Action examines action as the core element in ethics in its relation to religious belief. The investigation prepares the way for addressing which (Christian) religious beliefs can reasonably be accepted in light of a broadly historical philosophical investigation. This latter course makes up the content of the second series of lectures, A Layman’s Quest.
The first chapter of Action addresses human development from nature to mind, considering the levels of our moral awareness and some basic forms of action. Knox shows how certain stages in evolution form the background for human conduct. Chapter 2 discusses the notion of instinct and its role in human conduct. Knox sees freedom as necessary for moral behaviour, and recognition of instinct as instinct is identified as that which raises man above animal. Chapter 3 investigates mind’s growth—from feeling to choice, through appetite, passion, desire, negation, education, habit and convention—to discern the level at which choice operates. Chapter 4 expounds the notion of choice in more detail, as well as its corollary, freedom. Choice (and freedom) is possible when there is awareness of alternatives, and action is possible only where such awareness is manifest. In chapter 5, Knox explores the notion of action in more detail—considering theoretical and practical concerns, intentions, and moral contexts, tracing the various forms through which action develops. Chapter 6 continues the theme with a reflection on claims that action is hedonistic. The notion of obligation is problematic for sustaining any such view and places man on a higher moral level. Action on rule is discussed in chapter 7, taking up themes of obligations, rights, duties and rightness before, in chapter 8, attention is turned to utilitarianism, examining action in relation to it and the role of utilitarianism in political-economic life. Chapter 9 addresses some scientific and philosophical objections to conclusions reached in the preceding chapters. Objections from Freud/Freudian analysis, behaviour therapy, anthropology, Marxism, the logical positivists and biology are raised and treated. From their own respective standpoints, they fail to say anything about moral convictions in the terms common to them. Chapter 10 provides the reader with a retrospective summary of the preceding chapters before turning to an examination of action in its relation to duty (chap. 11), where Knox sees moral experience, action and moral goodness culminating. The final chapter (12), concluding the first part of the lecture series, is devoted to the relation between morality and religion. Duty (for duty’s sake) seems to require the notion of an ideal to which we ought to orient our lives if we are to be committed to that end. Religious belief makes sense of duty’s devotional involvement or, as Knox himself says, ‘Without [the] … use of religious language I cannot make intelligible and rational the unconditional character of duty’ (p. 243).