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.]

Natural Theology & Natural Law -however otherwise weak, at least- defeat Nihilism

In science, faith & quotidian life, epistemic virtues should first vault our speculative claims over the threshold of equiplausibility, where we can normatively adjudicate any competing responses using the principles of reasoning under uncertainty.

The hermeneutical spiral, above, recapitulates Lonergan’s transcendental imperatives & functional specialties.


To wit:

De-liberatively, regarding our references, descriptively & interpretively, epistemic virtues should first vault our speculative claims over the threshold of equiplausibility, where we can adjudicate, normatively, any competing responses, using the principles of reasoning under uncertainty, evaluatively.

De-liberatively (cosmos & mythos – be free, be loving, be-loved per both temporal & ultimate teloi) …

regarding our references …

descriptively (logos or perceptionbe aware in research & communications) & …

interpretively (topos or understandingbe intelligent in interpretation & systematics) …

epistemic virtues should first vault our speculative claims over the threshold of equiplausibility, where we can adjudicate …

normatively (ethos or actingbe responsible in dialectics & foundations), any competing responses, using the principles of reasoning under uncertainty

evaluatively,(pathos or judging & decidingbe reasonable in history & doctrines).

I must stipulate with Hart & Milbank that any rivalry between ultimate worldviews, say nihilist vs theological, cannot be logically coerced. Reality remains far too ambiguous for us & way too ambivalent toward us to compel belief through speculative reason, alone.

With the Thomists, I would insist that, even stipulating that nihilism has not thus been refuted, philosophy well demonstrates the reasonableness of natural theology as an equiplausible competing worldview.

For me, Thomism’s reasonableness remains indispensable over against any thoroughgoing fideism, much less, nominalism, idealism, voluntarism or relativism.

I do not receive Milbank as coming from some Thoroughly [Post]Modern Millie, but, instead, take (eisegetically) his postmodern critique as an admonition to avoid the temptations of dueling hyper-formalisms in countering those insidious –isms.

This is to recognize that —

no essentialistic framing will finally foreclose nominalism, descriptively;

no naïve realism will convincingly defeat idealism, interpretively;

no intellectualistic speculation will logically overcome voluntarism, evaluatively;

no absolutistic insistence will compellingly obviate relativism, normatively; and

no rationalistic appeals will definitively refute fideism, existentially.

But what amount to epistemic misfires for some are but caricatures for others, whose

1) descriptive probes include semiotic & moderate critical realisms;

2) interpretive heuristics employ a metaphysical fallibilism;

3) evaluative dispositions engage an irreducible triad of logos-pathos-ethos, e.g. Aristotelian eudaimonia, Augustinian beatitudo or Thomist summum bonum;

4) normative propositions allow some degree of ethical pluralism grounded – not in an insidious relativism or vulgar pragmatism, but — suitable epistemic humility, metaphysical fallibilism & moral probabilism ; and

5) philosophical preambula vault fidei past the threshold of equiplausibility.

Thomism’s reasonableness thus gets vaulted philosophically past the threshold of equiplausibility by the valid & coherent arguments of natural theology & natural law. (And its deontological conclusions should be considered at least as modest as its ontological commitments are tentative). There, philosophy culminates in either the theological preambula fidei & its general precepts or a nihilistic cosmogony.

Any “competing” theological or nihilistic mythos would come after a normatively justified existential leap.

Past this threshold of epistemic warrant, speculative reason yields to practical reasoning under uncertainty. The speculative arguments between essentialism & nominalism, realism & idealism, intellectualism & voluntarism, absolutism & relativism and fideism & rationalism have previously been transcended by a fallibilist, critical realism.

Normative justifications commence and can lead either to the fideistic, voluntaristic dichotomy of a theological versus nihilistic mythos or to an existential disjunction, where rational equiplausibility principles, albeit often implicit, adjudicate a decision to “live as if” that which is (more so, perhaps, they who are) the most life-giving & relationship-enhancing, the most beautiful & good, the most unitive & liberative, will — first & proleptically, i.e. proximately & temporally, as well as eventually & eschatologically, i.e. ultimately & eternally — also happen to be the most true.

This constitutes meta-discourse, however inchoate or implicit, whether variously held provisionally or confidently, yes, prior to special revelations, and yes, on tradition-transcendent grounds. Importantly, this needn’t be formal discourse or what can sometimes devolve into sylly syllogisms, but more often, via our participatory imaginations, comes from our common sense & common sensibilities, from connaturality, an illative sense, a tacit dimension, intuitions & informal abductions.

The most problematical arguments of natural theology are rationalistically grounded in naïve rather than critical realisms. The most problematical arguments of the natural law are a prioristic, rationalistic, deductivistic, biologistic, physicalistic & infallibilistic, especially as they move from general precepts to specific concrete norms, particularly because of epistemic hubris and the lack of a more inductive, personalist relationality-responsibility approach. But the abuse of natural theology & natural law is no argument against their proper use.

The questions that beg?

What constitutes the most life-giving, existentially?

How do we define & measure the most relationship-enhancing? The most unitive, interpretively & orthocommunally?

Where’s the most beautiful instantiated, evaluatively & orthopathically?

And the most good realized, normatively & orthopraxically?

And the most liberative, metanoetically & orthotheotically?

These are not questions that yield to an armchair cognitive map-making but which must actively engage participative imaginations that are naturally embodied, historically situated, socially embedded, culturally bound, politically immersed & transcendentally horizoned.

Of course it’s incredibly problematical to apply our ortho-metrics to competing worldviews, precisely because their instantiations are so very particular & traditioned.

But I wouldn’t want to defend the notion that nihilism remains in that competition?

Finally, Between an overly pessimistic Augustinian interpretation & overly optimistic transcendental Thomism, perhaps a Goldilocks theological anthropology can be articulated:


Gelpi recognized both as donative realities – a gratuity of creation & gratuity of grace, the Spirit’s universal presence (e.g. nomicities) & particular presence, where Grace is mediated via transmuted experience, where, for example, Kerygma matter immensely.

This discussion continues here:

Where in the World is Sophia? —a Sophiological footnote

The created grace Gelpi refers to would be constituted by reality’s actualized potencies, eternalized teloi (both temporal & ultimate teloi) of Peircean thirdness, efficient materialities of secondness, connaturalized indeterminacies of firstness, existentialized essences, formalized finalities, participatory intimacizations eternalized, all temporal realities coaxed forth Pneumatologically, Christologically & Paterologically via Divine Energies as would account for effects as would be proper to no known causes.

Every trace of human goodness, for example, eternalized, i.e. every beginning of a smile & all wholesome trivialities!

Whether interpreted in Platonic, Neoplatonic, Aristotelian, Thomist, Scotist, Palamitic or Peircean categories (and I cross hermeneutical bridges between them all), collectively & dynamically, these cumulative actualized potencies or eternally realized divine teloi may represent Sophia, who participates in the Divine Energies in a perichoretic Divine Dance.

In The Wisdom of God, Bulgakov spoke of two Sophias, one created and the other uncreated. She to whom I refer above would be the created Sophia in her participatedness. While I affirm the Divine Energies per a formal distinction, I must defer to others regarding the manner of viewing Sophia in Orthodoxy. And still wonder just how we might best account for ecstatic visions of Sophia.

See more re this theophany:


This body of work largely comprises my project, which I refer to as Pan-semio-entheism, because, as a systematic theology, while it is metaphysically realist, it prescinds from any given metaphysical root metaphor (substance, relational, process, experience, etc) to a phenomenological meta-heuristic.

See: Amos Yong With John Sobert Sylvest, “Reasons and Values of the Heart in a Pluralistic World: Toward a Contemplative Phenomenology for Interreligious Dialogue,” Studies in Interreligious Dialogue 20:2 (2010): 170-93

Integralism as a Pre-political Anthropology & Meta-political Norm Grounded Philosophically in Natural Theology – The Pre-political Grounding of both Liberal & Illiberal Regimes

Liberal & illiberal regimes may all have their times & places.

Licit regimes will share certain theoretical foundations, hence, criteria of liceity.

Consistent with such foundations, then, consider the following criteria:

Public laws serve as one of many means toward just ends.

We critique political strategies, diagnosis their deficits & prescribe their optimality by prudentially judging them per criteria defined by just ends.

Sufficient strategies will attain a modicum of justice as realized in public virtue, order & peace.

Confluent with other just ends, we exercise the end of freedom by being who & doing what we ought, i.e. properly forming & duti-fully exercising our consciences to flourish in & as community, where the necessary goods of a sufficient material progress serve as a means to higher moral & spiritual ends.

Freedom’s inherent duties, thus objectively & communally ordered, realize the aretaic & deontological ends (teloi) of eternal & natural laws.

We grow in freedom through a formative & liberative process of learning, which will necessarily include the increasingly habitual practice of these duties.

Freedom’s rights remain correlative with & inseparable from its duties to be/come who & do what we ought.

Radically finite, the concrete states of both individual & communal realities constantly evolve, so, continuously, we must prudently discern the means of their flourishing and adapt our public laws & political strategies to those states.

Laws & policies must variously prioritize & subordinate agreed upon (at least practically if not substantively) rights & interests and, when those rights unavoidably & truly compete, adjudicate them, balancing & reconciling them through accommodations that, foremost, preserve & foster the common good, but only ever limiting the rights & interests – or burdening the consciences – of individuals in the least restrictive manner practicable.

The abovementioned criteria obviously share certain theoretical foundations.

Even if only implicitly & inchoately, we can anthropologically & philosophically ground rather substantive (suboptimal but satisficing) agreements regarding theories of humanity & of the cosmos, of truth & of knowledge, of goodness & of beauty.

We thus abide some degree of ethical pluralism derived – not from an insidious relativism or vulgar pragmatism, but – from a moral probabilism consistent with an appropriate epistemic humility & suitable metaphysical fallibilism. Our de-ontologies should therefore be as modest as our ontologies are tentative.

A given community may well move beyond such an implicit & inchoate philosophical grounding, e.g. natural theology, to an explicit & definitive revealed theology. In that case, any agreed upon rights & interests may more optimally reflect humanity’s ultimate telos, condiligentes, i.e. as co-lovers with God.

In such a community, religious conversion can further foster, even trans-value, its members’ realizations of humanity’s proximate, erotic-agapeistic-eudaimonistic teloi.

Beyond a given community’s vision of ultimate teloi, transcultural realities & religious pluralism invite further excursus, e.g. regarding shared orthocommunal (topos), orthodoxic (or polydoxic logos ), orthopathic (pathos), orthopraxic (ethos) criteria.

Contra Ethical Chicken Littles

Ethical slippery slope arguments deserve serious but not facile engagements. Below is a consideration of why some such arguments are oversimplified.

There is a taxonomy of slippery slope arguments [SSAs]. It distinguishes causal from logical arguments and further separates arguments per their results, arbitrary & horrible.

Causal arguments are concerned with domino-like effects. Logical arguments explore the in/consistency of rules, whether grounded in casuist, principlist or even consensual ethical decision-making approaches.

An arbitrary result is deemed objectionable by the mere fact that an argument has employed some type of slope. A horrible result refers to an argument which would permit morally repugnant outcomes.

Ethical slippery slope arguments are often of the logical-horrible variety.

Others have well-treated the logical in/consistencies & un/soundness that can afflict/bolster all manner of ethical SSAs. I will discuss, below, why we shouldn’t overstate the influence that formal argumentation has on societal maxims, rules & norms, why, for example, various case-holdings won’t inexorably unravel the moral fabric of society or, switching metaphors, send a rapid succession of taboo-boulders rolling down the ethical slopes of a culture’s moral highlands. I will also discuss whether the introduction of some degree of arbitrariness should a priori deligitimize an ethical decision-making approach.

The degree of consensus regarding humanity’s most general precepts remains largely sufficient to norm a modicum of public peace, public order, public justice & public morality, extending, for example, even to international declarations regarding human rights and to international law & treaties.

The more specific & concrete application of such precepts become much more problematical for thornier issues, e.g. bioethical realities regarding gender, sex & life issues.

A society’s laws & rules reflect a shared public reason & shared evaluative dispositions. It’s this overlapping consensus of mid-level principles & these mutual intuitions of common sensibilities that, together, constitute a relatively stable, wide, reflective equilibrium of moral reasoning.

Over against any Ethical Chicken Little hysteria, then, an ethical pluralism, grounded in a fallibilist epistemology & probabilist deontology, notwithstanding some unavoidable degree of inconsistency, need not explode into an ethical incoherence or moral relativism, much less trivialism.

Pluralistic societies can have different cohorts of naïve realists, each which may subscribe to its own particular, foundational moral theory with its distinct metaphysical commitments. Such cohorts will tend to imagine that a pluralistic society’s moral slopes are far more slippery than they actually are because they fail to recognize the limited relevance of their own theories & commitments to a given society’s maxims, rules & norms. They also tend to ignore the resilience & relative stability of the above-referenced reflective equilibrium, grounded as it is – not just in formal logic, but – in deeply felt evaluative dispositions, common sensibilities & ethical intuitions, which certainly can reflect an inchoate grasp of the natural law, secured by connatural inclinations. This remains the case even when such a grasp of the natural law remains rather difficult to articulate by formal argument (and not just difficult for the vox populi but also for the ethical literati).

Such a stable reflective equilibrium will generally stand in the way of any cascading of consensually, morally repugnant outcomes, when otherwise specific incremental changes are effected in societal rules & norms.

This is to recognize that Ethical Chicken Littles will too often make much ado about their own arguments, which are not more universally compelling, sometimes, because their logic is simply flawed, if not due to validity, then, by unsoundness; sometimes, because certain maxims, rules & norms have established their coherence & resiliency less so by formal argumentation, more so by innate connatural inclinations & subconscious social formations.

As with other apparent inconsistencies, dilemmas, aporiae or paradoxes, human common sense & sensibilities can often evade ethical conundra, practically, via reductio ad absurdum, while patiently abiding either their dissolutions via paradigm shifts or resolutions via dialectics.

We may not be able to formally articulate why a putative outcome would be impossible, improbable or absurd using a robustly truth-conducive triadic inference, but we can, most certainly, very often employ a veritable multitude of weakly truth-indicative abductions, logically, as well as evaluative dispositions & ethical intuitions, axio-logically, which, when bundled together into a preponderance, evidentially, can sufficiently justify a solidly probable moral proposition.

Over against any notion that slopes afflicted by degrees of arbitrariness must simply be avoided, we must recognize that we are ALREADY on such slopes, ubiquitously so. Such a notion could not survive the parody of purging all moral discourse of references to reality’s manifold & multiform dis/continua.

Thus, even among those who subscribe to a particular foundational moral theory as well as its deeper metaphysical commitments, the more critical (less naïve) realist cohorts will not overestimate the slipperiness of various moral slopes, for they recognize:

that our appropriations of moral realities ALREADY often involve approximations;

that our fallible grasps of moral realities ALREADY require the use of concepts that are not wholly essentialist but variously clustered, vague or fuzzy;

that human symbols, icons & indexes are ALREADY seldom going to be wholly nonarbitrary;

that the human mind ALREADY must often transcend rational formalities with common sense and informal & paraconsistent logics (see note below) in order to avoid absurdity & trivialism.

To the extent that epistemology models ontology, this variety of ethical approximations (conceptual, semiotic & logical) implicates various ontological dis/continuities, regarding – not only the spatio-temporal, materio-energetic continua of physical entities (e.g. age-related, developmental, genetic, non/strict identities), but – the causalities of physical events, including various teloi (e.g. teleopotent, teleomatic, teleonomic & teleologic).

For example, whatever one’s paradigm regarding non/strict identities, even an essentialist account might best resort to a conception of deep & dynamic formal fields.

The above taxonomy of SSAs & categories of axiological epistemology can still be rather insufficient, relying as they do on an implicit canon of common sense that can’t always be taken for granted. This is especially true, again, as we move from general precepts to their more specific, concrete applications. See, for example: An anthropological exploration of contemporary bioethics: the varieties of common sense. Turner L. , J Med Ethics. 1998 Apr;24(2):127-33.

N.B. From:

If the mind is able to reason around contradiction without absurdity, then paraconsistent machines may be better able to model the mind.

Defending consistency, or denying the absurdity of trivialism, is ultimately not the job of logic alone. Affirming coherence and denying absurdity is an act, a job for human beings.

Put another way, a paraconsistent logician can say that a theory is inconsistent without meaning that the theory is incoherent, or absurd. The former is a structural feature of the theory, worth repair or further study; the latter means the theory has gone disastrously wrong. Paraconsistency gives us a principled way to resist equating contradiction with absurdity.