The Most Common Deficiencies in Moral Philosophy & Theology -especially when applied to Politics

These are notes for a preliminary draft that will address some of the most common & egregious deficiencies that persist in moral philosophy, as often demonstrated by common folk & so-called experts alike.

1) Methodologically, the same old sterile scholasticism remains stuck in a nonvirtuous cycle of abductive moral hypothesizing & deductive moral clarifying, employing too many physicalistic, biologistic terms. This natural law approach needs to be complemented (its inferential cycling completed) by the inductive testing of a more robustly personalist approach. While some have made a personalist turn, eg JPII & New Natural Law school, they remain a prioristic, hence rather arbitrary, not having made a more robustly inductive turn. It is one thing to take one’s old natural law arguments and translate them into a personalist idiom, quite another to actually adopt an inductive, personalist method, which actually inquires into the putative value-realizations & value-frustrations it suggests will present in the concrete circumstances of person’s lives.

2) Too many reflexively charge differently minded others with moral relativism, nihilism, emotivism, voluntarism, vulgar pragmatism & a host of other philosophical pejoratives, as if a defensible ethical pluralism might not otherwise be grounded in the epistemic humility, metaphysical fallibilism & moral probabilism of our quotidian human common sense & sensibilities.

3) re: moral probabilism, too few draw a suitable distinction between empirical & theoretic doubts, between “is that?” & “what is?”

4) too few avoid category errors & logical missteps in navigating a hierarchy of truths & values along w/principles of cooperation & double effect, for example, re: act of voting, too much discourse moves too quickly from a ranking of causes to a double effect calculus, skipping or giving short shrift to a critical principle of cooperation analysis, which is to say that, as they proceed, for example, with a political cause ranking through a cooperation calculus (principle of cooperation) to calculate the effects (principle of double effect) of a vote or policy, they often ignore how very highly tenuous a given causal chain is – as would be in play regarding what are very highly contingent acts – … in other words, they adopt a moral & prudential calculus susceptible to the parody of rendering most remote material cooperation illicit in our public lives

5) re: evaluation of moral acts, re: moral objects (cluster concepts w/specifications beyond physical act), intentions & circumstances, too few recognize that moral objects are cluster concepts that have already specified the circumstances of physical acts, often further defining them enough to consider such as virtually exceptionless, but not with enough knowledge to justify considering them absolutely so, as we reason from general precepts to concrete norms

6) too few distinguish ontic from moral evil

7) too few distinguish formal from material innocence or harm

8) too few distinguish prudential from moral judgments

Regarding theological anthropology, then:

9) too many fail to recognize the Spirit’s presence in the secular, in the natural & in our temporal ends via the gratuity of creation, wrongly imagining that the Spirit is only ever present in the sacred, in the supernatural & in our eternal ends via the gratuity of grace

10) too many confuse the law of graduality with a gradualism of the law

11) too many give a primacy to coercive measures rather than, per subsidiarity principles, soft powers



After I’d written the above, in general, I came across a reminder of where I’d so often seen such lapses, in particular:

+Chaput has always seemed sincere to me & his logic clear, but awash in category errors. As I think about this, his approach & writings over the years may well provide the best concrete example of so much that’s been wrong in Catholic moral theology & theological anthropology. Indeed, he often provides the perfect foil for how to otherwise philosophize & theologize properly in the secular age.

And I would imagine that the words of Michael Sean Winters, below, generally reflect what I more particularly specified above:

I admit that I find it tiresome to have to continually criticize Archbishop Chaput. I do so in sadness not in anger. But, it must be said: If I were writing a work of fiction and I wanted to create a caricature of a culture warrior bishop, I do not think I would have the courage to create one so reckless, so uncomplicated in his moral sensibilities (and not in a good way), and so quick to render judgment against others, so willing to ignore the pope, or to cite him, as it suits his own purposes, so intellectually thin and so edgily partisan, as Archbishop Chaput’s columns show him to be.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University’s Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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