Reinventing Ethics?

Howard Gardner has it that traditional morality, which he defines as the “goods” and “bads” outlined in the Ten Commandments or the Golden Rule, provide little if any guidance in contemporary situations.  We all deal every day with “issues that cannot possibly be decided simply by consulting the Bible or some other traditional moral code.” According to Gardner, it would be absurd to believe that texts from the past magically contain the solutions to complex modern ethical problems.

Well, duh.

Granting that there are those who will cite the bible or whatever as a way to end the ethical discussion, this approach really isn’t the tradition.  “Traditional morality” is a history of applying old principles to new problems, rethinking old principles in light of new situations, and developing new ethical languages in response to these changes.  Throughout the ages, Christian moral thinkers, for example, haven’t contented themselves simply to repeat the Ten Commandments or the Beatitudes; they’ve time and again developed the ideas of these texts in response to changing circumstances and to the ethical thought of others.

Aristotle is arguably the most important moral philosopher in the history of Christian moral thought, and he pretty much gave us the virtue of phronesis, that virtue by which one deliberates about what is good and advantageous when facing just the sort of complex situations Gardner seems to have in mind.

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Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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3 Responses

  1. Rodak says:

    Okay…we need to find some way to make this another discussion about abortion, so we can each listen to ourselves talk.

  2. Morat20 says:

    Offhand, I’d say he has more of a point than you think — it’s just he’s not talking to you.

    Biblical literalism isn’t exactly the Catholic cup of tea (in fact, I think Catholic theology takes a dim view of it but that’s entirely vague recollections of reading lay Catholics talk about religious issues — you’d know far better, I’d suspect!), but among the fundamentalist Protestant crowds in the US….

    Well, there is a fairly large strain of “All you need is the ten commandments”. Conflating all Christians with that particular…strain? sect? grouping? lazy writing, but more often than not those are the guys in the news and acting the de facto face of Christianity in America.

    (I’ve actually been a bit surprised at how much Catholicism has been in the news lately — my impression, right or wrong, is that American Catholic leaders seem to be inserting themselves or getting dragged into political slapfights wherein previously I’d only seen the fundamentalists and the evangelical Protests, with the Catholic presence being far more muted. Less…in the spotlight).

  3. Rodak says:

    I think that St. Augustine summed it up best:

    “Love, and do what you will.”

    If every time you act you act out of love, morality and ethics will take care of themselves and anything you find refer to in the Scriptures will be fulfilled as well.