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.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

By Nature Equal: How Are Men Equal? Uniformity of the Host Property, Part 1

THE FINAL CRITERION proposed by Coons and Brennan as a necessary requirement of identifying the host property of human equality is uniformity. As explained in earlier blog postings, Coons and Brennan stated that the sine qua non of the host property or the source relation that is human equality must be uniformity. The equality at issue has to be a double equality, an equality of both possession and degree. The criterion of uniformity looks at the issue of degree. If the host property is possessed by all men uniformly, then it may qualify as a host property to human equality because it would be a property equal in both possession and degree. We will spend the next several blog postings reviewing Coons and Brennan's discussions on this matter.

In the West, we have inherited a view of morality deeply influenced by Biblical anthropology as developed by the Catholic Church. As it has come down to us, there are a number of components to assessing the moral decision in addition to the conformity of the act or behavior itself to the natural moral law or divine precept: (1) the intention or end (finis) of the actor (which may be good or bad); (2) the understanding or knowledge of both circumstances (fact) and the moral rule (law) by the actor; and (3) the freedom of choice or the free will of the actor. The moral assessment of any action was an amalgam, a blend, of both objective and subjective elements. (p. 66) Morality is not as easy as the Pharisees would have it: it is not mere outward conformity to externally-imposed law. Nor is morality what the relativists would make it: mere free choice without reference to any objective moral law or human nature to which we must conform. It is both.

Pharisees by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff

We might here provide a short excursus into the subjective elements involved in the moral act, matters which are as important as the objective rightness or wrongness of any particular act. While these subjective elements cannot transform an objectively bad act into an objectively good act, they are the critical elements in assessing moral goodness or badness in reference to the actor or the moral subject. In fact, man was to be judged by the compass of his internal moral life, and not his mere conformance to the natural law, though it remained true that the pole star of his moral nature, that end toward which his internal compass pointed to, was defined by that objective natural law. He was naturally oriented in that direction. A man could act in external conformity with the natural moral law (or for that matter, with divine law) in any given situation, and still be a whited sepulcher (Matt. 23:27). Conversely, a man could act in a manner that did not conform to the objective moral or natural law, yet because of defects of knowledge or will not be morally culpable for the violation of the objective moral order.

Intent. The importance of intent in the assessment of a moral act cannot be underestimated. Finis enim dat speciem in moralibus. For the end provides the species in moral matters. The role of the intention of the moral subject has always played an important role in received teaching. The distinction made by Catholic moral theologians between the finis operis and the finis operantis, the end of the act itself and the end of the actor, is a recognition of this principle. The common example that is given to illustrate the importance of intent is a man who gives alms to the poor. If the almsgiver's intent is to fulfill a work of mercy, is a response to the divine injunction of love of neighbor, the act, viewed holistically in both its objective and subjective components, is good. However, if the almsgiver gives his money with the intent of receiving the praise of others, the act of almsgiving, while objectively good, remains subjectively corrupt in as much as the finis operantis, the end of the doer of the act, is seeking vainglory. This is a central message of Christ's teaching. Our left hand should not know what our right hand is doing. We should pray in secret. We should not blow a trumpet when giving alms. (Cf. Matt. 6:1-4) The importance we ascribe to the role of intent is likewise reflected in our criminal law, where we distinguish between negligent homicide (manslaughter) and intentional homicide (murder). However, no amount of good intent could make an objectively bad act good. Thus, no one could claim that a sincere intent excused him from the strictures against adultery, or murder, or the duties to his parents, and so forth.

Knowledge. In determining or assessing moral responsibility for an act, received teaching distinguished between acts done in ignorance, that is, without requisite knowledge of either fact or law, and those made with sufficient knowledge. Only the latter were considered culpable. Whether acts done in ignorance of fact or law were culpable revolved around the issue of whether such ignorance was invincible. That issue turned on whether the ignorance could be overcome through the use of reasonable diligence. Crass or supine ignorance of fact or law was no excuse for doing wrong. Traditionally, no one could be said to be ignorant of the first principles of the natural law (pursue the good; do no harm; do unto others as you would have them do to you; and so forth), nor of the proximate inferences of those first principles (you should not murder; you should not commit adultery; and so forth). However, remoter and more complex conclusions from those first principles (what St. Thomas called the determinationes) of the natural moral law could be the subject of invincible ignorance because not all men had the time or disposition to be able to get the right answer. It is fathomable that many are unable to deduce from the first principles of the natural law the intrinsic evil of contraception or in vitro fertilization, though without question these are against the natural moral law and are intrinsically and objectively evil.

Will. The importance of free will (voluntas) in assessing the morality of an act is likewise fundamental. Acts had to be voluntary to be considered moral acts. It is a sine qua non of a moral act. Catholic moral theology distinguished between the acts of man (actus hominis) and human acts (actus humanus) on the basis of will alone. Acts of man were involuntary responses, made without requisite knowledge or consent (e.g., reflexes, beating of the heart, digestion, the first impulse of appetite or desire) and therefore were pre-moral or without moral quality, even though they may be disordered or against the natural moral law. In some cases, even acts undertaken in the heat of passion were understood as not having the requisite internal knowledge or consent of the will. When fully overcome by passion to the point where either his knowledge or the freedom of his will was overcome, the actor was completely excused from moral guilt in the subjective order, though these acts were objectively deviant from the natural law. These acts were known as "first primary acts" (actus primo-primi). If the passion only partially overcame the internal knowledge and consent requisite for subjective guilt, gravely sinful acts in the objective order could still be considered to be only venially sinful in the subjective order. These acts were known as "second primary acts" (actus secundo-primus).

Traditionally, both subjective and objective orders had to be respected or an act was not authentically good or good simpliciter. The tradition proposed a holistic morality, requiring a coalescence of both internal and external components for an act to be good. A popular authority on this issue was Pseudo-Dionysius, who in his On Divine Names stated "evil results from any single defect, but good from the complete cause," τὸ ἀγαθὸν ἐκ μιᾶς καὶ τῆς ὅλης αἰτίας, τὸ δὲ κακὸν ἐκ πολλῶν καὶ μερικῶν ἐλλείψεων, bonum ex una et tota causa, malum ex multis et particularibus defectibus (De Div. Nom., iv.30). St. Thomas Aquinas quoted this text in his Summa Theologiae (S.T. IaIIae, q. 18, art. 4, resp. 3) as authority for the proposition that all aspects of a human act, both internal and external, have to co-exist for an act to be good in the most fundamental and complete sense.

Coons and Brennan appear to be on solid ground here when they begin their analysis of where, in the objective and subjective components of human acts, uniformity of degree may be found.

At the outset of their analysis, Coons and Brennan dispose of conformity with the objective moral law, or the subjective elements of knowledge and choice as possible host properties for human equality. It is manifest that men here do not share in these in uniformity of degree. Human equality exists between a philanderer and the faithful husband. Conformity to the objective moral law is plainly immaterial to defining their human equality. Similarly, people differ in abilities to come to understand or faithfully to execute the requirements of the objective lateral moral order. They thus differ in degree in these areas, which forecloses them from being the host property of human equality.
[I]f either correct knowledge of the lateral good or correct behavior is required for moral self-perfection, belief in the necessary double equality will be problematic. For some people seem to be able and find and execute the right answers more efficiently than others. . . . If rational humans vary in their power to perfect themselves through the practice of lateral morality, equality fails.
(p. 67) Therefore, if human equality is to have any host property at all, it must be found, in Coons and Brennan's analysis, in human intent.
If an individual becomes good by intending the good as his reason [i.e., conscience] presents it, equality might be possible. The capacity to intend the apparent good could be uniform among us.
(p. 67) Are we equal because we all share in the same degree, that is, uniformly, the capacity to intend the apparent good? Put another way, are we equal as humans because we all share uniformly the ability to intend the good as it is presented to us by a certain conscience? Do we become good by intending to follow a certain human conscience? Is this so, even though that conscience, albeit certain, is invincibly erroneous?

We will look at Coons and Brennan's analysis of this issue in the next few blog postings.

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