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From Morality to Religion

1937 to 1938
University of St. Andrews

At the outset of From Morality to Religion, de Burgh indicates that it is necessary to make clear the difference between morality and religion as forms of rational activity. In chapter 1, then, the author considers morality and argues that two features of moral experience should especially be noted. First, the act of will, which is the object of moral judgment, as it is intended by the agent, and therefore includes the motive. Second, moral action as rational, as it implies knowledge, though the knowledge need not be prior to volition, and, further, is for the sake of action. Overall, de Burgh posits that moral experience provides the groundwork for moral philosophy.

From a discussion of morality, the author turns to religion and advocates that religion, like morality, must be studied in the making. Thus studied, religious experience bears the mark of rationality. For de Burgh, the chief task of his work is to establish the distinction between religion and morality, which is often blurred. He understands such distinction as threefold: 1) religion implies personal communication with God, while morality is possible apart from belief in otherworldly order; 2) religion is essentially knowledge and its praxis is dependent on theoria, while morality is a mode of practical experience; 3) religious conduct is inspired by specific motive (the love of God).

In chapter 2, the author discusses ‘action for duty’s sake’ and contends that experience shows that human actions may be judged according to if they are done from a sense of duty or from desire for good. This distinction is of great importance; it rests on a difference of motive, and is between praxis (action) for praxis’ sake and praxis governed by theoretic vision. De Burgh argues that it follows that the ‘ought’ cannot be justified in terms of anything save itself, and that it rouses a specific desire, the desire to do our duty. The author then turns to consider the stages in the development of moral experience: premoral or (amoral) adjustment to practical situations (Croce’s ‘economic’ action)—the ‘must’ and the ‘ought’; transaction to morality illustrated by the Roman idea of duties (official), implying external compulsion and legality, and from the Stoic concept of law of nature; and finally, the advance from legal to moral obligation and to recognition of the universality of the moral principle which points beyond morality to a higher form of experience.

In chapter 3, the author discusses action sub ratione boni and its implications, and, then, in the following chapter, ‘The Seinsollen’ (‘Ought to be’), De Burgh asks if the dualism which has been the theme of the two preceding chapters can be resolved (as is often contended) by deriving the concept of obligation from that of good. He concludes that if there is a necessary relationship between ‘ought’ and ‘good’, it must be synthetic. Either a ‘good’ is entailed by ‘ought’ or ‘ought’ is entailed by ‘good’. De Burgh further discusses a second and more serious view which implies that what is good ‘ought to be’ (seinsollen). The ‘ought’, if moral, is always practical, and means that something is what someone ought to do and implies an imperative, deriving its authority from a superior source. ‘Good’, on the other hand, is a predicable character; the thought of it may (or may not) provoke desire, but carries no imperative. Thus, the dependence of ‘ought’ upon ‘good’ is found to be contingent, not necessary. In the end, the author argues that morality commands perfection, and, here also, points forward to religion.

Having shown (in chap. 1) the nature of the distinction between morality and religion and (chaps. 2, 3, 4) the dualism arising from within ethical experience, the author turns to consider first the positive approach to religion furnished by that experience (chap. 5), and second, the answer given by religion to the unsolved problems of ethics, and especially that of the relation between duty and goodness (chap. 6). For de Burgh, the sub ratione boni offers an approach to religion by provoking the thought of an Absolute Good; so also does the moral consciousness, by exciting reverence for the moral law. Moral habituation, again, is a necessary groundwork for the apprehension of speculative truth, in religion and elsewhere.

Next, the author asks: can the unanswered problems of ethical experience find a solution in religion? De Burgh answers this question, arguing that for religion, God is at once goodness and the good, while above moral obligation and virtue; the moral law is the expression of his will for humankind. Following the implications of the assumption (see chap. 5) that God is love, the author argues that we are warranted in conceiving God as individual spirit, self-conscious and self-diffusive in creative activity.

Since the religious life consists not merely in speculation (theoria) but also in practice, the question arises concerning the relation between religious and ethical conduct. De Burgh’s subject is Christian ethics in the strict sense of the term. Through an illustration of the Christian elements in present-day morality from the concepts of personality and humanity, each of which, in its modern usage, is a legacy from Christianity, de Burgh argues that when severed (as in the secular humanism of the last two centuries) from its source in religion, morality degenerates into an empty form, for he finds that the practical teaching of Christianity is ethical rather than religious. Subsequently, once a developed system of morals has become autonomous, the author contends that it reacts against religion and questions the value of religious praxis, despite the fact that religion enjoys a prerogative as theoria and that it claims not to destroy but to fulfil morality. In conclusion, de Burgh observes the relativity of moral judgments contrasted with religious theoria that God as the absolute good, and he underscores the error of holding religious faith and God, its object, to be super-rational.