Book Review

Augustine Deformed: Love, Sin and Freedom in the Western Moral Tradition

John M Rist
Cambridge University Press
ISBN 978-1-107-42880-5

Book CoverAlthough John Rist is a well known scholar of Augustine, this book has much more to it than the great Father of the Church. The various contemporary moral traditions are evaluated and Rist concludes that they are deficient. This is because morality cannot be binding unless it is rooted in metaphysics, something that is dismissed by most contemporary philosophers. The only way Western ethics will regain its credibility is when it retrieves what Rist refers to as transcendental moral realism.

Rist is convinced that Plato and Augustine were correct to promote a moral ontology. Without such a sure foundation, ethics will collapse into what we see today: emotivism and, ultimately, nihilism. Hence the need to repair Western ethics by re-introducing Augustinian insights. Rist is well aware that Augustine did not always get it right. However, secular attempts to correct Augustine in the last few centuries have been a failure, says Rist.

One such well known attempt is utilitarianism. Rist writes that "utilitarianism as well as other forms of consequentialism were always challenged by those still concerned with individual human beings and with justice." The utilitarians may have a love of humanity but they have little regard for individual human beings. Thus, minority concerns are dismissed at the expense of the good of the majority. For utilitarians, an evil act such as lying can be defended in the interests of social harmony. This surely leads to moral chaos.

Apart from a brief look at Bentham's teachings, Rist's main focus is John Stuart Mill. It as is difficult to evaluate the qualitative utilitarianism of Mill as it is the quantitative utilitarianism of Bentham, writes Rist. 

The teachings of Auguste Comte influenced the early Mill, although Mill had no time for Comte's peculiar religion of humanity Mill also came to believe that Comte's hatred of God was an attempt at a crude manipulation of humanity. Mill was to later reject Comte as a liberticide, a false prophet willing to sacrifice our right to liberty. 

Rist examines the subjectivism of Kant and the idealism of Hegel. Among many other recent philosophers, mention is made of F R Leavis, T S Eliot and Wallace Stevens. The social implications of Darwinism are examined as is contemporary scientism. For Steven Weinberg, human beings are just "very complicated physico-chemical mechanisms. For Stephen Hawking, the human race is "just a chemical scum on a moderate sized planet."

Towards the end of this excellent work, Rist notes that Elizabeth Anscombe famously dismissed contemporary ethics. Rist clearly shares a similar view.

Reviewed by Dr Pravin Thevathasan