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Posted March 23, 2005

Book: An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Christian Ethics
Author: Alban McCoy
Continuum, NY, pp.166

  An Excerpt from the Jacket:

In this concise and lucid book, Alban McCoy considers the fundamental principles of morality in a Christian context.  Starting from the widespread phenomenon of seemingly insuperable disagreement in discussion of the most basic moral issues, he locates the root cause of such disagreement in confusion about the essential nature of morality as such.  What distinguishes a moral judgement from a historical or scientific judgement? Which considerations are relevant to moral issues as opposed to questions of a pragmatic or practical importance? What resources are available to us when weighing moral matters? Various critiques of morality such as amoralism, determinism, subjectivism and cultural relativism, as well as different moral theories such as utilitarianism and absolutism are considered and found wanting.

  At the heart of the book, McCoy offers a rational account of morality rooted in virtue and character and human flourishing. He then sets this in a Christian context in order to show what difference Christian revelation makes to our understanding of morality. Writing clearly and without jargon, McCoy provides the non-specialist reader with a stimulating discussion of the fundamental concepts we employ in everyday consideration of moral questions.  He manages to render difficult matters intelligible without oversimplication and his book will appeal to anybody interested in finding a way through the moral maze and to students of philosophy embarking on a study of ethics.  

An Excerpt from the Book:

Aristotle and the Life of Virtue

Aristotle interested himself in every detail of life. Although educated in Plato’s Academy, he rejected the doctrine of the Forms, in which Plato located reality beyond the world of our senses, and, far from downgrading the senses as Plato had done, placed first importance on knowledge through sense experience: that is, on what could be seen and noticed and what could be said about it. Aristotle can also be credited with giving the West its philosophical vocabulary.

  Nowhere is this more true than in ethics.  He both sorted out with considerable precision the meaning of moral words and sought to give an account of the structure of morality. The point and purpose of engaging in ethics is, according to Aristotle, to become good:  

For we are enquiring not in order to know what virtue is but in order to become good since otherwise our enquiry would be of no use.  

Aristotle begins his examination of ethics by lookingat the way the most common ethical word, “good”, is used.  He notices right away that every act aims at some good.  

Every art and every enquiry and similarly every action and pursuit is thought to aim at some good and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.  

He makes an early and important distinction between things which are good as means, that is, for the sake of something else; and things tht are good as ends, that is, for their own sake. About human activity, he asks: Is there one final end for man? He argues towards his first conclusion in moral philosophy: namely, that there is indeed one, overriding, final end of all human activity.

  If there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity so that our desire would be empty and vain) clearly this must be the good and the chief good. Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right?  

. . . Aristotle calls that final good for the sake of which everything is (ultimately) done, happiness. He arrives at this argument in two seemingly different ways, one way being better, in the opinion of some.  

But first, a word about the word ‘happiness’. Eudaimonia is the Greek word used by Aristotle: it does not mean happiness in the sense of a state of euphoria, as it does in English. Rather, it means to be flourishing, to make a success of life. So that the connection between eudaimonia and happiness is indirect.  

. . . Aristotle says that eudaimonia concerns the activity of the soul and mind.  

For just as for a flute-player, a sculptor, or any artist and in general for all things that have a function of activity (praxis), the good and the ‘well’ is thought to reside in the function, so it would seem to be for man, if he has a function.  Have the carpenter then and the tanner certain functions of activities and has man none? Is he born without a function? Or as the eye, hadn, foot and in general each of the parts evidently has a function, may one lay it down that man similarly has a function apart from all these? What then can this be? Life seems to be common even to the plants, but we are seeking what is peculiar to man. Let us exclude therefore the life of nutrition and growth.  Next there would be a life of perception but it also seems to be common even to the horse, the ox and every animal. There remains then an active life of the element that has a rational principle . . .human good turns out to be the activity of the soul in accordance with virtue, and if there is more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete. But we must add ‘in a complete life.’ For one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day or a short time does not make a man blessed and happy.  

And later he says:

If happiness is an activity in accordance with virtue, it is reasonable that it should be in accordance with the highest virtue; and this will be that of the best things in us.  Whether it be reason or something else that is this element which is thought to be our natural ruler and guid to take thought of things noble and divine, whether it be itself also divine or only the most divine element in us, the activity of this in accordance with its proper virtue will be perfect happiness. This activity is contemplation (theoria).  

Table of Contents:

Part I The Meaning of ‘Moral’

The subject matter of morality
Morality presupposes freedom, but are we free?
Determinism versus Indeterminism
Ethical subjectivism and the claims of conscience
Cultural Relativism
Part II Absolutism, Consequentialism or Virtue?

Utilitarianism: Benthan and Mill
Aristotle and the life of virtue
Part III Ethics in a Christian Context

The structure of moral judgments
Christian Morality
A classical Christian moral account: St. Thomas