Essay / Philosophy

How Did Jesus Act?: Jesus as a Moral Teacher

It has long been recognized that, irrespective of one’s religious views about Jesus of Nazareth, he is one of the world’s leading ethical thinkers and teachers. Indeed, as late as the second world war, most moral thinkers in the West—secular or not—did their best to show that their moral theories yielded results in keeping with the ethics of Jesus.

In a previous essay (How Did Jesus Argue?) we saw that Jesus was a logical thinker even though he did not expressly teach a particular version of logic (syllogistic logic, sentential logic, first-order logic). In the same way, while Jesus was an ethical teacher, he did not lay out explicitly a moral system like Aristotle did in the Nicomachean Ethics or John Rawls in A Theory of Justice. Still, it is possible and desirable to see if there is an implicit system in Jesus’ view of the moral life. Possible because like any good thinker, Jesus’ ideas about the moral life are internally consistent and rooted in an underlying view of the nature of moral life itself. Desirable because an understanding of Jesus’ moral system could help to shed light on how Jesus might approach certain moral situations he did not explicitly address.

Before we get into certain territory that may be unfamiliar to readers, let’s quickly identify three aspects of Jesus’ moral views. First, he was an objectivist and not a relativist: Jesus believed that correct moral principles are objectively true irrespective of whether or not anyone believes them. Second, he believed that there was such a thing as moral knowledge: We are not left to simply believe blindly in the correctness of certain moral truths; we can actually know they are true and are, thus, responsible to follow them. Third, the moral law comes from God Himself and is rooted in His loving, holy, righteous nature. This much is clear and fairly uncontroversial. Still, in a day when moral confusion abounds, it is worth reminding ourselves of these initial features of Jesus’ understanding of morality.

This brings us to the two central insights about Jesus’ moral teaching that I want to identify more thoroughly: Jesus was a deontologist and he was also a virtue ethicist. Let me explain.

The word “deontological” comes from the Greek word “deon” which means “binding duty.” In the history of philosophy, Immanuel Kant is perhaps the most famous advocate of a deontological system of ethics. Roughly, deontological ethics focuses on right and wrong moral actions and moral rules and holds that some moral acts and rules are intrinsically right or wrong irrespective of the consequences produced by doing those acts or following those rules. According to deontological ethics, morality is its own point, at least in part, and moral duty should be done for its own sake. Standing in sharp contrast to utilitarian systems (according to which the rightness or wrongness of a moral act or moral rule (e.g., “Keep your promises”) resides entirely in the net about of good vs. bad consequences produced by that act or by following that rule compared to alternative acts or rules), deontological ethics center around these theses:

(1) Moral duty should be done for its own sake. Some moral rules are intrinsically right (e.g., “one ought to love one’s neighbor”) and should be done for that reason.

(2) Persons have intrinsic value and are ends in themselves. They should not be treated as a mere means to some other end; they do not simply have instrumental value.

(3) A moral rule is universalizable in the sense that it is equally binding on all people at all times in relevantly similar situations. Among other things, this principle expresses the principle of rational consistency, viz., one ought to be rationally consistent about one’s moral judgments. If some act X is judged right for some person P, then X is right for anyone relevantly similar to P.

The classic example of deontological ethics are the ten commandments. And Jesus taught moral principles in such a way as to understand them as intrinsically correct, universally binding, and including a view of human beings as objects of intrinsic value in the image of God. As mentioned above, “Love your neighbor as yourself” is a good example of a deontologically conceived moral principle.

By contrast, virtue ethics focuses on the nature and formation of a good person, and the sort of dispositions and character traits that constitute the good person. According to virtue ethics, the good person is the one who is functioning properly, that is , as a human ought to function and, thus, is one who is skilled at life. Virtue theory, also called aretaic ethics (from the Greek word “aretë”, “virtue”) has a long and distinguished pedigree, going back to Aristotle and Plato, running through Thomas Aquinas, and including many contemporary advocates. Virtue ethicists sometimes claim that deontological ethics fails because it abstracts from the moral agent himself, it focuses entirely on doing the right things instead of on being a good person, and it provides little guidance for understanding how to develop ethical character and moral motivation. By contrast, central to virtue ethics is the question of what a good person is and how a good person is developed. Further, the claim is made that deontological ethics places too much emphasis on moral autonomy whereas virtue theory includes an emphasis on community and relationships.

Virtue ethics is teleological (analyzing something for the purpose or end is serves) in nature. The sort of teleology involved in virtue ethics is not like that of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is teleological in the sense that it focuses on what sort of action will maximize the greatest amount of good vs. bad consequences that follow from such an action. By contrast, virtue ethics does not focus on actions and the consequences they produce. Rather, virtue ethics focuses on the overall purpose of life, namely to live well and achieve excellence and skill as a human person. In this sense, virtue ethics is deeply connected to a vision of life as a whole and of the ideal human person.

Given an understanding of the purpose of life and of ideal human flourishing and skillful living that is part of that purpose, an ethics of virtue is an attempt to clarify the nature of a good person and how one is developed in light of this overarching vision of life. Put differently, virtue ethics aims at defining and developing the good person and the good life, and virtues are those character traits that enable people to achieve eudaimonia or happiness, not understood as a state of pleasurable satisfaction, but rather as a state of well-being, of excellent and skill at life. The Sermon on the Mount seems clearly to be a treatise on virtue ethics, concerned as it is with characterizing the good person with an inner heart and character that reflects the Kingdom of God and the nature of the biblical God.

Whereas deontological approaches to ethics place front and center the analysis of correct/incorrect moral acts and rules, virtue ethics prioritizes the analysis of the good person, of good character, of virtue, and how to achieve such.

As I mentioned above, some have criticized deontological ethics for being cold and calculating. Why? Because it focuses on actions and rules in abstraction from the moral agents that perform those actions. Deontological ethics exclusively focuses on right action and correct rules. It leaves out the person entirely and has no concern for defining a good person, clarifying the difference between a good and bad character, and developing guidance for how to develop good character. This is precisely what virtue ethics provides. But virtue ethics has been criticized because, allegedly, it fails to provide specific guidance in specific moral situations. Simply telling someone to become a wise, kind, honest person does not give him or her enough content to know exactly what principles such a person would follow. And deontological ethics provides precisely such guidance.

Fortunately, one does not need to choose between the two as some have claimed. Some ethicists hold, correctly in my view, that virtues and moral rules should coexist in some way. They claim that virtues without rules are blind, but rules without virtues are motivationally impotent. Both virtue and deontological ethics are necessary for an adequate moral system. Neither virtues nor moral rules is basic; rather, each has intrinsic value and they complement each other. People have a duty to be a certain kind of person and to obey correct moral rules. The virtues refer to the character traits that should characterize a good person and moral rules provide guidance for defining right and wrong moral actions. Thus, each has a different focus–virtues focus on the agent and rules on the action–and a comprehensive moral theory will include as basic elements from each theory. I have tried to show that this synthesis is exactly what Jesus accomplished. He was a deontological and virtue ethicist. As such, he was concerned with right action and objective moral rules, as well as with clarifying he nature of character, the good person, and the path to becoming one.

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