The Quest for Moral Foundations

The Quest for Moral Foundations

By Montague Brown

Read December 2009

This marvelous little book on natural law ethics was a chance find in the MSU Library stacks. Brown systematically demolishes cultural relativism, subjectivism, egoism, emotivism, materialism. He explains, then picks apart, Hume, Bentham, Rawls, Hobbes, Bacon. His bludgeon is to claim their theories self-contradictory. They seek to make moral foundations while denying such.

The book was not filled with examples. It was a work of philosophical reasoning. But somehow he kept it light. The subtitle is: An Introduction to Ethics. Perhaps I succeeded in understanding because I was in a state of readiness to read the book, having thought about these matters in the religious context, and political context, for decades, and having read Epstein, Nozick, Plato, Locke, Kreeft, Barnett, Kass, Robert P. George, the Bible and other scriptures. I understood almost all of it. And I am persuaded. Morality proceeds from reason. Thus it is not dependent on a particular religion.

His heroes are Aquinas, Aristotle, Kant. A current writer he recommends is John Finnis. I will look him up.

From the summary:

Subjective relativism is contradictory, for it cannot be in any way better to embrace a theory which denies that the term better has any meaning.

While the scientific method with it rigorous demand for sense verification is good in its own sphere, it cannot claim to be the only way to truth. If it does, then it denies itself, for the idea that scientific method alone should prevail is not itself susceptible to sense verification. (This is the main point of God and the New Atheism.)

To do the good and not to do the evil, that is the maxim. We get distracted, as Pascal says. Diversion takes us away from adhering to the good, to knowing it and choosing it. “Here we come to the ultimate act of freedom-to care or not to care. One must choose to listen or not to listen to the voice of reason and the call to do good. One must choose whether to take up or not to take up the arduous task of making oneself and the world better.

There are absolute goods: life, knowledge, friendship, etc.

This was a bracing read. I ordered, for annotating, my own copy from new and used. I’m looking for more books to further explain natural law.


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