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)