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WOA Approach to Ethics: Parts 3&4

WOA Approach to Ethics: Parts 3&4

Part 3: Jesus and the WOA Principle

The WOA principle drives the mission of Jesus. He constantly moves to meet people on the margins of the social world of Galilee and Judea. The lack of direct references to widows, orphans, and aliens as vulnerable social groups does not negate our premise that the ethics of the gospel requires us to consider moral issues from the perspective of people in the borderlands.

The following examples show the two features of WOA ethics. First, Jesus moves to the margins to meet people. Second, he acts in ways that offer transformation and restore dignity. The examples below are drawn from the different streams of the synoptic tradition. A more comprehensive list is provided at the end of the article.

The Markan tradition provides the example of leper who takes advantage of a deserted space to approach Jesus Mk. 1.40-45). Jesus has the moral right to send him away with a blistering censure for threatening to spread the dreaded disease. Instead, Jesus touches the man and cleanses him from his impurity. He instructs him to show his healing to the priest and to re-enter into the life of his family and community. The transformation is physical, emotional, and social.

The shared material unique to Matthew and Luke, commonly called Q, is composed largely of sayings of Jesus. From the prison of Herod Antipas, John the Baptizer sends his followers to ask Jesus if he is the expected deliverer. Jesus sends them back to John with the report that he has restored sight to the blind, healed the lame, cleansed lepers, given hearing to the deaf, raised the dead and proclaimed good news to the poor (Mt. 11.5-6 par.). These kingdom actions allow people to re-enter their communities as active participants.

Matthew’s special source includes summary statements of healings, exorcisms, teaching, and proclamation (Mt. 4.23-25; 8.16-17; 9.35).  Jesus fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah’s servant of the Lord who would take up the infirmities and heal the diseases of the weak and marginalized (Mt. 8.17). He feels compassion on the crowds that are harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd ((9.36). The Lucan special tradition includes an emotionally charged narrative in which a woman from beyond the margins of respectability intrudes into a Pharisee’s home to wash the feet of Jesus with her tears (Lk. 7.36-50). She experiences the hostility of the host and his other guests. Jesus treats her tenderly and responds with firmness to the others in the room. Her faith has saved her and she may go in peace. Her dignity is restored.

Each of the narratives and sayings contained in the appendix could be analyzed in depth. We believe that they illustrate the feature that Latin American liberation theology called the preferential priority of the poor. The point was not that God loved the poor to the exclusion of those that enjoyed wealth and security. Rather, the God of the Bible expresses his redemptive love and concern for the most vulnerable members of the community. Their needs are to be given importance. We see this in a narrative contained in all three synoptic gospels. Mark 5.21-43 contains two healing accounts. Jesus is approached by an elite member of the community whose twelve year old daughter is critically ill. Jairus is named in the story and is described as a ruler of a synagogue. As Jesus moves toward the home of Jairus, his way is impeded by a crowd of people. An unnamed woman in the midst of the crowd has been ritually impure for twelve years because of uncontrollable vaginal discharges. Anyone who makes contact with her will share her impurity. The woman is desperate and destitute. She touches Jesus and is immediately healed. In spite of the urgency of Jairus, Jesus stops to meet the woman who with fear tells him her whole story. Instead of censuring the woman for breaking the laws of purity, Jesus pronounces a blessing on her. Jesus does not neglect Jairus and his daughter. However, priority is given to this poor woman who has been marginalized in her community.


Part 4: Defining the WOA of Our Age

An ethical challenge of our time is to identify those people that are vulnerable, marginalized and powerless. Each context will be different. Strident voices are not always a reliable indicator. Often those who live in the borderlands are without voice and representation. Zygmunt Bauman (2011) uses the expression “the underclass” to describe people that are viewed as a social problem and deprived of meaningful roles in their communities. They live in a “horrifying wilderness” in communities where they are silenced, excluded, and humiliated. The words portray the painful experiences of people that struggle on the “outside,” with few prospects for moving into a life of dignity, stability, and security.

The horrifying wilderness of the vulnerable exists in our local communities and the nations of the world. The WOA of our time include:

  • People that flee their homelands for reasons of persecution, poverty, or environmental degradation and live as aliens in another land.
  • Minimum wage workers trying to balance two or three jobs.
  • The sick, and in particular those without medical insurance.
  • Victims of racial or religious prejudice.
  • Indigenous people that hold on within a dominant settler culture.
  • Women that live in fear of violence.
  • People that depend on food banks for their nutrition.
  • Hungry people in South Sudan, Yemen, Northern Nigeria, and the Middle East.
  • Survivors of mass violence that can never find freedom from the trauma of abuse, torture, and the loss of loved ones.

This list is, of course, partial and incomplete. Each context requires analysis and discussion. The voices of those in the borderlands need to be heard so that their experiences enter into public discourse.

The WOA approach to ethics requires that we move deliberately into the borderlands to meet with those who are vulnerable and excluded. The new relationships that we establish will enable us to see the world from the perspective on those who live on the underside. Through the challenge of sharing friendships, meals, and prayers we will engage in mustard seed projects that give hope and dignity to the poor. Our ethic approach seeks to restore the dignity of people created in the image of God and to enable them to contribute to the shared life of their communities.

In a subsequent article, the authors will offer a criterion for ethical actions in the borderlands based on the virtues of justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Mt. 23.23).

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WOA Approach to Ethics: Part 2

WOA Approach to Ethics: Part 2

Part 2: Defining the Widow, Orphan, and Exile 

 The traditions contained in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures span a period of almost 2000 years.[1] The mega-narrative has stories of creation, the early patriarchs, delivery from slavery in Egypt, settlement in the new land, the monarchy, a divided kingdom, exile and national humiliation, the return to Palestine, the domination of Greece and Rome, the mission of Jesus, and the birth of the early church. Life is contested and fragile at every turn during these two millennia. At one end, Abraham is forced to reside as an alien in Egypt because of a famine (Gen 12.10). Near the other end of the mega-narrative, the apostle Paul organizes a collection of funds from churches in the Roman Empire to alleviate a famine in Palestine (2 Cor. 8-9). He has accepted the ethical standard of remembering the poor (Gal. 2.10).

The widow, the orphan, and the exile are social groups that represent extreme poverty and marginalization. Of course, not every member of these broad categories was destitute. However, in general these three classes of people lived at the edges of social and economic life in their communities. They came to represent the poor that struggled to survive deprived of dignity and security.  Accordingly, the prophetic tradition provided moral instruction that recalled the Torah’s concern for the widow, the orphan, and the alien.

Render true judgement, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor. Zech 7.8


In the following paragraphs we will show how these three groups provide meaningful descriptions of poverty and vulnerability.


The Widow

Malina and Rohrbaugh (1992) describe widows as the stereotype of all oppressed and exploited people.[2] More than half of the references to widows in the Hebrew Scriptures are in connection with orphans or orphans and aliens. Widows were characterized by their marginal social position, vulnerability to exploitation, and poverty.


Our brief presentation will concentrate on widows in Palestine while noting that there was greater freedom for women (including widows) in the cities of the first century Roman Empire. In Palestine, women were raised in the home of their fathers until marriage was arranged. At that point a woman entered into the patriarchal structures of the kinship group of her husband. A woman always lived under the authority of a man. The life of a married woman was often difficult. Child birth was precarious and infant mortality rates were high. It has been estimated that the average life expectancy of a woman during Biblical times was 34 years. Biblical scholar Elizabeth Achtemeier (Oxford Companion to the Bible, 1993) observes that a woman’s social position was just above that of a male slave in a household.

Women generally slid down the social ladder upon the death of their husbands. They had a right to stay in the family home, but could not inherit title to the property. In times of scarcity, their presence could be an inconvenience and burden for relatives and children. Widows could not defend their rights in legal tribunals apart from the intervention of a sympathetic male to represent them.

King David’s conquest of Jerusalem and the establishment of “the city of David” (2 Sam. 5.6-12) was an important hinge point in the social and economic history of Israel. The nation rapidly made the transition from a federation of rural communities to an urban monarchy with an established elite class. The egalitarian nature of village life was eroded and replaced by a wealthy minority that increased landholdings, wealth, and power. The eighth century prophet Isaiah of Jerusalem criticized members of the ruling class that used their power to make widows their spoil (Isa. 10.2). The domination of the elite minority in Samaria in the northern kingdom likewise had an adverse impact on the well-being of the orphan and the alien.

The book of Job offers significant portrayals of the treatment of widows, orphans, and aliens.[3] In regard to widows, an unrighteous man hears the entreaties of a widow but sends her away empty handed (Job 22.9). He may even exploit her by taking her productive assets as a loan guarantee (Job 24.3). In contrast, a righteous person brings joy to the life of a widow (Job 29.13). Widows, and other people in need, can count on the generosity and counsel of those who are righteous in their community (Job 31.17, 21).

When we move to the New Testament, we find that Jesus spoke about Torah experts (scribes) that devoured widows’ houses – a probable reference to cheating a widow while pretending to represent her interests. The death of the only son of the widow of Nain was beyond tragic because she had lost her male family representative and protector (Luke 7.11-17). The persistent widow in a parable was forced to humiliate herself in public because no male would take up her cry for justice (Luke 18. 1-5). The early church in Jerusalem distributed food to widows (Acts 6.1) and the book of James urged congregations to care for widows in their distress (James 1.27).


The Orphan

Life was difficult for children in the ancient world. It is estimated that only about 50% of children lived past the age of ten years. The children of slaves were “assets” that worked from an early age. In rural areas, children were needed to assist in farm and domestic labor. Childhood ended with puberty when girls were married and boys were introduced to adult responsibilities. Unprotected children were objects of physical and sexual abuse throughout the Mediterranean world, although the treatment was probably less grievous in Jewish society.

The Hebrew term yathom actually means fatherless. A child without a father shared with the widow a social position of weakness, marginalization, and poverty. The danger for girls was even more acute than for males. They were particularly vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, and slavery. Daughters had inheritance rights only if there were no sons (Num. 27.8-11). Orphaned girls would be less desirable as future wives.

The Torah made certain provisions for orphans, along with widows and aliens.

  • The harvest of crops was to be done in such a way that some production was left for orphans, widows, and aliens to glean (Dt. 24.19-22).
  • A tithe of production was to be collected every third year for the benefit of orphans, widows, aliens, and the Levites (who were landless) (Dt. 14.28-29).
  • Provisions were to be made so that orphans, widows, aliens, and Levites were included in the celebration of annual festivals in communities (Dt. 16.11, 14).


The previous observations about the monarchy, the urban elite, and the loss of patterns of rural life apply to the vulnerable position of orphans. The prophet Isaiah publicly criticized powerful men who made legal decrees for preying on orphans (Isa. 10.2) and called on the general populace to defend their cause (Isa. 1.17). The portrayal of righteousness in the book of Job includes feeding orphans and rescuing them from oppression (Job 31.17, 21; 29.12). The book of Sirach, containing traditions from Jerusalem in the second century BCE, encourages adult males to act as fathers to orphans (Sir. 4.10). Sirach’s words mean that males should embrace the duty of providing protection from predatory enemies and assume responsibility for the needs of fatherless children.

It is surprising that the Greek word orphanos is found only twice in the New Testament. In the fourth gospel, Jesus promises not to leave the disciples as orphans, a description that implies that they will lack his protection, guidance, and care (Jn. 14.18). The letter of James encourages the church to seek the welfare of orphans and widows (Jas. 1.27). The compassion of Jesus for children in general is well attested in the synoptic tradition (e.g., Mk. 9.33-37; Mt. 18.1-5; Lk. 9.46-48; Mk. 10-13-16; Mt. 19.13-15; Lk. 18.15-17).

The  Alien

The Hebrew term ger can be translated as alien, sojourner, stranger or even refugee. In rural patriarchal societies, aliens were forced to leave their homelands and kinship groups due to adverse circumstances. The factors included famine, disputes, and violence. The alien is an ethnic outsider, landless, vulnerable, and poor. Das and Hamoud (2017) emphasize that aliens suffer from residing in a social location where they do not belong.  The story of Abram and Sarai in Egypt (Gen. 12.10-20) provides insights into the vulnerability of aliens in places dominated by other ethnic groups. The couple and their band leave the Negeb region because of a famine. Abram realizes that he is vulnerable because Sarai is a desirable woman. He feels compelled to lie by referring to her as his sister rather than his wife. Court officials force her to enter the royal palace as a concubine of Pharaoh and Abram is unable to defend her. God’s intervention is required to save the couple.

While other ancient near eastern cultures showed concern for widows and orphans, the Hebrew Bible is unique in elevating the just treatment of aliens as a sacred duty. The previous section showed how communities were to make provision for widows, orphans, and aliens by leaving some crops in the field, collecting a special tithe every third year, and including these groups in community celebrations. In addition, the Torah accorded aliens the same legal protection and obligations as enjoyed by ethnic Hebrews (Ex. 12.49; Lev. 24.22)). Aliens were to participate in the Sabbath rest along with Hebrew (Ex. 20.10; 23.12) The wages of aliens (along with other poor laborers) were to be paid before sunset and the community bore responsibility to ensure that they were not deprived of justice (Dt 24.14,17). Hebrew community members were to embrace them with love and to recall their ancestors had been aliens in Egypt (Lev. 19.34).

The book of Psalms reveals that aliens, along with widows and orphans, lacked protection from violence (Ps. 94.6). God watches over aliens and brings down those who exploit them (Ps. 146.9). The book of Job is instructive once again about the virtue of righteousness in regard to marginalized people. The righteous champion the cause of aliens ((Job 29.6) and offer hospitality in their homes (Job 31.32). The latter theme reappears in the gospel tradition where Jesus self-identifies with aliens and commends hospitality (Mt 25.35, 38, 44). St. Paul writes about a Christian communities that overcome the boundaries of ethnicity and social class so that no one is marginalized as a stranger (1 Cor. 12.13; Gal. 3.28).

In the final paragraph of this overview, we wish to make a further observation following Donald Gowan (1987). There are certain characteristics to the social vulnerability and isolation of these three groups:

  • Widows are poor and powerless because of an unexpected event (the death of their husbands) and their gender.
  • Orphans are particularly vulnerable to exploitation because of an event (death of their fathers), their age, and gender in the case of girls.
  • Aliens are marginalized because adverse circumstances forced them to relocate outside of their ethnic and kinship groups. Gender may be an additional factor of their vulnerability.

These different factors are suggestive as we seek to apply the WOA principle to ethical issues of our own time.

In Part 3 we will examine how the mission of Jesus moved him constantly to the margins of communities to meet with and care for vulnerable people.

[1] Abraham probably lived in the middle bronze epoch (around 1850 BCE). The last books of the New Testament were written around the end of the first century CE.

[2] 1992, page 368.

[3] The dating of Job is challenging. The traditions seem rooted in the time of the monarchy although the final form may be post-exile.

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WOA Approach to Ethics: Part 1

WOA Approach to Ethics: Part 1

The WOA Approach to Ethics

Gordon King & Rupen Das

Rupen Das and I have have been colleagues at World Vision Canada and Canadian Baptist Ministries. He is one of Canada’s leading experts in humanitarian relief and international development. Over the past eight years Rupen has worked in the Middle East with the Lebanese Baptists and, most recently, with the European Baptist Federation based in Amersterdam. We share a mutual concern for people that live on the margins of their communities. The WOA approach to ethics seeks to express their conviction that God moves us into the borderlands to bear witness to his transforming love and grace. We intend to develop this approach in further writings and speaking over the coming months.


Part 1: Introduction to the WOA Approach to Ethics

WOA is an awkward acronym that represents the Biblical triad of widows, orphans, and aliens. These social groups represented women, men, and children that existed on the margins of their communities. They struggled for dignity and survival. As we will see in the following paragraphs, the quality of care provided for widows, orphans, and aliens was a criterion for evaluating the morality of a community or nation.

We propose that the biblical WOA approach to ethics offers an important perspective that can be used to analyze current social issues. This way of doing ethical analysis demands that we consider moral dilemmas based on the needs of people whose lives are impacted by poverty, discrimination, hunger, and violence. Do our actions give priority to addressing the hardships and isolation of those who live in the borderlands looking over the fence at those who live with relative security and dignity? In a latter article we will suggest that the Biblical virtues of justice, mercy and faith can be used to shape the ethical positions we take and the nature of our actions on behalf of the people we meet at the margins of the economic and social life of our nation and the global community.

 Ethical Approaches and the WOA Principle

An ethical approach provides a vantage point from which to analyze moral issues and evaluate proposed actions. The utilitarian approach gives priority to results that bring happiness to the largest number of people. The ethics of egoism emphasizes personal responsibility and agency for one’s own well-being. The virtue approach enquires about character and values required to face moral dilemmas. Duty ethics concentrates attention on wholesome motives and social obligations that are inherent with responsible citizenship. The altruistic approach seeks the common good of all people.

We submit that there is need for another approach to ethics that will cast light on some of the most pressing moral issues of our time. Poverty, hunger, racism, violence, and disease are social evils that drain and extinguish innocent lives. The model we propose is inspired by the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, and in particular by the story of the gospels.   We use the somewhat clumsy term “the WOA principle” because the Bible brings these three groups together in a manner that emphasizes the community’s obligation to care for its vulnerable members. The Hebrew Scriptures identify God as the protector of the widow, orphan, and exile.

For the Lord, your God … executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and … loves the aliens, providing them with food and clothing. (Dt. 10.18)

The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. (Ps 146.9)


We suggest that the WOA principle requires us to examine every ethical issue from the perspective of the poor who are unable to participate meaningfully in the economic and social life of their community. These people are found in Juba, South Sudan and New York City, USA. Every city and rural village has its borderlands.

Tomorrow our post will examine the social identity of widows, orphans, and aliens in the Biblical world.

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Duty Approach to Ethics Part 2

Duty Approach to Ethics Part 2

Critique of Duty Ethics

I will offer five initial observations about the duty approach to ethics and conclude by expressing my concern that “duties” can be defined in ways that actually lead us toward evil in the name of virtue.

  1. The principle that each human life has inherent value resonates with our Biblical faith traditions. We believe that each person was created in the image of God (Gen. 1.27). This doctrine asserts that each individual has the dignity of bearing the divine image regardless of differences in social position, gender, capacities, and race. In our time, Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, has challenged us to value and receive the gifts of women and men that live with intellectual disabilities. A foundational value of L’Arche is that each life is sacred. This fundamental doctrine has great meaning in facing the ethical challenges of our world.
  2. Duty ethics holds that people are responsible moral agents and accountable for their actions. Kant went as far as to propose that there is moral equality of all people based on the capacity to reason. The difficulty is that we do not always function based on intellectual reason. We can be swayed by emotion, passion, anxiety, and past experiences. In regard to the last factor, we know that children raised in physically abusive homes have a tendency to engage in domestic violence as adults. One might argue that moral equality fails to consider other important factors that may somewhat mitigate culpability.
  3. There are obvious challenges in creating an official list of universal categorical imperatives that are binding on all people. Who could be given this power? What would be the criteria? Are categorical imperatives really that self-evident? For example, one assumes that the prohibition against killing is a categorical imperatives. Would this duty apply to soldiers and police officers? Honesty would likely be another obligation. What if someone told a lie to save the life of another person? Does the fact that we qualify even these two basic duties mean that they are not universal and permanently binding?
  4. The emphasis on ethical motives seems to match the teaching of Jesus about the heart. “… it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come …. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mk 7.21-23). However, the heart is always a project. Motives are seldom pure. We need regular gut checks, confession, and prayerful discernment to do “heart work.” Reflective and grounded people will recognize that they constantly struggle with mixed motivations.
  5. Different duties may sometimes enter into conflict with each other. There is seldom an accepted standard for addressing the issue of weight that should be accorded to distinct obligations. Last football season, quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the playing of the national anthem in order to protest the treatment of people of color in the United States. He clearly gave greater weight to what he perceived to be a moral duty than he attributed to the civic duty of standing during the anthem. Many fans and team owners disagreed with Kaepernick and he now languishes without a contract for 2017. Was his action morally correct?


I find myself to be both attracted to duty ethics and to be resistant of it. As a follower of Jesus, there are certain categorical imperatives that are central to the faith. Jesus’ teaching instructs us to love God with all our being and to love our neighbors to the same extent that we care about ourselves (Mt. 22.37-40). The moral code of the Hebrew Scriptures hangs on these two great commandments. We might add other obligations such as bearing witness before hostile authorities (Mk. 13.9), serving the needs of others (Lk. 22.24-27), and loving enemies (Mt. 5.44). One could argue that these sayings represent categorical imperatives.

I have three hesitations. First, I am concerned about isolating “gospel duties” from the story of Jesus and the stories that Jesus told. The ethical teaching of Jesus comes to us embedded in a narrative that carries its meaning. We need the story to help us understand the duties. Second, I wonder how we might determine which people are authorized to make up the official list of duties and obligations for the global church.  The example of Kaepernick, cited above, illustrates how individual convictions about duty may clash with the majority opinion. Who sets the ethical standard?

Third, my greatest concern is that duties can be perverted and manipulated by people in positions of power and influence. The observance of the Sabbath in first century Palestine was a sacred obligation (Ex. 20.8) and a patriotic duty. Sabbath regulations created a boundary between Jewish people and other nations. In this way, Sabbath observance could be likened to a categorical imperative. Jesus challenged the prevailing Sabbath obligations by healing broken people and defending his hungry disciples who had plucked (harvested) grain. He held that mercy prevailed over rules and regulations that governed the day of rest. The gospel narratives reveal that Jesus believed that the purity regulations, including Sabbath, had become a tool of social control by people in power.

Duty or obligation can be manipulated by government and religious leaders to encourage evil actions. My wife is a survivor of the Rwandan genocide. Genocidaires killed 800,000 innocent people out of a perverted sense of duty to the government. German soldiers sent Jewish people to Auschwitz out of a sense of duty.  Allied soldiers killed German prisoners of war out of a sense of duty to their superiors. Priests, pastors, and chaplains were complicit in these immoral deeds. Currently, in the Middle East, ISIS promotes violence as a duty to Islam.  These examples, and countless others, make me hesitant about a deontological or duty approach to ethics. As a Christian, I want to be sure that Jesus, and not contemporary society, is shaping my understanding of my moral obligations in a broken and wounded world.


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Duty Approach to Ethics Part 1

Duty Approach to Ethics Part 1

The Duty Approach to Ethics[1]

There are two parts to my blog post this week. The first section provides a brief description of the duty approach to ethics. Part 2 offers a personal critique based on my understanding of following Jesus in the context of moral issues and ambiguities.

Part 1: Description of the Duty Approach to Ethics

Deontological ethics is the technical term for this approach to moral issues. The Greek noun deon can be translated as duty or obligation. Students of New Testament Greek will be familiar with the Greek verb dei which signifies a moral necessity or obligation. An example is found in Mt. 18.33. The unforgiving slave is brought before the ruler that previously had pardoned his massive debt. His master asks why he had thrown a colleague into prison who had not paid a much reduced debt. The ruler poses an ethical question: Was there not a moral obligation for you to have mercy on a fellow slave as I had mercy on you? These words point to an ethical duty that should have informed the actions of the unforgiving slave.

It may be helpful to contrast utilitarian and duty approaches to ethics. The utilitarian approach uses the criterion of end consequences to evaluate the moral nature of an action. Has the action resulted in happiness for affected people? Accordingly, something that seems immoral such as the assassination of a cruel dictator could be considered to be ethically sound if the murder resulted in greater happiness for the citizens of the country. One can sense the “moral quicksand” of disregarding laws and basic human rights to achieve certain ends related to the purported well-being of the general public.

The duty or deontological approach to ethics is different in that attention shifts from consequences of an action to its moral nature and accompanying motives. It is argued that often outcomes are beyond the control of a social agent. However, individuals are responsible for examining their motivations and using reason to analyze the ethical quality of their actions. The “happiness” goal of utilitarian ethics is critiqued and replaced by the concept that people experience happiness when they fulfill their duties and obligations. They become worthy of happiness or contentment. In this way, there is some alignment with virtue ethics. However, virtue ethics concentrates on character while the focus of duty ethics is social obligation.

Deontological or duty ethics is associated with the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant lived during an age of optimism. The enlightenment emphasized human capacities, intellect, and the importance of freedom. New inventions such as the steam engine transformed transportation and industrial output. The American and the French revolutions seemed to herald a new form of national governance. The continued exploration of the world was accompanied by the growth of European colonialism. It was in this setting that Immanuel Kant emphasized the importance of universal moral obligations. He referred to these duties as categorical imperatives.

Our lives are separated from Immanuel Kant by more than two centuries. While most of us are not familiar with his work, we stand under his influence. The pondering of moral dilemmas frequently elicits a comment about “the right thing” to be done. This remark is “Kantian” in nature. The phrase “the right thing” expresses a conviction that there is a moral obligation or duty that can be discerned though reason and accomplished.

Kant’s ethical approach had a number of key principles that are rooted in enlightenment thought:

  1. People are rational in nature. They are responsible for both their motivations and their actions.
  2. Each human life has an inherent value. (This point is important for an appreciation of Kant’s ethics.) A person’s value is not instrumental — productive capacity or potential contribution to society). As a consequence, people are not to be used, abused, or oppressed in any manner. One can see the link between duty ethics and modern human rights discourse.
  3. A particular action is ethical in nature if done with the right intentions. Readers may remember an example I offered in an earlier blog. A man rescues five children that are held hostage by armed kidnappers. The question was posed: Is the “moral nature” of the act compromised by the fact that rescuer was motivated by a reward of one million dollars per child? The utilitarian approach maintains that the action should only be evaluated by the outcome. In contrast, according to Kant’s reasoning, the motive of reward taints the ethical value of the rescue.
  4. A particular action is moral in nature if an ethical imperative is accomplished regardless of the consequences.
  5. Ethical imperatives are universal in nature. They apply to all people in all circumstances.
  6. Duties play an important part in the formation of communities and nations. People are bound by mutual obligations and shared ethical imperatives.


I offer some observations on duty ethics in Part 2.

[1] I wish to signal at the outset that MacKinnon and Fiala (2016) offer a helpful introduction to deontological ethics. I have drawn on their work in writing this piece.


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Utilitarian Ethics Part 2

Utilitarian Ethics Part 2

The Alberta Carbon Tax.

A current issue of public morality in Alberta, Canada is the carbon tax that was implemented in January 2017. This tax requires payment by industry and individuals for the carbon dioxide we place in the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels. The rate has been set at $20 per tonne, meaning that gasoline prices rose by 4.5 cents a litre (about 20 cents a gallon in the US).   The government objective is to raise $9.5 billion over five years for renewable energy, public transportation, green infrastructure, energy efficiency, and rebates for families earning less that $95 thousand annually. The carbon tax is part of the government’s strategy to reduce carbon emissions, improve air quality, and take responsible action on climate change. The inevitable pain is that a family with two children will pay about $500 in additional taxes in a year. In addition, industry complains that the carbon tax will negatively impact economic growth in Alberta given Donald Trump’s opposition to the Paris Accord on Climate Change.

A utilitarian ethical analysis would need to take into account the “pain” or negative consequences of the carbon tax including the loss of discretionary income. The other side of the equation would need to quantify the manner in which the environment is related to the long-term happiness of Albertans. The unprecedented floods of 2013, the forest fires around Fort McMurray in 2016, and the record heat wave of 2017 suggest that we face a mounting crisis. I wish to draw attention to the subtle danger of allowing ideology and self-interest to intrude into the difficult task of analysis. Furthermore, in the carbon tax debate, the Biblical virtue of creation care never enters into public discourse. Christians might choose to have a voice based on virtue rather than attempted quantifications of happiness.


Reflections on Utilitarian Ethics

The utilitarian approach to ethics is important for its commitment to equality. There are no special interest people or groups. The happiness of each person is measured in an equivalent manner. This characteristic appears commendable in giving voice to the voiceless and addressing the disproportional influence of wealthy individuals and corporations. The example I cited above illustrates that the integrity of the analysis requires social actors to recognize potential biases of ideology and personal interest.

The commendable principle of equal value may require some qualifications in its implementation. For example, in a time of crisis, there are moral expectations that parents will give priority to the safety and well-being of their children (while bearing in mind the needs of others). The same ethical responsibility has daily implications for families.

Furthermore, there is a moral question about the happiness of minority groups that have been marginalized because of past events and social forces. Such groups may need special assistance that recognizes a history of injustice and offers prospects of gaining dignity and hope. The “happiness count” of people in the borderlands may not register as particularly significant in the larger context of a city or region. However, a biblical ethic always moves us to meet the widow, the orphan, and the stranger in the margins of our social locations.

Many Christians will be troubled by the absence of considerations of virtue and character in utilitarian ethics. Using the “end” to “justify the means” can feel dangerous. Slavery was used to justify an economic system based on oppression. The Indian Residential Schools in Canada were justified as a means to “take the Indian out of the child” and facilitate social integration. Every regime that practices torture has articulated a moral justification. The utilitarian approach to ethics, when used exclusively, can be perverted by personal ambition and abuses of power.

Finally, the quality of the heart seems to be an essential aspect of morality. Many of us are reluctant to separate motivations from actions. We would praise someone that risked his life to save five children that were held hostage. Our admiration might be tempered if we discovered that the rescuer had been offered $1 million payment per child. The action might seem more mercenary than moral in nature.

In the parable of the sower and the seed, the people that bear abundant fruit hold fast to the word with honest and good hearts (Luke 8.15). After a grievous moral failure, a psalmist of Israel seeks from God a clean heart and a new spirit (Psalm 51.10). These texts, along with the weight of personal experience, lead us to conclude that faithful living requires the difficult inner journey of the heart.

In conclusion, the utilitarian approach to ethics should be part of our tool kit for the task of analyzing moral dilemmas. This perspective will help us to rise above personal and in-group interests in order to consider the general well-being (happiness) of our communities. However, we should balance utilitarian ethics with other approaches to morality so that we avoid inflicting injustice and pain based on dubious arguments that the end justifies the means.

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Utilitarian Approach to Ethics Part 1

Utilitarian Approach to Ethics Part 1

Utilitarian ethics approaches a moral dilemma by asking a critical question: What action will result in the greatest happiness for the largest number of people?

This first part of my article will describe utilitarian ethics and provide a biblical example related to Torah regulations of land ownership. Part 2 will offer a brief perspective on the public issue of a carbon tax in Alberta, Canada and some reflections on the use of utilitarian ethics by followers of Jesus.

My presentation began with the defining question posed by the utilitarian approach to ethics. We can make several initial observations:

  1. Attention is focussed on the result or impact of an action.
  2. Considerations of personal benefit (ethics of egoism) are replaced by a concern for the majority of people.
  3. There is no deliberation about moral values (virtue ethics).
  4. The motives of key actors or decision makers do not enter into the analysis.


We are familiar with government use of utilitarian ethics. The legal right to private property can be trumped through the legal expropriation of private land with the purpose of building a highway. In such cases, the perceived happiness of the majority is given greater weight than the pain or discomfort of a limited number of landholders. The approach of utilitarian ethics also has been used to justify the torture of a suspected terrorists with the purpose of eliciting information. The reasoning is that the happiness of the general public outweighs the pain and indignity inflicted on the individual. The contravention of international laws against torture is considered secondary to the need to protect innocent people. The basic principle of utilitarian ethics is easily grasped by most people although the implementation is challenging.


Biblical Example of Utilitarian Ethics.

The Torah’s instructions on property ownership and sale can be considered using the approach of utilitarian ethics. We recall that the Mosaic Law was given in the setting of the wilderness for the time when the former slaves would establish communities in the promised land. Modern readers must remember that the ownership of productive farmland was the main form of security in a pre-industrial agrarian society. Therefore, a landless person likely would be destitute and hungry.

The Torah principle, expressed in Leviticus 25, was that all the land belonged ultimately to God. Families simply held property as a trust. The Mosaic Law envisioned that calamity, crop failures, and other adverse circumstances could strike an family. As a consequence, affected people might be forced to sell their traditional property to survive. However, such a transaction was not to be permanent. The property was to be returned to the original family owners (or their descendants) in the year of Jubilee (celebrated every fifty years). The intent was to avoid creating a permanent class of landless peasants and to limit the economic disparity among community members.

The utilitarian approach to ethics, as mentioned earlier, seeks to ensure the greatest happiness for the largest number of people. In the case of ancient Israel, the freedom of a potential wealthy minority to expand landholdings was considered secondary to the common good (happiness) of the majority of people that would live in egalitarian communities. (My book Seed Falling on Good Soil shows how the economic elite in the time of Jesus used peasant debt with the purpose of enlarging their rural estates.)

Description of Utilitarian Ethics

The discipline of utilitarian ethics is usually associated with Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806 -1873). In our time, Peter Singer has become one of the most influential proponents of this approach to moral issues. Many readers will not be familiar with their written works but will feel somewhat at home in their process of reasoning. The basic principles of utilitarian ethics can be expressed as follows:

  1. Utilitarian ethics considers the common good rather than personal advantage. The perspective of self interest is not totally lost; the self simply finds its place among other people affected by a moral decision.
  2. In utilitarian ethics, each person is of equal importance regardless of social class, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, and religion.
  3. Utilitarian ethics attempts to quantify happiness and pain. The first is the desired consequence of a moral decision; the second is to be avoided.
  4. Utilitarian ethics distinguishes between happiness as an intrinsic good and those factors that are instrumental means in achieving happiness. Education, employment, adequate housing, and healthcare are instrumental goods that are generally related to the end goal of happiness.
  5. The analysis of options related to a moral dilemma will consider several factors: What people or groups will be directly and indirectly impacted? How many people will be happy as a result of an action? How many people will experience pain? What will be the intensity and duration of the happiness and pain? What is the probability of the anticipated impacts? How are short-term and long-term results to be calculated?

Based on these five principles, one concludes that the analytical work can be complex and somewhat speculative. For example, one might think of the challenges of a utilitarian ethics approach to the moral issue of ensuring basic healthcare for all Americans.


The second part of my presentation will provide an overview of an issue that is debated publicly in Alberta, Canada. I will conclude with a few reflections on how followers of Jesus might consider the utilitarian approach to ethical issues.

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Virtue Ethics Part 3

Virtue Ethics Part 3

What is distinct about a Christian virtue ethic?

As mentioned previously, Christians do not have a monopoly on virtue ethics. However, we should be confident that we have an important contribution to make to the broader discussion. We can be grateful for the work of scholars like Alasdair McIntyre, Stanley Hauerwas, and Jonathan Wilson in emphasizing the importance of the development of virtues for the life and witness of the church.

Here I will offer a few suggestions: drawing on the authors cited above:

  1. Christian virtues are not isolated moral principles or laws extracted from the Bible. Scriptural virtues are embedded in narratives of God with his people. For a follower of Jesus, virtues cannot be understood apart from the gospel narrative that leads us through Galilee and Judea to the crucifixion and resurrection. Stanley Hauerwas wrote: “… Christian ethics is not first of all an ethics of principles, laws, or values, but an ethic that demands we attend to the life of a particular individual, Jesus of Nazareth.”[1]
  2. People, including Christians, are susceptible to delusions and distortions about their lives and morality. We want to believe that we are more virtuous than our actions and inaction might suggest. The story of Jesus forces us to examine our own lives. We enter into a space where we can face ourselves with honesty, confess our sins, celebrate grace, and be inspired by the story of the gospel.
  3. Christian virtues are related to the mission (telos) of God in the world. The purpose or meaning of each human life is discovered in relationship to the mission of God. The virtues are an expression of how people understand God, his calling, and their purpose in the world. At a minimum, faithfulness to the mission of God requires virtues like humility, service, and compassion.
  4. The process of the development of character or virtues can be likened to the metaphor of a journey. People are transformed by the pilgrimage with God as they face new challenges that test their faithfulness, integrity, and dedication.
  5. Individuals need a community (church) to encourage and nurture Christian virtues. A supportive community, living by the principle of grace, provides a fellowship of discernment and encouragement for the long journey.


Evaluation of Virtue Ethics as an Approach to Morality.

I think most people would agree that people with strong sets of virtues will generally sort through moral issues and make good decisions. The emphasis on the long process of character formation matches our understanding of Christian discipleship and transformation. Pastors and teachers should be encouraged to emphasize gospel virtues in their preaching and classroom discussions. Those of us that serve in the broader marketplace are challenged to find ways of representing the virtues of our faith in social contexts of competition and affluence. We will have to be discerning in distinguishing between “cultural” virtues that will vary in different settings and “gospel” virtues that are essential for discipleship and mission.

I have one major concern about the virtue ethics approach that I can represent in a story. A former colleague was the child of a Jewish couple that had been saved from death in a concentration camp by Oskar Schindler (you may have seen the movie Schindler’s List). Few people would have described Schindler as a virtuous man. He was a member of the Nazi party. He was unfaithful in marriage. He used bribery to get ahead in business. He drank to excess and was addicted to a lifestyle of affluence. One assumes that many German Christians who served the 3rd Reich that would have been scandalized by Schindler. But when a Jewish concentration camp opened near his factory, Oskar Schindler used his money and influence to save over one thousand Jewish women and men. Let me pose the question: “If you were a Jewish prisoner in a concentration camp, would you have preferred to place your fate in the hands of Schindler or in the hands of a 3rd Reich soldier that maintained his marriage vows and personal piety?”

The story of Oskar Schindler raises uncomfortable questions about how we prioritize certain virtues and our vices in our historical situation.  We might ask: Is it enough to be a faithful husband and loving father in a world where 925 million people are hungry? I am struck by a recent poll that showed that 85% of Americans (and presumably Canadians) were unaware of extreme hunger in Africa and the Middle East. Is it enough to be virtuous in business dealings in North America while ignoring that the mass displacement of 65 million people is a new global reality. This means that 1 of every 113 people on the earth is on the move as a refugee from violence or environmental catastrophe, as a migrant looking for work, or as someone that simply hopes for a better life. What does virtue mean in the context of desperate people crowding into boats to cross the Mediterranean Sea?

I propose that the Christian church faces a challenge in rethinking the virtues that God requires for our mission and witness in today’s broken and wounded world. We need to bear in mind that the God of our scriptures always was concerned for the well-being of the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. Virtues should move us toward the margins and borderlands. The discussions and conclusions about virtue ethics will be important for the future of our churches and our nations.

[1] The Hauerwas Reader. Page 121.

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Virtue Ethics Part 2

Virtue Ethics Part 2

Christians have no sense of “ownership” on virtues and virtue ethics. When Paul penned his message to the Galatians, he was aware that four centuries earlier the Greek philosopher Aristotle had emphasized the importance of virtues. Aristotle distinguished between:

  1. Intellectual virtues: Traits that help us to think and reason well.
  2. Moral virtues: Qualities that help us to live and act well in community.

Aristotle taught that virtues required practice; they could not simply be learned in an academy. He introduced the relationship between virtues and the discovery of one’s purpose as a human. The virtues were important for the fulfillment of one’s personal mission or “telos.” Happiness was the product of the coherence of practice and purpose. The influence of Aristotle continues to shape current debates about the nature of a moral life.

Earlier than Aristotle, Confucius has lived and taught in China (561 to 479 BC). Confucius also rejected an approach to morality based on rules and regulations. He believed that people of good character would automatically exemplify good behaviour. He emphasized two main virtues that continue to shape Chinese culture. “Jen” represents compassion or humaneness. “Li” stands for good manners and decorum. Discussions of ethics and faith in modern China inevitably make reference to the ongoing influence of Confucius.

These two historical figures remind us of the importance of recognizing the importance of other perspectives on virtue and of the need to enter into dialogue with people that are sincere in their desire to be people of integrity.

This very brief overview and the content of Part 1 can lead us to make a few further observations:

  1. Virtues are contextual. It is in a particular context with its personalities and social tensions that a certain virtues become important for the individual and the broader community. To return to the example of St. Francis, the decision to make a virtue of poverty would have made no sense in a social setting of widespread deprivation and hunger.
  2. Virtues are role dependant. The virtues required of a teacher in Malawi will have important differences from the virtues of fire fighter in Toronto. The virtues demanded of aid workers in a time of famine will have some significant differences from those of a respected bank manager in New York. There is room to debate the possibility that there are gender differences in assigning priority to certain virtues.
  3. Virtues are influenced by culture. Precision with time is a virtue in Switzerland; It is not valued as highly in parts of Africa. Cross-cultural and international workers need to be attentive to different moral codes that emphasize distinct sets of virtues.
  4. Virtues are not learned in a classroom or by reading a book. As Aristotle taught, the development of a virtuous life requires years of practice. Virtues become personal traits only through a long road of dedication in which there will be inevitably moments of testing, personal failure, and success through stubborn endurance.

Part 3 of this series will deal with the distinct nature of virtue ethics for followers of Jesus.

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Virtue Ethics Part 1

Virtue Ethics Part 1

Virtue ethics offers a distinct approach to moral issues by concentrating on the character of social agents rather than an analysis of a particular dilemma. The foundational principle is that the actions of virtuous people will be morally sound and noble in nature. I will attempt to briefly outline and evaluate the virtue ethics position in three blog posts.

The Christian faith has emphasized virtue ethics through the centuries. A good example is found in the New Testament in Galatians 5.16-24. Paul is addressing a number of small Christian congregations in the Roman province of Galatia (now a region of Turkey). He is concerned to show that freedom in Christ should not lead to declining standards of moral conduct. The apostle offers a list of vices to be avoided: Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. He then turns to virtues to be cultivated by the followers of Jesus in Galatia. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.

We would better understand Paul’s moral advice if we were able to enter into the story of the city and the church. However, we are at least able to grasp that the fifteen vices are personally destructive and damage the newly formed communities of faith. The nine virtues are “fruits of the Spirit” in the sense that God works in the lives of his people to nurture and cultivate these traits.

Faith requires a movement from vices to virtues. The scriptures and church history bear witness to the challenges of living by virtues in settings of greed and violence. One might think of St. Francis who made a virtue of poverty in order to offer an alternate path in contrast with the affluence of society and the church. Similarly, Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Jesuit Priest, exemplified the virtue of courage during World War II. He provided refuge for Jews in his monastery and, after being imprisoned in Auschwitz, offered to die in the place of a Jewish prisoner. We could think of many other stories of virtue that inspire us to be better people and more dedicated followers of Jesus.

Virtue Ethics is a distinct approach to morality.

At this point I want to make five general observations about the approach of virtue ethics.

  1. Virtue ethics aims at personal development. We might say that this approach to ethics is concerned about the formation of character rather than the provision of rules.
  2. Virtue ethics does not begin with the kind of questions that we usually ask when facing a moral dilemma. What actions should we take? What outcomes would be ethically sound? What motives should guide our actions? These questions are secondary in the virtue ethics approach.
  3. Virtue ethics places primary emphasis on what kind of people we should be in the process of becoming? What character traits are noble and dignified in the context of a certain issue? A starting question might be: What values or virtues should I exemplify in relationship to others as we face this dilemma?
  4. Virtues usually go in sets. A particular virtue seldom standd on its own. A virtuous person displays multiple character positive traits in most situations.
  5. Virtue ethics distinguishes between satisfaction and pleasure. People that are content or at peace with their lives may well have made painful and unpleasant sacrifices in order to faithfully live by their code of virtues. In other words, virtues may lead us toward pain and conflict.


The second blog post on virtue ethics will offer further observations on this way of approaching moral issues.

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