June 10, 2013

Moral Compass: Ontological Reasoning

After having, briefly and inadequately, discussed God as the proper point of reference for moral discussion in the Catholic Church today, I will turn now to a discussion of several different practical methods for such moral discussion. I arbitrarily, and perhaps mistakenly, have invented a threefold distinction in such moral discourse: ontological, relational, and analogical. The first two are very common, the third is, as far as I can tell, of my own invention (not as a form of discourse: other people have used it before; I have merely come up with a name for it). Before discussing these different sorts of moral discourse, I would like to make a couple provisional points:
  • These distinctions are not mutually exclusive. It is possibly to argue ontologically and relationally at the same time.
  • These different methods of discourse, optimally, should lead to the same conclusions. Properly examining our relationships should reveal the same correct course of action as looking at analogies and looking at ontological reality.
  • These categories are my own making, and are quite possibly inaccurate. They seem accurate to me, but they might omit something important or include something unnecessary. This division (and the legitimacy of the analogical, which will be described in a later post) are the parts of this series of posts about which I am most interested in hearing criticism.
  • These methods do not descriptively or prescriptively define our moral life. Rather, they serve as different but equally valid calculi for determining what the proper action is in a given scenario. In other words, they do not talk about how human beings are moral and how our consciences work, rather, they provide a method for deciding what action is the proper action in any given situation.
With that having been said, let's proceed to look at the ontological method of argumentation. Ontological arguments frequently look at human nature, discuss true well-being, and view human relationships in terms of justice. They determine what is right in a given scenario by looking to how God created human beings to be: God determined what is good for us, and thus moral, in our very creation. Therefore, what we truly need, according to our true nature properly understood, is also what is moral. A typical ontological argument might go like this:
  • It is in the best interest of human beings to gain the correct amount of nutrition by eating the right kind and amount of foods.
  • This fifth piece of cake I am about to eat contains more sugar and fat than are required for my nutrition.
  • Therefore, I should not eat this piece of cake.
This method is clearly in the Thomistic tradition, and is very frequently used by virtue ethicists. This is the kind of claim that opponents to homosexual marriage frequently make, and is frequently the basis for arguments focusing on "rights." As such, we are very familiar with this kind of argument, and we make these kinds of arguments all the time when discussing ethics with our friends, workers, and society. Moreover, it is a rather effective form of argument, so long as we can agree on what is or is not good for human beings. The example above is pretty obvious: eating too much cake is clearly not good for us on an ontological level.

However, it is not so clear that homosexuality, for example, is ontologically opposed to human well-being. After all, it produces the same hormones in the brain during intimate relations as those produced during heterosexual relations, it features many of the same emotions, and moreover can be the occasion of virtuous action regarding one's partner. Both sides of the argument, in fact, frequently make recourse to "rights" and "human nature." "It is my right to love whosoever I choose to love," "It is against human nature to use your genital organs other than for their clear biological purpose," and "It is not in the true best interest of persons with homosexual inclinations to indulge in homosexual activities," all serve as examples of ontological arguments in this field which have failed to answer the standing question across broader society and even within specifically Catholic thought.

Arguably, this is because it is very difficult to come to an agreement on what, precisely, defines human nature and human well-being. In this article, I am looking for the Catholic answer to this question, as I discussed in the introductory post in this series. As a devoted Catholic, I hold and firmly believe that the Church is right in its teaching on morality. However, I am not looking merely for a "Catechism-Says-Therefore-Shut-Up-Be-A-Good-Catholic" sort of argument. Catholic spirituality and thought has perennially provided a rich and robust worldview on what humans fundamentally are. This worldview gives birth to authentically Catholic ontological reasoning. Thus, in order to perform Catholic ontological reasoning, a Catholic understanding of what constitutes human nature is necessary. To find such a Catholic understanding of human nature, one must look not only to Catholic philosophers like Aquinas, but also one must engage wholeheartedly in Catholic liturgy and prayer. Living the Catholic life authentically and devotedly, one will come to an understanding of Catholic human nature. The Eucharist particularly, when validly and in good conscience received, and when the true communion which Christ's body provides is lived in practice, provides the key to a truly Catholic ontological argument. In other words, in order to effectively use an ontological argument to help make good, Catholic life decisions, you must have earned a Catholic ontology by living in Catholic culture.

I had intended to do more today, and look at at least the relational form of argument as well as the ontological, but this will have to stand for now. I am regrettably out of time. I will, hopefully, write the next article in this series before too long, so stay tuned! More methods of moral adjudication are coming your way.



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