by William E. May, Ph.D., Senior Fellow
21st century Americans—and others, particularly in the “developed” nations—are deeply divided over issues central to the culture of life: contraception, the generation of human life, abortion, the care of seriously handicapped infants and of the dying, the meaning of sex, marriage, the family, and the kind of home best suited to help children grow into caring and responsible adults. There are many reasons supporting culture of life positions, but there is a need to show why these reasons are good and true and to help others see why. Moreover, sometimes advocates of the culture of life can and do disagree among themselves and/or find themselves perplexed about what is the right and good thing to do. Is there any way to resolve these disputes and overcome doubts?
With others I think that it is possible intelligently to analyze these issues, including complex ones over which committed defenders of the culture of life are divided or over which they are perplexed and in doubt. I also think that an analysis of this kind can also help persons of good will, yet hostile to the culture of life, come to a knowledge of the truth. All persons who are mentally competent are obliged to seek the truth and to shape their choices and actions in accord with the truth—and if they are honest with themselves they know they have this responsibility.
The central moral question, “practical” reason, and the “good”
The central moral question is how to tell the difference between actions and courses of actions that are morally good and those that are morally bad. This is a job we do by using our intellect or reason as “practical,” i.e., concerned with “what is to be done and pursued,” and it is here that the notion of the “good” is crucially important. In a like manner, the notion of “being,” or “what is or can be” is crucial to our use of our intelligence or reason as “speculative” in our efforts to find out what something is—and this is what we do when we study the different sciences (biology, physics, chemistry etc), the philosophy of nature and the philosophy of being or metaphysics.
The fundamental principle or starting point for our use of reason as practical is that “good is to be done and pursued, and its opposite, evil, is to be avoided.” All persons who have reached the use of reason, whether morally good or morally bad, immediately understand this because human action is intelligible, i.e., it has a point. A person does something because he or she thinks that by doing so he or she will participate in something good. (For instance if Ma Fia rubs out one of her enemies before her enemy rubs her out, Ma Fia does so because she thinks that by doing so she is protecting her own life.)What this shows us is that the notion of “good” in this fundamental principle of practical reason must not be understood to refer to the moral good. Rather it refers to all the real goods that are meant to flourish in human persons, and there is a set of such goods. Later we will see what the moral good consists in. But now let us consider the “set of real goods.”
There is, first of all, the good of life itself, including bodily life and health. This is a good intrinsic to the being of a human person. Because life is such a good no one is amazed if a person drowning cries out for help or if a person choking on some food spontaneously seeks to have the choking stopped. Another good is marriage and the begetting of children, as is shown by the fact that people are not shocked if a man and a woman in love with each other choose to get married and, after marriage, to have children. As the song goes, “Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage.”
And there are other goods: goods like knowledge of the truth, appreciation of beauty, living in fellowship and community with others. We can call these goods different forms of the good of harmony and this includes friendship and justice with other human persons. It also embraces a harmonious relationship with some “more than human source of meaning and value.” After all, Socrates scathingly demolished the sophistic claim that “man is the measure of all things” (see, e.g., Gorgias). Another good is a harmonious relationship with one’s self or a state of psychological well-being. Other human goods are developing one’s skills in work and play. It’s good to know how to do one’s work and do it well, to develop talents for playing ball or running or jumping or playing cards, etc.
Distinguishing between morally good and morally bad alternatives of choice
Some alternatives of choice, while promising participation in one or perhaps several basic human goods (e.g., friendship and playing tennis), are fully compatible with a respect for and a love of the other goods of human persons: knowledge of the truth, appreciation of beauty, justice, etc. Such alternatives are morally good. Because one has a good reason to choose them and no good reason not to, these alternatives are morally good.
But other alternatives, while promising participation in one or perhaps several basic goods (e.g., knowledge and possible future benefits to others), are incompatible with a love and respect for other basic goods. Gaining knowledge is good and so too is gaining knowledge with the hope that the knowledge gained will in the future benefit many persons by protecting their health or ameliorating some pathology. These are surely the goods in which scientists seek to participate when they kill the “spare” human embryos left frozen and abandoned in laboratory storage tanks in order to obtain their stem cells for research and study. But the choice to kill these human embryos is not compatible with a love and respect for the life of those human persons. Alternatives of this kind, namely, those incompatible with respect for and love of goods not chosen ought not to be chosen. There is a good reason to kill these tiny human persons, but there is also a good reason not to kill them. Thus the choice to kill them is not morally good.
A person’s moral good
The moral good of persons consists in the dignity they are called upon to give to themselves and that they are able to give to themselves in and through the actions they choose to do every day of their lives. For the actions we choose to do not only “get things done” in the external world, i.e., have consequences, but also and more importantly “get things said,”, i.e., make ourselves to be the kind of persons we are: liars, cheaters, adulterers, embezzlers, or generous, giving, loving, caring persons in and through the actions we freely choose to do—after all, actions speak louder than words. We can thus say that our moral character is our integral identity as shaped by the choices we make, good and bad.
A basic negative moral principle
The previous reflections on the fundamental principle of practical reasoning that good is to be done and pursued and its opposite, evil, is to be avoided, will help us, I believe, to grasp the truth of a basic negative moral principle. This can be formulated as follows: In pursuing the good and avoiding what is opposed to it, one ought never adopt by choice a proposal to damage, destroy, or impede a basic human good either in oneself or in others, either out of hatred of that good or an unreasonable love of some other good.
Then, in the light of this negative moral principle we can see the truth of specific moral norms such as, one ought never intentionally kill an innocent human person; one ought not intentionally kill an unborn child or senile adult; a husband ought not have sex with some woman other than his wife.
I hope this piece will be of help to everyone. I want to conclude by emphasizing that while we are entitled to and indeed obligated to judge whether freely chosen acts are morally good or bad, we are not entitled—and in fact are not able—to judge the moral character of others; only God can read the human heart; we can’t, and we must not usurp God’s prerogative. It’s possible that those who are hostile to and strongly opposed to the positions central to the culture of life may be unable to understand the true and good reasons supporting the culture of life because they are hindered by the culture in which we live and which has played a key role in mediating false meanings to them. What we need to do is to help effect in them a new “world vision,” by raising their consciousness. But this is an issue that would take us too far afield.