Monday, 27 January 2014

REPOST: Discovering Ethics II: Basic questions 1 (Pinckaers 1995)

This is part 2 of a series on Christian ethics I originally wrote some years ago. The first part can be found here.

(Originally posted 12 March 2009)

I started working through Servis Pinckaers OP's work The Sources of Christian Ethics here. Moving on from placing the issue in its historical context, Pinckaers posits some basic questions regarding the relationship between ethics and a number of fundamental issues intrinsic to human existence.

1. What is a person obliged to do and not do - what Kant called the moral imperative? This was touched upon in the previous post. Pinckaers points out that Catholic moral teaching of the last six centuries has tended to assign an unjustifiably large importance to the role of moral obligations. For instance, ethicists have discussed how often we are obliged to pray, or perform works of charity. Some, especially Protestants, will infer that this is silly since we are required to do so incessantly. This is a bit beside the point, for such discussions took place in the context of determining when people were obliged to go to Confession - if a person had not performed a charitable act for two months, should that be considered a grave sin which needed to be confessed? This is a valid question for a Catholic. However, there is a danger, Pinckaers argues, of equating morality simply with the science of obligations and duties. This is a reduced view of morality, since - as the Saints demonstrate - what drives Christian life is the interior workings of the Spirit, which, while ensuring the honouring of obligations and duties, also calls Man to go beyond them.

2. The role of happiness. Some more modern moralists are perplexed that St. Thomas Aquinas, the great master of theology, has very little to say about obligations. But, Pinckaers argues, this is because he frames his teaching on morality in a somewhat different way than later generations of moralists. St Thomas, in fact, bases his whole moral teaching on the question of happiness, beatitude. This is not something novel. Both the Pagan Greek philosophers such as Aristotle and the Greek and Latin Fathers of the Church viewed the question of happiness as the primary principle in dealing with morality. When St. Augustine is asked what we should ask of God, he replies, "Ora beatam vitam" - "Ask for the happy life." Right living, it was unanimously believed, would lead naturally to a state of happiness. Friendship is another important theme, especially among the Greek Fathers. St. Thomas defined charity as friendship with God. Pinckaers notes:
This theme has completely disappeared from modern books on morality. The reason is obvious: friendship, being essentially free, could hardly be considered an obligation. Friendship can create obligations, but the inverse is not true. As a result, friendship has been excluded from the field of morality as an indifferent sentiment...
As Pinckaers points out, the approach of the Fathers and St. Thomas is profoundly scriptural, much more so than that of later moralists. The wisdom litterature, the Beatitudes in Matthew's Gospel, St. Paul all speak of morality in the context of the search for happiness. Later moralists seldom quote Scripture apart from the Decalogue.

Now, I and many others would infer that all this talk about happiness is very good, but is there not a risk of perverting the quest for genuine happiness - which is found only in the beholding of the glory of God - into a self-seeking hedonism? Pinckaers acknowledges this concern, but, he argues,
The quality of our desire for happiness depends on the love that inspires it and on our concept of the human person. If the love is selfish, and still more if the human person is seen as a being with needs craving satisfaction, then the desire for happiness is bound to be self-centered... If, on the other hand, a person is capable of true, unselfish love for God and neighbour... then the desire for happiness can lead that person to be open to God and neighbour and become generous.
According to Pinckaers, obligations and happiness are not antithetical to one another. A proper moral theory of beatitude should well be able to accord obligations and the Commandments their proper place within it. Going on, he says,
This would be to place Christian ethics in a very different context. It would be seen as the science of happiness and of the ways that lead thereto... In Scripture, God always approaches us with promises of happiness before speaking of precepts. Inspired by the desire for happiness, the movements of the human heart and all its actions, even on the level of emotion, can work together to foster moral growth...
I completely agree with Pinckaers that this must be the starting points of Christian ethics. After all, the Beatitudes were the starting point of Christ's moral teaching. This in no way reduces the radical demands of the Gospel, but rather places them in their proper context. As I see it, what many perceive as "traditional" Catholic moral teaching, i.e. that of the last six centuries, for all the truth it contains has shown to be vulnerable in that it stresses law for law's own sake, thereby separating it from the concerns and challenges of the individual. This has probably been a factor in the large-scale defections from the Church in recent decades. In contrast, by positing law as the answer to Man's legitimate search for happiness, its relevance in the life of each individual shines forth clearly, and we realize that our innate longing for happiness is fulfilled by adhering to the revealed truth about God, our ultimate end.

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