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'Oughtness' & 'Love'

See The Law & the Grace of God: an Invitation to a Wedding
Defining 'Oughtness' & 'Love' is now combined with Biblical Theology & Pelagianism - PDF file

F. Earle Fox

        [NOTE:  This article has been combined with Biblical Theology & Pelagianism to form a new book, The Law and the Grace of God.]   

        'Oughtness' is that special quality that makes a moral statement or claim a moral statement or claim.  It has been sought after from the very beginnings of philosophy and wisdom literature, but not, I think, successfully.  Here is my try at the matter. 

        This paper spells out the case for asserting that the only objective foundation for morality is the will of God.  It was originally written for a religion class at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, my junior year (1956), and then published when I was at General Theological Seminary in NYC in the Journal of Religion, July, 1959. 

        This event was my introduction to the power of the Biblical worldview, its unique capacity for combining intellectual, moral, and spiritual integrity, propelling me into my lifelong passion for apologetics -- explaining the Christian faith reasonably and gracefully. 

          In his State of the Union address in 1905, President Teddy Roosevelt stated:

There are those who believe that a new modernity demands a new morality. What they fail to consider is the harsh reality that there is no such thing as a new morality. There is only one morality. All else is immorality. There is only true Christian ethics over against which stands the whole of paganism. If we are to fulfill our great destiny as a people, then we must return to the old morality, the sole morality.... All these blatant sham reformers, in the name of a new morality, preach the old vice of self-indulgence which rotted out first the moral fiber and then even the external greatness of Greece and Rome.   

Go, Teddy!   

Political authority depends on a prior moral authority.  Apart from the distinction between right and wrong, there is no authority at all, only pragmatic or emotional persuasion and power struggle.   But none of those in any sense obligate anyone. 

The case is, I believe, logically locked in, in the sense that there are no competing theories of ethics which can show both (1) that these theories of ethics have objective meaning, and at the same time (2) that these theories preserve freewill, and (3) that they provide a relevant claim on the freewill of persons supposedly under their obligation.   All non-Biblical theories of which I am aware fail in one or the other of these tests.   

For the issue of whether God commands because a thing is right, or whether a thing gains its rightness by the command of God, see Right & Wrong in Islam and also Does God command a behavior because the behavior is good, or, does the behavior become good because God commands it?  E. Fox 

(Defining 'Oughtness' & 'Love' is available as booklet in Shopping Mall)



I. 'Oughtness'
    1. The Defining Process
    2. Presuppositions of the Ethical Question
    3. The Relevant Source of Authority
    4. Definition of 'Oughtness'
    5. Summary

II. Christian Ethics & Christian Love
    6. Agape presupposed by Obligation
    7. Necessity of Obligation to Love as the Primary Obligation
    8. Secondary Obligations - definition of Agape
    9. Love as Command
   10. Love as Flexible End with Particular Implications
   11. Summary: Nature of the Ultimate Choice

III.  Addenda (added 10/6/03)


Offered herein are definitions of two ethical terms which occur in nearly all human dealings--'oughtness' and 'love'. If examined in the context of most philosophical systems, they are either without cognitive significance or are defined in such a way as to make them, ironically enough, irrelevant to ethics.

Obligation and love, moreover, are often set at odds with one another. Obligation becomes Wordsworth's "Stern Daughter of the Voice of God," the thunder from the pulpit, or the steel finger of authority in man's inner being, and love, then, is romanticism, sex, release to nirvana, mystic union, and so on.  Love, it would seem, rises above ethics and cannot be made the object of an obligation; i.e., it cannot be commanded. We are thus confronted with an imagined cleavage between the Old Testament of law and the New Testament of love.

The definitions offered in this article entail that no such cleavage exists in fact, that obligation and love as agape (Greek word for love) do not stand over against each other, and that either ethical terms have objective, cognitive significance or they have no ethical implications at all.  We are told

Furthermore, if obligation and love are in some way mutually exclusive, then we have two sets of ethics, one of which must transcend the other. The transcendent or mystical ethic usually overrides what it calls "the temporal distinction between good and evil" under the pretext of replacing it with something better, usually at the expense of all cognitive distinctions, and we find ourselves unable to distinguish any worthwhile difference between a supra-legal ethic and no ethic at all.

Though opposed to mysticism, the emotivists also empty ethical categories of their cognitive element. Ethical terms become tools of emotional expression-- sounds without meaning for the intellect. They simply express an approval or disapproval by the subject and make no objective statement about the character of what he is referring to. The words are tools used to accomplish or to express ends or feelings arrived at on grounds other than ethical considerations. Ethical terms, in effect, become irrelevant to ethics, the science of ends.

To begin, we must distinguish between obligations which are particular acts (to do, to love, and so on) and obligation as the quality which makes an act obligatory--the "oughtness". The former are terms of an obligation, the particular acts that are good, but it is the latter we are trying to define. What is it about certain acts that makes them obligations for people? What does "I ought..." mean? What is this nearly universally recognized quality which invests all ethical terms with significance?


Part I.

1. The defining process.

Webster's dictionary offers the following in its attempt to define 'obligation': 'The act of obligating or binding oneself...agreement, promise, contract, oath...any duty imposed by law, promise, or contract, by the relations of society...the binding power of a promise, contract, oath...'

The dictionary uses volitional terms chiefly, and yet terms that are for the most part meaningless, unless the word to be defined is presupposed in the definition. We are given not a definition but a tautology. This would seem to imply the invalidity of the concept of obligation, since, as defined, it has no point of contact with the rest of reality. If the definition of a word necessarily involves the word itself or another word which is dependent for its own meaning on the word to be defined, the definition is tautologous. Sounds are equated with each other but no significance emerges. The definition runs in its own logical circle (or illogical as the case may be) and never gets out, nor makes a smooth connection between itself as a member of a logical system and the existential world.

For example, the statement "Obligation means that toward which one ought to direct his purposes" begs the question in the use of the word "ought" which is synonymous with "is obliged." The definition as a whole, but never any individual word in it, should equal "obligation". Any one part of the definition should be necessary to the concept, but no part less than the whole can be sufficient. One can define a chair without referring to the concept of chair. "Chairness" is equivalent to the other concepts of shape, dimension, purpose, and so on as a unity, but to none of them separately.

Some problem of this logical sort could be expected if obligation were to refer to a unique category, such as the free agent, which itself could not be subsumed under any other category. If there is to be a point of contact between a logical system of definitions and the rest of the real world of particular facts, and if the concept of obligation is to be validly defined, the contact will very likely come via this free agent.

A valid definition of "obligation" we might expect to be in terms of freedom, will, purpose, and other volitional terms, since volition is necessary to obligation for its own significance.

If 'obligation' cannot be a tautology, neither can we accept it as self-evident, for 'self-evidence' simply prejudges the question and leaves no room for discussion. The definition must be rooted in the existential world. 

Thus it appears that the truth of moral judgements and the validity of obligations must depend directly on that of the correlative metaphysic, on the nature of existential reality, and, more particularly, on the place of free agents in this metaphysic. 

The problem of defining is not, in fact, that of finding the proper meaning for a word, as if sounds had intrinsic meaning, but rather that of finding the proper name or word for a concept. Since definitions are conventions arbitrarily set up for communication, a good many entanglements can be avoided if we keep to the notion of naming concepts, that is, attaching the word to the given concept, instead of finding and attaching the concept to the given word. The concept in real life precedes the name, however vague or misconceived the concept may be. 

This brings into sharper focus the problem of defining 'oughtness'. We have a word or name and are reversing the natural process by looking for its meaning. The best we can do under these circumstances is (1) try to get a general idea of what people are driving at when they do use the word, (2) try to dig out on this basis the presuppositions of the possible meaning, and (3) thereby deduce what people must mean if their words are to have cognitive significance. A public opinion poll will not be enough, nor will the disagreement of all the world constitute a refutation.  For, though words may be defined arbitrarily, or rather concepts may be named arbitrarily, nevertheless, the concepts, for which the words are only shorthand, must be valid to begin with.

The remainder of the paper will take it for granted that the ethical question "What ought I to do?" means generally, "Are there any objective constraints, any objective implications, for the direction of my life?" This formulation of the ethical question corresponds to (1) in the preceding paragraph.  'Oughtness' will be some objective means of singling out one direction or goal from among the field of possibilities. It shall be assumed also that the possibilities are real, i.e., that the subject has a free will.

By 'objective' I mean 'independent of the will or desires of the subject' (i.e.,, the individual on whom the obligation falls). And by 'subjective' I mean 'dependent upon the will of that subject.' 

2. Presuppositions of the ethical question.

Two presuppositions can be made and used as criteria for the definition of 'obligation': (1) a logically consistent answer and (2) a will free to reject any possible reason that can be offered for an obligation. Or, stated another way, the nature of an obligation involves two essentials: (1) logically undeniable truth value and (2) deniability with respect to loyalty. The first, of course, is essential, for if the obligation is logically absurd, or simply does not follow from the facts, it is no obligation. It is nothing.

The second essential is merely a statement that man is free to choose. The individual must be able to reject in some manner the obligation without destroying its objective truth. If he can refute its claim to truth by saying "I don't care," the obligation does not hold, but sinks to the status of subjective preference. If, on the other hand, he must follow it, the word 'obligation' is merely a duplication of the words 'necessity' and 'compulsion'. To look for an obligation that cannot be denied in any sense is to look for a self-contradiction, for the whole point of this discussion presupposes freedom. The 'oughtness' must have a logical and factual but not a causal basis; it must be rational but not compulsive. That is to say, there must be an obligation for caring, an obligation for guiding purposes in a particular direction.

The two meanings of rejecting or denying a true and valid obligation become clearer if we see that the person who does so is put in the position of saying "Granted, I have an obligation" (he cannot deny its truth value without somewhere contradicting himself or distorting the facts) "yet I choose to ignore it" (but he can deny his loyalty to the truth by ignoring it).

The crux is that the second kind of denial does not undo the first, and, therefore, the fact of not caring about the obligation in no way reduces its validity on him. 'Obligation' does not mean either 'that which I want' (subjectivism) or 'that which I cannot deny' (compulsion). The obligation must be objective, coming from without the individual, yet leaving him free. Just as 'I will...' cannot be meaningfully analyzed into components of chance and determinism, neither can 'I ought...' be formulated by blending components of preference and necessity.

Two more criteria must be added to the first two: The standard, in addition to

(1) being undeniably true and
(2) allowing freedom,

 must also be

(3) objective and at the same time
(4) relevant to man's use of his freedom.

The problem arises: how to make an objective standard relevant. If it is external to man's being, then its relation to man's aims must be discovered ("Why should I care?"). If "oughtness" is not external to man's will, then ethics resolves into an empirical examination of what man in fact wants, which provides no guide at all, or into an attempt to tell man what his inner self "really wants." The latter attempt simply negates man's freedom. The trick is to show that the source of authority is objective and yet relevant by establishing an obligation to care.

3. The relevant source of authority.

Subjectively there is one way to direct actions, that is, by forming purposes, by choosing one's own ends. I can have a purpose by choosing some goal in life. But I can also give purpose to things other than myself. Inanimate objects have purposes only if bestowed upon them by a purposive agent. A knife has the purpose of cutting because that is what people produce knives for. Thus, in the first case, purposive agents have purposes in a subjective way (subjective with respect to the agent), and , in the second case, objects which cannot create their own goals have purposes in an objective way (objective with respect to the object, i.e., independently of the object's desire).

Consider the third case of a being that is both produced and who can also make his own purposes, a free agent created by another free agent who is God. This third specimen would have purposes in both of the previous senses: subjectively and objectively -- i.e., both dependently and independently of the person's desire. 

Nothing he could do or say would undo the fact of the creator's purposes for him.  The purpose is independent of his will.  That purpose is what he is made for and constitutes the only basis for deciding what human nature is, so far as teleology is concerned. The ethical quest for an objective standard is translated from "Are there any objective constraints for the direction of my life?" to "Why do I exist? What purpose can my existence have?" The individual might choose his own life-purposes and do with his existence whatever he wants, but this would neither be an objective answer nor an answer to the question, "Why do I exist?" There can be only one possible source for the answer to this problem, and that lies in the Being responsible for the individual's existence. Thus, if God is in fact man's creator, then he can give the reason why he created man. If man has no creator, then the ethical question receives no answer or at best a negative answer. There is no purpose without a purposer, and no teleology without a creator. 

Yet any free and purposive agent can give purposes to an individual. Suppose a rival god, a Satan, or a Hitler also has designs on man. We are presented with the problem of distinguishing which of these sets of purposes would constitute the ethical standard.

Again, however, only the creator, because of the creator-creature relationship, can bestow man's purpose for existence. All other purposes are purely arbitrary; they in no sense "belong to" or "are of" the individual except as the purposer forces them on him. The purposes only of a creator have not merely a reason for being directed at the individual (which can be the case for anyone's purposes), but, more important, a reason for being accepted by the individual. The reason is the existential fact of the relationship between the creator and the creature. Herein lies the relevant source of authority: To say that God is "above" all other persons is to say that God is one who can objectively, because of his relationship, give purposes to all other free agents.  The Creator alone can define our reason for existence.

4. Definition of 'oughtness'.

The meaning for the word 'oughtness' has yet to be applied which substantiates its connection with purposiveness. If we abstract the free agent from the relationship of creator to creature, what were formerly the objective purposes of this free agent as creature now become of no consequence. The god no longer bestows purposes on the free agent, for he could logically do so only as creator. Our now ex-creator might yet have designs on the lesser person, "lesser" now meaning "weaker", and call out a spiritual goon squad to enforce his will, but then obligation can refer only to a subjective response of self-interest against threat.

The god can give no rational justification for his designs and so is purely arbitrary in his enforcement. This first indicates that "obligation" or "oughtness" is nothing by itself as abstracted from the creator-creature relationship, and, secondly, suggests that obligation is the relationship itself.

A definition for 'oughtness' in view of the preceding discussion would be:

that relationship between free agents in which the first of the agents (creator) defines the purposes of existence for the second (creature), this relationship being viewed from the perspective of the second agent.

The same relationship viewed from the creator's side would be authority. The creator is the relevant source of authority. 

This being so, then, the words 'obligation,' 'relationship', and their synonyms must be meaningfully interchangeable when put in their respective grammatical forms. 'I (ought to), (am obliged to), (should) do this,' must mean the same as, 'I am ('relationed'), (put in a relation), (created) to do this.' And 'I have terms of an obligation to perform' becomes translated 'I have terms of a relationship as creature to perform.' The question 'Why ought I do this?' becomes 'Why am I relationed to do this?' or 'Why am I created to do this?' And the answer remains the same: 'God relationed me for this', 'God wills it,' or 'God created me for that.' He created both the relationship and the purposes. There is no third higher category, no mystical, indefinable substance or essence which pervades certain ideas or actions and makes them good or bad. Content other than relationship and purpose in the concept 'obligation' is emotive rather than cognitive. The emotive content, to be at all justified, must be justified by the intellectual framework. 

Obligation with its terms is somewhat analogous to the Greek form and matter. God's purposes are the actual obligations created by combining the form relationship of higher-lower, creator-creature, to the material content of possibilities. It might be added that this relationship per se is quite concrete; for purposes of ethics, however, it is only formal. That is, by itself it decides no obligations, but rather forms that general class by which a creator can label any specific possibility merely by making the possibility a purpose of the relationship.

Without God's purposes, obligation is a null class as far as the parties are concerned, an empty and insignificant relationship. Only after God has declared his purposes is obligation a meaningful reality to be acted on.

5. Summary.

The translation of the ethical statement, 'I ought to...', into 'I am created to...' fits perfectly both into rules of syntax and into the four logical presuppositions. Reviewing, these we find that the definition stands in each case.

(1) It is valid as a definition, i.e., it is neither circular nor self-contradictory.

(2) It does not exclude freedom of will.

(3) The object of the definition stands on no subjective agreement of the individual under the obligation, nor on fear. The binding authority rests on something already completed yet still in effect, the act of creation, not on something that has yet to happen in the future, such as reward or punishment.

(4)  And yet the object of the definition is by its very nature tied up with the goals of that individual.

"Oughtness" is neither self-subsistent nor transcendent, nor is it an essence distilled from an "is". It is said that an "ought" cannot be derived from an "is". And, indeed, the "ought" here is not derived from a fact or an "is"; it is the fact (if only hypothetically for the purposes of this paper). The "is" which can never be the basis of the "ought" is that of the person on whom the obligation falls, or the "is" of cultural habit. No examination of a thing can specify what it is for from among the many things that it might be for, whether this examination be a laboratory analysis, introspection, or a poll.

The first criterion, stated originally as "undeniable truth value," includes more than the logical problem of validity stated in (1) of the above paragraph. It entails also the practical problem of discovering whether such a creator exists, and if so, what his will is. However, nothing said here has been meant to supply an answer to these practical issues. I have tried to give an answer to the logical question: If there is such a thing as obligation, what does it entail?

No attempt has been made to show that the linguistic symbol 'ought' has to be defined as here defined, or even that it "ought" to be, only to show that when this symbol is used in the way we normally call "moral" or "ethical", it must refer to a specific concept or lose its significance.

Although reasons have been given to substantiate the proposed definition, nothing has yet been provided to show why some other definition might not also fit the criteria. A purpose is a goal or end, one of a plurality of possibilities which a free agent has chosen for himself or for another being.

A possibility becomes a purpose upon being chosen from a field of possibilities. Thus there are no purposes without purposers, i.e., without choosers-of-possibilities. And thus, if it is correct that only a creator's purposes apply objectively to a free agent, there can be no valid teleological system of ethics without a creator.

Moreover, since ethics is to be an objective and systematic guide for free agents, whose essential characteristic is that they are able to choose their own ends, ethics must provide a guide for their ends. Non-teleological ethics therefore exclude themselves, since by definition they have nothing to do with ends or purposes, and consequently nothing to do with directing free wills. Definitions which are not founded on a purposive creator will fail either to be relevant if they are not purposive or to be authoritative if  they do not stem from a creator.

Anyone, therefore, who rejects the presuppositions given here, and chooses to work from another set, is in fact defining another problem, for a problem must be identified in terms of the linguistic symbol which may or may not be the same as that of another problem. The only way to disprove the above given definition is to proceed with the same criteria and show that an internal contradiction is involved -- in effect, that two mutually exclusive definitions can be derived from the same set of propositions.

Part II.
Christian Ethics & Christian Love

In the development of the relations between God as creator and creatures as free agents, apparent contradictions between ethical commands and Christian agape resolve into a harmonious and even necessary relation. Judeo-Christian ideals stand firmly rooted in reason rather than in arbitrary intuition, mysticism, or subjective pragmatism as a basis for resolving contradictions without sacrificing any of the "way of life" quality to a sterile logic. Indeed, this "way of life" ethic is just the one which can meet the test of a rigid logical inspection.

6. Agape presupposed by obligation

A distinction was drawn earlier between the terms of an obligation, i.e., particular obligations, and the quality, the oughtness that makes this obligation an obligation. A person wills God's will as a formal or general category because of the abstract relationship, whereas he wills God's will to carry out particular terms of an obligation because of the relationship and because of the fact that God wills it. Or to rephrase: He wills God's will generally because God created him, whereas he wills God's will to do something in particular because God created him for that purpose. God's act of creation and God's expressed will are the two essentials for a particular duty.

A person might perform the terms of duty for any one of a number of motives, but he can perform them as an obligation for only one reason. Some Boy Scouts help ladies across streets in hope of a tip; others perhaps because it is right to help this particular old lady who can't see very well. One person pays debts to avoid jail or scandal; another because he owes the money. The latter in each case does the act for its rightness, the former for subjective reasons. The latter does it because he ought to, which ultimately means he does it because God wants him to. he is the only person who can meet an obligation, as obligation, which means not, as Kant says, with no end in mind, but because of the relationship, because God wills it.

Nevertheless, Kant was not entirely wrong, for there is no more ulterior concrete end behind helping the person or paying the debt. Behind the concrete there is only the general end of doing God's will.

Doing something "to fulfill the existent relationship," doing it "to accomplish the purposes of the other party (God) in the relationship," and doing it "for the sake of the other party," all mean the same thing. If, then, a person chooses to accept the relationship, which is presented to him in the form of the particular obligation, he has directed his will in a way which implies concern for the lawgiver, the criteria set up in sections 1 and 2 having excluded any question of necessity or of subjective preference. Though this is principally a matter of adjusting definitions, the adjustment is not artificial, for this would seem to be the only workable arrangement.

Thus, if agape is caring for the other party of a relationship, or acting for his sake, then meeting an obligation as obligation always presupposes agape in both the vertical God-man relationship and in horizontal relations. To fulfill an obligation ultimately out of fear or subjective preference is a self-contradiction; however good or bad they might be otherwise, these things, being subjective, have nothing to do with oughtness. Fulfilling the terms does not always imply fulfilling the obligation as such. One might fulfill the terms of subjective and arbitrary reasons, but not the oughtness.  Actually the question of preference is often irrelevantly raised. All choices, by definition, are made by preference. 

Our language has absorbed a great many philosophical errors into its structure. Strictly speaking, when we say "He did it out of his own preference" (as opposed to, "He did it from a sense of duty"), the significance of our statement is, "He did it arbitrarily" (as opposed to, "He did it with a logical reason").

 he latter pair of statements, not the former, state the situation clearly. "Personal preference" is not a reason for choosing; it is the choosing. "He does God's will on the basis of personal preference" is equivalent to "He does God's will because he chooses to." The statement is nothing more than a statement of free will, a psychological statement. And though it may be perfectly true, it does not give a more ulterior reason behind "because God says so" for doing anything. But it would not be doing it with an objective justification, but this still entails personal preference, which can be eliminated from ethics no more than can the self.

The problem is one of asking the right question: From whence the oughtness? not From whence the source of motivation? Motivation must always be subjective, but oughtness can never be. Thus we have another way of stating the old dilemma of finding an objective reason for directing free wills and personal preferences.

7. Necessity of an obligation to love as the primary obligation.

If, then, Christian love is presupposed in every fulfilled obligation, it would appear necessary to establish a blanket obligation for agape, at least in the vertical relation, in order to bestow oughtness on these individual duties. The pragmatist's attempt to show that one has some duty or other illustrates this chronic difficulty. Whenever he tries to do so, one can ask, "Why ought I do this?" The series of "whys" and "because's" eventually reduces to "Why should I care?" for which the pragmatist has no "because".

The pragmatist mistakenly presupposes a non-existent unity of purpose, or tries, as many have tried, to tell us "what we really want" with a consequent implicit loss of our freedom. Yet, even if this unity were to exist, he could not establish an obligation, since, unless the unity of purpose itself has the proper oughtness about it, it could be analyzed into some combination of necessity and subjectivism. It is the oughtness, not the existence, of a unity of purpose that establishes an ethic. 

The pragmatic must appeal in the last analysis to Aristotle's concept of hypothetical necessity, usually disguised as "hypothetical imperative", still presupposing unity of purpose.  Aristotle's example in the Physica (ii. 9) says that if a saw is to cut, then it must be hard. And likewise here, if this unity of purpose is to be fulfilled, then this act must necessarily be done, but there is no imperative about it. Since absolute necessity cannot be applied to purposes, which are the concern of free agents, and since the pragmatist cannot establish an objective ground for unifying purposes, his case for an ethic collapses.

The Biblical framework, placing as it does a purposive creator at the apex, in no way impairs free will, yet it provides in its inner structure an objectively given standard, and finally places at the peak of its laws, customs, and commandments the necessary law of love: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment" (Matt. 22:37-38 [R.S.V.]).

Only in this primary imperative to care is the fulfillment of the terms of the obligation necessarily identical with the fulfilling the obligation as obligation (cf. sec. 6), because only the fulfillment of this term (by definition) is always good, goodness being conformity to the will of God or acting in accordance with oughtness. If I orient my will to be in accord with God's, then all my reasons, ends, and purposes will at the same time be God's.  In particular my reason for choosing God's ends will be that he wills it, which , ipso facto, is fulfilling all particular terms as obligations.

This is just the reason that one cannot get behind the duty to care in the way he can always get behind pragmatic ethics, by asking a more prior question, in effect, by pushing the oughtness one more notch behind the terms, as one can push a loose metal plate away from a piece of paper by poking his finger through the paper. If the paper becomes the metal, there is no poking holes in it.

Or to shift metaphors, the very means by which a skeptic can sidestep the charging obligation which the pragmatist puts in the field by asking "Why should I care?" sidesteps him into the waiting arms of the theistic imperative, "Thou shalt care (love)..." The fact that he should (that God wants him to) care does not depend on whether the person cares or not.

Recalling the nature of oughtness, we remember that it is an established fact, an existent relationship, not a possibility which we choose to bring into being.  The particular acts are the possibilities to be realized.  As long as anyone gives ends or possibilities as justification for his choices, another can come back with the question, "Why should I want this end?" But, when one finally justifies his actions with an existent fact, "because God wills it," or "because you were created for this, this is your reason for being," then the questions "Why should I want this?" or "Why should I choose to care, to love God?" or "Why should I choose this relationship?" no longer have relevance.

Aside from the linguistic difficulty such questions pose when the translation ("God wants..."  cf. sec. 4) is substituted for the word "should", one does not choose the relationship as an abstract entity, he does not choose the relationship of creaturehood per se at all; nor does he love or care in the abstract.  He is able to care for or choose as an end (which complies with or ignores the relationship) only possibilities that are particular and concrete, not abstract or formal things, and only goals that are still possibilities, not accomplished facts. The believer chooses possibilities because of an accomplished fact and not as a means to a further end. 

The obligation to love is necessary, for only it can relieve him of the responsibility, first, for defending his choice any further than the given fact, because the chain of reasoning has its logical terminus there, and, second, for submitting to the charge of having made a choice arbitrarily, because the ultimate possibility that he chooses as an end has a concrete justification.

The skeptic cannot get around the obligation, nor can the believer be forced into arbitrary subjectivism in justifying his choice, both for the same reason. The skeptic stumbles over the same objective fact on which the believer supports himself.

8. Secondary obligations -- definition of agape.

We can now distinguish between a primary commandment -- i.e., the one necessarily coming from the creator to orient one's life in accordance with the creator's will -- and secondary commandments-- i.e., all other laws or commands, such as from one human to another, such as military or civil law.  Judeo-Christian law provides that man should care also for each one of his fellow men in each of his lesser relations: "And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets" (Matt. 22:39-40 [R.S.V.]). All secondary commandments or obligations are invalid without the primary; they presuppose the obligation for a unity of purpose ("Why should I care?") which the primary commandment provides.  If agape is merely caring for someone, and God's purpose is left at that, then agape is vacuous. To love God means to care for him or to will to fulfill his purposes, but, like obligation,  there is no significance to this unless he declares his purposes more precisely. Love then takes on a specific direction which can be acted on -- love becomes identical to fulfilling one's obligation toward God as expressed in the primary commandment.

We are told also to love our neighbor, meaning to care for, to will, his welfare. But love for our neighbor, as for God, is only a formal term lacking any content, for we do not know what anyone's "welfare" is in an objective sense until we know God's purposes for him. If "his welfare" means "that which is best for him", the value term "best" forces us back into ethics and God's purposes.

A workable definition of "agape", in line with the foregoing, is "willingness to fulfill a creator's purposes on the part of his  creature". Toward God, this means fulfilling his purposes for us; toward our neighbor, this means helping him to fulfill God's purposes for him. In this way the two Biblical commandments are met. "Agape" on God's part also derives from his purposes as "willingness on the part of a creator to remain steadfast and loyal in his purposes for his creatures." Agape, in other words, is a very special kind of loyalty.

9. Love as a command.

All particular obligations issue from God's purposes and can be reduced to imperatives -- "Thou shalt..." A command or imperative is not true or false because it is not a descriptive statement. It is valid or invalid depending on the lawgiver's authority or relationship, and it is real or unreal depending on whether such a command has in fact been given. To command is to make actual a potential obligation. Every possibility is a   potential obligation, but only those which the creator commands are actual.

Therefore, if love is "being concerned" or "directing purposes," then, contrary to the idea behind the supposed dualism of the Old and New Testaments that love cannot be commanded, it is precisely love which must be commanded before all else. For God to command his creatures to love is for God to say that love is his purpose for his creatures and that this is what they should do, what they are created to do. "Thou shalt..." is an expression of purpose to be validated by the proper relationship. God's authority is his relationship with us as creator, and all human authority derives from alignment with his will. Human commands are nearly always mixed, and perhaps justifiably so, with threat, but to that extent lose their status as commands. The word "command" has run for so long on its acquired (but logically irrelevant) emotive power, its hint of reprisal unless obeyed, that love has understandably but wrongly been dissociated from it. Love cannot be mechanically evoked or coerced, but it can and must be commanded if ethics is to be valid.

10. Love as a flexible end with particular implications.

Logically, the law of love precedes all other laws and might therefore seem to be the means to other laws. In the Biblical scheme, however, though the law of love is the most prior, yet it is also the continuing goal. All the other ramifications, the Ten Commandments, political legislation, all the laws of the church, and so on, are meant to turn people back toward the law of love. No particular law is of any importance by itself as a directive to righteousness, and it has secondary importance only as it helps fill out the original law. We find Christian ethics in accord with a living, dynamic society, able to conceive specific purposes, to work, to fulfill, and to conceive again.

Only when the law of love is subverted as a standard of goodness by some particular law, some concrete end, when it is no longer the only term whose fulfillment is always good, when the loyalty of agape is accorded to an idol instead of to God, does freedom become cramped in a sterile legalism. The law of love is the continuing end of living as well as the logical means to putting an intellectual foundation under the particular law. God gives the Israelites the Decalogue in an effort to point them toward his original, over-all purpose of loyalty. Love is not a goal that is completed, but is rather more like a vehicle or lubricant on which the world of creatures flows, without which friction sets in, gears fail to mesh, and chaos ensues. If we have not love, we are nothing.

A meaningful ethic can be expected to have a definite relation to human nature as it might be discovered empirically. If the goal of the Christian is the Kingdom of God, then the Biblical law for the psychologist becomes, "Thou shalt not wrap thyself in neurosis in order to escape from other people," not as a means to condemn but rather to guide. Empirical psychology is given a direction in which to function, for by itself empirical psychology cannot demonstrate that there is anything morally wrong with mental illness or that the sick ought to be cured. Also, in this way, empirical facts about human nature give the formal law specific content. This is the Judeo-Christian law, and, because of humanity's failure, more or less en masse, the Judeo-Christian bad news. The Gospel, the Good News, is (1) that God will strengthen his creatures so they need not throw up defense mechanisms against hate and (2) that those who have ignored or violated God's purpose may reclaim their places.  Both priest and psychologist have their separate callings in the Communion of Saints.

Freudians have on occasion objected to any theory of ethics on the grounds that ethics creates more subconscious guilt problems than it solves, implying that all guilt is subjective and that inhibition of "natural" drives leads to neurosis. Both the hell-fire and prudishness of Puritanism and the seemingly more rational categorical imperative of the Kantians come under the condemnation of the psychologist. This objection to ethics is often as arbitrary as the corresponding defense of ethics. Nevertheless, one of the peculiarities of ethical terms is that they have never been given a concrete definition, with the psychological consequence that these words have become the empty room into which the seven devils worse than the first have found lodging -- "the misty mid-region of Weir" where guilt, hostility, and fear lurk behind the seldom suspected front of "indefinability." But, once a publicly verifiable meaning is given and it is shown that ethics depends on the facts of the situation, subjectivism can be dispersed and psychology is seen to be an ally of ethics. Ethics no longer depends on an unknown, for it is only when the facts are known that an obligation exists.

11. Summary: nature of the ultimate choice.

The most prior ethical choice, fulfilling an obligation as obligation, is an alternative between fulfilling or ignoring the creator-creature relationship. "Most prior" here does not refer to any point in time, but rather to the most logically prior reason or justification which is at least implicit in every instance of an ethical choice. It is this choice or "master sentiment" which directs one to his ultimate destination. Original sin takes on meaning as logically the most prior as well (perhaps) as temporally the most prior. It appears as the negative decision to the ultimate choice manifested every day in particular acts. Original sin is not mistaken knowledge about one's abilities or reason for being. Sin as well as goodness presupposes some degree of correct knowledge. The Original Sin becomes the willingness to make one's self rather than his creator the arbiter of his destiny, i.e., pride, the essence of disloyalty and surrogate end for agape.

When we reach these final choices, we are left utterly on our own; we find ourselves in a meaningless, purposeless, and, at best, indifferent world unless there is a purposive creator who works to harmonize existence. Man is left with no reason for making his choices unless he can find an ethic, a teleology.

Either alternative, fulfilling or ignoring, is one of preference-- an act of will. But, since the choice is an ultimate one, it is not a case of either one being more self-consistent than the other. Both are actually possible. There is nothing within the nature of either choice itself which recommends one over the other; there is no "intrinsic" value in either choice. It would not be unreasonable to commit murder, though it gained me only a few pennies, rather than spare a life. The life of a Socrates is not intrinsically better than the life of a pig. The two choices are simply two possibilities, two ways of life, either one equally attainable, either one equally reasonable, i.e., consistent within itself.  The deciding factor between the two possibilities is simply that God makes one of them the end for his creation. The making of only the one choice is completely reasonable, therefore, not only being internally consistent and actually possible, but also being in accordance with the end of human nature, with the free agent's teleological assignment. As possibilities, both alternatives are equally reasonable; as a choice only the morally correct alternative is reasonable. A rationally justifiable choice therefore cannot be morally wrong choice.  The positive ethical choice has an objective justification; the negative choice, though not irrational, is subjective and arbitrary.

The decision, then, to comply with God's will offers the one final "reason why" that no other choice can offer -- "because God created us for that." There the chain of ethical inquiry ends. "Why did God choose that possibility?" The question is irrelevant as far as ethics is concerned. "So what if God chose that possibility?" We must look to the original ethical question and to the criteria to find out "so what". If the fact is that God did choose it, then the fact is that we ought to pursue it. Value is purpose. Objective value is a creator's purpose.

The nature of ultimate alternatives as ends which have no more ultimate justification and which cannot be used as means to something else bears out the fact that no one will ever be converted to worshipping the Judeo-Christian God by argument.  He may be convinced of the truth of facts, but argument creates only intellectual acceptance: "I believe that God exists," not "I believe in God." Argument can bring a person to the point of the two ultimate alternatives and show that one is what he ought to choose, but it cannot motivate him to choose. The only thing that can win the confidence of one free agent is another free agent who is steadfast in his purposes and whose purposes are such as not to conflict with the freedom of either agent. Love can be commanded, but it cannot be forced. Trust or faith cannot be commanded; it must be worked for an won by being trustworthy and faithful. It is the fruit of love. Just a small segment of missionary work, of winning actual ethical decisions, for any ethic lies in formal apologetics. As just indicated, the word "faith" finds its rightful place, not in apologetics meaning "blind belief", but rather in conjunction with love and meaning "trust in a person." He who loves, who is steadfast in his purposes, can win another's faith, confidence, and trust. The chief business lies in living, in disloyalty or loyalty, in destroying faith or winning faith. Ethical choices are won by love, not by argument.

This paper perhaps leaves gaps in arguments and questions unanswered, some not for lack of answers but for lack of space. I have tried to run the gauntlet of the relevant issues in defining "oughtness" and "love," avoiding the magic carpet of mysticism, wondering at times by what means of locomotion deontology travels, not spurning the clay feet of logical analysis, and making the fullest of the wings of theism. All this I hope will stand in defense of the thesis that thinkers of the Biblical heritage need turn to no foreign stream of thought for their intellectual framework and that, indeed, to do so is often fatal to that heritage.

(Above material available in Shopping Mall as booklet.)


Socrates, Plato, & Aristotle

An email correspondent wondered why I do not think Aristotle meets my two criteria for a morality -- the two criteria being (1) that the moral obligation must leave the person free to say "no", i.e., allow for freewill; and, (2) the moral obligation must be objective with respect to the person, i.e., remain binding whether or not the person so obligated agreed or obeyed.   The following was my response. 

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Aristotle does meet the freewill criterion, so far as I understand him. It is the other criterion which raises the problem, i.e., whether his system does in fact establish an obligation on anyone.

I am taking some of my thoughts from A. H. Armstrong's "An Intro to Ancient Philosophy".   His description of Aristotle seems to me to be accurate, but seems to me also to fail in the contested point, namely that Aristotle's framework does not supply an objective obligation. So, I am hoping that this shortcut to refreshing my mind on Aristotle works.

Armstrong notes that for Aristotle, in ethics we reason to, not from, first principles. In politics, that would mean we reason from the bottom up by constructing case law after case law until we provide ourselves with a hopefully coherent system of law by which we can govern fractious people. Plato, on the other hand, wanted to reason down from the top, i.e., from the Forms or Ideas, to the particular applications. Aristotle parted company with Plato on that point because he thought (rightly) that Plato's Ideas do not work. So Aristotle is committed to working from the bottom up, not from the top down.

A. was correct, I think, in rejecting P's Ideas, but wrong in wanting to work from the bottom up. But he has nothing with which to replace the Ideas. So he was stuck. His empirical attitude was admirable, but fatally lacking for want of the Biblical worldview. In the end, A's notion of God (Unmoved Mover) was far closer to P's notion of the divine than to the Biblical God.  (A good illustration of how we do not know how to get back to What we lost at the Fall without the intervention of Whom we lost.)

Armstrong notes that Socrates, et al, were fond of craftsmen because they were teleological, they worked toward an end which they had preconceived and understood. "The carpenter understood his function as carpenter: but no man, it seemed to Socrates, understood his function as man." It was this which concerned Socrates so gravely that he set off on his quest for knowledge of the good life, a quest continued by P and then A.

A. assumes that there is only one final end of man, but never proves what that end is. A's notion of "eudaimonia" or "wellbeing" purports to be a notion of objective goodness, but A is never able to establish that that (never clearly defined) state is indeed obligatory upon anyone. He can show only that it would be a "good idea" to pursue, if, indeed, we could establish what it really was.

A in the end relied upon the reason and moral perception of the educated Greek citizen to define wellbeing. He was much more "democratic" than P.  Some would say "bourgeoisie".  A thinks our highest capacities are in our intellect, which tends to point him back toward Plato's Ideas.

The Greek worldview has no concept of a spiritual life which is a personal relationship with a living God. So the idea of the good cannot emanate from that relationship. And it is therefore always lame.

Further, the Greek worldview had no concept of creator ex-nihilo, so it could not have what S, P, and A seemed all to be straining for, a reason for existence -- which, as a matter of logic, only a giver of existence can provide.

My point about S, P, and A, all three, is that none of them can show that their "good" is in fact obligatory on anyone. They might "feel" an obligation, but they cannot explain it. Because, in A's case, he is limited to going from the ground up, building case law into a system, he has the impossible task of showing why, or in what sense, I "ought" to do what anyone thinks is good for me. He takes refuge in the well educated Greek citizen as the best example.

Clearly, what anyone thinks is "good" will be dependent upon what is consistent with his ultimate goal, his teleology. But ultimate goals are all over the map. And almost all of them conflict with each other. What Hitler thought was good for the Jews differs from what God thinks is good for them. The list could go on and on. Pointing merely to a "good" does not help. The multiplicity of chosen goods is the problem, not the solution. We must be able to distinguish one good from among the whole range of possibilities that is special, i.e., our obligation.

So there is a difference between being "good" and the quality of obligation which can be attached so that people are in fact obligated by a particular  good.

I make the distinction by using 'good' versus 'right'. "Good" means that which promotes life, which is partially objective, but it has a strong subjective element to it, depending on who is making the decision. The "right", on the other hand, is that which is obligatory. It imposes an "ought" whether or not I like it. We cannot derive an "ought" from a "good". They are two separate things.

When Jesus picked out the two great commandments from 600+ laws in the OT, He changed the whole shape of human existence. He said that the highest good is to love God and to love our neighbor just like we love ourselves. He updated that, very importantly, when He told His disciples to love each other "as He had loved them". He defined the quality of love by His own example. The whole rest of the law is simply God's way of filling in the spaces, telling us what loving each other really looks like in practice.

Jesus gave a commandment. Being the Creative Word, the Son of the Father, His words are more than just someone's "good idea". They express our reason for existence. What I am arguing is that "reason for existence" is the meaning of obligation. "My creator wants me to...." is the exact meaning of "I ought to....."

All of this, I think, is the answer for which S, P, and A were looking. They all valued the image of the craftsman. But they did not know of THE Craftsman. (Plato's demiurge does not qualify because the demiurge created out of the stuff that was lying around, not ex-nihilo -- a typical pagan idea.) So they could not understand the meaning and force of reason for existence. That was, and still is, unique to the Biblical worldview.

By specifying the two great commandments, Jesus did what no other person has ever done, united the good with the right. He made the good obligatory. We are commanded to love God and neighbor, not because God is bigger and tougher, and will beat up on us if we do not, but rather to conform to our reason for existence, which is union with the source of all life. God commands the good, and defines it, not with an essay, but with His own life.

Plato wanted to have top-down Ideas but they do not work and cannot establish an obligation, only abstract possibilities. Aristotle wanted to build from the bottom up, like most pagans, but that also does not lead to an obligation, only to a lot of conflicting wish lists. Only God can supply the needed top-down principles which by their very nature are obligatory, and which single out from among all the possibilities, the particular notion of "good" which is why we are here at all. God, and only God, can tell Socrates what our function is as man.

Understanding this (assuming it passes inspection) provides an extraordinarily powerful apologetic tool. Many secularists have already admitted that the secular world provides no objective values. But they cannot get into politics (or any other serious relationship) without at least pretending to stand on the moral high ground. We must be aggressive in stripping them of their pretenses and forcing them to be consistent with their own a-moral worldview.

Proving that only God can produce a morality does not prove He exists, but it surely does spark legitimate interest in the debate. 


[The following is a continuation of the above discussion.  One participant had asked of another:

"If you understand what Aristotle says about 'eudaimonia', (say, in sections 1-8 of chapter 7 of  Book 1 of the Nicomachean Ethics: 1097a15-1097b21), and you think that eudaimonia is not the ultimate good, please explain why you think  that."

My response was as follows.   E. Fox]

 I see problems with A's focus on "happiness" as the ultimate goal or end of man. Granted that eudaimonia is not exactly happiness in our modern sense, but it is precisely the difference between the two that I think Aristotle fails to make clear. He wants to give a substantial, objective, and obligatory character to eudaimonia -- which is the point at issue.

If you take happiness as a concrete end, a specific state of affairs (other than a psychological state), then it is not true that all men seek such a state. There are people I know who are terribly self-destructive. You might reply that is what makes them happy. And yes, in a sense that is true, but only if happiness is emptied of all specific content to mean in a general and formal way "getting what I want".  But the "what I want" part is open to including all kinds of possibly conflicting elements.  In other words, as A himself points out, there are all kinds of things that make people happy.  And many of them conflict with each other.  The search for power might conflict with a search for peace or justice or love.

So, it is true that all men want happiness, but only in an unspecified general sense, not in any specific sense.   And with self-destructive people, they are almost always terribly conflicted within. What, in such a case, is happiness for them? They are not "happy" with the conflict.

The problem is that if happiness is a specific item, then it is not true that all persons aim for it. If it is a general (to be filled as you wish) category, then it is morally contentless. It has no moral content until you pick the specific thing that pleases you. But that specific thing could (in any objective sense) be either moral or immoral.

So the sense in which happiness is the highest goal is not very helpful. It does not tell us anything about obligation or "oughtness".  At best, it is only about what we in fact do want, and how we go about getting it.  But it is difficult to see how obligation has anything to do with the matter, i.e., why I "should" pursue happiness.

I would point out that there are two different ways in which we get purposes.  I can pursue my own purposes, I choose to follow path x, y, or z.  That is a subjective purpose, in the sense that it is dependent on me, the subject.  Then there are purposes which are assigned to me.  My boss may assign me a task.  That is an objective purpose since it is there whether or not I choose it or like it.  If I do not conform, I will eventually get fired, go to hell, etc.

My boss has a claim on my obedience because of our employment agreement.  I owe him my obedience in exchange for his paying me.  But either of us can break that agreement.  I can quit, he can fire me. 

The case with God, who created me, is different.  My boss's claim on me is very conditional.  He does not own me, he owns, at best and only conditionally, some of my behavior, i.e., labor.  But God owns me, lock, stock, and barrel.  God owns my existence, not because of an agreement between us, but because He is the creator of it.  Like our patent and copyright laws -- he who creates something has ownership over it, at least for a time.  God has an eternal patent and copyright on His creation because He creates ex-nihilo.  He owes nothing to anyone else. 

So God owns me and my behavior.  He can define my reason for existence.  And that, I would say, is the only basis for talking about an objective ethics or morality.

Aristotle's efforts cannot get beyond the problems with happiness.  A non-Biblical notion of morality always fails either to provide an objective obligation, i.e., an objective claim on my free will. Or it compromises my freewill by basing morality on "what we all do". I have no choice about wanting to be happy. I will choose to be happy by definition. So either, if happiness is a specific item and I have to choose it, I have lost my freewill. Or, if it is a formal and general category to be filled by my choice, the sense of obligation fails, and the specific item might turn out itself to be either good or evil.

I have a deep respect for Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. I believe they were a part of God's "fullness of time", beginning the development of abstract, rational thinking. But at the same time, I think they were lacking the essential element of the Biblical worldview, in which alone, can rational thinking really come into its own.

My take on Greek philosophy (in a quick nutshell) is that they began the process of rational thinking, which has gone through many permutations, trials, and tribulations, which Christians tried to pick up on, with sometimes great success, but often confusing the tools of rationality with the Greek worldview, importing a lot of Platonism, etc, and creating a serious case of spiritual indigestion.

For all the headaches the logical positivists, et al, have caused Christians, I think they did a noble job of freeing our intellectual tools of a lot of that wrong metaphysical baggage. They did the work we Christians should have done long ago, and might have, had the Christian community not held reason and science in such great suspicion.  Reformation Christians largely rejected the Christian humanism of Erasmus, to our great hurt, I think.

But, we are getting to the point where Christians can begin to use the tools first being developed by that noble triad, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, because we have (at long last) come to the place where we are able to take the tools out of the Platonic, Hellenic, pagan, and more recently, secular, worldviews, and apply them where they belong, in the Biblical worldview. We can wed reason to revelation.  We can then weld reason back to back with revelation, the two edges of the Sword of the Spirit -- an invincible weapon.

Seems to me that is exactly what many of you folks are doing in the evolution/creation skirmishes.   Gloria Dei! 

  [Copyright 2006, F. Earle Fox]

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