moral rules, he’s as dangerous to civilization as the socialists. More likely, and what seems to be admitted in the post, is that Jesus simply offered a new system of ethics. But I’m probably missing something, especially since I’ve never ‘felt Jesus’ or any kind of similar spiritual revelation.

    • Gene Callahan says:

      “Sounds like socialism.”

      Good point. Eric Voegelin (amongst others) documents at length how socialism (and other world-salvational creeds) borrowed all of their key concepts from Christianity. The difference is Christianity is grounded in an actual experience of salvation, whereas for the movements that have borrowed its symbolisms, those symbols are “heiroglyphs,” stolen concepts now being used out of the context that gave them force and meaning.

  2. Brandon says:

    I absolutely loved reading this.

  3. Brian Shelley says:

    Re: Michael J. Green,

    “Sounds like socialism” – I’m border line anarcho-capitalist, so I hope not. I absolutely believe in societal ethics. I actually believe the Ten Commandments are meant as rules for a society rather than rules of personal ethics.

    “It would be great if people could remove lust, vengeance, whatever, from their heart. Until that happens…” – This is what I believe became possible 2000 years ago. Otherwise, I have fooled myself into becoming a dramatically more giving, loving, and happy person.

  4. Jim McAlister says:

    If I may add an elaboration, I would first ask this question, fundamental to Christian faith: What qualified Jesus to take away the sins of the world? Answer: He was a substitutionary sacrifice, in fact God Himself satisfying His just wrath against mankind’s rebellion. And the only means by which his sacrifice could fully satisfy was that He kept the Law PERFECTLY – loved God and man fully. Jesus’ ethics were the ethics of the Law of God. When Jesus makes His statement identifying the greatest commandment, it is easy to miss His explanatory postscript: The goal of God’s Law is to train us for love – to define and enforce the terms of love of God and fellow men. The prophetic call was to return to obedience of the Law, which would bring blessing, now and in eternity. Moses, speaking through inspiration in Deut 4 (and throughout Deuteronomy in what is, for all practical purposes a “looped tape”) states clearly what the Law is intended for — to provide a just social order that would invite admiration and praise of Jehovah from all mankind. His continual reminder and warning is that the Law would provide temporal blessing, if kept, and would bring disaster if ignored or perverted, such as was the default position of all humankind without the Law. Moses continually provides the framework for law-keeping — the Shema; if God was recognized as the source of blessing through the Law (the grace of the Law), His followers would “stay the course” and receive the social/physical/spiritual blessings it would produce. But His prediction was that they would forget the Source and “vainly imagine” that their success was their own doing, and so justify their “tinkering” with it, so that it would accommodate their desire to return to the human status quo. (sounds a bit like Austrian Business Cycle Theory, doesn’t it?)

    Jesus went on to say in another place that not one iota of the law would pass away until all had been fulfilled. We can take “fulfilled” to mean His death, resurrection and ascention, or we can take it to mean when He returns in final triumph. Theologians differ on this point. But He doesn’t say, “when all is fulfilled the law in its entirety will pass away”. The book of Hebrews provides some help in understanding that the ceremonial elements of the law, such as the various sacrifices and feasts, along with some things that strike us a “weird” and lead many to want to minimize the law as a relic of the benighted childhood of mankind (such as the proscription of menstruating women from the Temple – which makes perfect sense when you understand that all other Ancient Near Eastern Religions had a pervasive sexual element in their worship), were all subsumed by Christ, in whom there is no sexual or ethnic element. The point is, the social ethic of the law remains intact as the standard for justice, including legal equity (Lev 19:15, sacrosanct property rights (the eight and tenth commandments) , sound money (Lev 19:35-36, Prov 11:1) and enforced contractual rights (Num 30:2 and many others). Christianity’s great impact on humanity in the here-and-now of history is its extension and universalization of the Judaic ethic. When it has forgotten this, as in the case of its erroneous application of Aristotelian ethics in regard to forbidding usury, for example (the Law of God allowed and approved the rental of capital at interest, as did Jesus – Matt 25:26), it has stunted its potential positive impact on human progress.

    Interestingly, nowhere in the Scripture is there inference that the Law saves us eternally; rather it saves us (to the extent kept) from ourselves – our own worst impulses. Law NEVER “said”, “Do my commands and you’ll win eternal life” — it said “do my commands and you and your family and society will be blessed and God will be glorified.” The BIG PROBLEM, of course, is that WE can’t — we can’t make up up for our past indiscretions, nor live perfectly in the future. But God supplies his Spirit to “stand alongside” (what the Greek term in the New Testament for the Spirit means). In standing alongside, a couple of things are given to us as graces. first, we are given aid in doing the beneficial ethical “demands” of the law of God, as we yield our will to Him. Secondly, he shines the “light” of the Law on our actions, which shows us the shadow of our sins, causing us to confess them to God and repent of them (1 John 1).

    Brian is exactly right in observing that things do “work” better, long term, emotionally, economically and otherwise, when we follow the “way things work best” – the ethical prescriptions of the law of God.