Foundations of Morality

Do you mind if we return to discussing the metaphysical foundation of morality?

Sounds strange and esoteric. But nothing is more important.

We have to make choices, and sometimes we have to choose between good and evil. Therefore, we are moral. We cannot escape being moral (or immoral).

Somehow, we have a way of framing moral questions for ourselves. When I walk into a CVS, a question may present itself to me: Should I pay for what I came to get, or should I try to steal it?

In fact, most of us probably do not regularly confront this question, because, by dint of habit, we don’t even think about stealing. But my point is this: There is a moral question involved in visiting a CVS–pay or steal?–and that question exists because of the metaphysics that underlie our moral scheme. In other words, we assume certain things in order to frame moral questions for ourselves.

Trying to understand the metaphysics of morality is especially important nowadays, I think, because very few people use clear language in making moral judgments. Most of the common English words for immoral behavior have practically passed out of the language. To give you an example: A poor soul once admitted, “I have been having trouble communicating with my girlfriend…We’ve been having truth issues…” Then he realized what he was saying. “I’m sorry, Father. I have been in P.R. too long. The truth is that I’m a f–ing liar.”

So, morals exist. The question before us is: How?

To make a brief start on this, I think our moral frameworks are based on our answers to some or all of the following questions:

1. Who am I? Who are we?

2. What do I want, what do I hate, and what am I afraid of?

3. What are my habits?

Okay, so let’s go ahead and spend the next lifetime getting honest answers out of ourselves to these questions. Then we can come back and discuss. I’ll let you go now, because you probably want to watch the NBA All-Star Game.

Seriously, though—the metaphysics of morality is my favorite subject, so I would love to hear what you have to say. And we will come back to this and hopefully make some headway towards understanding.

2 thoughts on “Foundations of Morality

  1. So, to steal or not to steal: that is the question!

    Or, by parallel:

    :To be, or not to be: that is the question:
    Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
    The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
    Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
    And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
    No more; and by a sleep to say we end
    The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
    That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
    Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
    To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
    For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
    When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
    Must give us pause: there’s the respect
    That makes calamity of so long life;
    For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
    The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
    The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
    The insolence of office and the spurns
    That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
    When he himself might his quietus make
    With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
    To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
    But that the dread of something after death,
    The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
    No traveller returns, puzzles the will
    And makes us rather bear those ills we have
    Than fly to others that we know not of?
    Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
    And thus the native hue of resolution
    Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
    And enterprises of great pith and moment
    With this regard their currents turn awry,
    And lose the name of action. – Soft you now!
    The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
    Be all my sins remember’d.”

    Hamlet had a really confused and conflicted points of view; but with Polonius as a counselor, what more might one expect?

    Remember, “This above all: to thine own self be true,
    And it must follow, as the night the day,
    Thou canst not then be false to any man,” came from a professional liar (your confessing young man knows all about this guy — “We have met the enemy; and he is us!”.

    So, the rules for understanding the metaphysics of morality (for Dummies, of course) might best bypass lengthy ruminations and concentrate on a few simple principles.

    1. Choose your family of origin well (if they have no moral compass, and can’t give you 18 to 21 years of loving, parenting, and discipline, you might as well be raised by wolves.

    2. Understand the precepts of “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth”; He’s speaking; listen.

    3. Get into a herd that’s going in the right direction (trying to do it alone is bad enough; trying to do it with a group of companions hellbent on the primrose path to perdition is next to impossible).

    4. Then: first, last, and always, look within; your moral compass will provide the necessary direction.

    5. Constantly check your course through, prayer, mediation, and confession — face to face with someone who knows you and loves you, who isn’t afraid to tell you when you’re full of it — and to whom you’ve given permission to do just that.

    6. Desperately seek HIM, and cling to HIM through the sacraments, and every other means at your disposal.

    With these basics attended to, you’ll have every chance of ending up an ordinary sinner.



  2. I will add a few rambling thoughts…

    There was a priest in the news recently who urged his parishioners to shop-lift because prices were too high and the insurance companies had plenty of money to make compensation. His initial argument was that poor people were allowed to steal the staples of life, like bread, without moral culpability.

    I had a professor in school who argued that taking medicine without compensation to save a life was not really stealing. Certainly I can understand the mitigation of guilt, but it still seems plain that a commandment is being breeched and someone is enduring a loss.

    Who am I? I am a human being and a Christian.

    Who are we? We are all human beings but our beliefs, national affiliations and occupations vary.

    What do I want? I want to be happy and to go to heaven.

    What do I hate? I hate pain, ignorance and injustice.

    What am I afraid of? I should not be afraid at all, but I hope to remain a good neighbor to others and a friend with God.

    What are my habits? They are a mixture of virtues, and unfortunately, vices. As a priest there is a definite pattern of worship and service in my life.

    Speaking for myself, while I am partial to the notion of a Kantian categorical imperative, and can be justly accused of evoking a strict Christian deontology, I often merge it (even if tenuously) with a teleological appreciation of final causes in nature.

    Divine positive law (the Decalogue, moral teachings in the New Testament, the precepts of the Church, etc.) are not whimsical guidelines but part of God’s revealed truth to men. While the Bible is not written as a moral handbook, there are many critics today who discount its inspiration and repudiate the moral demands as merely the capricious opinions of men. They give it no authority in their lives.

    Natural law appreciates the order of creation and relies heavily upon the discernment of intelligent design. Unfortunately, even some scientists reject natural law and the view that we must seek a harmony with the created order.

    Just as there is relativism about the great questions of our times about human nature, sexuality and the unborn; there is also a creeping lawlessness about matters like spousal fidelity, highway speed and stealing. If there is no lawgiver and no judgment, and if this life is all there is, then everyone becomes an Ayn Rand narcissist. Selfishness displaces both charity and the rule of law, as long as we can get away with it. People steal because they think no one is watching and they will not be punished. People cheat on spouses with the same hope of not being caught. People speed with little regard for their safety or that of others. When they do get caught they lie or offer a rationalization.

    Years ago a young African American man robbed candy bars at a convenience store where my brother was working. When he was challenged, noting that my brother was white, he shouted, “Your people placed my people in slavery. You owe this to me!” When my brother stood in front of him, he knocked him out with a punch. The crime was recorded on a camera, but he escaped and it never came to trial. We can rationalize many sins.

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