Kingdom Ethics (Glen H. Stassen & David P. Gushee)-- Model of Ethical Reasoning and Character Formation

"Virtues are defined as qualities of a person that make that person a good person in community, and that contribute to the good of the community, or to the good that humans are designed for" (32).

According to Stassen and Gushee, the components of ethical decision-making inevitably include not only our ethical reasoning, but our social communities, our broad worldviews, and our perceptions of the cultural context in which change can take place:

I. The Way of Reasoning Dimension (Rules and Practices; Principles and Virtues)

  • What are the understood rules of the situation?

Rule-based ethics (sometimes called deontological ethics) operate on the basis of delineated and established rules, which are judged to be universal for all cases. If exceptions exist to the rules, then the rules have to be delineated again with new specific codes to cover these contingencies.

  • What are the normative practices? How do people tend to act in these circumstances?

Alasdair MacIntyre defines a practice as:

Any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and the human conceptions of the ends and good involved, are systematically extended. (After Virtue 187)

In other words, ethical understanding arises out of a particular practice pursued by a group, which further defines the understanding as the practices grows and shapes itself over time. Looking at ethics from a practice-based understanding calls for paying attention to the context of actions, as well as the worldview that gives meaning to the actions.

  • What are the underlying principles?

Principle-based ethics looks at how certain ideals support but also call into question rules. Principles are broader than rules and may override them when necessary.

  • What are the necessary virtues to accomplish something in this case?

"Virtue", says Augustine, "is a good habit consonant with our nature." Thomas Aquinas further defines a virtue as,

An operative habit essentially good, as distinguished from vice, an operative habit essentially evil. Now a habit is a quality in itself difficult of change, disposing well or ill the subject in which it resides, either directly in itself or in relation to its operation. An operative habit is a quality residing in a power or faculty in itself indifferent to this or that line of action, but determined by the habit to this rather than to that kind of acts. Virtue then has this in common with vice, that it disposes a potency to a certain determined activity; but it differs specifically from it in that it disposes it to good acts, i.e. acts in consonance with right reason.

In other words, virtues are a) good habits that predispose us to good actions and b) represent a certain mature good quality made resident in a person.  

II. The Basic Convictions Dimension (God and Human Nature; The World/Reality; Good and Evil; Truth and Falsehood; Beautiful and Ugly)

James Olthuis defines worldview as

A worldview (or vision of life) is a framework or set of fundamental beliefs through which we view the world and our calling and future in it. The vision may be so internalized that it goes largely unquestioned; it may be greatly refined through cultural-historical development; it may not be explicitly developed into a systematic conception of life; it may not be theoretically deepened into a philosophy; it may not even be codified into credal form. Nevertheless, this vision is a channel for the ultimate beliefs which give direction and meaning to life. It is the integrative and interpretive framework by which order and disorder are judged, the standard by which reality is managed and pursued. It is the set of hinges on which all our everyday thinking and doing turns. Although a [worldview] is held only by individuals, it is communal in scope and structure. Since a worldview gives the terms of reference by which the world and our place in it can be structured and illumined, a worldview binds it adherents together into a community.

How do our basic convictions, our basic worldview, about the world frame our ethical decisions?

  • How does one understand the character of God?
  • How does one understand human nature?
  • How does one understand the character of the universe/world/basic reality?
  • How does one understand the purpose of human life?
  • How does a person know anything?
  • On what basis do we know something to be true or false?
  • How does one determine right from wrong, good from evil?
  • How does one determine the beautiful and the ugly?
  • What happens to a person at death?

III. The Passions/Loyalties Dimension (Friends, Mentors, Models, Practiced Loyalties, Community Loyalties, Ultimate Loyalties)

The loyalties that shape our character may be divided into four levels:

(a)  loyalties to friends, mentors, and models

(b)  loyalties to the practices and means that we regularly use to achieve our goals. 

(c)  loyalties to communities

(d)  loyalty to God

  • What evidence do we have for each loyalty in the situation? Textual? Contextual?
  • Do these loyalties contradict each other? Support each other?
  • Does one loyalty predominate over the other(s)?
  • Does the person or persons involved reflect in any direct way on their loyalties? Are these loyalties left unexplored/unstated below the surface?

IV. The Perception Dimension (Powers and Authorities; The Threat; Social Change; Truthfulness and Openness)

Perception of the context of actions powerfully shapes what people do.   

authority variable 

  • What is assumed about the nature of authority in this situation/context?
  • Is the authority and authority's power considered legitimate?
  • How does this shape their actions?

the threat perception 

  • What do the persons assume to be the cause of the wrong?
  • Do they feel threatened?
  • What is their response to that threat?

potential efficacy of various strategies for social change 

  • Does the person feel able to change anything, to act effectively? Why or why not?
  • What social or psychological forces stand in the way of change? How strong are they?

information integrity: truthfulness/ desire for real understanding

  • Does the person feel he or she can trust the information given?
  • How strongly is the truth desired?

[Stassen, Glen H and David P. Gushee. Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context. Downers Grove : IVP, 2003.]