Captives of the moral crusaders

November 12, 1999

Mary Warnock, in her review of books by Richard Holloway and the late Basil Hume, agrees with the former that we had best look for a common morality without religion and that such a morality may have something to do with the Aristotelian idea of virtue.

Though Warnock's account of Christian belief (which is what she seems to mean by "religion") is extremely crude - for example, which church has ever taught that the Bible is the "outcome of one single gigantic revelation"? - she is no doubt right in suggesting that Christian belief is now insufficiently common to support a common morality. Yet there is irony in then endorsing Aristotelian virtue ethics, which rely on some idea of what it is to flourish as a human being, since it is just such an ethic that has long been taught and developed in Catholic Christianity. Of course, this Catholic tradition of virtue ethics holds that human beings fully flourish only in and through joyous union with God, and that is what many people would question. But if it were true, a Godless morality - however Aristotelian - would always fall short of the mark.

While Aristotle - as he saw it - did not require Christianity in order to give an account of the virtuous life, the kind of life that makes for human happiness, he did need, and supposed, something like a "religious" culture. That is to say, he supposed that human flourishing requires the development and fostering of such social and personal practices as can form those habits of body and mind that make for such flourishing. If we are to follow Aristotle rather than Kant, then we are in want of a religious culture in this sense; and if, as Christianity ventures, to be fully human is to be united with God, then we are in want of those practices that can make for such a union, and to offer a Godless morality (pace Warnock and Holloway?) would be to fail humanity.

Gerard Loughlin, Head, department of religious studies University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

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