Moral exemplarism and Christian ethics
Positive role models, or moral exemplars, are increasingly of interest to ethicists. Bridging the gap between theory and practice, exemplars inspire us to live well and, in their own ways, show us how to do so. Their stories, of course, are a staple means by which we encounter and learn from exemplars. And so, for Christian ethicists especially, the stories of exemplary figures in the Bible are of paramount importance. After all, Jesus—the ultimate exemplar—is encountered through holy writ.
Scripture, however, provides a wide array of exemplars, some more obviously exemplary than others. And one of the less obvious exemplars—if he really is an exemplar—is the shrewd steward in Luke 16, the steward who, when threatened with dismissal from his post, erases the debts of his master’s debtors so that they might welcome him into their homes. Perhaps surprisingly, the master commends the steward for his actions, suggesting that there is something morally admirable in the steward’s example.
I think there is something to learn from the steward and from this parable more generally. I have two things in mind: first, I think recent scholarship on moral exemplarism, particularly from the philosopher Linda Zagzebski, can help us make moral sense of the parable of the shrewd servant, thus highlighting what we might learn from this beguiling story; and, second, I think that an analysis of the parable, using Zagzebski’s exemplarism, can further illuminate the strengths and weaknesses of that theory, thus contributing to our theoretical understanding of moral exemplars, including their place within Christian ethics.
To speak to these points, I will proceed in three steps: First, I will analyse the parable using Zagzebski’s theory of moral exemplarism; I show why the shrewd steward should not be considered exemplary, despite the master’s commendation. Second, I will analyse it again using Zagzebski’s theory of divine motivation, her theological complement to moral exemplarism; I show why the steward should be considered exemplary, in light of divine motives. Third, I will step back from the parable to consider Zagzebski’s account of moral exemplarism; I ask how exemplarism might fit within Christian moral reasoning as a whole.
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Faculty of Theology and Religion
University of Oxford
Oxford, OX2 6GG, United Kingdom
© Edward A. David 2022