D. Stephen Long: On Teaching and Learning Christian Ethics

On Teaching and Learning Christian Ethics by D. Stephen Long explores what the subject of ethics is and the importance of moral theology by comparing two ethicists: Henry Sidgwick and F. D. Maurice. Read on for a Q&A with the author to understand how he grapples with defining these topics and how this book can be useful to anyone interested in ethics.

In the preface of your book, you grapple with defining moral theology. How would you define moral theology to the average person?

Moral theology brings together theology and ethics. Theology considers who God is and how God relates to creation. Ethics considers what constitutes good, right, or virtuous persons and actions. A key question moral theology addresses is how God can be the source of good and virtuous ethics without evacuating human agency. This consideration runs throughout the book. The argument is that both God and humanity can be the cause of good actions without being in competition with each other.

In your preface you also mention that this is not a book on pedagogy. How, then, do you imagine educators may benefit from your book?

The book does not focus on how to teach ethics, except indirectly. Its primary consideration is what the subject matter of ethics is. Like all disciplines, the effort to teach ethics seeks to provide a manageable subject matter distinct from others. Yet, ethics, I argue, does not fit well within such a narrow domain. It constantly exceeds its boundaries because it considers life as a whole. One could fail to learn chemistry and not be a failed human being. Someone who fails at ethics will also fail at what it means to be a human being and that makes the subject matter both more complex and all the more important.

How do you problematize the discipline of ethics throughout your book?

Two thinkers are compared who took very different approaches to teaching ethics. Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900) is largely responsible for the modern discipline of philosophical ethics. He sought to make ethics a discipline as precise as physics. F. D. Maurice (1805-1872), his former mentor, took a different approach by addressing ethics through a variety of disciplines, including theology. He disavowed methods and systems and emphasized virtues, both those acquired by human agency and those that are gifts of the Holy Spirit. I argue that Maurice’s approach better fits with ordinary life than Sidgwick’s.

What role does virtue play in your argument?

Virtue ethics returned in the early twentieth century once approaches like Sidgwick’s became less convincing to many philosophers. The return of virtue ethics also opened teaching and learning of ethics to theology because of the diverse sources for what constitutes a virtue. Moral philosophers began to retrieve Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. At times, that retrieval became reactionary leading to unsalutary political consequences. Yet it also points to a politics of resistance to oppressive forms of life. Maurice was a staunch abolitionist, advocate for women’s education, and the founder of Christian socialism. His virtue approach to ethics supports liberating social and political movements that remain underutilized within Christian ethics.

How do you think this book would be useful to a general audience that is not trained in your discipline?

When I tell people that I teach ethics they almost universally applaud it saying things such as, “we need more of that” or “you will never by unemployed.” This work assists everyone who is interested in ethics, which should include everyone, in understanding what it is, how complex it is to teach, and why it is important that we continue to do so. Yet it also makes another contribution. It suggests that bracketing theology from teaching ethics diminishes us and unnecessarily limits how we should think about, and practice, living life well. Ethics is not only an achievement but also a gift.