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.”

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Rights in Islam

In its modern sense, the concept of human rights could be said to be alien to the Islamic tradition. That is because the modern doctrine of rights is an invention of the European Enlightenment. It was an attempt to base the humane social order on reason rather than revelation. Unfortunately the secular foundations of the doctrine of rights were never successfully secured. Philosophers disagreed on the origin of rights and even on what counts as a right. Some philosophers believed that rights derived from an implicit agreement among human beings to maintain a mutually beneficial social order. Others based rights on some idea of human nature and personal dignity more or less derived from the earlier notion of man as the image of God. But most Enlightenment discourse about rights tended to revolve around the concept of freedom. The most important right was freedom, meaning in this case freedom from constraint (freedom from arbitrary arrest, freedom to speak one's mind, freedom from the authority of the Church, and so on). Even the right to life was defined in terms of freedom – freedom to live one's life without having it taken away.

And yet absence of constraint had been a relatively minor element in the traditional notion of freedom, which we might call the "religious" notion of freedom. Servais Pinckaers OP in his important study The Sources of Christian Ethics has shown that the traditional

Monday, 14 May 2012

Animal welfare

Do animals have rights? The Catholic Catechism tells us (section 2416) that "Animals are God's creatures. He surrounds them with his providential care. By their mere existence they bless him and give him glory. Thus men owe them kindness. We should recall the gentleness with which saints like St. Francis of Assisi or St. Philip Neri treated animals." On the other hand, it also says (2418): "It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly. It is likewise unworthy to spend money on them that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery. One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons."

The same Catechism adds (2417): "God entrusted animals to the stewardship of those whom he created in his own image. Hence it is legitimate to use animals for food and clothing. They may be domesticated to help man in his work and leisure. Medical and scientific experimentation on animals is a morally acceptable practice if it remains within reasonable limits and contributes to caring for or saving human lives." All the issues raised by these quotations revolve around the distinction between man and the other animals, and what that implies. The distinction is based on the fact that only human

Friday, 11 May 2012

Environmental Solidarity

The past few decades have seen the beginnings of a convergence between religions and ecological movements. The environmental crisis has called the religions of the world to respond by finding their voice within the larger Earth community. At the same time, a certain religiosity has started to emerge in some areas of secular ecological thinking. Beyond mere religious utilitarianism, rooted in an understanding of the deepest connections between human beings, their worldviews, and nature itself, this book tries to show how religious believers can look at the world through the eyes of faith and find a broader paradigm to sustain sustainability, proposing a model for transposing this paradigm into practice, so as to develop long-term sustainable solutions that can be tested against reality. Coming soon: the Environmental Solidarity Institute.

Friday, 4 May 2012


G.K. Chesterton was once described as a "Conservative" thinker. He responded as follows:
"Because I want almost anything that doesn't yet exist; because I want to turn a silent people into a singing people; because I would rejoice if a wineless country could be a wine-growing country; because I would change a world of wage-slaves into a world of freeholders; because I would have healthy employment instead of hideous unemployment; because I wish folk, now ruled by other people's fads, to be ruled by their own laws and liberties; becuase I hate the established dirt and hate more the established cleanliness; because, in short, I want to alter nearly everything there is, a cursed, haughty, high-souled, well-informed, world-worrying, sky-scraping, hair-spliting, head-splitting, academic animal of a common quill-driving social reformer gets up and calls me a Conservative! Excuse me!"
The word "conservative" should, in fact, never be used without a public health warning – or at least without careful definition. Its opposite, "liberal", is no better.

I don't wish to "conserve" the Catholic or the Christian tradition merely because it is the tradition I happen to be born into (in fact I wasn't), but because I believe it is true to reality. Furthermore, I do not wish to conserve it in aspic or on ice. It is a living tradition, and that means it is growing and developing just as any organism would do. The continued vitality of this tradition depends on us. If a label is needed, "conservative" is better than most, but it has to be qualified: perhaps "imaginative conservative" comes closest to what Chesterton was and what I aspire to be; conserving what is good and changing everything else.

The picture shows Chesterton's typewriter (on which, for all I know, the words I quoted were originally written). It is one of the items belonging to the great man that we conserve here at the Centre for Faith & Culture in Oxford, and which sometime next year will be transferred to the new library building at the Oxford Oratory, to be looked after in perpetuity. If you are interested in supporting this great work, the most helpful thing you can do is donate to the Oratory Appeal.