Thursday, December 4, 2008

Revisionist Moral Thought: Proporotionalism, Consequentialism, Relativism

This post is going to depart from the line of posts on Politicians and Holy Communion. I was asked recently by a priest to help with some questions he had about the various revisionist moral systems that had developed in recent years. I thought blog readers might want to consider some of the points I made in response.

"The first point I should make is that the problems with some of the new moral systems are fundamental problems that are essentially anthropological. I will explain this briefly. Morality is always about the pursuit of Happiness. In the Gospel, Jesus preaches the Beatitudes as His answer to the question about human happiness. Happiness, in this context, is the experience of the reaching the goal of human existence, and in Catholic theology, this goal is something we are attracted to and not something imposed upon our nature by extrinsic rules. Our supernatural end is obtainable only by grace.

"The problem for many modern systems is that they do not have a clear concept of human nature. There is no clear “starting point” for reasoning about what constitutes authentic human goods. Without a beginning point, it rather difficult if not impossible to describe how to get to one’s end or goal. In other words, it would be impossible to identify definitively what constitutes authentic or true “goods” for human beings since, under such systems, there is no clear idea of what would constitute human happiness. In Catholic thought the good is identified with those things that contribute to the fulfillment of human nature. On the other hand, revisionist moral theories are preponderantly dependent upon the subjective intention of the moral agent. In authentic Catholic thought, what the agent is actually doing can be clearly identified as contrary to man’s ultimate end in some cases. With intention as the primary determinant of right or wrong in revisionist theories, however, everybody can have their own subjective morality. The idea of the common good becomes nothing more than an idealistic platitude sometimes sought in democratic processes.

"This lack of a foundation in revisionist theories leads to conflicts in modern theories between the moral law (inscribed on the heart, which the Church helps to identify with moral definitions) and freedom, between freedom and nature, between salvation and morality, and between conscience and the moral law. (Servais Pinckaers is my source for this) The list goes on. But in the Church’s moral theology, since all of these things flow out of the creation of man in the image and likeness of God, there is no conflict among these, all of them having the same source. To put it another way, for revisionists, since there is no such thing as the human good, an act is not morally judged by its conformity to the good of human nature. It is judged by some other means of valuing such as the maximum expression of freedom, or a calculation of the consequences, or whatever one judges to be the best outcome in a particular situation, and so on. So one can see that one of the pervasive weaknesses revisionist systems is that there is not clear theory of value.

"So, modern theories attempt to explain human freedom, conscience, and law without them being tied to the concept of the “good” understood as that which is fulfilling of human nature. In Catholic doctrine and theology, freedom, conscience, law, etc., all derive from a common origin, that is the creation of the human subject. The moral law, in its many forms is an expression of the wise and providential ordering of the universe by the Creator. Moral law defines goods that human freedom and conscience seek as a means of attaining authentic human happiness when human nature is fulfilled.

"Relativism emphasizes the ability of the subject to decide what is good for himself. Consequentialism evaluates behavior on the basis of a calculation of the positive and negative effects of an action, though there is little agreement on how far one has to go with this or how one is to judge what is positive and negative. Proportionalism evaluates the act on the basis of the pre-moral or physical good outweighing the pre-moral or physical evil. All three of these deny the idea that, in theory, something is always evil. Thus, some revisionists have had to admit, for example, that one can never say that rape is always and everywhere evil, according to their thought, until one knows the circumstances and the intention. Catholic doctrine holds that rape is always morally evil no matter the circumstances or intention, even though the subject might not be morally culpable.

"It is out of that context that I can recommend certain reading. All of these books are available online.

The Splendor of Truth: Veritatis Splendor and the Renewal of Moral Theology, eds. Augustine di Noia and Romanus Cessario, Scepter Publishers

Morality: The Catholic View, by Servais Pinckaers

There is a good introductory textbook which is suitable for high school use which contains brief descriptions of these systems.
It is Our Moral Life in Christ, Aurelio Fernandez and James Socias."

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