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Chapter 4: Some Mistaken Theories of Moral Principles


As chapters five through eight will explain, moral principles are truths which shape one’s judgments of conscience toward human fulfillment. But there are also various mistaken theories of moral principles. Some deny that there are any general truths from which to draw judgments of conscience. Others admit that there are general principles, but deny that they shape moral judgments toward human fulfillment. Such theories have impeded Christian thought in the past and do so today. It is therefore useful to examine erroneous theories rather carefully.1

Many today reject conscience as the Church understands it. In various ways they deny that judgments of conscience can be derived from objectively true moral principles. Such theories are wholly at odds with Catholic moral teaching. Less subversive, but still inadequate, is the scholastic natural-law theory of classical moral theology. What is needed is an account of how true moral norms are based upon human goods.

1. For the history of moral theories, see Vernon J. Bourke, History of Ethics (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1968); Alasdair MacIntyre, A Short History of Ethics (New York: Macmillan, 1966). Philip B. Rice, Our Knowledge of Good and Evil (New York: Random House, 1955), gives a useful summary and critique of the positions developed in Anglo-American ethics from about 1900–1950. For a critique of many modern, continental theories from a Thomistic viewpoint, see Jacques Maritain, Moral Philosophy: An Historical and Critical Survey of the Great Systems (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964). A useful work for clearing away many mistaken theories and moving in the direction of a modified Aristotelianism: Mortimer J. Adler, The Time of Our Lives: The Ethics of Common Sense (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970). Henry B. Veatch, For an Ontology of Morals: A Critique of Contemporary Ethical Theory (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1971), systematically criticizes contemporary theories and points in the direction of a modified Thomism somewhat similar to the theory to be articulated in chapters five, seven, and eight. There is no properly theological, thorough critical study of modern and contemporary moral theories. For the most part, theologians have either ignored the development of moral theory or accepted uncritically some modern theory.