Story of Your Life

In principle, people could live and act for an end without attempting to fit their lives into the structure of a particular narrative, apart from the general narrative of acting for an end. In practice, however, people feel a need to understand their lives in terms of much more concrete narratives, in other words as though a person’s life were a kind of story.

This happens first of all with some kind of overarching narrative regarding human life in general, and perhaps the rest of the universe as well. Thus for example we saw Eric Reitan argue that people have a need to believe that apparently random destructive events in their lives have a deeper meaning.

Second, people conceive of their lives as a particular story, one in which they are the protagonist, and to a certain degree the narrator as well.

This conception is correct to some degree, but incorrect if it is taken to an extreme. You are in a certain way the main character of your “story,” insofar as your knowledge is naturally centered on yourself, just as a story tends to follow the thought and action of its main character. Likewise, you are in a certain way the narrator, insofar as you make choices about the course of your life. Still, your control is incomplete, because you are not the first cause, and because although you can make your own choices, many other circumstances and events are outside your power.

Darwin Catholic, discussing the nature of plot in stories, remarks:

And yet not just any journey will do. The sense in which plot is an artificial product of what an author does, it that an author has the duty of focusing the events in the story down to just those which somehow relate to the journey which is the plot. This can be tightly focused or loosely focused. In a spy thriller, the purpose of every scene may be to put all the pieces of the puzzle together. Some pieces which originally seem to be off, unrelated to the others, will as we proceed prove to be part of the same cohesive image being revealed as other pieces of the puzzle are put together.

But in what we often call a “character driven” or “theme driven” novel instead of a tightly plotted novel, the importance of relevancy is still there. Even if the arc of a novel is “the events which happened in this character’s life”, for the novel to actually be gripping the author must subtly impost a filter whereby we not really seeing all the events. We see only the events which tie in to a thematic note or progression through which we see the character’s life. If, at the end of the novel, the reader looks back and says, “Why did you include that section? It seemed like it was going somewhere but it never resolved.” Then the author has failed to plot well.

In our real lives we have many of these dead ends, things which build up and seem important and then just trail off. A good novelist subtly prunes away these, leaving only what forms a coherent structure, and it’s that structure which is the plot. Fail to do that and you have only an amorphous mess of writing, however craftsman-like.

This suggests a second, perhaps somewhat unconscious, way in which we are the narrator of our story. Elsewhere I pointed out that we do not actually remember much of our lives. It is possible that we naturally prune away, by forgetting them, the “dead ends,” namely seemingly random events that lead nowhere, because they do not fit well into the plot of our lives.

Whether or not this kind of pruning occurs, however, we certainly do attempt to fit our lives into particular structures. So for example young men and women sometimes think of their lives as though it were a romance novel, which ends with marriage and “they lived happily ever after.” Since of course life goes on after marriage, once they are actually married, they quickly realize that the story must be of a somewhat different nature. Nonetheless, it is still possible to suppose that the previous part of their lives had the specific structure or plot of a story leading up to marriage. But suppose someone has a troubled marriage that ultimately leads to a divorce. This person may have significant difficulty understanding their life. They will still desire to understand it as a kind of story, but the previous interpretation no longer works. It feels rather like a Harry Potter story that ends “with Harry Potter being tortured to death and the Dursley family dancing on his grave.” In such a case, people will tend to go back and rewrite the story from the beginning, not in the sense of changing the events, which is impossible (although selective memory may help here, as noted above), but by composing a new plot. Thus for example the new plot may involve the marriage as a learning experience, rather than as the goal of life.


Morality and Stories

Given the fact that stories are one of the most effective way of convincing people of things, they are also one of the ways most used for teaching morality, both to children and to adults. While Aesop’s Fables are one of the most evident examples here, this seems to be the case more generally.

Stories perform this task in a number of ways. The most basic way is by making moral claims a part of the real or supposed background in common with the real world, in the way discussed in the previous post. I pointed out earlier that we learn morality from the real world by noticing that our actions have effects that are good and bad even apart from morality. Stories can be even more effective than reality in this respect, because while “bad things will tend to happen if you engage in this kind of behavior” may well be true even in the real world, it can be made even truer in stories. Nury Vittachi describes this aspect of stories:

These theories find confirmation from a very different academic discipline—the literature department. The present writer, based at the Creativity Lab at Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s School of Design, has been looking at the manifestation of cosmic justice in fictional narratives—books, movies and games. It is clear that in almost all fictional worlds, God exists, whether the stories are written by people of a religious, atheist or indeterminate beliefs.

It’s not that a deity appears directly in tales. It is that the fundamental basis of stories appears to be the link between the moral decisions made by the protagonists and the same characters’ ultimate destiny. The payback is always appropriate to the choices made. An unnamed, unidentified mechanism ensures that this is so, and is a fundamental element of stories—perhaps the fundamental element of narratives.

In children’s stories, this can be very simple: the good guys win, the bad guys lose. In narratives for older readers, the ending is more complex, with some lose ends left dangling, and others ambiguous. Yet the ultimate appropriateness of the ending is rarely in doubt. If a tale ended with Harry Potter being tortured to death and the Dursley family dancing on his grave, the audience would be horrified, of course, but also puzzled: that’s not what happens in stories. Similarly, in a tragedy, we would be surprised if King Lear’s cruelty to Cordelia did not lead to his demise.

Indeed, it appears that stories exist to establish that there exists a mechanism or a person—cosmic destiny, karma, God, fate, Mother Nature—to make sure the right thing happens to the right person. Without this overarching moral mechanism, narratives become records of unrelated arbitrary events, and lose much of their entertainment value. In contrast, the stories which become universally popular appear to be carefully composed records of cosmic justice at work.

A second way that stories teach morality is by directly indicating to people what is approved of and disapproved of by society. This is a way not only of suggesting that bad things will result from bad behavior, but of ensuring that to some extent, it is actually true. For “being approved of” is naturally felt by a person as a good thing, and “being disapproved of” a bad thing.

A third way, perhaps not entirely distinct from the second, is by presenting some characters as worthy of imitation, and other characters as unworthy.Thus for example some people object to The Godfather on the grounds that it presents criminals in an interesting and attractive light, thereby appearing to put them forward as people to be imitated.

Convincing By Stories

When someone writes a story, something is being invented. It is not merely a narration of facts, since otherwise it would not be a story at all, but a history, or some other kind of account regarding the world as it is.

Nonetheless, there is always something in common with the real world, or something implicitly supposed to be in common with the real world. Thus for example The Betrothed presupposes and sometimes mentions actual facts about seventeenth century Italy, even while including an invented narrative about individual persons. Similarly, the film Interstellar  presupposes and sometimes mentions various scientific facts about the universe, even while adding various other things which almost certainly cannot exist in the real world, like time travel.

It is not difficult to see that it is essential to stories to have such a background in common with the real world, for if there were absolutely nothing in common with the real world, the story would be unintelligible. Among other things, a story must follow the laws of logic, at least most of the time, or it will be impossible to understand it as presenting an intelligible narrative. Consequently, a story will make sense to us insofar the background, real or supposedly real, makes the invented narrative a plausible and interesting one. Thus Manzoni’s novel must present a narrative that seems like a possible one in the context of seventeenth century Italy. Likewise, if the background implies that the invented narrative is highly implausible, the story will not make much sense to us. Thus, for example, while I enjoyed most of Interstellar, my experience was somewhat spoiled by the addition of time travel, and this generally tends to be the case for me when stories involve this particular idea. This is largely because time travel is probably logically impossible. To the degree that other people do not think that it is, or do not feel as if it were, it is less likely to disrupt their enjoyment of time travel stories.

The result of all this is that stories are one of the most effective ways to convince people of things. When we are giving our attention to a story, we are not in the mood for logical analysis or careful thought about the precise nature of the real world. And yet, in order to understand the story, we need to implicitly distinguish between the “real background” and the “invented narrative.” But in fact we may not be able to draw the line precisely; if someone does not know the details of the history of seventeenth century Italy, he will not actually know the difference between the things that Manzoni takes from the real world, and the things that Manzoni invents.The result is that a person can read the book, and walk away believing historical claims about Italy in the real world. These claims may be true, but they might also be false. And this can happen without the person having any explicit idea of learning history from a novel, and without noticing that he has become convinced of something which he previously did not believe.


Beyond Redemption

While discussing the nature of moral obligation, I raised this objection to an Aristotelian account of ethics: if the “obliging” or “ought” part of moral claims simply means that it is necessary to do something for the sake of an end, then someone who does not desire the end does not need the means, or in other words, such people will be exempt from moral obligations.

I would not argue that this argument is completely false. In the last three posts,  I responded to the argument that Aristotelian ethics is too flexible, not by saying that it is not flexible, but by saying that it is right in being flexible. In a similar way, I do not deny that the above argument about means and end follows in some way. But the way in which it follows is not so unfitting as is supposed.

In Plato’s Meno, Socrates argues that all men desire the good, and that no one desires evil:

Soc. Well then, for my own sake as well as for yours, I will do my very best; but I am afraid that I shall not be able to give you very many as good: and now, in your turn, you are to fulfil your promise, and tell me what virtue is in the universal; and do not make a singular into a plural, as the facetious say of those who break a thing, but deliver virtue to me whole and sound, and not broken into a number of pieces: I have given you the pattern.

Men. Well then, Socrates, virtue, as I take it, is when he, who desires the honourable, is able to provide it for himself; so the poet says, and I say too-

Virtue is the desire of things honourable and the power of attaining them.

Soc. And does he who desires the honourable also desire the good?

Men. Certainly.

Soc. Then are there some who desire the evil and others who desire the good? Do not all men, my dear sir, desire good?

Men. I think not.

Soc. There are some who desire evil?

Men. Yes.

Soc. Do you mean that they think the evils which they desire, to be good; or do they know that they are evil and yet desire them?

Men. Both, I think.

Soc. And do you really imagine, Meno, that a man knows evils to be evils and desires them notwithstanding?

Men. Certainly I do.

Soc. And desire is of possession?

Men. Yes, of possession.

Soc. And does he think that the evils will do good to him who possesses them, or does he know that they will do him harm?

Men. There are some who think that the evils will do them good, and others who know that they will do them harm.

Soc. And, in your opinion, do those who think that they will do them good know that they are evils?

Men. Certainly not.

Soc. Is it not obvious that those who are ignorant of their nature do not desire them; but they desire what they suppose to be goods although they are really evils; and if they are mistaken and suppose the evils to be good they really desire goods?

Men. Yes, in that case.

Soc. Well, and do those who, as you say, desire evils, and think that evils are hurtful to the possessor of them, know that they will be hurt by them?

Men. They must know it.

Soc. And must they not suppose that those who are hurt are miserable in proportion to the hurt which is inflicted upon them?

Men. How can it be otherwise?

Soc. But are not the miserable ill-fated?

Men. Yes, indeed.

Soc. And does any one desire to be miserable and ill-fated?

Men. I should say not, Socrates.

Soc. But if there is no one who desires to be miserable, there is no one, Meno, who desires evil; for what is misery but the desire and possession of evil?

Men. That appears to be the truth, Socrates, and I admit that nobody desires evil.

In a similar way, St. Thomas says that all desire happiness in general, even if not according to its specific account:

I answer that, Happiness can be considered in two ways. First according to the general notion of happiness: and thus, of necessity, every man desires happiness. For the general notion of happiness consists in the perfect good, as stated above (3,4). But since good is the object of the will, the perfect good of a man is that which entirely satisfies his will. Consequently to desire happiness is nothing else than to desire that one’s will be satisfied. And this everyone desires. Secondly we may speak of Happiness according to its specific notion, as to that in which it consists. And thus all do not know Happiness; because they know not in what thing the general notion of happiness is found. And consequently, in this respect, not all desire it.

Of course there is something circular about desiring “that one’s will be satisfied,” because this means that there is something that one already wills. And according to what St. Thomas says here, that thing would be “the good” as the object of the will, and in particular “the perfect good.” So just as Socrates affirms that all desire the good and no one desires evil, so St. Thomas affirms that all desire the perfect good.

In this sense, we could argue that the original argument is moot, because all desire the end. Consequently all must choose the means which are necessary for the sake of the end, and thus no one is exempt from moral obligations.

This response is correct as far as it goes, but it is perhaps not a sufficiently complete account. While discussing expected utility theory, I pointed out that the theory assigns value only to events or situations, and not to actions or choices as such. We looked at this same distinction more directly in the post on doing and making. The fact of this distinction implies that occasionally it can happen that “doing good” and “causing good” can appear to come apart. Thus it might seem to me in a particular case that the world will be better off as a whole if I do something evil.

St. Paul discusses this idea:

But if our injustice serves to confirm the justice of God, what should we say? That God is unjust to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world? But if through my falsehood God’s truthfulness abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? And why not say (as some people slander us by saying that we say), “Let us do evil so that good may come”? Their condemnation is deserved!

The idea is that God brings good out of the evil that we do, as for example in this case by manifesting the justice of God. But this suggests that the world is better off on account of the evil that we do. And someone might argue that it follows that we are not doing evil at all. St. Paul’s response is that “their condemnation is deserved.” It is not entirely evident whether he refers to people who do evil so that good may come, or to the people who assert that this is St. Paul’s position.

But either way, one thing is clear. “Doing evil so that good may come” is doing evil, not doing good; that is simply a tautology. And this is true even if good actually comes from it, and even if the world is better off as a whole when someone does evil.

This implies a difficulty for Socrates’s argument that everyone must desire good. For sometimes one good thing comes into conflict with another, so that both good and evil are present. And in that situation, a person may desire something which is evil, knowing it to be evil, but not because it is evil, but on account of the conjoined good. In the case we are considering, that would mean that someone might desire to do evil, not because it is doing evil, but still knowing that it is doing evil, on account of the good that comes from it. And it seems clear that this sometimes happens.

To the extent that someone does this, they will begin to become evil, in the sense and manner that this is possible, because they will begin to have an evil will. Of course, their will never becomes perfectly evil, because they only wish to do evil for the sake of good, not for the sake of evil, and presumably without that motivation they would still prefer to do good. Nonetheless, just as in other matters, a person can become accustomed to seeking one kind of good and neglecting another, and in this matter, the person becomes accustomed to seeking some good in the world, while neglecting his own good as a person.

Pope Benedict XVI, quoted in the linked post of the goodness of the will, speaks of the limit of such a process:

There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves. This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history. In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell.

It is likely an exaggeration to suggest that a person can become so evil, in this sense, that it is literally impossible for them to return to goodness, so that “the destruction of good would be irrevocable.” Bad habits are acquired by individual actions, and it is presumably possible in principle for a person to acquire the opposite habits by an opposite series of actions. But it might be the case that for a few people, such a return is only a theoretical possibility, and not a reasonable possibility in practice.

But let us assume a case where it is entirely impossible. Pope Benedict points to the Catholic doctrine of hell as illustrating this case. Satan and the damned, in this sense, would be understood to be irrevocably evil. There is no way for them to return to the good.

And this is the case that we need to consider in order to consider the force of the original objection. Are Satan and the damned thought to be exempt from moral obligation? In a significant sense, they are. No one would bother himself about the fact that Satan is not repenting and doing good; the horror is precisely that this is impossible. Satan does not choose the means, a life of virtue, precisely because he is no longer interested in the end, at least not in any relevant sense.

The very extremity of this example shows that the objection is not so problematic after all. It would not apply to a real person unless they had already descended to a condition far below the human one. Real people continue to maintain some interest in good, and in doing good, no matter how much evil they do, and thus morality is relevant to them. Thus for example even serial killers sometimes express a certain amount of remorse, and show that they wish they could have had other desires and lived better lives.

Finally, even for someone unchangeably evil, doing evil remains doing evil, since the notion of the good comes before the notion of moral obligation.  But it is true that obligations as such would become irrelevant to them.

My Morals and Your Morals

The last two posts have explained the changeableness in ethics as a result of the nature of the moral object, and as a result of evolution and human nature in the concrete. Still a third kind of flexibility results from individual differences.

Aristotle, as we saw, affirms that happiness and virtue consist in performing well the function of man. So insofar as people have human nature in common, their happiness and virtue will be the same. One might suppose that it follows that human happiness and virtue must be entirely the same in all, but this is a mistake. For the nature of virtue in the concrete follows not only from an abstract idea of a “rational animal,” but from the condition of the human animal taken much more concretely. This follows from the last post, where we saw that moral principles, even ones which we currently understand to be universal principles, could have been otherwise, had the circumstances of the human race been otherwise.

One might respond that this makes no difference, since all of us are members of the human race in the concrete, and consequently we must share the same concrete virtue and happiness. This does follow to some extent, just as does the general argument that all humans possess human nature. But it does not follow perfectly.

It does not follow perfectly, that is, it does not follow that our virtue and happiness is the same in every respect. If ethics were simply a logical deduction from an abstract idea like that of “rational animal,” then one might reasonably suppose that virtue and happiness would be entirely the same in all. But in fact ethics also results from facts that are intrinsically changeable, namely facts about what promotes the flourishing of the human race.

Although these facts are intrinsically changeable, one will not expect them to change from person to person in a random manner. It is not that for some, killing the innocent is harmful for human flourishing, while in others, it is beneficial. Instead, it is harmful for all.

But the fact that we are speaking of intrinsically changeable things does mean that we will have a certain amount of variation from one individual to another. There are facts about human beings that result in moral norms. But these “facts about human beings” may vary, e.g. in degree, from one human to another. Alexander Pruss, discussing the origin of Bayesian priors, makes this remark:

Let me try to soften you up in favor of anthropocentrism about priors with an ethics analogy. If sharks developed rationality, we wouldn’t expect their flourishing to involve quite as much friendship as our flourishing does. Autonomy and friendship are both of value, and yet are in tension, and we would expect different species to resolve that tension differently based on the different ways that they are characteristically adapted to their environment. This is, indeed, an argument for a significant Natural Law component in ethics: even if values are kind-independent, the appropriate resolution of tensions between them is something that may well be relative to a kind.

But just as sharks would have less need for friendship than human beings have, so one human being might have less need for friendship than another.

Aristotle discusses virtue as consisting as a mean between opposed vices:

Since, then, the present inquiry does not aim at theoretical knowledge like the others (for we are inquiring not in order to know what virtue is, but in order to become good, since otherwise our inquiry would have been of no use), we must examine the nature of actions, namely how we ought to do them; for these determine also the nature of the states of character that are produced, as we have said. Now, that we must act according to the right rule is a common principle and must be assumed-it will be discussed later, i.e. both what the right rule is, and how it is related to the other virtues. But this must be agreed upon beforehand, that the whole account of matters of conduct must be given in outline and not precisely, as we said at the very beginning that the accounts we demand must be in accordance with the subject-matter; matters concerned with conduct and questions of what is good for us have no fixity, any more than matters of health. The general account being of this nature, the account of particular cases is yet more lacking in exactness; for they do not fall under any art or precept but the agents themselves must in each case consider what is appropriate to the occasion, as happens also in the art of medicine or of navigation.

But though our present account is of this nature we must give what help we can. First, then, let us consider this, that it is the nature of such things to be destroyed by defect and excess, as we see in the case of strength and of health (for to gain light on things imperceptible we must use the evidence of sensible things); both excessive and defective exercise destroys the strength, and similarly drink or food which is above or below a certain amount destroys the health, while that which is proportionate both produces and increases and preserves it. So too is it, then, in the case of temperance and courage and the other virtues. For the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger becomes rash; and similarly the man who indulges in every pleasure and abstains from none becomes self-indulgent, while the man who shuns every pleasure, as boors do, becomes in a way insensible; temperance and courage, then, are destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the mean.

But not only are the sources and causes of their origination and growth the same as those of their destruction, but also the sphere of their actualization will be the same; for this is also true of the things which are more evident to sense, e.g. of strength; it is produced by taking much food and undergoing much exertion, and it is the strong man that will be most able to do these things. So too is it with the virtues; by abstaining from pleasures we become temperate, and it is when we have become so that we are most able to abstain from them; and similarly too in the case of courage; for by being habituated to despise things that are terrible and to stand our ground against them we become brave, and it is when we have become so that we shall be most able to stand our ground against them.

Aristotle may be making more or less the same point as this post (and the previous two) when he says that “matters concerned with conduct and questions of what is good for us have no fixity, any more than matters of health,” and likewise when he says that “the agents themselves must in each case consider what is appropriate to the occasion.” Virtue consists in a mean, not too much of something and not too little. But where exactly this mean falls will differ from one individual to another. The case of friendship mentioned above is an example. As Pruss says, “Autonomy and friendship are both of value, and yet are in tension,” and since those values will affect different people differently, we can expect differently people rightly to resolve that tension in different ways, just as Pruss says we could expect different species to resolve it differently. Naturally, we might expect the difference between species to be greater than the difference between individuals. But there will be differences in each case.

So in order to arrive at the mean of truth, there are two opposite errors to be avoided here. One is the Equality Dogma. The other would be the supposition that the differences between individuals might be more or less the same as differences between species. Ian Morris, in his book Why the West Rules–for Now, remarks,

This technical debate over classifying prehistoric skeletons has potentially alarming implications. Racists are often eager to pounce on such details to justify prejudice, violence, and even genocide. You might feel that taking the time to talk about a theory of this kind merely dignifies bigotry; perhaps we should just ignore it. But that, I think, would be a mistake. Pronouncing racist theories contemptible is not enough. If we really want to reject them, and to conclude that people (in large groups) really are all much the same, it must be because racist theories are wrong, not just because most of us today do not like them.

One of the arguments of the book (best understood by reading the book) is that “people (in large groups) really are all much the same,” and that the causes of the differences between West and East were not primarily differences between peoples, but differences of other kinds such as differences of geography.


Morality and Evolution

Some days ago, I stated that ethics is more flexible than many people suppose. One reason for this is the nature of the moral object. I tried to explain how this works in the last post; more detail is found in the comments there. A second reason is that human nature itself is less fixed than many people suppose. This follows from the theory of evolution.

This issue is related to a post by Alexander Pruss, where he raises the question of why immoral behavior is not necessary for human flourishing:

Andrea Dworkin argued that sexual intercourse between a man and a woman is always wrong because it involves a violation of the woman’s bodily integrity. She concluded that until recent advances in medical technology, it was impossible for humans to permissibly reproduce. The antinatalists, on the other hand, continue to hold that it is impossible for humans to permissible reproduce. Such views lead to an incredulous stare. It is very tempting to levy against them an argument like this:

  1. Coital reproduction is necessary for the minimal flourishing of the human community under normal conditions.
  2. Whatever is necessary for the minimal flourishing of the human community under normal conditions is sometimes permissible.
  3. Coital reproduction is sometimes permissible.

The condition “under normal conditions” is needed for (2) to be plausible. We can, after all, easily imagine science-fictional scenarios where something immoral would need to be done to ensure the minimal flourishing of the human community.

Reproduction is not the only case where issues like this come up. For instance, the destruction of non-human organisms, say plants, seems necessary for our flourishing. And I suspect that under normal conditions the killing of non-human animals is necessary, too (if only as a side-effect of plowing fields, say). Taxation may be another interesting example.

I have heard it argued that (2) is in itself a basic moral principle, so that killing non-human animals as a side-effect of vegan farming is permissible because it is permissible to ensure minimal human flourishing. But that seems mistaken. Rather, while (2) is true, it is not a moral principle, but a consequence of a correlation between (a) fundamental facts about what moral duties there are actually are and (b) facts about what is actually needed for minimal human flourishing under normal conditions.

This leads to an interesting and I think somewhat underexplored question: Why are the moral facts and the facts about actual human needs so correlated as to make (2) true?

Theists have an elegant answer to this question: God had very strong moral reason to make humans in such a way that, at least normally, minimal flourishing of the community doesn’t require wrong action. Non-theists have other stories to tell. These stories, however, are likely to be piecemeal. For instance, one will give one evolutionary story about why we and our ecosystem evolved in such a way that eating persons wasn’t needed for our species’ survival, and another about why we evolved in such a way that morally non-degrading sex sufficed for reproduction. But a unified answer is to be preferred over piecemeal answers, especially when the unified answer is compatible with the piecemeal ones and capable of integrating them into a single story. We do, thus, get some evidence for theism here.

I tend to agree with Pruss here on a certain level. Thus I have argued myself that the fact that the world is good implies that its principle is good. However, his argument is more particular than that. He is claiming that principle (2) could have failed to be true empirically , and consequently that there was a need of some special effort to make sure that it did not fail to be true. He is presumably not rejecting the theory of evolution, but he is arguing that God needed to take special care to ensure that evolution did not follow certain paths where (2) would have ended up being false.

In contrast, I would argue that (2) could not possibly have failed to be true. This follows from an Aristotelian view of ethics and from the nature of moral obligation. Virtue simply means those habits that lead to human flourishing, and moral obligations are simply those things which are necessary for the human good. So it is evident that there was no need for any special measures to prevent immorality from being necessary for human flourishing. Whatever was necessary would have been moral.

Pruss gives examples: why isn’t eating persons necessary for survival, and why isn’t morally degrading sex necessary for reproduction? (In the comments he gives rape as an example of morally degrading sex.) As Pruss points out, a reasonable evolutionary account can be given for each thing of this kind. Generally speaking, prey populations must significantly outnumber predator populations for stability, and this implies that even if it is possible for some species to prey on itself to some extent, as in cannibalism, it is not likely to be necessary; most of the nourishment must come from elsewhere.

Similarly, given the nature of rationality, it would be highly unlikely for lack of consent to be necessary for a reproductive process between two individuals. One could imagine its necessity: perhaps reproduction only happens when hormones are present in the blood which are only emitted in circumstances of distress and unwillingness. But the fact that this might be possible in principle does not make it a likely thing to evolve; to the extent that a rational party is unwilling to reproduce, reproduction is unlikely to happen at all. So this kind of situation is likely to lead either to extinction, or to a new situation where lack of consent is no longer necessary.

Pruss’s response is that “a unified answer is to be preferred over piecemeal answers.” But this only works if it is in fact true that (2) would have been false if eating persons had been necessary for survival, or if lack of consent had been necessary for reproduction.

I would respond to Pruss in two ways. First, as I have already stated, (2) could not have been false, and would not have been false even in Pruss’s imaginary scenarios. Second, human life as it actually is has properties which directly suggest that no special effort has been taken to avoid such things. These two claims might seem inconsistent. I will explain their consistency when I come to the second point.

Regarding the first point, suppose eating persons were necessary for the survival of the human race. Let’s say that when someone reached the age of 15, it was necessary for him to eat an older person or die of a fatal disease. This would be part of the human growth process.

It is obvious, and Pruss concedes that it is true, that if this were the case, all humans would agree that it was morally acceptable for the 15 year old children to eat the older adults. This would presumably have some concrete social arrangement, perhaps with the very oldest being eaten. They might not like the fact, but even the ones being eaten would presumably accept the necessity of the situation, and in most cases consent to it. Pruss simply claims that despite the fact that all humans would agree that the behavior was moral, it would be objectively wrong.

This seems to me to deserve the “incredulous stare” that positions like Andrea Dworkin’s and the antinatalists’ receive. What could even be meant by the supposed objective wrongness in that situation? And if there is such a thing, perhaps many things that we do in everyday life are objectively wrong as well, and we simply don’t know it, in the same way those people would not.

Again, consider the idea that non-consensual sex might have been necessary for reproduction. This situation seems even more unlikely than the previous, for the reasons given above, but given that it were an actual situation, again, virtually all humans (possibly with exceptions like Andrea Dworkin) would agree that reproduction was moral. Lack of consent would no more make reproduction immoral, in that situation, than the fact that children do not consent to much of the treatment they receive from their parents means that raising children is immoral.

This point is in fact a good transition to my second claim. Human life requires that children receive a good deal of treatment to which they do not consent, and with which they often strongly disagree. There is nothing great about this situation, but it is inevitable. And this kind of point illustrates my claim that no special effort has been taken to avoid such situations. If eating people had been necessary for survival, or non-consensual sex had been necessary for reproduction, we might very well have recognized that these things were unfortunate necessities, but we would not have concluded that they were immoral, and in fact they would not have been immoral, given those circumstances.

We could find other examples of “unfortunate” situations in human life as it is:

1) Breastfeeding tends to space births by preventing conception. But there is some evidence that occasionally it can cause an abortion, or at least contribute to causing one. Alan McNeilly says regarding this point:

The foregoing discussion has made it clear that suckling is the key to the suppression of fertility. The variable return of ovarian activity is related to the variable pattern of suckling input and how fast the baby feeds. It is known that conception rates in women who are still breastfeeding but have resumed menstrual cycles are lower than those in women who have resumed menstruation after stopping contraception. The reason for this has now become clear. When ovulation occurs during lactation, it is often associated with reduced or inadequate corpus luteum function, resulting in reduced progesterone secretion [23-25]. The implication is that conception in a number of cycles can occur, but inadequate luteal function prevents continuation of the pregnancy.

Some people would argue that this definitely cannot happen, using an argument somewhat analogous to Pruss’s own argument that God makes sure to avoid such unfortunate situations. Thus someone says on the Catholic Answers forum,

You have to be careful about the crazy things that are put out there. Where did you read this?

Surely you’re not suggesting that breastfeeding is a sin?

Breastfeeding does NOT hinder implantation. It really wouldn’t make sense for G-d to give us the ability to lactate for which to feed our children while potentially destroying fertilized eggs by preventing their implantation

Naturally, nothing is settled by this argument. But the commenter here is right about one thing: we already know that breastfeeding is not immoral. And that fact is not going to change, not even if we discover that it frequently causes abortions.

2) The headship of the man in a family is arguably necessary for human flourishing, or at least was in the past, but the resulting subjection of the woman seems somewhat unfortunate, even though (by my own argument) not wicked. Even the book of Genesis suggests that something is not quite right there, by making it a consequence of original sin.

3) Religion and philosophy are arguably necessary for human flourishing. But it is difficult to know the truth about these matters, and humans tend to hold positions regarding them for social reasons. And if we suppose that we personally possess some part of the truth about these matters, it follows that most of those in the past were substantially mistaken about them, given the extent of human disagreement in such matters. This is not merely a question of lacking the good of truth. Rather, the fact that people do not naturally care much about that truth seems to be an unfortunate moral situation, much like the imaginary situations invented by Pruss.

Finally, we can consider one more imaginary situation. Suppose that the real world turned out to be like the world of Horton Hears a Who! Suppose that every time you took a step, hundreds of tiny rational creatures were killed. No normal human would lie down and die after discovering this fact. Pruss, I think, would assert that it would be the right thing to do, but he would be in a tiny minority. Most people would change nothing, and I would agree with them. I would respond that 1) the situation would not change the moral object of any human action, which would mean that anything we are justified in doing now, we would remain justified in doing; and 2) the population comparison involved implies a vastly higher economic value to normal human beings, which would imply that we would remain justified in living normal human lives even after considering the secondary consequences of our behavior.

The arguments of this post imply that in principle morality could have been somewhat different, depending on the details of how human life evolved. But the arguments imply not only that it could have been different, but that it remains changeable in some ways, because the process of evolution does not come to an end, since it is a necessary result of imperfect copies. Naturally, this kind of change should be expected to take place mainly over very long periods of time, but this will not necessarily prevent it from happening.

Intrinsically Evil

Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, discusses actions which are always evil:

80. Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature “incapable of being ordered” to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church’s moral tradition, have been termed “intrinsically evil” (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances. Consequently, without in the least denying the influence on morality exercised by circumstances and especially by intentions, the Church teaches that “there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object”.131 The Second Vatican Council itself, in discussing the respect due to the human person, gives a number of examples of such acts: “Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat labourers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons: all these and the like are a disgrace, and so long as they infect human civilization they contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice, and they are a negation of the honour due to the Creator”.132

With regard to intrinsically evil acts, and in reference to contraceptive practices whereby the conjugal act is intentionally rendered infertile, Pope Paul VI teaches: “Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good, it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it (cf. Rom 3:8) — in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general”.133

81. In teaching the existence of intrinsically evil acts, the Church accepts the teaching of Sacred Scripture. The Apostle Paul emphatically states: “Do not be deceived: neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the Kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9-10).

If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain “irremediably” evil acts; per se and in themselves they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person. “As for acts which are themselves sins (cum iam opera ipsa peccata sunt), Saint Augustine writes, like theft, fornication, blasphemy, who would dare affirm that, by doing them for good motives (causis bonis), they would no longer be sins, or, what is even more absurd, that they would be sins that are justified?”.134

Consequently, circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act “subjectively” good or defensible as a choice.

82. Furthermore, an intention is good when it has as its aim the true good of the person in view of his ultimate end. But acts whose object is “not capable of being ordered” to God and “unworthy of the human person” are always and in every case in conflict with that good. Consequently, respect for norms which prohibit such acts and oblige semper et pro semper, that is, without any exception, not only does not inhibit a good intention, but actually represents its basic expression.

The doctrine of the object as a source of morality represents an authentic explicitation of the Biblical morality of the Covenant and of the commandments, of charity and of the virtues. The moral quality of human acting is dependent on this fidelity to the commandments, as an expression of obedience and of love. For this reason — we repeat — the opinion must be rejected as erroneous which maintains that it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behaviour or specific acts, without taking into account the intention for which the choice was made or the totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned. Without the rational determination of the morality of human acting as stated above, it would be impossible to affirm the existence of an “objective moral order”135 and to establish any particular norm the content of which would be binding without exception. This would be to the detriment of human fraternity and the truth about the good, and would be injurious to ecclesial communion as well.

The basic idea is that we can speak of certain actions, like murder, and say that they are always wrong. However, we need to carefully understand what it means to be an action of a certain kind such as murder. Several paragraphs earlier, the Pope states:

78. The morality of the human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the “object” rationally chosen by the deliberate will, as is borne out by the insightful analysis, still valid today, made by Saint Thomas.126 In order to be able to grasp the object of an act which specifies that act morally, it is therefore necessary to place oneself in the perspective of the acting person. The object of the act of willing is in fact a freely chosen kind of behaviour. To the extent that it is in conformity with the order of reason, it is the cause of the goodness of the will; it perfects us morally, and disposes us to recognize our ultimate end in the perfect good, primordial love. By the object of a given moral act, then, one cannot mean a process or an event of the merely physical order, to be assessed on the basis of its ability to bring about a given state of affairs in the outside world. Rather, that object is the proximate end of a deliberate decision which determines the act of willing on the part of the acting person. Consequently, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “there are certain specific kinds of behaviour that are always wrong to choose, because choosing them involves a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil”.127 And Saint Thomas observes that “it often happens that man acts with a good intention, but without spiritual gain, because he lacks a good will. Let us say that someone robs in order to feed the poor: in this case, even though the intention is good, the uprightness of the will is lacking. Consequently, no evil done with a good intention can be excused. ‘There are those who say: And why not do evil that good may come? Their condemnation is just’ (Rom 3:8)”.128

The moral object of an act is not “a process or an event of the merely physical order, to be assessed on the basis of its ability to bring about a given state of affairs in the outside world.” Instead, it is what a person is choosing to do, and this must be understood in relationship with reason and will.

We can say that killing an innocent person is always wrong, then, if we mean by “killing an innocent person,” making the choice to kill an innocent person. But we cannot say that it is always wrong, if we mean by killing an innocent person, any action which happens to have the effect of an innocent person’s death, when the person performing the action may be choosing to do something other than killing someone.

As a kind of example, we can look at St. Thomas’s explanation of self-defense:

I answer that, Nothing hinders one act from having two effects, only one of which is intended, while the other is beside the intention. Now moral acts take their species according to what is intended, and not according to what is beside the intention, since this is accidental as explained above (43, 3; I-II, 12, 1). Accordingly the act of self-defense may have two effects, one is the saving of one’s life, the other is the slaying of the aggressor. Therefore this act, since one’s intention is to save one’s own life, is not unlawful, seeing that it is natural to everything to keep itself in “being,” as far as possible. And yet, though proceeding from a good intention, an act may be rendered unlawful, if it be out of proportion to the end. Wherefore if a man, in self-defense, uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repel force with moderation his defense will be lawful, because according to the jurists [Cap. Significasti, De Homicid. volunt. vel casual.], “it is lawful to repel force by force, provided one does not exceed the limits of a blameless defense.” Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense in order to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s. But as it is unlawful to take a man’s life, except for the public authority acting for the common good, as stated above (Article 3), it is not lawful for a man to intend killing a man in self-defense, except for such as have public authority, who while intending to kill a man in self-defense, refer this to the public good, as in the case of a soldier fighting against the foe, and in the minister of the judge struggling with robbers, although even these sin if they be moved by private animosity.

In St. Thomas’s case, the attacker is presumably not innocent, but the situation would be the same if the attacker were insane or mistakenly believed that the person was engaged in a violent attack. In any case “one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s,” and consequently defense would be legitimate, even if the attacker is strictly speaking an innocent person.

Someone might object to St. Thomas’s account here. It seems that the man who defends himself is not merely seeking to defend himself and incidentally permitting the death of the attacker. Rather, he seems to be choosing to kill the attacker in order to preserve his own life. Thus, if the attacker were merely insane or mistaken, he would be choosing to kill an innocent in order to preserve his own life.

The problem here is resolved exactly by pointing to the distinction between the moral act and the physical act. The defender may be choosing to strike the attacker, but it is wrong to say that he is choosing to kill the attacker, since “killing the attacker” is not the act as perceived by his reason and will here. Rather, the fact that he is more bound to preserve his own life implies that the correct description of his action is something like, “striking an attacker in order to preserve my life.”

There is therefore something potentially misleading about Pope John Paul II’s affirmation that “circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice.” This would be true as long as the moral object remains the same. But as St. Thomas stated,

A circumstance is sometimes taken as the essential difference of the object, as compared to reason; and then it can specify a moral act. And it must needs be so whenever a circumstance transforms an action from good to evil; for a circumstance would not make an action evil, except through being repugnant to reason.

And in a similar way, a circumstance may transform an action from evil to good, when it changes the action from one kind of action to another kind of action. Thus striking the man with a lethal blow would be “killing an innocent,” when the man is simply standing there. But when the circumstances change, and the man is charging with a knife, a similar lethal blow constitutes a legitimate act of self-defense. This can happen due to the fact that the change in the circumstances, in this case, implies a change in the moral object as well; and this can happen without any change in the external physical act. The lethal blow may be physically the same.

The Pope’s statement can be understood to be consistent with this, since it can mean that an action always remains evil as long as the moral object is evil. Still, the repeated emphasis on the division between moral object and circumstances, in phrases such as “quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances,” and “independently of circumstances,” might suggest to someone that the moral object is complete in itself, due to the physical action or something similar, such that a change in circumstances cannot change the moral object. This seems even more strongly suggested by the claim in paragraph 77, “The foreseeable consequences are part of those circumstances of the act, which, while capable of lessening the gravity of an evil act, nonetheless cannot alter its moral species.” In other words, it sounds like he is saying that perhaps some circumstances can change a moral action from one kind to another, but that foreseeable consequences, at least, can never do this. Now it may be that the Pope is simply saying that given that an action is evil, changing the circumstances will never stop it from being evil without changing the moral object. And this would be true.

But if he is understood to be saying that an action that looked at locally would be a kind of action which is morally evil, cannot become a kind of action which is morally good, once certain foreseeable consequences are taken into account, this would be a mistake. Breaking into a person’s house and taking something, which looked at locally would be an example of theft, might cease to be a case of theft given certain foreseeable consequences of doing it and of failing to do it. The reader may doubtless find many other examples.

It is on account of these facts that I said earlier that the truth about ethics is more flexible than people suppose. This is not because people do not understand examples like the one about theft, or about self-defense, but because people generally fail to see the general principles involved, despite being able to see the truth about such particular cases when they are raised. There may even be an example of this failure to see the general principle in the text of St. Thomas, in objection 4 and its reply:

Objection 4. Further, murder is a more grievous sin than fornication or adultery. Now nobody may lawfully commit simple fornication or adultery or any other mortal sin in order to save his own life; since the spiritual life is to be preferred to the life of the body. Therefore no man may lawfully take another’s life in self-defense in order to save his own life.

Reply to Objection 4. The act of fornication or adultery is not necessarily directed to the preservation of one’s own life, as is the act whence sometimes results the taking of a man’s life.

It is not entirely clear what St. Thomas means by “necessarily directed.” If we are speaking of the physical actions involved, it could be true that “unless I do this, I will die,” just as much in the one case as in the other, even though such situations would be much rarer than cases in which self-defense is necessary in order to preserve one’s life. Such cases come up from time to time in hostage situations.

Because of the difficulty of seeing the kind of moral action involved in such cases, someone might be tempted to assert that the persons involved are morally obliged to become martyrs: they should refuse, even if this results in their deaths. But this is probably a mistake. Even fornication and adultery cannot be defined by the mere physical actions involved, and the relationships with reason and will that would typically identify such activities are not present in such cases.

It should also be considered that if one says that there is such an obligation, it would apply equally to the case of a woman attacked by a rapist. If she were to cooperate physically in the slightest degree, in order to avoid death, she would be doing evil. This seems unlikely. One should not say, “Well, she is objectively doing evil, but she is not fully responsible, due to force and fear.” Rather, she is not doing evil at all, but behaving prudently, even if it is possible for someone laudably to behave otherwise.

There are other, possibly even stronger, examples of the same point, but I will leave this issue as it stands, at least for the present.

Some Catholic traditionalists such as John Vennari say that Pope Francis, in Amoris Laetitia, contradicts the traditional teaching of the Church on morality. He says,

What is a key problem with the document?

Amidst great drifts of verbiage – some not bad, some remarkably tedious – Francis effectively canonizes situation ethics. He furtively opens the door for Communion to the divorced and remarried on a ‘case-by-case’ basis, which destroys key elements of Catholic Moral Theology. In particular, his approach undermines recognition of intrinsically disordered acts, and once this is undermined in one area, it is undermined in all areas. Progressivists immediately celebrated Amoris Laetitia as a “radical shift.”

Among other texts, Vennari cites paragraph 304 of Amoris Laetitia as an example. We can look at the text of Pope Francis:

304. It is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being. I earnestly ask that we always recall a teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas and learn to incorporate it in our pastoral discernment: “Although there is necessity in the general principles, the more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter defects… In matters of action, truth or practical rectitude is not the same for all, as to matters of detail, but only as to the general principles; and where there is the same rectitude in matters of detail, it is not equally known to all… The principle will be found to fail, according as we descend further into detail”. It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations. At the same time, it must be said that, precisely for that reason, what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be elevated to the level of a rule. That would not only lead to an intolerable casuistry, but would endanger the very values which must be preserved with special care.

It is true that one could interpret this to contradict Pope John Paul II’s claims about intrinsically evil actions. But this would mainly happen if one were to understand Pope John Paul II’s statements to be asserting something false, namely that a morally evil action is self-contained in such a way that the addition of circumstances cannot change it into a different kind of action by changing its moral object. I have no doubt that this is in fact exactly how John Vennari would understand Pope John Paul II.

Leaving aside Veritatis Splendor, Pope Francis’s claim here is true, understood in the sense that one cannot determine the moral truth about all particular cases by means of general rules which refer to physical activities and circumstances. Whenever we say that something is always wrong, we already include some reference which labels the action in a moral way. Thus for example, both “murder is always wrong,” and “adultery is always wrong,” refer to the idea of injustice, namely something which is undue, because murder is unjustified killing, and adultery is sexual intercourse which is unjust towards the spouse of the person. One cannot describe these in merely physical ways and get things which are always wrong. Neither “a physical action which results in the death of a person,” nor “a physical action which results in sexual union with the spouse of another person” are names of something intrinsically evil.

In this sense, it is possible to reconcile the opinions of Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis. Nonetheless, it may well be the case that Pope Francis does not understand the relationship of his teaching with the previous moral teaching of the Church.