Lecture 2: Moral Philosophy


    Last time we noted that we take the word philosophy from the Greeks for whom it meant the quest for wisdom, the love of wisdom. Wisdom itself consists in such knowledge of God as humans can attain. To attain it, almost everything else must first be learned. Thus the fledgling philosopher was taught logic, mathematics, natural science, ethics and then, finally, theology. The role of ethics or moral philosophy in this sequence is not so much cognitive -- giving us knowledge without which knowledge of God could not be attained -- as existential; that is, it seeks to make the seeker more attuned with the object of his quest: to be what his nature requires him to be. Theoretical and practical knowledge. The aim of ethics then is not knowledge, speculative truth, as a term: it seeks knowledge in order to help us become good.

    Many Platonic dialogues deal with moral questions. In Aristotle there is the Nicomachean Ethics, the Eudemian Ethics and, perhaps, the Magna moralia, not to forget of course the Politics. Aquinas commented on the NE and, in part, on the Politics.


    The perfection of thinking, the perfection of some act other than thinking as directed by the mind. To know the properties of a kind of thing is a goal in itself, whether the thing be a triangle or sulphur or an angel. Different theoretical sciences differ as the kinds of things they want to know differ: material things, abstract ideal things, separate existents. The good or end aimed at in the practical use of the mind is either the perfection of the made thing [art], or the perfection of the doer himself. The good for man. But man is by nature a political animal, a marrying or family animal -- not an autonomous individual. Politics, economics and ethics.


    What is my good? What will fulfill my aspirations? We are too likely to think of this as a question about the individual. One of Leo XIII's concerns about the modern world was precisely this individualism. Sometimes political theorists speak as if there were first individuals and then they meet and decide to form associations. Not at the most basic level. We are born into a family -- not by choice, but by nature. The human good is communal. Insofar as the good in view in a practical inquiry is that of the individual, of the family or of civil society, we have the different practical disciplines. Common good and private good.


    A variation: can virtue be learned? If moral philosophy is a practical discipline and aims to make a person good, is the obtaining of three credits in ethics the same as becoming good? One of the great mysteries moral philosophy confronts is that knowing what we ought to do is not tantamount to doing it. We act against our best lights. Pagans kicked against this -- Plato's Protagoras -- but finally accepted as fact that knowledge of the good cannot of itself assure the doing of the good. The Christian has a name for this fact -- Original Sin. The problem touched on here is one to which we shall return.


Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle's Ethics, Dumb Ox Books
Ralph McInerny, Ethica Thomistica, Catholic University Press


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