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§3. The Background of Modern Moral Philosophy

§3. The Background of Modern Moral Philosophy

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           

seventeenth century (with important roots in Greek and Islamic thought,

of course). By modern science, I mean the development of astronomy by

Copernicus and Kepler and Newtonian physics; and also, it must be stressed,

the development of mathematical analysis (calculus) by Newton and Leibniz. Without analysis, the development of physics would not have been

possible. The advances of mathematics and physics go together.

Certainly these three main developments affect one another in complicated ways and set off an immense chain of consequences impossible to follow, or even to understand, in any detail. (Consider how the desire of Henry

VIII, an absolute monarch, for an heir led to the English Reformation.)

. Now observe the contrast with the classical world with respect to

religion. Medieval Christianity had five important features that Greek civic

religion lacked:

It was an authoritative religion and the authority was institutional, with the papacy, central and nearly absolute, though

sometimes challenged, as in the conciliar period of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

It was a religion of salvation, a way to eternal life, and salvation required true belief as the church taught it.

Hence, it was a doctrinal religion with a creed that was to be


It was a religion of priests with the sole authority to dispense

means of grace, themselves normally essential to salvation.

Finally, it was an expansionist religion, that is, a religion of conversion that recognized no territorial limits to its authority

short of the world as a whole.

Thus, in contrast with classical moral philosophy, the moral philosophy of

the medieval Church is not the result of the exercise of free, disciplined

reason alone. This is not to say that its moral philosophy is not true, or

that it is unreasonable; but it was subordinate to church authority and

largely practiced by the clergy and the religious orders in order to fulfill

the Church’s practical need for a moral theology.

Moreover, the doctrine of the Church saw our moral duties and obligations as resting on divine law. They were the consequences of the laws laid

[  ]

  ,  – 

down by God who creates us all and who maintains us in being at every

moment, and to whom we are everlastingly obligated. If we think of God

as supremely reasonable, as Aquinas did, then these laws are dictates, or

prescriptions, of the divine reason. It is from Christianity that the idea of

a dictate, or imperative, of reason specifying our duties and obligations

enters modern moral philosophy. Alternatively, if we take a voluntarist

view, as Scotus and Ockham did, these dictates are those of divine will.

We find one or another of these views not only in Suarez, Bellarmine, and

Molina, and in other late scholastics, but also in the Protestant writers Grotius, Pufendorf, and Locke.

Thus the concept of obligation was widely understood in the seventeenth century as resting on the idea of natural law, or divine law. This

law is addressed to us by God, who has legitimate authority over us as our

creator; it is a dictate of divine reason, or of divine will, and in either case

it directs us to comply with it on pain of sanctions. And while the law

commands only what is in due course good for us and for human society,

it is not in acting from it as for our good that we fulfill our obligation but

rather in acting from it as imposed by God and in obedience to God’s authority. (See, for example, Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,

Bk. II, Ch. , §§4–.)

. The Reformation had enormous consequences. To see why, we have

to ask what it is like for an authoritative, salvationist, and expansionist religion such as medieval Christianity to fragment. Inevitably this means the

appearance within the same society of rival authoritative and salvationist

religions, different in some ways from the original religion from which they

split off, but having for a certain period of time many of the same features.

Luther and Calvin were as dogmatic and intolerant as the Church had been.

For those who had to decide whether to become Protestant or to remain

Catholic, it was a terrible time. For once the original religion fragments,

which religion then leads to salvation?

I put aside, as more relevant to political philosophy, both the controversy over toleration, one of the historical origins of liberalism, and also

the efforts to establish constitutional limits on the sovereigns of nationstates, a second origin of liberalism. But these are large issues that we should

recognize as lying in the background of much of the moral philosophy of

this period. The Reformation gave rise to the severe conflicts of the religious

[  ]

           

wars, which the Greeks did not experience. The question it raised was not

simply the Greek question of how to live, but the question of how one can

live with people who are of a different authoritative and salvationist religion. That was a new question, which posed in an acute form the question

of how human society was possible at all under those conditions.

§. The Problems of Modern Moral Philosophy

. The moral philosophy of our period, I think, like Greek moral philosophy,

was deeply affected by the religious and cultural situation within which it

developed, in this case, by the situation following the Reformation. By the

eighteenth century, many leading writers hoped to establish a basis of moral

knowledge independent of church authority and available to the ordinary

reasonable and conscientious person. This done, they wanted to develop

the full range of concepts and principles in terms of which to characterize

autonomy and responsibility.2

To elaborate: as we have seen, on the one hand, there is the traditional

view of the Church that, in the absence of divine revelation, we cannot

know the principles of right and wrong with which we must comply and

which specify our duties and obligations. Even if some of us can know

them, not all can, or not all can keep in mind their consequences for particular cases. Therefore the many must be instructed by the few (who may be

the clergy) and made to comply by threats of punishments. On the other

hand, there is the view more congenial to the radical side of Protestantism,

with its idea of the priesthood of all believers and the denial of an ecclesiastical authority interposed between God and the faithful. This view says that

2. I emphasize Protestantism because nearly all the main writers are Protestant. The leading

writers in the development of natural law—Grotius and Pufendorf, Hobbes and Locke—are Protestant. If we leave out the case of Leibniz, so is the German line of Wolff and Crusius, Kant and

Hegel. Crusius and Kant are Pietists and Hegel professes to be Lutheran, although certainly he was

a highly unorthodox one. The English writers of the moral sense school—Shaftesbury, Butler and

Hutcheson, Hume and Smith—as well as those of the rational intuitionist school—Clarke, Price,

and Reid—we expect to be Protestant (at least in their upbringing) in view of the English Reformation. Of course, there is always moral philosophy done in the Catholic Church, but in this period

it is done by scholar-priests—such as Suarez, Bellarmine, and Molina—and in the form of casuistry

it is finally addressed to other priests who are confessors and advisers. This is very practical business,

not intended for the laity, except insofar as it is part of their doctrinal instruction.

[  ]

  ,  – 

Schools of modern moral philosophy

The School of Natural Law

The German Line

Francisco Suarez: –

On Law and God the Lawgiver: 

Hugo Grotius: –

On the Law of War and Peace: 

Samuel Pufendorf: –

On the Law of Nature and of Nations: 

John Locke: –

An Essay Concerning the Understanding: 

The Reasonableness of Christianity: 

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz:



Christian Wolff:

Vernuănftige Gedanken von Menschen

Tun und Lassen:

Christian August Crusius:

Anweisung vernuănftig zu Leben:

Immanuel Kant:

Grundlegung: 

Critique of Practical Reason: 

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: –

Philosophy of Right: 

The Moral Sense School

The Rational Intuitionists

Third Earl of Shaftesbury: –

An Inquiry Concerning Virtue or Merit: 

Francis Hutcheson: –

An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of

Beauty and Virtue: 

Joseph Butler: –

Fifteen Sermons: 

David Hume: –

A Treatise of Human Nature: –

An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of

Morals: 

Samuel Clarke: –

A Discourse Concerning the Unchangeable

Obligations of Natural Religion: 

Richard Price: –

A Review of the Principal Questions of Morals:


Thomas Reid: –

Essays on the Active Power of the Human

Mind: 

[  ]

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§3. The Background of Modern Moral Philosophy

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