Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Paradox of Christian Ethics

Jon has posted an excellent, lengthy quote from Chesterton, in which he speaks of the paradoxes inherent in the Christian virtues: faith, hope, and charity. It reminds me of a question I wanted to pose to my ethics professor. (Unfortunately, the class was not question-friendly. Maybe D. C. Cramer can shed light on the question.)

The ethics class introduced me to the categories of moral erogation and moral super-erogation. Erogation is doing what is ethically required of you, like not shooting your enemy in the back. Super-erogation is going beyond what is ethically required, like jumping in front of a bullet to save your enemy. You could see these categories in terms of Chesterton's pagan virtue of justice: erogation is giving a man what he deserves, super-erogation is giving him better than what he deserves.

The ethics course also taught that the foundation of ethics was divine command. That is, we don't first determine what is ethical based on the consequences of our action. The ethical mandate isn't some consequentialist goal such as "Maximize happiness," or "Acheive equality for all persons." Your first call is to do what God has commanded.

But here's the wrinkle: Hasn't God in Christ commanded us to do super-erogation? Hasn't he said that we are obligated to "go the extra mile," love our enemies, and treat the undeserving with charity? If so, then based on divine command theory, just about anything you can think of to call super-erogation is just plain old erogation. What I wanted to ask my professor is how these can be useful categories in divine command theory.

I think that Christ likes to play havoc with our categories. He takes the common idea of justice--giving a man what he's due--and inverts it. Justice isn't a matter of giving someone what they've earned; it's a matter of giving someone what you haven't earned, but have gotten anyway. You must forgive, because you have been forgiven. God's grace to you obligates you to be gracious.

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