The Ethical Backbone of Social Life

19 Sep 2016

Philosopher Ana Marta González, recently appointed by Pope Francis to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, expands in this interview on her latest book: "La articulación ética de la vida social."

Your latest book is titled La articulación ética de la vida social (The Ethical Backbone of Social Life). What exactly do you mean by this expression?

The title seeks precisely to highlight the fact that social life is intrinsically ethical, as human society is “cemented” essentially by the free relations that the men and women who comprise society establish between themselves. In other words, social bonds are moral bonds. Therefore, the better or worse quality of our societies depends ultimately on the better or worse quality of the links that we establish between us.

Isn’t this obvious? Is it necessary to expand on this point?

It is sometimes necessary to recall the obvious. Specifically, in our time, remembering that social ties are also moral ones is important for two reasons: First, because some authors see our societies’ individualization process as leading to a de facto situation in which human beings are no longer able to recognize duties other than those we have to ourselves - that is to say that we are increasingly unable to recognize our duties towards others. Secondly, because in the last few decades we have been witnessing the relentless advance of technocratic forms of organization, which tend to cast a shadow on the most human aspects of our societies.

You mentioned the word "duty" in your previous response… This is not a very fashionable term. Further, wouldn’t this be a step backwards from the recovery of virtue that contemporary ethics has achieved?

Ethics has nothing to do with current fashion, nor must all its elements be met with general enthusiasm. Furthermore, from the point of view of ethical theory, duties and virtues need not stand in opposition as if mutually exclusive. Especially in this context, where the term "duty" is used to highlight the fact that human beings are not pure individuals, but rather are structurally indebted to one another. These duties may be very diverse: duties of justice, duties of friendship, of piety, etc. Certainly, it is one thing to be bound by a duty and another to recognize it and behave accordingly. And, here one must distinguish between those who do what they should because of coercion - or self-coercion, as Kant would say - and those who do so out of conviction or that kind of "indirect naturalness" - mediated by reason - that we call virtue.

Can you explain what is meant by "indirect naturalness"? It seems somewhat contradictory.

I take Spaemann’s expression, and apply it to what Aristotle called "moral virtue," which he himself differentiated from "natural virtue". The latter can be likened to a simple natural inclination to certain types of works, generically good. However, this type of inclination without appropriate rational discretion could even be harmful, to the actor himself or to others. Moral virtue, however, incorporates rational discretion. Aristotle says that we have this class of virtue not "by nature" nor "against nature," but rather that "there exists in us a natural aptitude to receive it and improve it through habit." Thomas Aquinas will take this idea up, and therefore say that all acts of virtue, insofar as they are virtuous, are of natural law... He comes to speak of a "natural inclination to act in accordance with reason"...

This seems a bit optimistic…

It is not a question of optimism or pessimism: If we did not have a natural inclination to act in accordance with reason – that is to say, virtuously-, we would not feel remorse when we act wrongly. It is yet another matter that, according to whether we follow or resist that inclination to act in accordance with reason, we will be able to develop virtues or defects, and thus acquire a "second nature", a good or bad character, that leads us to behave better or worse...This type of "co-naturalness" with good or evil is characteristic of moral habit - good or bad - which should not be confused with a simple mechanical or routine custom. Kant clearly saw this, because of which he introduced the distinction between habit as "assuetudo" - usual- and hábitus libertatis: moral virtue could only be a hábitus libertatis.

You mentioned natural law: Is this term still relevant?

It is, provided that its meaning is well explained. In a discussion of moral philosophy, many things can be assumed that, before a non-specialized audience, cannot be (different senses of "nature", difference between physical and moral laws, etc.). Within the framework of a philosophical discussion, I believe it is useful to show the structural similarities that exist between different authors, and only then to draw attention to their differences. From this perspective one could say that "natural law" is nothing more than the law of practical reason, the moral law, in a word - this permits significant parallels between Thomas Aquinas and Kant. But, that said, one must immediately add that, unlike Kant, Thomas Aquinas considers the moral law to be susceptible to a metaphysical approximation: he therefore defines natural law as "the participation of eternal law in the rational creature." This obviously presupposes many things and has many consequences...

Is the approach to the relationship between ethics and religion among those consequences?

Certainly, but not in the sense that Kant completely excludes religious duties. In fact, he considers that man has a duty to himself to have a religion, and encourages considering other moral duties as if they were sanctioned by God. The difference lies in the fact that for Thomas, unlike Kant, religion is not only a subjective moral necessity; religious duties are not duties of man toward himself, but rather toward something other than himself.  The substance of the natural virtue of religion resides in recognizing and respecting a bond with the Creator. This "recognition" takes for granted the scope of metaphysical reason, by which man can reflexively reach God as Creator and understand the moral law as a participation in the law with which God governs the universe. I find this very interesting. Recognizing that the moral law is a participation in the eternal law, and not a simple raw fact of conscience, allows us to understand that although morally correct behavior may sometimes be difficult, is not ultimately absurd because it is part of something broader than ourselves.  I think it is important to delve deeper into this idea, in which a new principle of freedom can be found: if freedom consists in being the principle of one’s own acts, anyone who recognizes God as the ultimate cause arrives at a new principle of freedom... because he not only knows the principle of the acts themselves but the principle of his own existence. I believe that this is the foundation by which ensuring religious freedom in society constitutes a guarantee of freedom in general.

Religion has now become ethically dubious...

Because of the acts of violence allegedly perpetrated in the name of religion, some sectors of public opinion have come to regard it as essentially a dangerous reality for ethical and civilized coexistence... I think that - fanaticism aside - the kind of violence we are witnessing lately on the part of young people who have grown up in Western societies is due more to nihilism than to religion itself. For centuries, religion has offered itself as a foundation of rationally identifiable ethical duties. We might recall Eutifrón’s discussion. I referred earlier to Kant, for whom there is a duty to consider ethical obligations as divine commands. Thomas Aquinas, for his part, considers that the religious sanction of ethics cannot refer simply to absolute power with which God could arbitrarily enforce his will, but rather to an eternal law with which God himself directs the whole of creation to its end... Thinking of the moral law in these terms is a way to recognize that human beings and the rest of nature are involved in a common destiny, under the direction of a same legislator, who could ultimately enforce justice where human justice cannot reach. I believe that this kind of metaphysical approach to the basis of moral order allows us to counter the fanaticism that results from confusing morals and history... Man’s responsibility is not to fix at all costs a bad world but rather to anticipate a good one, acting responsibly before God and men.


Ana Marta González is STI's Academic Leader for Culture and Lifestyles branch. She is Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Navarra (Spain). She has participated in fifteen STI experts meetings and in six of our publications. She has recently been appointed by Pope Francis to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences and currently coordinates the Institute for Culture and Society at the University of Navarra.

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