Subjective meat

June 8, 2014 § 25 Comments

Modernity is engaged in an all out war against the good, the true, and the beautiful. A key component of that war is convincing people that moral norms and the moral gravity of human choices are subjective rather than objective.  This is, of course, a pile of errant nonsense.

The relationship between the subjective and the objective in human choices is obvious to children but can, like many deep philosophical subjects, seem befuddling to intellectuals.  Catholics are fortunate to have an authoritative tradition to draw upon to slice through the befuddlement, and the tradition that applies to this particular subject is the traditional understanding of mortal sin.

In order for sin to be mortal, Christian tradition holds that there are three requirements: grave matter, full knowledge, and deliberate consent.  What distinguishes mortal sin from venial sin is that the matter is objectively grave and that knowledge and consent are sufficiently present subjectively.

But all sins, not merely mortal sins, involve the interplay of matter, knowledge, and consent.  The matter of sin is the objective content of the acting subject’s choice.  (Keep in mind that “objective” is not a synonym for “physical”).

Moral wrongs always involve a defect, and the degree of personal culpability of the acting subject always depends upon his choice to do something which is objectively evil: personally culpable evil is always a defect in the will.

But as we’ve discussed before, defects of knowledge make it possible to do something evil unwittingly. Defects of knowledge also make it possible to do something that isn’t evil while under the impression that it is evil.  Eating meat that was sacrificed to idols while under the impression that doing so blasphemes is evil because, even though he is mistaken about the objective facts, the acting subject is under the impression that he is doing moral wrong but chooses to do so anyway.

So we have a number of permutations of human acts as analyzed under the trio of matter, knowledge, and will:

  1. Morally good acts.
  2. Non-culpable mistakes, where knowledge is non-culpably defective, will is good, and matter is objectively evil (Catholics call this “invincible ignorance”).
  3. Culpable mistakes where knowledge is culpably defective (the person should know better) and matter is objectively evil. (This is “negligence” or something roughly equivalent).
  4. Culpable acts in which knowledge is defective, the action itself is accidentally objectively good or neutral, and the will deliberately chooses evil because of defective knowledge.  This is like the case of the man who eats meat sacrificed to idols while under the mistaken impression that doing so is blasphemous.
  5. Culpable acts in which the matter is evil, the person knows what he is doing, and chooses it freely.

Scandal, of course, is any act the matter of which involves leading others to sin — any kind of sin.

There is of course plenty more that could be said: this is just a very basic outline resting on the traditional Christian understanding of moral evil.  But the one thing you’ll notice is that the moral gravity of the matter of the act is always objective.  Even in case 4, where the action itself is objectively neutral or good, the moral gravity arises from what the acting subject mistakenly thinks he is doing.  The thing that he mistakenly thinks he is doing is – objectively – committing blasphemy.

Because we are not omniscient it is possible for our knowledge to be defective.  This gives rise to a number of permutations in how it is possible to do moral wrong.  But the possibility of making mistakes does not cast any doubt on the objectivity of moral standards: as Pope St. John Paul II put it in Veritatis Splendour,

It is possible that the evil done as the result of invincible ignorance or a non-culpable error of judgment may not be imputable to the agent; but even in this case it does not cease to be an evil, a disorder in relation to the truth about the good. Furthermore, a good act which is not recognized as such does not contribute to the moral growth of the person who performs it; it does not perfect him and it does not help to dispose him for the supreme good.

§ 25 Responses to Subjective meat

  • donalgraeme says:

    Question:

    If I do something that is objectively good, intending to do good, but my knowledge is defective- that is, I have the wrong impression about why it is good, would that fall in category 1 or a different category altogether?

  • Zippy says:

    donalgraeme:
    I guess if you are attempting one good thing and accidentally do something else that is also good, it is still a mistake of sorts because there is still a defect of knowledge. Whether that defect of knowledge is enough to constitute ‘a disorder in relation to the truth about the good’ is an open question, I suppose.

    A virtuous man will always strive for his acts to be the first kind: “be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect”. He will frequently fail because we are limited and defective creatures, but someone whose acts only fall into the first category and into an ‘accidentally did an alternative good’ is doing pretty well, and my inclination is to chalk that kind of accident up to Providence.

  • […] Source: Zippy Catholic […]

  • vishmehr24 says:

    This is very neat but shouldn’t the terms “objective” and “subjective” be defined first? A lot of mischief can hide there.

    (5) is interesting and a great mystery. But why did Jesus asked his tormentors to be forgiven for they knew not what they did?

    There are some that say (you can google TOF blog) that the will is free to the extent the knowledge is undetermined. For example 2+2=4 is an instance of perfectly determined knowledge and will is not free to consent to 2+2=-5.
    I have not agreed to this idea since it seems to imply that will automatically follows the intellect. There is also a view that even though I may know something, such as lying being wrong, I may be thoughtless at the moment I choose to lie. That is, the evil committed through thoughtlessness even though the intellect is perfectly clear.

  • Zippy says:

    vishmehr24:
    “Subjective” refers to qualia or inherently incommunicable interior conscious experiences, e.g. your personal interior experience of thinking about the number four. “Objective” refers to things that would exist even if the subject ceased to exist, e.g. the number four and the historical fact that the subject was thinking about the number four last Tuesday.

  • jf12 says:

    “the acting subject is under the impression that he is doing moral wrong but chooses to do so anyway.”

    The primary level of subjectivity in Romans 14 is one level higher up, in “thy brother be grieved with thy meat.” The acting agent is under NO such impression that he is doing moral wrong and is in fact fully aware that his brother is mistaken about the OBJECTIVITY of his moral wrong, and hence he chooses not to do so because of the *subjectivity*.

  • Zippy says:

    jf12:
    The sentence about scandal in the OP apparently sailed right over your head.

  • Zippy says:

    vishmehr24:

    I have not agreed to this idea since it seems to imply that will automatically follows the intellect. There is also a view that even though I may know something, such as lying being wrong, I may be thoughtless at the moment I choose to lie. That is, the evil committed through thoughtlessness even though the intellect is perfectly clear.

    I agree with this. If the will always automatically followed the intellect then sins of type 5 – which I would suspect to be the most common – would not even be possible. I would probably categorize ‘thoughtless’ acts as the third type — although someone might object that the third type is too much of a ‘catch-all’ category. In any case it seems that there are many reasons why knowledge may be defective at the moment of choice, including just laziness or ‘thoughtlessness’.

    Cultivating virtue is about making doing the right thing habitual, so that even ‘thoughtless’ venial acts will be good.

  • Mike T says:

    What distinguishes mortal sin from venial sin is that the matter is objectively grave and that knowledge and consent are sufficiently present subjectively.

    Which raises an interesting question of how far, subjectively, is the difference. Protestants would generally argue that sufficient knowledge and consent are involved in most acts of sin to make them mortal. Thus it is mortal sin, not venial, that would be the norm. Even lying to your wife for the sake of peace “yes, you look great in that dress” is “mortal.”

  • jf12 says:

    What a person does based on his thoughts, especially when those thoughts are mistaken and not objectively correct, is purely subjective and not objective at all in any way. Otherwise subjective is too ill-defined and you pretend everything is objective, in error.

  • Zippy says:

    jf12:
    You appear to be trapped in a kind of post-Kantian dualism which would render it impossible to think about objective things in general – including objective standards of behavior.

  • Zippy says:

    Mike T:
    That isn’t surprising given (some of) Protestantism’s obsessive subjectivity and general hostility toward objective moral standards.

  • jf12 says:

    I don’t feel trapped. In contrast, I view you as trapped in insisting that all truth is objective.

  • jf12 says:

    @Mike T, funny enough Prostestants aren’t immobilized by thinking every sin is mortal. It seems that Catholics presume that Protestants should be so immobilized, like illogical Jainists.

  • Zippy says:

    jf12:
    “All truth is objective” is not something I have said. Quite the opposite, actually, for anyone actually paying attention.

    Moral norms and moral gravity are objective though. Like the number four.

  • Zippy says:

    One man does something that convinces another man to eat two apples. Because of a defect in his knowledge, the second man thinks he is eating two apples but in fact eats three apples.

    Therefore apples and numbers are subjective.

  • Mike T says:

    That isn’t surprising given (some of) Protestantism’s obsessive subjectivity and general hostility toward objective moral standards.

    Except that in this case, it’s the Protestant side that is arguing that the subjectivity is almost meaningless compared to the objective nature of the act. Judging each case in justice and righteousness requires us to consider the full circumstance, but choosing evil is choosing evil. That some may choose it for more banal reasons does not negate the full guilt they bear for choosing it.

  • Mike T says:

    @Mike T, funny enough Prostestants aren’t immobilized by thinking every sin is mortal. It seems that Catholics presume that Protestants should be so immobilized, like illogical Jainists.

    Indeed, they call us relativists because we hold to this standard and are not paralyzed. If the atoning sacrifice were insufficient, then no one would have hope because even our hearts would condemn us to Hell in face of perfect action.

  • Zippy says:

    Mike T:
    Denying the venial-mortal distinction between “no sweetie your butt doesn’t look fat (even though it does)” and “yes, he murdered Bob (even though you know he didn’t)” may or may not rest on the kind of error I sometimes call the tyranny of the subjective; but is erroneous moral equivalence nonetheless.

  • […] Zippy Catholic gives a very easy to read breakdown of subjective vs objective in the context of the traditional Christian understanding of sin in Subjective Meat […]

  • Mike T says:

    may or may not rest on the kind of error I sometimes call the tyranny of the subjective; but is erroneous moral equivalence nonetheless.

    It is not a moral equivalence, but both are on the same spectrum of chosen sin. Murdering one man is significantly less evil than murdering 100,000 men. Lying to your wife about her butt’s aesthetic pleasantness in a particular dress is significantly less evil than lying about a defendant on trial you know is factually innocent. But at the end of the day, both were deliberately chosen acts of sin. That one carries far more weight and higher demands for repentance than the other does not mean they are not in fact sinful acts, freely chosen, with full knowledge of the sinfulness.

    If you find that morally absurd, then it is you and the Catholic Church that have a severe problem with objective morality because you’re just looking for an excuse for the man who chose to lie out of cowardice.

  • Zippy says:

    Mike T:

    Murdering one man is significantly less evil than murdering 100,000 men. Lying to your wife about her butt’s aesthetic pleasantness in a particular dress is significantly less evil than lying about a defendant on trial you know is factually innocent. But at the end of the day, both were deliberately chosen acts of sin.

    If you think that that calls into question the traditional Christian distinction between mortal and venial sin then you don’t know what the distinction means.

  • Mike T says:

    Actually, I have a pretty good idea of what it means. Where Protestants part ways from the traditional Catholic understanding is in culpability. We believe that sins do have different levels of severity. We agree with the Catholic Church on that aspect of objective moral standards. Where we disagree is in how God perceives sin.

  • […] distinguish between what we call venial matter and grave matter (mortally sinful kinds of  behavior). White lies, for example, are the former. We should never commit any sin (by […]

  • […] down to the idea that charging interest is either licit or illicit depending on circumstances and subjective intentions extrinsic to the contract itself. The putative coup de grace in reaching this conclusion for Noonan […]

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