Lesson 3: Metaphysics and Ethics

Lecture 2A

In this lesson you will learn about the human person and its essential constitution as a moral being. It is axiomatic that the real goods which perfect the human person exist independently of anyone's actually choosing them as moral goods. It remains, however, a disputed question as to whether or not one should regard basic human goods in themselves as good in the strictly moral sense. Some thinkers argue that the basic human goods remain pre-moral until the moment when practical reasonableness goes to work on them in the living out of the moral life, whereas others take strong exception to this opinion on the basis that the position appears to eviscerate the transcendental goodness resident in the basic human goods, thereby threatening to render unintelligible the Aristotelian notion that the good-as-end draws. This difference of opinion ultimately reflects the dissimilarities between the perspectives of a moral realism which views ethics in continuity with a larger metaphysical description of the world and of a moral theory which considers ethics principally a matter of directing right choices in life.

Moral realism, which is the outlook represented in this course, centers its reflections on a contemplation of the highest wisdom. The Christian moral realist approaches the moral life as part of the larger contemplative life which "consists principally in contemplation of God under the impetus of divine love" (Summa theologiae IIa-IIae q. 180, a. 7). Within this outlook, all Christian moral theology is fueled by the splendid intuition of Thérèse of Lisieux who came to understand that Love alone enables the Church's members to act. What might be described as moral decisionism centers its reflections on the interior dynamics of the acting person. From this point of view, the moral life is the equivalent of an examined life, much as St Augustine advocates when he writes: "Let each one of you consider himself: let him enter into himself, ascend the judgment seat of his own mind, set himself in order before his conscience, compel himself to confess. For it knows who he is: 'for what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within' (I Cor 2: 11)" (St Augustine,Commentary on John VIII, 9). Both positions, moral realism and moral decisionism, possess their distinguishing set of moral categories and both purport to maintain a form of moral objectivism.

To cast an irenic light on the discussion about metaphysics and ethics, it is possible to recognize in the moral realists' insistence that the goods which conduce to integral human perfection themselves form part of our moral universe a continuation of Roman Catholic insistence on the sacramentality of nature. Each morally good action which includes the human person's embrace of the basic human good incarnates a moment of divine love in the world, so that to insist that such goods are pre-moral seems to rupture the unity of the sacra doctrina. On the other hand, one must admit that neither modern moral philosophy nor--and perhaps because of the then-prevailing categories employed in moral discourse--the documents of the Second Vatican Council exhibit strong affinities for the relationship of moral philosophy to metaphysics. It should be pointed out that the Second Vatican Council did not produce a document on moral theory, and that Veritatis splendor completes the conciliar project as far as moral theology is concerned. On the contrary, the categories of law, the moral conscience, and human responsibility strongly characterize the ethical discourse in the second half of the 20th-century, and the Church continues to adapt these to her own purposes of moral instruction. In any event, the Christian tradition provides ample warrant for speaking about the moral life in terms of a well-formed conscience, due attention to legitimate moral norms and precepts, and the obligation to choose well in the course of one's life. At the same time, both Veritatis splendor and Fides et ratio have complemented the predominantly pastoral formulations found in the conciliar documents themselves by drawing our attention once again to the intimate relation that exists between moral action and the metaphysics of being.

Reading Assignments

Servais Pinckaers, O.P., The Sources of Christian Ethics, trans. Sr Mary Thomas Noble (Washington, 1995) ix-46.

Romanus Cessario, O.P., "The Reason for Reason: Fides et Ratio," Crisis 17 (January 1999): 16-19.

Virtue, chap. one.


1) Why is knowledge of the nature of the human person required for understanding of the ends to which the human person is ordered in nature and by grace?

2) Explain the relationship between anthropology on the one side, and ethics and moral theology on the other: why do both ethics and moral theology require, build on, and point toward truths about human nature? How does moral theology both presuppose and go beyond anthropology?

3) Why does Fides et ratio (#83) say of "a philosophy of genuinely metaphysical range" that it is "implicit in sapiential and analytical knowledge alike; and in particular it is a requirement for knowing the moral good, which has its ultimate foundation in the Supreme Good, God himself."?

4) Can you list some examples of ethical claims that are advanced, even in political discourse, that take no or very little account of the "good of the human person"?


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