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Moral Absolutes: Tradition, Revision and Truth

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Tradition, Revision, and Truth
By John Finnis

The Catholic University of America Press

Copyright © 1991 The Catholic University of America Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8132-0745-2

Chapter One


1. Exceptionless moral norms: few but strategic

The foundations of Christian moral doctrine are being tested as never before.

Dissension is well known. But does it go beyond rather marginal questions about the number and precise identity of the true moral absolutes? Does it challenge the very possibility of true moral absolutes? Does it go to fundamentals?

It does. Certainly, the moral norms whose very possibility (as truths) is now disputed are not morality's fundamental principles. Nor do they mark out the whole range of questions of conscience. They are not the whole substance of moral reasonableness, even when this is clarified by the faith which extends beyond belief to action.' For, in the relevant sense of "absolute," there are very many moral norms which are true, but not absolute: "Feed your children," for example. This moral norm is true, forceful, but not absolute. When the only food available is the body of your neighbor's living child, one (morally) cannot apply that norm in one's action; nor does one violate it by not applying it.

Still, though relatively few, and though not themselves fundamental, the moral norms whose truth is now contested are decisively important for conscience, conduct, and civilization. And their intrinsic relationship to the foundations of morality and faith is such that to deny them is to overlook, ignore, or challenge those foundations.

I shall set up the issue (not settle it) with some words of Pope John Paul II. There is, he says, a "doctrine, based on the Decalogue and on the preaching of the Old Testament, and assimilated into the kerygma of the Apostles and belonging to the earliest teaching of the Church, and constantly reaffirmed by her to this day." "The whole tradition of the Church has lived and lives on the conviction" that "there exist acts which, per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object. Correspondingly, "there are moral norms that have a precise content which is immutable and unconditioned ... for example, the norm ... which forbids the direct killing of an innocent person." (That is the norm one acknowledges in judging that truly, even if one's own children are starving, one may not kill one's neighbor's sickly child for food.)

These passages speak of actions and their intrinsic wrongness, more than of norms and their absoluteness. And this is fitting. For the absolute moral norms have the following characteristic: The types of action they identify are specifiable, as potential objects of choice, without reliance on any evaluative term which presupposes a moral judgment on the action. Yet this nonevaluative specification enables moral reflection to judge that the choice of any such act is to be excluded from one's deliberation and one's action.

Thus, the norms in dispute exclude not merely needless acts of city destroying directed against noncombatants and combatants alike, but every act so directed.' Not merely those abortions which are chosen as a means to some insufficiently important end, but all killing of unborn babies as a means to an end. Not merely the manufacturing of babies for frivolous or selfish purposes, but all choices to generate babies by production instead of sexual union. Not merely adultery in the sense of extramarital intercourse by (or with) a married person and inadequately attentive to the good of marriage, but adultery as that term was used throughout Jewish and Christian tradition: extramarital intercourse by (or with) a married person, period.

This list of exceptionless norms proposed by Christianity's central moral teachings can easily be continued. But my present aim is to clarify the concept and the terminology. A good label for the disputed absolutes would be exceptionless moral norms. For in this context, "absolute" is not to be confused with "absolute" in other contexts, such as the absoluteness of God. The norms in question are not supreme, fundamental, unconditioned; to call them absolute is to say no more than that they are exceptionless.

But they are exceptionless in an interesting way. Exceptions to them are logically possible, and readily conceivable, but are morally excluded. In some of them, the type of act is described partly by reference to "circumstances," for example, the circumstance that one of the parties to a sexual act is married to someone else. But of all these norms, the following is true: Once one has precisely formulated the type, one can say that the norm which identifies each chosen act of that type as wrong is true and applicable to every such choice, whatever the (further) circumstances. An exceptionless norm is one which tells us that, whenever we are making a choice, we should never choose to do that sort of thing (indeed should never even deliberate about whether or not to do it: see II.1 and IV.3).

Other sorts of norms could be called "exceptionless," but not in an interesting sense of the word. For example: One's completely specific judgments of conscience in particular situations are actually highly specific norms of action, applicable in principle to such circumstances on other occasions. And each of these norms is exceptionless, but only by logical, not moral necessity. For such norms, the conscientious judgment that this is a true norm in all the circumstances is a judgment which holds good only for all such circumstances. Similarly, the disputed moral norms are exceptionless in a way quite different from merely "formal" moral norms which no one will dispute, such as "Do not engage in unjust killing, inordinate sexual intercourse. ..." Norms of the latter, uncontroversial sort logically cannot have any exceptions, for any morally relevant factors which might suggest an exception have already been implicitly provided for by the norm's own morally evaluative reference ("unjust," "inordinate," and so on) to the very act which the norm concerns.

Moreover, the specific moral absolutes whose truth is in dispute do not include "norms" which can artificially be constructed and proposed as exceptionless precisely because the act which they identify is so described that the norm is inapplicable whenever there re morally significant circumstances not mentioned in the norm: for example, "It is always wrong to kill someone merely to please another." If, in the circumstances, pleasing another would have some further good consequences, that norm would not exclude killing an innocent "to please another." Similarly, the norms in dispute are not merely "practically" or "virtually" exceptionless, like the so-called practical absolutes devised by some theologians as substitutes for the absolutes of Christian tradition. In these substitutes, the act is described by reference to so many and such circumstances that the authors of these norms suppose that, "in practice," further circumstances which might render the act permissible are very unlikely to arise; sometimes they say that exceptions to them are inconceivable, but this is merely a loose use of conceivable (to mean likely), or else a confession of limited powers of imagination. But the whole point of the qualifiers virtually and practically is to signify that if further circumstances were to be added to those referred to in the norm, that norm might no longer be true for this context. The moral absolutes of Christian tradition, on the other hand, are proposed as valid, true, and applicable even in circumstances which are neither foreseen nor even implicitly identified in the norm, but which despite their relevance and moral importance (if they arose) would not deflect the norm's applicability.

Often, the interestingly exceptionless moral norms, the moral absolutes in dispute, are called material, but only, I think, by those who deny their truth. Those who think that some specific, exceptionless moral norms are true reject the labels "material," "physical," and "behavioral" (see III.3). So, let me say once for all: save in a few, clearly indicated passages, I shall for brevity use the terms moral absolutes or specific moral absolutes, meaning absolute and specific moral norms, that is, exceptionless moral norms such as those I mentioned earlier in relation to killing children or noncombatants, adultery, manufacturing babies, and so forth.

2. Witnessed to by faith

The Christian faith affirms specific moral absolutes. Explicitly and implicitly, the New Testament and the Apostolic Fathers, the earliest witnesses to the completed revelation in Christ, resort spontaneously to the Decalogue. Indeed, the Decalogue is referred to more frequently in the New Testament than in the whole of the Old Testament, and the zeal with which Christians preached it (as the one element in the Law still valid in the New Covenant) seems to have provoked its suspension from use in Jewish daily worship and sabbath morning prayers within a few decades after Pentecost. The New Testament and the early fathers reformulate the Decalogue's prologue and envisage the Ten Commandments as a manifestation of God's sovereignty in the perspective not simply of exodus but now rather of creation itself. St. Paul speaks of its precepts as written on human hearts and befitting human nature (for example, Romans 1:23–31; 2:14–15; by "the Law" in the latter passage he means primarily the Decalogue: see 13:8–10). But these are also precepts of Christ; the Lord is shown reaffirming them in the encounter with the "rich young man" (Matthew 19:16–19; Mark 10:17–19; Luke 18:18–20), interiorizing and in other ways radicalizing (without disincarnating) them in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17–28), summarizing without dissolving them in the supreme commandments of love of God and neighbor (Matthew 19:19; 22: 3 6–40), and interpreting them paradigmatically, and with explicit reference to the original order of creation, in his teaching on adultery and the indissolubility of true marriage. "Moses :because of the hardness of hearts allowed divorce, but from the beginning of creation it was not so; And I [Jesus] say that whoever puts away his wife and marries another commits adultery; and she, if she marries another, commits adultery, too." How is this teaching paradigmatic, exemplary? Because in what it plainly asserts, and in its interpretation and transmission in the whole tradition (which the findings of contemporary exegesis have neither challenged nor undermined), it conveys the characteristic or exemplary meaning and force of a specific moral absolute. It so freshly and specifically identifies differing type-situations (described in nonevaluative terms) in which one commits adultery, that one cannot call it mere parenesis—mere exhortation to follow norms whose content is only found elsewhere in the audience's culture, a content neither identified nor reaffirmed by the exhortation. Jesus' teaching includes, then, an element of instruction, identifying, clarifying and specifying moral truths, a teaching designed to exclude error and misunderstanding of their proper content.

Thus, we here find adultery understood as always and necessarily wrongful, yet not defined in terms of its wrongfulness. It is not specified as wrongful or inordinate or unchaste sex by a married person outside marriage—as sex without proportionate reason. It is defined as sex by a married person outside marriage. The specification needs interpretation and elaboration, since there are questions to be answered about who is indeed married. Christian tradition, as Paul makes clear (i Corinthians 7), has never treated these questions as simple. But where, as in most cases of adultery, there is no doubt that the one party, if married, is not married to the other, then the Lord's precept applies exceptionlessly, whatever the (other) circumstances.

The same absoluteness of the properly (but still nonevaluatively) specified norm excluding adultery is found in the constant Christian tradition, from the beginning, against abortion, suicide, fornication, homosexual sex, and blasphemy and disclaimer of the faith. The tradition is massively solid. It has cogent grounds, in faith and reason, as we shall see. And it is witnessed to by martyrdom willingly suffered rather than consent to what the martyr takes to be an act of such a description. The oppressors, the tempters, the crowd, all persuasively present the act as an evil lesser than death, disgrace, ruin for the martyr's family; a Thomas More or a Maria Goretti judges the act to be wrong per se and in se and, precisely because immoral, to be an evil greater than any amount of evil set in train by refusing to choose such an act. The church judges them to be saints, along with the many unnamed martyrs.

3. Part of the theology of human fulfillment

The earliest Christian philosophers and systematic theologians lose little time in developing St. Paul's reflection. As soon as we meet them, in the second century, they are referring to the commands of the Decalogue as precepts of natural law, as the naturalia legis, the law's natural precepts, the naturalia praecepta quae ab initio in fixa dedit hominibus, the natural precepts which God from the beginning gave human beings as intrinsic to their nature, precepts which are natural principles, befitting the freeborn, and common to all (naturalia et liberalia et communia omnium).

This means not merely that they are rational norms, available (as Justin stresses) to the non-Christian conscience which is not blinded by depravity. It means also that they guide one toward human fulfillment, by disclosing the plan, the mind, the consilium of God for that fulfillment. As Irenaeus puts it, God has no need of our love; it is we who have need of God's glory, which can in no way be attained save through service of God; and to prepare us for this life of friendship with God and concord with neighbor, the Lord articulated the Decalogue, which Jesus reaffirmed, amplified, and perfected.

The link between the Decalogue and human fulfillment is no mere construction of early theologians. It is intrinsic.

For human fulfillment is the fulfillment of persons, in community; above all it is constituted by participation in the perfected community of the Kingdom which Christ will hand over to the Father. Each of the precepts of the second table of the Decalogue protects some aspect of human persons in some fundamental aspect of their individual reality. Thus, given the Christian conception of the significance of free choice (see III.1), each of those precepts, and each of the specific moral absolutes proposed to us by the tradition, is to be understood as an implication of the supreme principles: "Love God above all things," "Love your neighbor as yourself," and "Seek first the Kingdom." The precepts protecting fundamental aspects of human personal good are guides to human choice; they guide by excluding options inconsistent with love of the very person whom the logic of our choosing makes our nearest neighbor.

In the Synoptics and Paul; in Irenaeus, Augustine, Aquinas, and Vatican II, and in common Christian faith, teaching, and belief, right action is not blind submission to unintelligible will. Rather, right action is the wisdom of action which expresses a heart really in line with, toward, the ultimate human end and good, the integral human fulfillment which cannot be found outside that Kingdom whose material is being formed here on earth but whose completion lies beyond history. The rightness of action is always intelligibly related to human good, indeed to the good of particular individuals or groups of individual persons. The upright heart, the will, the choice, is always a choice, will, heart which does and pursues that good and avoids what harms that good.

There is never a case in which to adhere to a true specific moral absolute is thereby to "honor rules above values." Rather, in adhering to the moral truth articulated by the "rule," one honors the value, the person whose good in some fundamental respect one would be choosing to destroy, damage, or impede, by the act which the norm specifies as always to be excluded from deliberation, choice, and action. (The person so honored may be oneself, as when one rejects suicide or other self-destructive or self-disintegrating actions.) And one does not thereby dishonor, discount, or in any way reject the values, the human goods which one supposes could be secured by violating the moral absolute. Indeed, in deliberating and arriving at one's moral judgment, one does not even rank them as lesser in value than the human good respected by adherence to the moral absolute. Here, prior to moral judgment and choice, greater and lesser amounts of goodness are not the issue. They cannot be the issue (11.5).


Excerpted from MORAL ABSOLUTES by John Finnis Copyright © 1991 by The Catholic University of America Press. Excerpted by permission of The Catholic University of America Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


1. Exceptionless moral norms: few but strategic....................1
2. Witnessed to by faith....................6
3. Part of the theology of human fulfillment....................9
4. Rejected when human replaces divine providence....................12
5. No narrowing of horizons....................16
6. Choice, reflexivity, and proportionalism....................20
7. Protecting changeless aspects of human fulfillment....................24
8. Negative norms but positive and revelatory....................28
9. Rejection: some motivations and implications....................29
II. Clarifications....................31
1. Intrinsece mala: acts always wrong, but not by definition....................32
2. Specified neither evaluatively nor physically/ behaviorally....................37
3. Opposed to reason and integral human fulfillment....................40
4. Worse than suffering wrong....................47
5. Proportionalist justifications: incoherent with rationally motivated free choice....................51
6. The central case: intentional harm, always unreasonable....................54
7. Deadly defense and death penalty: not necessarily proportionalist....................55
III. Christian Witness....................58
1. Free choice: a morally decisive reality....................58
2. Evil: not to be chosen that good may come....................59
3. Actions: morally specified by their objects (intentions)....................67
4. Intending human harm: never acceptable for God or man....................74
5. Counterexamples....................78
6. Responsibility for side effects: other principles and norms....................81
IV. Challenge and Response....................84
1. Contraception and the general denial of absolutes....................84
2. Historical and ecclesiological skirmishes....................90
3. The main action: in philosophical theology....................93
4. Prudence misconceived: the absolutes aesthetically dissolved....................101
5. A summary conclusion....................105
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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 7, 2006


    As usual, excellent arguments and persuasive. This book should be read by all students in philosophy.

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