June 8, 2014 § 23 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:
- Morally good acts.
- Non-culpable mistakes, where knowledge is non-culpably defective, will is good, and matter is objectively evil (Catholics call this “invincible ignorance”).
- Culpable mistakes where knowledge is culpably defective (the person should know better) and matter is objectively evil. (This is “negligence” or something roughly equivalent).
- 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.
- 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.