Hermeneutics and Ethics: The Example of Reinhold Niebuhr

Journal of Religious Ethics 8 (1):27 - 53 (1980)
This essay explores the imaginative foundations of ethics, not by presenting a theory about the moral imagination, but by reconstructing the hermeneutic strategy underlying Reinhold Niebuhr's proposal for "an independent Christian ethic." The thesis is that Niebuhr's ethic cannot adequately be evaluated without careful attention to his hermeneutics, what he described as "the mythical method of interpretation." This point is argued first, by reconstructing Niebuhr's hermeneutics; second, by showing how his hermeneutics determines the strategy of his ethics; and third, by using this focus to clarify certain issues separating Niebuhr and some of his recent critics, specifically, William Frankena's criticism of his metaethics, Gene Outka's objections to his normative ethic of love as self-sacrifice; and John Howard Yoder's rejection of the strategy of his Christian realism as a whole. The essay is presented in the hope that Niebuhr's example will encourage American religious ethicists to explore the relationship between hermeneutics and ethics with greater intellectual sympathy and theoretical sophistication. The example of Niebuhr's "independent Christian ethic" is commended as one attempt to map the formal and substantive ways in which religious visions help shape our dispositions and moral choices.
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