Part III: The Practical Disciplines and the Unity of Human Knowledge

Lesson 7: Critique of Contemporary Ethics and Politics

1) The practical sciences differ from the theoretical sciences (natural science, mathematics, metaphysics) in that they deal with judgments about the relation of means to ends and thus concern not truth about factual situations but about what had better be done or avoided. Practical sciences, therefore, must be based on the theoretical sciences, the "ought" on the "is," since they presuppose knowledge of the factual reality that it is the business of theoretical science to discover and explain. The practical sciences are either technological (artificial, e.g. engineering, business administration) if they deal with ends that are freely chosen; or ethical if they deal with means that are freely chosen to ends that are fixed by the needs of human nature. Thus ethical truth is absolute, while technological truth is conditional and must conform to ethical truth, since skill in committing a crime can hardly be called a virtue, only skill in meeting genuine human needs. The ethical sciences are threefold, the ethics of individual life, of family life, and of social life (politics). Moral theology is that part of Christian theology that deals with the direction of human life for the individual, the family, and the whole Christian community in its journey to union with God in Christ and the Holy Spirit.

2) Two types of ethical thinking can be distinguished. Deontological ethics (from Greek deontos, duty), or command ethics or legalistic ethics, reduces morality to obedience to the commands of a moral authority, although in Kantian ethics this authority is the person's own rational will (autonomy). Deontological ethics is voluntaristic since it claims that it is the will of the authority that makes the action good or bad. Teleological ethics, on the other hand, maintains that moral commands are valid only if they are based on the intellectual understanding of the relation of means to an end determined by human nature or (in the case of the technologies) freely chosen but in conformity with human nature. Thus a command contrary to its teleological truth is invalid. Teleological ethics must be distinguished from what John Paul II has called teleologism (proportionalism) that determines the morality of an act morality in terms of the proportion of positive and negative "pre-moral" values in an act and thus denies that some concrete negative norms are without exception (e. g. sexual intercourse against the will of the other is always wrong). The reason is that such exceptionless concrete moral norms are based on the fact that some means are contradictory to the ends of human nature and thus cannot be made moral by any circumstances or secondary intention (e.g. sexual intercourse with an unwilling partner is contradictory to the true purpose of human sexuality which is to express mutual love). Certain goals are fixed in human nature (the need for physical well-being, family, society, and the knowledge of God, other persons and morality). God's gracious calling of the Christian, however, elevates the goals of human nature to intimate and eternal life in the Trinity. Thus moral judgments must be made primarily in view of this supernatural end yet must include respect for the natural end of the human person.

Proportionalism is really a hidden form of legalism, since it seeks exceptions to laws rather than the true reasons for action or non-action.

3) As intelligent persons we have free will to choose to do what is naturally right in any particular situation; to do this consistently in changing and often difficult circumstances, however, as is necessary to attain our ultimate end, requires special skills or virtues. These are either (1) intellectual virtues, of which (a) the virtue of practical moral reasoning is called prudence, while (b) the technological skills are called the arts; or (2) the moral virtues that also include (a) prudence and in addition (b) justice or respect for the rights of others, (c) fortitude (courage) that moderates our aggressive drives and (d) temperance (moderation) that controls our desires for pleasure, so that these drives do not cloud prudence and our moral decisions. For Christians there are also the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.

4) Political prudence is required by those who are in charge of the united action of a community for the common good and by the citizens of the community in cooperating to this end. It should be used according to the principle of subsidiarity that states that policy decisions should be made by those who are most affected by these decisions with the proviso that higher authority may correct these decisions for the sake of the common good of the whole community but must seek to enable the lower unit to continue to make its own decisions in conformity with the common good. Authority and obedience are necessary in any community, since persons even of equal prudence and good will can honestly disagree in practical matters, yet the common good cannot be attained without common action. Hence totalitarianism is a false political theory because the common good must further the good of the members of the community not the good of the rulers or some fictitious "totality." Anarchism, or the theory of agreement by consensus without obedience to authority, is also false because it is utopian to think that agreement can always be reached simply by discussion. Thus the best practical form of government is a republic in which decisions are made by a president with the counsel of a representative body and the consent of the citizens. The common good that government must seek is to foster the virtuous life of its members in which the supreme good is knowledge of the truth of God, his creation, and the good life.


Benedict M. Ashley, O. P. and Kevin D. O'Rourke, O.P., Health Care Ethic: A Theological Approach (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 4th edition, 1996), Chapter 7 and 8, pp. 137-226 on the logical and principles of ethics.


1) Is an action morally good because authority commands it, or should authority command something because it is morally good?

2) Why do we need not only a "decision-making ethics" but a "virtue ethics."

3) Why did John Paul II condemn "teleologism" or proportionalism in the encyclical "The Splendor of Truth" (Veritatis Splendor)?

4) Why must there be authority and obedience to just decisions by authority in any human community if it is to function well and survive?

5) What is the argument for a "republic" as ordinarily the best practical form of government?


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