29. Sep, 2017

Fidelity or the Justification of One’s Desires?

A Reflection on Discernment

Most people want to be good and do good things. There are exceptions. I’ve known men who take pleasure in fantasising over killing. People like that seek another form of good – one they have tailored to their desires, wants, and needs. I’ve known killers who have murdered to attain certain objective outcomes that they consider good and desirable. For example, two people I knew killed another as an act of fidelity and intimacy. Bottom line, everything we do, we do for a reason.

Choosing to do something involves reasoning. A moral choice deliberates between doing good or evil (the deprivation of a good). Moral choices involve teleological ethics, deontology, and virtue ethics. These ethical systems frame our decision making. Even though the process is complex, these ways of deliberating come naturally to us.

Think about it. Our perception/grasp of good and evil, of right and wrong involves a) deontological reasoning: our trying to determine some rule for what is always right and therefore, for what we ought to do b) teleology or consequentialism: our judging an act to be right or wrong depending on the favourableness of the outcome c) virtue ethics:  considers right action to be the most virtuous action.

  • Deontology – what ought I do?
  • Teleology – what is the outcome I intend as a consequence of my action?
  • Virtue ethics – how would a good and virtuous person act? What is the virtuous thing to do? What is the right thing to do?

Deliberation in Practical Terms

It is natural that we consider the outcome (telos), weighing up what we ought (deontology) to do in addition to what the right action (virtue) would be considering the circumstances.

In deliberating and forming an intention to act (telos/desired end), we simultaneously employ the convergent ethical strategies in our decision making. One aspect of the phenomena of moral decision making is considering what we ought to do (i.e., Kantian deontology). This is simply the rationalisation of the good we ought to choose, irrespective of consequences. 

However, Kant’s turn to the subject fails to account for the objective dimension of conscience, and our own cognitive luggage. It is reductionist to suggest deliberating on what we ought to do can satisfactorily discern what is good and moral behaviour, versus what is not. On the other hand, the consideration of consequences refers to the act itself (as good action produces good consequences and conversely, evil behaviour produces the fruits of that evil).

Although we may consider a) what we ought to do and b) the consequences, some additional ‘mechanism’ is required arrive at a moral choice. That ‘mechanism’ is conscience which has the capacity to discern the natural law—that reflects the Eternal Law of God. Conscience can judge between what is objectively good and of God, or evil and not of God. St Thomas says that “the natural law is nothing other than the light of understanding placed in us by God; through it we know what we must do and what we must avoid” (Dec. præc. I).

The last factor of deliberation is our notion of right and virtuous behaviour. To avoid naivety, it should be said that this involves our cognitive luggage—our attitudes, biases, prejudices—that affect the way we habitually act by shaping context specific mental processes. Those prejudices influence the way we deliberate between right and wrong action – between what we consider as virtue or vice, as wright or wrong action.

Moral decision making involves more than deciding upon what we think we ought (deontology) to do, or doing something that will bring about some good (telos). Ultimately, deontology and teleology are reduced to emotivism (MacIntyre) because these methods rely on our subjective grasp of morality. Our chosen behaviours may not be as good as we determined it to be. Therefore, moral decision making must involve our conscience (overlooked objective dimension) and must involve our self-critique of our habitual patterns of thinking (overlooked subjective dimension) about right action and what we consider virtuous conduct.

The Primacy of Conscience and the Virtue of Faith

In every moral act, we eventually choose what we consider as good for us, even if that behaviour is bad and evil. Our limited subjective grasp of moral behaviour is insufficient to deliberate upon the good we ought to do even when considering outcomes and our notion of right action.

As everything we do is done for a reason we may mistakenly desire something that is bad for us. Sometimes we even reframe our thinking about what is good, to justify that bad choice. What does this highlight? Either we are faithful to objective, unchangeable moral norms, or we go down the path of discerning what we want, redefining good and evil, and justifying that decision.

What does this highlight? Conscience can discern between the good or evil, intrinsic to moral or immoral behaviour So, an act of conscience—a simple choice between good and evil—is the only objective compass for moral acts. This also highlights the need of forming one’s conscience. And as our conscience is formed according to objective moral norms, our prejudices are removed, we grow in the ability to discern and make good choices, and we grow in the virtue of discernment.

On the other hand, individuals who do not form their conscience rely on themselves to define what is good and desirable. This is in stark contrast to discerning what is good, and not evil. Bottom line – we either go down the path of fidelity to conscience, or of justification of what we ourselves have defined as good (telos).

Much has been said about the so called Thomistic teleological ethics employed by Amoris Laetitia. As teleology should not involve the weighing up and defining of good and evil, but rather the discernment between good and evil, in my opinion, the teleological ethic in Amoris Laetitia could not be that of Aquinas.

Not considering the means to the desired end, Amoris Laetitia’s notion teleology is driven purely by consequences. For example, an adulterer could receive communion now if it was thought this would lead that persons good (intended end). But this does not make any sense.

Saint JPII clarified the object of the act is the telos and the source of moral action. As an act is either good and of God’s will, or it is not. It is absurd to weighing up of consequences to determine if that act is good or not. JPIIs natural law approach represents a black-and-white choice between good and evil, discernible by conscience. Conscience is our guide when we are faithful to deliberating between what God has decreed as good and what is evil. 

“To abandon the objectivity of absolutes is to leave the sources of moral guidance reduced to our purely subjective likes and dislikes” (http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/commentandblogs/2016/11/24/catholics-everywhere-should-be-grateful-for-the-four-cardinals-appeal/)

Fidelity to God Equates to Moral Living

Conscience can inform us whether an intended act is either right or wrong in the sight of God. Conscience informs us of what is virtuous behaviour in any given circumstance and that which always conforms to the natural law, and to God’s will. In that sense, acts of conscience are essentially acts of faith. Second, the guiding principle of moral living is therefore the theological virtue of faith. Faith calls us to discern the will of God through our obedience to our conscience. 

A Theology of Fidelity or Infidelity?

Satan has sifted the Church over Amoris Laetitia chapter eight on pastoral discernment. The footnote has been a red herring in that it shifts the focus from the underlying theology of infidelity to God’s will.

Bishop Schneider gets to the point. Discernment is a process of the discerning will of God. Conscience guides us in our discernment of what is good and of God https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSnAP5BUQ9Q&feature=youtu.be

Please reflect on the following Scriptures:

  • Genesis 2:17 “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
  • Romans 14:23 “But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.”