In all areas of life humans have tried to be independent from God and to rule this world according to their own limited understandings, but yet have struggled with the innate understandings that God has given them and so the realm of ethics is riddled with finite minds trying to explain their notions of right and wrong while yet refusing to bow their knee to God. The Deontologists have tried to provide norms (actions which must be taken regardless of the consequences) that all people must obey. The Teleologists have tried to give us end goals that we must strive to achieve regardless of the means through which we achieve them. The Postmodernists, or Existentialists, have given up on there being any one set way for humans to govern their ethical actions and propose that ethics come from within the inner being of each individual person and so all people have individual ethics that are all equally right or that the attitudes of the culture we live in are the ethical system we should obey. These perspectives either fall short of being logical or they fall short of being functionally usable. Only a Christian ethical system can be both logical and functionally possible to live out in the world.
The most famous of the Deontological ethicists was Immanuel Kant who proposed the Categorical Imperative as the norm to govern all areas of ethics for human life. Before we can flush out the details of this system and expose the benefits and flaws of what Kant is proposing we must first establish the basics of Deontology. The norms that Deontology expects people to obey are rules that must be followed through no matter the end result. A simple example would be the rule `Do not lie` that forbids lying even if it means saving a human life. So, if you were hiding Jews in your basement and Nazis came and asked if you were hiding Jews in your basement you would have to either refuse to answer and be killed or admit that you are hiding Jews and so have them killed and possibly yourself along with them. Some Deontological systems include exception clauses within the norms or structure the norms in a hierarchical structure that allows for lying in the event that it will save someone`s life. Kant`s variation of Deontology is governed by the norm of the Categorical Imperative, which is summarized as “do only the action that you would wish to see made a universal rule to govern the lives of everyone around you all the time.“ In short, if you don`t want everyone in the world to always lie then you should not lie.
Kant`s system has benefits to it and takes important truths in to consideration but it falls short of being a logical system to follow. Deontology as a whole is wisely taking in to account that there must be universal norms that govern all of life if we are to have a workable system to be able to make decisions on the spot when a situation arises. However, the attempt to build clauses in to the rules is obviously lacking in the fact that each rule would have to have such an enormous amount of clauses, to fit all possible situations, that the rule would no longer be memorisable much less usable in the heat of the moment. Also, structuring rules in a hierarchical system seems rather arbitrary as to which rules should supersede which other rules. Not to mention, which norm should be used to decide which rules should be of superior hierarchical value to others? And which norm should govern that norm? Essentially, the system becomes quite relative in terms of how a governing norm is determined and therefore the system is essentially a form of existentialism that demands others to obey the personal values of the one making the system. Kant’s Categorical Imperative is firstly coming from the arbitrary thoughts of a finite human being and secondarily is logically unworkable. Because of sin in the world there are many varying opinions as to what people would want everyone else to do. Masochists may very well will that all people to be tortured and desire the same for themselves. A paedophile may will that all people should be allowed to have sex starting at age 5. One person may will that all people should have to wear sandals and another may will that all people should be forced to stop wearing sandals. Kant’s Categorical Imperative is unworkable due to these situations that are unavoidable. Furthermore the Categorical Imperative is useless for determining vital questions such as which school should be attended or whether or not to ask a certain individual on a date. In summary, secular Deontology, while it is being founded upon nothing greater than human reasoning, breaks down in to being arbitrary and contradictory.
The Teleological ethical tradition rightly identifies that the end result is of great importance and should affect the decisions that people make. There is something that irks the minds of many when the only moral action in the Nazi situation is one that results in evil triumphing over innocent individuals through refusing to lie. Teleology is often summarized as “the end justifies the means.” In the Nazi situation the Teleologist would advise the Nazi party that there are certainly no Jews in the basement and that they would not lie about such a thing. So the Jews would be saved, the Nazis would march off on their hunt, and the day would end without bloodshed in that home. One of the problems of this system is that it is hard to ground what the determined end goal should be of all actions. Utilitarians argued that the end goal should be happiness and that any action that results in the preservation or the increase of happiness is a moral action. They also proposed a mathematical system through which individuals calculate the action that results in the most happiness and therefore are able to determine with certainty that they are doing what is moral.
There are a variety of problems with the Teleological tradition that need to be addressed. Firstly, the end for which all actions should be taken to achieve is based on the opinion of the ethicist proposing the system and thus is once again just existentialism that demands others to obey the arbitrary whims of an individual. Secondly, one would have to know all outcomes of all possible options, including short and long term (say, 1000 years from now) consequences, in order to be able to calculate which action is best – the demand is that one should have God-like abilities when making moral decisions. Thirdly, whether the goal should be happiness evenly spread out amongst all people or greater overall happiness regardless of whether it is distributed evenly is once again arbitrarily decided. What if the Nazis would have had more pleasure in killing the Jews than the Jews would have had in surviving? Would it then have been ethical to hand the Jews over to the Nazis to be killed? Lastly, even if the mathematical calculations did not require omniscience they would be unliveable because most moral decisions happen in the heat of the moment and calculators are not always available.
Postmodernism, or Existentialism, refuses to ground ethics in any one goal or norm and claim that everything is relative because we are all merely functioning based on our opinions and that no one opinion should be dominant over another. Some Postmodernists try to use descriptive ethics, where what a society does as a norm is the ethical norm for that society, to show how each individual society should live. This means that no society can enforce a system of ethics upon another as each are equal because everything is relative. In short, nothing is better than anything else and everything is acceptable.
The Postmodernists are right in showing that humans, using only their own faculties, are unable to do more than propose their own opinions. They are also right that ethics involve the inner being of a person. This means that there is no ethical norm by which actions can be judged and the legitimacy of the existence of a legal system is brought in to question. Another major weakness in their argument is that they are saying that the truth is that there is no truth – a self-contradictory system! Postmodernism, or Existentialism, is unworkable, highly illogical and makes even the idea of a society trying to create a judicial system rather laughable.
The only workable system is the Biblical one given to us by God. These systems of ethics all hold vital truths that must be taken in to account but they are only functional when they are grounded in the axioms of an omniscient perspective. The Laws that God provides are the norms that the Deontologists were looking for. The end goal of bringing glory to God is what the Teleologists were looking for. And the Existentialists were correct in identifying that true morality comes from within (motives) and not merely conforming to specific rules or achieving specific goals – it is impossible to please God without faith (Hebrews 11:6). Only with the God of the Bible can these three secular ethical systems be brought in to unity and provide both a logical and a workable system by which individuals can determine the actions they need to take in order to live moral lives.
*** Closing note ***
I have noticed a lot of people looking at this specific article and for those of you who are interested in a more detailed and better argued explanation of these things, especially the closing point that ethics are only logical and livable with God in the picture, I encourage you to read John Frame’s The Doctrine of the Christian Life. Frame does a great job of reviewing various systems, in detail, and exposing their logical flaws. He also proposes an excellent rendition of a triperspectival ethical system, although I disagree with one aspect of his approach. Whether you are writing a paper and need brief but detailed logical analysis of the many systems that have been proposed or you are simply looking to understand how to live in this world, I strongly suggest you read his book.