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rapraprapraprapraprap's avatar

What's the difference between Christian Moral Theology and Philosophical or Anthropological Ethics?

Asked by rapraprapraprapraprap (166 points ) June 22nd, 2011

Actually, this is our homework, and I would want to know what you flutherers think :D (thanks for the contribution [in advance])

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19 Answers

tom_g's avatar

@rapraprapraprapraprap – This response might get flagged as unhelpful, but here goes…

Wouldn’t you be better off doing the research on this yourself before asking us to answer this for you? Maybe you could do some research and ask us when/if you hit a spot where you are stuck.

rapraprapraprapraprap's avatar

@tom_g if that’s what you think.

Well I’ve observed that Christian Moral Theology centers more on God. The subject informs us of the direction of man towards God – being more godlike. And it speaks of divine nature and supernatural stuff, as well as, achieving closeness to God in receiving the sacraments and enjoying grace and having faith, or enlightened reason.

Philosophical ethics centers on man (I think). And I’ve heard it is based on experiences and culture, and is not acknowledging ‘God’ specifically but refers to a ‘Higher Being’.

Anything you want to add or correct?

Cruiser's avatar

Guilt.

SavoirFaire's avatar

When I hear the term “philosophical ethics” I think of several related and long-standing debates between multiple schools of thought. Deontology versus utilitarianism versus virtue ethics, intuitionism versus naturalism, cognitivism versus non-cognitivism, natural law versus positivism, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. What unites philosophers working on moral problems is not a set of answers, but rather a set of questions and a methodology. This methodology is rational, non-authoritarian, and reflexive (that is, it questions its own assumptions).

Philosophers may be religious and think that God is central to ethics, they may think be secular and think that God is irrelevant to ethics, or they may even think that God is antithetical to ethics. Similarly, they may think that man is central, irrelevant, or antithetical to ethics. Unless the class you are in is using some special meaning of the term, I don’t think that “philosophical ethics” can be pigeonholed so easily.

This, in turn, suggests that we should not be too quick to pigeonhole the other terms either. Can a distinction be made on a similar methodological level for Christian moral theology and anthropological ethics? Perhaps it can. In fact, they might be considered fairly similar to philosophical ethics but with certain assumptions added that are not taken for granted by philosophers.

Christian moral theology might be seen as treating philosophical issues concerning morality under the assumptions that God exists, that Jesus was the messiah, and that Biblical commands act as a constraint on our practical theorizing. So it would have the task of finding a plausible moral theory that fits with those assumptions and constraints.

Anthropological ethics might be seen as concerned with descriptive, rather than normative issues. It takes the assumption that morality is a social construction that varies from culture to culture and investigates how and why those variations occur. It’s task under this interpretation would be to explain how all of these diverse practices are still recognizable as moral practices and how those practices affect societies in the short and long terms.

This is only one way of distinguishing between the terms, and it may not be what your teacher is looking for. Still, it seems to me more correct than saying that philosophical ethics centers on “man.”

Also, it’s unclear whether you are working with a two-way or three-way distinction. Are philosophical and anthropological ethics supposed to be different terms for the same thing or two distinct ways of approaching ethics? Obviously, I assumed the latter in my response above.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

Christian moral theology, as you pointed out, focuses on on God. All actions are compared to the ideal standard that God is said to embody, and all other points of view are discarded. It also uses a significant carrot/stick effect, using heaven and hell.

However most Christians, in my opinion, don’t follow Christian moral theology. The Bible sets out several rules that Christians do not follow today, such as sacrificing animals, living in poverty for the sake of God’s word, and stoning adulterers.

Secular moral philosophy has many facets. Some, like Immanuel Kant say that there is a moral standard we are compelled to meet. Some, like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, say that moral acts are those that bring the greatest benefit to a population. I highly suggest reading through the appropriate entries in the “Stanford Philosophy Encyclopaedia”.

The biggest difference though, in my opinion, is that Christian morality is dictatorial. It tries to tell us how we should behave. Secular moral philosophy is observational, in that it tries to describe the morality we as a population generally hold to be the standard.

Nullo's avatar

A Christian has God as the ultimate authority on – indeed, the creator of – morality. The other two, not so much.

@FireMadeFlesh The Bible states outright that the need for such ceremonial practices (which are ceremonial, not moral) as animal sacrifice ended with Jesus. The point behind His death was to provide a sacrifice big enough to atone for all sins, even the ones that we haven’t committed yet, so long as we accepted it. Even adultery, making it unnecessary for it to be punished by stoning. We do have troubles now with people putting too much stock in money, though.

lillycoyote's avatar

@SavoirFaire I was wondering about your last point too because I think “anthropological ethics” is not a philosophy or ideology really, at least it’s pretty narrow one. The only circumstance that I’ve heard that term used is to refer to the professional ethics or code of conduct for anthropologists when conducting fieldwork, writing up the results, etc.

ninjacolin's avatar

Likely a false dichotomy. I’m willing to say that there is no difference except the fundamental beliefs about the universe on which the ethical/moral conclusions are drawn. Contrary to @Nullo‘s suggestion, both rely on the authority of sound logic based as they apply to the perceived facts.

Christians perceive it to be a fact that there is a God who has defined a set of moral laws that ought to be upheld. Based on that perception about reality, Christians conclude that “right” behaviors require logical soundness AND adherence to the behavioral specifications from that God. (eg. If God exists and is always right and If God says don’t eat pork then logically it is moral/ethical to eat pork.)

The secular crowd perceives it to be a fact that the existence of such a God is impossible to determine as universally true. Therefore, secularists conclude that “right” behaviors require ONLY logical soundness. (eg. If God doesn’t necessarily exist, then his assumed opinion on eating pork doens’t matter. Next.. If eating pork doesn’t have any obvious drawbacks, and If eating pork is pleasing and desired, then logically it is moral/ethical to eat pork.)

How’s that?

SavoirFaire's avatar

@FireMadeFlesh According to Kant, his system of morality is not complete without God to guarantee that justice is distributed fairly in the afterlife (since it is clearly not distributed fairly on Earth). One might think that Rawls and other philosophers working in the Kantian tradition have satisfactorily separated Kantian ethics from Kantian theology, but Kant himself would have thought that any moral precept arising from such an effort would be nothing but “a vain delusion and chimerical concept.”

@Nullo You are assuming that the categories being mutually exclusive means that no beliefs can be shared between the two, but this does not follow. It seems that the difference between Christian moral theology and philosophical or anthropological ethics is that the former takes the existence of God as a working assumption whereas the others do not. This does not exclude those working from a different framework from believing in God and thinking He is the source of morality, however; it only means that an argument will have to be given where Christian moral theology only offers assumptions.

@lillycoyote I think you are correct that the most common use of the term “anthropological ethics” is for the profession’s code of conduct. My answer above is inspired by an interdisciplinary panel discussion I had the pleasure of participating in this past semester. The discussion was hosted by members of the anthropology department who are interested in morality as a cultural phenomenon. What I describe above is what they take their task to be qua anthropologists. I worry, however, that @rapraprapraprapraprap‘s teacher might be using the term differently, for I can see why one might try to appropriate the word “anthropological” (meaning “of the study of humanity”) for an ethics that centers on “man” (that is to say, “human beings”). An odd usage, I think, but one that could be defended.

@ninjacolin Why a false dichotomy? First, I’m not entirely convinced that the distinction being made is meant to be exhaustive. Christian moral theology might just be one example of something being contrasted with philosophical/anthropological ethics. Islamic moral theology, Judaic moral theology, and Zoroastrian moral theology might be other contrasting categories and may all fall under some larger category to be contrasted with philosophical/anthropological ethics. Second, the difference seems to be what is taken as a working assumption. This is a real difference, even if it does not rule out the possibility of other beliefs being shared.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@Nullo That is true, but the Bible still sets out moral precedents as if they were once okay, when in my book they never were. I think the story of God telling Abraham to kill Isaac is disgusting, and Abraham was an immoral fool to even consider following the order (and yes I realise it was later retracted). Stoning Achan was a gross mis-appropriation of justice, and there was no reason for Elijah to kill the 400ish priests of Baal. While you can say it is not necessary to follow these any more, the fact remains that God once thought it moral.

@SavoirFaire I was not aware of how Kant’s ethics related to his theology, so thanks for that. I am yet to read any of his original works. Personally I disagree with all of the philosophers I mentioned, but that is another issue for another time.

repeater75's avatar

There is no basis for knowledge or morality without the existence of the God of the bible, whether men choose to suppress their knowledge of Him or not (Romans 1:18–20, 1 Corinthians 2:14). Without an author of truth and goodness, we’re left with relativism and no standard but what pleases the individual.

repeater75's avatar

@FireMadeFlesh – applying some kind of moral standard of your own to God misses the point of who God is entirely. The fact that he is God and does everything to His greater glory and pleasure makes everything He does morally right and Good. He is THE standard and is not to be judged by creatures who breathe by his generous mercy. God is holy, not like us. He is right to judge his creatures by his law, we are not in a position to shake our puny fists at the author of the universe and tell him his purposes are not good. After all, if you actually pay attention to the story you reference, you see that God provides a sacrifice for Abraham and SPARES Isaac. The whole thing foreshadows God giving his own son’s life for ill-deserving creatures – the greatest example of love in history.

Plucky's avatar

@repeater75 …applying some kind of moral standard of your own to God misses the point of who God is entirely.
Is that not what you just did in the rest of your paragraph? You applied a moral standard, of your own, to God. Everyone must apply, on some level, their own moral standards to religious/philisophical belief (or lack thereof). Hence, there are so many interpretations of the different dieties and historical accounts which have lead to different religions and belief systems around the world.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@repeater75 If God is the author, then what is true and what is good is based on His subjective viewpoint. That doesn’t avoid relativism—it builds relativism into the very fabric of the universe. I recommend reading some of Plato’s early dialogues, such as the Euthyphro. They are a useful introduction to the problems facing the sort of argument you’re trying to make.

ninjacolin's avatar

@SavoirFaire asked: “Why a false dichotomy? First, I’m not entirely convinced that the distinction being made is meant to be exhaustive. Christian moral theology might just be one example of something being contrasted with philosophical/anthropological ethics. ”

Christian moral theology is based on philosophical/anthropological ethics. philosophical/anthropological ethics describes the basis for all beliefs.

It’s like asking how the craftsmanship involved in wooden chair making compares against the craftsmanship of wood working.

The answer is: one, philosophical/anthropological ethics, is more basic. Lower level.
The other, christian/muslim/whathaveyou ethics, is a macrocosm of the former.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@ninjacolin Since we were not told how the terms were being used, we cannot just assume that philosophical/anthropological ethics is the basis for all beliefs. It could be meant as a technical term referring to a certain sort of view. As such, we do not seem to have sufficient evidence for your charge of a false dichotomy.

ninjacolin's avatar

I get a sense that that’s what the original poster is implying based on how the question reads. I could be wrong but.. I can’t imagine any other sensible view that the original poster might have meant besides the one I’ve described.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@ninjacolin The question barely gives any details at all, so it seems to underdetermine any particular interpretation. See this reply for a reading different from your own that is, if I may be so bold, still sensible.

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