RIGHT AND REASON:
Ethics in theory and practice based on the teachings of Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas (second edition)
by Fr Austin Fagothey SJ
(Tan Books, 2001, 627pp, $49.95. Available from AD Books)
Right and Reason is probably the greatest and most successful ethics book written up to the present day. Although this second edition was published in 1959, it remains remarkably contemporary and a book that can be read by any adult - either in full or as a handy reference to look up topics of interest.
It has been widely used in Catholic colleges, and is undoubtedly the clearest and easiest to read ethics text ever published. Phrased in non-technical language, Right and Reason is a thoroughly competent and reliable book in the philosophy of ethics which gives rise to the science of morality in the Aristotelian-Thomistic, commonsense school of thought.
Fr Fagothey covers the whole field of ethics, posing and answering the perennial questions, e.g., What makes the right right and the wrong wrong? What is moral obligation and where does it come from? Why is divorce always wrong? Why is abortion always wrong? When is it moral to kill another person? Do animals have rights? What is the origin of the State? Who has the right to educate? Is capital punishment ethical? Is there a right to work? What is a just wage? What is a just war? What is the principle of double effect? Are suicide and euthanasia against the Natural Law? Is there a Natural Law?, etc.
Anyone who attempts to grapple with today's moral questions - in medical ethics, family issues, economic organisation - without a solid grounding in the classic principles is guaranteed to flounder about in a swamp of guesswork, emotional thinking and mere personal opinion.
I would agree with the publishers who say that every educated Catholic - indeed every educated person - wishing to think straight on moral issues must be familiar with the kinds of classic solutions that are presented here. This book will prevent, or cure, the subtle and almost inevitable consequence of living and learning in our time: you and I, without help, will develop partly into utilitarians or functionalists or voluntarists, people who have absorbed distorted ethical views and will most likely come out with slightly distorted answers to moral questions. This book will correct any hidden faults in our ethical reasoning.
As I review this book, Archbishop Fulton Sheen comes to mind as someone thoroughly familiar with the Aristotelian-Thomistic approach of this book. He too was one who took the profound and expressed it simply, as Father Fagothey does so well.
What effects might one expect from studying this book? Far from becoming caught in the 1950s, the reader will become like Archbishop Sheen: more capable of dialoguing with people today, quicker to focus on the central issues, more able to banish the fog of moral confusion.
We admire people like Archbishop Sheen, Pope John Paul II and Bob Santamaria. If we would like to see more of them, if we would like to be more like them, with deep rather than shallow learning, we need to learn what they were grateful for learning. This book, Right and Reason, would launch any of us excellently along this path.
Michael Casanova is a researcher at the Thomas More Centre and currently studying philosophy at Australian Catholic University (Melbourne).