Author: Tollefsen, Christopher
Date published: March 1, 2012
RHONHEIMER, Martin. The Perspective of Morality: Philosophical Foundations of Thomistic Virtue Ethics. Translated by Gerald Malsbary. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2011. xv + 467 pp. Paper, $39.95 - The very prolific Martin Rhonheimer's latest book provides a kind of summa of philosophical ethics, which Rhonheimer characterizes as ultimately a virtue ethics. Perhaps more than any other Thomistic philosopher, Rhonheimer presents a form of natural law ethics that, like that of Aquinas, gives considerable attention to the virtues, yet, unlike contemporary virtue ethics, neither abandons ethical principles, nor finds in virtues the ultimate standard of good or right action.
Rather, the standard for right action emerges as the fruit of practical reason's orientation towards and reflection on the good, and indeed the truth about the good. Rhonheimer's discussion of the work of practical reason, as oriented towards the good and human fulfillment, is notable in a number of ways. The first concerns his methodological approach. Rhonheimer is critical of a more "naturalistic" Thomism that first looks at an "ontological foundation and the demonstration of morally relevant natural teleologies," and then identifies "the morally good with the ontological good" or derives it "immediately therefrom." By contrast, Rhonheimer has been a consistent proponent of what he calls here the "perspective of morality," a "first-person" standpoint which asks "what constitutes good for one who acts?" but "asks this question from the perspective of the person acting."
As Rhonheimer demonstrates, a more third-person stance is taken by most ethical theories other than the "classical" approach. For example, Utilitarianism with its concern for states of affairs is overly "eventistic" and attempts to adopt the "view from nowhere"; and discourse ethics abandons the first-order perspective of agents considering their own goods to ask how an intersubjective consensus could be attained among agents who pursue different goods. Rhonheimer's criticisms of these views, and his extended engagement with Kant's ethics, are highlights of the book.
The first person perspective of morality is compatible, of course, with the need for ethical reflection; moreover, the perspective of morality embraces both an acknowledgement of the importance of subjectivity and a recognition of the need for truth. But all reflection, and all practical truth, emerges from the perspective of praxis, which, as Rhonheimer says, he does not depart from throughout the book.
The first person perspective is essential for understanding not only the shape of practical understanding and deliberation, but also for understanding human action. Action must be understood in light of its formal relation to the good as understood and desired by the agent. Rhonheimer's discussion of the "object of the human act" (especially on pages 150-151) is excellent, and should be essential reading for those interested in the nature of intention and its relation to the way the world is, apart from the agent's willing. This discussion is central to philosophical ethics and Rhonheimer's position is summed up in the following claim: "The moral good or evil is not in the things, but - provided 'things' are concerned at all - in how reason and consequently the will practically refer to things."
Reason and the will "refer" to anything at all only under the guise of the good. But the decisive question for praxis, which is also a subject of philosophical reflection, is how to make the "seeming good" - what appears good to the agent, and thus desirable and worthy of action - meet the truth so that what seems good is good in reality.
It is this task for which virtue is essential, and for which there is no replacement in philosophical theory. So the constructive part of The Perspective of Morality, in addition to providing an account of the nature of happiness (the good), of intentional action, and of the structure of practical reasoning with a view to good, must culminate in a discussion of the virtues, and then in a discussion of the way in which knowledge of moral norms in an agent of virtue leads to concrete judgments of praxis.
In this context, Rhonheimer discusses the moral absolutes against killing and lying; his account of the latter is especially important in light of a reinvigorated debate about the morality of false assertion. Rhonheimer accepts the impermissibility of false assertion as such; but he holds that the possibility of a false assertion depends upon the presence of a "communicative context." When there is no "communicative community," then speech can be used defensively, as can force, without there being any "question here of a communicative context." His account of the defeating conditions for the presence of a communicative context seem to hinge largely on whether or not the recipient of the speech cannot reasonably expect the speaker to tell the truth. This view is in tension, I believe, with both Augustine and Aquinas; it will be of interest to see where further discussion of this matter proceeds.
It is impossible to do justice to the depth of discussion in this book. In addition to the chapter on human action and the question of happiness, other standouts include the final chapter in which Rhonheimer discusses conscience and moral judgment, and, above all, the chapter on the moral virtues, which is possibly as good a short treatment of the topic as exists anywhere. - Christopher Tollefsen, University of South Carolina.
-Christopher Tollefsen, University of South Carolina.