Moral Theology is a Piece of Cake

February 5, 2010 § 27 Comments

Every human act, because it is the act of an incarnate human subject, has both its objective elements and its subjective elements. The objective part of an act – the behavior chosen – is referred to as the object of the act. An intrinsically evil act is evil in its object, in the behavior which is chosen, independent of the reasons why the person chooses it, how he feels about choosing it, whether he enjoys choosing it or not, or any other subjective factors.

Now, folks often seem to find moral theology very confusing, because moral evaluation is fundamentally about the subject, not the object: it is about the person who chose to act in such-and-such a way. But it isn’t really as confusing as it seems. The fact that he chooses that thing says something about the person. This in no way changes that thing into something subjective or fungible, something which can be altered in its basic character by subjective factors.

Suppose that the thing the person chooses is not a behavior, but a piece of cake. Nothing subjective, inside the person, can change the piece of cake into something it is not. It is what it is, and that a person chooses it says something about the person: that he is the kind of person who chooses a piece of cake. It doesn’t tell us why he chose it, what he likes about the cake, or even if he likes it at all: he might have chosen it to please the person who baked it, for example, even if he doesn’t really like cake. But fundamentally, no matter what subjective factors obtain, he demonstrates in his choice that he is the kind of person who will choose a piece of cake.

The person might be mistaken in a matter of fact: he might not know that the plastic replica in front of him is not really a piece of cake, for example. He might have impaired taste buds, or he might be color blind. To understand what he is choosing morally, strictly speaking, we have to see things from his perspective. We have to understand the objective facts as he understands them: not his attitudes, likes, dislikes, or intentions; not what he wishes was the case but knows is not the case; but the objective facts. Furthermore, as reiterated on this blog many times, many objective facts are non-physical. So, as Veritatis Splendour points out, criticism of this understanding as physicalism or biologism is straightforwardly mistaken.

(Note that in those cases where the acting subject has the facts wrong, the correct approach is not to conclude “therefore, it is OK for the ignorant to act in this manner”. Rather, it is a calling to the faithful to be generous in a particular one of the spiritual alms, that is, instructing the ignorant).

As a semantic point, it would be perfectly legitimate to refer to the piece of cake as “the good that he is choosing”. But it is important to understand what that does, and especially does not, mean. It does not mean, for example, that the fact that he really likes chocolate (or really hates it) in any way alters the objective character of the cake. Nor does it alter the fact that he chose the cake, and is thus at a fundamental level the kind of person who chose a piece of cake, however enthusiastically or reluctantly.

No aggregation of subjective factors can change a piece of cake into a turnip. Even if a psychotic person perceived a piece of cake as a turnip, and thus his choice of it told us that (in addition to being psychotic) he is the kind of person who chooses turnips rather than cake, the piece of cake remains, in reality, a piece of cake.

(Note: post updated)

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§ 27 Responses to Moral Theology is a Piece of Cake

  • Pie > Cake.

    Seriously, your article points out the misunderstanding people have when they construct scenarios loaded with maximum temptation and/or duress on the subject. So, it's “Well, sure. You are against x act. But if we put you in y circumstances, you'd choose to do x. So shut up about x being objectively wrong!” All this proves is that when you turn the temptation up to 11, many people would break. It doesn't prove act x is morally acceptable.

  • Tommy says:

    That also suggests another moral hazard as well: when someone plays with the idea of doing X (assuming an X that is wrong in itself as to its species, saying “well, I am not actually doing it, I am merely wondering what it would look like to do it. As long as I don't actually do the act, I am free of moral problem”. The issue here (at lest one problem) is that they are lowering the hurdles before a direct decision to do X. They are doing some of the same mental work that would be done in rationalizing the act so that it is possible do X even though one knows (at some level, even if one is ignoring that level) that X is wrong. And all that preparatory work is irrational if one truly adheres to not-X. The act of willingly wallowing in an occasion of sin is itself a sin.

  • zippy says:

    And all that preparatory work is irrational if one truly adheres to not-X. The act of willingly wallowing in an occasion of sin is itself a sin.

    Indeed. And that raises the issue of the moral danger involved in engaging in wild hypotheticals: even when God does not put us to the test personally, we often enough put ourselves to the test (especially we moderns in our abstracted Internet universe). With apologies to Plato, hypotheticals and other lies should really only be engaged in by people who have the proper spiritual and intellectual formation for it.

  • eNonymous says:

    “And that raises the issue of the moral danger involved in engaging in wild hypotheticals…”

    Well, then, let's take a hard case to evaluate this.

    Take, for instance, all those folks during World War II who deliberately enaged in lies in order to shelter and facilitate the escape of Jews undergoing constant persecution and death.

    It is purely reductionist pleading to say that these “lies” were quite simply the “piece of cake” and that no matter the circumstances, their having chosen to engaged in such deceit (the piece of cake that is their lying) was nonetheless wickedly immoral.

  • zippy says:

    Take, for instance, all those folks during World War II who deliberately enaged in lies in order to shelter and facilitate the escape of Jews undergoing constant persecution and death.

    Unlike Internet speculators, those people actually were put to the test by reality.

    I imagine, though, that the moral theology of lying has similarities to the moral theology of theft.

  • eNonymous says:

    Zippy,

    You premised your argument primarily on the following:

    “The objective part of an act – the behavior chosen – is referred to as the object of the act. An intrinsically evil act is evil in its object, in the behavior which is chosen, independent of the reasons why the person chooses it…”

    Given this, would it not be a foregone conclusion that those individuals who engaged in deliberately deceitful (the “chosen”) behaviour such as lying (even if it meant the saving of lives) committed, by your light, an evil regardless of those specific circumstances underlying the act?

    Thus, I hope you can see why I beg to differ with your formulated analysis here.

  • zippy says:

    …would it not be a foregone conclusion that …

    The reason I linked to my post on theft is that it shows that no, that kind of conclusion is not foregone.

    There is a whole litany of unstated assumptions in your supposed reductio, and while I have no intention of taking the time to construct and defend a model of lying-as-intrinsically-immoral — the work involved in doing so to my own satisfaction is prohibitive, since it would unquestionably involve many posts and ensuing comment threads, and I have other projects on my plate — nevertheless my earlier post on theft provides an example of what it might look like, were someone with the appropriate imagination[*], insight, and knowledge of moral theology to undertake it.

    [*] Fairly or unfairly I often attribute the rampant Internet false-reductio phenomenon to lack of imagination.

  • eNonymous says:

    Thanks for the kind (not to mention, “gentle”) response anyway.

    That you return to regale us once again with your online presence and continued postings (even if momentary and scarce) is enough.

    Although, I wonder why in heaven's name would you pick for your return matters that seem more like apologia for the terrorists (though I know that this isn't exactly your intention; still, your argumentation in this regard nonetheless offers them advantage).

    Isn't it enough that these are already afforded the rights of an American citizen (e.g., the relatively recent Christmas Day terrorist debacle)?

  • Tommy says:

    With apologies to Plato, hypotheticals and other lies should really only be engaged in by people who have the proper spiritual and intellectual formation for it.

    Zippy, while I agree with your point about the theology of lying being comparable to the theology of theft, I don't find this comment cogent. Posing a hypothetical in order to understand what the Church and God would have us understand about the principle underlying is hardly taking up “other lies.” St. Thomas certainly used hypotheticals in his stuff. And his Summa was written for the student, not the master.

    Not to say that every hypothetical needs an answer, but posing the question in a serious way (i.e. being seriously open to the truth) is not often morally dangerous in itself.

  • Robert says:

    Re: lying – St. Thomas says (ST II-II q110 a4):
    But if the end intended be not contrary to charity, neither will the lie, considered under this aspect, be a mortal sin, as in the case of a jocose lie, where some little pleasure is intended, or in an officious lie, where the good also of one's neighbor is intended.

    In other words, he does not consider lying to be “intrinsically evil” in the sense that murder and torture are so considered.

  • Robert says:

    Re: object of an act – how do we parse the act of an ignorant agent that, if he knew what he was doing, would be wrong or sinful?

    An example: a laborer picks fruit from a tree that he believes belongs to his employer; in fact, it belongs to another person, so the fact is that he is stealing, though theft is nowhere in his intention.

    Is there a difference between the “intention” and the “object” of an act? Is there another word for what the agent does, without regard to his intention?

  • William Luse says:

    “Is there another word for what the agent does, without regard to his intention?”

    Making a mistake?

  • Respectfully Robert, I disagree with your assesment of Aquinas. He his dealing here with the question of whether every lie is a mortal sin. The word mortal is key here. Neither I nor Zippy I'll wager, assert that all lies are mortal sins. Good intentions and certain circumstances might mitigate one's culpability for doing wrong (just as it could in the case of murder or torture), but intrinsicly wrong it remains. Aquinas says not every lie is a mortal sin, but if you scroll up to section 3 on whether every lie is a sin please read:

    I answer that, An action that is naturally evil in respect of its genus can by no means be good and lawful, since in order for an action to be good it must be right in every respect: because good results from a complete cause, while evil results from any single defect, as Dionysius asserts (Div. Nom. iv). Now a lie is evil in respect of its genus, since it is an action bearing on undue matter. For as words are naturally signs of intellectual acts, it is unnatural and undue for anyone to signify by words something that is not in his mind. Hence the Philosopher says (Ethic. iv, 7) that “lying is in itself evil and to be shunned, while truthfulness is good and worthy of praise.” Therefore every lie is a sin, as also Augustine declares (Contra Mend. i).

    Scott W.

    P.S. Thanks for that link. Last night, my wife has brought up the case of biblical figures that appear to have been rewarded for lying, and Aquinas has a section on that. How timely of you to link this!

  • Robert, on further consideration, I think that perhaps I misunderstood you and what you meant is that lying is not the same as murder or torture in terms of gravity. I would be inclined to agree in that murder and torture are always grave wrongs whereas, as the CCC puts it: “2484 The gravity of a lie is measured against the nature of the truth it deforms, the circumstances, the intentions of the one who lies, and the harm suffered by its victims. If a lie in itself only constitutes a venial sin, it becomes mortal when it does grave injury to the virtues of justice and charity.”

    But just to underscore what I said intitially, the CCC makes no bones about lying as an act in and of itself:

    “2485 By its very nature, lying is to be condemned.”

    Scott W.

  • Bob says:

    Following up on the comments of Robert and Scott, Aquinas does deal directly with the situation of lying to Nazis to save Jews in ST II-II q110 a3.

    Reply to Objection 4. A lie is sinful not only because it injures one's neighbor, but also on account of its inordinateness, as stated above in this Article. Now it is not allowed to make use of anything inordinate in order to ward off injury or defects from another: as neither is it lawful to steal in order to give an alms, except perhaps in a case of necessity when all things are common. Therefore it is not lawful to tell a lie in order to deliver another from any danger whatever. Nevertheless it is lawful to hide the truth prudently, by keeping it back, as Augustine says (Contra Mend. x).

    So, it is a sin to lie to Nazis to save the Jews, however, it is not a mortal sin to lie to the Nazis to save the Jews.

  • Tommy says:

    Right, the distinction between mortal and venial sin is not parallel to the distinction between an act intrinsically evil (or evil in respect of its genus) versus an act evil only by its intention or circumstance. Something can be intrinsically evil and still only be a venial sin. (“Only” is here used comparatively, not absolutely: “Death before sin!” šŸ™‚ )

  • Zippy says:

    …but posing the question in a serious way (i.e. being seriously open to the truth) is not often morally dangerous in itself.

    To me, that rings about as true as “looking at the female body is not often morally dangerous in itself.”

  • Tommy says:

    Not at all. On the one hand, the sinner toying with temptation to sin is knowingly allowing his passions or emotions to gain strength, which may result in the will succumbing to the blandishments they offer as “good”.

    The investigator does not have his passions or emotions engaged trying to blind his reason to the true good, so it is not an occasion of sin that he is allowing to be protracted. Completely different scenario.

    Would you have an OB-GYN only look at a female body when a woman comes along who needs care…what about study before hand so he knows what he is supposed to find in a healthy body? Should he base his medical knowledge solely on verbal descriptions?

  • Zippy says:

    I think the OB-GYN example makes my point – which is not “this should never be done”, but rather is “this is, as a general matter, fraught with moral dangers” – rather than undermining it.

  • Tommy says:

    That's rather opaque.

    Do you really think that studying to be an OB-GYN is a matter of grave moral danger as such?

  • zippy says:

    Do you really think that studying to be an OB-GYN is a matter of grave moral danger as such?

    Absolutely, though how “grave” is of course arguable[*]. Only we moderns, with our peculiar prejudices and blindnesses, could fail to see something so obvious.

    To quote myself, using the phraseology to which you objected, gynecology “… should really only be engaged in by [men] who have the proper spiritual and intellectual formation for it.”

    [*] Once we get to the “how grave” question, though, we've already agreed what we are and are merely arguing over the price.

  • Robert says:

    @romishgraffiti – You're correct that I meant the emphasis to be on the gravity of the sin.

    This is one of the reasons I have certain problems with the “intrinsically evil” criterion. Lying is “intrinsically evil” but is only venially sinful, depending on the remote end and the intention of the liar.

    So, is torture only venially sinful under certain circumstances?

    I think the more traditional phrase “grave matter” is better here. Lying is always sinful, but is not always grave matter. I would argue that torture always is grave sin.

  • Robert says:

    Re: lookin' at the ladies…

    The world is fraught with moral danger. Even in a hermit's cavern, temptation invades and disrupts a person's communion with God.

    The dangers vary from person to person. Some men are more tempted to lust by a woman's body than others. Some men are tempted to lust by a man's body. Some are tempted to wrath by various different kinds of insult. And so on….

    Most occasions of temptation are not evil in themselves. Even those that are, such as injustice which gives rise to wrath, call for a virtuous response.

    The solution is not to rid the world of temptations; that is impossible.

    The solution is to know the difference between good and evil, to know oneself and one's weaknesses, and to act with prudence accordingly.

  • Robert says:

    Re: lookin' at the ladies … Continued

    Not to say we shouldn't tone down the occasions of temptations in public or in the media. Modesty is a social virtue as well as a personal one.

    It would be great if the fashion industry would start designing for modesty rather than designing for sexual advertisement.

    It would be great if Hollywood would focus its special effects studios on something other than making violence more exciting.

    However, these are not excuses for sin. They may mitigate a person's culpability, but they do not make it “okay” to lust or to act violently or to covet or any other sin.

  • JohnMcG says:

    But I also think we have a tendency to kid ourselves.

    One might tell oneself that he studies pictures of women so that if he ever needs to assist in the emergency delivery of a baby, he's prepared.

    Many people favor waterboarding, etc., because they want to protect the nation. But I think others relish the idea of exacting vengeance on terrorists, just like some imagine 27 Ninjas scenarios where they can kick some tail.

    I think there is a danger in continually imagining scenarios where one would be strongly tempted to sin.

  • zippy says:

    I think there is a danger in continually imagining scenarios where one would be strongly tempted to sin.

    Precisely.

  • Tommy says:

    Zippy:

    To quote myself, using the phraseology to which you objected, gynecology “… should really only be engaged in by [men] who have the proper spiritual and intellectual formation for it.”

    Robert:

    The world is fraught with moral danger. Even in a hermit's cavern, temptation invades and disrupts a person's communion with God.

    The dangers vary from person to person. Some men are more tempted to lust by a woman's body than others. Some men are tempted to lust by a man's body. Some are tempted to wrath by various different kinds of insult. And so on….

    And not only are the dangers various from person to person, but from situation to situation. You have to admit, the moral danger for a man of walking down a beach in which a lone young woman has removed everything below the waist is a HUGELY different situation than an operating room where the same woman is unclothed from the waist down for surgery, and in which there are 4 other people. It is easy to see that the latter requires considerably less perfection of the habits of chastity to come through unscathed
    than the former. The circumstances affect the sensibilities of the observer, and tend to modify how the same woman's body is perceived under the potential aspect of desirability. (For one thing, the presence of others reminds one to keep his mind on business. It's one of the reasons my wife's OB practice always makes sure there is always a nurse present when the doctor is doing an examination – regardless of which sex the doctor is.)

    I can readily accept Zippy's formulation above, if we can say that the spiritual formation needed for an OB to do his duties is not that of a near-saint. Rather, an ordinary person who has attended to and achieved a fairly reasonable level of purity can hope to overcome the remaining temptations when he maintains ordinary recourse to professional demeanor, additional presence of nurses, and similar efforts.

    Which gets to “grave”. Lust is a grave sin. But a passing and weakened temptation to it is not a grave moral danger. Perhaps, though, the language is imprecise: Perhaps the issue is really whether the danger is excessive. I.e., whether submitting to that level of danger is proportionate to the action at hand. If not, then of course the right-minded person ought to walk away, even if the moral danger is only slight. In that light, I would suggest that a well-formed Catholic man who has taken customary efforts to formulate the habits of chastity from an early age could reasonably expect that the profession of OB is not an undue danger to purity.

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