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Sources of Wisdom for Ethical Reflection

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There are many sources of ethical reflection, some of which lead to wisdom, some of which originate in wisdom. Many people believe that it is only the latter that are valid while everything else is 'subjective'. This is understandable, for most of us believe that we need to 'find' truth rather than 'construct' it. So we look for 'objectivity', or solid foundations, and one of the ways of 'knowing' that a source of knowledge is reliable is when others, even persons far different than ourselves, refer to the same source: to ac-knowledge becomes a verification of knowledge.

However, relying too heavily upon a source transforms it into a static, lifeless thing. To insure reliability, many people think that a source must never 'change', so they solidify it. Others may recognize that although a source 'remains what it is', it may be so complex and multi-faceted that it lends itself to many interpretations. This is certainly a step beyond the static, lifeless model, but in many cases all it does is shift the changelessness to some authority for interpreting the source.

statue with roots

An interesting example of this can be found in Christianity. The first perspective can be found in what is sometimes called a 'fundamentalist' reading of the Bible. Nothing in the words of scripture is allowed to 'change' and everything must be taken the same way, the options for which usually boil down to being taken literally. 'It says what it says'. Another perspective is found in a guided reading of the Bible that one sees among many Catholic and Orthodox Christians. There is recognition that various parts of the Bible may be very different, or that some things in the Bible might be interpreted in various ways, but it remains the authority of church leaders to figure that out and tell the faithful what to believe.

If the faithful are to believe what the authorities tell them, then those authorities should not be perceived as changing, giving one reading or interpretation now and another reading or interpretation at another time. For instance, up until the first half of the twentieth century, Catholics were instructed to believe that Moses had actually written the first five books of the Bible and that the whole of those first five books could be understood as a kind of history. After Pius XII opened the doors to critical biblical research in his 1943 encyclical, Divino Afflante Spiritu, many of the faithful felt that their teachers were 'changing their story'. It appeared that their teachers had changed, and their conclusion was that something or someone must be 'wrong' – either the teachers or the source.

When we are speaking of ethical reflection and discourse, we are addressing a subject that is not static and unchanging. Ethics is about life and about living, and living is virtually synonymous with change. We grow, we mature and we grow old and die. We learn, we understand and we forget. We become capable of doing some things, we become proficient at a few of them and then our abilities deteriorate. If all that is not factored into our ethics, then we are nearly bound to get it wrong.

The sources of ethical wisdom are no different because they are sources that address life. Some of them are 'already there', like the Bible and tradition; but these still need to be interpreted and understood. Reading the Bible as an uninformed, inexperienced young person may create very different impressions and lead to fewer opportunities to glean wisdom than reading it as a mature, experienced and perhaps more realistic, if not even slightly skeptical, adult. Other sources are much more a product of our own construction, such as the use of our own intelligence and our ability to analyze complex realities, and the development of our imagination that is built up through the accumulation of experience.

two rivers meeting
table of contents

In religious circles, which generally are not adverse to formulating ethical principles, one frequently finds an overlap between 'sources of faith' and 'sources of morality'.* If we combine these into common ground and look for sources of 'wisdom', we find some interesting reflections. Catholic Christianity tended to describe the sources of faith ** as two: scripture and tradition. Since the late nineteenth century, Roman authority began accumulating more power for itself and began to add 'the teaching of the church' to the list of sources. Eventually this category was transformed from describing the content of the source, the teaching, into the function that supposedly issues that teaching, the 'magisterium'.

Much of Protestant Christianity reduced the sources to a single entity, namely the Bible. Although the doctrine of 'scripture alone' eventually gave way to ideas about 'faith alone' and 'grace alone', the role of the Bible remained paramount for spelling out moral norms or laws. In the nineteenth century, the leader of the Methodist movement, John Wesley, described another approach to sorting out the wisdom of the faith that later came to be referred to as the 'Wesleyan Quadrilateral'. This consisted in scripture, tradition (the history of the Christian church in Wesley's view), reason and experience. Many theological ethicists today, even many Catholics, have adopted this approach as a sound one, although they have a different understanding of 'tradition'.

My own approach, as one can readily see in the table of contents, suggests five sources of wisdom. I certainly accept that the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church is a valuable source of wisdom, but as I will expand upon below, it cannot be understood to stand 'by itself'. I have expanded 'reason' to include the whole of human experience which is a continuous source of insight and error at the same time. To come to terms with reason and experience we need to remain in continuous dialogue with everyone who is willing to share their own 'reason and experience'. The last category is, I believe, the most neglected source of wisdom since the early Christian community gave up the idea that the 'reign of God', the 'kingdom' was going to begin in their own lifetime. In order to carry on ethical discourse, we need a vision of where we are going. What are the ends or goals to which we are aspiring? The other four sources contribute to the construction of this vision, but even taken together they remain insufficient. That stated, the first step I will take will be to examine the contribution of scripture to ethical discourse.


*Speaking of the sources of 'morality' rather than of ethical wisdom can severely limit the field of inquiry. As I have attempted to point out, there is a strong tendency in ethical discourse to speak about behavior as the primary category. When this is done, 'morality' becomes behavioral and the sources that govern the scope of accepted and prohibited behaviors are usually closely related to laws. Thus, when this approach looks to the Bible as a source, it primarily interprets the legal texts of that source and ignores other texts.
**As we have seen, the 'sources of morality' in much of Catholic tradition had been described as the 'object, end and circumstance' of the human act. This is dealt with above, under 'The Moral Event'.


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Last updated on 4 July 2011