Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Problem of Meta-ethics

Is it possible to infer values about what we ought to do from facts about how the world is? This question introduces a major problem within meta-ethics, which is how to philosophically justify ethical obligations. In my recent interview with Dr. Phillip Cary, we learn how these difficulties in meta-ethics arose out of the political, philosophical, and scientific context of the 17th and 18th centuries. Building on the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, Cary suggests that we have been left with the fragments of a once coherent tradition. The rise of Postmodernism offers a unique opportunity to return to this earlier tradition, and to recover a context in which discussion of virtues make sense.

Good Habits and Emotion

In his book Good News For Anxious Christians: 10 Practical Things You Don’t Have to Do, the Christian philosopher Phillip Cary gives some examples of how our choices and habits affect our emotions.

“There is indeed a sense in which we are responsible for our emotions, though in a different way from our choices, because of course we don’t control our feelings in the direct way we control our choices. You can’t just choose not to be angry the way you choose not to raise your hand. Yet we are responsible for the virtues and vices we develop, which are what tend to produce various kinds of feelings. If we make a habit of gossiping, for instance, we will feed our resentment of other people, which will bear fruit in anger and ill will and eventually cruelty. Whereas if we practice moral disciplines like speaking courteously with people we dislike or being kind to people who annoy us, the emotional shape of our hearts will also change for the better. It takes time, but we can train our hearts to leave their resentments behind, to starve the poisonous feelings in them, while practicing and nurturing the better feelings–even if that practice begins with outward actions like speaking a kind word when we don’t really feel like it.”

Elsewhere he explains how good habits are a composite of emotions, perceptions, choices and thoughts.

“A virtue is a habit that includes all of these things: actions (you take care of your child even when you don’t feel like it), emotions (you are often overtaken by feelings of tenderness and delight), perceptions (you understand your little children better than they understand themselves), choices (you choose to get out of bed and go to the children’s room even when you’d much rather not), and thoughts (you think differently, more thoroughly and carefully, about your children than about anyone else in the world).”

Further Reading

Moral Formation Over Time

From my recent interview with Bill Kabasenche:

“You can’t just decide to become a good person – it’s going to be a process. You’re going to have to engage in a moral formation over time. So Aristotle talks about the sorts of practices you need to engage in in order to embody or acquire virtues. To a certain extent, it’s not as if you perfectly acquire the virtue of courage or humility, but you engage in a process of slowly over time becoming more the sort of person you are aiming to be.”

This comment was made within the context of Bill explaining why a virtue-based approach to ethics (which situates moral duties within the larger context of human flourishing) is superior to more legalistic approaches which simply want to ask “What should I do?” Although we need to ask what-should-I-do types of questions, there will never be a context for adequately addressing such questions unless we’ve first identified what virtues are central to flourishing as human beings.

I’d like to add to Bill’s observations that the Scriptures constantly assume that virtue includes dispositions and not merely behaviors. Virtuous dispositions like peace, gratitude, contrition, joy, compassion, all include an emotional as well behavioral components. Virtuous disposition also includes such things as proper perception, right motivation, and an attraction to goodness and truth. All of this is the fruit of time and good habits, which is why a person cannot suddenly become good overnight, despite the best intentions.

Listen to the entire conversation here.

The Robin & Boom Show #14 – Interview with William Kabasenche on Virtue Ethics

Robin interviews Dr. William Kabasenche, professor of philosophy at Washington State University. They discussed virtue ethics, and how this differs from other common approaches to ethical decision-making. In this podcast you will learn why the ethical life should not start with questions like, “What should you do?”, but instead should seek to ask questions such as “what type of person do I want to become?” Dr. Kabasenche explained how this approach lends insight into questions of genetic screening and end of life issues.


View all Episodes of The Robin & Boom Show

Disclaimer: the ideas expressed on the Robin & Boom Show’s host website,, should not be taken as reflecting the views of Jason Van Boom. 

Beauty and Virtue

In my earlier article “Listen to Your Feelings“, I added the following section on the importance of beauty, after my friend Jason Van Boom alerted me to the important connection between beauty and moral reasoning (an insight Jason got from reading Hume of all people).

…it is through an emotional attraction to beauty that we are motivated to make moral judgments and to order our lives according to transcendent realities. Through the sense of beauty we are moved out of indifference to become emotionally invested in pursuing one outcome rather than another. For example, when Eve succumbed to the temptation to disobey God (Gen. 3:6), it was because the beauty of the tree and its effects (“pleasant to the eyes… desirable to make one wise”) captured her imagination with greater force than the beauty of remaining faithful to the will of God. That example might lead us to disparage the role of beauty in moral decision-making, and yet the same principle also works in the other direction as the Holy Spirit sanctifies our feelings and imaginations. Through a sense of Christ’s beauty, we become emotionally invested in following Him. For example, when we observe character traits in Bible characters and saints that are worthy of emulation, when we identify certain things as honorable or shameful, when our praise of God is rooted in heart-felt admiration, or when we order our actions based on a longing for outcomes that lie outside the scope of the present life but which are attractive to our imagination—all these things partly arise from a sense of “the beauty of holiness.” (Ps. 96:9) A rightly-ordered sense of beauty is thus central to the moral imagination of the believer.

How Jordan Peterson and Kevin Costner Taught me the Meaning of Courage

Few virtues are as misunderstood today as the virtue of courage.

Courage is the act of choosing to press ahead in full knowledge that there may be danger ahead. It is this awareness of danger that differentiates genuine courage from mere naivete. A naive person may appear courageous simply because he underestimates the threat he is facing, like the fool in Proverbs 14:16 who “rages and is self-confident.”

But just as courage should not be confused with naivete, it should also not be confused with mere bravado. A person who overestimates his natural strength may appear brave in the face of threats, like the fool in Proverbs 27:12 who refuses to take refuge in the face of danger. Having an unrealistic perception of one’s own natural strength absolves one from needing to practice courage since it minimizes the reality of the danger one is actually facing. Only a weak person can have courage in the face of danger, for courage can only exist when there is the possibility of harm, hurt or failure.

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Sex and the Ockhamist Revolution (Nominalism III)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

In two previous articles I gave the historical background to nominalism, a school of thought that came to receive widespread acceptance in Europe on the eve of the Protestant reformation. In opposition to the Aristotelian/Thomistic synthesis, which asserted that God’s will for the world corresponds to the nature of how reality actually is, William of Ockham and other medieval nominalists asserted that there is no independent rational order guiding God’s decisions.

Ockham was not even comfortable acknowledging that God’s own character formed the basis of His will-acts. Indeed, for God to be totally ultimate, Ockham taught, His decisions must be unconstrained by any criteria whatsoever. Ockham’s God was thus capricious, arbitrary and unpredictable.

This nominalist revolution had a profound effect on how late-medieval Europeans perceived the world. The universe ceased to be conceived in the way we find in Dante—a harmony of patterns, fitting together in a glorious dance-like ecosystem—since nominalism implied that there are no inherent patterns to the world apart from those which emerge accidentally through the aggregate of God’s pedestrian will-acts. God’s commands are not based on what is best for a thing according to its nature, because things no longer possessed natures after Ockham’s razor shaved off universals. Nominalists thus evacuated all teleology from the universe, leaving only the names and concepts imposed on it from outside. (Teleology refers to an account of reality in which final causes exist in nature, so that just as human actions are performed with a purpose or final end in view, so things within nature have a final cause which defines the good of each particular thing.)

If you haven’t read my earlier articles on this subject, it would be good to do so before proceeding.

Nominalism Today

There is a sense in which the influence of nominalism in contemporary culture is ubiquitous, since the nominalist revolution greatly contributed to the advent of secular modernity. At least that is what many scholars, including those associated with the ‘radical orthodoxy’ movement, have convincingly argued. But my purpose in this series of articles is less ambitious than trying to offer an account of the origins of modern secularism. I simply wish to zero-in on a few practical areas where the thinking of contemporary Christians has been tinctured by the poison of nominalism.

In doing so, I am giving attention to we might call ‘implicit theology’ or ‘the social imaginary’—the background understandings by which we make sense of our world and which are not always explicitly articulated. That is, I am trying consider how non-Biblical presuppositions form a lens through which we imagine our world on an instinctive and unconscious level without even realizing it. Another way to make the same point would be to say that I am describing is a type of operational or functional nominalism that may tincture the thinking of those who have never heard of William of Ockham.

This article will look at how this implicit or functional nominalism influences contemporary approaches to sex, while a follow-up article will look at the effect of nominalism on food.

Nominalism and Sexual Order

Nominalism tinctures the unconscious assumptions of many contemporary Christians when it comes to sex. It does so to the extent that we see the sexual prohibitions given in the Bible as mere laws extrinsic to the right ordering of our nature as human beings, or even in opposition to what might otherwise be fitting for our lives as fulfilled people.

Think back to 1998 when President Clinton finally admitted to having a sexual relationship with his intern Monica Lewinsky. A true Pharisee, Clinton defended himself by saying that he had researched the subject in the Bible and came to the conclusion that oral sex was not adultery. Despite the fact that Clinton’s antinomian interpretation of scripture was technically false, what interested me was that this approach treated the Bible’s sexual ethics as mere prohibitions that must be kept to the letter of the law rather than commands which provide insight into the very nature of what it means to love and to function as a right-ordered human beings. For if we understand God’s laws in the latter and broader sense, then it is no longer a simply a question of learning how to navigate around the do’s and don’ts of scripture, but also a question of embracing the ends or goals for which those commands were originally given.

It was easy enough for the evangelical community to see through Clinton’s reductionistic approach to sexual ethics. What is not so easy is to recognize some of the ways his nominalist mentality tinctures our own thinking. For the nominalist, there can never be any question of a right-ordered nature that stands antecedent to, and the reason for, God’s commands; we simply need to know what the rules are and to keep them.

When this nominalist mentality has captured our thinking on a pre-cognitive level, then when we are tempted by lust or pornography, our imagination may instinctively feel that the object of these temptations is fitting for us according to our nature even though it is not morally permissible, or that it represents a laudable telos towards which we would like to strive if only it wasn’t sinful. All this can happen in a flash, and if the person is a Christian he will turn away from the object of temptation because of God’s commandment. Yet this turning away is made more difficult by the fact that, on a gut-level, he still believes that the thing he is turning away from is something that might have provided happiness if only it were allowable.

The important qualifier in the last sentence is the ‘if’ since a nominalist can always imagine that our ethical obligations might have been different to what they are. His heart can always have the last word since he can think, ‘there goes the life that might have been, there goes a happiness I might have pursued if it weren’t for the inconvenience of God’s commands.’ On an unconscious level, we may begin to feel like a pastor of a California church once said to me: “If God had wanted to, he could have made adultery a virtue and He could have made marital faithfulness a vice; He could have made stealing right and honesty wrong. But He simply chose not to.”

Realism and Sex

By contrast, a realist worldview acknowledges that God couldn’t have done things differently. According to the very nature of how reality simply is (based, ultimately, in the character of the Triune God), love could not look any different to how it looks in a world regulated by the sexual ethics of the Bible. While there are a range of things God could have done differently as He accommodates His commands to human sinfulness or to various times and places (for example, the application of sexual ethics of the Old Testament are not parallel to those in the New Testament even though the basic principles are the same), there are certain fixed moral boundaries that could not be otherwise in any possible world.

Just as God could not have created a world in which two plus two equals nine (assuming we are doing mathematics in base ten) since logic is an attribute of His eternal character, so He could not have created a world where actions like adultery, fornication and sexual exploitation are virtuous. This is not because there are standards outside of God to which He must conform; rather, it is because He is Himself is the standard from which Biblical ethics derive their normativity. Once we understand this, we can appreciate that Biblical ethics are not only virtuous, they are fitting and proper according to the ordering of reality.

The Devilish Imagination

Ever since the serpent tempted Eve in the garden, the devil has tried to entice us to reimagine our world different to how it is. In enticing us to feel that God’s commandments pull against the right ordering of our nature, the devil is able to infect us with the lie that our long-term happiness is somehow at odds with our short-term obligations. At some level, all sexual sin has its root in this devilish way of reimagining our world.

Nominalist presuppositions make it easier for the devil to tempt us with these false pictures since nominalism denies the inherent rationality and naturalness of God’s commands, reducing them to mere will-acts that might have been otherwise.

Once again, the sexual ethics of the Bible are not arbitrary will-acts on the part of God which end up preventing our happiness. God does not simply name lust, fornication and adultery to be disordered; rather, these things actually are disordered according to the necessary and inevitable nature of reality. This reality is antecedent to God’s commands and the reason for it, not the other way round.

One of the reasons we know this is true is because scripture frequently situates its discussion of sexual ethics in this broader context. Especially in the Book of Proverbs we see that God’s commands derive from what is fitting for us according to our nature. The Bible leaves no room for the type of reductionistic legalism towards which nominalism strives, since it shows that God’s laws are not mere arbitrary will-acts, but are anchored in the inbuilt telos of our nature.

Unmaking Human Nature

This perspective sheds a new light on the admonitions found throughout the Bible regarding sexual sin leading to destruction. It’s easy to think that the destruction promised to unrepentant sinners has an extrinsic relationship to the sin itself, as if God has simply determined that such people must go to hell. However, the reality is that the sexual sin has a more natural and organic connection to its consequences.

The natural end of a human being is to function as God’s image-bearer, and in so doing to glorify and enjoy Him forever. Because of this, when we turn away from the God in whose image we are made to follow sexual lusts, we simultaneously turn away from all that makes us truly human. In feeding off a wrongly ordered humanity, sexual sin is organically connected to our destruction in the way that tiredness is organically connected to staying up all night, or being thirsty comes as the natural consequence of going all day without a drink. Sexual sin leads to destruction because it unmakes our nature, just as a refusal to drink water leads to physical death because it unmakes our bodies.

Or think of it like this. The natural end of a seed is an adult plant, but if I repeatedly try to use a seed to function as a hammer, then the seed will be destroyed and will be prevented from realizing its proper telos. In the same way, because sexual sin turns us away from the patterns of how our humanity is rightly ordered, it ushers us into a condition of unreality, like someone trying to use a seed to bang nails into the wall. Because of how reality is, this can only bring destruction.

Abstraction from Teleology

I’d like to close by sharing an anecdote from earlier today which usefully illustrates the pervasiveness of nominalist presuppositions.

This morning a good Christian friend sent me an email asking me what I thought about husbands and wives incorporating “sodomite practices” into their sex lives. After a subsequent email clarified what kind of sex practices my friend had in mind, I told him that the basic problem was that he was thinking of sexuality in a way abstracted from teleology. In my friend’s thinking, the various possible ways of ordering our sex lives had become deliberate ordering, as if our job is to devise uses for our bodies rather than to simply submit to the patterns which God has already built into our nature.

The basic problem, once again, was that a subliminal nominalism had made a foothold. Within the nominalist template, the natural order of creation, as represented in the biological realities of our experience as men and women, counts for very little. Reality becomes infinitely malleable, and we are left without the categories to assert that natural sexual practices are even natural.

Further Reading