Every age has its moral problems and perplexities, but we seem to live in especially troubled times. Sketching a graph with the temporal axis running from 1950 to the present and plotting the number of contested moral issues, old and new, across that period, one would see a rising line over recent decades. Drawing another graph, mapping the number of common ethical resources in the form of shared principles, values, and moral conceptions across the same period, one would see a falling line. Place one graph over another and the two lines cross somewhere in the 1970s.
Take almost any area of life: agriculture and energy production, animals, art and culture, broadcasting and journalism, business and commerce, computing and robotics, crime, policing and punishment, diet and food, disability, education, health and medicine, marriage and family, politics, recreation and sport, science and technology, sex and sexuality, and war and defense. Each of these, and others besides, has become a field of ethical contest and innovation.
Not so long ago, many of these subjects were marginal to moral thinking, sometimes because of ignorance but more often because of an unspoken consensus regarding them. They were settled by centuries of practice that had passed the test of time. Writing in opposition to the spirit of revolution, Edmund Burke noted “that from Magna Charta to the Declaration of Right it has been the uniform policy of our constitution to claim and assert our liberties as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity.”
He continued: “This policy appears to me to be the result of profound reflection, or rather the happy effect of following nature, which is wisdom without reflection, and above it.” Like Aristotle, Cicero, Aquinas, and Locke, Burke believed in a moral law known to the unlearned through their working experience of life. The philosophers might articulate the theory, but that was subsequent to, and not necessary for, the practice of virtue.
Our situation is very different. We have been told to mistrust tradition and established forms of life as guises for prejudice and privilege. We have come to believe through commercial advertising and professional self-promotion that the latest is the best—in ideas as well as in technology. “The world is too much with us . . . we lay waste our powers . . . and have given our hearts away.” We are too often confused, intimidated, and compromised.
Contemporary morals are like a minefield shrouded in a toxic mist. Some lurch forward blindly and are lost, and many shrink back in the face of the threat. But retreat offers no security, for the mist is all around and spreading. What to do? The cure for ignorance is knowledge; the solvent of confusion is clarity; the antidote for bad arguments is sound reasoning.
Against this background and with those remedies in mind, Australian Catholic University has launched EthicsFinder.com. Patrick Langrell, formerly of the Berggruen Institute in Los Angeles and now a director of operations at ACU, is the founder and curator. The Finder is a free online resource intended primarily, but not exclusively, for Catholics who want to understand ethical issues and the ideas and arguments relating to them.
Users can type in a word or phrase for a page with a brief micro-article introducing the topic, along with a row of headings indicating different kinds of resources: Articles, Books, Videos, and Faith. There are currently six themes (Life, Love, Politics, Ethics, Philosophy, Culture), and a hundred and twenty topics and introductory micro-articles (written by yours truly).
The first three resource headings (Articles, Books, Videos) include a wide range of material, secular as well as religious, critical as well as affirmative. Faith gathers important Catholic documents: encyclicals, Vatican declarations and reports, and statements and guidance from bishops’ conferences. These will help those who want to know what the Church teaches and advises. The thousands of curated items, including many video recordings of talks and lectures, have been gathered to assist not only Catholics, but scholars, teachers, students, journalists and commentators, and the educated and curious public.
To ensure breadth of coverage and quality of curation, EthicsFinder has a twelve-person advisory board (of which I am chair). Members include Roger Crisp (Oxford), Anthony Fisher (Catholic Institute of Sydney), Kevin Flannery (Gregorian), William Hurlbut (Stanford), Philip Pettit (ANU), Thomas Joseph White (Angelicum), and Candace Vogler (Chicago).
I conclude with one apt topic description, as a taster:
Conscience. In its modern use, deriving from 18th-century moral psychology, conscience refers to a supposed faculty or capacity naturally possessed by human beings by which they are able to tell right from wrong and which troubles them if they act against its determinations. Thus, we have such expressions as “consult your conscience,” “what does your conscience tell you,?” “my conscience has been troubling me.” These indicate that conscience is thought of as an internal voice or companion that a person can listen to and take guidance from. This notion then came to be undermined by theories that explained the impression of an inner voice as being a result of the internalization of the voice of external authorities. In earlier Christian moral theology, primarily in the work of Thomas Aquinas conscience (conscientia) is the capacity for reasoned deliberation about what is the right thing to do in a particular situation, an exercise of practical wisdom or prudence (prudentia). There is a so-called “paradox” of conscience, namely the belief that it is always right to do what conscience prescribes even where what one’s conscience judges is right is actually wrong. Resolving the paradox involves pointing out that there can be faulty conscience and hence a need for a well-formed conscience to be got from moral education.
John Haldane is professor of philosophy of education at Australian Catholic University.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.