What is Morality About?

When I say the word morality, what do you think of? Your first thought may be of rules, duties, and obligations - dos and don'ts of what is acceptable behavior, such as those in the Ten Commandments. Some may think of morality as God putting limits on human freedom and may even see these limits as arbitrary. Others may think of restrictions on behavior that we may or may not want to conform to, but need to in order to maintain a functioning society.

The moral theologian Servais Pinckaers, O.P., likes to point out that duties and obligations are not what ancient and medieval Christians would have thought of first in considering morality, although these things are included in it. For instance, in St. Thomas Aquinas’ treatment of morality in the Summa Theologiae, he does not begin by asking ‘what is obligatory?’ but instead, ’what is happiness?’ He does not mean happiness in the sense of a temporary, positive emotion, but as the overall flourishing of human life.

Happiness, in this sense, is the goal of life, and morality is all about how to get there. Moral actions will contribute to our happiness, our well-being. Immoral actions will detract from it. What actions contribute to or detract from human flourishing is founded on the human nature that we all have in common, given to us by God. This is what accounts for the objective and universal aspect of morality.

This grounding of morality in human nature and human happiness extends it beyond simply being about duties and obligations. In practice, discussion of morality in this wider view focuses on virtues – habits or dispositions of acting well, that is, in accord with reason and directed to a good end. When we act well habitually, we are building up a virtue. Another important point in this is that God wants us to be happy. He wants us to flourish, and He offers His help, through grace, to build up our virtues beyond what we could achieve on our own. Ultimately, true happiness is found only in God, and perfect happiness is only possible in the next life, when we can be perfectly united to God, who is Goodness Itself.

Let us ask God every day, through the intercession of Our Lady, for the graces we need to grow in virtue, that we may flourish in this life, and for the grace of final perseverance, that we may attain perfect happiness with God in the next life.

Br. Paschal Strader, O.P. | Meet the Student Brothers in Formation HERE