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The Moral Obligation of Reality, II

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 28, 2011

In a Sound Off! comment on my last essay (The Moral Obligation of Reality), bservaes4399 explains that he does not see how my argument moves from what is to what ought to be. This question is not to be taken lightly. I have frequently raised it in my own mind as well. I’ll try here to make the answer a little clearer.

It seems to me that the answer has two primary parts. The first part is that the nature of the human person is such that he not only observes and interacts with the physical structure of things but also with moral meaning. It is the consciousness of moral meaning—that is, of the ends for which things exist and the means by which they may be rightfully directed or used—which makes persons unique (whether they are human, angelic or Divine), and which distinguishes them from animals. As John Paul II has pointed out, based on a long philosophical tradition, man is first and foremost a moral actor.

Reality Has a Moral Dimension

While we all intuit this truth, we find it difficult to argue it effectively because our culture is predisposed to reject as uncertain, meaningless, unknowable, or false anything that cannot be scientifically (that is, physically or empirically) demonstrated. But of course such demonstrations are relevant only to material objects and their material interactions. The most important questions in life are therefore necessarily ignored by the physical sciences. These important questions must be addressed through some combination of intuition, logical analysis and philosophy—with assistance, when possible, from Revelation, which is self-evidently the most certain source of knowledge.

Fundamental intuitions about the nature of things and their moral reality are built into the human person. It is the innate faculty of conscience which calls this interior perception of a pre-existing law to our attention, approving our actions when we do good, and sounding an alarm when we contemplate or engage in evil. The basic ways in which conscience guides us are quite universal, exhibited in every culture, precisely because a basic perception of the nature and ends of the world, ourselves included, is part of what it means to be human. We instinctively understand that there is a teleology at work in the world. We realize that we ourselves, as well as the other persons and things we come to know, have not only physical properties but natures, purposes and ends.

The scientist, when acting as a scientist, prescinds from much of this, deliberately restricting his view of reality in order to follow the specific methodology appropriate to a purely material or technological study. But the human person as such is designed to see things whole. Moreover, despite our weakness and fallibility, our confusion, our prejudices, and our responses to cultural pressures, we generally do see things whole, though imperfectly. This is our natural mode of perception. We have to be carefully taught not to do this, whenever passion, prejudice and cultural blindness enter the picture.

What We Cannot Not Know

For this reason, in the fine phrase of my favorite writer on the natural law, J. Budziszewski, there are quite a few things that we simply cannot not know. To take a few examples, a parent does not (and certainly ought not) perceive himself as an isolated individual but as a person in a special relationship with a child, a relationship which both supposes and imposes moral duties. The same is true of the child who, by the very fact of his relationship with a parent, inherits an obligation to honor the parent. Similarly, we all have some understanding of what it means when something is “mine” or “yours”, and of the moral obligations which flow from these realities. Many such examples could be given: We perceive not just the existence of objects, but also their natures, their relationships, their ends and their meanings.

For those who missed my more thorough discussion of these points, I would like to recommend my series on Human Dignity. That series also includes a review of Dr. Budziszewki’s very useful book on the Natural Law, appropriately entitled What We Can’t Not Know.

In any case, what we learn from a consideration of this first part of my answer is that is and ought are, for the human person, always inextricably intertwined. Indeed, we are designed to perceive that reality has more than one dimension, including a moral dimension.

Arguing from Is to Ought

I said at the outset that there is a second part to the answer, and this is a less intuitive part, a more analytical part. This second part consists in a specific moral analysis of what we know (either intuitively or through patient study and examination) of specific objects or operations, such that through the direct application of reason we can formally articulate rules or laws, including rules and laws of morality.

Let us take, for example, an airplane. The purpose of an airplane is to fly. An airplane that is designed in such a way that it cannot fly is, therefore, a defective airplane. We would call it, in common terms, a bad airplane. As a result of this judgment, we would also consider it immoral for someone to represent it as a good airplane, to sell it to us for use according to its intended purpose, or to roll people off the edge of a cliff in this airplane on the pretext that—not to worry—it will fulfill its purpose and keep them safe.

This is but one example of an aspect of reality which we encounter frequently enough in our own experience but which we can also elevate into something of a universal law. A proper understanding of things leads us inescapably to a recognition of when they are defective. When we know they are defective but utilize them as if they are not, bad things happen. See how easy it is, then, for an is to become an ought.

Same-Sex Attraction Revisited

Since the essay which occasioned this sequel was concerned with the disorder of same-sex attraction, it might be useful to take that as an example. We know, both from our uniquely human intuition into reality and from our observation of the facts on the ground, that sexuality is designed into nature for the purpose of bringing new life into the world; we further know that in higher forms of life, and especially for the human person, sexuality is designed to facilitate the close and enduring bond which is optimum for the natural flourishing of the male and female who share that bond and for the offspring who are born and raised to maturity within that bond, now extended into the bond of family.

We articulate this rationally by stating that the ends of the sexual act are both procreative and unitive and, taking all things together (even in our own debased culture), we can see that the sexual act is really out of place except when it is the marital act. That is, we perceive that there is a profound self-giving signified by the sexual act which demands the corresponding deep commitment we call marriage, and that the sexual act only fully effects what it signifies in a marriage that is open to new life. Short of these things, any sexual act is a defective sexual act.

Now our culture generally has little trouble discerning the obvious fact that the sexual act is defective when it is undertaken in a manner which ignores or denies its unitive meaning (its unitive end, its unitive teleology). Rape is one example; playing around is another; the selfish indulgence of one partner at the expense of the other is a third. But for a variety of reasons, our culture currently has a great deal of trouble discerning the other obvious conclusion, namely that the sexual act is defective when it is undertaken in a manner which ignores or denies its procreative meaning. Examples of this include sexual acts between persons of the same sex, and also contraception. These arguments can be expanded to include extra-marital sex, including pre-marital sex.

A healthy culture will assist people in perceiving all of these defects. It will also recognize that to have a specific, persistent inclination to do something defective is to be afflicted with a particular disorder. It will certainly not encourage people to roll off the cliff in a defective sexual act under an illusion that this act will fulfill its purpose and keep them safe. But regardless of the blindness of a particular culture, a defective sexual act remains a bad sexual act. The is that we discern in reality becomes a similarly discernible ought. The nature of the human person is inescapably moral.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - May. 19, 2018 3:02 AM ET USA

    Given that the Vatican can't figure out how to run their little bank I wonder how much we can trust their guidance on the world economy. Possibly the release of this document was timed to divert attention away from the fact that the Pope still has not done anything except write one letter about the sex abuse scandal.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Dec. 09, 2011 12:34 PM ET USA

    "Reality" for man because of the mystery of "free-will" is not necessarily the "summum bonum"(the happy fulfilled state)for the creature. The final "reality" of ANY being can only be defined in the context of the Creator Himself.Those who freely choose to empower themselves by defiance attain reality in Hell. We pray and suffer by God's will to avoid that unfortunate "inhuman" state, both for ourselves and others.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Nov. 29, 2011 8:14 AM ET USA

    Discerning can be enhanced and our wills strengthened by the working of grace in our souls. It is when we live as we ought in concert with reality that we become virtuous persons. In today's world of myriad distractions and selfish orientation, truly virtuous living is as challenging as it is uncommon. It is essential that we frequent the sacraments and develop an enduring prayer life to maintain our proper orientation. A timely essay. Advent is a good time to reflect on such things.

  • Posted by: gop - Nov. 28, 2011 8:12 PM ET USA

    Thank you for such clear explanation!