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Emergentist Approach to Ethics - Part 3

Butterfly represents Emergentism, Emergence, Ethics at the micro and macro levels,  and Social Change
What Consequences Emerge from a Single Butterfly?

An Integrated Approach

In Christianity, we find a system of morality that integrates all of these various approaches into a single ethical decision-making system. The Christian worldview contends that in addition to all these approaches, two additional sources of wisdom and guidance must be considered; the traditions of the Christian Church, and most importantly, the Bible (Fedler, 2006). Scriptural teaching is composed of both behavior-based characteristics, such as the Old Testament focus on Mosaic laws; and virtue ethics, especially in the teleological orientation of the New Testament on the virtues of faith, hope, and love. Christian ethics also contains elements of ethics with an individualistic focus, as when Jesus delivered the parable of the ten minas (Luk 19:11-26) which teaches that individuals will be held accountable for their actions; as well as ethics with a collective focus such as in Acts 2:32-35 and Acts 2:44-45) where people pooled their resources for the common good.

Since ethical problems increase exponentially with the number of people involved, an integrated moral philosophy would need to provide a mechanism for resolving ethical dilemmas at both the micro and macro level. Christianity provides such a mechanism, which can be illustrated by the findings from Ralston et al., (2014) whose study of over 16,000 people from 48 diverse societies was resounding clear, “for collectivism and individualism values, the individual-level… exhibited substantially more predictive power of ethical behavior than did the societal-level” (p. 302). This makes sense from the Christian worldview, because the central focus on Jesus Christ and His teachings organize and integrate ethical considerations around the individual decision to take Christ into a single heart and allowing that relationship with a living God to transform the character of the person making the decision in a way that more closely aligns it with what Wright (2010) describes as a consistent approach the virtue of love. “It is, after all, love that creates all other virtues: God’s love to which all moral effort is merely an answering word of thanks, praise and returned love. And Scripture is nothing if not the story of God’s love” (p. 283). By placing Scripture as the first consideration and as the foundation for an individual’s ethical reasoning then all of the other ethical approaches can be consistently applied towards the development ethics based on the virtue of love that comes from a relationship with God.

Jesus described the relationship of Scripture to ethical behaviors, “As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like. They are like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock” (Luk 6:47-48). This is the mechanism provided by the Christian worldview that shifts ethics away from an external orientation based on shifting circumstances, towards an internal orientation based on “the joy and peace of God, joy, and peace that is not of this world” (Nouwen, 2002, p. 82). This internal orientation allows the Christian individual to consistency behave in accordance with eternal values.

Christian Leadership

To move from the ethics of the individual towards the broader ethical considerations of society, Ciulla (2014) argues that it is not enough to merely evoke positive outcomes in a behaviorist manner but that an additional step is required that “must include reflection, evaluation, choice, and conscious intent on the part of the actor” (p. 35). Christians see the world as a fallen place, where the reign of God has begun (through the birth of Jesus) but has not yet been completed eschatologically. They believe that ethics can be taught, even in a fallen world, however, the Christian teleology is that human beings' true ultimate end is fulfillment in God's kingdom, in which human members will be fulfilled with respect to their proper nature (Grisez, 2008). The positive transformation of society is not the primary goal; instead, it is the natural outcome of the actions and behaviors that flow from the character an individual person that has been transformed by a relationship with God in the form of Christian leadership.

The modern perspective on leadership places the highest value the scientific insights and evidence (Ciulla, 2014) resulting in an ethical blind spot that assumes that addressing a problem at the broader societal level automatically leads to more ethical outcomes. Badaracco (1997) disagrees, citing the futility of grand principles and concluding that, “one must be immersed in a situation, and one must know who one is, in order to determine the right thing to do” (p. 27). The Christian worldview offers a radically different perspective that calls the individual to the duties of service, humility, and love. Through individual acts of kindness, humility, and service, rather than the imposition of regulations through force that individual Christian leaders transform society.

An ethical society emerges from the combined ethical practices of individuals. Christians lead through scripturally correct moral behavior because morality is central to the Christian belief system (Fedler, 2006). The Scriptural moral framework offers a structure in which leaders can respectfully negotiate religious and spiritual diversity. Jesus offers specific guidance on this point, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matt 7:1). The Christian should focus internally on the development of character in order to influence a diverse world without judgment.

Faith and Ethics become Indistinguishable

Christian leadership flows naturally from the heart of an individual who has been transformed through a relationship with the living God. Learning Christ’s teachings, imitating his life, and coming to understand the significance of his death and resurrection transform the individual until “ethics and faith are essentially indistinguishable” (Fedler, 2006, p. 205), this is the essence of Christian leadership.

When an ethical or moral crisis occurs at the societal level, the appropriate response is not to react with national or global scale policy aimed at achieving more ethical outcomes; it is to focus instead with new intensity on the formation and development of the individual human heart. Henry & Beaty, (2007) state unequivocally that “the highest and best purpose to which modern university can direct itself is nothing short of the moral formation of its students” (p.1). However, universities are not the only centers where moral education should be emphasized, our churches, our civic institutions, and our families are all ideally positioned to be incubators of moral development.

Christianity offers an integrated approach to ethical decision making that encompasses behavior-based as well as virtue-based ethics, it takes into account both moral intuition and moral reasoning and provides a mechanism for improving the ethical outcomes at the individual, organizational and societal levels. Jesus taught that "if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there' and it will move" (Matt 17:20). It is up to Christian leaders to understand and embrace the importance of moral education at the individual level and work to achieve this at the micro level with full confidence that better ethical outcomes at the macro level will follow.


Badaracco, J. (1997). Defining moments: When managers must choose between right and right. Boston, Mass: Harvard Business School Press.

Bazerman, M., & Tenbrunsel, A. (2011). Blind spots. Leadership Excellence, 28(3), 5.

Berlin, I. (1980). The originality of Machiavelli. Henry Hardy ed. Against the Current. New York. Viking Press.

Ciulla, J. B. (2014). Ethics, the heart of leadership (3rd ed.). Westport, Conn: Praeger.

Colson, C. (2011). A crisis of ethics – doing the right thing. Part 1. [Video file]. Retrieved from

Fedler, K. (2006). Exploring Christian Ethics: Biblical Foundations for Morality, Westminster John Knox Press. ISBN-10: 0664228984; ISBN-13: 978-0664228989.

Grisez, G. (2008). The true ultimate end of human beings: the Kingdom, not God alone. Theological Studies, 69(1). Retrieved from

Henry, D. V., & Beaty, M. D. (2007). The schooled heart: Moral formation in American higher education. Waco: Baylor University Press

Nouwen, H. J. M. (2002). In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. New York: Crossroad Pub. Co.

Ralston, D. A., Egri, C. P., Furrer, O., Kuo, M., Li, Y., Wangenheim, F., . . . Weber, M. (2014). Societal-level versus individual-level predictions of ethical behavior: A 48-society study of collectivism and individualism. Journal of Business Ethics, 122(2), 283-306. doi:

Wright, N. T. (2010). After you believe: Why Christian character matters (1st ed.). New York: HarperOne.

Zollo, L., Pellegrini, M. M., & Ciappei, C. (2017). What sparks ethical decision making? The interplay between moral intuition and moral reasoning: Lessons from the scholastic doctrine. Journal of Business Ethics, 145(4), 681-700. doi:10.1007/s10551-016-3221-8


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