Moral Philosophy

Preface (1905)

For fifteen years this Manual has enjoyed all the popularity that its author could desire. With that popularity the author is the last person to wish to interfere. Therefore, not to throw previous copies out of use, this edition makes no alteration either in the pagination of the text already printed. At the same time the author might well be argued to have lapsed into strange supineness and indifference to moral science, if in fifteen years he had learnt nothing new, and found nothing in his work which he wished to improve. Whoever will be at the expense of purchasing my Political and Moral Essays (Benziger, 1902, 6s.) will find in the first essay on the Origin and Extent of Civil Authority an advantageous substitute for the chapter on the State in this work. The essay is a dissertation written for the degree of B.Sc. in the University of Oxford; and represents, I hope, tolerably well the best contemporary teaching on the subject.

If the present work had to be rewritten, I should make a triple division of Moral Philosophy, into Ethics, Deontology (the science of to deon, i.e., of what ought to be done), and Natural Law. For if "the principal business of Ethics is to determine what moral obligation is" (p. 2), then the classical work on the subject, the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, is as the play of Hamlet with the character of Hamlet left out: for in that work there is no analysis of moral obligation, no attempt to "fix the comprehension of the idea I ought" (ib.). The system there exposed is a system of Eudaemonism, not of Deontology. It is not a treatise on Duty, but on Happiness: it tells us what happiness, or rational well-being, is, and what conduct is conducive to rational well-being. It may be found convenient to follow Aristotle, and avow that the business of Ethics is not Duty, not Obligation, not Law, not Sanction, but Happiness. That fiery little word ought to do this, and avoid that, if he means to be a happy man: cf. p. 115. Any man who declares that he does not care about ethical or rational happiness, stands to Ethics as that man stands to Music who "hath no ear for concord of sweet sounds."

All that Ethics or Music can do for such a Philistine is to "send him away to another city, pouring ointment on his head, and crowning him with wool," as Plato would dismiss the tragedian (Republic III. 398). The author of the Magna Moralia well says (I. i. 13): "No science or faculty ever argues the goodness of the end which it proposes to itself: it belongs to some other faculty to consider that. Neither the physician says that health is a good thing, nor the builder that a house is a good thing: but the one announces that he produces health and how he produces it, and the builder in like manner a house." The professor of Ethics indeed, from the very nature of his subject matter, says in pointing out happiness that it is the rational sovereign good of man; but to any one unmoved by that demonstration Ethics can have no more to say. Ethics will not threaten, nor talk of duty, law, or punishment.

Ethics, thus strictly considered on an Aristotelian basis, are antecedent to Natural Theology. They belong rather to Natural Anthropology: they are a study of human nature. But as human nature points to God, so Ethics are not wholly irrespective of God, considering Him as the object of human happiness and worship, -- the Supreme Being without whom all the aspirations of humanity are at fault (pp. 13-26, 191-197). Ethics do not refer to the commandments of God, for this simple reason, that they have nothing to say to commandments, or laws, or obligation, or authority. They are simply a system of moral hygiene, which a man may adopt or not: only, like any other physician, the professor of Ethics utters a friendly warning that misery must ensue upon the neglect of what makes for health.

Deontology, not Ethics, expounds and vindicates the idea, I ought. It is the science of Duty, It carries the mild suasions of Ethics into laws, and out of moral prudence it creates conscience. And whereas Ethics do not deal with sin, except under the aspect of what is called "philosophical sin" (p. 119, ^6), Deontology defines sin in its proper theological sense, as "an offence against God, or any thought, word, or deed against the law of God." Deontology therefore presupposes and is consequent upon Natural Theology. At the same time, while Ethics indicate a valuable proof of the existence of God as the requisite Object of Happiness, Deontology affords a proof of Him as the requisite Law-giver. Without God, man's rational desire is frustrate, and man's conscience a misrepresentation of fact.[1]

In this volume, pp. 1-108 make up the treatise on Ethics: pp. 109-176 that on Deontology.

Aristotle writes: "He that acts by intelligence and cultivates understanding, is likely to be best disposed and dearest to God. For if, as is thought, there is any care of human things on the part of them to delight in that which is best and most akin to themselves, that is, in intelligence, and to make a return of good to such as supremely love and honour intelligence, as cultivating the thing dearest to Heaven, and so behaving rightly and well. Such, plainly, is the behaviour of the wise. The wise man therefore is the dearest to God" (Nic. Eth. X. ix. 13). But Aristotle does not work out the connexion between God and His law on the one hand and human conscience and duty on the other. In that direction the Stoics, and after them the Roman Jurists, went further than Aristotle. By reason of this deficiency, Aristotle, peerless as he is in Ethics, remains an imperfect Moral Philosopher.

Preface to the Fourth Edition (1918)

1. I have altered the opening pages in accordance with the Preface to the edition of 1905.

2. I have added a paragraph on Syndicalism (pp. 291-2).

3. Also a new Table of Addenda et Corrigenda, and a new Index.

The quotations from St. Thomas may be read in English, nearly all of them, in the Author's Aquinas Ethicus, 2 vols.; 12s. (Burns and Oates.)

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