How Aristotle Can Help Christian Morality, Part 2

Author Brett Kunkle Published on 05/31/2017

In this post (see Part 1 here), I want to answer the question, “Is ethical eudaimonism (i.e., the classical view of happiness) compatible with Christian ethics?” First we must ask what it means for two views to be compatible. Compatible does not mean the entire set of propositions found in one view must be logically consistent with the entire set of propositions in another. Two views are compatible if there is enough commonality that would enable one view to appropriate core aspects of a second into its own view. In other words, two views may be different yet not contain fatal contradictions amongst their central claims, making them mutually inconsistent.

This is what we find with ethical eudaimonism and Christian ethics. Indeed, two central components of eudaimonism seem to fit nicely within a Christian ethical framework: 1) eudaimonia as the ultimate end of man, and 2) virtue as a primary constituent of eudaimonia. Let's examine the compatibility of each component with the biblical view.

An examination of the Old and New Testaments provides us with a striking parallel to the notion of eudaimomia. In the Old Testament, we find prophet after prophet warning the people of Israel how life can go wrong. In contrast, they use the word shalom to indicate how life is supposed to be, a life that is flourishing. Cornelius Plantinga captures the Old Testament meaning of shalom beautifully:

The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. We call it peace, but it means far more than mere peace of mind or a cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight.... Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be. [Emphasis in the original.]1

This theme is echoed throughout the Old Testament. Listen to the Psalmist:

How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers! But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he mediates day and night. He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season. (Psalm 1:1–3)

Certainly, we cannot miss the eudaimonistic appeal of the Old Testament writers. “In sum, shalom is God’s design for creation and redemption.”2

The New Testament continues to paint this eudaimonistic picture. The Sermon on the Mount is rich with eudaimonistic language, as Jesus examines the question of which life is the good life. In the Beatitudes, the Greek term used for “blessed” is makarios, which “is virtually synonymous with eudaimonia, and was used as such by Aristotle and the ancient eudaimonists.”3 According to Jesus, “blessedness,” the goal of Christian ethics, is human flourishing.

Of course, flourishing, for the Christian, is essentially connected to God. Indeed, God Himself is the ultimate ground of human flourishing. As the Psalmist says, “God is my good” (73:28). He is our highest good, our ultimate end. The Early Church Fathers, eudaimonists themselves, wrote eloquently of this “beatific vision” of God. Augustine states:

[God] himself is the fountain of our happiness; he himself is the end of all of our longing. In choosing him, or rather, since we had lost him through neglect, in re-choosing him...we strive toward him by love, so that by attaining him we might rest, happy because we are perfected by him who is our end. Thus, our good, the end which is extensively disputed among the philosophers, is nothing other than to cling to him. [Emphasis mine.]4

The second area of compatibility is the conception of virtue found in ethical eudaimonism. Again, an examination of the Scriptures reveals a biblical parallel. Returning to the Sermon on the Mount, we find Jesus not only giving an account of what is the good life but also who is the good person. According to Jesus, the good person is the virtuous person. Just as the biblical Greek term makarios mirrors eudaimonia, the biblical Greek term dikaiosune, which Jesus uses to describe the good person, is almost identical to aretê, the word the ancients used for virtue. Dallas Willard offers a paraphrased translation of dikaiosune: “what that is about a person that makes him or her really right or good.”5 This seems to capture both ancient and contemporary notions of virtue quite well.

On a eudaimonistic view, how does one become good or virtuous? Virtue is habituated. One’s goodness is the sum total of appropriate habits. Right habits establish right character. In Christian ethics this is the role of the spiritual disciplines. As Paul states, “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (I Timothy 4:7). Willard explains:

The disciplines are activities of mind and body purposefully undertaken, to bring our personality and total being into effective cooperation with the divine order. They enable us more and more to live in a power that is, strictly speaking, beyond us, deriving from the spiritual realm itself, as we “yield ourselves to God, as those that are alive from the dead, and our members as instruments of righteousness unto God,” as Romans 6:13 puts it.6

Thus, spiritual disciplines, such as study, fasting, and prayer,7 are the Christian means to developing a life of virtue or righteousness. Again, eudaimonism finds compatibility with Christian ethics.

While ethical eudaimonism and biblical ethics are compatible, on my view the latter seems to offer a more robust ethic. Therefore, it is preferable. Let me briefly enumerate my reasons here.

First, Christianity offers a more plausible account of the grounding of ethics. Properly moral systems must be adequately grounded. Eudaimonism is grounded in human nature (Aristotle) or in the agent’s relevant community or tradition (contemporary eudaimonists). Thus, we have a very different account from the Biblical picture, which begins not with man but with God. According to the biblical view, ethics is grounded in the nature and will of God. Goodness is an essential property of God, and thus God provides us with the proper grounding of morality.8

Secondly, Christian ethics makes better sense of objective moral obligations. It seems that moral obligations are the kind of thing owed to persons. Moral rules are personal commands that imply a proper authority which provides such commands. God seems to be the proper authority for moral rules, as He is the only morally perfect being.

Thirdly, Christian ethics seems to better account for the deontological elements necessary for a properly moral system. Not only does a Christian ethic provide an account of virtue and moral goodness, but it also offers clear moral guidance in the form of moral rules, like those found in the Ten Commandments.

In the next and final post, we’ll tie this all together.