The Distinction Between “Morality” and “Ethics”

by Jayson M. Brunelle

Moral Theology is a necessary branch of study within Theology, as it helps us to understand the principles we need to live morally upright lives and attain the supreme goal of human existence – the beatific vision, or the vision of God.  We should begin by making a necessary distinction between Natural Theology and Sacred Theology.  The former, Natural Theology, refers to the strictly philosophical study of God, and presupposes nothing regarding the divinely revealed truths of divine revelation.  In Natural Theology, or natural religion, the object of study is the same as that of Sacred Theology, and that object is God.  It is, rather, the way – the approach taken – or the fashion by which the object of our inquiry is studied that differentiates philosophical “ethics” from “Moral” Theology.  Ethics, which is the philosophical sub-discipline of right conduct, relies solely on the light of natural, un-aided human reason to study the metaphysical reality of human nature, and the code of ethics that springs therefrom.  Brilliant minds, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, adopting and reconciling Aristotelian philosophy and medieval Christian Theology, taught that the philosophical study of ethics could be based on the nature of the human person, and, based on our shared, common human nature, and the “natural law” of right conduct and wrong conduct, we are capable of deriving an absolute, universal code of ethics, enabling us to properly ascertain that which is truly and authentically good for us or perfective of our human nature, as well as that which is not perfective of out nature and that for which we ought not to act.

The starting point in most manuals of Christian Moral Theology is man’s last end, which the Greek philosophers referred to as happiness, and the Christian thinkers called “beatitude,” or the “Beatific Vision” of God.  It is true that all persons seek happiness through every one of their deliberate and free acts.  Such acts, which presuppose full knowledge and full consent of the will are properly called human acts.  Other acts performed by humans which do not presuppose consciousness, intelligence and volition are referred to simply as “acts of man.”  Moral Theology is concerned with those acts which are truly human; that is, human acts which spring from intellect and will.

It should be noted here that whenever a human being acts, he/she always acts for the sake of a good, even if that good is only a perceived good and not an actual good.  In fact, Aquinas teaches, and the Church agrees, that even when we sin, we’re doing so because we belive, albeit mistakenly, that we’re acting for the sake of a good that is somehow perfective of our nature.  Thus, the distinction lies in real, actual goods versus apparent, pseudo goods.  Human persons mistake apparent goods (which would be sinful) for real, authentic goods (which are truly perfective of our nature) because, as a consequence of original sin, our intellects are dulled and our wills are weakened.   Thus, if it is true that as humans we are always acting for the sake of a good, real or apparent, it logically follows that it is impossible to commit an evil for evil’s sake.  We always and everywhere act for the good and the perfection of our nature.  This accords with the Aristotelian principle that being desires perfection.

The question of the ultimate end in morality is an essential one, as morality is teleological, or goal-oriented.  We act for the sake of happiness.  Moreover, man desires perfect happiness.  Now happiness consists in the possession of a good.  Therefor, it follows that perfect happiness consists in the possession of a perfect good.  And what other perfect good is there except for God Himself.  Thus, whether or not we realize it, we all have an infinitely large, God-shaped hole in our hearts that can only be perfectly satisfied in the possession of the perfect good, which is God.  And this is in accord with the teaching of St. Augustine, who stated, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”

Finally, man’s ultimate subjective happiness, as an operation, is an act of the intellect, as St. John states, “This is eternal life: to know Thee.”  The felicity or delight which accompanies the intellect’s possession of the ultimate end, which is the vision of the Divine Essence, belongs properly to the will.

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