In chapter 1, ‘Our Contemporary Moral Confusion’, Mitchell introduces the subject of his discussion by describing the ambiguity of the contemporary moral climate and the ever-shifting relationship between morality and religion, citing the popular conception of ‘moral decline’ yet without any agreed-upon sense of what this means. The resulting perplexity, this ‘moral confusion’, is his concern in the lectures.
Chapter 2, ‘Rational Humanism’, is a critical examination of rational humanism and particularly of scientific humanism (to which he will also refer later as ‘utilitarianism’). Mitchell takes as his case study Dr. Alec Comfort’s book Sex and Society, demonstrating that scientific humanism ultimately fails by attempting to derive a universal morality from a narrowly defined, utilitarian vision that discounts the singularity of the individual.
In chapter 3, ‘Romantic Humanism’, Mitchell shows how the romantic vision is a challenge and reaction to the rational/scientific view, but with shortcomings of its own. Romantic humanism is hindered by such a commitment to personal freedom and creativity, which in turn leads to a subjectivist (or prescriptivist, per R. M. Hare’s The Language of Morals) moral philosophy. According to Mitchell, this romantic approach, while beneficial within limits, cannot sustain a culture and, if anything, is disastrous if left unchecked. He claims this need for constraint of the romantic as the starting point of ‘Liberal Humanism’, the topic of chapter 4, discussed according to Peter Strawson’s formulation in his essay ‘Social Morality and the Individual Ideal.’ Liberal humanism, the basis of the ‘permissive society’, seeks to embrace pluralism as the middle way between the rational or scientific and romantic extremes. But Mitchell claims that social decisions are still typically rooted in individual, romantic ideals and also always remain subject to rational debate, demonstrating that such pluralism, which still rejects anything like objective morality, is finally insufficient on its own.
In chapter 5, ‘Two Secular Critics of Humanism’, Mitchell looks first at Iris Murdoch’s challenge to romantic humanism in the form of her conception (drawn from Platonic and Christian sources) of ‘the Good’. He then moves on to Stuart Hampshire, who criticises utilitarianism (i.e., rational or scientific humanism), concluding that both Murdoch and Hampshire, in their separate critiques of different forms of humanism, represent thinkers in possession of ‘traditional conscience’, whereby certain conduct is deemed wrong in all or nearly all circumstances as determined not by individual choice or rational analysis but by some sense of objective or categorical moral demands.
Having now introduced his notion of traditional conscience, Mitchell in chapter 6, ‘The Dilemma of the Traditional Conscience’, examines this historically, from the Victorians forward; in Mitchell’s figuration, the traditional conscience is shown to be remarkably similar to a Christian morality, even when Christianity is on the surface rejected as its foundation. The varieties of humanism proving void of sustainable moral content, the dilemma of the man of traditional conscience, according to Mitchell, is the choice ‘between modifying his conscience and questioning his secular assumptions’ (p. 92). In chapter 7, “Transition to a Religious Ethic; Morality and World-views”, Mitchell raises the obvious objections to his own thesis, namely, that just because the morality of ‘traditional conscious’ resembles Christian morality does not mean that Christianity provides the logical basis for all moral reasoning. Mitchell also asserts that intuition (or ‘intuitionism’), which he will ultimately champion but with qualification, is not sufficient on its own—it cannot illuminate morality or correlate it to the all of life in a broader sense, and it cannot be critiqued because it remains subjective; therefore, intuition requires some objective ground (what will emerge as the religious or traditional conscience). He claims that the shortcomings of various secular moral theories calls for the reinstitution of a religious morality (or ethic)—not one that simply yearns for a bygone religious age that has been lost, but one that can withstand various critiques by denouncing subjectivism and holding to some universal or objective precepts, which is only possible in light of a religious (or in some sense metaphysical) worldview.
Mitchell begins his defence of traditional conscience in chapter 8, ‘The Theological Frontier of Ethics’, detailing Hare’s linguistic philosophy to outline a basic framework for morality that accepts certain moral precepts as universal or overriding but acknowledges that such standards are not always met, as is typical of a Christian worldview. He also outlines the book’s remaining two chapters, in which he will consider the following questions in relation to Christian theism: (1) Does it show why certain moral principles should be given more weight than they merit on purely utilitarian grounds? (2) Does it offer a justification for morality? (3) Does it do justice to the extent to which morality is autonomous? (4) Does it provide a rationale for, and a critique of, moral intuitions? (p. 121).
In chapter 9, ‘The Dilemma Illustrated: The Sanctity of Life’, Mitchell demonstrates that moral structures fall apart in the secular purview and require the stabilization of theism (namely, Christianity) by focussing on the concept of the sanctity of life, which is shown to be a tenuous but ultimately objective moral claim. What emerges is the sense that theism makes coherent moral principles that would otherwise be utter nonsense by allowing for the paradoxical incongruity between ‘is’ and ‘ought’—that is, overriding moral claims might be accepted as that which ought to be but may in fact differ from what is in every case. Christianity accounts for this incongruity by a particular concept of personhood as fallen (imperfect), which is, Mitchell suggests, a tacit component of secular moralities as well. He states that the principles ‘to which the man of traditional conscience is characteristically committed, are more congruous with a religious view of the world than with a modern secular’ (p. 137).
Chapter 10, ‘Religion, Scepticism, and the Demands of Autonomy’, pulls together Mitchell’s overarching argument, inquiring why the individual should in the first instance defer to moral claims. His answer is that morality is not arbitrary but is rooted in the social nature of humanity and grounded in the question of human needs. He posits that religion might not necessarily have the final (or only) word on morality but that it must have a decisive influence. He concludes in one accord with the Christian faith, namely, that humanity’s moral situation in this life is only intelligible in light of the life to come, an expressly theistic view.
Mitchell’s remarks in the ‘Conclusion’ sum up nicely that his argument has been ‘that much of the Western ethical tradition ultimately makes sense only if a religious view of the world is presupposed’ (p. 157). As his aim from the outset was to chronicle the dilemma of the traditional conscience in an increasingly secular and subjectively moral epoch, he offers no definitive answers but hints at the hope that the ‘regenerative power’ of Christianity will justify its continued influence in questions of morality and indeed in the world.