While I'm off on retreat, I thought I would reprint the five most popular posts of all time on the blog. This one is originally from Dec, 2011. Enjoy!
Moral obligation is not man’s prison, from which he must liberate himself in order finally be able to do what he wants. It is moral obligation that constitutes his dignity, and he does not become more free if he discards it: on the contrary, he takes a step backward, to the level of a machine, of a mere thing.
A Turning Point for
Reflection – I’m on a roll here—from Marxism to scientism to today’s passage, describing just why a binding moral law is the only safeguard of human happiness and dignity.
This passage really undercuts the moral theory of ‘consequentialism’ – that model of morality which says that the only moral principle binding on us is to do that action which we deem will have the most overall positive effect. So we can torture prisoners who may (or may not) have information about future terrorist attacks, since to abuse and debase one human being is a better consequence than the deaths of thousands.
We can abort a baby who is going to be born in difficult circumstances: better that the life be ended just as it begins rather than ‘condemn’ the child to lifelong deprivation. And we can have sex whenever and however we wish, as long as all are consenting adults (although even that last word is being disputed by some): the obvious pleasure of sexual activity is a good consequence not obviously undercut by any bad ones. Telling lies is good if it spares pain or gets you what you want.
Consequentialism is rampant in
North America—I can’t speak for the rest of the world. It is the assumed moral theory by almost everyone, even Catholics, even ‘conservatives’ (see torture example above). And it is entirely wrong.
For one thing, it is useless as a practical tool to measure morality. We can never know all, or even very many, of the consequences of our actions. Every action we take has ripple effects that wholly escape our powers of observation or prediction. Even our past actions have consequences we cannot gauge, so how can we evaluate our potential future actions? We just don’t know how this or that action is going to play out, consequence-wise. So to say we have to evaluate all the consequences of a deed to make a moral judgment about it is impractical in the extreme.
What we do know is the immediate moral content of what we are doing. If I am physically abusing a prisoner in my control, if I am participating in the killing of an unborn child, if I am using my sexuality as an immediate means of self-gratification, if the truth means nothing at all to me, then I know I am contravening human dignity. The act itself contains its own moral status.
Ratzinger’s point is that all of this moral weight given to the acts themselves really is a matter of preserving human freedom and dignity. Without this strong moral sense, we are reduced to the level of the beast or the machine, just recklessly pursuing our own interests and desires. No deeper consideration, no deeper concern for the fullness of our humanity and the humanity of the other. Far from releasing us from the prison of morality, amorality casts us into the prison of the rampaging ego, the slavery of desire.To live a moral life is to live as a free man or woman, pursuing the good, the true, the beautiful even when it causes me pain or is the occasion of great sacrifice and struggle. This is the grandeur of the human person: that in this world of exigency and brute physical law and force, we frail creatures of flesh can stand in freedom and choose to live as sons and daughters of God, in goodness, justice, and charity for all. Without this, we are beasts or machines, nothing special at all. Our choice.
Update: Welcome, Sheavians! Uhhh, Sheavites? Shea-valanche? While your here, enjoy the scenery - I'm talking these days about tattoos as a response to persecution, Mae West and the Immaculate Conception, and beingcommitted to the truth while we sweep the floor or clean the toilet. Enjoy!