Posted by: dacalu | 5 March 2014

Core Ethical Principles: Justice (part III)

This post continues a series on ethics (which began here). My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics. In the last two posts, I began to explore the meaning of justice to see whether it could stand alongside love as a core ethical principle, or whether justice was simply an application of love.

Almighty God our heavenly Father, guide the nations of the world into the way of justice and truth, and establish among them that peace which is the fruit of righteousness, that they may become the kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.


Social Virtues

I want to look more closely at justice as a social virtue, something that applies when we are dealing with many people at the same time. In my last post, I introduced this idea that justice included some social virtues – principles that must bow to love in one-on-one interactions, but allowed us to think about our obligations to a large number of people all at once. Liberty is one of those social virtues. It is not worth granting or exercising for its own sake, but it is important in fostering communication. Thus it will be important for societies and governments to grant liberty to all, so that they might know and love one another.  In this post, I explore a few more social virtues.



I have never met two people with the same needs and I have never met two people with the same abilities. Thus, when thinking about any two relationships, I never have identical obligations or identical expectations. In matters of personal relationships it will be terribly important to recognize that no level of balancing will make two partners equals. The only thing we can ask is that they be invested in serving one another to the best of their ability. Honesty and curiosity force me to recognize that equality is practically useless on a one-on-one basis. Nor do I see anything in the Bible which commends equality. It appears to be an import of modern Western society into Christianity.

Having said that, I think equality can be a useful tool in assessing relationships of all kinds. When dealing with large groups, equality can be a measuring stick. How do I know if I’m paying full attention to all of my students in the classroom? I can ask whether one gets more attention than another. If one student gets more or less attention, more or less care, it tells me something interesting is going on and I can ask myself why.  How do I know whether a couple is truly invested in a marriage they are proposing? I can ask whether attention and energy are flowing one way or another. If the current is strong in one direction, it tells me something interesting and I can ask why. Equality is not a virtue, but inequality is always a warning sign. We must be aware of what it tells us.


Responsibility, Punishment and Reward

Responsibility is another popular American virtue that finds little Biblical support. Christians have been quite clear through the centuries that we are to blame both good fortune and bad fortune on God. We should never consider individuals fully blameworthy when something goes wrong. We can never give them all the credit when something goes right.

The rejection of full responsibility in Christianity serves several purposes. First, it emphasizes the power of God working in the world. Second, it reminds us the communal nature of life and the choices we make. Third, it leaves the door open for reconciliation at all times. “Judge not lest ye be judged.”

Few things are as distressing to me as the prevalence of accountability language and theology in modern Christianity. We are not called to blame one another for failures (Luke 6:42; John 8:1-11), nor are we ever called upon to reward one another (or take credit) for success (John 4:37-38, I Corinthians 3:3-9). Rather we are to accept all good things as gifts of God (Matthew 20:1-16). The idea of worthy and unworthy should be completely wiped away by the entirety of Matthew 5-7 (esp. 5:45) and Romans (esp. 3:21-30). This does not deny our call, indeed our obligation to respond to the free gift by giving freely (as Jesus continues in Matthew 7:13-27 and Paul in Romans 6).

Even if personal responsibility encourages you to take up service I cannot commend it. Enforced obedience is not faith and service for the sake of reciprocity is not love. It is only worship of balance (Luke 6:27-36).

Responsibility and reciprocity strike me as virtues only insofar as we use them as measures of equality, and equality is a virtue only insofar as it encourages love. We must not mistake American values for Christian values.

I think we will need one more post to deal with the question of whether we have an obligation to use these social virtues when teaching. What if our goal is to instill good ethics (love) and know that punishment causes people to have good behavior…do we then have an obligation to punish? Next time, the ends and means question.



  1. […] the last three posts (here, here, and here), I have explored the idea of justice as a core ethical principal. Largely, I have come to the […]

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