Friday, November 5, 2010

A Guess about Ethics

Anything to distract me from the hateful task of marking exams.

I was contemplating a few things about theological ethics just now.

Hypothesis: Catholic moral theory has depended fundamentally upon the notion of intuition, due to its use of virtue ethics, natural law, and doctrine of grace.

Assumption: my understanding of these three things as they stand in the Catholic tradition is accurate.

Conclusion: Thomas and Augustine believed God an intimate participant in the moral act, not merely in terms of supplying motivation but also pre- or un-conscious information essential to identifying the end and the proper means to that end. In other words, ethics is essentially a sub-division of mysticism. Further, this fact has been obfuscated by a misconception of the role of virtue ethics in the Catholic tradition, and an overreaction to moral relativism.

Explanation: The question naturally arises, how would we hang on to the 'natural' in this suggestion that all things dissolve into the supernatural? Natural law is about reason, virtue ethics relies on the relation that exists between the good-doer (holy person) whose actions lead by definition to the good object, who can be studied and imitated.

With Thomas the natural law seems to lose traction at the level of the particular and the unique. At this point, if we move from the deductive methodology of the moral law to the inductive method of watching holy people, we see that even here their actions cannot be as easily scrutinized. We enter more and more into the sphere of the mystical, governed by supernatural intuition and we begin to guess at the things we are beholding.

Thomas' moral doctrine is truly perplexing for the way in which it combines secular object-means-intention thinking with Augustine's grace doctrine. This is less an aberration in his methodology than its rule. I would say that Thomas' account of the moral life involves much more of the 'mystical' than is initially apparent. The big question is - why doesn't he plainly tell us this?

Maybe he does so, but subtly,taking it for granted that we all know this already?

Maybe he doesn't because it's not his position?

Maybe he doesn't because the Summa is not the proper place to discuss it?

I am firmly convinced that he believes the two types of doctrine (natural law, etc, vs. mysticism) consistent with each other (just as Augustine did), and that Thomas could demonstrate their coherence (though Augustine could not - despite his best effort in his epistles to the monks of Hadrumetum, etc.). Thus, I am lead to ask the question:

Did Thomas actually think that the natural doctrine of ethics was a complete one? It appears to me almost certain that he did not. But did he provide any proof of this, other than in his distinction between the natural and supernatural human ends? What more proof would one need, you might ask? Again, this was a man fully convinced about the essential interdependence of the natural and supernatural domains of reason and faith, but what was he up to in endorsing Aristotle's closed system? Endorsing the first chapter of a book?

Perhaps Thomas knew that much more that wanted saying could not be said in human words?

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