Oliver O’Donovan on the practical character of Ethics

Ethics is not distinguished from other disciplines by an “object” or “subject-matter” which defines its territory over against those of other studies of other objects. What kind of thing is this morality, of which Ethics undertakes to speak? Clearly not a thing among other things, a segmented object of inquiry standing in relation to other objects as the locus of a certain body of evidence. Ancient Greek History may point to its archaeological monuments, its epigraphical inscriptions, its historiographical texts, which distinguish it from, while making it comparable to, Medieval Islamic History. For Ethics, there is no such determinate body of evidence; everything is grist for its mill. Nor can it treat its material with the same spirit of observational detachment, for what is involved in speech about living, acting, and doing is simply the very stuff of our actve engagements. Ethics is distinct by being a practical discipline. That is to say, it is concerned with good and bad reasons for acting.

[…] The new sciences reported on how humans behaved as individuals and communities in response to circumstantial pressures, and proposed explanations for their responses, but always from the observer’s, not the actor’s point of view – a subtle nuance conveyed in the word “behavior.” That meant that they never ventured upon the ground of moral reason, with its determinations of good and bad reasons for acting. The distinction may seem unimportant […] But all the observation and explanation in the world for behavior patterns, individual and social, for desires, feelings, aspirations, values, norms, and so on, may include not a single word about why something should be done, or what is to be valued above what. The discourse of Ethics concerns ourselves, the life we are living, the action we have in hand. Even when pursued at a high level of reflection, it is of a different order from a discourse about patterns of behavior demonstrated in the past or probable in the future. “Ethics is not practical merely by having as its subject matter human action,” wrote John Finnis shrewdly. Something similar may be said about the newly recovered fashion for evolutionary accounts of moral thinking, such as those, based on comparative neuroendocrinology which emphasize the role of the hormone oxytocin. Some “why?” is being asked and answered, to be sure. Some account is being given for ways in which we habitually feel and rule our feelings. But it is not the internal “why?” of the moral thinker; it does not inhabit the categories constitutive for moral thought. That means that such accounts have the effect of “knowing better,” of describing moral thought away by situating it within explanatory sequences which bypass the questions and propositions that those who practice moral thinking for themselves might recognize.

from Self, World, and Time: Ethics as Theology, Vol. 1, (Eerdmans, 2013), 69-71.


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