Jacques Maritain Center

Moral Philosophy


I would like to say a few words here about the nature of this work. Its purpose is doctrinal in order, not historical. Yet the systematic examination of the fundamental problems of moral philosophy has been left to a second volume which I hope to undertake after the publication of the present one; a central fragment of this projected volume has already been offered in outline form -- however incomplete -- in a few lessons previously published.{1} The present work is devoted to the historical and critical examination of a certain number of great systems which are, in my opinion, the most significant ones with respect to the development and the adventures of moral philosophy, and those which it is most important to consider for the work of prise de conscience and intellectual renewal to which our age seems called, at least in the eyes of a few who still care for wisdom.

I don't claim to tackle my subject without making use of any previously acquired philosophical equipment, or any philosophical frame of reference. We always do have a philosophical frame of reference; what matters is to be aware of this very fact and to be able to judge our own philosophy freely. My frame of reference is that which one may expect to encounter in a philosopher who has been inspired throughout his life by the thought of Thomas Aquinas. This does not mean that in my opinion Saint Thomas has said everything, and that in particular one finds in him, in the form of an explicitly formulated body of doctrine, the moral philosophy which we recognize is needed today. Far from it!

The Secunda Pars of the Summa theologiae offers us a complete and perfectly articulated theological treatise on human conduct. But we have other things to do than to follow and comment on this treatise. For our task is philosophical, not theological.

Although so eminently classic a field as that of moral philosophy was extensively elucidated by Thomas Aquinas in his commentaries on Aristotle, and by his own disciples and commentators, we believe that a moral philosophy conceived in the light of his principles, and capable of illuminating our modern problems has yet to be developed, and we hope that the present investigation may prepare the way.

In our opinion moral philosophy has not yet been formally singled out in its own right, from moral theology in the traditional teaching of Thomist philosophy (which after all it might perhaps be better not to call by that name) (1) because doubtless it would have greatly displeased Saint Thomas himself. (2) because it is inappropriate to attach the name of a theologian to a philosophical doctrine, (3) because it is inappropriate to attach the name of any man, be he the greatest of thinkers, to a philosophy which, identifying itself with the philosophia perennis, must renew itself from generation to generation and from century to century, and nourish itself with all the past in order to move constantly beyond the past. Yet must we have a name for it? Let us call it then, if you wish, philosophy of being and of the analogicity of being, or ontosophy.) Well then, what we find in the courses or text-books on ethics which are related to this philosophy is too often a simple traced copy of Saint Thomas' theological exposé, withdrawn from the light of theology proper and carried into the light of natural reason and of philosophy, retaining all the while the order and structure of the theological treatise which inspired it. The product thus obtained is neither philosophical nor theological, it is a sterilized theology offering itself as philosophy.

Our perspective will therefore be that of the method proper to moral philosophy as an authentically philosophic discipline. And our object will be to discover the general design and the proper procedure of this moral philosophy founded integrally on reason which, as we just remarked, has yet to be worked out. It is therefore primarily a task of research and of approximation which we will initiate. Our ambition is not to compose a complete treatise on moral philosophy, but rather to clear the ground and to open avenues, to mark the essential connections and to determine the normal order of the questions which an authentically philosophical ethics must examine. We don't intend to undertake more; it will already be a great deal for us to be able to carry out this exploratory work.

Since in the matter of ethics one may not, pace Spinoza, proceed more geometrico, but must on the contrary attach oneself to the moral experience of men in order to interpret this experience rationally, and since furthermore what interests us is the establishment of an authentic moral philosophy, it was fitting to begin our inquiry with an historical and critical analysis devoted to the great moral theories. Other approaches are conceivable; it is to be hoped, for example, that some day a philosopher well versed in ethnology will apply himself to the task of sifting out from the myths of primitive men -- from the conceptions they had, within their regime of magic thought, of the destiny of man and of his relation with the universe, and finally, of course, from their social customs and tribal rules -- the germinal ideas and fundamental data of humanity's moral experience. We, however, given our purpose, must turn to the philosophers themselves, and to the various systems of moral philosophy which have followed one upon the other since Socrates, in order that the various phases of philosophical reflection on the moral life of men, and the conflicting views which this reflection has given rise to, may instruct us on the subject of our research, may introduce us, thanks to the very current of the history of ideas, straight into the center of the debates, conflicts, and opposing points of view revealed by the moral experience of humanity, and may bring us step by step -- not didactically but experientially -- in sight of the basic notions and fundamental problems which we will have to distinguish explicitly in our second volume, -- if it is given us to write it.{1}

We will make use in this way of the reflections of philosophers on human morality as a prospector's instrument, to seek out the ideas and questions of central importance for the establishment of a rational theory of human action. This is to say that we will be less concerned with the detail of the various systems, with their genesis in the minds of the philosophers who elaborated them, and with the interpretations (never definitive) which may be given to the thought of these philosophers, than with the general meaning and typical characteristics with which these systems entered the history of culture, and appeared there as witnesses to the fundamental moral realities confronting man in his spontaneous activity, and to the problematic offered to reflection by the nature of moral experience.

This approach is no other than the method used with such care by Aristotle when he related and discussed -- to prepare for, and before presenting, his own solutions -- the positions of the various schools of thought which had touched upon the problem he was treating. It was all the more imperative for us to use this method since we were concerned, truth to tell, less with any particular problem of moral philosophy than with a sort of rediscovery of the very discipline itself.

Such an approach is normally called for because it gives credit -- and not simply lip-service -- to the work done by human thought throughout the centuries. It is normally called for also because it obliges us to face the mistakes, the excesses, the false conceptualizations to which this work was exposed as it moved forward at man's pace. As far as ethics is concerned, it must be admitted that the proportion of errors thus mingled with certain discoveries or with certain intuitions, and with certain grandiose views, has in modern times been such that moral philosophy now finds itself in complete disarray. And this is true not only in the case of moral philosophy, but also of large segments of the common consciousness of contemporary humanity.

As a result we were obliged to make our critical study quite extensive, and to deepen it according to the exigencies of the subject. It is for this reason that a whole volume had to be devoted to an historical and critical analysis of the teat systems which we chose as being particularly characteristic.

I will note here that the extent of the various chapters of this work is not in keeping with the importance in itself of the various systems examined, but rather with the importance of their impact on contemporary thought, either from the point of view of errors to be unmasked, or from the point of view of doctrinal aspects which I wished to bring to light. Indeed I found it sufficient to treat in a conversational tone, in as condensed a manner as possible, and with quite few notes and references, systems which have had their place for many years in our programs of academic study, and which are familiar to everyone (chapters 1 to 6). From Hegel onwards (chapters 7 to 14), the subject of our analyses required a much more detailed treatment. I just mentioned Hegel. May I be permitted to note that having begun my philosophical endeavours by setting principles I hold to be true in confrontation with Bergsonian anti-intellectualism,{1} and by criticizing a master for whom my gratitude and affection have never ceased to grow, I was not sorry to have to undertake, as I reach the end of my researches, a similar confrontation and critique with respect to a thinker who carried the effort and ambition of modern rationalism to its peak,{2} and who found himself at the same time at the origin of an irrationalism -- today in full flower -- which is incomparably more pernicious for the mind than the irrationalism which preyed on the conceptualizations of Bergson.

Have I succeeded in making felt the intensity of the intellectual drama involved in the vicissitudes of the history which forms the matter of this book? It is a voluminous book, and one which doubtless will take as much care to be read closely as it took to be written. Our hope is that if it has the good fortune to find a few readers patient enough to become aware of its inner movement, as of a thematic unfolding, and of the twists and turns of the multiform thought whose development, progress and back-slidings it analyzes, it may help them to discern the nature of the ills which beset moral philosophy in our time, and above all to recognize, in actu exercito, the philosophical bases of ethics and the value of the primary concepts which it brings into play. All the subject matter and all the truths which we would like to discuss doctrinally and systematically in our second volume are present here, in an unsystematic state and in a form which is so to speak fluid, but, in a sense, or at least we believe so, perhaps more stimulating for the mind.

<< ======= >>