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January 16, 2019

A Sermon on the Connection between “Ought” and “Is”

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 3:32 am

Eph. 1.15-23

TrinityThe Scottish philosopher David Hume introduced a famous ethical distinction between “is” and “ought.” Hume claimed that you cannot get from “is” (the way things are) to “ought” (how things should be or the kinds of moral behavior we should practice). This is-ought distinction is a common modern assumption, and is also reflected in what is called the difference between “facts” and “values.” Facts are about things of which we can be certain, like the physical sciences. “Values” are merely matters of opinion: ethics, politics, religion. We can argue about whether something is a fact these days, but arguments about “values” won’t get us very far. There’s a popular slogan: “You’re entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts.”

This distinction between “is” and “ought” or “fact” and “value” would not have made any sense to pre-modern people. Pre-modern people believed that there was a correlation between what we believe about reality and the kinds of things we ought to do. And a moment’s thought will show that the pre-modern understanding is self-evidently correct. An illustration: You might be surprised to hear that there are 123 McDonald’s restaurants in India. However, it should not be surprising to find out that McDonald’s in India does not serve hamburgers, but only vegetarian burgers. If you’re a Hindu and you believe that cows are sacred animals, you do not eat hamburgers. In the USA, we literally do not believe in “sacred cows,” and McDonald’s serves hamburgers here.

In the epistle reading this morning, we find in Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians a perfect illustration of how this works. In Paul’s prayer, he lists a number of activities – things that he is doing or that he expects his listeners to do. For example, Paul “gives thanks”; he prays that his hearers will “have the eyes of their hearts enlightened.” However, Paul does not do the things he is doing – “give thanks” – or instruct his hearers to do certain kinds of things, for no specific reason. Rather, Paul draws a connection between the specific activity and some reality for which it is the “fitting” response. So Paul begins by saying that “he gives thanks for his hearers,” and he “remembers them in his prayers” because of something he has heard – that they have “faith in the Lord Jesus” and “love toward all the saints” (Eph. 1:15-16).

The same pattern appeals in the way that Paul mentions four basic activities, which we could also call virtues or patterns of moral behavior: they are the three traditional “theological virtues” of faith, love, and hope, with the additional virtue of “knowledge” or “wisdom.” In each case, Paul correlates a specific activity or virtue – an “ought” or a “value” – to something that is true about reality – an “is” or a “fact.” (more…)

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