Friday, December 10, 2010

Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam: On Moral Foundations

I think it is fair to say that a terrible job has been done in the Church explaining to people our moral system or its relevance to them, let alone how it applies to specific questions. This becomes most obvious when it comes to various "hot-button" issues (which in modern times have usually been sexual), but these occasions usually reveal a more general collapse of notions of morality into varieties of positivism. I would like here to lay out some thoughts in a more or less disorganized and wandering fashion on the foundations of Catholic morality, and expect to write more about it as time goes on. I don't claim total coherency for all this as I myself am just getting into this surprisingly neglected branch of theology, but I've learned some very helpful things so far.

Popular understandings of morality seem to usually revolve around either a sort of libertarianism, or else a Divine Command understanding. There is a sort of utilitarian ethic too. Which is to say, either an understanding that "If it doesn't hurt anyone, why not?" (which reduces all morality to external justice), or else a notion that some acts are bad because God has forbidden them arbitrarily or inscrutably and we have to avoid these so He won't swoop down and punish us in His wrath.

Sometimes there is also an "is-ought" confusion. I tend to think of all the silly arguments about sexual morality based on the design, purpose, or telos of organs; these arguments are flimsy inasmuch as they explain why something should be used one way, but don't particularly tell us why it shouldn't be used any other. They offer no explanation for why we can't adapt beyond primary purposes like we do with everything else (am I sinning against my nose by using it to rest my sunglasses?) But it works both ways too: arguments that "everyone" contracepts so it "must be okay" are likewise unsupportable. "Is" and "ought" are two different things, and neither should be confused with the other.

I would argue that the basic presumption underlying all these theories is that human life is essentially amoral. That most things are "neutral" and that they become good or bad only in special cases. Hence the "It should be assumed allowed if there isn't good reason to believe it is forbidden" attitude among so many, which probably leaves the list of "forbidden" things looking indeed rather arbitrary.

However, from the traditional Catholic perspective, these are extremely sickly notions of morality. The Catholic position is so much more optimistic, so much more all-encompassing, so much more immediately relevant to the human person. For Catholic morality does not view morality primarily in terms of what makes certain things bad, but what makes things good. Evil is not a substance of its own, it is only a relative property, the lack or privation or disordering of goods.

So I think one foundational moral principle of Catholicism to be remembered is the truth that: everything that exists is good, and everything is good to the degree that it participates in Being. A metaphysical proposition, to be sure, but one which has great relevance for morality.

Another thing that absolutely must be emphasized is that morality is essentially personal. By which I mean, internal. Mere external events, mere arrangements of matter...have no particular moral character. Virtue is a characteristic of a human person, and sin is only ever the disorder of the will. It may cause or be related to external things, but the moral character of actions is related to the spiritual life of the human subject and is ordered, therefore, ultimately to to his benefit or detriment. A world of philosophical zombies would be amoral indeed. It wouldn't matter if they killed each other or did whatever, then that would just be matter floating around.

The reason that persons (human or angelic, I suppose, but we're talking about humans here) have a moral character is that the question of morality ultimately comes back to the ends of human life and existence in general. And that end is, of course, in the last consideration: the Glory of God. We were created to know God and love Him, and being known and loved (by His Trinitarian Self, and by His creatures) is that in which His glory consists. Which is to say equivalently, perhaps, in which His Being consists. For to exist means simply to be known and loved, the difference between reality and non-reality is whether a possibility is available to affect consciousness, to terminate in a conscious subject, and God is ultimately the absolute standard by which things are said to exist through His knowing and loving them into being.

Morality is then a question of human beings fulfilling this purpose. The good news about this is that morality is thus a question of human fulfillment. What is man's last end? The Scholastics answered (rather non-controversially, I'd think) that it is simply happiness or beatitude, the resting of desire in the good which draws it. And, ultimately, of course, our final good is The Good, the vision and love of God, which will eternally fulfill all our desire, all our natural faculties, for He is the immediate purpose of our existence, and happiness or fulfillment is nothing more than the fulfillment of our nature. As "rational animals," meaning creatures with both a spirit (intellect/consciousness and free will) and a body, both of which are directed at the end of glorifying God.

So morality must be remembered as simply a question of being a good or bad human being, which is to say, fulfilling our purpose, our nature (and thus being happy) or not. So Catholic morality is both a form of eudemonism (happiness-based ethics) and natural law theory (morals based on the fulfillment of human nature).

We fulfill our nature when we orient our faculties towards the good and thus put ourselves on a trajectory towards The Good. But there is more good news: we can only desire the (at least apparent) good. The will cannot choose evil, it can only pick among goods, is only drawn towards good, it is like a good magnet. We do not have the immediate apprehension of Infinite Good in this life which would give us our eternal happiness (which would draw our will irresistibly), so we are free to orient ourselves toward it by choosing among temporal goods that give us temporal happiness. But any real good orients us towards The Good. Sin, then, can only consist in putting our last end in something other than the good (which can only be to say, something which doesn't exist), which still must be an apparent good (or else the will could not choose it). Man cannot desire misery or evil as such.

Under this view, the idea that most acts are neutral or amoral falls apart. The eternal and natural law humans are bound to follow becomes (again, I think rather non-controversially) "Do good, and avoid evil." So there is a positive obligation for our acts to be good, not merely "non-evil" (which notion would perversely seem to turn good into merely the lack of evil instead of vice versa).

And everything about the act must be good: intent, object, and circumstances must all be good. Those three. As the Catechism says: "The object, the intention, and the circumstances make up the 'sources,' or constitutive elements, of the morality of human acts." That whole section (it's very short) might actually be very good for people to read when it comes to the foundations of morality (though their lack of concrete examples, I think, confuses people). The point is, evil in any of them makes the whole act evil; the ends don't justify the means.

People often confuse "moral object" with "intended end" so an example from here might be helpful for seeing what I mean:
"A physician intends to relieve the suffering of his patient, and so he chooses an act (giving a medication) that is inherently directed at the same end (its moral object), which is the relief of suffering. But suppose that the physician intends to relieve the suffering of his patient, by choosing an act of euthanasia (e.g. by an overdose of a medication). He is deliberately choosing an act which is inherently ordered toward the deprivation of life of an innocent person. The intended end and the moral object now differ; the intended end is good, but the moral object is evil."
It's sort of like...intended end is the "why," moral object is the "how." Take self-defense and murder which make look exactly the same externally. In murder, the intended end may be to satisfy one's own taste for vengeance, and the object (also called the proximate end) is to injure them fatally. In self-defense, the intended end is to save one's own life, and the moral object is to disable them from harming you while being attacked. Even if this means a fatal wound, yet the fatality is accidental to the chosen object of "disabling them from harming you" which is directed toward the good of preserving life. If one were, however, to choose as a moral object actually "killing the person" (even if the intended end was still saving your own life), then this would be an evil object.

Every human act thus becomes a moral act, either good or bad. There is no "neutral." Assuming the act is freely chosen and not just reflexive (and much of what we do throughout the day on routine may be), then it is a moral question because it is a voluntary human act. I'm not saying we are eliciting an act of the will at every moment, but even for those acts that are basically on auto-pilot, we are in some sense responsible for their morality too, "not because we exert deliberate volition at each step, but because they are free in causa, because we have either freely initiated them, or approved them from time to time when we adverted to their ethical quality, or because we freely acquired the habits which now accomplish these acts."

This is the nature of human acts properly so called:
"St. Thomas and the scholastics in general regard only the free and deliberate acts of the will as human[...]A free act is voluntary, that is, it proceeds from the will with the apprehension of the end sought, or, in other words, is put forth by the will solicited by the goodness of the object as presented to it by the understanding[...]Besides, they are moral. For a moral act is one that is freely elicited with the knowledge of its conformity with or deformity from the law of practical reason proximately and the law of God ultimately. But whenever an act is elicited with full deliberation, its relationship to the law of reason is adverted to. Hence human acts are either morally good or morally bad, and their goodness or badness is imputed to man."
Amoral human acts do not exist. Or perhaps we might say, since everything is good inasmuch as it exists, immoral acts can only ever be amoral. There is, in that sense, no such thing as immorality inasmuch as evil is not a substance, but merely an absence or lack. Therefore, immorality always really has the character of amorality and vice versa. The will cannot actually choose evil; sin is only ever internal disorder of goods, relatively.


Man's last end is beatitude or happiness, in other words, the fulfillment of desire in the good. Our ultimate beatitude which alone can satisfy our nature and all its desires and faculties forever is the vision of God. But, not having access to that in this life, we orient ourselves to the eternal Good through our choice of other temporal goods which, existing and being good, provide us with temporal happiness and fulfillment, and which participate in The Good and orient us towards it, on a trajectory as it were. But this trajectory does have to be implicit in all our actions. To turn aside from it is to no longer have heaven as our destination. Grave sin:
"is equivalently the direct and positive shutting out of that reference to our last end which must be found, at least implicitly, in all our actions. At the same time it must be noted that there is no obligation to formerly and explicitly have before one's mind a motive which will immediately relate our actions to God. It is enough that such an intention should be implied in the apprehension of the thing as lawful with a consequent virtual submission to Almighty God."
The ultimate meaning of human life is the glory of God, that is the purpose for which we were created and to which all our faculties tend at least remotely, to which they all contribute, and toward which our all our free acts must at least implicitly be ordered (though it obviously doesnt have to be immediate in every act! Any good will do.) Our last end is happiness, desire resting in the good (and we can only desire at least apparent goods), so human fulfillment and morality are by definition the same thing. We orient ourselves toward The Good by choosing the good.


Catholic theologians have often enumerated five primary goods or purposes subsidiary to the glorification of God by human nature, and all human acts should ultimately be traceable back to one of them. In other words, if you can trace an act back to one of these primary purpose of human life (which are derivable even from our natural faculties themselves) without harming any other, then that act's connection to the glory of God is assured: preservation of life, procreation, society [those two might be reducible to the same thing], knowledge, and worship.

Note, importantly: this isn't saying that no one can ever lay down their life for a cause, that everyone must procreate or that every act must include that end, that no one can be a hermit, etc. It is merely saying that these things are the primary natural human goods that contribute to the glory of God (through His being known and loved). But you can choose any one at any given time and don't have to include the others as long as you don't positively harm them somehow.

Preserving life allows people to continue to know and love God in their other faculties (human nature is only complete as a soul and body, both glorify God, hence our belief in the general resurrection). Procreation creates new people to know and love God. Society, as I said, might be seen as an extension of procreation, inasmuch as that is the foundation of our nature as social beings and procreation is never to be separated from the unitive. Society also supports the other goods (we are better able to preserve our life, gain knowledge, and worship in company), and means loving others and so helping them glorify God too by desiring their fulfillment, which is His glory. Knowledge (which includes truth and beauty, ie, aesthetic experience is included here) orients us towards The Good inasmuch as everything that exists is good and our personal consciousness is the defining human faculty by which we partake of the good, and thus know God. And Worship, the loving of God, as a good and end resulting from that knowledge is pretty self-explanatory and direct in that regard.

The Law of Love is pretty clearly also a statement of this same general principle inasmuch as it lays out charity as the virtue which directly inclines us towards these transcendent goods (and thus salvation), loving God with all our heart and mind (worship and knowledge) and our neighbors (society and procreation) as ourselves (life).
On a similar note, it should be pointed out that Charity itself is defined as loving ourselves and others not for their own sake, but for God's own sake.

I'll keep musing about this later. For now, the important parts are that the final end of existence is the Glory of God, that the eternal law is "Do good and avoid evil," that the natural law by which humans enact this eternal law is the fulfillment of our own natural faculties in the natural human goods of life, procreation, society, knowledge, and worship. That if we accomplish our end by orienting ourselves to the Good through (at least some of) these goods we are good humans, by definition, if we don't we are bad humans. Something is only good or bad inasmuch as it accomplishes the end of its nature (a refrigerator is a bad refrigerator if it can't keep things cold. It may be a good shelf still, but it's a bad refrigerator, meaning its being as a refrigerator is deficient, since it isn't serving an essential purpose of refrigeration).

The good news is that humans are made to desire these goods naturally (I will do another post soon on the moral character of desire), are built with faculties that tend toward them (even when confused in sin), that even our temporal happiness is in their temporal fulfillment (I will likewise write about the unique moral character of pleasure and enjoyment), and that our eternal happiness is in their final and immediate fulfillment in heaven and at the general resurrection, in eternal life with the communion of saints in the immediate vision and loving of God.

2 comments:

Michael said...

"The Law of Love is pretty clearly also a statement of this same general principle inasmuch as it lays out charity as the virtue which directly inclines us towards these transcendent goods (and thus salvation), loving God with all our heart and mind (worship and knowledge) and our neighbors (society and procreation) as ourselves (life). On a similar note, it should be pointed out that Charity itself is defined as loving ourselves and others not for their own sake, but for God's own sake."

Hmm...a shred of truth in the midst of so many other lies and falsities.

Michael said...

"everything that exists is good, and everything is good to the degree that it participates in Being."

Not if God is beyond being. If the former is the case, then everything is good if it participates in its own being, which God illumines but does not participate in in a direct way (to reference the Divine Names of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite)