Are Quick and Slow Death Different?

In the post The Principle of Double Effect and Abortion, or more precisely, in a comment on the post, the example was given, taken from Steven Long, of two persons in a space capsule with a limited air supply. There would be enough air for one of the persons to reach earth safely, but not for both. Moreover, one person is mortally allergic to an anti-viral agent in the air, and so will die in any case. The question was raised, can the other person deny him air by ejecting him from the spaceship?

I would like to compare this case with a analogous case inspired by my last post. Two persons are on a island with just barely enough water for one person. Again, one person is allergic to something in the water, and will die in three to four weeks if he drinks it–whereas he will die in one to two weeks if he does not. Can the other person deny him water, by force if necessary, or is this murder?

Steven Long asks, apparently, rhetorically, "By moving him, do we not in fact hasten his death? If we deliberately hasten the death of another—and let us suppose we do so against his will—do we not then commit murder?" I think in terms of people's instincts, it makes a tremendous difference how much the death of another person is hastened by our action, that ejecting someone from a spaceship, where he will die immediately, is much more revolting and instinctively wrong (at least to persons who are not in that situation; I would not be surprised to find that the moral instincts of persons on both sides who were actually in such a situation were much less strongly against this action) than denying a person water that is anyway poisonous to him, and thus shortening his life span from about three weeks to one week.

Is this right? Are your instinctive judgments regarding the two cases the same or different? Is denying someone water that would kill him anyway over a space of three weeks seem instinctively the same or different than denying him air that would kill him over a space of one week?

The Mistake of Expecting Moral Systems to Resolve All Cases

Aquinas points out that while the first principle of natural law, "good is to be done and pursued and evil to be avoided", is most certain, the more concrete and particular the principles and situations at which one looks, the less great is the certainty that can be attained. Consequently, anyone who sets out to develop or expound a moral system that will enable him to objectively judge every moral case with certainty, is sure to fail in this mistake: either there will be cases that cannot be judged with clarity by the system, or there will be cases that are misjudged by it. The following series of situations may serve as an illustration of inevitability of "grey" cases.

1. A mother is stranded with her child, aged 10, on an island, has no way to contact anyone off the island, and no way to procure additional fresh water. She knows that people will be arriving by boat in four weeks, as the island is a scheduled and never missed stop on a cruise. There is enough water for her child to survive four weeks, though getting somewhat dehydrated. She refrains from drinking any of the water, so that she can give it all to her child, though she knows she is morally certainty to die herself.

2. Ten adults are stranded with ten children in a similar situation. The adults all go without water for the sake of the children, and die of thirst.

3. Twenty adults are stranded on the island. Ten volunteer to give their share of the water to the others.

4. Twenty adults are stranded on the island, with adequate fresh water for all of them for 18 days. Thus, if they all drink a normal share of the water, they may well not all die, but will all run a serious risk of death. Five of them therefore volunteer to give up their share of water, and are thus virtually certain to die.

5. The same situation as four, with the additional remark that those who volunteer to give up their water persons with incurable cancer who expect to die within a few years, and so consider a greater chance of survival for the healthy and younger persons worth giving up their own chance of survival for.

6. The same situation as five, except that there is adequate fresh water for everyone for a little more than 20 days, so that if everyone drinks their share of water, the risk of death for each individual is relatively low, around 0.5%.

7. The same situation as six, except that the persons who give up their water are persons suffering from a disease that will kill them within two months in any event, and causes them constant and great pain, and this horrible pain and short life span plays a significant role in their decision to volunteer to give up their water.

It is quite clear, in the first three cases, that the persons who give up their water are not guilty of suicide either directly or indirectly, that is, either by reason of their intention (they will to die), or by reason of the objective character of their choice. (By "objective character" I mean that theoretically, it might be that giving up the water only makes sense if someone considers his life of no value, and is basically throwing it away; but this is clearly not the case in the first three examples.)

In the last case, if the risk of death given that everyone drinks water is low enough, and if the painfulness of the people's lives plays a great enough role in their deliberation, it is clear that their decision to give up drinking water is suicidal in its very intention. Similarly the sixth case is clearly suicidal in fact, if not in intention, and is morally wrong.

There is, however, a continuum between the first cases and the last cases–a continuum both in regard to the greatness of the risk of other people's death avoided by giving up one's own water, and in regard to the shortness of life and greatness of pain that makes one less concerned to preserve one's own life.

Consequently, it is impossible to make a system that will enable one to objectively judge every such decision as objectively right or objectively wrong. One might say that "if a person in giving up their water is objectively treating their life as though it were of no value, the decision to give up their water is wrong," but there will be cases in which it is unclear whether giving up their water is "treating their life as if it were of no value."

The Principle of Double Effect and Abortion

Some time ago I posted on the principle of double effect, and mentioned cases of conflict that are not evidently resolvable by the principle of double effect, at least not in its usual sense. There is also a problem applying the principle of double effect to resolve an issue or dispute, if the very point in question is whether a given effect can or should be considered as an effect, that is, as a circumstance of the action, or whether it must be considered as a defining aspect of the object.

For example, when a live baby is delivered by the induction of labor or C-section before it is mature enough to live for long outside the womb, is the death of the child an effect of the action, so that it could fall under the principle of double effect, or does the action morally need to be described as the direct killing of an innocent child?

A discussion arose recently about the case in Phoenix, where a nun at a Catholic hospital approved an abortion that was considered medically necessary to save the mother's life, and when there was (apparently) not considered to be any reasonable hope of her carrying the child until viability. The bishop of the diocese of Phoenix declared the nun who approved the abortion to have been automatically excommunicated by her action.

The diocesan's Q and A on the situation (PDF) says, "If a necessary treatment brings about the death of the child indirectly it may be allowable. A Dilation and Curettage (D&C) or Dilation and Extraction (D&E), however, would never be such a treatment since it is the direct killing of the unborn child and is, morally speaking, an abortion." This suggest that such a procedure may have been done at the hospital. I have been unable to verify the facts on this question. But suppose that the abortion was carried out by C-section, delivered a live baby, who died hours or days later because it was as yet too immature to live outside the mother's womb. Would that change the situation?

The doctrinal commission of the USCCB's statement on this case, as well as the USCCB's Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services (5th edition, 2009, PDF), seem to imply that it would not alter the situation morally. The ethical and religious directives say "Abortion (that is, the directly intended termination of pregnancy before viability or the directly intended   destruction of a viable fetus) is never permitted. Every procedure whose sole immediate effect is the termination of pregnancy before viability is an abortion." The doctrinal comission's comment on this is: "Direct abortion is never morally permissible. One may never directly kill an innocent human being, no matter what the reason." In other words, it considers any "directly intended termination of pregnancy before viability" to be, morally speaking, the "direct killing of an innocent human being," even when physically it is indirect, as when a live baby is delivered before viability.

The same thing seems to be taught by a statement of the Holy Office:

Dr. Titius, when called to a pregnant woman, who was very ill, observed repeatedly that the only cause of her deadly disease was her pregnancy, i. e., the presence of a fetus in her womb. Hence there was but one way open to him to save the patient from certain and imminent death, namely, to cause abortion. On this course he usually decided in similar cases, taking care, however, to avail himself of such remedies and operations which would not of themselves, or not immediately kill the fetus in the womb, but, on the contrary, would, if possible, deliver the child alive, although, not being able to live, it would die soon afterward. But after reading a rescript from the Holy See to the Archbishop of Cambrai, dated August 19, 1888, that it was unsafe to teach the lawfulness of any operation which might directly kill the fetus, even though such were necessary to save the mother, Dr. Titius began to doubt the lawfulness of the surgical operation by which he had not unfrequently caused abortion to save pregnant women who were very ill.

Therefore, in order to set his conscience at rest, Dr. T. humbly asks whether, on recurrence of the like circumstances, he may resort to the aforesaid operations.

Response:

To this urgent request the Cardinals of the Holy Roman Congregation of the General Inquisition, after advising with the theological consultors, have decided to answer: No; according to other decrees, namely, those of May 28, 1884, and of August 19, 1888…. (Response of the Holy Office to the Archbishop of Cambrai, July 24, 1895; AAS 28, 383ff., Denzinger, n. 3298)

More related statements of the Catholic Church on Abortion

In response to the argument that the death of the child that is consequent upon delivery of the child is an effect of the delivery, and thus the delivery of a child through induction of labor or C-section before viability may fall under the principle of double effect, when without such an operation both mother and child will die, the position taken by the Holy Office at that time (the CDF has been curiously silent on the question in the past forty years in its various statement on procured abortion, respect for life, etc.) and by the USCCB seems to amount to: one may not consider the principle of double effect applicable; one must consider the death of the child as an essential, determining aspect of the act of delivering the child.

I must admit, I am quite at a loss as to the logic that could be behind the position of the Holy Office and the USCCB (Dear readers, HELP!), and wish that the CDF would make a statement on the issue, either to say that this earlier decision of the Holy Office (assuming I'm rightly interpreting it) is correct, or that it is incorrect or misunderstood or not applicable, or that the question is an open one: the silence I find distressing, particular in view of the wide gap that seems to be present between the views of Catholic doctors and the views of many bishops.

Crucifixes in Public Schools

From the oral submission given on Wednesday by Joseph Weiler, on behalf of several third-party intervening states (Armenia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Lithuania, Malta, The Russian Federation and San Marino) in the case (Lautsi v. Italy) regarding Italy's right to display crucifixes in its public schools.


21… Secularity, Laïcité is not an empty category which signifies absence of faith. It is to many a rich world view which holds, inter alia, the political conviction that religion only has a legitimate place in the private sphere and that there may not be any entanglement of public authority and religion. For example, only secular schools will be funded. Religious schools must be private and not enjoy public support. It is a political position, respectable, but certainly not “neutral.” The non-laique, whilst fully respecting freedom of and from religion, embrace some form of public religion as I have already noted. Laïcité advocates a naked public square, a classroom wall bereft of any religious symbol. It is legally disingenuous to adopt a political position which splits our society, and to claim that somehow it is neutral.

23. If the social pallet of society were only composed of blue yellow and red groups, than black – the absence of color – would be a neutral colour. But once one of the social forces in society has appropriated black as its colour, than that choice is no longer neutral. Secularism does not favour a wall deprived of all State symbols. It is religious symbols which are anathema.

24. What are the educational consequences of this?

25. Consider the following parable of Marco and Leonardo, two friends just about to begin school. Leonardo visits Marco at his home. He enters and notices a crucifix. What is that?’, he asks. ‘A crucifix – why, you don’t have one? Every house should have one.’ Leonardo returns to his home agitated. His mother patiently explains: ‘They are believing Catholics. We are not. We follow our path. Now imagine a visit by Marco to Leonardo’s house. ‘Wow!’, he exclaims, ‘no crucifix? An empty wall?’ “ We do not believe in that nonsense” says his friend. Marco returns agitated to his house. ‘Well’, explains his mother, ‘We follow our path.” The next day both kids go to school. Imagine the school with a crucifix. Leonardo returns home agitated: ‘The school is like Marco’s house. Are you sure, Mamma, that it is okay not to have a crucifix?’ That is the essence of Ms. Lausti’s complaint. But imagine, too, that on the first day the walls are naked. Marco returns home agitated. ‘The school is like Leonardo’s house,’ he cries. ‘You see, I told you we don’t need it.’

Read more.

Natural Law and Natural Inclinations

Why do natural inclinations of human nature give rise to an obligation of natural law?

Is it the mere fact that humans are inclined to this or that good? If so, must one concede the argument in favor of homosexual relationships, that some persons are just naturally inclined to such relationships (granting the premise that it is a natural inclination or at least a natural predisposition triggered by some experiences of one kind or another)?

Or is a natural inclination merely an objective fact, which receives moral value extrinsically, from the purpose imposed on it by human reason. Is a natural law connected with human inclinations only because human reason judges that the good involved in these inclinations (e.g., the good of reproduction, the continuation of the human species in time) is a kind of ultimate good that one cannot reject without in some sense rejecting goodness itself, and offending one's own humanity? In that case, isn't the notion of natural inclination irrelevant? Wouldn't it be just as good, for example, to preserve our lives, and just as bad to commit suicide, even if we didn't have a natural inclination to self-preservation? It is the judgment of reason and the seeking of what is good that is important, not the physical/biological facts.

The International Theological Commission, in its recent document on Universal Ethics and Natural Law holds a mean between these two positions:

79. The rehabilitation of nature and of corporeality in ethics cannot be equated with any kind of "physicalism." Some modern presentations of natural law have seriously denied the necessary integration of natural inclinations in the unity of the person. Neglecting to consider the unity of the human person, they absolutize the natural inclinations of the different "parts" of human nature, approaching them without hierarchizing them, and failing to integrate them in the unity of the entire plan of the subject. [This criticism would (also) apply to the "new natural law" approach taken by Germain Grisez, who enumerates many inclinations (e.g., the inclination to live, to avoid pain, to play, to enjoy aesthetic experiences, to know theoretical truths) which he sees as irreducible, and thus as absolutes–although he sees them as immediate givens of experience, rather than as deduced from the observation of one's inclinations.] Now, John Paul II explains, "natural inclinations do not acquire a moral quality, except insofar as they are connected to the human person and to his authentic realization" (Veritatis splendor, n. 50). Today therefore there is need to hold fast to two truths. On the one hand, the human subject is not a union or juxtaposition of diverse and autonomous natural inclinations, but a substantial and personal whole called to respond to the love of God and to unite himself through a recognized orientation towards a last end, which hierarchizes the partial goods manifested by diverse natural tendencies. Such a unification of natural tendencies in service of the higher ends of the spirit, i.e., such a humanization of the dynamisms inscribed in human nature, does not at all constitute a violence done to it. On the contrary, it is the realization of a promise already inscribed in them.74 For example, the high spiritual value that is manifested in the gift of self in the reciprocal love of spouses is already inscribed in the very nature of the sexual body, which finds in this spiritual realization its ultimate reason for being. [Holding to this one point, we must reject the extreme of "physicalism," which would take the natural inclinations as absolutes that are not subordinate to any higher principle.] On the other hand, in this organic whole, each part preserves a proper and irreducible meaning, ["irreducible" probably means here that the role and value of each part of human nature is not reduced simply to its utilitarian aspect (what does it produce for me?), but that each part of human nature participates in its own way in the human good.] of which reason should take account in the elaboration of the entire plan of the human person. The doctrine of the natural moral law should therefore affirm the central role of reason in the actualization of a properly human plan of life, and at the same time the consistency and the proper meaning of natural pre-rational dynamisms.75 [Holding to this point, we must reject the other extreme, which would take the natural inclinations as mere "matter" for human action, devoid of any intrinsic human teleology. This is explained in further detail in the footnote.]

Notes
[74] The duty to humanize the nature in man is inseparable from the duty to humanize external nature. This justifies the immense effort made by men to emancipate themselves from the coercions of physical nature in the measure in which they hinder properly human values. The struggle against illness, the prevention of hostile natural phenomena, the improvement of the conditions of life are of themselves works that attest to the greatness of man called to fill the earth and to subdue it (cf. Gen 1:28). Cf. Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes, n. 57.

[75] Reacting to the danger of physicalism and rightly insisting on the decisive role of reason in the elaboration of the natural law, some contemporary theories of natural law [e.g., those of Josef Fuchs, Charles Curran, or Richard McCormick] neglect, or rather reject, the moral significance of the natural pre-rational dynamisms. [According to these theories] the natural law would be called "natural" only in reference to reason, which would define the whole nature of man. To obey the natural law would be therefore reduced to acting in a rational manner, i.e., to applying to the totality of behaviors a univocal ideal of rationality generated by practical reason alone. This means wrongly identifying the rationality of the natural law with the rationality of reason alone, without taking account of the rationality inherent in nature. [An example in the text of such inherent rationality is the "gift of self" that is "already inscribed in the very nature of the sexual body."]

[Paraphrase/exposition of the note: Reacting to the one extreme, some theories see the "lawfulness" of the natural l-aw as entirely constituted by human reason, rather than as recognized and ordered by human reason, yet originally constituted by God's "reason". Practical reason does not perceive any moral value and signification in natural inclinations, but only "practical" value. While recognizing the truth that law is a work of reason, this position overlooks the fact that the natural law in us is a participation in the eternal law, which is a work of God's reason. This participation is found both in that which is essentially rational–the reason–and in that which reason by participation–the inclinations, which participate in God's plan as being directed by it.]

In accordance with the one truth, that reason exercises a discernment in regard to natural inclinations, we must recognize the possibility that reason discerns in a particular case that a natural inclination does not represent such "inherent rationality," but is rather contrary to reason. The affirmation that the inclination of nature is a participation in and expression of God's plan does not mean that every particular inclination of every particular nature is such. According to Thomas Aquinas, some individuals have a natural inclination to particular sins, on account of a corruption of nature, (ST I-II, 78:3) and he also, following Aristotle, states that something contrary to the human species may become per accidens natural to an individual, (ST I-II, 31:7) on account of a corruption of some natural principle–as evidenced in a connatural desire to eat dirt or coal or other human beings, or to have bestial or homosexual intercourse. Indeed, one might argue that there are very frequently present in men some natural inclinations that exceed the bounds of reason, as an inclination for a man to kill an adulterous wife, or (inordinate in a context where food is always plentiful) to eat a great deal whenever plenty of good food is available.

In accordance with the other truth, the goods and potential evils involved in the use of various human faculties is sufficiently determined by human nature itself, and sufficiently luminous to be not only a locus, but also a source of moral insight. Although the actual moral value of any particular action depends on our reason and will (what we do involuntarily or without appreciation of what we're doing may be good or bad, but not morally good or bad in the full sense of the term), "What we're doing" when we make use of those human faculties isn't so much imposed by us, as recognized by us.

The rehabilitation of nature and of corporeality in ethics cannot, however, be equated with any kind of "physicalism." In fact some modern presentations of natural law have seriously denied the necessary integration of natural inclinations in the unity of the person. Neglecting to consider the unity of the human person, they absolutize the natural inclinations of the different "parts" of human nature, approaching them without hierarchizing them and omitting to integrate them in the unity of the entire plan of the subject. Now, John Paul II explains, "natural inclinations do not acquire a moral quality, except insofar as they are connected to the human person and to his authentic realization" (Veritatis splendor, n. 50). Today therefore there is need to hold fast to two truths. On the one hand, the human subject is not a union or juxtaposition of diverse and autonomous natural inclinations, but a substantial and personal whole called to respond to the love of God and to unite himself through a recognized orientation towards a last end, which hierarchizes the partial goods manifested by diverse natural tendencies. Such a unification of natural tendencies in service of the higher ends of the spirit, i.e., such a humanization of the dynamisms inscribed in human nature, does not at all constitute a violence done to it. On the contrary, it is the realization of a promise already inscribed in them.74 For example, the high spiritual value that is manifested in the gift of self in the reciprocal love of spouses is already inscribed in the very nature of the sexual body, which finds in this spiritual realization its ultimate reason for being. On the other hand, in this organic whole, each part preserves a proper and irreducible meaning, of which reason should take account in the elaboration of the entire plan of the human person. The doctrine of the natural moral law should therefore affirm the central role of reason in the actualization of a properly human plan of life, and at the same time the consistency and the proper meaning of natural pre-rational dynamisms.75

Rational Civil Authority and Marriage

How should a rational civil authority regulate marriage, supposing that the state does not accept a particular religious revelation or tradition as definitive, and that the citizens of the state recognize various religious authorities? Since most of us live in civil states like this, the question is not unimportant for us. This is the actual situation.

Two basic possibilities suggest themselves: the state could make the decisions about marriage, or the various religious authorities could make the decisions.

(1) The state could alone make decisions about marriage: e.g., judge what are the conditions intrinsically required to marry validly; establish impediments to marriage; judge whether the requirements of the natural law admit of exceptions, and if so, in what instances exceptions should be made.

(2) The state could leave all decisions about marriage to the various religions.

The first possibility is problematic, since marriage has an intrinsically religious character, and therefore judgment and determination about it should properly belong to religious authority.

The second possibility cannot be consistently upheld, if the state itself is to have any recognition of marriage, and if it is to uphold natural law. For in an instance where the spouses belong to different religions, or after a religious conversion where the second religion has a different view on marriage, one religious authority may maintain that a marriage is valid, while the other religious authority maintains that it is invalid. Moreover, a religion could mandate conditions of marriage contrary to natural law (requiring women to marry even without their consent, allowing divorce and remarriage under any conditions, at the simple request of the spouses, etc.).

It seems therefore necessary to qualify the qualify the second possibility.

(2b) The state could leave decisions about marriage to the various religions, unless the pertinent religions have no position or disagree, or a religion stipulates something about marriage contrary to that which natural law considered in itself requires, in which case the state must decide the case.

Of course, one who is convinced of the truth and reasonableness of his faith will see the ideal as a situation where the state recognizes that revelation as true, and accepts its religious understanding of marriage, but where that is not possible, this second approach seems to be the best.

What are the consequences of this position? Consider the quality of marriage that it be between one man and one woman, and that it be indissoluble. Now, if these qualities belong to natural law, and according to natural law admit of no exception, it seems the state should refuse to recognize the dissolution of a marriage by the Catholic Church (by way of the "Petrine privilige") or through a second marriage in the faith (by way of the "Pauline Privilege"). This consequence doesn't seem very desirable to most Catholics; nor does it seem to be wished for by the 20th-century Papal writings on marriage that address political issues.

If, on the other hand, though the qualities of marital unity and indissolubility belong to natural law, they are the kind of natural law admits of exceptions, then the state can do one of the following: (1) recognize all exceptions that religious authorities recognize; thus the state will accept all divorces accepted by Catholics, protestants, Jews, Muslims, all second marriages recognized by the religions, etc; from a Catholic point of view, this also seems problematic; (2) recognize those exceptions that seem particularly reasonable; this doesn't seem ultimately all that different from the first approach, where the state itself make decisions about marriage; nonetheless, I wonder whether it might not be the most reasonable approach for a civil authority that recognizes natural law but doesn't accept one specific religious tradition as being the recipient of the fullness of truth.

Regardless of the particular answer one might give to the question, "How should the state regulate marriage," I think it's important to reflect on the question, and to have some coherent answer, rather than, with the claim to be arguing from natural law, to push essentially for an assimilation of the state's regulation to that of the Catholic Church–this kind of arguing can give the impression of simple bias and partisanship.

Aquinas's Moral Theology

The Aquinas Institute will be offering an eight week study program covering the first part of the second part of the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, which comprises his treatment of Christian moral life in general (the second part of this part then takes up particular Christian virtues and actions one by one). I will be teaching the third of the four blocks of this program, covering virtues, beatitudes, and the Gifts of the holy Spirit.

What is the value of studying Thomas Aquinas on the moral life? There are many ways to answer this question; I here propose just a couple fundamental points. Aquinas integrates multiple deep insights that are frequently played off against one another, and thereby gives a much fuller and more accurate account of human life. What do I mean by this? Many theories of ethics and morals, beginning from the true presuppositions that man's rationality and self-determination are essential to morality, see morality as something entirely relative, as simply created from within a person. Others, beginning from the fact that many actions have some human goodness or badness in them prior to a person's understanding or choice of those actions, see morality as something absolute apart from man, to which man must conform, as to an extrinsic rule. (One variation of this view would have it that the goodness or badness of an action derives from the fact that God commands it or forbids it; another variation would have it that the goodness or badness is something just in the act itself).

Both of these views rest on some true insight, but fail to adequately take into account the insight of the other view.

In Aquinas' understanding of morals, these two aspects of human morality are taken up, and closely intertwined. God is our last end in the first place not because we choose him for our end, but because he is infinite goodness, who alone can fully satisfy our desire, and who contains all other goods within him. Yet we seek God in a manner that corresponds to our human nature, which first possesses an abstract concept of happiness, or satisfaction of desire, and only consequently attains or is granted the insight that God alone is this goal. Similarly an action such as telling the truth is good because it builds up the human goods of truth and fellowship, while an action such as stealing is bad because it doesn't correspond to, and harms the good of the natural human fellowship that naturally arises between human persons. But these actions are only moral goods or evils, human goods or evils in the full sense, inasmuch as they are recognized for what they by a human being, and chosen. The morality of an action, good or bad, is thus not realized apart from the personal insight and choice of the one who acts. Aquinas can therefore firmly maintain that there are some actions which are bad, just because of the kind of action they are (malum ex genere), but also that a person is always obliged to follow his conscience, and indeed, if a person's mistaken judgment of what he should do is not the result of his voluntary negligence, arrogance, or other fault, then he deserves no blame for following his erring conscience.

Similarly there is often dispute about whether goals and motives, or laws and rules, or character and virtue are the principal factors for human and moral life (In ethics these sometimes take the name of virtue ethics, deontological ethics, and consequentialism or utilitarianism), and evidence for one is often taken as evidence against the others. Here, too, in Aquinas all three of these aspects are integral to his moral thinking. Beginning with the last end as the first principle of moral action, he gives an undeniable primacy to the goal, or end of action. Nonetheless he does not subordinate virtue to man's ultimate end as a mere means to it, but consider it as a part of the end, and as the inner principle by which man attains that end. Law, too, in being known by man, becomes a first principle of judgment, by which a man makes rational decisions, and thus makes his way toward his end, God. The first principle of law is either, formulated generically, "do good and avoid evil," or, formulated specifically, "love, and do what you will." (St. Augustine's formulation–Aquinas usually simply places the commandment of love as corresponding to the first rational judgment to do good and avoid evil.)

These three aspects of moral life, together with a fourth human aspect, that of feelings, emotions, and passions, and a properly divine aspect, that of grace (man's share in divine life), are treated in the Prima Secundae, and will be taken up in four two week intensive courses from May 24th to July 16th, 2010.

Of course, studying Thomas Aquinas is not everything. If moral theology consists in studying, understanding, and explaining how God and his revelation in Christ affects how we live, and living isn't something realized in the abstract, but in all the concreteness of the here and now, then it pertains integrally to moral theology to consider present issues and problems, issues that did not arise for St. Thomas, and which require some particular considerations he did not make. But Aquinas's moral theology does provide a strong basis to address present issues, and to dialogue with proponents of other theories.

Moral Theology and Legalism

In my post on Aquinas on Sexual Sins I promised to return to the issue of the legalistic morality that became dominant in the Catholic church. For St. Thomas Aquinas, law is fundamentally an ordinance of practical reason perceiving the appropriateness of things to an end, and ordering concrete means to that end. A law which is unreasonable, which does not correspond to the exigencies of man's true end, is neither a true law, nor morally binding on man. The lawfulness of law does not arise simply from the will of the lawgiver, but presupposes knowledge of the subject of the law, and what is appropriate for him. This is true not only of human law, but of divine law as well. God's will and knowledge is not caused by created reality, but is the cause of it. Nonetheless God's knowledge of the orderliness in his plan is logically prior to his will to impose that order as natural or divine law.

Nominalism, which does not recognize an intelligible order in real things as the basis for law, attributes law to will alone. In St. Thomas's understanding, murder is forbidden by natural and divine law because murder is incompatible with, contradicts man's true good. In the nominalist understanding, murder is immoral only because God willed to forbid it. This same understanding is reflected today in the all-too-common statements that, e.g., contraception isn't bad, but it's a sin. Sin is seen as something extrinsic to the human action, rooted in God's positive will alone.

In following centuries this nominalistic, legalistic view of law came to dominate Catholic thought. One significant historical reason for this seems to have been the desire for a system that confessors could use to determine the gravity of sins and appropriate penances. The rule-based approach seemed well-adapted for this purpose. Over time, then, moral theology became separated from man's desire for happiness, practice of virtue, asceticism, prayer, etc., and was more or less restricted to obligations, precepts, and sins.

One dangerous consequence of this view is that, when men's extrinsic motivations for obeying God decrease–because, e.g., they don't believe in hell, or doubt whether God would differentiate men's final destinies on the basis of their actions–they have little motivation at all to obey laws in which they don't see much sense, e.g., the law for openness to procreation and against artificial contraception.

Conscience and relativism

This legalistic view of morality pops up in another way as relativism in the modern emphasis on conscience as a guide of one's action, even if the action is objectively bad. Thomas Aquinas explains that the binding force of conscience consists in the fact that it is the concrete judgment that an action is good or bad; thus the need to follow conscience derives from the need to act well, if one is to attain one's end and be truly happy. But when obligation is separated from goodness and happiness, then the binding force of conscience is no longer seen as based on the need to seek man's true good, but is absolutized. The moral value of man's action is seen as simply consisting in his following his conscience, regardless of whether or not what he does is truly good.

Natural Law and Universal Ethics – Update

I've now translated the footnotes in the International Theological Commission's document The Search for Universal Ethics: A New Look at the Natural Law, including the Latin notes (mostly from the Summa Theologiae) that were left untranslated in the original document. The footnote references have also been hyperlinked to the text of the notes, for easier navigation in a web browser.

Natural Law and Universal Ethics

The International Theological Commission recently published a document on the natural law as the foundation for universal ethics. The document is available on the Vatican website in French and Italian. I've made a translation into English (the body of the text is complete, notes will be coming) and posted it here on this website. The document is fairly long, but worth reading, especially for those interested in Thomistic ethics, interreligious dialog, politics, or similar fields where the concept of natural law is particularly important.

The Search for Universal Ethics: A New Look at the Natural Law