Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Moral Life in Three Dimensions

Today in my Ethics course at Metro State College of Denver, I realized that the moral life includes and demands at least three discreet, but interrelated, elements:

1. Moral evaluation: attempting to determine moral states of affairs in the world.
2. Moral affect: orienting oneself to feel the proper emotions given a successful execution of (1)
3. Moral agency: acting in the world according to knowledge (1) and proper feeling (2).

I have never put it together quite like that before. What do you think?


Christian Thought Society said...

That's very helpful. I couldn't help but notice how that is perfectly in sync with John Frame's persepctives as laid out in his Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, and in his recent work on Christian ethics, Doctrine of the Christian life.

Here's what I mean:

1.Normative perspective- Moral evaluation: attempting to determine moral states of affairs in the world. (this is done by evaluating the state of affairs by the norms set forth in Scripture and in general revelation)

2. Existential Perspective-Moral affect: orienting oneself to feel the proper emotions given a successful execution of (1)

3. Situational Perspective- Moral agency: acting in the world according to knowledge (1) and proper feeling (2).

pennoyer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
pennoyer said...

Prof. Groothuis:

Something like this seems to have been going on in the lives of the Hebrew/OT prophets. (Of course, you have put it into the words of a contemporary theologian!)

The prophets were given extraordinary access to the plans and moral perspective of God. This experience affected their whole person - intellectual and emotional. Along with a specific message, you can say that - in a sense - they even felt the feelings of God in a certain situation. And on this basis they acted (usually in proclamation). A good example is Jeremiah 20:8-9.

8 Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the LORD has brought me insult and reproach all day long.

9 But if I say, "I will not mention him or speak any more in his name," his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.

When we get to the pages of the NT, we see Jesus as God incarnate (John 1:1,14) also evaluating, being emotionally affected, and acting - in this case to teach, rebuke, heal and ultimately save.

Kevin said...

What's lacking in your points, I'm afraid, is any kind of moral foundation. Your points while fairly good, leave you open to charges of moral relativism, since you put the norm for morals at whatever is going on around the observer.

Christian Thought Society noticed this too and points the observer to the Scriptures as the standard for moral norms.

Ben said...

Kevin, I disagree. First, these three elements could be aligned to any moral system, even if they make the most sense in a Christian framework. Therefore it is not necessarily incumbent on Dr. G to mention revelation here. Second, as Christian Thought Society noticed (not in critique, but in agreement), the moral foundation forms a key element in the moral evaluation stage (and the others, actually).

Dr. G, I find this very helpful. I had heard the moral life outlined as moral reasoning (akin to your moral evaluation) and moral courage (akin to agency) in the past. The inclusion of moral affect bridges the gap between those two quite nicely; in our human state, proper emotions go a long way in motivating us to act out that which we know to be the right thing, particularly when it would be easier not to do it.

Doug Groothuis said...

My triad is not meant as a complete moral theory! It is neutral with respect to what the foundation is. However, (1) actually suggests moral objectivity (not relativism), since it speaks to discerning moral qualities.

I have taught, preached,and written against relativism for over 30 years. said...


Actually, I never meant to imply that you left room for relativism in your triad. As someone who's read your work (in Truth Decay, articles, and on this blog), I already know that you're a moral absolutist.

I believed that to be pretty clear to anyone who recognizes the source of your post (i.e. the man writing it), so I thought that could go unspoken.

All that to say, again, I think your triad is a helpful way of expressing what happens in all moral 'motions' (or, at least, what should happen).

Kevin said...

My bad. I thought you were articulating a complete moral theory in three points. Cheerfully withdrawn. :)

Anonymous said...

Seems Edwardsian...I'll take it.

Nacisse said...

what about moral environment that precedes and interacts with both evaluation and affect?

i don't think the moral life starts with evaluation or affect so there must be a forth something...

Nacisse said...

moral reception, maybe...

Ben said...

Nacisse - useful ideas. I prefer the term 'moral environment' to 'moral reception,' though they would be similar. I think moral environment would be a label more conducive to generalizability - some non-theists might concede that we are born into a moral environment, but they could resist the concept that we receive morals. Also, I would call this moral environment (or reception) element zero and leave the other elements numbered 1-2-3, as they currently are, because the person is primarily (though perhaps not exclusively, depending on one's presuppositions) passive in relation to moral environment.