PART I – The various Moral Philosophies
During my seminary formation I had the privilege to study Philosophy, which taught me about all the different ways to perceive reality. This is not something many people have the opportunity to study in their own life time; however, it is nonetheless fundamental. Everyone has an “assumed-philosophy” that shapes the way we interpret reality, and from this interpretation comes a moral and spiritual ethos. I would therefore like to offer you my own summary of the various ways that we can assess morality. The list is not exhaustive, but summarizes various positions. There are more positions, but generally they are a mixture of elements from what you see here below.
Absolute Moral Skepticism – this view believes that all moral claims have no actual firm foundation. There is no moral code written into reality itself. This is a symptom of a philosophy that actually claims nothing is definitively knowable – and that all truths, both scientific and moral can be doubted. As a result, humans can only use their best judgment in the particular instance of their time to evaluate the difference between what they think right and wrong is for a particular purpose. Because reason cannot help us arrive at a particular decision, since all can be equally doubted, it is likely that people who adhere to this philosophy would rely upon their emotions and impulses more than their reason. Nonetheless, both are unreliable and so one might think the only thing proper to do is remain locked into uncertainty and never decide anything at all.
Existentialism – this view claims that man and woman can “create” themselves, and flowing from this self-willed created-self they can determine what behaviour ought to flow from their own self-made identity. Existentialism tends to place the emphasis and moral responsibility in the individual’s hands, to escape the social constructed ethos that is artificially imposed upon them. Existentialism seeks to break free from artificial moral-expectations and to determine our own purpose and therefore moral behaviour. What is the basis however for determining one’s own nature? If it is our preference, would that preference not derive itself from one’s own natural affective desires and inclinations? If from pure reason, would this not derive itself from our nature to be rational? Therefore, the existential “freedom” to create oneself cannot reasonably exist in a vacuum, but must stem from one’s actual existence, which therefore has a nature as such.
Moral Positivism – this view suggests that the universe is actually intrinsically disordered, and therefore to create order and therefore peace, moral laws must be imposed upon human communities. The moral law is not about “cooperating” with human-nature, but violently reshaping it through social-contracts that guide its nature to be conformed to a socially agreed-upon set of rules. These moral laws are artificially imposed on mankind because they do not cooperate with mankind’s nature. They might involve the repression or oppression of various desires that would lead a civilization into chaos.
Deistic Moral Positivism – During the protestant reformation, Calvin and Luther both asserted that human nature had become “totally deprived” of the good. Therefore, the moral law, as divinely revealed by God through scripture must be imposed upon mankind in order to “recreate” this moral being in order to conform his/her nature to the moral order. The nature of mankind had become “evil” in the minds of many Christians, and therefore the “social-contract” that is asserted is not from the state, but rather from God alone. Morality was not based upon “who mankind is” and helping man “fulfill his potential” or to determine for ourselves who we might be (existentialism) but rather to violently reshape mankind to conform to the nature of God’s wishes. Therefore, the moral law that God gives us is not a matter of cooperating with our nature, but changing it. Thus God’s moral law to some degree is artificially imposed upon mankind, since the moral law pertains to God’s preference, but not according to our nature.
The Natural Moral Law – the Natural moral law is not understood as a positive-law, a social contract, or a self-determination (existentialism). The natural moral law is also not fundamentally Christian, but was adopted by Christians from the Pagan philosopher Aristotle. In its pagan origins, this view asserts that man has a good-nature that directs itself towards its own perfection or self-actualization. Mankind does not “create-himself” or his purpose, but rather humbly surrenders to it. On the other hand, what is his true nature is not determined by popular opinion or social constructs, but rather discovered through reasoning and observing the nature of man, and where he is objectively inclined. To Aristotle this inclination always led to “happiness.” But Aristotle was not naïve to believe it was just any happiness. He distinguished between “real” happiness and “apparent” happiness. In other words, there are things that make man “feel happy” while also amounting to nothing more than a subjective-illusion (often leading to bigger problems) while there are other types of happiness that involve the actually fulfillment of one’s potential, grounding his/her happiness in reality rather than in something false or illusive. The “purpose” for mankind is therefore “real-happiness” and the path towards such fulfillment involves aligning the will and behaviour of the individual towards the good, beautiful and true. This behaviour then turns into virtue, thereby securing one of the delights of being fully human, and being one’s most authentic self. The self is discovered rather than arbitrary invented by the will.
The Christian-Natural Moral Law – this view developed most adequately by St. Thomas Aquinas asserts that mankind is oriented towards perfection but due to his fallen-nature he cannot obtain happiness without the help of grace. Aquinas acknowledges that man’s nature is “fallen” but he asserts as well that it is not totally deprived of the good. In other words, mankind is not evil of itself. Grace therefore pertains to “healing” and “restoring” mankind rather than throwing out the bad with the good. Man becomes a “new-creation” by also transcending his original nature that was found in a natural paradise in the garden, but this “new-creation” is more like an “up-grade” rather than promoting a hatred for the “old-self.” God’s moral law, in contrast to the deistic moral positivistic view, asserts that God is not imposing a morality on mankind that contradicts his nature, but rather asserts a moral framework that heals and restores mankind to cooperate with his true self. This therefore involves a spiritual enlightenment that moves the soul from being attached to “apparent-happiness” to “real-happiness.” Because of “original-sin” or the fallen-nature of mankind, he does find his desires to be inclined towards disorder. This however does not mean that man himself is evil, but rather that the desires are objectively meant to be directed towards an actually good-end, but are tethered to something contrary to the objective criteria.