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What Is Ethics? An Answer form a Voegelinian-Lonerganian

GVER, Vol. 5 No. 2, (2004)

The 20th century produced a number of important thinkers, among them,
Bernard Lonergan and Eric Voegelin. It is impossible to reduce the significant ideas
of each of them to one that condenses everything they said. This paper develops
several of their ideas. The first is Lonergan’s man as a cognitional structure that is
formally dynamic and self-assembling. It functions at five levels of awareness as it
demands itself to be attentive, intelligent, rational, responsible, in love, and that
correct understanding is achieved when a virtual unconditioned – a conditional
whose conditions have been met – is reached. The second is Lonergan’s idea that
freedom is possible only when a man moves from the level of rationality to the level of
responsibility. Freedom has to be distinguished between essential and effective. The
third is Lonergan’s explanation of the structure of the human good as a three-leveled
structure by the individual good, the good of order and value. The fourth is Voegelin’s
idea that ethics is a set of symbols which express the tension of searching for God
while living in the metaxy. This paper assumes that when Voegelin speaks about the luminosity and intentionality of human consciousness he is referring to what
Lonergan explains as the formally dynamic and self-assembling nature of human

For Lonergan, ethics is possible because the demands stated above
allow a human to see what he must do – at the level of responsibility – as he affirms
–at the level of rationality. To Voegelin the experience of this demand is what is
expressed in the set of symbols that we call ethics. This paper explores the manner in
which the Lonerganian ideas and the ideas of Voegelin can be integrated. The result
of this exploration is presented, precisely because Voegelin sees the expression of the
experience as something that begins with a set of compact symbols and moves
towards a more differentiated symbolic expression, as a search that moves from
compactness toward differentiation.

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