Augustine's Moral Philosophy: An Analysis
AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO (354-430) is one of the most eminent Western Doctors of the Church and the first major Christian ethical philosopher.
Augustine’s moral philosophy is also eudemonistic or concerns the attainment of happiness. It also recognizes the significance of virtues, though its real focal point is love, particularly the love of God.
Happiness, wisdom, and reason
Following the ancient Greek ethicists, Augustine regards moral philosophy as an enquiry into the Summum Bonum: the supreme good, which affords the happiness all persons seek. Happiness is equated with the achievement of wisdom. The typical objects of desire – wealth, earthly power, honors, physical beauty – do not guarantee happiness, much less moral goodness. Only the Supreme Wisdom, the Omniscient God, provides ultimate contentment.
Philosopher as he is, Augustine also holds that happiness involves living in accordance with reason, that is, living in a way that reason rules and orders one’s self. It is done by seeing the true worth of things and desiring them rationally, that is, in accordance with their respective rank in the hierarchy of values. Reasonable and wise living thus entails knowing the truth about human and divine matters and loving them in a fashion proportionate to their real importance, loving the highest good above all and desiring less the lesser goods.
God and the order of things
Obviously, Augustine believes in a hierarchical structure of reality. Since God is the absolute and eternal being and nothing or no one is better or higher than Him, God therefore is the highest good, being on top of the hierarchy. True happiness thus consists in finding, possessing, knowing, and loving the supreme being, God. This explains why many people, despite having several earthly possessions, remain ultimately unhappy-- their beliefs about the highest good are flawed and their loves are aimed at what is not really important.
Love of God and moral living
For, Augustine, love is the active center of our moral life, as love moves us where it desires. Like material object that is pulled by its weight toward the center of the earth, we are pulled by the desires of our own hearts toward that which we consider the center of our lives. This is the sense of Augustine’s famous line, “My weight is my love. Wherever I am carried my love is carrying me.”
So we must be careful in what we love. As love can motivate us toward what is good, it can also pull us toward the evil we think good. A good love or loving rightly makes us good, whereas loving badly leads to living wickedly. Just as we can love matters that are good, we can love things in the wrong way. We can love the wrong person or things like tobacco, alcohol, prohibited drugs, and we can desire gambling or too much foods. Experientially, these disordered and improper loves result in despair and sorrow because the persons involved had misallocated their desires and misdirected their ultimate love. So what is that loving that results in authentic happiness?
The love that brings highest fulfillment is that which desires what ought to be loved above everything, God. This is suggested in Augustine’s frequently quoted statement, “Oh God you have created us for Yourself so that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” To strive after God is to desire happiness; to love God is happiness itself. To live well and morally therefore, that is to live with the purpose of achieving authentic happiness, is nothing else but to love God with all the heart, with all the soul, with the entire mind.
Accordingly, all ethical truths, such as ‘live virtuously’ or ‘live according to God’s law’ are reducible to one moral dictum: love God. In following moral obligation, love of God also serves as man’s main motivating force.
Virtue, double love, and charity
Since virtues are supposed to and indeed lead us to the happy life, Augustine defines virtue as ‘the perfect love of God’. Virtue is the love by which one desires that which should be loved whereas vice is the love of moral evil. And while vice is the hideous expression of disorderly love, virtue is the beauty of true love ordered toward God. Because to live virtuously is to evaluate and order loves in accordance with their true worth, virtue is ‘the art of living well and rightly.’
Augustine gives emphasis to the Pauline virtues of faith, hope and love and predictably assigns highest significance to love. So what about the four Greek great virtues—prudence, temperance, courage, and justice? These virtues are used in service of the lasting virtues of faith, hope, and love, for otherwise these virtues of ancient philosophyare nothing more than prideful vices in the context of Augustinian philosophy.The virtues find their unity in love of God. All other virtues are reducible to this highest virtue. In fact, Augustine gives an interpretation of each of the other virtues that makes it an expression of the love of God. For instance, temperance is described as love ‘keeping itself whole and incorrupt for God’, and courage, as love ‘bearing everything readily for the sake of God’.
Augustine depicts the prime virtue of love by the ‘double love’ command taught in the Bible. Jesus decreed us to love not only God but also our neighbor as ourselves. To love our neighbors involves not harming them but promoting their good instead. Love of God thus entails charity, and God, in the end, will judge us on the basis of our reaction to this double love command.
Sin and moral evil
For the concept immoral acts, Augustine used the word peccatum, typically translated as ‘sin’, and which generally refers to bad acts for which an agent bears moral responsibility.
In his ethical philosophy, Augustine addressed akrasiaor the weakness of will. This akrasia involves he problem of how we can ever do what we know we ought not to be doing. In Confessiones II, Augustine relates of stealing pears as a boy of sixteen. What might have motivated his theft, he says, were not the pears themselves, for he had better ones at home. He concludes that it was the flavor of sinning that motivated him. So what is sinning for Augustine?
Augustine was a categorical intentionalist in his view of sin. For him, there are three necessary and sufficient conditions for committing a sin: receiving an evil suggestion, taking pleasure in the thought of performing the suggested action, and consenting to perform the act. Hence to commit a sin does not depend on whether or not the envisioned act is in reality performed. And even when the action is carried out, what is sinful is not the action itself, or its consequences, but the intention of the person. In fact, Augustine wrote to the devout virgins raped during the sack of Rome that chastity is a virtue of the mind—not lost by rape, but is lost by the intention of sin, even if unperformed.
Also, morally evil acts are evil not because they are directed at intrinsically bad objects. For instance, the sexual pleasure in adultery and the food in gluttony are not intrinsically bad; each is, in fact, intrinsically good for nothing that God created is inherently evil. The badness of the actions owes rather to the persons’ inordinate desire for that at which the acts are directed. Moral evils, therefore, are acts of will which convey a person’s inordinate desire or intention for something. The defects of the will stem not from its objects, but from the will itself. For example, Augustine insists that avarice (greed) is not a fault inherent in gold, but in the man who inordinately loves gold.
Acts expressing greed are morally bad because the greed’s desire for gold is out of proportion--he assigns to gold more value than it in fact has. But what makes greed bad is neither the desire for gold nor the gold desired but, the disorder in our choices and intentions.
On lying, just war, and killing
Augustine’s intentionalist theory of sin is consistently reflected on his applied ethics. On lying, Augustine suggests that a person lies in saying a statement if and only if (1) the statement is false; (2) he believes that the statement is false; and (3) he says the statement with the intention of deceiving someone.
Following Cicero and Ambrose, Augustine proposes the theory of just warfare which suggests that good men may undertake wars in obedience to God or some lawful authority. He believes that peacefulness in the face of a serious wickedness or injustice that could only be brought to an end by violence would be a sin. When protecting one’s self or others is necessary, fighting to restore and achieve lasting peace is warranted. But the only kind of war that Augustine allows is the defensive—not the preemptive, much less the revengeful. A war should not be fought from love of hostility, revengeful cruelty, and hunger for power.
On killing, Augustine accordingly believes that not everyone who has brought about the death of another can be properly said to have killed. A soldier in a just war may end another's life without killing. In lawful executions, an executioner may also bring about the death of a convict without killing.
The fall and God’s grace
Augustine contends that the first evils in creation are evil acts of free will or the so-called sins. Made as rational beings with free choice by God, some angels and the first human beings, Adam and Eve, turned away from their very Creator. The first humans’ disobedience to God in the Garden of Eden results in what is called ‘the fall of man’. ‘The fall’ is thusthe transition from being an innocent image of God to being a creature with corrupted or fallen human nature.
Moral evil is viewed as the privation of right order in one’s will, in the same way darkness is the absence of light in a place. When the will abuses its freedom and willingly defects from supreme goodness, it is deprived of right order, measure, and form it ought to possess.In ‘the fall,’ Adam and Eve abused their freedom by loving themselves and their own good as if it were the highest good. In doing so, they acted inordinately, favoring lesser goods to the greater goods. Evil, then, is moving away from God through a misdirected love of something that isn’t God. Moral evils, or sins, are based on a mistaken conception of what is good for us.Sinful acts, like what the first humans did, are unbecoming and improper, and hence corruptions of man’s original nature.
This fallen nature is a state from which people cannot attain genuine happiness, let alone salvation or eternal life. And even if man attempts to pursue that which is really good, he cannot be successful because of his fallen nature.Sin can be avoided, Augustine believes, if our corrupted nature be healed by God's grace. By one’s own strength alone, without God’s gracious intervention, it is impossible for one to become righteous.
Without taking away one’s freedom, God’s grace fortifies man’s will to do good and pulls it to its real purpose by offering delight as motivation. Only God’s grace can free our will from the domination of sin, thereby even perfecting human liberty. Genuine liberty is free choice used to good purpose, whereas bogus liberty is its bad utilization. Moved by God’s liberating grace, free will exercises authentic liberty in fulfilling God’s laws.
Augustine believes that basic moral norms such as “Subordinate the inferior to the superior,” and “Give everyone his due”, are more or less common to all people. Through the moral guidance of our gracious God reflected in our conscience, we can apply these moral laws in our actions. Furthermore, the illumination of the divine virtues plays a role here. As God lights up our mind by truth, He illumines our will by virtue.s
Considering all the elements of his ethical philosophy, it is hard to identify where Augustine fits into our usual classification of types of ethicist.
Being a theologian, he is unsurprisingly classified as a ‘divine-command theorist’ and a ‘natural law theorist.’ But he can be a ‘virtue ethicist’ for advocating the Greek and Christian virtues. In promoting happiness as the supposed end of actions, he can be classified as a ‘consequentialist.’ Somehow he suggested that we have the right to peace (on ‘Just War’) and it is our duty not to intend to deceive anyone (‘On lying’), hence he can be considered a deontologist. Giving much emphasis on love, he can also be considered as the progenitor of today’s ‘situation ethics.’ Augustine’s one contribution to the study of morality therefore is his apparent suggestion that we should not attempt to do ethics without all of these concepts.
One of his accomplishments is the systematization of Christian ethics, by giving the Greek’s eudaimonistic moral philosophy a theological substance.Ethics for him isthe enjoyment of God, and virtuously living on earth has significance not only to earthly existence but also in the after life. He believes that virtues themselves are God’s grace, and founded on love, not on the self-assigned ends or wisdom cherished by philosophers.
Whereas ancient philosophers’ ethics are self-centered and tend to stress the cognitive side of man’s nature, Augustine’s philosophy, especially the ‘double love’ command pronounces the moral importance of charity and loving one’s neighbors. For him, moral deeds and virtues should be understood in terms of relationship to others and to God.
By defining divine virtue as ‘the art of living well and rightly’, he also made ethically active man’s love of God. To love God therefore is not just to emotionally love Him but also to desire to live virtuously according to His will.
Commendable also is his view of everything having respective place or rank in a hierarchy and his corresponding doctrine to put premium on things with great values, and less importance on those with little worth. Applicably, it endorses the wise and practical dictum, ‘first thing first’.
His notion on man’s natural inevitability to sin and the resultant gravity of its punishment may be viewed as gloomy and pessimistic.
Nonetheless, his doctrine on divine grace offers hope and inspiration to believers. Moreover, in teaching that moral conversion must transform us not only in our preferences and deeds but principally in our values, intentions, and desires, Augustine has in effect taught that leading a new life must not be superficial and that spiritual transformation must be deep-rooted.
In equating sin with ill intention, however, Augustine seems to fail to account for the essential difference between intending a bad act and actually doing it. With him, we can argue that somebody who desired a wicked act but has controlled himself not to do it is morally better than another who intended and in fact performed the bad deed. (© 2013 by Jensen DG. Mañebog & Mark Joseph T. Calano)
Jensen DG. Mañebog is a Philosophy professor, editorial consultant of an academic site, and Professorial Lecturer in the Graduate School of a state university in Metro Manila, Philippines.
Mark Joseph T. Calano, the current president of the Philosophical Association of the Philippines (PAP), teaches at the Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU).
Their Ethics book (“Ethics: A Critical Evaluation of Moral Philosophies”) comprehensively introduces and analyses various ethical theories and worldviews.
QUESTIONS/TOPICS FOR DISCUSSIONS
1. What’s Augustine’s understanding of the Summum Bonum? How is it significant in his moral theory?
2. Explain Augustine’s concept of virtues.
3. Relate love of God and moral living in Augustine’s philosophy.
4. Explain Augustine’s view of sin.
Write a comparative essay entitled, “Augustine’s Admonitions to Me if He were My Father.”
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Tags: Philosophy, Medieval Philosophy, Christian Philosophy, Scholasticism, Ethics, Moral Philosophy, Catholicism, Christianity, Social Studies, Sociology, Social Science, Analysis or Critique of Augustine’s Ethics
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