How might we integrate the study of ethics and theology? In Renewing Moral Theology, Daniel Westberg takes this project head-on. He approaches it from the perspective of Thomism, the philosophical-theological framework of Saint Thomas Aquinas which is itself influenced by Aristotle. The book therefore provides a strong introduction to the Thomistic view of moral theology.
The book is not, like many, a handbook for discussing various moral issues. Some hot-button topics are raised, but they are not the focus. Westberg’s focus is, instead, much broader. He provides here a metaphysical basis for ethical reasoning, while addressing some of the main questions that come up regarding that framework. Thus, this is a book that encourages further reasoning and research rather than trying to answer some laundry list of moral questions (such as questions of sexuality, abortion, capital punishment, and the like). The focus is on giving an overarching metaphysical basis for using one’s reasoning in ethical situations, not handing the answers to such questions to the readers. This alone makes it valuable because many books on ethical reasoning unfortunately do not address the pressing metaphysical or metaethical questions that come up in thinking about morality.
Thomism has much to offer when it comes to moral theology. The system gives a framework for analyzing things like “being,” “right and wrong,” motivations, emotions, and more.
Westberg provides valuable insights into a number of key issues for ethics from a Christian perspective. Incorporating the holistic approach of Thomism into ethics, he notes that emotions do play a vital role in our practical reasoning and the way we approach moral questions. Emotions are often ignored or treated as frivolous in treatments of objective morality, and to have them incorporated into the study was a much-needed corrective.
He also gives excellent illustrations of and counters objections to the “double-effect” principle, which is the notion that moral actions can have two outcomes, one intended and one not, which allows for right action to be taken even if a wrong outcome will occur or is known to occur. Thus, for example, he treats the notion of a surgery which would kill an unborn child but save the mother. The intent of the surgery is to save the mother, not kill the child, but both are “effects” (hence double-effect) of the procedure. There are some key objections to using this principle to allow for certain moral actions, such as the apparent parsing down of moral choices into separate spheres of decision and intent, but Westberg counters them deftly. In doing so, he provides a strong defense of this critical ethical principle.
Examples are abundant throughout the book, and they constantly are used in ways that helpfully illustrate the point at hand. Some of the more obscure-seeming aspects of how an Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics might impact ethics are made much more clear by Westberg’s clarifying examples.
This is inherently a work of moral theology and so Westberg spends a good amount of time outlining how theology might impact one’s moral outlook. Aquinas had much to contribute here, and again the Thomistic system is incorporated into the discussion, allowing for a robust metaphysics to back up the ethical reasoning placed herein.
Renewing Moral Theology is a great read for those who want to explore the interconnectedness of theology and morality. It provides a firm foundation to explore further issues of Thomistic ethics. For those who are not inclined towards Thomism, it can serve as a springboard for discussion and interaction with the view. It comes recommended.
+Strong Thomistic look at ethics
+Good use of examples to illustrate principles
+Excellent analysis of “double-effect” principle
+Rightly emphasizes some key areas of moral decision-making
-At times it skips too quickly to conclusions
Disclaimer: I was provided with a review copy of the book from the publisher. I was not asked to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.
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Daniel Westberg, Renewing Moral Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2015).
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Thanks for this review