***Note: I am precising Oliver O’Donovan’s Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics this week here at Mere-O. I hope you will work through the challenging and provocative theological ethic that O’Donovan articulates.***

Part Three: The Form of the Moral Life

Chapter 9: The Moral Field

The task of this final section is to provide an account of ‘love,’ and to do so from a distinctly theological perspective. In other words, this section is focused on the moral life as it is practiced.

This is the area of ethics that most people begin with, and the area of ethics where philosophy has recently dominated. But “theology has something to say…about how the questions are formulated as well as about how they are answered.”

Generally speaking, there are two different starting points for ethical deliberation (as evidenced by the two answers in Lk. 3:10ff. and Acts 2:37-38). On the one hand, there is the question of which action we should pursue. On the other hand, there is the question of what sort of person we should be. The form of the moral life must account for both—it “will be that of an ordered moral field of action…and of an ordered moral subject of action.”

O’Donovan spends this chapter focusing on the field of action. Or more appropriately, the field of actions, for we are always performing human acts. Of course, what constitutes a ‘human act’ is in need of some clarification. A ‘scientific observer,’ for instance, may observe a man write a letter over the course of a few hours, navigate distractions while doing so, engage in some other business and then return to the letter. And while he may be able to describe what he saw, he will not be able to describe the ‘human actions’ he observed without knowing the ends for which the subject was acting. While there may be disagreement about how many, or what sort of ‘human acts’ the letter writer engaged in, such disagreements merely highlight the fact that he was engaged in human action.

And this is the pertinent point: “The difference between one human act and another arises not out of some disjunction intrinsic to the agent’s behaviour, but out of the changing field of action, which, in the course of a few hours, sets a sequence of possible ends-of-action before an agent and elicits his response to some of them.”

This underscores the problem of novelty; the world sometimes presents to us new fields of action for us to respond to. That is, we are confronted by situations which are, in our awareness, ‘new.’ Such an awareness depends upon a knowledge of one’s own history, and hence is a source of anxiety for us.

This anxiety comes in strong and weak forms. In the weak form, it means that the good in new events is simply difficult to recognize, so that human agency becomes a “series of deliberative or reflective crises, in which we are at a loss to know what to do, or in which some past decision stands out from our memory to trouble us.” This is the path of traditional ‘casuistry,’ which focuses on analyzing moral quandaries.

In the strong form, the discontinuity of the moral field makes our own past no longer intelligible to us. In every new ethical situation, we are new. “Instead of being one subject performing a multitude of acts, the agent becomes a plurality, a sequence of dissociated roles and responses evoked by the shifting self-transforming meanings of the world.” Though O’Donovan does not say it, this is, I think, the route Sarte takes.

There are two basic strategies for resolving this anxiety. In the first, we point to not only our own history, but the history of community. Even though our circumstances are different, we “hope…that by our conscious resolution to imitate their mode of conducting themselves as closely as our new circumstances allow, we will establish sufficient continuity to tame the apocalyptic strength of novelty to the point where it can be managed by a comfortable process of adaptation.” This position of ‘conservatism,’ however, is insufficient because “it cannot tell us what precedents from the past are relevant, nor how they should be adapted.” It does not make the unknown future known.

On the other hand, we manage the future through anticipation. Though we don’t know what the future holds, “there are certain regularities in events which may allow us to form reasonable expectations and assume a limited measure of responsibility for what will happen.” In short, consequentialism, which makes the future less new to us because it is the future we have chosen.

But the future is still unpredictable. It is still untamed. While men grow wise through the study of the past, they only do so if they touch that “objective world order.” “Only if we are endowed with a vision of what is in the world which measures change and so stands beyond it, can we dare to encounter change.” This is what the ancients termed ‘wisdom,’ which sees the pluriformity of the world order in the plurality of situations. Hence, the wise person interprets new situations generically, and “so measures [their] difference from other things and responds to [them] appropriately according to its kind.”

Growing in ‘wisdom,’ then, demands approaching new situations not only with the ‘moral law’ in our minds, but applying new situations to the ‘moral law’ itself and re-evaluating our moral criterion. That is, each particular situation poses a new challenge to our conceptions of what we take to be true about morality.

This is, however, a controversial opinion. To be clear, some people might rather claim that “the whole task of moral reason in relation to particular situations was simply to classify them, ‘subsuming’ the particular case under the generic rule.” On the one hand, we intuitively grasp the principles of the moral law. On the other hand, we reason out their application. We know that adultery is wrong, and then ask whether a particular behavior is an act of adultery.

But there is a difficulty here. While most people would claim that the difficulty is in our apprehension of the moral principle—adultery is wrong—O’Donovan contends that the recognition of its application is actually problematic. What happens if “it is not immediately obvious whether what we are seeing is, or is not, the commanded charity or the forbidden apartheid?” That is, what happens if the situation is unclear?

For instance, if Mr. Jones is driving his motor car and kills Mr. Smith, is it murder? “If direct intuition fails us, or if we are led to doubt the reliability of its verdict, what kind of help is forthcoming?” The scholastic moral tradition offers the Principle of Double Effect, which questions whether Jones intended to kill Smith or whether he merely happened to. That is, it distinguishes between Mr. Jones’ intentions and the forseen results of his actions.

And to this extent, the Principle of Double Effect (PDE) is satisfactory. It helps navigate situations where it is not clear what generic moral principles apply to particular situations. For instance, if Jones did not intend to kill Smith, forsaw that it would happen, did not desire to kill him, but chose to drive that direction regardless to avoid a crowd of children, it does not constitute murder. Rather, his killing Smith is an unfortunate side-effect of his intention.

But this is as helpful as it is. O’Donovan contends that to use the Principle of Double Effect as an “analytic a priori” rule for moral discernment fails to understand what has occurred both in our deliberation about Mr. Jones and historically. Historically, the PDE arose in deliberation about specific cases of murder. And here it helps illuminate what constitutes the act of murder. But that does not mean that PDE applies in any sort of situation.

O’Donovan doubts, in fact, the existence of any moral rule that applies to every situation. For instance, even “It’s the thought that counts” does not apply to a careless person, as though to excuse him.

But what we can say about the structure of moral reasoning is that it is the particular that “discloses to us aspects of the generic to which we have not previously been sensitive.” The task of finding out the content of the “moral law” is not complete before we start applying it. Rather, the more we apply it, the more we discover about its contents. The discussion of the case of Jones “showed up a measure of haziness and ill-definition in our understanding of the moral principle; the particular acted as a kind of magnifying glass through which the generic appeared with more clarity.”

This is the task of the moral agent—to continue learning the content of the moral law through discernment of particular situations. If we simply stick to what we have, we will quickly discover new situations and be forced to make “exceptions,” which is nothing less than the failure of ethics and the death of our souls. O’Donovan is worth quoting in full on this point:

“The exception is…the absurd contradiction of the rule for which we cannot account. Once we conced the invasion of the absurd into our moral thought (not merely in the form of a problem, demanding resolution, but as a permanent resident there by right), we have, in effect, abandoned our responsibilities to reality. Unofficially the whole standing of morality has been shifted on to a voluntarist basis. Henceforth it will be something that we shall impose upon ourselves when and as we feel we can. The moral life will no longer be the consistent regard and delight elicited from us by the order of the real world which God has made.”

The rejection, however, of “exceptions” into the moral field leave unanswered the question of dilemmas, namely, “What role should the dilemma play in ethics?” And dilemmas will inevitably arise, for they stem (O’Donovan argues) not from the inadequacy of moral codes—or specific systems of moral thought—but from the pluriformity of reality. O’Donovan: “The order of reality holds together a multitude of different kinds of moral relation, and orders them without abolishing their differences. Moral codes must teach a moral law which corresponds to the order of reality in its differentiation and complexity.”

But the underlying unity of the moral field provides us hope: the dilemma can be rationally eliminated. In fact, the dilemma is an opportunity for deeper reflection to perceive the underlying unity of the moral field. “What happens when we think through a dilemma is that we gain some view of the universal order within which different species of moral claim are related.”

It is this apprehension, this seeing of the order beneath, that is essential for ethics. When we read the Bible, we should not look simply for a list of precepts or rules or isolated moral claims. Rather, it must “guide our thought towards a comprehensive moral viewpoint.” In Scripture, specific and isolated moral claims exist—the 10 Commandments, for instance—but they are undergirded and understood through the “summary” of the Law (Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself), which provides insight into what the moral code is all about.

Other posts in the series:

Series Intro
The Created Order
Eschatology and History
Knowledge in Christ
Freedom and Reality
The Authority of Christ
The Freedom of the Church and the Believer

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

One Comment

  1. […] Matt Anderson at Mere Orthodoxy is doing a series of posts on Oliver O’Donovan’s book Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics. He is in chapter 10, and the posts are as follows: Series Intro The Created Order Eschatology and History Knowledge in Christ Freedom and Reality Authority The Authority of Christ The Freedom of the Church and the Believer The Moral Field The Moral Subject […]


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