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

Whither A Christian Political Realism?

The political thought of two theologians, the Catholic, John Courtney Murray, and the Protestant, Reinhold Niebuhr, can be reconciled and contrasted with more idealist, absolutist, fundamentalist approaches.

This is because a shared moral realism and ethical naturalism will be transparent to human reason prior to any putative special religious revelations. They are best combined with a pragmatic, political realism, which practices the art of the possible.

Realism, as in moral realism, refers to a metaphysical stance, asserting an objective basis to morality.
Naturalism, as in ethical naturalism, refers to an epistemic approach, asserting that our natural sciences (not religious or ideological dogma) should guide our ethical norms to optimally realize moral truths, albeit fallibly. Mortimer Adler’s Common Sense approach to moral & political philosophy shows how humanity shares evaluative dispositions and moral prescriptions regarding the most general precepts.
Realism, as in political realism, refers to —neither a metaphysical (what is) nor epistemological (how we know what is) reality, but — to any practical realization regarding what’s achievable, recognizing value in what’s suboptimal, eschewing any tendency to let the best become the enemy of the good.
Taken together, these moral, ethical and political stances can be reconciled with both secular and religious humanisms. When supplemented by the vocational and relational norms of the Gospel, one can, in my view, best practice a Christian realism, politically. Its default bias would necessarily be conservative and libertarian (in the classical liberal sense and not as malpracticed by many currently).
For yet another attempt at reconciliation between these theologians, I commend:

John Courtney Murray and Reinhold Niebuhr: Natural Law and Christian Realism
Journal of Catholic Social Thought, Vol. 3, 2006
U of St. Thomas Legal Studies Research Paper No. 05-20
21 Pages
Thomas C. Berg
University of St. Thomas, St. Paul/Minneapolis, MN – School of Law