(The following are the written notes/texts of four, three hour, online session presentations given in the months of February through May in A.D. 2018. A similar set of presentations was given to a previous group some years earlier. The group consisted of diaconal aspirants, spouses, and diocesan officials of the Diocese of Pueblo in Colorado, United States. The fifteen articles found here will include thirteen specific philosophical issues, covered in those four online sessions.)
Let us now turn attention to the fifth issue: To describe the impactful manner in which Aristotelian Ethics was used to express ideas of Christian morality, it is illustratively helpful to focus on the idea of happiness within Judaism and Christianity, and within Aristotelian Ethics. This is what we will do first. Then second, I will introduce you to modernity’s renunciation of happiness as a central focus of morality and ethics.
Father Demetrius Dumm, a monk of the order of Saint Benedict, was a highly credentialed lifelong scholar and teacher of sacred scripture. For over sixty years he studied the Bible and taught Sacred Scriptures.
In his book Praying the Scriptures, he writes of the narratives written in the Bible, “It is clear…that…God…wants to be known primarily as the God who performs great deeds of love and mercy leading to liberation and joy…This is the central core of biblical revelation about God. All other factors are subordinate and intended only to illustrate or to draw implications from this essential revelation…”
The Bible exists for the purpose of revealing, to generations of future readers, that God’s acts of mercy and love are for the purpose of helping human beings find that freedom which leads to their happiness.
In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says much the same thing; the goal and purpose of morality is to help people be happy.
For Aristotle, the purpose of intellectually understanding morality and ethics, and the purpose of living an ethical life is to be happy. Fifteen centuries later, Saint Thomas Aquinas will say the same thing, with the slight qualification that the goal of morality is to be reasonably happy in this life and completely happy in eternity.
Aristotle and Aquinas believe that happiness is why we do morality and act morally. For them, the goal and purpose of morality is human happiness.
There are many moral systems. There are many moralities. These differ, primarily, in what they consider to be the focus of doing morality and being moral. Some moral goals other than happiness are holiness, pleasure, beauty, productivity and accomplishment, oneness with creation, duty, detachment.
The degree to which an ethical system deviates from happiness as its goal and purpose, is the degree to which that ethical/moral system becomes weird, inhuman, and inhumane. For example, consider Nazism. The goal of this system is beauty as defined by Arian-Nazi eugenic principles.
For Aristotle, the goal of morality is human happiness.
To become happy, Aristotle then provides an ethical philosophy; a moral philosophy. Aristotle’s ethics include the following ideas:
- Happiness is the goal of moral education, thinking, and practice
- Happiness is the goal because what is most real are actual material physical things; primary among which are human beings.
- The reality within which human beingness is conducted is a reality of contingency, of change. Thus, moral principles must be flexible in order to lead human beings, living within a contingent reality, to happiness.
- Some fifteen centuries after Aristotle, Saint Thomas Aquinas, following the lead of Saint Augustine, will develop a moral philosophy which seeks to expand upon Aristotle’s idea of happiness as the goal and Aristotle’s idea that contingency is a necessary reality which any good moral system must accommodate. To this end, Saint Thomas Aquinas will develop a theory called The Natural Law theory.
- In the Natural Law theory, natural law is the use of human reason by a human being to discern moral truths.
- This natural law is not the same as the eternal law found in the mind of God. Natural law is more flexible, contingent, better matched to a contingent human nature.
- Further, because human situations are filled with change and contingency, it is often the case that a too rigid application of law would be harmful to human beings. Thus, Saint Thomas spoke of the need for a Divine Law, delivered by God to man in the form of various revelations (think of the 10 commandments or magisterial teaching) which helps bend and modify human laws and their applications which have become too rigid. [It is valuable, in this context, to recall that within a democracy, the purpose of law is to restrict freedom so that all persons might share a political equality. Sometimes this restriction of freedom can become too rigid, requiring a modifying influence such as that which divine law can supply.]
- Aristotle taught that the path of human happiness begins with virtue, virtues, and a virtuous lifestyle.
- Virtue is defined by Aristotle as excellence of character.
- This excellence of character is the highest moral state.
- Excellence of character is obtained by doing good deeds habitually.
- Because virtue is attained by learning and doing good-deeds-habitually, morality is taught and learned. One is not born morally excellent of character. Excellence of character is learned.
- However, doing-good-deeds-habitually is not the highest moral state. Excellence of character is the highest moral state. Doing-good-deeds-habitually has an instrumental value, not a primary value.
- Doing-good-deeds-habitually is a matter of learning moderation. Virtues always lie in a mean between two vices. Thus, the virtue of courage lies between the vices of rash-fearlessness and cowardliness. Vices are always, perversions of the related virtue. For example, rash-fearlessness is an excess of courage. Cowardliness is a deficiency of courage.
- This idea of virtue as the mean between two vices was appropriated by Aristotle from his knowledge of the temple to Apollo at Delphi in Greece, the home of the political-prophetic-seers, the Delphic Sybils. On the lintel on one side of the temple, the well known famous words no-thay sow-ton; “know yourself” were engraved. On the lintel above the pediments on the other side of the temple are the words maydane agan, “do the middle”.
- “Do the middle” will be developed by Aristotle into his idea that virtues stand as the means between associated vices; between that vice which is an over-doing of the associated virtue and that vice which is a deficiency of the associated virtue.
- Some centuries later maydane-agan/“do the middle”, will be translated into the Latin aphorism virtus stat in media res, “virtue stands in the middle”. Some centuries later, this Latin aphorism will be translated, somewhat incorrectly, into the English aphorism, “Moderation in all things.”
- I say that “moderation in all things” incorrectly summarizes Aristotle for the following reason. “Moderation in all things” implies in most people’s minds that when a tough moral issue is faced, it is always good to seek the middle ground; to compromise. Aristotle would disagree with this. Aristotle would say, that in dealing with tough moral issues, one should use one’s mind to intellectually determine what the virtuous act should be. Then, the degree to which one overdoes that virtue is a vice and the degree to which one’s virtuous action is insufficient is also a vice. Aristotle does not advise seeking the middle.
- Aristotle tells us that there is a typology of persons, morally considered. These are, from top to bottom: godlike, virtuous, continent, incontinent, vicious, and brutish.
- The Godlike and brutish type of persons are not actually moral at all since they are the way they are by nature. They do not learn to be godlike or brutish. They are Godlike or brutish by nature, not be learning.
- Since godlikeness is by nature, and since human moral excellence is learned, it does no good for a human to imitate godlikeness. This idea of Aristotle’s recalls the words of French mathematician/philosopher Blaise Pascal; “Man is neither angel nor beast, and unhappily whoever wants to act the angel, acts the beast.”
- Thus, for Aristotle godlikeness and brutishness have no moral value in terms of teaching us anything about being morally excellent. To be morally excellent we need to focus our attention on the other four types of moral beings: the virtuous, the continent, the incontinent, and the vicious.
- The virtuous person is the person who possesses an excellent character by means of doing good deeds habitually.
- The continent person is the person who wants to do good deeds and often succeeds. Further, the continent man thinks virtue is about doing good deeds habitually.
- The incontinent person is the person who desires to do good but often fails. He too thinks virtue is about doing-good-habitually.
- The vicious person is the person who desires to do evil and often does so.
- The continent and incontinent persons are not virtuous. They are not virtuous, not because they have failed at doing-good-deeds-habitually but because they think virtue is about, is equivalent to doing-good-deeds-habitually. The error of continence is not a lack of doing good, it is a lack of correct moral attitudes and thinking.
- Aristotle’s idea, that doing-good-deeds is not the highest moral value, is almost a perfect match for that Pauline soteriology, Saint Paul’s theology of how we are saved, that salvation is unearned. For Saint Paul, one obtains salvation by means of an unearned grace. For Saint Paul, one is saved by accepting the gift of salvation earned for us by the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ.
- St. Paul’s grace based soteriology is identical in this regard to Aristotle’s ethical philosophy. For Saint Paul, one cannot earn salvation. For Aristotle, virtue is not the same as doing-good-deeds.
This ethics, this moral philosophy of Aristotle becomes and to this day remains the preferred way to express and teach Christian morality.
However, beginning with modernity, Aristotelian and Christian moral principles began to be challenged. These challenges were finally put into writing by Immanual Kant.
Today, many preachers and homilists and moral educators who identify themselves as Christian will, when asked, say that they teach a morality consistent with that taught by Jesus. However, in reality, many of them are teaching some version of Kantian ethics. Kantian ethics is not the Christian morality of Saint Paul or the ethics of Aristotle. It is not the ethical moral system of the Roman Catholic Church.
What is Kantian Ethics?
- In just a few words, Kantian ethics is the reduction of morality to Aristotelian continence.
- Immanual Kant was a genius and a good man. He was also probably OCD. Every day of his life he would take a morning walk which was so regular, the town began to set its clocks according to when Kant took his walk. Kant drank up to 100 cups of coffee a day. Kant, when invited to coffee, would insist on the coffee be served in a certain type of cup on a certain type of saucer turned a certain direction, etc.
- In his personal life, Kant wanted strict order. He liked things to be static, finished, complete. He did not like disorder, chaos, change, contingency.
- In short, he did not like human nature which is, by definition, contingent.
- Thus, he spent his life seeking to discover and develop a morality which would remove contingency from human existence and which would deny the value of being aware of and accommodating contingency.
- Though Kant agrees with Aristotle that all human beings seek to be happy, Kant stated that different persons attain happiness by different routes, by actualizing different values. Thus, happiness is contingent to the values people identify and pursue. Because happiness is awash in contingency, Kant declares that happiness cannot be the goal of a useful moral system.
- Kant also rejects a Natural Law morality of Saint Thomas Aquinas because it too is awash in contingency. He rejects Natural Law morality for two reasons.
- First, Thomas’ concepts of the Natural Law and of Divine Law expressly incorporate an awareness for human contingency and the need to adopt and adapt to that contingency.
- Second, Kant rejects the Natural Law theory because it is natural. Because it is based on nature, human nature, it cannot possibly provide the infallible, always unchanging, moral principles which Kant seeks.
- Kant would invite us to think of the mathematical construct called a right triangle. As you know, there is an algorithm, a rule, which tells us the relationship of the lengths of the sides of right triangle. That rule, called the Pythagorean theorem, states that the sum of the squares of the lengths of the two short sides, is equal to the square of the length of the long side.
- Kant points out that this algorithm is only true of an idealized right triangle. In nature, Kant would point out, though there are many triangular shaped forms, there are no actual triangles in nature. The triangular shapes appearing in nature, and even in human artifacts, always deviate from the exact shape of idealized mathematical triangles. Thus, one cannot never find the pythagorean theorem in nature. One can only find this law and rule which is always the same, if one deals with an idealized reality; not with a natural reality.
- Therefore, if one seeks to find a moral philosophy which will always be correct for all persons and for all times, one can never find that moral system by thinking about nature or human realities which are never ideal; which are always contingent.
- In order to find and form a moral philosophy which can beneficially guide all human action, always, and for everyone; one must turn, not to nature (nor must one turn to eternal law or divine law). One must turn to pure human reasoning. In pure human reason, within the logical constructs of mind, one will find a metaphysics of moral principles which will always guide moral thinking and moral actions correctly.
- These pure logical moral constructs of human reasons are referred to as a priori synthetical practical moral propositions.
- There is only one such always infallible moral rule which one needs to know and by which one needs to abide to always act morally, and to create a truly moral world and society. That moral rule is:
- “Do only those things which you would allow all other persons to do.”
- Notice, virtue as a matter of excellence of character is replaced by Kant with a definition of morality as a matter of action, of doing. “Do only those things” and “allow others to do”. Kant reduces morality to continence. Remember Aristotle’s definition of continence? Doing-good-deeds-habitually, and his definition of the continent man as one who thinks morality is about doing; doing-good-deeds-habitually.
- Now, where does a morality based on “doing” lead us? Where does a continence based morality lead us?
- If “doing good” is the definition of being moral, then how does one become even more moral? By doing-more-good. And how does one become even better? “By doing-even-more-good. And how does one get better? by doing-more.
- There is no end to doing-more-good. If doing-more-good has no end, then the summit of moral excellence is ceaseless-frenetic-activity.
- Despite Kant wish to turn us into beings which are angels, which are not contingent, where always the women are strong and the men are good looking and the children are always above average…; despite this desire, the fact is the human beings are contingent, messy, broken, fractured entities. To teach contingent beings that they should be ceaselessly-frenetically-active can lead to only one conclusion; workaholism, the addiction to accomplishment.
- In addition to redefining morality as continence, Kantian ethics replaces character with accomplishment as the highest moral value.
- Kant’s morality is consistent with the words found on the lintel above the gate at the death camp, Auschwitz, arbeit macht frei, “work shall set you free”. This is quite different from the “do the middle” found on the lintel at Delphi.
- And thus, we are finally able to see that the replacement of a Christian morality with a Kantian morality necessary leads the Christian to replace a grace-based-soteriology with a merit-based-soteriology.
- An example of a Kantian/merit-based-soteriological thinking would be the presentation or sermon or counseling which makes use of “the final judgment” narrative of Matthew 25:31 through 46 as a motivation to inspire participation in some activity, membership, or fund-raising project.