Radical Christianity à la Aristotle

posted on 2012-10-17

I’ve been thinking recently about ways to formalize exactly what makes Christianity different. One way to approach this is through ethics.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle defines virtue as the mean between two vices. For example,

Every ethical virtue is a condition intermediate between two other states, one involving excess, and the other deficiency. The courageous person judges that some dangers are worth facing and others not, and experiences fear to a degree that is appropriate to his circumstances. He lies between the coward, who flees every danger and experiences excessive fear, and the rash person, who judges every danger worth facing and experiences little or no fear.

In picture form, that looks something like:

If we accept Aristotle’s perspective, then there are two possible ways for Christian ethics to be different. First, we might come to different conclusions about where this virtuous mean lies. If you place me on the spectrum of rash to coward, for example, I definitely think virtue lies far closer to the cowardice end of the spectrum than most people.  (I am a pacifist after all.)  But I also do not think this does justice to my Christ-inspired ethics because I actually despise cowardice.  Instead, I value peace making.  But at first glance most people think peace making and cowardice are the same thing.  So something else must define what makes Christian ethics different.

This leads us to our second option: redefining which spectrum of vices and virtues we use.  Let’s imagine the classic thought experiment against pacifism: Someone is attacking your grandmother; do you fight the attacker or do nothing?  By the standard metric above, only a coward would not fight.  The courageous man—the virtuous and ethical man—would clearly fight.

But I make decisions based on a different metric.  On the one hand, I weigh my responsibility to the victim, and on the other hand I weigh my responsibility to the perpetrator.  The virtuous person under this schema is the one who is able to treat both of them with perfect love; the vices are excessively favoring one side at the expense of the other.  That is, the virtuous man intervenes but in a nonviolent way to stop the attack.

This reframing has two interesting properties.  First, if you can’t find a way to intervene nonviolently in a given situation, then you are not yet a virtuous person.  One of the major problems that pacifists must deal with is that these nonviolent intervention strategies are rarely obvious.  I think that we haven’t achieved perfect virtue if we are not able to solve this problem.  This fits perfectly with the Christian idea that we can never fully overcome our sinful natures.

The second interesting property relates to how we deal with our own lack of virtue.  The nonpacifist errs on the side of excessive love of victim, whereas the pacifist errs on the side of excessive love of perpetrator.  But both sides must realize that they are making an ethical compromise and not acting in accordance with Christian virtue.  If a non-pacifist Christian reasons in this way, then they have my  full support for any violence they deem ultimately necessary.

Actually, one of the reasons that I am a complete pacifist is to force myself to reason in this way, because I think it is impossible to think in these terms without adopting complete pacifism.  But that would be a whole separate article.

The main point is that “radical” Christians tend to adopt this perspective.  We don’t just try to place the mean in a different spot.  Instead, we completely redefine the problem.  Because that’s what Jesus did.