The Validity of Absolutes

A Response to the New Moralists

This article originally appeared in the January 14, 1966, issue of Commonweal.

For the New Moralists there are two sorts of ethics, one based on law the other on love. They contend that Christian moral teaching, which began as an anti-legalist ethics of love, has degenerated down the centuries into one of law. There is clearly a good deal of truth in this; moral theology, particularly in the Roman Catholic Church, has become legalistic and this does represent a departure from the authentic Christian tradition. The British catechism, now happily abandoned, on which I was brought up, had a section allegedly about charity. It began with a couple of questions about our obligation to love God (no mention, I need hardly say, of God’s love for us) and then the third answer went: “We show that we love God by keeping his commandments, for Christ says, ‘If you love me keep my commandments.’” From then on the compiler obviously felt more at home: “How many commandments are there?” “Say the ten commandments.” etc. Nowhere was there any reference to Christ’s words “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another.”

This kind of thing really can be called legalistic and an appalling distortion of the Gospel message. It was, however, simply a popular reflection of the contemporary works of moral theology which were in fact manuals for confessors and devoted themselves to the demarcation and classification of sins. Such works have not yet been replaced. The Church is in desperate need of a new moral theology and there is as yet hardly any sign of it. We have a few scattered essays and the gallant but, I think, finally unsuccessful, attempt of Father Bernard Häring, and that is all.

I do not believe that the New Morality is what we are looking for. I think it presupposes a view of man and of society that is no longer acceptable in the twentieth century. The New Moralists seem not to have taken sufficiently seriously either Ludwig Wittgenstein or Karl Marx. I do not, of course, want to suggest that what they have to say is without value. On the contrary, the campaign against legalism, the attempt to appreciate the concrete predicaments of men, has been useful and necessary. The stress on the value of the human person is extremely welcome even though, as I shall suggest, the concept of the person that they have at their disposal seems to me a limited and bourgeois one. I take it, however, that I am not invited to speak of the vast area over which we should agree, but of that small but crucial area in which I believe they are mistaken. This concerns the validity of absolute moral principles.

To put it more simply, the question is: Are there some things that you must never under any circumstances do? I think it is possible to formulate such prohibitions, the New Moralists do not. They think that no law can be unconditionally binding because in every concrete situation law is subject to the over-riding consideration of love.

Let us be clear that this is not an argument about legalism. I mean by a legalist one who holds that good behavior consists precisely in obeying laws. He holds that conformity to law is not only a necessary but a sufficient condition for morally good action. Of course legalism is not usually an articulate theory; it is rather a disposition which shows more in what a man says than something he explicitly maintains. A man infected with legalism shows it by giving only perfunctory attention to any element in the moral life other than that of law. He believes, more or less consciously, that so long as a man obeys the law he is safe: conformity to the rules will get you by.

Now a man may reject such legalism because he holds that conformity to law is insufficient for good action, even if he thinks it is necessary. This was the position of, for example, Thomas Aquinas who in some 800 Questions of the Summa Theologica concerning morality has just 18 of them on law (and only one, incidentally, on “natural law”). I do not mention Aquinas because I think his moral theology sufficient for our time but because he is a good example of a man who rejects both legalism and the New Moralists’ view of law. For Aquinas, love is the soul or life (“forma”) of every virtue. By this he means almost the exact opposite of what a transliteration might lead one to expect. He means that every genuine virtue is just a form of love. Chastity without love is, for him, not true chastity at all but its corpse; and for an Aristotelian such as he was, a dead body is not even a body, it is a heap of chemicals which happens to be easily mistaken for a body. Moreover, he held that chastity without love would in a fairly short time cease even to resemble true chastity; like a corpse it would soon fall to pieces and begin to smell.

This is evidently not a legalist position and yet Aquinas certainly thought that some prohibitions were unconditionally binding; he thought, in fact that it is possible to describe a piece of human behavior which would always be wrong, which could not be an expression of love. Of course it is possible to do this tautologically by introducing some reference to wickedness or lack of love into your description of the behavior. You can safely say “Cruelty will always, under all circumstances, be wrong,” because you are not prepared to count anything as cruelty unless it is loveless. But this would be trivial. Aquinas would maintain, and I think rightly, that it is possible to give a description of some piece of behavior which does not smuggle in any value terms and then to say that such behavior will always be wrong. For example, it would always be wrong to kill a baby by roasting it alive—and in case you think this is a fantastic example, remember that this is what napalm bombs and nuclear weapons do. (One exponent of the New Morality has, in fact, recently claimed that it could be an act of love to kill 100,000 people with an atomic bomb.)

The reason why a great many moralists reject this idea is that there seems to be a movement from a description of certain physical events (i.e., a description in physicists’ language) to one in terms of value, and they cannot see how the jump is made. They cannot see how you can deduce from a mere description of a state of affairs, that it ought or ought not to be the case. I think this puzzle begins to dissolve once we realize that a description of human behavior, such as “killing a baby by roasting it alive,” is not couched in physicists’ language but in the language of inter-personal communication. A physicist, as such, knows nothing of killing, but only of movements of particles or whatever in space-time; killing is not, as such, a physicists’ event, it is a human event. This does not mean, as the old dualist view of man would suggest, that a killing is a combination of two events, one a physicists’ in the public world and the other a mental event (an act of “intention”) in the private world. It was, I think, the greatest achievement of Wittgenstein to show that the mental world is not private. To have a mind is not essentially to have a means of withdrawing from the public world into a secret world of your own, it is to have a special way of belonging to the public world, it is to belong to a community.


Can Values Be Deduced From Facts?

What characterizes human beings is their special way of being together: their relations with each other are not just those of things with things, but of persons with persons. Their interactions are communication; descriptions of human behavior precisely as human are descriptions of what goes on in this world of communication. It is these descriptions (in which the significance of the behavior is part of what the behavior is) that are relevant to the formulation of moral laws. To say “Fred is killing an innocent man” is neither to speak in physicists’ language nor is it to speak of what goes on privately in Fred’s head—what he may be saying to himself silently while he is acting. It is to describe something as human behavior, as having a place in the system of communications that constitutes the existence of human beings. (Language, the use of signs, constitutes the human community, as sacraments constitute the ecclesial community: but all human activity is “significant,” just as all of the Christian life is “sacramental.”) It is a valid objection to the old Roman Catholic anti-contraceptive arguments that they were based on a physiologists’ description of sexual activity rather than on a description of it as human behavior, as an activity of communication, an activity with significance and not merely with effects.

Human action has significance in itself prior to any significance that may be given to it by what a man may have in mind when he does it—though this, of course, is also an important element in morals. Significance pertains in the first place to the community as a whole. I am saying this: Human acts have significance not the way stones have temperature but the way words have meaning. I cannot change the temperature of the stone just by taking thought, but neither can I change the meaning of a word just by taking thought, for it belongs to the language not to me. Nor can I change the value of my behavior by taking thought, for its value is its meaning in the total system of communications which is the human world.

I must say a little more about the “non-subjectivity” of meaning. A word does not have meaning because there is something that it stands for, not even a “mental thing,” a concept in my mind. It has meaning because it has a certain function in communication. When we know how a word is used in a certain community we know its meaning; this is its meaning. It follows that I cannot endow a word with meaning privately. I can no more create private meaning than I can issue private money. Money is what it is and has its value by playing a part in the system of financial communication. (Money is just a particular kind of language.) I do not confer meaning on my words by the ideas I have in my head when I use them. Meaning is thus, in a certain sense, “objective,” though not in the way that the height of a tree or the speed of a train is an objective fact; meaning, again, is “subjective,” though not in the way that a dream or a preference for kippers is subjective. Meaning belongs to the world of “inter-subjectivity,” the world in which persons are present to each other not as object to subject but as co-subjects.

Language is the use of sheer signs; linguistic activity as simply for the sake of its significance and not for any physical effect. Other things we do for the sake of the effect they achieve but these activities too, in so far as they are human activities, have significance. When we extend the notion of meaning from the area of sheer signs (the use of which is merely one department of human behavior) to the total field of human inter-relations we speak of the moral significance of behavior. My words have meaning as playing a part in linguistic communication, my speech (or any other activity of mine) has moral significance as playing a part in the total system of communications that constitutes the human community.

The human body is the source of significant behavior. The human body is not, like a knife or a word, significant because it is used in a certain way; the body is not used, it uses these other things. The dualistic view of man, which has been such a constant temptation to Western philosophy, pictures a self inside the body and using it rather as an announcer inside a radio station uses the mechanism at his command to deliver messages to the outside world. The analogy is bound to fail fairly quickly not only because you have to be a body first of all in order to be inside anything, but more importantly because you have to be a body to use a medium of communication.

The human body is not, therefore, a medium but a source of significance, and this distinguishes it radically (substantially) from other things. Other things may be human by participation in bodily life—and everything that man touches he humanizes in this way. It is the purpose of human work to make the world man’s clothing—but the body is humanly alive. As the Thomist said, human life is the substantial form of the body, that which makes it what it is, or, as Wittgenstein put it, “The best picture of the soul is the body.” It is because there are human bodies that there is a world of communication and it is by my bodiliness that I belong to this world. Without a body I am absent—this is what happens to the dead. (The bodily resurrection of Christ asserts that He is present.)


Morality as Bodily Activity

The sphere of morality, then, is the sphere of bodily activity, not the activity of physical objects as such but of human bodies. Of course not every piece of human behavior we characterize as loving or wicked is itself a piece of overt bodily activity or inactivity. A man may have love or hatred in his heart without this being expressed in some single bodily activity. But in the first place such secret thoughts are defined by reference to some bodily activity and, secondly, they derive their moral value from the value of such bodily behavior. Thus I may have secret thoughts which are not expressed in words, not even perhaps in words that I imagine myself speaking inaudibly. But what I have been thinking is what I would say if I did express it in signs (and therefore with my body).

There is such a thing as simply having a wicked intention which is never realized. Thus the maintenance of the nuclear deterrent requires that large numbers of people should be ready under given circumstances to murder a great many innocent people. This intention exists even if the murder never actually takes place. Such an intention is not of course normally hidden; it is presumably the business of the Security Services to weed out of key positions people who have not got it, so it must be detectable in some kind of overt behavior. But the essential point is that the intention itself is only wicked because the act itself of using nuclear weapons on cities is wicked.

The human body is definitive of love. I mean by this that in order to explain the meaning of “love” you have to describe some bodily activities: feeding the hungry, visiting the imprisoned, etc. It is true that we speak of God as loving although He is not a body, but when we say this we take a word whose meaning we understand in a bodily context and extend it into a realm which we do not understand. When we say that God is loving, as when we say anything else about God, we don’t know what we mean; we are using words to try to mean something. Moreover: “In this the love of God was made manifest amongst us, that God sent His only Son into the world that we might live through Him.” We only know the love of God in the bodily life of Christ, and primarily, of course, through our sacramental sharing in the bodily life of the risen Christ.

“Love,” then, has meaning by reference to human bodies in their various complex relations of communication, and ethics is the analysis of love. I am not maintaining a behaviorist view that love is a particular set of bodily activities; if this were so we could prescribe love by prescribing the “correct” activity in each situation: this would be a legalist position. On the contrary, loving, like thinking, is an open-ended concept which is exemplified in an indefinite number of ways. There are methods of calculating but there is no method of thinking, similarly, there is no method of loving.

This half of the truth is well recognized by the New Moralists. What needs to be seen too, however, is that if “love” is to have any meaning at all, there must be pieces of behavior which count as unloving, just as there are pieces of behavior which count as muddled thinking. If we can describe such pieces of behavior then we can lay down absolute prohibitions, for even the New Moralists recognize that the command to love is absolute.

Let me try to make that a little clearer. There is no single bodily activity which is playing football. When we imagine a man playing we think of him running about a field kicking a ball, but of course a man can be engaged in playing football while standing perfectly still or while performing some maneuver that has never been seen or imagined before. Playing football does not consist in following out a choreographer’s script mechanically, it is a creative activity—only human beings can play football. But if we were told that absolutely any activity could count as playing football, we should begin to feel that the word had lost its descriptive content and that while it might have significance as, say, an incantation, it was of no use for differentiating between various human activities. A recommendation never to stop playing football would then be a cheerful noise rather than a useful directive.


The Dualism of the “New Morality”

Now the New Moralists seem to hold that “loving” can be used to differentiate between kinds of behavior, and is therefore descriptive, but also that there is no possible piece of behavior which might not be called “loving.” I think it is possible for them to hold this only because they believe that the adjective “loving” is descriptive not of bodily behavior as such but of something else that accompanies it. I think, in fact that the New Morality only becomes plausible on a dualistic view of man according to which moral values attach to events in an “interior” invisible life which runs alongside a man’s public physical life. Activities in the public visible world are in themselves morally neutral. We speak of them as virtuous or wicked according to whether they are accompanied or not by an act of loving in the interior life. The two lives are not intrinsically connected; we can make rough empirical generalizations about which public acts are usually accompanied by love, but such rules of thumb have no sort of necessity.

“One cannot,” says the Bishop of Woolwich, “start from the proposition that sex relations before marriage or divorce are wrong or sinful in themselves. They may be in 99 or even 100 cases out of 100, but they are not intrinsically so, for the only intrinsic evil is lack of love.” Here we have an admirably clear statement that love does not consist in actual behavior but in something else which may accompany behavior. It follows from this, that moral laws which must, of course, be about bodily activity (or inactivity) cannot be about what morality is about, for morality is certainly about love. The most we can say is that it is extremely probable that if a man deliberately burns a child to death this will turn out not to have been an act of love, just as it is extremely probable that a man who has voted conservative all his life will do so again. Such generalizations are a useful guide but no more. We cannot make sure predictions about what behavior in a given situation would be unloving; we can only enter the situation, at least imaginatively, and see what happens.

The question I would put to the New Moralist, then, is the one that the post-Wittgenstein critic would put to any philosophical dualist: If there are no public criteria by which we may recognize at least lack of love, how do you recognize it yourself? If the word “love” does not have a meaning in the public language (which implies at least criteria of its mis-application) how can it have meaning to you, how do you know that what you are doing is loving?

The second of my criticisms of the New Moralists concerns their use of the word “situation.” They maintain that we should approach each moral situation with an innocent eye, we should be sensitive to its complexity; we should not seek merely to classify it according to preconceived categories. We should not say simply: “Here we have a clear case of adultery, it must stop,” but “Here we have these particular people in these particular relationships in this place at this time: what now is the best for them in terms of their personal integrity and fulfillment, how can they best be brought to maturity in Christ in and through this situation?” The first attitude is characteristic of the civil law. What the court wants to know is whether or not you were exceeding the speed-limit, whether or not you deliberately shot this man, it is not concerned with the whole of your human situation but simply with one aspect of your life, where it impinges in a fairly crude way on the lives of others. It is doubtless an excellent thing that magistrates and policemen should have these limits on their range of legitimate interest, but it makes them a poor model for the moralist whose subject matter should be human life as such.

It would be hard to find anyone to disagree with platitudes of this kind. What is new about the New Morality is the rather limited view it takes of the human situation in which a man lives. It deals, it seems to me, essentially with Suburban Man and supposes that his situation is his suburb. A man’s context is thought of as the people next door, the men he does business with, the enemies and friends he makes, the people he would mention in his autobiography. That is why I have described their notion of the personal as bourgeois.

Let us by all means jettison the “natural law” view of man, according to which Fred is of a certain nature with a certain function rather like a hammer or a lawnmower. Once we understand what man is “for” we can tell what would be appropriate and what inappropriate behavior. Let us say instead that Fred exists in his world, in his dynamic personal relations with others, that the activity which is authentically his is to be discovered not by contemplating any static essence of man but by considering the existence of Fred in his context. Let us do this; but then the question arises insistently: What is my context? Or, to put it another way: Who is my neighbor? The parable of the Good Samaritan is notoriously easy to misinterpret. We say “When I meet someone beaten up by the roadside, that is my neighbor.” But we are inclined to place the emphasis on the meeting instead of on the need for help. This is a tendency I detect in the New Morality.

The Varied Contexts of Life

I exist, in fact, in many contexts and the problem of morality—the problem of really being myself—is not simply to do justice to one selected context but to get the priorities right. Do I at the deepest level exist amongst the people I meet or amongst mankind? Do I have a personal relationship only with those I meet or with all who share a common life—and ultimately this means all men? Is my basic situation that of a man amongst the three or four people obviously involved in my marriage problem, or is it that of a man amongst my fellow men? As soon as we recognize that there are many overlapping situations and that there are priorities among them, we recognize the possibility of moral tragedy—that what is best for these people in their ultimate situation may not be what is best for them in this obvious context.

As I write this we have a clear illustration of it in Southern Rhodesia: First there is the doctrinaire classifier, the man who has never really looked at the details of the Rhodesian situation at all. He says: “Here we have a clear case of racial discrimination, it must stop.” He does not know any Rhodesians, black or white, he does not know the complex personal relations between them; he simply applies a crude moral code. Next we have the white Rhodesian, or more likely, his friend who has visited him. He will come back and tell you how humane and decent the whites really are. If you actually lived there, he says, if you knew the people involved, you would realize how absurd the doctrinaire picture is. These people have built a real civilization; there is no brutality, no lynching; a Negro is legally entitled to enter the best hotel in Salisbury. The whites are not tyrants and slave-owners desperately trying to retain their power. They are just ordinary decent chaps who understand the native and are genuinely seeking in the given concrete situation to do the best for all the people involved. God knows what would happen to everyone if the Communists had their way and every African had a vote…and so on.

If we disagree with this apologist it is not because we prefer the abstract doctrinaire position, it is because we think him not sufficiently aware of the concrete situation in which the white Rhodesian actually lives. He has seen only the narrow circle of people white or black, whom he “personally” knows. He has missed the full range of the situation which extends in fact to the limits of mankind. A man is not only with the people he meets but with all men and he is part of a stage in human history. The demands of this total situation may mean the destruction of much that was valuable in the narrower context.

The industrial revolution destroyed a traditional way of life the value of which was obvious in its own context and the defects of which were only apparent in a much wider setting. This culture collapsed because its capacity for valid personal relationships was restricted to too narrow an area. The ethic of the “situation” takes no account of the need for this kind of revolution and I think it is just this that commends it to western liberalism. Revolution means a questioning of the situation, it means that we are not content to do the best we can in the given circumstances but that we change them. Both attitudes are exemplified in the early church. St. Paul was situational about slavery; he tried to show how a man may exercise Christian love within this setting. On the other hand the early Church was revolutionary about marriage: the idea of monogamous divorceless marriage, of total sexual commitment of a man and woman was no reformist attempt to get the best out of the marriage situation. It was a radical re-statement of what marriage is, it set sexual relations in a new and wider context, the context of redemption as St. Paul shows in Ephesians. The full implications of the Christian view of sex have not yet been worked out by the Church but at the very start the proclamation of “One man, one wife” was at least as subversive and “impractical” as the African demand for “One man, one vote.”

When therefore we come across a “man of principle,” someone who rigidly or ruthlessly abides by a course of action at the expense of what seem to be the obvious demands of kindness in a situation, we need to ask: Has he got his nose buried in the rule-book so that he can’t see what is in front of him, or is it that he sees more than what is in front of his nose? What we call “absolute” moral demands are just the demands of the total human situation as far as we can see them—and I believe it is part of the fact of divine revelation that we are helped to see them. Such demands may conflict with the demands of a smaller situation into which we have entered, but the absolutist morality is based on the priority of the situation into which we enter by being born.

Nothing takes precedence over the demands of the personal relationships in which I am involved by simply belonging to mankind. To exist at all is to be involved with others: “Social activity and social mind by no means exist only in the form of activity or mind that is manifestly social…even when I carry out scientific work—an activity which I can seldom conduct in direct association with other men—I perform a social, because a human act. It is not only the material of my activity—like the language itself which the thinker uses—which is given to me as a social product. My own existence is a social activity” (KARL MARX).


Related: Radical, OP: Herbert McCabe's Revolutionary Faith, by Eugene McCarraher



About the Author

The Rev. Herbert McCabe, OP, was editor of New Blackfriars and the author of several books of theology, including The People of God (Sheed & Ward). He died in 2001.