Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Veritatis Splendor: Part 27--Object of Acts

EVERY MORAL ACT HAS A SORT OF INTRINSIC MEANING, a goodness and badness in and of itself, regardless of the circumstances, regardless of the intent with which the act is taken, regardless of the consequences which that act, under the circumstances in which it is undertaken, causes. A component of the act--one which proportionalists largely ignore in their focus upon intent and consequences alone--is to assess an act "according to its species" (secundum speciem suam), or what the act "in itself" (in se ipsa) means, and to determine this, we must look at the "object" (obiecto) of that act. As St. Thomas observed, and as confirmed by the Pope in his encyclical Veritatis splendor, "moral acts take their species from their objects as the latter are related to reason," actus autem moralis, sicut dictum est, recipit speciem ab obiecto secundum quod comparatur ad rationem."* The Pope will insist on the importance of the object of an act in assessing its moral character.

To assess the morality of an act on consequences and intent only, without regard to the object of the act, is an error. True, the anticipated consequences of an action are not to be entirely disregarded, inasmuch as the "foreseeable consequences are part of those circumstances of the act." But, "while capable of lessening the gravity of an evil act," the consequences of an act "nonetheless cannot alter its moral species." VS, 77. Consequences do not serve to define or inform the species of the act; the species of the act is determined by the intrinsic nature of the act, that is to say, its object. A lie about whether a dress makes one's wife look fat, a lie with little consequences, is certainly less grave than a lie that results in a man being condemned to death, a lie with great consequences, but both lies are, regardless of the consequences, lies. And for being lies they are morally illicit. A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose wrote Gertrude Stein in her poem "Sacred Emily." In morality, a lie is a lie is a lie is a lie, and adultery is adultery is adultery is adultery, and so on.

The Pope notes moreover that assessing the morality of an act by relying on consequences is fraught with problems. To begin with, it ignores the species or "meaning" of the act: its object. But it also places the actor in a nearly impossible situation since man is not prescient, he cannot foretell the future and the intricacies it may hold, and he therefore cannot fully assess what consequences may be caused by any one act. The moral calculus demanded by consequentialism or other teleological theories is impossible:

[E]veryone recognizes the difficulty, or rather the impossibility, of evaluating all the good and evil consequences and effects — defined as pre-moral — of one's own acts: an exhaustive rational calculation is not possible. How then can one go about establishing proportions which depend on a measuring, the criteria of which remain obscure? How could an absolute obligation be justified on the basis of such debatable calculations?

VS, 77. The question the Pope acts is, of course, rhetorical. The burden on a conscience from a theory of pure consequentialism, what David Oderberg calls the "demandingness objection," and the moral neurosis to which it gives rise, has previously been noted.**

Remember the object of your act before you act!

Not only is reliance on consequences alone to assess the moral act insufficient, relying on subjective intent of the actor is also clearly inadequate. To rely on intent without regard to the object of the act is also insufficient to make a full assessment of the moral character of an act.
The reason why a good intention is not itself sufficient, but a correct choice of actions is also needed, is that the human act depends on its object, whether that object is capable or not of being ordered to God, to the One who "alone is good", and thus brings about the perfection of the person. An act is therefore good if its object is in conformity with the good of the person with respect for the goods morally relevant for him.
VS, 78. For example, a Muslim's intent in hastening the day of Judgment by lopping off the head of a Jew merely because he is a Jew may be a sincere desire to follow Muhammad's injunction to slay the Jew who will be betrayed even by the rock or tree behind which he hides,** but that act--to lop off an innocent man's head for no other reason than he is a Jew--is not capable, irrespective of the circumstances (which include the belief that it was commanded by a prophet of God), of being ordered to God. Even God himself could not make that act ordered to him, for the act has a species that is derived from its object which simply is. God cannot contradict himself: He cannot both be and not be. Nor can God make a lie not a lie. God cannot make murder something other than murder. God cannot make lopping the head of Jew merely because he is a Jew anything other than murder, the Muhammadan injunction notwithstanding. If the object of the act were unimportant, then the moral activity of the Muslim in cutting off an innocent Jew's head is unimpeachable. Assume the Muslim's sincerity, and assume his cost/benefit analysis of the consequences of ridding the world of a Jew is all to the good, how is one to impugn his moral reasoning under the theory of a proportionalist? Obviously, the object of the act--to kill an innocent being because his religion differs from yours, something which can never be ordered to God--is essential in understanding the intrinsic viciousness of the act, irrespective of the Muslim's sincerity and poor moral calculus.

*St. Thomas Aquinas, De malo, q. 2,a. 4, ad 5. Though the Pope confirms the principle, he does not cite to this text, but to the Summa Theologiae.
**See, e.g., Contra Consequentialismum: There Ain't No Such Thing as Absolutes ("In this regard, consequentialists all seem to suffer from an overdeveloped sense of duty and hence a sort of moral neurosis follows. They are burdened with a millstone caused by the banishment of intent from the moral equation. All is outside in this theory; nothing is inside in this theory. It is hideously inhuman, and in fact leads to the justification of the most immoral behavior. Invariably, as a result of his false theory of morality, a consequentialist will turn into a neurotic whitened sepulcher, complete with the unattended inside full of a rotten corpse and black heart. The moral neurosis arises from what is an impossible proposition, and that is that one's intent makes utterly no difference in the moral calculus that determines right or wrong.") and Opera et Omissiones: Differentia non est and the Recipe for Neurosis ("The failure of consequentialism's ability to handle the distinction between act and omission and positive and negative duty is perhaps the biggest problem with consequentialist thinking. It leads to unrealistic moral impositions, practically impossible to fulfill without absurd sacrifice. The objection may be called the "demandingness objection." Oderberg, 133. The failure to fulfill these unrealistic and artificial obligations, which are entirely derived by measuring consequences without regard to whether an act or omission is involved or whether there is a positive duty or a negative duty at issue, leads to a false sense of guilt, and then ultimately leads to a kind of neurosis, both individual and social.")
Sahih Muslim 41.6985, 41.6981, 41.6984; Sahih al-Bukhari 4.56.791, 4.52.177.

No comments:

Post a Comment