Moral Decisions

     One of the philosophers vitally important to the development of Western thought, Immanuel Kant, propounded some theses that have gotten him lambasted by…let us say…persons with another agenda. The Randians dislike Kant for having criticized “pure reason:” i.e., reason divorced from longstanding postulates, empirical data, and the yearnings of the soul. Many Christian polemicists find fault with Kant for daring to assert the importance of conscience in matters of right and wrong. And of course, authoritarians reject Kant for refusing to award the palm of sanctity to the State and its decrees. The old boy has quite a number of detractors.

     Kant wasn’t always right, of course. There has never been and probably will never be a mortal thinker who never makes a mistake or follows a false premise into the logical weeds. His style of argument, incredibly convoluted even for a metaphysician, doesn’t help his cause. Nevertheless, his thinking on metaphysics, particularly the methods of metaphysical reasoning he articulated, constitute one of the foundation stones for Western conceptions, especially our approach to the question beneath all other questions: What do we mean by ‘real?’

     One of Kant’s assertions that drew heavy fire from opponents is his claim that Man’s intuition provides items of knowledge that stand apart from other kinds. Indeed, he argued that the intuitive faculty is itself an epistemological primary: the way we apprehend space and time themselves. We don’t reason our way to them; we intuit them as realities prior to whatever our reason tells us about events within them. In Kantian metaphysics, without the aspects of reality we grasp intuitively, reason itself is impotent.

     But that wasn’t the area of thought that got Kant into serious trouble.


     Anyone who argues for the absolute moral authority of some institution (or group thereof) will have trouble with Kant’s argument for the primacy of reason as a moral authority. He was a particularly strong proponent of the conscience as a moral guide, though his defense of its soundness has been challenged by other thinkers as incompatible with his emphasis on reason. Still, in moral matters Kant’s prescriptions and proscriptions were all but indistinguishable from those of conventional Christianity. It prompted some of his critics to label him a theologian in philosopher’s clothing.

     Yet Christian thinkers were unsatisfied with Kant. He had proposed that intuition, conscience, and reason were the guides a man should trust – a clear departure from the Church’s assertion of its supreme authority over such things. That dissatisfaction with Kant continues to animate Christian thinkers even today. One of these is the highly articulate and multiply accomplished Dr. Anthony Esolen:

     No one can be relieved of the duty of forming his conscience,” said my interlocutor, who was a bit surprised when I said that no one can do that on his own, and no one should attempt it, since man’s capacity for self-deception is boundless.

     “Other people and institutions can be deceived, too.” He seemed to be well-read, so it was not entirely impossible that he had gotten the dictum from Kant, who says that it is all too comfortable for men to remain in a perpetual nonage, to have a spiritual advisor be their conscience, and governors to remind them all the time of the terrible dangers they run if they think for themselves.

     In one of the most ironic turns of human folly, that axiom, that in moral matters you must decide for yourself what kinds of things are good and evil.

     Dr. Esolen is a staunch defender of the authority of the Church. Naturally he’d be vexed by the assertion that there are other sources of moral authority that might differ with the Church and might be correct in doing so. Yet the Church has taught error on occasion, and continues to do so to this day. An institution made up of men will always be fallible. Its first error is always to claim otherwise, for that weakens its effective authority in the minds of those aware of the fallibility of Man…which is just about anyone and everyone who’s ever lived.

     In his pamphlet for inquirers, What It Means To Be Catholic, Father Joseph M. Champlin, whether intentionally or otherwise, underscores the problem:

     Catholics believe that an individual’s conscience is the ultimate determinant of what is wrong or right for that individual. Moreover, God will judge us according to the fidelity with which we have followed our conscience. Nevertheless, this conscience needs to be formed by objective standards of moral conduct. The Church provides us with just that — moral norms based on Jesus’s teachings, the inspired scriptures, centuries of tradition, and the laws of nature.
     These moral standards may seem at times to be inhibiting or restrictive. The fact is, that quite to the contrary, they release or liberate us. These norms both make us free, and lead us to the deep happiness that comes from following God’s plan. Jesus underscored that point when he said: If you live according to my teachings, you are truly my disciples; then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)

     The “objective standards of moral conduct” cited above are available from the Gospels, which must be the core of all valid Church teaching. Jesus of Nazareth was a very clear speaker. (Would you have expected otherwise from the Son of God?) He never left His audience in any doubt about moral or ethical requirements. When asked “Which is the great commandment in the law?” He provided the supreme keys to all moral and ethical reasoning:

     But when the Pharisees had heard that he had put the Sadducees to silence, they were gathered together. Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law?
     Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

     [Matthew 22:34-40]

     God provides each of us with a conscience to illuminate questions that arise under those strictures:

     Fountain, who had been silent practically from the start of the session, spoke up at last.
     “Is that why we are told to listen to our consciences, Father?”
     Ray chuckled. “Thank you, Fountain. It is. The word ‘conscience’ means ‘knowing with.’ But knowing with whom? As we can’t read one another’s consciences, or transmit into them, it can only be God. Conscience is the channel God uses to help us make our judgment calls—which does not mean that if you and I make a particular one differently, then one of us is ‘wrong.’ You can never know what another person’s conscience has told him…or whether he’s really paid attention to it as he should.”
     “‘Judge not, that ye be not judged,’” Larry said.
     “Exactly,” Ray said. He pointed upward. “Do what you can with yourself, and leave the rest to Him.”
     “Glory be to God,” Domenico Monti whispered.

     [From In Vino]

     I promise to return to this, but right now it’s time for Mass. Have a nice day.