The Theory of Morality

By Haack, Susan M. | Ethics & Medicine, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

The Theory of Morality


Haack, Susan M., Ethics & Medicine


The Theory of Morality Alan Donagan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979. ISBN-13 978-0226155678; 294 PAGES, PAPER, $27.50.

The moral tradition undergirding Western culture historically is the Christian faith. Currently, Western culture desires to be governed by ideologies that repudiate the very religious tradition on which it is founded, leaving Western culture adrift in a sea of unanchored morality.

Without a stable moral foundation, society has no way to ground the veracity and virtue essential to its survival.1 The Theory of Morality is a valiant attempt on the part of Alan Donagan to accomplish two feats: develop a purely philosophical moral theory that is consistent with the Hebrew-Christian tradition and simultaneously provide a valid secular philosophical argument for the Hebrew- Christian moral tradition that renders it applicable and acceptable for use in the public square.

Donagan begins his development of a moral theory by examining issues from an historical perspective - from the Stoics through intuitionism. Choosing the Hebrew- Christian tradition because of its shared conclusions about the common moral life accessible to all men by virtue of reason and, no less importantly, because of precedence (that this consensus has been maintained for millennia through vast social change cannot be accidental), Donagan then attempts to isolate the philosophical core of this tradition. From this point on, Donagan decants all theistic components of the tradition and develops a fundamental principle based on respect for rational nature from a modification of Kant's categorical imperative: "it is impermissible not to respeet every human being, oneself or any other, as a rational creature." Since he understands common morality to involve human action both objectively (permissibility) and subjectively (culpability), he then deductively derives first-order principles (permissibility) with its specificatory premises and second-order principles (culpability) from this fundamental principle. Finally, he examines his system from the perspectives of consistency and consequentialism. But, like Kant, Donagan's attempt to demonstrate a priori that reason can by its very nature prescribe the fundamental principle of morality fails. Even so, he does not find that failed attempt dissuasive since he claims that traditional morality is effective even without an a priori demonstration of the fundamental principle. …

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