Virtual Voices

Competing visions frustrate progress

Issues

When Americans ponder what is good for society, because of our competing visions and definitions of what is best, it is difficult to arrive at a consensus. Many Christian theologians naturally rely on the Bible and often argue that what God commands is best for America. But other Christian theologians believe that what's good is revealed in the Bible and in the moral order embedded in creation. They look to evaluate the common good on the basis of whether or not it leads to flourishing according to the God-given nature, purpose, and design of human life. In a pluralistic society, presuppositions in conflict are even more complicated. What follows are three key categories that explain, in part, why well-meaning people find it difficult to agree on what is best for us.

First, is the teleological approach, which desires that society care about larger principles, goals, and consequences. This approach asks, "How are morally worthy goals or purposes to be advanced in society?" and, "What is best insofar as it furthers a morally good purpose, goal, or consequence?" Those thinking in terms of creation norms are concerned that what we do furthers human flourishing/well-being, objectively defined. Consequentialists in this framework are chiefly concerned that we do what produces the best outcomes and tend not to care much about the justice of achieving those ends.

Second, is the deontological approach, which wants to make sure that members of a society have rightly understood principles, duties, and standards as prerequisites for arriving at social prescriptions. The principled approached asks: What is the duty or law that is to be followed? What is best for society is good to the extent that it reflects, protects, or obeys the relevant moral law or principle. Consequences or outcomes are secondary, and may even be irrelevant in some cases.

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Third, is the virtue approach, which wants society to have certain kinds of people, because a good society is one that promotes certain virtue, habits, and dispositions that lead to a genuine human flourishing/wholeness of society. The specific outcomes are not all that important and neither are specific shared duties and principles.

Put these three approaches to work in Congress and you would have a legislative mess. In terms of addressing poverty, for example, the teleological camp would attempt to legislate an end to poverty by any means necessary, including coercion. The deontological camp would try to legislate us into a worldview that leads to us all caring about poverty in the same way. The virtue camp would believe that poverty could not be rightly dealt with by society until we had a country made up of a certain kind of people who would be resistant to the approaches of others. All three approaches have periods of influence but all three keep the rest of us mighty frustrated because progress is impeded in such ideological theaters.

Anthony Bradley
Anthony Bradley

Anthony is associate professor of theology and ethics at The King's College in New York and serves as a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. He is author of Liberating Black Theology. Follow Anthony on Twitter @drantbradley.

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