Prudence and Moral Absolutes

 
 

Refusing to make exceptions to absolute moral norms is not unrealistic, imprudent, or inhumane. The purpose of norms is to promote human flourishing and protect what is good

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Many of my good friends think that the moral norms prohibiting abortion and contraception are imprudent. Their responses are visceral; they think the tradition is ideological, absolutist, and unrealistic in the face of human reality. As one friend told me dismissively, “People simply don’t follow these rules.”

My friends are not alone. Many brush away traditional moral codes with bromides about “the right side of history” or “changing conceptions” or “lived experience.” Rather than engaging the rational arguments for and against ethical standards, such people simply assert their irrelevance.

Lloyd Steffen, chaplain and professor of religious studies at Lehigh University, describes this tactic as the “hybrid ethic” in Ethics and Experience: Moral Theory from Just War to Abortion. According to Steffen, reasonable persons of goodwill understand that “the moral life is real life—it is complex and at times morally ambiguous.” As a result, he argues, “morally attuned people inevitably shy away from the rigidities of absolutist ethics.”

Steffen points out that “people of goodwill the world over share common agreements” about the goods underlying the moral life, although those goods take slightly different forms in different cultures. Still, that common agreement does not provide absolute certainty about what to do in particular circumstances. Steffen helpfully explains how ordinary people use the natural law in their everyday deliberations.

His argument is less compelling when he attempts to show that reasonable persons of goodwill must spurn the “absolutism” of exceptionless moral norms. Ultimately, Steffen misunderstands the essential virtue of prudence and misrepresents it as a vague, question-begging, and incoherent form of intuition.

Language and Morality

Steffen claims that sometimes our common agreement “can appear to lock us into a course of action when moral sensitivity . . . and even justice itself require a . . . more flexible response.” Since moral absolutes are not always “adequate” to the complexities of a situation, Steffen believes we ought to reject any and every form of absolutism.

In this view, even actions such as theft or adultery are not absolutely wrong, for there can be “just theft” or “just adultery.” Generally, of course, terms such as theft and adultery are “moral performatives,” which express a judgment—namely, that something constitutes unjust taking, or unjust sex with or by a married person. But it would be naïve, Steffen claims, to forget “how the use of moral language may evolve and change over time.” Slavery, for instance, was merely descriptive for Aristotle, but for us it is a morally performative term, a negative judgment. So too do theft and adultery admit of changed meaning in varying circumstances, as in the just theft of bread by Jean Valjean in Les Misérables or the just adultery of Michael Shiavo prior to Terri Schiavo’s death.

To support these claims, Steffen says rather little, justifying the theft of bread with the mere assertion that “reasonable people of goodwill can condone the theft of bread.” Without justifying or explaining that assertion, he concludes we have therefore “resituated ‘theft’ as a moral term.” As for why reasonable persons would condone this theft, he asserts that they “should be able to agree” to this—apparently because it is the reasonable thing to conclude, however circular and intuitionistic this may be.

When it comes to “just adultery,” Steffen notes that Aristotle could never have envisioned the medical technology that prolonged the life of Terri Schiavo. Paying attention to the factual complexities rather than the abstract norm makes it obvious, for Steffen, that Schiavo had lost status as a self-conscious subject. As a result, “her personhood was gone,” even if she was not technically dead. Since she could not “in any way experience or reciprocate affection,” the marriage vow “we could reasonably say, no longer holds.”

It is not at all obvious why a loss of reciprocal affection invalidates marriage vows, nor is it clear that every reasonable person of goodwill will (let alone must) conclude that personhood requires self-conscious subjectivity. All that is obvious is that Steffen thinks so, and that he thinks every reasonable person must agree with him. But if he is correct in claiming that her personhood was abrogated along with the marriage vows, then how precisely was Michael Schiavo committing adultery? If the marriage vows were vacated, adultery would no longer be an operative category and thus an instance of “just adultery” not yet discovered. Of course, if Steffen is incorrect in his claims about personhood and marriage vows, then we also still lack an instance of “just adultery.” Either way, he hasn’t proved, or even illustrated, his point.

Steffen’s insistence that the morally evaluative meaning of terms changes over time conflates the way we use words as shorthand in rhetorical enthymemes with real moral reflection. As John Finnis explains, certain actions are deemed intrinsically wrong “without reliance on any evaluative term which presupposes a moral judgment on the action.” Exceptionless moral norms are based on the claim that certain actions are wrong by their very object and can never be made right, whatever the benefits or circumstances. Steffen has reduced moral norms to mere wordplay and then claimed that the intuitions of “reasonable persons” expose them as absolutist.

Abortion, Just War, and the “Divine Fetus”

Steffen’s confusion on this point is vividly apparent in his chapter on abortion. He claims that the absolute prohibition against direct killing of the innocent reveals a “non-moral sectarian position” fundamentally at odds with the ethic of common agreement. In Steffen’s view, the prohibition of abortion rests entirely on a theological construct of innocence that is only comprehensible if one accepts theological accounts of creation, fall, original sin, and salvation by Jesus Christ. The unborn child is granted a metaphysical trump card of “divine fetus” status and thus has absolute immunity from harm, always riding roughshod over the well-being of mother and society. Steffen argues that this view is counter to the natural law and fundamentally alien to all reasonable persons of goodwill.

He’s aware, of course, that the moral norm prohibiting the direct killing of the innocent is much broader than the abortion debate and is relevant to murder and military noncombatants without any appeal to the Garden of Eden. In fact, he insists that the analogy to just war thinking supports his claim, beginning with a presumptive duty to protect innocent noncombatants but in a non-absolutist way. Steffen describes the principle of double effect in the context of war, writing that

the killing of noncombatant innocent persons may be deemed allowable if it would prevent a greater evil, if every conceivable effort is made to prevent such killing, and if the death of an innocent occurs as the result of a regrettable and foreseen—but always unintended—consequence of a morally legitimized use of force.

Upon fulfillment of those conditions, “just war ethic allows that an unintended harm can . . . be accepted as a regrettable ‘lesser evil.’” And since just war permits the killing of the innocent, Steffen reasons that the innocent fetus should have no greater status.

But just war doctrine, in Steffen’s own formulation, does not allow any exceptions to the norm that prohibits the direct killing of the innocent. The killing, even if foreseen, must be unintended, indirect. Arguments over what counts as direct or indirect can be quite complex and contentious, but natural law never condones the direct targeting or killing of the innocent, no matter how great the benefits or how severe the harms of refraining. Steffen even highlights the requirement that noncombatant deaths be unintended.

The analogy between double effect in the killing of noncombatants and the procurement of an abortion is stronger than he thinks; the situations hold in common the exceptionless moral norm prohibiting direct killing of the innocent, and innocence does not entail quasi-divine status in either case. Further, only the exceptionless moral norm allows the basis for double effect thinking because, if we could simply violate the norm for reasons of prudence or consequence, the (complicated) edifice of double effect would be irrelevant.

Having scoffed at the theological “innocence” of the fetus, Steffen oddly overlooks double effect’s role when it comes to abortion. He assumes that it is obvious to reasonable persons of “moral moderation” that “abortion could be justified” in certain cases, particularly when the life of the mother is threatened. But here Steffen does not cite a single instance of the enormous literature on double effect and ectopic pregnancy, to take just one example, with its detailed discussions of the legitimacy or illegitimacy of surgical versus pharmaceutical approaches or of evacuating the embryo versus removing parts or all of the Fallopian tube. In these discussions, the analogy to innocents in war is quite obvious, as is the absence of any appeal to theological trumps. In both, an exceptionless moral norm explains a prohibition against direct killing, even as the range of permissible action remains open to advances in moral reflection, factual knowledge, and technology.

Moral Norms Promote Human Good

Steffen, like so many others hostile to “absolutism,” fails to grasp, as Finnis puts it, that “the rightness of action is always intelligibly related to human good” and thus that there “is never a case in which to adhere to a true specific moral absolute is thereby to ‘honor rules above values.’” Values—and persons—are always honored when the norm is followed, for the norm is always related to human flourishing and its safekeeping. That’s what makes it a norm. Further, since persons are valued (and loved) in keeping the norm, adherence fosters moral agents oriented toward respecting and advancing human flourishing. So-called “reasonable persons of goodwill” who intentionally violate a moral norm reveal themselves to be neither reasonable nor of goodwill. Rather, they are suffering from radically narrowed moral horizons that sacrifice persons for expediency.

Those unwilling to violate exceptionless moral norms do not sanguinely ignore the heartbreak and suffering involved in hard cases in favor of an abstraction. Instead, they maintain the value of every human person, even in the face of temptations. Striving to follow moral norms, even when it is difficult, helps us become persons capable of loving the good. We must find ways to help and support, care and nurture, heal and treat in service of that genuine value and intrinsic human dignity which must never be ignored and must not, under any conditions, be intentionally violated.

Professor Steffen and all others who appeal to prudence and reasonableness in explaining why moral norms are violable reveal a dangerous temptation within us all. In the face of difficult moral standards, we are all tempted to shrug, declare our actions sensible, and note with satisfaction that this is the way that many people act in ordinary lived experience. But in so doing, we resign ourselves to living in radically constricted love. And that is never reasonable.

R. J. Snell is professor of philosophy at Eastern University and author of The Perspective of Love: Natural Law in a New Mode.

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