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Moral Action and Christian Ethics.

Moral Action and Christian Ethics. By JEAN PORTER. Pp. xiii+235. (New Studies in Christian Ethics.) Cambridge University Press, 1995. ISBN 0 521 44329 6. 35 [pounds sterling]/$54-95.

JEAN PORTER'S 1990 book, The Recovery of Virtue, advanced the discussion of the moral virtues in Thomistic ethics in relation to contemporary concerns, and this recent book moves further in that direction by broadening the conversation with philosophical questions about the nature of morality and applying them to insights from the Summa Theologiae. This should be a useful addition to the Cambridge series in Christian ethics, and the weaknesses I indicate below stem not so much from what Porter says but from what has been left out.

The first two chapters situate the discussion in the context of the relation of rules to morality, and Porter's conversation partners are Kant, Anscombe, Wittgenstein, Putnam, and Williams, amongst others. Looking at the functional nature of rules and the context of language, Porter emphasizes the contemporary awareness of the deep connection between fundamental moral concepts and our basic attitudes, developed in community, towards other human beings.

Porter then draws our attention to moral judgement and the virtues in Aquinas, and in an amiable way indicates both the vitality and the points needing revision in Thomistic ethics. The point that Thomas constructs a dialectical rather than deductive system (though others have said this too) does need reaffirmation because of continued misunderstandings. I am solidly in agreement with her basic conviction (p. 156) that there is no dichotomy between rules and virtues in Aquinas. Porter is also good on describing the way in which prudence and the other virtues must be interconnected for them to be developed at all.

Porter is fair, too, in pointing out weaknesses in the treatment of the virtues by Aquinas. The community and social dimensions in the formation of the virtues are relatively ignored, and the limitations in the social aspect of the moral virtues by the restriction by Aquinas of other-directedness to justice alone are well brought out. I am not so convinced as Porter seems to be of the influence of faculty psychology on Thomas' thought (Kenny and Gilby are helpful here).

I have mixed reactions about the value of the use of suicide, murder, and abortion as examples to illustrate her points about Thomistic ethics. The benefit for Porter is that she has vivid and concrete problems of current interest, avoiding an abstract discussion. But there are dangers here also: (a) some readers will be disturbed by her conclusions that the arguments of Thomas on suicide are not convincing (p. 118), and her use of Aquinas' developmental view of the relation of soul and body furnish the argument for the possibility of abortion of the early foetus; and (b) these examples tend to push the reader back into the direction of a view of moral action as quandary ethics, precisely what Pincoffs (and Porter, too, I think) contrast with the sounder approach of virtue ethics based on the actions of ordinary living and relationships.

This is where there is a lacuna, perhaps a missing chapter: the fundamental question 'What is it to act?' is not addressed. I do not disagree necessarily with Porter's decision not to get involved with Davidson, Goldman, and action theorists, but there seems to be a missing section in which Porter could have helped us make some links between the philosophy of action and moral psychology, subjects of interest both to Thomas Aquinas and contemporary thinkers.

Greater clarity about the basic process of action would have added even more to the rich chapters on the virtues. Porter points correctly to the importance of the virtues in developing a person's settled desires because these in turn shape actions. A more precise description of action would reveal the role of desires not only as goals for intention but also in deliberation and execution. The role of virtues in choice is different from their role in execution. A person may have good desires, recognize correctly the moral features of a situation, decide to be reconciled with his wife, but find his courage fails him at the time of action.

The relation of the moral virtues to the theological is another neglect. Even with the space limitations and the need to be selective, I would have expected more treatment of issues relating to theology and the Christian life (as, for instance, Romanus Cessario has done) given the title of this book.

DANIEL WESTBERG
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Author:Westberg, Daniel
Publication:The Journal of Theological Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 1996
Words:745
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