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The Philosophical Basis of Ethics

A revised and edited version of this page appears in my book
"New Skins for Old Wine"


Why Teleology?

Before discussing the official teaching of the Magisterium on "homosexuality", it is necessary to review Teleology, the philosophical basis of ethics. This is because the Church proposes Her teaching in terms of ethical concepts, and unless one has a familiarity with what these mean, one cannot hope to understand what She is saying and make any sense of what the teaching might mean. Pope John-Paul II wrote an Encyclical "Veritatis Splendor" on this very subject in 1993. It may seem that this is a deviation from our topic, but perhaps it will be a welcome break! I can only ask that you bear with me, if you do, I am confident that you will come to see why this "scenic route" is so very necessary.

Every human moral act contains two aspects: the objective and the subjective. The objective refers to the rightness or wrongness of an action, whereas the subjective refers to the fault or virtue of an actor. Right and wrong are the terms to use about the objective aspect of the act or state-of-affairs; guilt or merit refers to the subjective aspect. The Catholic moral tradition recognizes that various factors might affect the culpability of someone who does a morally wrong act. However, an act is objectively wrong simply because it is disordered. The correct ordering of acts is determined by a consideration of their ends. This is the teleological principle.

Since the Renascence, the Western Church has adopted Aristotelianism (as revised by St Thomas Aquinas) as Her official philosophy. Prior to this time, Platonism provided the philosophical scaffolding to the Church's thought. It still does so in the Eastern Church. The reason for the switch over in the West was, largely, fashion and a desire to be "with it". At the time of the Renascence, Aristotelianism was rediscovered and became a "fad" in secular study. The Church was afraid of being "left behind" and being made to look "old fashioned" so She adopted the "new speak" to keep the respect of contemporary scholars.

In the Natural Sciences, Aristotelianism was a disaster. Plato made no pretence at being a physicist or biologist, but Aristotle did. He had so many wrong opinions (e.g. it is "natural for objects to move in circles"), and his views were so highly respected, that Physics was held back for centuries! The Galileo debacle is the most dramatic example of this effect. In Theology and Ethics the impact of Aristotelianism wasn't so obviously bad, but one should be aware when reading official church teaching that the language used and conceptual structure envisaged is contentious. Note that the Church cannot rule on what philosophical system is more or less true or helpful or whatever. This is hugely outside the ambit of "Faith and Morals". No more could She rule that "French is the only language in which the Doctrine of the Trinity can be properly explained".

I rejoice in not being an Aristotelian. While I admire and accept much of St Thomas' work (what little of it I understand!) my own metaphysics, epistemology and ethics owe more to a combination of Plato, Popper and the American philosopher Ayn Rand. I shall now try to explain. 

Faith and Reason

The Tradition has consistently insisted on the importance of both faith and reason and has asserted that faith and reason cannot contradict one another. The central role of theology in the Catholic tradition flows from the importance it gives to human reason. Catholic theology rests on the twofold aspects of faith seeking understanding and understanding seeking faith. The role of reason has always been especially prominent in moral theology. This is because Catholic ethics is based on the natural law  rather than directly on revelation.

The traditional view is that by listening to his conscience, and by a  reasonable reflection on human nature, a man can arrive at ethical knowledge. This of course lays upon the individual a burden of  responsibility in working out what really is God's will. The Tradition has consistently recognized a mutual relationship between theory and practice. Theory is revised in response to the experience gained as practices are developed. The present theory of natural law did not exist prior to the individual teachings which it is now used to support. It arose as an ad-hoc means of systematizing various pre-existing teachings. It is a post hoc rationalization.

The insistence of the Tradition on the goodness of human reason and its ability to discover ethical knowledge stems from the central Catholic emphasis on sacramentality, the notion that the divine is mediated through the human. The human condition is not basically evil but rather basically good: it is positively related to the divine. God's purpose is that all (wo)men should achieve fulfilment. Thomas Aquinas in the very beginning of his Summa Theologicae maintains that the ultimate end of human beings is happiness [la q.1-5]. Morality is intrinsic in the sense that what is moral and good is nothing other than that which advances human happiness and perfection.

Because the Catholic ethical tradition is open to human reason, it cannot avoid being open to the natural sciences, which are a natural flowering of human reason. They can tell us a lot about what it is to be human and hence - properly interpreted - about morality. The Catholic tradition recognizes the importance but also the limitations of the empirical sciences. In particular, they do not begin to penetrate to the heart of what it is to be - and know as - a human: but only deal with observations of behaviour.

The contrast with protestant anthropology
Protestants hold a view of human nature which claims that it was radically corrupted by the Fall. According to this view, we are saved by God imputing to us a fictional goodness which is not ours at all, but which is appropriated to us, by Jesus' sacrifice on the Cross. This means that our best experience of God's goodness must be in terms of our being coerced to behave in ways contrary to our own inclinations. God's will is for us is totally against our inclinations, because they have been totally corrupted, and there is no proper analogy between on the one hand what we think of as good: what we do desire, and what in fact really is good: what we should desire. The sort of life story that goes with this theology involves a radical conversion: "once I was a sinner (and so behaved in certain ways) but now, I am saved. Now I have a completely new life: one with no organic continuity with the old. Whoever I was is now dead, and now I am someone totally new."  Conversion is a once for all revolution rather than a continuing process (that may or may not have a dramatic beginning).

What is Love?

I adopt St Thomas' view that all loves are basically the same. Love, according to St Thomas is "the attraction of a subject for its proper good". Hence, cows love grass; Stephen loves arguing, David loves Jonathan, God loves HimSelves. Exactly how an object is the good of a subject is not always clear. So, whereas it is abundantly clear how a parent is the good of a child (or at least a source of many goods), it is not clear how a child is the good of a parent (except in terms of "vicarious immortality" and "selfish genes", of course!)

Sometimes the appetite (the attribute of the subject's nature that does the loving) can mistake something that is not in fact "the good" of the subject. In such a case, there is some form of disorder. This could be an honest or arbitrary mistake: for example, a jar of swarfega might be wrongly labelled as greengage jelly; or it could be a sign of some objective dysfunction such as an addiction or psychosis.

Moreover, there is a hierarchy of "goods". Some are more urgent and others more important than others. For example, air to breathe is a more urgent "good" for a man than water to drink, and both are more urgent than food to eat. Chocolate may be "good" to eat, but it is not at all an "important good". As an aside, does the fact that most children love chocolate more than they do cabbage signify some general innate disorder?  I don't think so, but it is a moot point!

Of course, the final answer to the question "What is love?" is simply "God". The God we worship is Love, not "a loving god" or "the god of love". Our God is Love. Love is Our God. The Trinity is Substantial Love; Self Existent Communion; Joyful Fellowship in Itself.

The Virtue of Selfishness

The whole basis of ethics, is the identification of what is "good for me". When I have determined what is my good, I should pursue this relentlessly. My own good is paramount, for me; it should be the obsession of my life."
"we offend God only by acting contrary to our own good"
[Thomas Aquinas: "Summa contra gentiles 3.122"]

"the commandments of which Jesus reminds the young man are meant to safeguard the good of the person, the image of God, by protecting his goods"
[pope John Paul 11 "Veritatis splendor # 13"]

Of course, my ultimate good is God: because He contains all perfections as their source and inspiration, and to "possess" God is to attain all goods. To be united with God is to have "Eternal Life": enduring and super-abundant unconditional existence. Moreover, it is good for me to co-operate with others (because groups of people with different abilities can achieve more for their own benefit than individuals can by themselves). Hence free trade, hence community, hence the State, hence the Church, the Body of Christ. 
"The primary and sole foundation of virtue or of the proper conduct of life is to seek our own profit. Blessedness is not the reward of virtue, but is virtue itself." [Spinoza "Ethics"]
I love God because He is my ultimate good. I love my neighbour "as my Self" because he will help me to attain what is good for me, as I will in turn help him. I love my friend, because he helps me to be myself, challenges me with the truth that he has learned, and enables me to attain goals that without him are beyond my reach. If I do not esteem mySelf and my own continued existence as the origin of subjective value, then I cannot love God or my neighbour. If it is not right that I benefit, then it is not right that I attain God. If I do not esteem mySelf, how can I value my neighbour - who is nothing other than a variation on mySelf?
"He was a strict and severe applier of all things to himself, and would first have his self love satisfied, and then his love of all others.

It is true that self love is dishonourable, but then it is when it is alone.
And self endedness is mercenary, but then it is when it endeth in oneself.
It is more glorious to love others, and more desirable, but by natural means to be attained. That pool must first be filled that shall be made to overflow.

He was ten years studying before he could satisfy his self love; and now finds nothing more easy than to love others better than himself: and that to love mankind so is the comprehensive method to all Felicity.
For it makes a man delightful to God and men, to himself and spectators,
and God and men delightful to him, and all creatures infinitely in them.

But as not to love oneself at all is brutish, or rather absurd and stonish (for the beasts do love themselves),
so hath God by rational methods enabled us to love others better than ourselves,
and thereby made us the most glorious creatures.
Had we not loved ourselves at all, we could never have been obliged to love anything.
So that self love is the basis of all love.
But when we do love ourselves,
and self love is satisfied infinitely in all its desires and possible demands,
then it is easily led to regard the Benefactor more than itself,
and for His sake overflows abundantly to all others.
So that God by satisfying my self love, hath enabled and engaged me to love others."
[Traherne (1636-1674) "Centuries of Meditations" (pub 1908 ed B. Dobel)]

Altruism is Irrational and Wrong

Altruism is a nonsense. To sacrifice one's own good for the sake of another is simply irrational. If one were willing to act against one's own self interest, why would one act in favour of another's? Sometimes, in order to defend the deepest reality of one's self, one's values, one's personal integrity, it is necessary to do things which are contrary to more sensible aspects of one's well-being. If one always pursues the aim of "mere existence" or "riches" or "being liked" or "fitting in with the crowd", one discovers that the life one has isn't worth living. In order to maintain one's pride, self-respect and interior peace it is sometimes necessary to lose one's life, or to lay it down for ones' friends. Sometimes it is necessary to do a lot less, such as sustain a little public embarrassment.

The whole idea of sacrifice is often mis-represented. A sacrifice is not the giving up of something to spite oneSelf. A sacrifice is a hugely unfair, one-sided and exploitative trade between a suppliant and the Deity, a trade from which the suppliant hopes to gain a benefit of much greater value than the object that he sacrifices. As the Old Testament makes clear, God has no need, use or interest per se in any sacrifice we could possibly offer Him from the created order.

"Lebanon would not suffice for fuel, nor are its beasts enough for a burnt offering. All the nations are as nothing before him, they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness." [Is 40:16-17]

"If I were hungrey, I would not tell you; for the world and all that is in it is mine. Do I eat the flesh of bulls and drink the blood of goats?" [Ps 49:12-13]

All God wants from us is that we deal justly with each other, and He has nothing to gain personally from that at all!

Is God good?

Plato asked the following very important question. "Is piety that which the gods approve of; or do the gods approve of piety?" In other words, does what is good, noble and proper have those properties because God so assigns them (arbitrarily, by diktat of His Will) or rather does God know of (and is therefore conceptually bound by) what is good, noble and proper (by insight of His Understanding.)

Evangelicals (and especially Calvinists) tend to believe the former. This is consistent with their anthropology. We couldn't and shouldn't try to learn anything about what is good for us from our personal experience or reason, because these are totally untrustworthy. We can only start from something which comes from God. A moral command is good because it is a moral command come from God, not because it causes any sort of flourishing in the person commanded, or corresponds in any way to their own inclination. When some particularly vicious aspect of their theological system (such as the "Substitutionary Atonement", "Justification by Imputation", or "Predestination to Damnation") is criticized as being unjust and in fact down-right nasty, they tend to reply (I speak from experience) that the "human notion of justice" is inadequate, and that God's justice is beyond our understanding. In other words, something is "just" just because God says that it is just, not by virtue of its internal and manifest just character.

For myself, I have no hesitation in choosing the second answer. Only in this case does it signify anything to say that "God is good" or "just" or "forgiving". If whatever God said was "forgiving" was "forgiving", then it might be "forgiving" to let a repentant soul rot in Hell eternally. This I contend is nonsense, and wicked nonsense at that!

The Catholic Tradition is that something is commanded by God because God knows that we will benefit by following that command. The point is that, given who and what I am, what is good for me is determined by the (God given) nature that I have. It is not disjoint from my internal life and being. It is not some external imposition at odds or cross purposes with my life. It is what fulfils and sustains me, not something or someone else (after all, who or what else could this be?)  Jesus proclaimed "I have come so that you may have life, and life more abundant!"

This means that it must be possible for us to realize that something which we thought had been commanded by God in fact can't have been, simply because it goes against what it is easy to see leads to human flourishing. This means that would not be rebelling against God, but rather doing His deepest will if we came to realize that something which seemed to be holy and sacred was in fact a way of diminishing people.

Law and Justice

Law and Justice are not at all the same thing. Justice is objective. It is about what is fair and equitable. The Bible has a great deal to say about Justice. Law, on the other hand, is arbitrary. In an ideal world, laws should support and advance justice, but in practice "the law is often an ass". "Obeying the Law" is not at all the same as "Doing what is Right", though the two may sometimes coincide.

Even the Mosaic Law cannot be taken as absolute. Jesus made this (obvious) point very clear when he taught that "the Sabbath was made for Man, not Man for the Sabbath". This teaching corroborates Plato's view that Man's God-given nature defines piety, not some extrinsic decree. The "laws" of the Gospel are in fact not laws at all, but general moral principles to love God utterly, to love one's neighbour as oneSelf and one's fellow Christians as profligately as Jesus loves us (to the extent of dying for our salvation).

Victimless Crime

What is sin? On a trite level, sin is an "offence against God", but this cannot be taken at face value. God is self sufficient and impassible (invulnerable, incapable of suffering, loss or change), hence it is quite impossible to hurt or damage God or His "interests" at all. Hence it is impossible to "offend" God in the sense that one might offend or hurt anyone else.

Of the Ten Commandments, eight relate to one's dealings with other people: largely enforcing respect for their property rights. The first two relate to one's dealings with God. The first enjoins monotheistic worship and the second forbids "taking the Lord's Name in Vain". Disobeying neither of these truly "hurts" God or offends against "nature". In both cases they regulate things that are harmful to the subject of the Law: you and me. They are "for Man", not Man "for them". The first Commandment does use poetic language, suggesting that God is "jealous" of other "deities" that might be worshipped by the Israelites. We should not take this seriously. I suppose that that was how the Jews understood it at the time. They had no clear view in the time of Moses that God was the "Only God", but only that He was the "only god for them". We know differently! Our contexts differ.

What I am leading up to is the assertion that there is no such thing as "victimless sin". Whereas a law can attach a penalty to any action, even one that is necessary and just, such as Catholic Worship, an action can only be sinful (contrary to Justice) if the good of some subject is compromised. Now this could very well be (and often is) the good of the sinner himself. For example, it is sinful to eat cream cakes in excess, because this will harm your health. It is sinful to use foul language, because this will tend to modify and debase one's pattern of thinking. A murder hurts himself as well as his victim, for in disvaluing the life of another, he necessarily undermines his own self esteem. Fornicators sin because they recklessly risk entangling each other in emotional bonding that will not be ratified and be the cause of much psychological suffering. Also because they may cruelly risk engendering children who will have no loving, stable context to grow up in. From this point of view, the sin is less grave if the possibility of conception is excluded, one way or another.

If some action has no harmful effect, it cannot have a negative ethical significance. So, for example, "taking a few breaths of helium in order to demonstrate the fact that this causes one's voice to get squeaky" is not in itself sinful (though to continue to breath helium might well be, as it would be a form of self asphyxiation, and would frustrate the natural purpose of breathing: to oxygenate the blood.)  Note that God can never be invoked as the injured party: He never is injured. Neither can Nature be invoked. Whenever Nature is really hurt it is always in that some particular creature(s)  - human or otherwise - are harmed.

"we offend God only by acting contrary to our own good"
[Thomas Aquinas: "Summa contra gentiles 3.122"]
Typically, Official Church Teaching tries to counter the kind of position I am sketching out here by referring to the "Natural Law" and, more recently the "intrinsic character of acts". It is claimed that the latter is determined by their "finality". I shall therefore next discuss these ideas.


For Thomas Aquinas (following Aristotle), the term cause has a multitude of meanings. In general the cause of something is the answer to the question "Why?" For a physicist, cause tends to have only one meaning: the impetus behind the effect; that which powers or drives it; that from which an effect springs, obtaining and deriving itself. Aquinas calls this the "efficient cause". Among many other "causes", he identifies the "final cause" (or finality) which is the purpose, intention, significance or meaning towards which the action moves as its aim, resolution, objective or fulfilment. This kind of causality has only an obscure place in physics (though I shall argue it has a prominent role in biology). Things do not generally happen because they have an end in view.

Apples do not fall to the ground because they "love" to be as low as possible, because this is "good" for them: as Aquinas, following Aristotle, thought. They fall because the geometry of space-time is curved by the impact of the gravitating matter of the Earth. This curvature is apparent to our senses as a local acceleration field, which we interpret as the force of gravity. Amusingly, it is easy to "understand" Aquinas' false "explanation", whereas Einstein's profound insight into objective reality is virtually incomprehensible to those (like myself) not familiar with "the Tensor Calculus".


Of course, as a conscious reasoning agent, I do do things in order to achieve personal objectives. If I swing a badminton racket in order to hit a shuttle-cock, the "final cause" of the movement of my arm is this impact. If I miss, the finality of the act is not achieved, and I am disappointed. Similarly, if I am hungry and eat something that I believe to be nourishing, the reason why I want to consume that "food" is my need for nourishment. If the food turns out to have been devoid of calories, this finality is frustrated. What I took to be my good was in fact no good for me whatever. If I laboured under the delusion that grass was good for me to eat, then I would have an objective disorder of the appetite; to my great personal disadvantage.

The obvious application of the notion of "final cause" is just this, the intentionality of a conscious and reasoning agent with free-will. Inanimate matter is not governed by such laws. Hydrogen does not fuse in the sun in order to produce light to sustain life on Earth, any more than it does in Sirius or Betelgeuse in order to produce a pretty pin-prick in our night sky. On the other hand, unconscious but living matter may be so governed; because of evolution.

I am not about to say that there is a purpose behind evolution: though there may be, and as a Catholic I tend to believe that there is. Even if there were no purpose, final causes would still govern biological systems. Let us assume, for the sake of argument only, that Life in general has no purpose whatsoever. By Life, I mean not human life, but rather any life: think of some rather boring bacterium or fungus, if you want to be specific.

Even purposeless life either does or doesn't exist!  If it is going to continue to exist (not that it "wants" to or that it "should do" or that there is any "purpose" in it doing so) then it has to be "successful". It has to survive and/or reproduce. Any intrinsic property of life that happens (for whatever reason) to make it more successful (for however obscure or indirect a reason) will be favoured (no moral judgement here) just by the fact that it is favourable to the persistence of life. Nothing succeeds like success. This is just Darwinian "Natural Selection".

There is no intentionality here, no consciousness or purpose or will. Nevertheless one can meaningfully say that the emergence of a certain genetic attribute occurs (from a sea of accidental genetic fluctuations) because (is "finally caused by") the effect that it has on the reproductive success and/or longevity and/or vigour (etc. etc.) of life. So, the peacock has brightly coloured plumage because (final cause) this enables him to attract a female with whom to mate. The heterosexual male finds the female form physiologically exciting because (final cause) this encourages him to mate with her, and so produce offspring. The mere survival value of an characteristic reinforces that property, not by directly (efficiently) causing it on an individual basis, but by statistically re-inforcing and (finally) causing it in a population. Hence, copulation is pleasurable at least partly because (final cause) this encourages reproduction. Similarly eating and drinking (but less obviously breathing, I suppose that it would be rather distracting if every breath was associated with pleasure!) are pleasurable because they facilitate the continuance of life.

To the extent that finality determines the ethical status of an act, it also determines the ethical status of inclinations. The very word inclination has teleological overtones. One is inclined to certain ends or purposes. Logic demands that if an act is disordered, the inclination or orientation to that act is also disordered. Stealing is morally disordered, so the inclination or orientation to steal is disordered. If the inclination or orientation to a certain end is good or neutral, then the act itself is good or neutral.

"I would like to point out that I have nothing against the notion of an inclination being objectively disordered per se. We would all consider kleptomania to be objectively disordered. But we have come to this conclusion after studying people who are affected by it (rather than those who are just thieves) and seeing what it is that it is a distorted form of, and how those affected can be helped back into a more pacific possession of their own goods and respect for other people's. And this is the point: we can learn what is objectively disordered or not from studying people, their relationships, their habits, their happiness and so on. Our objectivity is gleaned from within the process of discerning experience, of learning. It is not reached by appealing to an a priori deduction from revelation which is supposed to cut short any process of discovery."
[James Alison: London December 2003]

Proximate End of the Deliberate Decision

Pope John-Paul II taught in "Veritatis Splendor" [#78], that the moral status of any act can be analysed in terms of the "proximate end of the deliberate decision"; that is the finality of the consciously chosen and intended act in itself, not more remote consequences that flow from it. At the time I welcomed this, and viewed it as something of a "time bomb" planted by Holy Spirit at the heart of Official Teaching, I won't bother to explain this view, as I now believe the teaching on which it was based is mistaken.

A single counter-example will display the papal error. Suppose that someone purchases an item of manufacture such as a football or a lampshade, which has an entirely legitimate purpose and which they intend to use for that legitimate purpose. It would seem that "Veritatis Splendor" tells us that this is all that needs to be said. The proximate end of the deliberate decision is manifestly legitimate, indeed boringly so. Hence the act, we would be led to believe, is moral.

Now consider that the football was manufactured by sweat-shop semi-slave African child labour, or that the lampshade was made from human skin taken from Jews killed in Nazi gas chambers. Clearly, if the purchaser is innocent of this knowledge, their action is still subjectively just. Though they have benefited from evil and their act is therefore complicit with objective wrongdoing, they themselves have not sinned. On the other hand, if they know or suspect the truth of the matter, then I contend that they implicate myself in the immorality of the production system and commit serious sin. The proximate end does not always determine the morality of an act. Acts have contexts and Justice is inevitably contextual. As Veritatis Splendor [#52] itself says "what must be done .... depends on the circumstances".

Intrinsic, Absolute and Objective

One might naively think that intrinsic, absolute and objective were synonyms. I contend that this is far from the truth. I believe that certain things are good and true (they correspond to reality, which is objective - "if you kick it, itt kicks back!" [Feynman])  Nevertheless, I deny that any act (in itself, taken out of context) can sensibly be ascribed any "intrinsic" ethical character. I am neither a "subjective relativist", nor an "absolute intrinsicist" but an "objective realist".

I have argued that "justice is contextual". I nevertheless contend that it is objective, that it is not a question of subjective opinion. Something either is or is not just, right and proper. It cannot be "right for me" but "wrong for you", with "me" and "you" understood as subjective observers. On the other hand, for me to do a particular act, in my context, might be right; whereas for you to do exactly the same thing, but in your context, might be wrong!

  • The side of the road one drives on is determined by the law of the land, not intrinsic "rightness".
  • Standing or sitting or kneeling or prostrating oneself as a sign of respect and/or attentiveness is cultural, not "intrinsic" to human nature.
  • Cutting open someone's abdomen with a knife is right or wrong depending on whether it is a hostile assault or a benevolent surgical procedure.
Similarly, in a not very interesting way, some things that are "good for me" are not "good for you". For example, if I have A+ blood and you have B-, then this particular bag of blood might be "good for me" to receive in transfusion but very "bad for you". These are objective statements about subjective (or better "contextual" or "contingent") goods.

Hence, I say that ethics is objective, but not absolute (cannot have laws laid down about it that are supposed to apply to all people in all circumstances!) Moreover, acts cannot be intrinsically good or evil. Pope John Paul II argued that certain "acts" (such as murder) are always wrong. This is true, but true simply because they are subjectively defined to be so. Murder is defined to be "the illegitimate termination of another human's life", fornication is defined to be "irresponsible sexual intimacy", suicide is defined to be "the termination of one's own life motivated by despair", Blasphemy is defined to be "taking the Lord's Name in vain." In every such case, the apparent intrinsic character of the evil can be traced back to the definition of the word being used. The act involved, viewed apart from its context, loses its moral character. Sometimes it is necessary or allowable or legitimate to terminate a human life (though always regrettable), sometimes sexual intimacy is excellent and approvable, sometimes it is commendable to invoke God's name.

It is easy to confuse objective, absolute and intrinsic, and to think that anyone who denies that ethics is absolute is thereby asserting that it is subjective, situational (as the proponents of a particular school label their system) or a matter of mere convention or opinion or similar. This is simply not the case!

Justice and Society

There is no such thing as "Society", "the State" or "the Common Good" that has rights over and against the individual. These commonalties are each constructs, with no life or being of their own. If individuals are harmed, then justice is infringed, if no individual is disadvantaged, then it isn't.

The Old Testament is full with concern for justice; but this is generally the defence of the weak against the strong; of the individual against the crowd; of the orphan; the cripple; the widow; the debtor; the stranger. It is rarely about the defence of some group interest against the individual. Sometimes social values are defended for the long term good of the society (such as the avoidance of mixed marriage), but in the end this is still for the good of the individual. Moreover, there is always a tension here. Whereas Ezra dissolved hundreds of inter-racial marriages (note that compulsory mass divorce is here enjoined in Scripture!) in order to ensure the rapid regrowth of the Jewish Nation on the return to Jerusalem: the book of Ruth teaches that the great King David was descended from just such a mixed marriage!


This is a wonderful word. As Prof. J. Boswell pointed out, it has a myriad of quite different meanings. For example it is natural for a fox to hunt and kill a rabbit. It is natural for Samantha, a girl of delicate sensibilities, not to like this fact. It is natural for fruit to rot. It is natural for youths to lust after buxom wenches. It is natural for water to find its own level. It is natural for a mother to love her offspring. It is natural for teenagers to rebel against their parents. God's nature is always to have mercy. It is natural for a psychopath to kill without remorse. It is natural for birds to fly (except for those that don't).

From one point of view, natural is good. From another, nature is an excuse for weakness. From yet another, nature is whatever exists, whatever that might be, good or bad. So to say that something is natural or un-natural is to invite imprecision and confusion.

What Makes a Man a Man?

Another question arises. Is there such a thing as "Human Nature" shared by all "human beings"? If so, what is it? Obviously, we all have many things and characteristics in common. Obviously, we all differ. There are few (if any) things that all human beings share that are not also shared by beings that are not human. Not all human beings have two eyes, two legs, two hands etc. Not all human beings are left handed. Not all human beings are brown eyed. Not all can "roll their tongues". Not all can "wiggle their ears". Not all are bald. Not all are female. Not all are geniuses. Not all are bigots. Not all have yellow skin. Not all have hairy legs. Not all are ticklish. Not all suffer from sickle cell anaemia, haemophilia, schizophrenia, spina bifida, or any other "genetic disorder".

From the Platonic point of view, this is easy to understand. Plato taught that ideals or forms exist (in the mind of God, if you like) quite apart from their instantiations in the material world. No physical triangle can possibly be the ideal triangle, because the lines that make it up cannot possibly be one dimensional, and (unless made from light itself) will not be straight. Nevertheless, real objects can be said to participate in the forms that they imperfectly substantiate. Moreover, a single object can participate in many forms. So there is a three-dimensional "Square Circle" (but not a two dimensional equivalent!) Similarly, one woman can participate in the forms of "mother", "wife", "aristocrat", "doctor", "mammal" and "murderer".

To an extent, the form of a thing is its pattern: the information it contains or represents; its symmetry, its organization; its meaning; its intelligibility. For a proton this is its internal constitution in terms of quarks and gluons. For a living organism, this is largely identifiable with its genetic code. So, to a degree, the form of Humanity is some kind of average genetic sequence; to which all our genomes correspond to a large but not exact degree. However, this average genome has no claim to excellence or perfection (unlike the ideal triangle). It differs in different sub-populations, and these deviations from the norm have no moral content (except in as far as some populations might have a higher or lower incidence of certain "genetic defects" - however one might determine what is a defect!) Moreover, the average genome varies over evolutionary time!

Jesus, in His Divinity, exactly participates in the form of the Godhead that is first and foremost that of the Father. So also does Holy Spirit. Jesus, in His Humanity, participates in the form of Manhood, just as does each one of us. He may be without sin, but that does not make his flawless participation in the form of Humanity identical with the ideal form of humanity. Humanity is not gendered, else half the human race isn't human! Neither is Humanity semitic, nor does it share Christ's handedness or His (lack of) ability to roll the tongue or wiggle the ears.

Aquinas, teaching in terms of Aristotelian substance, would remark that some attributes of a nature are accidental and others are essential. I would have no problem with this were it to be made clear to me how one can delineate those attributes that "make a man a man" from those that just make him a "particular man". Even contenders for "essential attributes" as obvious as consciousness or rationality are deeply problematic. Triangles are easy. The colour or size or taste of a triangle does not make it more or less a triangle. The number of its vertices and the straightness of its edges do; but what is a (wo-)man?

Natural Law

The concept of Natural Law is unpopular today. Personally, I have no difficulty with it in principal: only in application. God made us, and human reason can discover how we should act by examining human beings and reflecting on what is observed. However, natural law does not involve an extrinsic understanding of law. We are not to do something just because God commands it. God made us to achieve our own happiness and fulfilment. Only by acting in accord with our nature and so God's law can we achieve this. Thus, every morally defective act impedes the agent's own fulfilment and happiness.

God has placed within every human being an instinct for what is good for them. So, we know that when we are thirsty we should drink, when we are at the edge of a cliff we should not jump, and when we are dealing with other human beings we should respect them and in general not lie to, steal from, betray or kill them! These things are just true. It is becoming clear from mathematical research that many of the more fundamental principles of ethics, such as "do as you would be done by", are simply optimal strategies for individuals to adopt in order to survive and/or flourish in a society/group. They are neither "arbitrary rules imposed by a legislator" nor "nice ideas invented by an impractical idealist".

They are more like Laws of Physics: which are the way they are because they can be no different if the World is to be the way it is; rather than Laws of the State: which are often an arbitrary expression of partisan power. The Laws of Ethics only differ from Laws of Physics in that the latter are prescriptive, whereas the former are recommendatory. An electron has no option but to respond to Maxwell's Fields just as Newton's Dynamics tells it to. It has no free-will, no room for manoeuvre. The Laws of Physics determine what will happen, within a certain uncertainty. The Laws of Ethics stipulate what actions "would be for my good", but I can opt to ignore them.

Amusingly, many of the prescriptive Laws of physics can also be expressed in recommendatory terms, that is as guidance as to "the best" course of action. This is called "The Principal of Least Action": laziness rules OK, if you like! Quantum Mechanics can be expressed as the idea that every bit of matter tries out every option logically open to it, but that only the options involving the least effort succeed. Hence the difference between the teleological Natural Law of Ethics and the Laws of Physics is even less than at first it seems.

Given that it is clear that we, as all animals, are full of instincts, it may seem odd that the idea of the Natural Law is controversial. I think that the problem arises because very often moral authorities have identified either their own prejudices or the contemporary cultural consensus of the societies in which they live with The Natural Law. So, in the past it was argued that it was Natural for Black Africans to be slaves: they were descendants of the accursed Ham, after all! Equally, it was un-natural to bathe, or for a man to shave; and natural for women to be invariably subservient to men. Their role as breeding machines made this inevitable, and the fact that Original Sin was their fault (as the inheritor's of Eve's duplicitous nature) elevated the physiological inevitability to the status of a just punishment!

Pleasure, Purpose and Fulfilment

"Too often we act as if pleasure needs to be ‘justified’ by some extrinsic reason, and we feel guilty when we pursue it for its own sake …. This is not to say that pleasure is the only, or most important, human good. Nor is it to deny that long-term pleasure sometimes requires short-term sacrifice. But any moral system that doesn't value pleasure is defective for that reason."
[John Corvino, “The Virtue of Homosexuality,” Between the Lines, Feb. 7, 2003]
Conservative moralists are typically unsympathetic to hedonism:
".... the philosophical system developed by the Greek philosopher Epicurus that holds pleasure to be the defining principle of human life. [It] confounds pleasure with goodness .... or subordinates goodness to pleasure. This subverts the whole moral order and poisons the very fountain of morality. Once the false premise of hedonistic philosophy is accepted, an irreversible logic takes over .... [and all] deviant forms of sexual behaviour deemed pleasurable can also be logically justified."
["Defending a Higher Law", The American Society for the Defence of Tradition, Family and Property, 2004]
On one level this analysis is correct. Pleasure is not (generally speaking) a "good" in itself. The appetites exist to motivate us to put effort into obtaining things that are (in some sense) good for us. Pleasure is the immediate reward for attaining a good. It signals to us that we've "done good". The appetite is the efficient cause and pleasure the final cause of our loving what is good for us.
"Does it not seem to you, my good people, as Protagoras and I maintain, that these things are bad on account of nothing other than the fact that they result in pain and deprive us of other pleasures? ..... Would you call these [other] things good for the reason that they bring about intense pain and suffering, or because they ultimately bring about health and good condition of bodies and preservation of cities and power over others and wealth? .... These things are good only because they result in pleasure and in the relief and avoidance of pain? Or do you have some other criterion in view, other than pleasure and pain, on the basis of which you would call these things good? ....
So then you pursue pleasure as being good and avoid pain as being bad?" [Plato: "Protagoras" 354a-c]
Circumstances in which a subject can obtain pleasure apart from the attainment of some good, tend to produce very bad outcomes. Two obvious examples are the experimental "hot wiring" of laboratory mice and the tragedy of heroin addiction. In the first case, electrodes were implanted in the "pleasure centre" of the brains of living mice. A switch was provided that the mice could press, and which triggered a weak current from the electrode. Once the mice twigged that they could have instant ecstasy over and over again, at no cost, on the push of a button, they lost all interest in anything else. I think that they eventually starved to death.

The chemical effect of heroin on the brain is similar to the electrical effect of the mice electrodes. I understand that once you have experienced a heroin rush, there is nothing else that matters more than experiencing it over and over again. After a few fixes, you also becomes physiologically addicted: unable to function without the regular consumption of the drug. In effect it becomes an artificial psychological vitamin.

It shouldn't need to be pointed out that the argument "Once the false premise of hedonistic philosophy is accepted, an irreversible logic takes over.... [and all] deviant forms of sexual behaviour deemed pleasurable can also be logically justified." is invalid. This conclusion only follows from a strict hedonism which insists that personal pleasure is the "defining principle" of right action. No-one who wishes to "value pleasure" has to adopt any such position! I would certainly insist that no objective harm should come to anyone: especially the main protagonist. Whether engaging in necrophilia or bestiality, for example, harms the individual taking part in such practices is something that I personally have no expertise to judge.

The pursuit of pleasure

Of course, not all pleasure is so obviously of this form. One may find listening to music pleasurable and so frequently do this. It is unclear what good is achieved, in general, beyond simple entertainment; so it might seem that this is hedonistic and one might think that the love of music (or the abstract visual arts, or much literature) was disordered. However, I suggest this is absurd. This idea would set at no value some of the greatest achievements of HumanKind! I suppose a Lutheran might approve: after all, all the works of Man are worthless dross and vanity, our human nature is corrupt and our appetites all disordered! I shouldn't have to say, that this isn't remotely Catholic. What is the good of landing a man on the Moon? What is the good of the Mona Lisa or the Sistine Chapel? What is the good of "Bohemian Rhapsody", the "Brandenburg Concertos" or "Smoke on the Water"?

Such pleasures certainly train us to recognize abstract goods such as "beauty" in its many forms and so lead us to value "Beauty in Itself", the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity. Perhaps rest, fun and recreation are goods in themselves. Without them we could not function: certainly they are what make life worth living. Perhaps Hedonism isn't as wrong as all that! Calvin may have thought the opposite, that what was "good" for one was always uncomfortable and unpleasant, but I thank Our Blessed Lord that Calvin was very wrong!

Note that the aphorism "if it feels right it must be right" although not an infallible guide in morality, isn't as wrong as many straight laced souls would have one believe. As I have explained, pleasure is a kind of final cause of our lovings. Without pleasure there would be no joy, no wonder, no delight. We would still love food because it would blot out our hunger pangs: the efficient cause would still impel us to eat. However, there would be no delight in good food and drink. Life would be a greyer and sadder existence. Thank God for making things so differently! Thank God for fun! Thank God for abundant living!

Most of us, most of the time, do what is good for us because we take pleasure in it. Not out of a sense of self obligation and duty, but out of a sense of fun and "recreation". The fact that something "feels good to me" is a primae facia argument in favour of it truly "being good for me". What is good for me is what fulfils my being and allows my life to bear fruit, according to my nature, in the pattern God ordered.

There is no conflict between "self-fulfilment" and "Conforming to God's Will", when these are properly understood. Self-fulfilment is not arbitrary: it is determined by my God-given nature. God's Will for me is not arbitrary either; it is entire benevolence, wishing my Wholeness and Happiness, which is my holiness. This is identical with the fulfilment of my specific nature (including my particular talents and predispositions) that He, in his wisdom, gave to me.

In my next paper, I shall consider the contemporary official teaching of the Magisterium and hopefully bring together all of the ideas introduced and discussed above.

Living Lord, guide me in the search to know you: the One true God,
and Jesus Christ, who you sent from your heart of Love to teach us.
Show me, by the power of your Holy Spirit:
What to believe;
What to do, and
How best to live my life.
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