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Chapter 4: Some Mistaken Theories of Moral Principles

Question H: How do this chapter’s critical reflections contribute to a more adequate theory of moral principles?

1. The result of this chapter’s examination of inadequate theories is not entirely negative. From this criticism one can draw an outline of a more adequate theory, which articulates what the Church means by natural law but is not legalistic or otherwise inadequate in the manner of scholastic natural-law theory.

2. Against the moral-feelings theory, an adequate theory must show how conscience judges. Against the view which reduces judgments of conscience to isolated insights, it must show how conscience starts from principles and proceeds by rational reflection. Against the view that moral principles are in force only if accepted by personal choices, it must show how principles are objective—they hold true whether one likes them or not. Against the view that moral principles are established by God’s arbitrary choice, an adequate theory must show how they can be truths which cannot be otherwise. Against cultural relativism, it must show how moral norms are more than facts concerning the necessary conditions for attaining the ends which people have in view. Against scholastic natural-law theory, it must show how moral norms provide us with guidance toward goods which fulfill human persons more and more abundantly.22

22. The theories discussed in this chapter share the defect of overlooking the relationship between moral norms and human goods. MacIntyre, op. cit., 84–86, draws out some of the implications of the difference between theories defective in this way and those which ground moral norms in human goods. His discussion, although marred by conceptual relativism, clarifies some of the difficulties involved in theories which fail to ground norms in goods.