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The Natural Ethic



奧多路奮著(Oliver O’Donovan),孔祥烱譯



Moral Disagreements


To begin with the most trivial of observations: ethical judgements are controversial. Why are they so?


In the first place, controversies arise about matters of fact. Some people think that marijuana does, and some people think that it does not, damage the body and mind of those who smoke it. Which of these beliefs is true will make a considerable difference to our moral judgement on the smoking of marijuana. There is a respectable philosophical tradition which supposes that all moral controversy is due, in the last analysis, to the want of hard information. The utilitarians of the nineteenth century, for example, who are enjoying something of a revival today, thought that moral judgement was essentially a matter of accurate prediction: if one could know exactly what consequences would follow from each of the alternative courses of action, one would be in no doubt as to which to follow. In such a theory there is no such thing as a genuinely moral disagreement. Values as such are not up for discussion—they are supposed to be uncontroversial, or perhaps, more aggressively, non-negotiable. Within the community of reason, only the facts can be a matter of legitimate doubt or dispute.

[1] 首先是事實的爭議。有些人認為大麻損害吸食者的身體和思想,但有些人認為不會。哪一個意見是真的將會大大影響我們對吸食大麻的道德判斷。有一個尊重的哲學傳統認為,歸根到底,所有道德爭議都因為缺乏真實的資料。例如,十九世紀的功利主義今天享受一個復興,他們認為道德判斷基本上是一種準確的預測:如果一個人能確地知道每一個行動帶來的後果,他就一定知道如何行動。根據這樣的理論,真正的道德爭議是不存在的。我們不需要討論價值,因為它們都應該是無需爭議的,甚至是可商的。理性的群體內,只有事實可以是合法的懷疑或爭議。

But the most profound and terrifying moral controversies resist this kind of rationalization.


Which is why a second tradition of philosophical thought has represented moral disagreement as a function of inscrutable personal commitment. If clashes of moral conviction cannot be resolved by factual information, it appears that moral conviction is not susceptible to rational arbitration at all. There is a place for reason, of course: reason clarifies what the alternatives are, reason can tell us what will be involved if we hold to a certain judgement consistently. But when reason has fulfilled its office, we have simply to make our choice. Reason is the handmaid of personal decisions which go beyond reason; and there is no way that rational argument can demand anything of a man other than that he be true to himself. Moral disagreements are irresoluble, and we have to live with them.

[2] 這就是為什麼第二個哲學思想的傳統認為道德爭論源於不可測透的個人承諾。如果道德信念的衝突不能被事實資料解決,道德信念不能以理性的仲裁所改變。當然理性是有用的,理性澄清有哪一些選擇,理性也可以告訴我們,如果我們一貫地作某種判斷,後果將是如何。當理性完成它的責任後,我們需要做我們的選擇。個人決定是超越理性的,理性是個人抉擇的婢女,理性的辯說只能要求一個人忠於自己,不能再作什麼。道德爭論是不可解決的,我們只可以接受它。

There are certain kinds of decisions which this description fits very well. ‘There’s no accounting for tastes’, and most of us can think of decisions which we have made, for which there is, quite literally, no accounting—not because they were irrational, but because they transcended rational considerations. An example might be the decision to follow this or that career—a ‘vocation’, we call it, meaning that God has summoned us personally to it—or the decision to marry the partner we did. On these decisions we could receive advice of a kind, but not moral counsel, for nobody else could put himself in our shoes and tell us whether we loved Elvira enough to marry her, or whether we enjoyed study enough to become a professional academic. But then these decisions were not ‘moral’ decisions in the normal sense. John cannot form a good opinion about whether Philip should marry Ann, but he can form an opinion about whether Philip should marry a divorcee. Moral judgements, unlike personal choices, belong to the public domain of reason. We evaluate other people’s moral stances and we expect them to evaluate ours. We argue about them, even get angry about them, all of which presupposes some public criterion of right and wrong. This second account of moral disagreement is as inadequate as the first.


The Natural Ethic


There is a third traditional account which claims our attention. It was the accepted view of mediaeval Christianity, which got it from Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy, and in consequence it has had little favour in Protestant cultures. But recently there has been a revived interest in it. It is sometimes called ‘natural teleology’; but I shall refer to it simply as ‘the natural ethic’.

[3] 還有值得我們注意的第三傳統的描述。這是中世紀天主教公認的看法,它源於柏拉圖和亞里士多德的哲學,因此不受更正教文化歡迎。但最近對它重新出現了興趣。它有時被稱為「自然目的論」,但我將它稱為「自然倫理」。

It is possible to agree entirely on the facts of the case, and yet disagree about how it should be described. ‘The government acted to protect the dairy industry’, we imagine someone saying, ‘by disposing of surplus dairy produce’. While another person may say: ‘So much food was wasted!’ The descriptions differ, because they make use of different categories. But that is because they presuppose different views of what the world actually contains. Two men look on milk: one sees it as ‘produce’, a sort of artefact of the dairy ‘industry’; the other sees it as ‘food’. But the one, in seeing it as food, cannot prevent himself thinking that it has a purpose: food is for nourishment. And that in turn commits him to seeing it as a ‘waste’ when it is thrown into the sea. The other, seeing it as produce, is equally bound to infer that milk has no natural purpose, since the purpose of produce is simply the purpose that its producer has had for it. Indeed, in describing milk as ‘produce’, he declares that ‘food’ does not really exist, not at any rate as a natural kind of thing. In his context of thought ‘food’ could only describe a use to which human agents might decide to put this or that product or this or that raw material. To call upon a traditional Greek distinction: one sees food as a category that exists ‘in nature’, the other as a category that exists only ‘in convention’.


The natural ethic offers us this account of moral disagreement: that when men look on the world as a whole they see different things. On the bare facts they may agree; but the structure of reality behind the facts they see quite differently, and this affects the way they describe and understand the facts. Is there such a thing as ‘food’, or only market produce? Is there rule and obedience, or only a social contract? Is there free gift, or only subtler forms of exchange? Are there natural ties, or only voluntary associations? At this metaphysical level many of the most profound and painful moral disagreements arise.


It is my purpose in this essay to make a case for the natural ethic, mindful of the fact that I am in the presence of both science and theology, both of which have, for their own reasons, wished to deny it.


Voluntarism and Nominalism


Philosophers of science often stress that the Western scientific enterprise was born, at the end of the Middle Ages, in an intellectual milieu marked by two parallel movements in philosophy, ‘voluntarism’ and ‘nominalism’.


‘Voluntarism’ was the belief that good and evil are determined, not by God’s intellect but by his will. A sharp distinction was made between fact and value. Nature, as the expression of God’s mind, was value-free; questions of good and evil turned on what it was God’s will from time to time to command. If you are a voluntarist you can no longer say that God has made soya beans for our nourishment; you can only say that God made soya beans on the one hand, and now he commands that soya beans should feed us on the other, rather as he commanded the ravens to feed Elijah. Another way of expressing it would be that God’s purposes are to be known only in his providential work in directing history, not in his creational work which precedes history.


From the philosophy of voluntarism science is held to have learned its detached approach to nature, as something to be ‘put to the question’, observed and understood, without love or obedience. Values may be imposed upon the natural order by technology, but not discerned within it. For the purposes of scientific thought natural teleology is rejected.


‘Nominalism’ on the other hand was the contention that ‘kinds’ of things do not have any real existence in nature, but are simply interpretations that the mind imposes on particular phenomena. The particular is real, the universal is a construct of the mind. God made me and you and the table, but it is man’s mind, and not God’s making, that classes the two of us as human and the table as inanimate. This philosophy made possible the pursuit of economy of explanation. If kinds are conventional, and not natural, it is up to us how many of them we choose to retain in our understanding of the world. We may force as wide a range of phenomena into as limited a repertoire of categories as we feel we can get away with.


From this follows what has sometimes been called the ‘fragmentation’ of reality under the discipline of scientific investigation. A science limits the area of its interest to the range of phenomena which appear to be susceptible to its patterns of thinking. Two different sciences may cover the same ground, and each give what seems to be a complete description of it, and yet the descriptions do not coincide. Philosophies of science have often accounted for this by some theory of ‘aspects’ of reality: some of us may be familiar with the elaborate system propounded by Herman Dooyeweerd under the heading of ‘sphere sovereignty’. But this is to reflect back onto nature what is really a fragmentation in knowledge. The Western world has chosen to know the universe in parts rather than as a whole, and in economy rather than in diversity; and this deliberate policy, while it has yielded an extraordinary degree of technical mastery, has bred its own kinds of confusion. Ethical confusion is endemic to this mode of knowledge, for if there is no agreed way of describing what we see, there can be no agreed way of responding to it.

跟着就是在科學調查中出現現實的「破碎化」。科學限制範圍它的思維模式所研究的現象。兩不同的科學可能範圍有重疊每一門都好像對它有一個完整的描述,描述不一致。科學哲學往往解釋關乎現實的理論;有些人可能熟悉杜伊維Herman Dooyeweerd建議名為「領域的主權的複雜系統,但是,這其實就是知識的破碎化反映回自然。西方世界選擇知道宇宙一部分,而不是整體;知道簡化的而不是多樣的;這種意的政策取得了技術高度的掌握,但也孕育了混亂。這種知識的特產就是道德的混亂,因為如果對現象沒有一致的描述,不可能有一致的應對。

Science and the Natural Ethic


This, then, is why it is often said that the natural ethic received its death-wound at the end of the Middle Ages from that infant Hercules, the scientific revolution, then lying in its cradle. The first principle of the natural ethic is that reality is given to us, not simply in discrete, isolated phenomena, but in kinds. Things have a natural meaning. It is not a matter of interpretation to say that the table is an inanimate artefact while you and I are human beings; it is a matter of correctly discerning what is the case. The second principle is that these given kinds themselves are not isolated from each other, but relate to each other in a given pattern within the order of things. To know what that thing is is to know what kind of thing it is, and to know what kind of thing it is is to know how it fits into the whole, that is to say, what it is for. Things have a natural purpose. In understanding the natural purpose of a thing, we attend to its claims on us, and so are able to deliberate on our response to that claim. But with both these principles the philosophical revolution of the late Middle Ages tried to dispense.


It tried, but did it succeed? Science today, fully integrated into a worldview which accepts as an almost unquestionable premise the theory of evolution, can be seen to have done no more than substitute one species of teleology for another.... Some kinds of scientific description simply cannot be done nonteleologically. Biological and zoological descriptions are classic examples. How would you describe the digestive organs without saying that they were for digestion, or the tail of a horse without saying that it was for protection from flies? It was these sciences that espoused evolutionary thinking earliest and most determinedly, for they needed some teleological principle to make sense of their own work.


And then, too, while attempting to make all kinds relative, did scientific thought not absolutize to an extraordinary degree the categories of observer and observed? One form of this absolutism was ‘humanism’, which set mankind, the observer, over against all nature, the observed. But as the scope of science has extended to include humanity itself, humanism has been superseded by the same absolutism in new and more alarming forms. The observing and manipulating mind itself becomes something set absolutely over against the world. So far from abolishing metaphysics, the scientific approach to reality has only exchanged one set of metaphysical suppositions for other and more questionable ones.


But if the philosophical programme that gave birth to science was incapable of consistent fulfillment, we are relieved of a nagging anxiety. If scientific knowledge were a way of knowing the world that could be carried through consistently, we would have to choose between this kind of deliberately fragmented knowledge and the perception of the world as an integrated whole that our faith demands of us. The intellectual dividedness, which all of us who have learned to know in both ways have experienced, would then be a wound beyond healing. But if it turns out that scientific objectivism is bound to serve some other way of knowing the world, then there is a possibility that it can be made to serve the Christian way.


Once we see that the description of things with fluid categories and without teleology will never be a final description, then we can allow the usefulness of such description as a kind of thought-experiment to achieve a greater clarity of knowledge-in-detail. If we decide, as men of faith, that milk is not simply dairy-produce but food, then we can consider it also, though in a hypothetical and provisional way, as dairy-produce. Provided we know that this is an experimental distortion of thought, not the essence of the thing, we can gain knowledge by looking through the distorting lens. It remains to us then to reintegrate what we see through the lens into the total pattern of understanding; and that, I suppose, is why it is thought proper for us, as representatives of so many disciplines, to discuss the questions of ethics, not in our separate disciplines, but together.


History—Revelation and Eschatology


Thinkers who understand the development of Western thought in this way, whether they welcome it or deplore it, are inclined to ascribe a good deal of the credit for it to Christianity.


It is true that for more than a millennium of Christian life and thought the late-Platonic unity of fact and value remained unchallenged in the Western church (as it still does in the Eastern); but that, it is said, only shows how slow Christianity was to emancipate itself from Hellenic tutelage and enter into its Jewish heritage. The sundering of act and value was already implicit in the Old Testament conception which we call ‘salvation history’, the idea that meaning and worth were not to be found in the stabilities of nature but in the dynamisms of history. This conception reappears in Christianity in two forms. On the one hand it underlies the notion of a historical revelation of the meaning of the universe in the incarnation of the Son of God. On the other hand it underlies the belief that all history is to reach its goal at the final intervention of God and the establishment of his kingdom.


The voluntarist-nominalist movement of the fourteenth century has more to its credit than the fostering of scientific thought. It was the philosophical inspiration also for the Reformers. It gave them the tools to attack the Thomist epistemology which allowed that in principle (and in fairness to St. Thomas one should stress the phrase ‘in principle’), natural man might perceive natural values and natural meanings without the aid of revelation. To this the Reformers reacted with a powerful and authentically Christian stress on the decisiveness of revelation. But revelation for them was really a Christological matter: to question the need of revelation was to question the need of Christ. The meaning of the world, the ‘Logos’, came down at Christmas; the man without Christmas is a man without meaning. The bestowal of meaning is part of God’s saving work in history, for in nature man can discern no meaning.


What the Christian doctrine of revelation does for natural meaning, its eschatological expectation does for natural purpose. Within Christianity one cannot think or speak about the meaning of the world without speaking also of its destined transformation. The problem of evil is met, not by asserting a profound cosmological order in the present, but by confident announcement of God’s purposes for the future. He who has come to earth as the meaning, has come also as the Purpose or Fulfillment. To understand the first coming of Christ it is necessary to expect the second coming.


There are, of course, notoriously, two ways of living in expectation. We can believe in the value of intermediate transformation, ‘preparing the way of the Lord’, and so commit ourselves to a life of activity; or we can feel that the ultimate transformation renders all penultimate change irrelevant, and so resign ourselves to a life of hopeful suffering. But what these two attitudes in common is far more important than what differentiates them. They both take a negative view of the status quo. There is no natural purpose to which we can respond in love and obedience. The destiny of nature has to be imposed on it, either by our activity or by God’s. The purpose of the world is outside it, in that new Jerusalem which is to descend from heaven prepared as a bride for the bridegroom.


This description of the Christian impact on the natural ethic would meet with fairly wide acceptance, among those who deplore it as well as among those who welcome it. Yet I am bound to think that there is much of importance that it leaves out.


To take the point about revelation first. Revelation in history is certainly the lynchpin of Christian epistemology. But epistemology is not the same thing as ontology, however often the Protestant world may have confused the two. ‘Nature’ may be contrasted with ‘revelation’ as an epistemological programme; or it may be contrasted with ‘history’ to make an ontological distinction. The important epistemological points that the Reformation had to make must not be allowed to shelter a destructive and semi-Christian ontology. It is one thing to say that until the Word became incarnate, man could discern no meaning in nature; quite another to say that until the Word became incarnate nature had no meaning.


Revelation is the solution to man’s blindness, not to nature’s emptiness. True, man’s blindness is itself part of a disruption within nature, which we call the fall. But the very fact that nature can be called disrupted and disordered shows that it cannot be inherently meaningless. In its earliest days the church was puzzled to find some within its midst believing that the world was made by an evil divinity, hostile to the God of redemption. In rejecting this speculation it made a sharp and necessary distinction between the idea that the world was simply chaotic and, what it understood the gospel to teach, that the world was an ordered creation tragically spoiled. Protestantism, in making the epistemological issue supreme over the ontological, has often tended to upset the balance that the Fathers struck.


Christian eschatology, too, to take up the second point, has to be seen in the light of the doctrine of creation. Christianity is an eschatological faith, having as its central theme the experience and hope of redemption from evil. But this redemption is not to be understood dualistically as the triumph of a good redeemer-god over an evil creator-god. It is because God is the creator of nature that he does, and will, redeem nature from its state of corruption. He who is the Saviour of the world is also the ‘Logos’, ‘through whom all things were made’. He is the Second Adam, restoring that which the First Adam lost. Creation and redemption are not in hostile antithesis, but in complementarity, each providing the context in which we understand the other.


Balance Between Nature and History


When thought fails to keep the Christian balance between meaning given in the natural order and meaning revealed in the course of history, it is at the mercy either of a static naturalism or an indeterminate belief in progress.


There are ‘natural ethics’ with which Christianity can have nothing to do.


The respect for given orders can easily become a form of idolatry. The family, the state, the animal world, the mountains, the stars in heaven, man himself, can all command our love and allegiance in a way that allows no understanding of their proper place in the scheme of things. We love what is, only because we mistake it for something that it is not. We suppose that our tribe is the whole or the chief of mankind, we suppose that the planets fashion our destinies, we suppose that man is the master of all things. Much has been honoured as ‘natural’ that is purely conventional, the product of certain passing historical circumstances, and in this way great oppression has been laid on the souls of men.


But not even a natural ethic that was entirely obedient to the revealed doctrine of creation could suffice as a complete moral guide in itself. The natural order makes claims upon us, which we must recognise and attend to; but the claims are generic, and in some situations we confront more than one of them. It may seem to us that seal have to be conserved; but so does the family and community life of Newfoundland seal-hunters. Man, too, is a creature with his own natural meaning and purpose, and part of that purpose is to exercise authority over the rest of nature. While we must certainly insist that his authority cannot be properly exercised unless he has a real understanding and love for nature, nevertheless he does have real discretion and a capacity to make choices which are not given inherently in the structure of nature itself.


And to these considerations we must add one more: in our actual situation in salvation history, we are dealing as fallen men with a fallen nature. Both we and nature come under the judgement of the God who created us, and that judgement is reflected in an ascetic series of duties and vocations which stand in a paradoxical relation to natural goals and functions. Thus we are required to ‘hate’ our father and our mother, our wife, children, brothers and sisters, and even our own life, in order to be Christ’s disciples. Allowing for the element of rhetoric in this, we must still recognize a demand which falls quite outside the scope of the natural order, and, because the natural order itself is in rebellion against God, runs counter to it. Again, there is the possibility of a calling to singleness, ‘making ourselves eunuchs’, as Jesus puts it, for the kingdom of heaven’s sake; and here too we have to recognise an eschatological demand which runs counter to the course which nature indicates.


We cannot allow ourselves, then, to champion an ethic in which everything is given in nature, nothing is to be revealed in history. But then neither can we take the other route, abandoning altogether the given values in favour of a solely eschatological outlook.


The Reformers avoided the consequences of their formal abandonment of natural value because they held so strongly to the decisive revelation of God in past history, which, including as it did the Scriptures as well as the Christ himself, in effect allowed them to have their cake and eat it. They still recognized given natural values, though not under that description, because they recognised Christ. But when belief in a determinative past revelation was abandoned, the real implications of forsaking nature began to be apparent. The result was an open-ended belief in progress.


Belief in progress can be thought of as ‘salvation history’ without salvation. There is a general optimism, but no understanding of history as the restoring of what was lost, the recovery of things as they were always supposed to be. Value and meaning now arise from the very fact of transformation itself; there is no other criterion, other than the simple fact of change, by which we can judge good and evil. ‘Progressive’ and ‘reactionary’ become the standard terms of praise and blame. Despite its optimism, it is to the doctrine of progress that we must ascribe a large part of the anxiety and comfortlessness of our times. For when the future is known only as the negation of what is, and not as the more profound affirmation of its true structure, then it is simply alien to us. We cannot view it with hope, for hope requires some point of identification between the thing hoped for and the one who hopes for it. The only ways of facing the future are with fear or with the wild, self-destructive excitement which can grip a man when he stands on the edge of an unplumbed abyss....


Tensions in Evangelical Ethics


This has some bearing on a disagreement which has disturbed our own small circles in recent years, between those who urge upon us a ‘kingdom’ ethic and those who support a ‘creation’ ethic. Neither kingdom nor creation can be known independently of each other. He who is called the King of kings is also called the Second Adam: nature and history in him are not divided. We would be foolish to allow ourselves to be polarised in this way, and even more foolish to conceive of such a polarisation in terms of Left and Right, as though the very profound philosophical issue involved could be summed up in a political cliche.


However, we may suggest in conclusion that there may be a legitimate division of interest among us that might appear to line us up in naturalist and historicist camps. We have to proclaim the gospel in different cultural and philosophical contexts. Many of us have deep sympathy with the problems of the Third World, tyrannical regimes, oppressive family and tribal structures, maldistribution of resources, and so on, and, speaking authentically to the static naturalisms which have produced and aggravated such problems, will talk eschatologically of transformation, and even, with a daring but possible expropriation of language, of ‘revolution’.


Others of us are concerned chiefly with the problems of the Western world, the abuses of technology, the threat to the family, the dominance of financial power, and so on, and find themselves needing constantly to point to the data of created nature. No doubt there is a temptation here: it is easy for the one group to think of the other as ‘conservative’ or ‘radical’. But whenever we do this we exclude one side of the nature-history balance, and condemn our own stance to being less Christian for lack of that balance. I hope that ... we can make the mental and spiritual effort required of us to think beyond the issues that are all-important to ourselves at the moment and to learn to appreciate each other’s proper concerns. As we do so we will approach nearer the point where we can grasp the Christian metaphysic in its wholeness and realize its significance for ethics.






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SOURCE: Oliver O’Donovan (1994): “The Natural Ethic,” in Readings in Christian ethics, volume 1: Theory and Method, ed. David K. Clark and Robert V. Rakestraw (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker), 73-82.

From Oliver O’Donovan (1978): “The Natural Ethic,” in Essays in Evangelical Social Ethics, ed. David Wright (Exeter: Paternoster), 19-31.




Moral Disagreements. 1

A)道德爭論... 1

The Natural Ethic. 3

B)自然倫理... 3

Voluntarism and Nominalism.. 5

C)意識論和唯名論... 5

Science and the Natural Ethic. 7

D)科學自然倫理... 7

History—Revelation and Eschatology. 10

E)歷史啟示與末世論... 10

Balance Between Nature and History. 13

F)自然與歷史之間的平衡... 13

Tensions in Evangelical Ethics. 16

G)基督教倫理的張力... 16