Page 4, 15th July 1960

15th July 1960
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Organisations: Oxford University


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Christian Ethics for our Schools

By Lord Pakenham

yWONDER how many readers of the CATHOLIC HERALD have walked into a Catholic bookshop and asked for a systematic book on ethics.

Until a week or two ago the best result they could have hoped for would have been Er. Rickaby's "Moral Philosophy" first published in 1890. There have been various subsequent editions. But no one will find in it much discussion of the kind of ethical problems that interest the average British philosopher today.

Dr. Hawkins has just published "Man and Morals". Very cogent it goes without saying. but so condensed that after one reading it is hard to say how far he has bridged the gulf.


ETHICS is, of course, a very ambiguous word. If anyone says "I accept Christian ethics" he is understood to accept the

Christian moral code in regard to his conduct. That code, we are well aware, involves a large amount of Revelation. whether found in the New Testament (e.g. The Sermon on the Mount). the Catholic Catechism, or a standard theological treatise such as that of Davis.

The two supreme commandments—to love God with everything we have and our neighbour as ourselves—are the foundation of Christian ethics in the widest sense. But they are derived from the teaching of Our Lord and not from unassisted reason.

Ethics, however. in the philosophical sense. is for us that part of morality which could have been arrived at without Revelation and by the use of reason alone. One would have to be very blind to question the unique vitality of contemporary Catholic ethics in the wider spiritual sense and respect of its overall purpose of helping us to achieve salvation. But in the narrower philosophical sense our ethical contribution in this country at the present time is barely discernible.


ET us turn to the non 4 Catholic effort. No one can fail to admire Mrs. Warnock's new book, "Ethics since 1900." Oxford University Press. price 8s. 6d., brief, but brilliant. The main writers dealt with are Bradley, Moore, Prichard, Ross, Ayer, Stevenson, Urrnson. Hare, and to a -lesser extent. Nowell Smith, Farrer—an Anglican of the utmost distinction—and Ryle, with Wittgenstein in the background towards the end, and a special chapter on Sartre.

Miss Anscombe is referred to "as the translator of Wittgenstein" and her short book "Intention" is mentioned in the bibliography. Otherwise Catholic thought appears to be ignoredMaritain and Gilson, for example, not finding their way into the Index. The last two omissions can only be excused if the book be treated as mainly a British narrative.


TAKING her on her selected ground, can Mrs. Warnock be fairly critised for failing to deal with British Catholic moral philosophers of the last fifty years, and if so. who are they ?

Er. Rickaby can hardly be said to belong to our time. Yet no one who compares the subtlety ot profundity in the moral sphere of our own theologico philosophical writers in this century with that of the fashionable philosophers would feel that we had been left at a disadvantage. Quite the contrary, if we are thinking of that kind of moral philosophy which has any spiritual impact or any practical bearing on conduct.

I would not exchange Fr. D'Arcy, Fr. Gerald Vann, or for that matter Mr. Sheed for all the positivists and analysts in creation. One thing, however, which has happened not exactly to our advantage is that the fashionable philosophy has (at least until recently) moved further and further

away from any discussion which could have any rffeca on conduct whatever. Which makes our isolation pronounced.


THE fashionable ph ilosophy1 hope the term is not uncharitable — has been denounced on what have appeared two separate grounds:

I. That it was trivial and therefore a waste of time.

2. That it was subversive of decent standards.

It is one of Mrs. Warnock's invaluable services to have brought out the connection between these two defects much more clearly than hitherto. The immediate impact of logical positivism when introduced by Mr.. now Professor, Ayer in 1936 was certainly subversive. Whatever the author's intention, the young people of the time understood that duty. for example, no longer deserved the attention it had received and that a new charter had been provided for doing exactly what one chose.

Professor Ayer has subsequently defended logical positivism against that type of practical criticism.

In an article written in 1949 he propounded a wider argument. "I doubt," he wrote, "if the study of moral philosophy does in general have any marked effect upon people's conduct."

But in saying that he was using the term "moral philosophy" in a restricted sense. He was, no doubt, relying on a distinction which he has drawn elsewhere between "the moralist who elaborates a moral code or encourages its observance and the moral philosopher whose concern is not primarily to make moral judgments but to analyse their nature."

Now there is no reason whatever why we should obsequiously limit the role of the moral philosopher in the way suggested by Professor Ayer. But of course once we do limit it in that way we mush diminish the prospect that the moral philosopher will be able to help us morally, and possibly. though this is less certain, we diminish his power to harm us.

What Mrs. Warnock says in effect is that logical positivism is dead. But in the sphere of morals it rules us from its grave. It began by subverting ethics. and finished by trivialising it. (My language, not hers).


THE Oxford philosophers have been accused of trivialising philosophy generally. Mrs. Warnock, writing from the heart of the much criticized Oxford establishment, naturally does not accept " this general criticism of linguistic analysis but only of this method applied to ethics."

Her reasons for isolating ethics in this way are of the first importance. "In ethics, alone among the branches of philosophical study, the subject matter is not so much the categories which we use to describe or to learn about the world as our own impact upon The world, our relation to other people and out attitude to our situation and our life."

Deliberating, wishing, hating. loving, choosing, these are things which characterise us as people and therefore as moral agents and these are the things to which the emotive theory • and its later developments paid insufficient attention.

She points out that one aspect of "this trivialising of the subject" is the refusal of moral philosophers in England to commit themselves to any moral opinions.

" I believe." she adds for various reasons she touches on. "that the most boring days are over." If so. it could only be I would think if our moral philosophers would begin once more to study Man as a whole with whatever help psychology and sociology can give them.

New start

"MORALITY," says Fr. Sertillanges, 0.P., in the last chapter of his " Foundations of Thomist Philosophy." " is the science of what a Man ought to be by reason of what he is ... as long as he tends towards his end be is saving his own soul and fulfilling part of Nature's universal plan."

But this approach so far removed from what in recent years have been the main interests of philosophers in England, involves a fresh start along Thomist or equivalent lines.

Can we honestly persuade ourselves that a truly Catholic, or indeed any kind of Christian philosophy of Man's nature can be arrived at in practice without some theological assumptions? That is to say without even agreeing first whether God does or does not exist.

The understandable tendency of all academic circles is to concentrate on issues where co-existence is possible between colleagues who differ on fundamentals. In recent years linguistic analysis and the general trivialisation of philosophy have been (unconsciously, no doubt) adopted as an alternative to violent controversies between Christians and Atheists. The result is the futility in the field of ethics so well exposed by Mrs. Warnock.


MEANWHLIE, in the Semicuries and religious houses our own Catholic theology and philosophy go forward together on a higher plane than the hairsplitting of the secular scboolmen. But for that very reason they are unable at present to prepare the educated layman for coping as a student or otherwise with the philosophical problems in which his neighbours are interested and with which he may be professionally involved.

We all look forward to the day when a Catholic institute of higher studies brings out of the Catholic backrooms the fine collection of philosophical talent which some of us know to exist there.

But what is just as necessary is a new concentration in the higher forms of Catholic schools on a more farsighted preparation of Catholic boys and girls for the leap from the Catholic ethics of the school to the secular ethics of the University,


THF. clever Catholic undergraduate is at present left to effect too much of this transition

himself, with the result that too often he either learns philosophy as a superficial game while retaining his faith, or going into it more seriously allows his faith to be impaired.

From this present situation of strain and conflict we oannot expect to make our full contribution as laymen to Catholic philosophy. The forces of rescue are at hand but one would assume that the initiative must come from the clergy. who alone possess the combination of theological and philosophical understanding.

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