The Nature and Scope of Christian Ethics


Christian triptych[This is taken from Archibald B. D. Alexander’s Christianity and Ethics, originally published in 1914; revised and edited by William Mackis. Copyright as such.]

Philosophy has been defined as ‘thinking things together.’  Every man, says Hegel, is a philosopher, and in so far as it is the natural tendency of the human mind to connect and unify the manifold phenomena of life, the paradox of the German thinker is not without a measure of truth.  But while this is only the occasional pastime of the ordinary individual, it is the conscious and habitual aim of the philosopher.  In daily life people are wont to make assumptions which they do not verify, and employ figures of speech which of necessity are partial and inadequate.  It is the business of philosophy to investigate the pre-suppositions of common life and to translate into realities the pictures of ordinary language.  It was the method of Socrates to challenge the current modes of speaking and to ask his fellow-men what they meant when they used such words as ‘goodness,’ ‘virtue,’ ‘justice.’  Every time you employ any of these terms, he said, you virtually imply a whole theory of life.  If you would have an intelligent understanding of yourself and the world of which you form a part, you must cease to live by custom and speak by rote.  You must seek to bring the manifold phenomena of the universe and the various experiences of life into some kind of unity and see them as coordinated parts of a whole.

When men thus begin to reflect on the origin and connection of things, three questions at once suggest themselves—what, how, and why?  What is the world?  How do I know it? and why am I here?  We might briefly classify the three great departments of human thought as attempts to answer these three inquiries.  What exists is the problem of Metaphysics.  What am I and how do I know? is the question of Psychology.  What is my purpose, what am I to do? is the subject of Ethics.  These questions are closely related, and the answer given to one largely determines the solution of the others.  The truths gained by philosophical thought are not confined to the kingdom of abstract speculation but apply in the last resort to life.  The impulse to know is only a phase of the more general impulse to be and to act.  Beneath all man’s activities, as their source and spring, there is ever some dim perception of an end to be attained.  ‘The ultimate end,’ says Paulsen, ‘impelling men to meditate upon the nature of the universe, will always be the desire to reach some conclusion concerning the meaning of the source and goal of their lives.’  The origin and aim of all philosophy is consequently to be sought in Ethics.

  1. If we ask more particularly what Ethics is, definition affords us some light.  It is to Aristotle that we are indebted for the earliest use of this term, and it was he who gave to the subject its title and systematic form.  The name ta ethika is derived from ethos, character, which again is closely connected with ethos, signifying custom.  Ethics, therefore, according to Aristotle is the science of character, character being understood to mean according to its etymology, customs or habits of conduct.  But while the modern usage of the term ‘character’ suggests greater inwardness than would seem to be implied in the ancient definition, it must be remembered that under the title of Ethics Aristotle had in view, not only a description of the outward habits of man, but also that which gives to custom its value, viz., the sources of action, the motives, and especially the ends which guide a man in the conduct of life.  But since men live before they reflect, Ethics and Morality are not synonymous.  So long as there is a congruity between the customs of a people and the practical requirements of life, ethical questions do not occur.  It is only when difficulties arise as to matters of right, for which the existing usages of society offer no solution, that reflection upon morality awakens.  No longer content with blindly accepting the formulae of the past, men are prompted to ask, whence do these customs come, and what is their authority?  In the conflict of duties, which a wider outlook inevitably creates, the inquirer seeks to estimate their relative values, and to bring his conception of life into harmony with the higher demands and larger ideals which have been disclosed to him.  This has been the invariable course of ethical inquiry.  At different stages of history—in the age of the Sophists of Ancient Greece, when men were no longer satisfied with the old forms of life and truth: at the dawn of the Christian era, when a new ideal was revealed in Christ: during the period of the Reformation, when men threw off the bondage of the past and made a stand for the rights of the individual conscience: and in more recent times, when in the field of political life the antithesis between individual and social instincts had awakened larger and more enlightened views of civic and social responsibility—the study of Ethics, as a science of moral life, has come to the front.


Ethics may, therefore, be defined as the science of the end of life—the science which inquires into its meaning and purpose.  But inasmuch as the end or purpose of life involves the idea of some good which is in harmony with the highest conceivable well-being of man—some good which belongs to the true fulfillment of life—Ethics may also be defined as the science of the highest good or summum bonum.

Finally, Ethics may be considered not only as the science of the highest good or ultimate end of life, but also as the study of all that conditions that end, the dispositions, desires and motives of the individual, all the facts and forces which bear upon the will and shape human life in its various social relationships.

  1. Arising out of this general definition three features may be mentioned as descriptive of its distinctive character among the sciences.


  1. Ethics is concerned with the ideal of life.  By an ideal we mean a better state of being than has been actually realized.  We are confessedly not as we should be, and there floats before the minds of men a vision of some higher condition of life and society than that which exists.  Life divorced from an ideal is ethically valueless.  Some conception of the supreme good is the imperative demand and moral necessity of man’s being.  Hence the chief business of Ethics is to answer the question: What is the supreme good?  For what should a man live?  What, in short, is the ideal of life?  In this respect Ethics as a science is distinguished from the physical sciences.  They explain facts and trace sequences, but they do not form ideals or endeavor to move the will in the direction of them.
  2. Ethics again is concerned with a norm of life, and in this sense it is frequently styled a normative science.  That is to say, it is a science which prescribes rules or maxims according to which life is to be regulated.  This is sometimes expressed by saying that Ethics treats of what ought to be.  The ideal must not be one which simply floats in the air.  It must be an ideal which is possible, and, therefore, as such, obligatory.  It is useless to feel the worth of a certain idea, or even to speak of the desirability of it, if we do not feel also that it ought to be realized.  Moral judgments imply an ‘ought,’ and that ‘ought’ implies a norm or standard, in the light of which, as a criterion, all obligation must be tested, and according to which all conduct must be regulated.
  3. Ethics, once more, is concerned with the will.  It is based specifically on the fact that man is not only an intellectual being (capable of knowing) and a sensitive being (possessed of feeling) but also a volitional being; that is, a being endowed with self-determining activity.  It implies that man is responsible for his intentions, dispositions and actions.  The idea of a supreme ideal at which he is to aim and a norm or standard of conduct according to which he ought to regulate his life, would have no meaning if we did not presuppose the power of self-determination.  Whatever is not willed has no moral value.  Where there is no freedom of choice, we cannot speak of an action as either good or evil.[1]  When we praise or blame a man’s conduct we do so under the assumption that his action is voluntary.  In all moral action purpose is implied.  This is the meaning of the well-known dictum of Kant, ‘There is nothing in the world . . . that can be called good without qualification except a good will.  A good will is good, not because of what it performs or effects, not by its aptness for the attainment of some proposed end, but simply by virtue of the volition.’[2]  It is the inner aim, the good will which alone gives moral worth to any endeavor.  It is not what I do but the reason why I do it which is chiefly of ethical value.  The essence of virtue resides in the will, not in the achievement; in the intention or motive, not in the result.


III. The propriety of styling Ethics a science has sometimes been questioned.  Science, it is said, has to do with certain necessary and uniform facts of experience; its object is simply to trace effects from causes and to formulate laws according to which sequences inevitably result from certain ascertained causes or observed facts.  But is not character, with which Ethics confessedly deals, just that concerning which no definite conclusions can be predicted?  Is not conduct, dependent as it is on the human will, just the element in man which cannot be explained as the resultant of calculable forces?  If the will is free, and is the chief factor in the molding of life, then you cannot forecast what line conduct will take or predict what shape character will assume.  The whole conception of Ethics as a science must, it is contended, fall to the ground, if we admit a variable and incalculable element in conduct.


Some writers, on this account, are disposed to regard Ethics as an art rather than a science, and indeed, like every normative science, it may be regarded as lying midway between them.  A science may be said to teach us to know and an art to do: but as has been well remarked, ‘a normative science teaches to know how to do.’[3]  Ethics may indeed be regarded both as a science and an art.  In so far as it examines and explains certain phenomena of character it is a science: but in so far as it attempts to regulate human conduct by instruction and advice it is an art.[4]  Yet when all is said, in so far as Ethics has to do with the volitional side of man,–with decisions and acts of will,–there must be something indeterminate and problematic in it which precludes it from being designated an exact science.  A certain variableness belongs to character, and conduct cannot be pronounced good or bad without reference to the acting subject.  Actions cannot be wholly explained by law, and a large portion of human life (and that the highest and noblest) eludes analysis.  A human being is not simply a part of the world.  He is able to break in upon the sequence of events and set in motion new forces whose effects neither he himself nor his fellows can estimate.  It is the unique quality of rational beings that in great things and in small things they act from ideas.  The magic power of thought cannot be exaggerated.  Great conceptions have great consequences, and they rule the world.  A new spiritual idea shoots forth its rays and enlightens to larger issues generations of men.  There is a mystery in every forth-putting of will-power, and every expression of personality.  Character cannot be computed.  The art of goodness, of living nobly, if so unconscious a thing may be called an art, is one certainly which defies complete scientific treatment.  It is with facts like these that Ethics has to do; and while we may lay down broad general principles which must underlie the teaching of every true prophet and the conduct of every good man, there will always be an element with which science cannot cope.

  1. It will not be necessary, after what has been said, to trace at any length the relations between Ethics and the special mental sciences, such as Logic, Aesthetics, and Politics.


  1. Logic is the science of the formal laws of thought, and is concerned not with the truth of phenomena, but merely with the laws of correct reasoning about them.  Ethics establishes the laws according to which we ought to act.  Logic legislates for the reason, and discerns the laws which the intellect must obey if it would think correctly.  Both sciences determine what is valid; but while Logic is confined to the realm of what is valid in reasoning, Ethics is occupied with what is valid in action.  There is, indeed, a logic of life; and in so far as all true conduct must have a rational element in it and be guided by certain intelligible forms, Ethics may be described as a kind of logic of character.
  2. The connection between Ethics and Aesthetics is closer.

Aesthetics is the science of the laws of beauty, while Ethics is the science of the laws of the good.  But in so far as Aesthetics deals with the emotions rather than the reason it comes into contact with Ethics in the psychological field.  In its narrower sense Aesthetics deals with beauty merely in an impersonal way; and its immediate object is not what is morally beautiful, but rather that which is beautiful in itself irrespective of moral considerations.  Ethics, on the other hand, is concerned with personal worth as expressed in perfection of will and action.  Conduct may be beautiful and character may afford Aesthetic satisfaction, but Ethics, in so far as it is concerned with judgments of virtue, is independent of all thought of the mere beauty or utility of conduct.  Aesthetic consideration may indeed aid practical morality, but it is not identical with it.  It is conceivable that what is right may not be immediately beautiful, and may indeed in its pursuit or realization involve action which contradicts our ideas of beauty.  But though both sciences have different aims they are occupied largely with the same emotions, and are connected by a common idealizing purpose.  In the deepest sense, what is good is beautiful and what is beautiful is good; and ultimately, in the moral and spiritual life, goodness and beauty coincide.  Indeed, so close is the connection between the two conceptions that the Greeks used the same word, to kalon, to express beauty of form and nobility of character.  And even in modern times the expression ‘a beautiful soul,’ indicates the intimate relation between inner excellence of life and outward attractiveness.  Both Aesthetics and Ethics have regard to that symmetry or proportion of life which fulfills our ideas at once of goodness and of beauty.  In this sense Schiller sought to remove the sharpness of Kant’s moral theory by claiming a place in the moral life for beauty.  Our actions are, indeed, good when we do our duty because we ought, but they are beautiful when we do it because we cannot do otherwise, because they have become our second nature.  The purpose of all culture, says Schiller, is to harmonize reason and sense, and thus to fulfill the idea of a perfect manhood.[5]

‘When I dared question: “It is beautiful,

But is it true?” Thy answer was, “In truth lives beauty.”’[6]


  1. Politics is still more closely related to Ethics, and indeed Ethics may be said to comprehend Politics.  Both deal with human action and institution, and cover largely the same field.  For man is not merely an individual, but is a part of a social organism.  We cannot consider the virtues of the individual life without also considering the society to which he is related, and the interaction of the whole and its part.  Politics is usually defined as the science of government, which of course, involves all the institutions and laws affecting men’s relations to each other.  But while Politics is strictly concerned only with the outward condition of the state’s well-being and the external order of the community, Ethics seeks the internal good or virtue of mankind, and is occupied with an ideal society in which each individual shall be able to realize the true aim and meaning of life.  But after all, as Aristotle said, Politics is really a branch of Ethics, and both are inseparable from, and complementary of each other.  On the one hand, Ethics cannot ignore the material conditions of human welfare nor minimize the economic forces which shape society and make possible the moral aims of man.  On the other hand, Economics must recognize the service of ethical study, and keep in view the moral purposes of life, otherwise it is apt to limit its consideration to merely selfish and material ends.


  1. While Ethics is thus closely connected with the sciences just named, there are two departments of knowledge, pre-supposed indeed in all mental studies, which in a very intimate way affect the science of Ethics.  These are Metaphysics on the one hand and Psychology on the other.


  1. Metaphysics is pre-supposed by all the sciences; and indeed, all our views of life, even our simplest experiences, involve metaphysical assumptions.  It has been well said that the attempt to construct an ethical theory without a metaphysical basis issues not in a moral science without assumptions, but in an Ethics which becomes confused in philosophical doubts.  Leslie Stephen proposes to ignore Metaphysics, and remarks that he is content ‘to build upon the solid earth.’  But, as has been pertinently asked, ‘How does he know that the earth is solid on which he builds?’  This is a question of Metaphysics.[7]  The claim is frequently made by a certain class of writers, that we withdraw ourselves from all metaphysical sophistries, and betake ourselves to the guidance of commonsense.  But what is this commonsense of which the ordinary man vaunts himself?  It is in reality a number of vague assumptions borrowed unconsciously from old exploded theories—assertions, opinions, beliefs, accumulated, no one knows how, and accepted as settled judgments.[8]  We do not escape philosophy by refusing to think.  Some kind of theory of life is implied in such words, ‘soul,’ ‘duty,’ ‘freedom,’ ‘power,’ ‘God,’ which the unreflecting mind is daily using.  It is useless to say we can dispense with philosophy, for that is simply to content ourselves with bad philosophy.  ‘To ignore the progress and development in the history of Philosophy,’ says T. H. Green,[9] ‘is not to return to the simplicity of a pre-philosophic age, but to condemn ourselves to grope in the maze of cultivated opinion, itself the confused result of these past systems of thought which we will not trouble ourselves to think out.’  The aim of all philosophy, as Plato said, is just to correct the assumptions of the ordinary mind, and to grasp in their unity and cohesion the ultimate principles which the mind feels must be at the root of all reality.  We have an ethical interest in determining whether there be any moral reality beneath the appearances of the world.  Ethical questions, therefore, run back into Metaphysics.  If we take Metaphysics in its widest sense as involving the idea of some ultimate end, to the realization of which the whole process of the world as known to us is somehow a means, we may easily see that metaphysical inquiry, though distinct from ethical, is its necessary pre-supposition.  The Being or Purpose of God, the great first cause, the world as fashioned, ordered and interpenetrated by Him, and man as conditioned by and dependent upon the Deity—are postulates of the moral life and must be accepted as a basis of all ethical study.  The distinction between Ethics and Philosophy did not arise at once.  In early Greek speculation, almost to the time of Aristotle, Metaphysics and Morals were not separated.  And even in later times, Spinoza and to some extent Green, though they professedly treat of Ethics, hardly dissociate metaphysical from ethical considerations.  Nor is that to be wondered at when men are dealing with the first principles of all being and life.  Our view of God and of the world, our fundamental Welt-Anschauung cannot but determine our view of man and his moral life.  In every philosophical system from Plato to Hegel, in which the universe is regarded as having a rational meaning and ultimate end, the good of human beings is conceived as identical with, or at least as included in the universal good.
  2. But if a sound metaphysical basis be a necessary requisite for the adequate consideration of Ethics, Psychology as the science of the human soul is so vitally connected with Ethics, that the two studies may almost be treated as branches of one subject.  An Ethic which takes no account of psychological assumptions would be impossible.  Consciously or unconsciously every treatment of moral subjects is permeated by the view of the soul or personality of man which the writer has adopted, and his meaning of conduct will be largely determined by the theory of human freedom and responsibility with which he starts.  Questions as to character and duty invariably lead to inquiries as to certain states of the agent’s mind, as to the functions and possibilities of his natural capacities and powers.  We cannot pronounce an action morally good or bad until we have determined the extent and limits of his faculties and have investigated the questions of disposition and purpose, of intention and motive, which lie at the root of all conduct, and without which actions are neither moral nor immoral.  It is surely a mistake to say, as some do, that as logic deals with the correctness of reasoning, so Ethics deals only with the correctness of conduct, and is not directly concerned with the processes by which we come to act correctly.[10]  On the contrary, merely correct action may be ethically worthless, and conduct obtains its moral value from the motives or intentions which actuate and determine it.  Ethics cannot, therefore, ignore the psychological processes of feeling, desiring and willing of the acting subject.  It is indeed true that in ordinary life men are frequently judged to be good or bad, according to the outward effect of their actions, and material results are often regarded as the sole measure of good.  But while it may be a point of difficulty in theoretic morality to determine the comparative worth and mutual relation of good affections and good actions, all surely will allow that a certain quality of disposition or motive in the agent is required to constitute an action morally good, and that it is not enough to measure virtue by its utility or its beneficial effect alone.  Hence all moralists are agreed that the main object of their investigation must belong to the psychical side of human life—whether they hold that man’s ultimate end is to be found in the sphere of pleasure or maintain that his well-being lies in the realization of virtue for its own sake.  The problems as to the origin and adequacy of conscience, as to the meaning and validity of voluntary action; the questions concerning motives and desires, as to the historical evolution of moral customs, and man’s relation at each stage of his history to the social, political and religious institutions amid which he lives—are subjects which, though falling within the scope of Ethics, have their roots in the science of the soul.  The very existence of a science of Ethics depends upon the answers which Psychology gives to such questions.  If, for example, it be decided that there is in man no such faculty or organ as conscience, and that what men so designate is but a natural manifestation gradually evolved in and through the physical and social development of man: or if we deny the self-determining power of human beings and assume that what we call the freedom of the will is a delusion (or at least, in the last resort, a negligible element) and that man is but one of the many phenomena or facts of a physical universe—then we may continue, indeed, as some evolutionary and naturalistic thinkers do, to speak of a science of Ethics, but such a science will not be a study of the moral life as we understand it and have defined it.


Ethics, therefore, while dependent upon the philosophical sciences, has its own distinct content and scope.  The end of life, that for which a man should live, with all its implications, forms the subject of moral inquiry.  It is concerned not merely with what a man is or actually does, but more specifically with what he should be and should do.  Hence, as we have seen, the word ‘ought’ is the most distinctive term of Ethics involving a consideration of values and a relation of the actual and the ideal.  The ‘ought’ of life constitutes at once the purpose, law, and reason of conduct.  It proposes the three great questions involved in all ethical inquiry—whither? how? and why? and determines the three great words which are constantly recurring in every ethical system—end, norm, motive.  Moral good is the moral end considered as realized.  The moral norm or rule impelling the will to the realization of this end is called Duty.  The moral motive considered as an acquired power of the acting will is called Virtue.[11]



[1] Cf. Mackenzie, Manual of Ethics, p. 32; also Wuttke, _Christian Ethics_ (Eng. Trans.), vol. i. p. 14.

[2] Metaph. of Morals, sect. i.

[3] Mackenzie, Manual of Ethics, p. 8.  See also Muirhead, Elements of Ethics.

[4] Hyslop, Elements of Ethics, p. 1.

[5] Schiller, Ueber Anmuth und Wuerde.  Cf. also Ruskin, Modern Painters, vol. ii.; Seeley, Natural Religion, and Inge, Faith and its Psychology, p. 203 ff.  See also Bosanquet Hist. of Aesthetic.  We are indebted to Romanticism, and especially to Novalis in Germany and Cousin in France for the thought that the good and the beautiful meet and amalgamate in God.

[6] Browning.

[7] Cf. Newman Smyth, Christian Ethics, p. 8.

[8] See Author’s History of Philosophy, p. 585.

[9] Introduction to Hume’s Works.

[10] Mackenzie seems to imply this view.  Ethics, p. 25.

[11] Cf. Haering, Ethics of the Christian Life, p. 9.