What’s Good? Wherefore Ought?


Only an ethics rooted in the divinely revealed truth of creation-as-gift and creator-as-love can coherently and adequately make sense of the universal experience of ought.

Print Friendly

We all have had the experience of ought, of something that, at least in a subjective sense, renders our imminent action morally relevant, so that what we are about to do or not do is more than a mere question of what will be pleasing to us, socially beneficial, psychologically comfortable, or useful for some plan of action. But it is not only the sense of what is or is not right that we experience in the moral ought, but also what is good. What seems right also seems good, and if it did not, it would not seem right; indeed, it could not be right at all. Thus, the good and the right seem correlative and inseparable in experience, though we can parse them out upon reflection. So, how to understand the twofold character of our moral experience: What’s good? Wherefore ought?

There are, of course, innumerable accounts to be given of this universal experience, ranging from cavalier dismissal—as a psychological vestige of our ancestors’ primitive taboo culture that the Enlightenment began to expunge from our communal consciousness, though it has not quite succeeded—to robust embrace: as the voice of a righteous God in the depths of the soul, demanding that we act according to that righteousness in obedience to divine commandments. Somewhere in the middle of these is the Aristotelian, eudaimonistic interpretation of the moral ought as an impetus to intelligently and voluntarily act for the purpose of self-satisfaction, following our natural inclination to happiness. This is the inclination not so much to do right but to be good, which is to say, to follow the natural, rational path to self-fulfillment, perfection, and well-being. Depending upon one’s philosophical or cultural tastes, this could be psychological adjustment, a la stoicism or Sigmund Freud, or virtuous activity, a la Aristotle or Benjamin Franklin. Then there is the Kantian third-way, combining the ethos of both a divine-command and a well-being ethics, but leaving out the need for any actual divine command or feeling of well-being. In other words, “Follow reason, God’s internal command in the soul, and you will be rendered worthy for happiness. . . later”—case in point, Jack Bauer from the television series 24 is a sort of contemporary hyper-Kantian, doing his duty without quite knowing it’s his duty, and without quite knowing if he’ll ever be happy.

Which theoretical and practical interpretation of the human experience of ought makes the most sense? It seems to me that there are two fundamental features of the experience that must be affirmed and explained. On the one hand, there is the sense of duty to the other, of the right—that something or someone outside or above me requires me to act in a certain way, regardless of my individual likes or dislikes, notwithstanding my understanding of how or whether the imminent act will contribute to my personal well-being, satisfaction of desire, or happiness. On the other hand, there is the sense of desire for self, of the good—the attraction, regardless of any sense of duty I might also have, to things in the world that I experience as desirable simply for me, as somehow related to my own happiness, which I pursue for their own sake.

Any explanation of the subjective experience of ought needs to encompass and synthesize both of these features. And herein lies the big problem, for these features appear to be mutually exclusive or at least in great tension with each other. If I am obliged to do something, whether this obligation comes from irrational taboo, social-contract convention, categorical reason, or God’s will, I cannot, at the same time, do this action for the sole purpose of my well-being, perfection, or subjective satisfaction. But if I feel obliged as well as attracted, then I cannot be doing what I ought to do merely because I am attracted to it personally. For then my happiness has become my duty. Conversely, if I find that I am personally attracted to what I also consider my duty, then I am not doing it because it is my duty, for my duty has now become for me a desirable good and thus a means to my personal happiness.

The phenomenological dialectic of right and good could be resolved if we could understand what is at the heart of human moral experience; but to understand this heart, we require more than what, unaided, human moral experience and purely philosophical speculation on this experience can provide. My argument for this conclusion is thus: What the duty aspect of moral experience suggests is the reality of justice, which is inherently relational and thus irreducible to any interpretation of morality as mere personal fulfillment. What the happiness aspect of moral experience suggests is the reality of desire-for-the-good, which is inherently personal and thus irreducible to an interpretation of morality as mere social or divine obligation. So, any explanation of the moral ought must include both others-related justice and self-related desire, and this is precisely what is provided by a theological ethics of creation and gift: If we are creatures, then we are inherently relational, with any actions related, above all, to our creator; and if creation is a gift, then we are supposed to enjoy creation as a good. And if God Himself, in essence, is a relation of three persons eternally bestowing upon each other and enjoying each other’s perfect divine goodness—God giving and receiving Himself—and if humans are made in the image and likeness of this Trinitarian gift-friendship, then we have the definitive—though still inexhaustibly mysterious—archetype in which the paradoxical human experience of simultaneous goodness and oughtness can ultimately be resolved.

If God created us and the world for a purpose, then we are obliged, by definition and through our very nature, to act according to this purpose. Even if we have been given free will to decide whether or not to correspond with our natural telos, we are not really capable of re-creating or re-designing ourselves; that is, we are inextricably purpose-fulfilling creatures, in the very fabric of our existence. And if God created the world as a gift, in imitation of His own gift-giving and -receiving essence, then our main purpose as the only creatures that can receive a gift qua gift—and not solely as something desirable—is simply to receive this gift as any gift is meant to be received, in love and gratitude for both the gift and the giver. In short, we are obliged to be happy, because we have a duty to love the gift of a divinely bestowed, happy-making existence, and we are encouraged to desire happiness for its own sake, because that is precisely the way we justly show our gratitude for the good gift we have been given.

So, am I saying that only an ethics rooted in the divinely revealed truth of creation-as-gift and creator-as-love can coherently and adequately make sense of the universal experience of ought? Indeed I am, though I think that purely philosophical explanations are similarly indispensable. Creation is replete with secondary causality, and grace and revelation can only complete nature and reason if the latter have a relative integrity and intelligibility. I am open to any account, whether philosophical or theological, that can do justice to our experience, but I have not come across any yet that both attract and oblige my soul the way the Augustinian-Thomistic theological account does.

Plato and Aristotle’s thought, if it could ever be adequately synthesized, is the most attractive and obligatory pre-Christian, purely philosophical account of ethical experience, combining both a divine-order sense of obligation (Plato’s Good) and a happiness-first-and-last sensibility (Aristotle’s phronemon). The synthesis of this account with Christian revelation is to be found in Augustine’s Platonic-Christian and St. Thomas’s Augustinian-Aristotelian ethics. But we need, most of all, an account for today, which means a synthesis of all these pagan and Christian intellectual treasures with the legitimate speculative and practical advances of secular modernity—such as the dignity of the human person, the extraordinariness of ordinary human life, the integrity and relative autonomy of the temporal social and political order, and institutions such as representative government, human rights tribunals, and freedom of religionrightly understood. And we must add to this the insights of postmodernism, such as the tradition-and-history-constituted character of ethical enquiry, the bankruptcy of the Enlightenment “view-from-nowhere,” and the myth of the secular.

Thaddeus J. Kozinski is Assistant Professor of Humanities and Philosophy at Wyoming Catholic College.

Print Friendly



Related Reading


Web Briefings

PD logo

Want more great articles?

Sign up for daily or weekly emails!

subscribe button