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The Art of Living: Ethics with No Destination


I was not a fan of the new companion traveling in our mini-van.


"After 300 yards, turn right," she said in her soft computer voice. "At the end of the road turn left..... Stay in the right lane..... Turn around when possible..... Turn around when possible." 

Why was I so bothered by the GPS we received as a Christmas gift? My wife welcomed it as an extra help in getting directions. But I felt annoyed by its constant commands. Whenever I was driving, I told my wife to turn off "that machine." 

At first, I thought I disliked the GPS because I preferred to look at maps and know the roadways myself. I didn't want to be completely dependent on a computer in case something went wrong. But in the end, I realized there was a deeper cause for my irritation. I admitted half-jokingly to my wife, "I think I just don't like other people telling me what to do!"

Ethics with a Telos

Most of us are not fond of being ordered around, but we have an even greater distaste for it when we cannot see the purpose of someone's commands. 

Similarly, when morality is seen as directions leading us to our destination of human happiness, it is welcomed as a helpful guide for our lives. But when ethics is not viewed in relation to human fulfillment, it appears to be just a bunch of rules — arbitrary commands set up by some church, some group, or some religion trying to tell other people what to do. The Church seems like an intruding GPS voice shouting out moral orders that don't make sense to most people. "Be patient ....always tell the truth ....don't use contraception ....don't have sex outside of marriage ....turn around when possible." 

The American philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre notes how ethical inquiry that fails to consider man's telos (or end) leads to this kind of negative perception of morality. In his book After Virtue, MacIntyre identifies three elements of the Aristotelian tradition of ethics that often are not considered in unison today:

1. Man-as-he-happens-to-be: This refers to man's present state weighed down by untrained human nature with its various desires, emotions, weaknesses and vices. 

The American philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre notes how ethical inquiry that fails to consider man's telos (or end) leads to this kind of negative perception of morality. 

2. Man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realized-his-telos: This considers the purpose of a human life — what sort of person am I to become? Man's telos (or end) is the "good life" in which man achieves his potential by living life with excellence. 

3. Ethics: This considers how to move from the first to the second element. It examines how human nature's disordered emotions and desires can be trained so that one can transition from man's present state (manas- he-happens-to-be) to his telos

In this framework, the focus of ethics is not on laws, but on moving from man's current condition to human flourishing — or, as a Catholic might say, on moving from man's fallen state to his perfection. 

Because God Said So

One major shift away from this threefold structure came in the 1300s with William of Ockham who made God's law the center of morality. The Catholic tradition had understood the law as part of a larger framework — as corresponding to how God made us and serving as a pathway to human happiness. God gave the moral law because it is for our good. 

For Ockham, however, the law is the arbitrary expression of God's will and power. We must submit to the divine law not because the law is for our good, but simply because God told us to do so. For Ockham, God is free to do whatever He wants. He may have told us, "Thou shall not kill..... Thou shall not commit adultery." But if God wanted to, He could also have said, "Thou shall steal" or "Thou shall blaspheme." God can give whatever law He wants. It does not have to be for our good. 

Ockham's teachings remained influential long after his lifetime. In particular, Ockham separated God's law from our human nature and thus from our own good. He also made the law the center of the moral life rather than seeing the law as a part of the larger picture of human flourishing and happiness.


Another major shift came in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in a period known as the "Enlightenment." The Enlightenment project for ethics did not set out to overturn traditional understandings of what the moral laws are. In fact, many of the Enlightenment philosophers maintained most of the same moral conclusions that had been held by Christians for centuries — don't commit adultery, don't steal, don't lie, etc. The Enlightenment, however, sought new ways of justifying these traditional moral conclusions. These new approaches intended to give a rational account for the moral law without focusing on how those moral laws were related to human happiness. Ethics again was taken out of its proper context of considering how human nature should be guided to fulfill its telos

One key figure in this period was the eighteenth century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. As we saw in the previous reflection, Kant challenged people to question the traditions they received. Christianity was no longer seen as a helpful apprenticeship in which one learns the craft of life. For Kant, people need to throw off the "yoke" of this tradition and become "independent thinkers" who discover for themselves the moral law. 

Kant believed that individuals could independently use reason to arrive at the moral conclusions that would apply to everyone. People of various religious and ethnic backgrounds could agree on the same moral principles if they set aside their traditions about ethics and used reason alone. If the rules for morality are rational, they should be the same for all human beings just as the rules of arithmetic are rational and binding on all. 

A Rational Test

In this framework, the focus of ethics is not on laws, but on moving from man's current condition to human flourishing — or, as a Catholic might say, on moving from man's fallen state to his perfection. 

Kant developed a rational test that he believed all human beings could use to arrive at these universal moral laws. He taught that a moral principle could be rationally justified if a person could consistently will that all persons should live according to that principle. "Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." Moral maxims such as "Thou shall not steal," "Thou shall not kill," and "Always tell the truth" would be rationally justifiable, according to Kant, because I can consistently will that everyone else act in this way. 

There are a few problems with this approach. First, Kant's test does not guarantee all will arrive at the same moral laws. Various people could follow Kant's approach and defend very different moral precepts that pass his test of ethical rationality. For example, someone who promotes sobriety ("Never get drunk") and someone who likes to be inebriated ("It's good to get drunk occasionally") could each conclude their own maxim is a good moral law because each could will that their moral saying be applied to everyone. Within Kant's scheme, these positions each can remain completely rational and consistent even though they oppose each other. 

Second, and more to the heart of the matter, in Kant's approach, ethical inquiry becomes more of an abstract exercise about what rules one should follow. This is conducted without a well-thought-out conception of man's telos — of what a good life is. The crucial question, "What sort of person am I to become?" is not adequately addressed. Thus, the third element of the Aristotelian structure for ethics is left out of the equation. As MacIntyre explains, man-as-he-happens-to-be (untrained human nature with its disordered desires and emotions; first element) is initially not in harmony with the precepts of ethics (second element) and needs to be guided by those precepts in order to flourish and arrive at man's telos (third element). But without a clear conception of man's telos, the purpose of the moral law and its connection to man-as-he-happens-to-be is no longer clear. 

"Since the whole point of ethics to enable man to pass from his present state to his true end, the elimination of any notion of essential human nature and with it the abandonment of any notion of a telos leaves behind a moral scheme composed of two remaining elements whose relationship becomes quite unclear." (MacIntyre, After Virtue, 54-55). 

As a result, rules become the center of morality in the Enlightenment period. And those rules seem to be in opposition to the desires and emotions of fallen human nature, which seeks its own pleasure, comfort, and gain. Why should one be honest, chaste, faithful, and generous? Why should one make sacrifices for others, endure suffering, deny one's self-pleasure, and practice self-control? If it is understood that man is made for friendship with God and neighbor, that he will find happiness only when he fulfills those fundamental relationships, and that he needs the virtues in order to live those relationships with excellence, then the moral precepts make sense as a helpful guide on the pathway to human flourishing. 

Apart from a clear conception of man's telos — which is precisely what is missing in much of the modern world — the call to virtue and to follow God's moral laws seems like an arbitrary command standing in the way of man's desires for pleasure and gain. Without a conviction that man-as-he-happens-to-be has a clearly defined destination toward which he is striving (a telos), the moral law sounds like directions given to people who are not driving anywhere or like an unneeded GPS arbitrarily telling us what to do for no purpose. "Be pure faithful ....don't have abortions ....don't allow gay marriage ....turn around when possible."



Dr. Edward Sri. "The Art of Living: Ethics with No Destination." Lay Witness (Jan/Feb 2012). 

This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine and the author, Edward Sri. 

Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church. 

The Author

srilprsriwijEdward Sri a professor of theology and Vice President of Mission and Outreach at the Augustine Institute in Denver, Colorado. Sri is also a founding leader with Curtis Martin of FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students). He resides with his wife Elizabeth and their eight children in Littleton, Colorado. Among his books are Into His Likenes Be Transformed as a Disciple of ChristPraying the Rosary Like Never Before: Encounter the Wonder of Heaven and Earth, Who Am I to Judge?: Responding to Relativism with Logic and Love,  Love Unveiled, Rediscovering the Heart of the Disciple: Pope Francis and the Joy of the GospelMen, Women and the Mystery of Love: Practical Insights from John Paul II's 'Love and Responsibility', The Bible Compass: A Catholic's Guide to Navigating the Scriptures, A Biblical Walk Through the Mass: Understanding What We Say and Do in the Liturgy, Mystery of the Kingdom, The New Rosary in Scripture: Biblical Insights for Praying the 20 Mysteries, and Queen Mother. Visit Edward Sri's website here.

Copyright © Edward Sri
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