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Moral Absolutes: Tradition, Revision, and Truth

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Moral Absolutes sets forth a vigorous but careful critique of much recent work in moral theology. It is illustrated with examples from the most controversial aspects of Christian moral doctrine, and a frank account is given of the roots of the upheaval in Roman Catholic moral theology in and after the 1960s. Essential reading for students of theology, ethics, and philosophy. McGivney Lectures . PRAISE FOR THE "A very valuable resource for both critics and defenders of traditional moral theology."― Theological Book Review

128 pages, Paperback

First published October 1, 1991

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About the author

John Finnis

30 books43 followers
John Mitchell Finnis (born 28 July 1940) is an Australian legal philosopher, jurist and scholar specializing in jurisprudence and the philosophy of law. He is currently the Biolchini Family Professor of Law at Notre Dame Law School and Permanent Senior Distinguished Research Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture. He was Professor of Law & Legal Philosophy at the University of Oxford from 1989 to 2010, where he is now professor emeritus. He acted as a constitutional adviser to successive Australian Commonwealth governments in constitutional matters and bilateral relations with the United Kingdom.

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Displaying 1 - 3 of 3 reviews
Profile Image for Caleb.
116 reviews26 followers
December 10, 2017
This book is narrowly focused on the issue indicated in the title. Finnis compellingly defends both the centrality of moral absolutes within the Catholic tradition and the inherent difficulties of proportionalism. These difficulties stem from the impossibility of calculating the balance of pre-moral evils in a non-arbitrary way.

But despite the compelling evidence regarding the presence of moral absolutes within the Catholic tradition, Finnis is somewhat selective in his reading of the tradition. Most perspicuously, he almost completely ignores casuistry. A focus on casuistry would illustrate an approach to moral inquiry that both takes seriously moral absolutes but also realizes that much care must employed in applying such absolutes. Finnis brushes over the significant variance in how moralists have approached the issue of application.

This relates to the most fundamental problem of this book. Finnis fails to adequately address the question of what is required to accurately describe an action. He briefly asserts that action descriptions must include only that "description which makes them intelligibly attractive" but this is obviously inadequate since a thief can describe stealing property as 'increasing his assets;' likewise a murderer may describe killing a rival as 'decreasing the competition.' What is even worse, Finnis argues that the death penalty, traditionally supported by the Catholic tradition, cannot be interpreted in proportionalist terms as a matter of doing evil (killing) for a good purpose (justice) since Aquinas argues that the action of execution itself can be reinterpreted such that it is described as an act of "restoring the order of justice." But if actions can be redescribed like this, then the problem of moral absolutes is really the problem of how actions can be described but Finnis offers us nothing concerning this problem.

Another problem concerns Finnis's interpretation of the first precept of the natural law. This is a precept that Finnis (correctly, in my opinion) grounds in action-theoretic terms as the requirement that actions be explained and justified in terms of their relationship to flourishing (see Rödl's compelling defense of this view in Self-Consciousness). But Finnis fails to heed the distinction between a formal account of flourishing rooted in action theory and a material account that is a matter of specifying the material content of flourishing. Thus by analyzing action we can understand its directedness toward a compete good but we can only grasp the content of such a good through much experience and in the light of a community's history. By failing to heed this distinction Finnis too easily draws conclusions about what is and what is not a component of human flourishing, and thus what is and is not a moral absolute, on the basis of an analysis of action. Despite these criticisms this is book that is well worth reading.
Profile Image for Lance Cahill.
198 reviews9 followers
May 29, 2022
Quite an excellent piece of work, even if a bit short shrift at times.

Finnis' primary objective is to adjudicate a debate within moral theory, specifically Catholic moral theory, as it relates to whether exceptionless moral precepts exist or whether morally relevant choices often involve choices among competing goods or choosing the lesser evil.

To that regard, Finnis discusses what he views as the coherent and integrated view that such precepts do exist and the incoherence of proportionalism (distinguished from pure consequentialism or utilitarianism) - a school of thought primarily advanced by Jesuit academics, where it may be permissible to choose (in the meaningful sense) the 'lesser' of two evils by weighing the post-action goods and evils that may come from such action. While there have been other traditions in church teaching (such as causistry within the Jesuit tradition in premodern times), these other traditions have not continued to attract faithful adherents. Proportionalism has, even within the church, continued to be present at the edges as discussions have continued over outside desires to 'modernize' the church.

The heavy lifting of the discussions include distinctions between chosen ends and means and likely or unlikely side effects of such means or ends. Moreover, choices are not evaluative in nature (i,e. adultery has a fixed meaning and the definition is not dependent on whether it would be viewed as justifiable).

Finnis' work is a different perspective insofar as most similar discussions appear derived from consequentialist premises. Discussions on the moral permissibility of the nuclear strikes against Japan in WWII concede the consequentialist premise insofar as one side will claim it did little to shorten the length of the war and one side will claim it prevented a deadly land invasion. Few commentators will discuss whether it is defensible to deliberately target civilian population centers (and kill innocents as an intended effect) in an effort to turn morale against the war. We all come equipped with our calculators, assuming the total will favor 'our side' on both first principle and consequentialist grounds.

This is probably the shortest of Finnis' complete works and is recommended as a good spark of his body of work, even if a poor substitute.
Profile Image for Tato.
60 reviews6 followers
November 3, 2019
I wanted to learn more about moral absolutes and see if there is any way I could learn about it independent from the religious context (although found out quickly that Finnis himself ties it to Catholicism quite a bit). I also wanted to challenge myself with a topic with which I disagree. Excited to learn, I picked up this book soon to find that it's written in the most tangled academic language hard to make sense of (especially the first chapter). I struggled through that, but it got better in the following chapters and I could follow the author a little better. There were a lot of parts where I could not situate the author's arguments under certain perspectives. I disagreed with the author a lot. A highly intellectual read, deeply philosophical and grounded in religion, I can now say that I learned a little more about moral absolutes and that I disagree with any absolutism even more now :)
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