Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Consistency and Christian Ethics

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Consistency and Christian Ethics

Article excerpt


There are many moral and political issues the churches need to address. For instance, by some estimates present worldwide consumption rates could mean within thirty to fifty years global environmental collapse.1 How will we respond in order to avert a barren future? When-if at all-will we respond? Who is the relevant "we"? The challenges of our day seem much more perplexing and dire than matters of sexual preference. Still, it is good to reflect before rushing to judgment about any moral or political question. Richard Norris, in his "Notes," furthers Christian reflection on the question of homosexuality. My tactic in this essay will be to isolate paradigms of moral and religious consistency and their significance for that question.

Richard Norris opens his "Notes" with a story of inconsistency. A churchwoman condemns homosexuality as a sin, yet holds that homosexuals are nice people.2 This story poses the question of the form of consistency that can and ought to characterize a morally good life. A distinction must be quickly drawn. We can distinguish the consistency of judgment from the consistency of character or life, what I will call moral consistency. Of course these are deeply related, but they are not identical. Consistency of judgment requires that similar cases be judged similarly, so, in terms of Norris's story, the woman, to be consistent in judgment, must judge even' homosexual act a sin and every homosexual to be nice. (Given human livcs, it is hard to see how she could sustain that conclusion!) In other words, the demand for consistency of judgment is an attack on special pleading and hypocrisy, the attempt to exempt some case (usually ones own) or person (usually oneself or a loved one) from equal assessment. Consistency in this logical sense is what Immanuel Kant meant by the universalizability of maxims, which he believed defined the form of morality.

As noted, consistent judgments are related to but not identical with moral consistency, Kant's claim notwithstanding. Usually we expect the morally consistent person, that is, someone who embodies her or his convictions, or at least struggles to do so, to be consistent in her or his judgments. And we also often assume, rightly or wrongly, that the capacity to make consistent judgments rests somehow on the kind of person one is and the formation of one's character. Yet that is not always the case. A person might make a consistent judgment and yet be inconsistent in her or his actual life; an individual might be morally consistent as a person and find, through the dictates of wisdom, that she or he must bend the rules, as it were, in a specific judgment. In fact, wisdom is often depicted precisely as a capacity to see the moral and religious import of a unique situation, one that cannot be reduced to uniform judgment.

These distinctions let us grasp some important ideas about moral goodness and evil. With thanks to Dante, we can easily see why the "devil" can be absolutely consistent in judgment and incarnate pure evil, willing to make evil his good. Radical evil is logically consistent and embodies ideals consistently. The saint, conversely, is someone who embodies a consistent life as well, but who is (supposedly) infallible in judgment and act about what is truly good. A hypocrite, and that is most of us at least some of the time, has her or his life ajar; inconsistency in judgment and character are episodic, and so are instances of moral weakness or maybe even willful intent. And, finally, there are cases of moral error, even profound error, where one lives and judges consistently, but the values and norms judged by and embodied are in fact wrong and even evil. The Nazi doctor doing his duty consistently and faithfully in obedience to the Reich was nevertheless engaged in moral evil due to a profound lapse or coercion of judgment.

It would be possible to explore these forms of consistency, their interrelations and conflicts, the kinds of moral fault they bespeak, and how all of that bears on the question of homosexuality. …

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