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GOE’s Set 3: Christian Ethics and Moral Theology

GOE’s Set 3: Christian Ethics and Moral Theology

Crusty Old Dean aka Dean Tom Ferguson of Bexley Hall Seminary, reflects on Set 3 of questions on the General Ordination Examinations (GOE’s).

Set 3 Christian Ethics and Moral Theology


You observe two bumper stickers displayed together on a car in a university neighborhood. One says, “Save the Whales.” The other says, “Keep Abortion Safe and Legal.”

Choose one of the following ethical approaches: Virtue Ethics, Feminist Ethics, Teleological Ethics.

1. In your own words, provide a 250-word, working definition of the chosen ethical approach as practiced in a Christian theological context. The definition should be appropriate to what might be given at an adult education forum in a parish.

2. With direct reference to the definition given in 1.), provide a reasoned, 750-word argument for how the messages of these two bumper stickers, taken together, do or do not represent a morally coherent world view, consonant with your understanding of Christian responsibility.

Read COD’s thoughts on this question– what do you think of the question? How would you set out to answer it?


posted by Ann Fontaine


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Bill Simpson

This is just an awful question.

First, one might plausibly ask if any of the supplied options is up to explicating the _motorist’s_ moral intuitions–not the other way around. Virtue theory and most forms of consequentialism (presumably what the questioner means here by “teleological ethics”) are notoriously anthropocentric and would give little guidance in thinking about nature as a moral patient. While some consequentialists (Peter Singer) might recognize human-independent interests of particular whales or fetuses as pain experiencers, these ethicists are stymied when it comes to nonsensate, aggregate living systems, e.g., the living and nonliving things comprising a watershed. The situation is even worse in the case of virtue ethics (presumably Alisdair McIntyre, not Aristotle) and (at least) Carol Gilligan’s feminist ethics, because here normatively hangs on human valuing, not objective relationships inherent in nature. If the whale is incapable of a rich inner life (McIntyre) or profound human relationships (Gilligan), too bad for the whale–unless some third, duck-tapey consideration is supplied, thus rendering the proposed theories otiose.

Secondly, the question’s author does not appear to have a handle on standard notions of teleology, at least as the word is used in standard treatments of moral philosophy. The grand old consequentialists (Bentham, Mill, Sidgwick) aimed at doing moral philosophy without appealing either to formal notions of duty (Kant) or Greek and mediaeval conceptions of inherent purpose in individual things or nature generally. Insofar as the early utilitarians were in revolt against the Greek and scholastic project of finding value by reflecting on purpose in nature, these guys were anti-teleologists. Moreover, McIntyre expressly preserves teleology in the sense of flourishing by realizing a plan of life while rejecting the old Aristotelian claims of objective human functions and purposes observable in nature.

Finally, a clearer approach would be to let the utilitarians get on with being consequentialists and stipulate that both McIntyre and probably Gilligan are engaged in teleological speculation that has become detached from nature. Then we abandon these approaches to their own sterility.

Once free of such post-Cartesian wandering in our own minds, the path is clear to think about humanity as a species among species living with finite natural resources and in dynamic equilibrium with respect to energy from the sun. If this is our true situation, the real moral questions of our time are about human population growth and an extractive energy economy that disrupt the planet’s very ability to sustain life.

The good news is that the motorist’s already on the case, so were the Greeks, and so was a Scholastic philosopher and theologian named Thomas Aquinas. Each in their own way views creation as a great chain of being. Earlier, in the 6th century, St. Benedict envisioned all creation as grains of dust dancing in a shaft of light shining from the hand of God. Perhaps more classroom time can be given to reclaiming that wisdom.

Wallace W. Mills

What a great question to wrestle with for three hours! I’ve seen such pairings, and it was challenging, enlightening, and instructive to write about!

Chaz Brooks

I’m surprised. The GOE’s usually avoid super controversial issues like abortion.

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