Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics, 3rd ed.
Scott B. Rae, Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics, 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009. 361 pp. Hardback, $34.99. ISBN 978-0-310-29109-1.
Scott Rae’s new third edition of Moral Choices is a strong improvement over its predecessor, a text which I was happy to make required reading for my Christian Ethics course at Denver Seminary. In short, it succeeds in precisely the fashion in which a new edition of a textbook ought to succeed. The material has been reorganized, points and arguments have been given greater clarity, the new material offered is both relevant and catches the student’s interest, and the illustrations and issues covered have been brought up to date. One particularly noteworthy improvement lies in the addition of review questions and case studies at the end of each chapter. The text offers students a philosophical approach to issues in applied ethics from an evangelical, biblical perspective. I do not know of any text that does a better job of this. The first four chapters cover general issues in Christian ethical decision making. The chapter “Major Figures in the History of Ethics” in the second edition has been deleted from the third edition and instead several textboxes covering major figures have been judiciously spread throughout the second and third chapter. The only drawback to this, in my view, is that Stoic ethics is overlooked. The Stoic approach to natural law is important because, as Rae argues (p. 58), natural law serves as the common ground by which Christians can communicate to a non-Christian ethical perspective.
This point aside, the first four chapters neatly cover the topics of Biblical ethics, secular philosophical ethics, and practical decision making. Although Rae canvasses far too many Biblical themes to review here, the striking feature of the new edition is its strengthened emphasis on character-based or virtue ethics. Although Rae reaffirms his previous opinion that Christian ethics must take into account both character and principles, the new edition is far clearer in asserting that the former is more fundamental. On Rae’s view, the Old and New Testaments reflect the use of a variety of moral principles. Utilitarian thinking, duty-based reasoning, and even egoistic thought can offer important moral insight for the Christian. However, he emphasizes two points. First, certain ethical systems (relativism, subjectivism, emotivism) have no Scriptural warrant and have unacceptable philosophical consequences. And secondly, Divine Command Theory offers only a guide to correct moral decision making but it does not state the substance of ethics. Morality is based ultimately in God’s character; God’s commands are binding in virtue of the fact that they express that (loving) character (pp. 47 ff.). Thus readers are straightforwardly informed that Rae rejects theological volunteerism.
Moreover, on the issue of whether moral principles (especially those found in natural law) are prior to or based upon considerations of character, Rae is more firm and explicit in his support of the latter view. Just to offer one illustration, Rae’s previous view that “perhaps” virtue is logically prior to principles in ethics (second edition, p. 100) is reaffirmed, minus the “perhaps” (third edition, p. 96).
The result is an ethical theory that is clearer and more elegant. However, it leaves one problem. The overwhelming amount of the discussion of particular ethical issues focuses on the proper application of biblical and philosophical principles as opposed to focusing on issues of character. Perhaps this results from the fact that earlier editions did not stress the fundamental role of character and virtue for ethical theory. Consequently, when an issue such as abortion is covered, the question before the reader is placed in terms of whether principles involving a duty to not kill persons are applicable. An alternative virtue or character-based approach would likely have asked instead whether a person procuring an abortion manifests a lack of a certain virtue (compassion for an unborn human for whom Christ has died) or thereby manifested a vice (inappropriate sense of priorities, for example). There is, I think, a split in the direction in which Rae’s theory has developed and his generally principle-based approach to particular moral issues.
Chapters five through eight cover issues in medical ethics. Rae is a bioethicist by occupation and these chapters present a large amount of relevant background information, both medical and legal, regarding the topics of abortion, stem cell research, reproductive technologies, biotechnology, and euthanasia. Rae argues against abortion in nearly all cases based upon a biblical and philosophical defense of the full personal status of the unborn. Readers can expect a rather conservative conclusion here. But in canvassing distinctions and hard cases with respect to other topics the reader is challenged with a number of “gray” areas. More conservative readers who find Rae’s arguments on abortion and sexual ethics reaffirming might be surprised, for example, that Rae’s approach to euthanasia does not affirm the view that preserving life is always the Christian’s top medical priority. Yet on other occasions, where matters are particularly difficult, Rae tends to play it safe. For example, genetic enhancement is precluded on the relatively shaky claim that medical practices which go beyond fixing a defect in nature but instead attempt to improve thereupon (such as genetically enhancing I.Q.s) amount to ‘playing God.’ Like many, I find the ‘playing God’ issue relevant but also a frustratingly vague moral criterion. In short, I think the balance between conservative sympathies and avoidance of simplistic answers to tough questions will appeal to many readers, especially Christians, whose delicate task is to simultaneously maintain and mature their ethical perspectives.
Chapters nine through twelve cover non-medical issues: the death penalty, sexual ethics, just war, and economic ethics. With respect to the death penalty, Rae mounts a case that the practice is morally and biblically defensible and that Christians can justifiably take either side. However, he urges that the current practice by which persons are sentenced to death probably fails to meet biblical and moral requirements for certainty with respect to the guilt of the accused. Although defensible in principle, the actual procedures by which death penalties are meted out should gravely concern those Christians who continue to defend it in practice.
The chapter on sexual ethics covers topics of pre-marital sex, homosexuality, and birth control. Rae develops a strong biblical case for the impermissibility of the first two and the (apparent) permissibility of the third. However, with respect to the issue of homosexuality it is difficult to make a strictly philosophical case against the practice; a word of caution for those engaging the secular world on this hot topic. But for Christians, he argues that the biblical case against homosexual practices (as opposed to orientation) is pat. An addition to the new edition covers the topics of masturbation, transsexuality, and intersexuals. The latter two deserve special attention. I, for one, admire the courage it took to tackle these head on. Sadly, the chief drawback is that the section on these topics is too short and underdeveloped, especially compared to the wealth of legal, medical and other background given to other topics. The complexity, sensitivity, and emerging public concern over these sorts of issues makes it imperative to follow Rae’s example in addressing these issues but also, I think, requires a more thorough investigation of these often troubling topics.
In chapter eleven, Rae defends the just war tradition but gives a solid treatment to both sides of the issue. It is worth noting that most arguments for the tradition are philosophical and theological in nature. By contrast nearly all of the biblical arguments on this topic are seemingly granted to the pacifist. The standard anti-pacifist proof text involving Jesus’ cleansing of the temple is not mentioned at all and the acceptance of Roman soldiers by the New Testament churches is, if anything, depicted as a problem for just war theorist in light of the fact that such passages are few in number. In short, Rae’s treatment is good, but there is a biblical defense of the just war tradition that could be further developed.
Chapter twelve focuses on economic ethics and canvasses a vast amount of topics. This emphasis on economics (and a strengthened emphasis on treatment of the poor generally) is a welcome major addition to the new edition. Although Rae defends free enterprise systems, he emphasizes the biblical grounds for a theory of Christian stewardship as opposed to absolute property rights. Furthermore, this is one chapter (perhaps because it is an entirely new addition for this edition) in which Rae’s emphasis on character-based approaches to ethics becomes more prominent. The Christian virtues that we are to embody in our economic relations are given a central focus.
In summary, the new edition is a vast improvement over the previous edition and, given the merits of the previous edition, this means that Rae has done a commendable service to Christian educators and ethicists. I highly recommend this as a textbook for college and seminary courses whose purpose is to engage particular moral issues from a perspective that attempts to be faithful to reason, Scripture, and the evangelical tradition.
Troy Nunley, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Philosophy