One way of thinking about “ethics” is to say that it is the study of freedom. That is, thinking about ethics means thinking about what it means to be free and to act freely. It is only because we understand humans to be free that we recognise idea of good and bad, right and wrong conduct. If we were not free, we would not need to worry about ethics. Animals do not have ethics, because they are not free.
Any conception of freedom must involve at least two aspects: it must mean freedom from things, and it must mean freedom for things. We are familiar with the first aspect. We tend to think about freedom as freedom from external constraint, freedom from imposition. This is the classic modern idea of freedom: freedom as unrestrained choice and uninhibited self-realisation.
But freedom must also involve freedom for something, freedom to do something. There is no actual freedom if there is no realisation of our freedom towards some goal — all there is is potentiality. We know this when we use ideas like freedom to fulfill one’s potential. And what this shows us is that the something we are free for depends on what we are. What freedom means is constrained by what we are, because there is no real freedom in choosing to not be what you are. This is what gives the act of suicide its paradoxical nature. On the one hand it appears to be an act of supreme freedom, in the sense that it is a moment of the will’s utter self-assertion. But on the other hand it is an act of supreme unfreedom, because it removes any possibility of further realisation of freedom by destroying the being that possesses that freedom. Freedom, then, is not just freedom from constraint, it is freedom for something — for life as the being that is free. When I speak about freedom to fulfill my potential or realise my true self, it presumes that there is a me, an I, whose being determines what freedom looks like for me, that there is a goal towards which my freedom heads.
It is for this reason that the category of nature is so important for ethics. Because nature is the way we name what it is about us that determines what freedom looks like, the things about us that we do not choose but which are given to us to be. Ethics, then, is very much a discussion of freedom and nature: what it means to be free given what we are.
This is why various ethical debates take the form that they do. For example, debates about gender roles are debates over the territory of the natural: what it is that is given to us as a natural constraint upon our freedom. Similarly, debates about the legitimacy of practices like same-sex marriage are (when things are seen clearly) debates about whether male-female marriage is something natural, i.e. given to us in the order of things, that should therefore be protected. Similarly, debates about the legitimacy of practices like genetic modification of food are debates about the extent to which we ought to exercise our freedom to fiddle with naturally occuring forms of life.
Now, the idea of nature is complex and opens up an enormous range of issues. And I don’t want to go into them now. What I do want to do is to show you how a profound and important difference between Christian ethics and secular ethics opens up at this point, in regards to the idea of nature.
§4 Secular ethics and nature
For secular ethics, nature must present a profoundly ambiguous face. For this reason: as we have seen, ethics is compelled to recognise what is natural as a necessary constraint upon freedom, a parameter without which the idea of freedom ultimately lacks meaning (because if freedom is only freedom from, it quickly becomes vacuous). Yet while secular ethics is compelled to recognise this, it has no guarantee whatsoever that this is a good thing. It has no guarantee that nature represents a limit upon one’s freedom which is welcome, which is ultimately good for the subject. Nature can just as easily represent an unwelcome constraint upon freedom, an imposition to be resented and rejected.
And this applies not only to the constraints imposed by what might be regarded as distortions of nature, such as disability, disease, and so on; it applies to the category of nature itself. For secular ethics, there is no reason to suppose what is natural will be good for us. In fact, secular ethics has no justification for an idea like a distortion of nature. Nature is simply what is, and it is not necessarily either good or bad for us. But this introduces an unpleasantly ambiguous element into the exercise of our freedom; because as we have seen, we are not free, really, to reject nature completely.
§5 Christian ethics and nature
Christian ethics, by contrast, is able to see nature in a very different way. Because it understands nature first and foremost to be a gift of a generous and good God, a God who created this world and declared it to be very good, and whose character vouches for the meaning of that declaration. And thus, it understands the limits imposed by nature to be not unwelcome and painful impositions, but provisions which are for our benefit, the boundary lines within which we play out our freedom.
This does not mean, I hasten to say, that Christian ethics has a simplistic attitude to nature in which whatever is, is good. Because Christian ethics is not simply deistic ethics, in which the world is simply good and we just have to live within it. Christian ethics is ethics that follows the story of the Bible, and so has a complex account of nature, in which the world that we experience has been catastrophically corrupted as a result of human rejection of God’s good purposes. Thus Christian ethics is able to recognise a difference, at least in thought, between what is natural and what is a distortion of nature.
But Christian ethics does not have to give up on nature for this reason; because the story of the Bible is the story of God’s renewal and redemption of his creation through the lfe, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. This story gives nature back to Christian moral thinking, to again reckon with as a gift for the realisation of freedom, rather than an unwelcome limit upon it.
The burden of this brief foray into some of the bigger structures of ethical thinking has been to suggest that Christian ethics is uniquely capable of integrating the idea of nature. My argument has been that the concept of freedom, which is central to ethics, inevitably throws up the question of nature; and that while this can only be a deeply problematic point for secular ethics, it is a very welcome thing for Christian ethics, because for Christian ethics, nature is the good gift of a loving God, a gift which has been reaffirmed and secured beyond its present distortion, through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.