What is good? What does “ought” mean?
Philosopher Thaddeus Kozinski takes up these questions in his very interesting article in today’s Public Discourse. His bottom line: “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.”
I’m just lifting elements of his argument. You should really read the whole thing.
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. … 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 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….
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….
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….
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 religion—rightly 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.