Steve Long and the Moral Object

I have been reading Steven Long of late. His account of the moral object seems urgent to consider.

In a moral act, the first thing we must consider is the “what it is” you are doing. The object of the act. Are you murdering or are you feeding someone? Etc.

Those who know, know that this is one very difficult topic.

One of Long’s crucial points, though, is lost on many, including many good Catholics. It is this: That the natural order of cause and effect in the sub-rational world already indicates certain truths about certain possible actions for our choice. This inherent order in certain natural lines of causality cannot be ‘ignored’ when I choose to act. Indeed, to choose intelligently to act requires adverting to these ordered structures. And these ordered structures determine the character of the actions which a rational agent proposes to commit.

Case in point. Say a given doss of pain-killer is known medically certainly to be lethal. Well, then, to choose to administer this doss is to choose death. Period. Of course, the doctor or relative will say to himself, “I only want the pain-killing side of the act. I don’t want the death-dealing side of it.” Ah, but you know that it does deal death. And you are to act intelligently. This is the kind of action the natural course of which necessarily entails death. (Let necessary = medically known sufficiently to cause, except in rarest of cases or miracles.) Then, for any intelligent agent to choose to administer it just is to choose death. One cannot – in GNOSTIC fashion – then claim that one interiorly (spiritually) only desires a certain aspect of this natural (merely material, he claims) act. If  one were to justify the action by saying that one only chooses the act under its desirability, one would be acting in Gnostic fashion. It would be the “intentionalist” fallacy. That my intention can – in the face of a naturally known telelogical order of a certain action – bypass this order and find some other reason for the appetibility of the act. That my intention finds what is appetible and chooses it only thus. This is what Long calls “intentionalism.”

Its effects are absolutely dire, and contrary to Catholic moral tradition. Another example is craniotomy. This is the crushing of a baby’s skull to save the mother’s life when otherwise both will die.

Remember: We must never do evil that good may come. Even if I only kill one little babe to stop WWIII, nonetheless, I would sin evilly in doing so. All good Catholics grant this basic point.

But those who confuse the moral object can’t see straight on craniotomy. How do they tackle it? They do this: They say that the doctor chooses the “reshaping” of the skull. He doesn’t choose the death. Only the reshaping, so it can fit the birth canal so he can save the mother.

Long’s counter: But crushing the skull necessarily entails death. Hence, to choose this action intelligently just is to choose death. And if the object is rational and innocent, then to choose its death is murder. But if you opt for intentionalism, you can wipe away this very serious, long approved condemnation of craniotomy. You can wipe it away with your good intention. Which now comes to supposedly “specify” the act and – voila! – you turn murder into salvation. This really is a vile consequence of a gnosticizing theory.

The order impressed in nature does not enslave us. It gets us going and serves as the partial determination – in some cases crucial determination – of the kinds of actions that are morally good.

Long’s tome on the subject is The Teleological Grammar of the Moral Act. Long is a good friend, a compassionate soul, and a brilliant theologian / philosopher.

I highly recommend this text.