Even physical things are not merely physical
February 20, 2009 § 52 Comments
Modern people like ourselves tend to think in very physicalist terms. In thinking about things in terms of what “happens” rather than in terms of things that we do or do not do as acting subjects we tend to get lost in a number of fallacies, losing track of a number of key distinctions. In the last post we discussed one such crucial distinction, the distinction between acting and not acting, without which much moral confusion ensues. In this post I am going to discuss another problem with abstracted physicalist thinking: the treatment of physical objects, including but not limited to the body, as nothing but physical objects.
We of course know intuitively that as a moral matter, physical objects are not merely physical objects. As a deontological matter a bag of gold that I stole is a fundamentally different object from a bag of gold which I earned. Both may be identical bags of gold physically, but the objective moral content of each bag is clearly very different. What I should and should not do with each bag of gold, the earned one and the stolen one, is about as different as things can be. And this remains true even after I have confessed to stealing the bag of gold and received absolution from a priest.
And so it is with the body. The objective moral content of my body which I have (let us suppose) deliberately mutilated to make it infertile is fundamentally different from the objective moral content of my body which has been injured in an accident, or was mutilated against my will by someone else. Notice that this has nothing to do with my interior dispositions or intentions at all: it is a fact that my impaired powers of generation were deliberately made so by me, or were made so through an accident. As a moral matter there is no genetic fallacy here: my moral obligations with respect to morally different objects are different, even if those objects are the same -qua- physical objects. To treat even physical objects as nothing but physical objects is a kind of physicalism.
So as a moral matter, “my fertility I deliberately impaired” is a different object from “my fertility impaired in an accident”, which is different still from “my fertility which I deliberately mutilated but which I have attempted to restore”. Again we notice that none of these things pertain to my intentions in acting right now: these are morally pertinent historical truths about the object in question, in this case my body. These things are objectively true no matter what intentions or dispositions I have right now.
And that is why I find it very plausible that a man who has had a contraceptive vasectomy should not ever engage in sexual relations with his wife, at least until he has attempted a restoration. As we have discussed before, if his contracepted acts were intrinsically evil grave matter which he had to confess, then absolution does not grant him a license to go do what he just confessed all over again. We are never licensed to do evil, not even in the face of great hardship and suffering. Anything we confess and for which we are absolved is something we should never do again, ever. We are all sinners, so sometimes we will. But when we do, we cut ourselves off from the Blessed Sacrament, a relationship which can ordinarily only be restored through valid Confession. And part of valid Confession is resolution not to sin again.