EGMT 1540: Can a Text Be Ethical?


The reliance on texts for ethical guidance is a widespread human phenomenon.  From the Code of Hammurabi to UVa’s Honor Code, texts have been used both to dictate what is right and wrong and to inspire individuals to seek out and enact the good. In this course, we will examine the use of written documents in determining what is ethical through case studies involving just one example: the New Testament.  We will examine four specific moments in history in which the New Testament played a primary role in ethical decision-making, asking in each instance the following questions:


  • Did the multiple individuals involved agree about the text’s interpretation? If not, how did the disagreement play out? Did a particular interpretation “win”? Was that, in your opinion, the “correct” interpretation?
  • Why did the text play a role? Did the text have the same authoritative and/or ethical status to everyone involved?
  • Was the outcome actually ethical?  Did the text lead, in your opinion, to ethical actions?

Our investigations of these historical moments will inform reflection on ourselves as ethical agents. To what extent have texts guided our actions in the past? Are there texts that we find ethically authoritative and/or helpful? As we inevitably face moments where we must make ethical decisions, what role, if any, will such texts play? What lessons can we learn from the roles texts have played in the past?