An Introduction to Ethics

A Natural Law Approach

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Brian Besong
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , January
     248 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Since Tertullian, many Christians have struggled with the (dis)connection between philosophy and theology. In An Introduction to Ethics: A Natural Law Approach, Brian Besong argues that natural law reasoning does not require assent to doctrinal assertions. He nonetheless comes to conclusions that are consistent with Catholic doctrine. Besong’s stated aim is relatively simple: “to explain clearly and briefly to a non-philosophical audience the principles of ethics that dominated moral thinking in the West at least until the so-called ‘Age of Enlightenment’” (ix). This goal is achieved in spades. 

Although some scholars like Jean Porter (Natural and Divine Law: Reclaiming the Tradition for Christian Ethics, Novalis, 1999) cogently argue that there was never any clear distinction between theology and philosophy, or between faith and reason for the majority of medieval scholastics, Besong uses Aristotle and select portions of Thomas Aquinas’s works to support his claim that natural law theory can be reasoned and reasonable without theology. Both arguments can be true and need not detract from each scholar’s overall thesis. Indeed, one can argue that the broad appeal of most of Catholic social teaching—much of which is built on natural law theory—is that it is reasonable regardless of whether one ascribes to Catholic (or even Christian) principles or not. 

An Introduction to Ethics is a superb foundational textbook for ethics. Perhaps what is most impressive about the text is that Besong formulates an immensely practical and complete framework for ethical decision-making largely without reference to metaphysics or revelation in only two hundred twenty-five very readable pages with many useful examples. The layout of the book also facilitates pedagogy by prominently displaying new and important terms mentioned in each chapter. Optional or advanced sections are included in each of the six chapters in order to supplement independent or progressive learning. Each chapter ends with comprehensive questions to encourage critical engagement with the material. And the book concludes with appendices on reading philosophy and objections to natural law theory.

Any ethical framework must be judged by its usefulness for addressing everyday dilemmas. I write as a black Catholic bioethicist, so the problems I typically ponder are related to the theological and ethical dimensions of race relations, social justice, health care organizations, and health inequities. Even though there is room for interpretation in natural law theory, An Introduction to Ethics not only gives readers an ethical and analytical framework with “teeth” in order to critique practices of individuals, but also the tools to examine policies, systems, and structures of societies. For instance, the choice to move into an all-white neighborhood with “good schools” is often unexamined by the white people making those choices, but as Besong demonstrates through natural law theory, that choice to live in a white neighborhood is not an amoral decision, especially when it leads to the social practice of segregation. “An act’s being good is not just a matter of an individual’s doing everything she can to make sure the natural powers she is using achieve their natural goals—as required by the positive principle for good circumstances. What is also necessary is that there be nothing that detracts from the proper performance of the act … morally-neutral acts become bad when their performance conflicts with a moral duty” (91-92). Since residential segregation is a cause of biopsychosocial inequities due to concentrated poverty, one must reflect on what they are really doing in choosing one neighborhood over another, ceteris paribus. If all things are not equal, one must ponder why. Besong provides the analytic firepower to blast through these types of thorny moral dilemmas in his clear and concise chapter on moral responsibility.  

The fact that An Introduction to Ethics provides a useful framework for moral reasoning, largely independent of theological justification, makes it highly suitable as a standalone text or as a supplementary text for courses in moral theology, Christian ethics, political science, jurisprudence, bioethics, race-related courses, gender-related courses, and coursework designed to inculcate personal and/or professional virtue. One need not agree with every premise of the book in order to find it very accessible, thought provoking, well-written, thoroughly engaging, and immensely practical. “Moral intuitions aren’t all created equal, and they certainly aren’t infallible guides. But then again, why should we expect them to be? Reasons to believe a claim do not need to be infallible. They just need to make our beliefs rational, and intuitions—particularly when informed by a plausible understanding of the natural world—are apt to do just that” (225).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Cory D. Mitchell is a graduate of the Master's program in Healthcare Mission Leadership and current doctoral candidate in the Bioethics and Health Policy program at Loyola University Chicago.

Date of Review: 
September 10, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brian Besong is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Ohio Dominican University.


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