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.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Cardinal Mercier and the Natural Law, Part 8

WHETHER OUR ACT IS GOOD or our act is evil depends upon one, and only thing: whether that act conforms or does not conform to our supreme end, which, by now, we know (by reason alone, bracketing revelation for the moment) is the contemplation of God. An object is good if it is the object of a morally good act. We know these truths based upon reason alone, though they are consonant and supplemented with the truths of revelation. It follows that a morally evil act is the opposite of a morally good act. It is an act that is opposed to our supreme good: "it is the act which is prejudicial to the perfecting of our rational nature, or it is the object of this act." [231(32)] There is a corollary which follows from this, and it is that every good act is, "at least implicitly or virtually, an act which contributes to the glory of God." The negative is that every morally bad act, "inasmuch as it cannot be referred to God, the last end of creation, is blameworthy in his sight." [232(33)] (citing S. T. Ia-IIae, q. 21, a. 4)

In determining whether an act is morally good or morally evil, we must look at three sources of morality: (1) the formal object of the act; (2) the circumstances surrounding the act; and (3) the end of the act. These are called the "sources of morality," or the "fonts of morality." Mercier looks at these three "sources" or "fonts" and then compares them to utilitarian, evolutionist, sociological, and pragmatist theories of morality.

The Three Sources of Morality. "The formal object is the first determinant of the goodness or badness of a human action." [232)34)] The operative term here is "form." As Mercier explains:
By formal object we mean not the reality, considered absolutely, of a thing, but the reality looked at in reference to the moral act, as bearing a relation of the conformity or want of conformity with the end of the rational nature of the agent.
[232(34)] Suppose two men, George and Bill, have $1,000. The material object is the acquisition and possession of $1,000. This is not the formal object. The first (Bill), we learn, acquired the $1,000 through theft. The other (George), we learn, acquired it as a result of a gift. Therefore, though the material act is the same (acquisition and possession of $1,000), the formal act is entirely different. The formal act is the acquisition of $1,000 through theft. The formal act in the case of George is the acquisition of $1,000 through a gift.

The second source of morality is circumstance. "The objective circumstances of time, place, and person likewise contribute their share to the character of the moral act." [232(34)] The example given by Mercier makes intuitive sense: stealing five shillings from a poor man is a greater wrong that stealing the same amount from a rich man. This is an extraneous circumstance that colors the moral act, and so must be taken into account in determining the character of the act.

The third source of morality is the end, or the extrinsic purpose of the act. "[T]he extrinsic purpose contributes to the perfection or imperfection of an act." [232(34)] This is typically regarded as the agent's motive. An act has two kinds of purposes, an intrinsic and an extrinsic purpose. Thus, in the case of someone who gives alms to the poor out of a religious motive (i.e., out of love of Christ and his suffering members), the intrinsic purpose of almsgiving is to help the needy. This is intrinsic to the act of almsgiving, and it exists regardless of the motive or extrinsic purpose of the agent in giving alms. In this case, the extrinsic purpose of the agent (giving alms for the love of Christ) is commendable. It would be otherwise if the actor were giving alms for the purpose of assuaging his vanity gaining some sort of power of those he helps. In the latter case, the extrinsic purpose (motive) would be different from the first.

All three sources must be good for a moral act to be good. "The absence of any one of these conditions is sufficient to make the act a bad one: 'Bonum ex integra causa, malum ex quocumque defectu'." [233(34)]

This view of the moral act is decidedly different from that entertained by Thomas Hobbes and "all the adherents of the modern positivistic school," including Émile Littré (1801-81), Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), and Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), who "consider man's well-being, that is the pleasure of the present life, to be the sole motive-force of all our actions," whether that well-being is of the community or the individual is irrelevant. Hedonism is opposed to the natural law. Morality is not determined on the basis of whether an act is pleasurable or painful; morality is determined on whether the integral moral act is consonant with the ultimate end of man, and thus a morally good act may be painful or pleasurable, depending upon the circumstances, but the pain or pleasure of the act is not what is drives the norm of right and wrong.

Cardinal Mercier raises some objections to individualistic utilitarianism. This theory relies on well-being of man as the end-all of morality, well-being defined as the maximization of pleasure in this life. First, Mercier points out that a system of individualistic utilitarianism rests on a contradiction when it maintains that pleasure is primary object of the will. Pleasure follows will; it does not precede the will. Secondly, pleasure is such a subjective principle. It is "essentially relative to the individual person and varies with the different circumstances of life." [233(36)] It follows that it is not capable of providing a rule of distinguishing "one thing or action as objectively and intrinsically right from another as objectively and intrinsically wrong." [234(36)] It thus collapses to relativism. Third, it abandons reason, and to allow pleasure to control of the human rein of morality is ultimately is fatal to human behavior.
[I]f reason is left out of account and it is indulged in recklessly and without discrimination, [it] is self-destructive, for experience teaches us that it is followed by pain or transforms itself into pain. This principle of moral hedonomism or egoism is, then, self-contradictory and leads to logical suicide.
[234(36)] To overcome the deficiency of pleasure as the foundational moral principles, some moralists substituted utility for pleasure as moral's first principle. "But the useful is not an end; it is only a means in view of an end." Something is useful with respect to a certain standard. What then is that standard? Utilitarianism is thus stillborn.

Social utilitarianism attempts to solve the inherent egoism in individual utilitarianism by transferring the moral principle to an individual to the social body, thus "man must seek the welfare of the greatest number, the amelioration of humanity." [234(37)] Social utilitarianism suffers from the same problem as individual utilitarianism: relativism. If individual utilitarianism is subjective because it relies on my pleasure or minimization of pain, how does social utilitarianism escape from relativism by relying on my neighbor's pleasure or lack of pain? Moreover, if my neighbor's happiness is to be maximized, we are brought once again to the question of what makes our neighbor happy, and so social utilitarianism merely defers but does not answer the question of what makes men happy.

There is another problem with placing the universal and basic moral principle in the "happiness for humanity." Such a criterion would make morality dependent upon society, whereas "morality is anterior to the organization of society." [234(37)] (As a thought experiment, one might place oneself on a desert island: without men around, are we free to engage in any behavior? Torture animals? Bestiality? Self-mutilation? Suicide? Blasphemy of God? Intemperance? Obviously, there are moral principles that do not rely upon the social body in which we are placed.)

Finally, social utilitarianism really collapses back into individual utilitarianism. "[F]or what indeed is social happiness but the happiness of the individuals who make up society? The distinction between good an evil for the community is accordingly subordinate to the distinction between good and evil for the individual." [235(37)] The social utilitarian has not escaped the relativism of the individual utilitarian.

Herbert Spencer (of "survival of the fittest" fame) sought to put utilitarianism on a scientific footing by tying it in with the Darwinian evolutionist theory. A one-dimensional man, Spencer places mankind in the material world only, and thus dumbs down morality into a "chapter in mechanics." [235(38)] In Herbert Spencer's mechanistic view of things:
[T]he universe is subject to two fundamental laws, the law of persistence of force and the law of evolution. The latter consists in the passing from 'the instability of the homogeneous' to 'the stability of the heterogeneous', and this stability results from the adaptation of a being to its environment. Hence, the moral end of man is nothing but the perfect adaptation of the individual to the conditions of social life.
[235(38)] Spencer's mechanistic view of the universe suffers from all such mechanistic theories. Most principally, however, "in such a system, liberty can find no place," and because of mechanistic determinism inherent in mechanistic views of the world, "the ideas of right and wrong no longer retain their proper meaning." [235(38)] Moreover, any theory of morality which relies on some supposed future state of mankind (i.e., one that relies upon progress or evolution) suffers from the problem of a moving standard. How is an individual to know what this "final state of humanity" is? How is an individual to know how to act so as to be realize this "supreme state" of mankind? Since, in the view of those who put morality on an evolutionary plane, mankind is in flux, how is it that we know to which end it is flowing? "Now what could be more complicated than this final equilibrium of all the forces of the universe which is to constitute the ultimate phase of the cosmic evolution?" [236(38)] The system reeks of impracticability, even impossibility.

The sociological systems of morality are also criticized by Cardinal Mercier. As examples of this he cites to the sociological systems of Lucien Lévy-Brühl (1857-1939) and of Émile Durkheim (1858-1917). Sociological systems of morality take the position that moral judgments are guided on nothing other than the social environment, and so are defined by society and are not antecedent to, or independent from, society. These theories are erroneous "since our fundamental moral judgments are the same always and everywhere, and are therefore not affected by the vicissitudes of social life." [236(39)]. Such statements as that of Samuel Butler from his The Note Books--"Morality is the custom of one's country and the current feeling of one's peers. Cannibalism is moral in a cannibal country."*--posit a facile and unthinking identity between morality and custom. If morality is nothing but custom, then there is no such thing as morality. The argument is nothing but a sophistry, a means to relieve oneself of objective moral norms by collapsing the category of morality into the category of custom. Methinks I smell the smoke of Satan in such thoughts.

Finally, Cardinal Mercier rejects the pragmatists, whose advocates include William James (1842-1910) and Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805). For pragmatists, "the moral ideal is lived in the collective consciousness by reason of the utility which it procures." However, such a system suffers from the same problem that confronts all utilitarian theories: it ultimately collapses into subjectivism, relativism. It "cannot escape the condemnation of purely capricious subjectivism."

All these alternative theories of morality--individual utilitarianism, social utilitarianism, social Darwinism, sociological schools of morality, pragmatism--ultimately collapse into relativism. Is it any wonder that, with the propagation of these theories and the rejection of natural law, the West is "moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as definitive and has as its highest value one's own ego and one's own desires"? (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger's Pre-Conclave Sermon, before being elected Pope).
*Samuel Butler, The Note Books (Pomona Press, 2006), 32.

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