Thursday, 24 May 2012

Universal Ethics

The discernment of good from evil is surely the most important issue of our time. On Tuesday 22 May a small conference at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford, helped to launch the English translation of an important document of the International Theological Commission, In Search of a Universal Ethic. The event was organised by the Anscombe Bioethics Centre (formerly the Linacre Centre).

Each section of the document was presented, discussed, and criticized in turn. It starts with the need for a universal ethics and the difficulties of achieving it. How do we know what is good and what is evil, except by accepting the authority of the Church or of some other institution or tradition? The most successful modern attempt to find a moral code that everyone can agree on was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, which deliberately avoided reference both to “God” and to “nature” in order to achieve an international consensus. But the ITC document explains that even this attempt has been widely criticized and disputed, and the concept of rights is currently devalued and exploited by special interest groups. It therefore argues for a new look at the concept of natural law as offering the missing foundation for the universal sense of right and wrong, and of the inalienable dignity of the human person.

The document begins by examining points of “convergence” between the great human and religious traditions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and the Greco-Roman, Chinese, and African traditions (i.e., focusing on similarities rather than differences), tracing the development of the Jewish and Christian traditions against this background. The core of the document is a clear and helpful presentation and defence of the natural law theory (and the theory of nature) that was brought to its perfection by St Thomas Aquinas. It concludes that the moral law is “inscribed in the heart of human beings” and “appeals to what is universally human in every human being”. 

In the end, law itself is transcended in the Holy Spirit and the requirements of love revealed in Jesus Christ, but it is not necessary to be a Christian to enter into the philosophical discussion of a “rationally justifiable basis” for a universal ethic, and the document invites “the experts and proponents of the great religious, sapiential and philosophical traditions of humanity to undertake an analogous work, beginning from their own sources, in order to reach a common recognition of universal moral norms based on a rational approach to reality.”

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