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Mount St. Mary’s Seminary

The Role of Philosophy in Priestly Formation

May 24, 2010

“Remarks on Moral Philosophy—with an Illustration from a Text in Preparation”

John W. (Jack) Carlson, Professor of Philosophy, Creighton University

            I am delighted to be with you this afternoon, even if as something of an interloper.  I do not directly participate in priestly education, although some of my students—at Creighton University and elsewhere—have gone on to Catholic seminaries and the priesthood.  However, I share with you an interest in how to communicate the essentials of what, in his keynote address, Msgr. Robert Sokolowski called “perennial philosophy.”   I also share an interest in the development of what Msgr. Stuart Swetland has just referred to as “solid secondary texts.”  I don’t mind telling you it was a thrill for me to hear these eminent priest-professors describe nearly perfectly my aim in undertaking certain projects over the past decade.

                In 2008, The Catholic University of America Press published my textbook, Understanding Our Being: Introduction to Speculative Philosophy in the Perennial Tradition.   This work attempts, under one cover, to introduce students to the essentials of philosophy of nature, metaphysics, philosophy of the human person (or philosophical anthropology), and philosophy of God (or natural or philosophical theology).   Presently I am working on a follow-on text, Achieving the Good: Introduction to Moral Philosophy and Ethics in the Perennial Tradition.  This latter title is perhaps self-explanatory; the book itself is divided into two parts, the first on ethical theory and the second on a range of topics in applied ethics.  A third project is a dictionary of philosophical terms.  It is called Words of Wisdom: A Dictionary for the Renewal of Perennial Philosophy; it is under contract with the University of Notre Dame Press.

                These books have not been developed with seminarians directly in mind—although I have thought that the 1,150-entry philosophical dictionary might be useful as a resource in priestly education.  The two textbooks have grown out of my concern about the lack of adequate, up-to-date materials suitable for general undergraduate courses at Catholic colleges and universities.  If they should turn out to be useful in your own endeavors, whether as primary texts or as secondary resources, I shall be delighted.

                With the term “perennial philosophy,” Msgr. Sokolowski referred to an idea once in vogue with philosophers who represent the central philosophical strand of Catholic intellectual tradition.  It is a term that can cause certain difficulties today, given the ambiguity brought about its use in a very different sense by religious syncretists such as Aldous Huxley.  Still, as you can gather from the subtitles of my works, I know of no better term to express what was intended by the thinkers who have promoted this philosophical tradition.   (In his great encyclical Fides et ratio, sec. 20, Pope John Paul II surely was making the same basic point when he spoke of an “enduringly valid philosophical tradition.”)  The 20th C. Thomist Jacques Maritain in one place described the “perennial” philosophy as follows:  It is a tradition of thought rooted in ancient and medieval sources, yet it “is eternally young and always inventive, and involves a fundamental need, inherent in its very being, to grow and renew itself” in every age.  (A Preface to Metaphysics (1945), 2.)  Thus in principle it is available for articulation and appreciation by people of all times and cultures.  It is to the perennial philosophy understood in this way that my projects seek to contribute.

                More specifically, my projects seek to facilitate the communication of this perennial tradition to the contemporary generation of students.  The core curricula at most Catholic schools now assign two or three courses to philosophy.   In my two texts, I try to develop the essentials of the perennial tradition, first in key areas of speculative philosophy, and then in moral philosophy and ethics.  (Obviously, this involves an imbalance; however, often college curricula specify some generically described “Introduction to Philosophy” as the first course, with “Moral Philosophy” or “Ethics” as the second course.)  Today I will offer some remarks on the latter effort and give you a sense of what is to appear in my new book.

                For me (as for Maritain, Yves Simon, Mortimer Adler, and others of an earlier generation), moral philosophy in one way arises out of the healthy natural moral consciousness.  (This, in fact, is part of what Aquinas meant in saying, in the Summa Theologiae’s “Treatise on Law,” that natural (moral) law is our human creaturely participation in God’s eternal law.)  One need not—and in fact one cannot—simply deduce moral precepts from propositions of speculative philosophy.  Incidentally, in this precise but limited sense, Germain Grisez and other proponents of the so-called “New Natural Law Theory” seem to me to be quite correct.  This does not mean, however, that the articulation of a philosophical ethics should ignore speculative philosophy.  Far from it; indeed, the first two sections of Achieving the Good are devoted to “Metaphysics of Goodness” and “Anthropological Foundations,” respectively.   In those sections I develop an account of Aristotelian teleology and its metaphysical expression in the formula “Every agent acts for an end;” I then apply such philosophical notions to the specific case of the human end, identified by Aristotle as eudaimonia.  As I see the matter, speculative philosophical reflection along this line enables us to set principles of the moral life in their proper theoretical context. 

                As you know, Aristotle’s Greek term is typically translated as “happiness.”  However, in an age marked by utilitarianism, we must be careful to elucidate the notion in question by using phrases such as “a life well-lived,” or “human fulfillment.”  I myself often speak of “integral human good”—whatever, precisely, that will come to constitute, in relation both to human nature in the abstract, and to concrete possibilities for individual, personal lives.

                The following pages illustrate a presentation and discussion of natural teleology from the standpoint of the perennial tradition.  It is taken almost verbatim (with footnotes eliminated) from a section of my text called “Natural Norms and the Determinants of Moral Action.”   As will be seen, my account draws on the metaphysical and anthropological notions mentioned above.    [Insofar as you find my formulations helpful, you should feel free to use them; I ask only that citation be given to the author and work, as titled above, with an indication that it is in preparation for The Catholic University of America Press.]

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The “Natural” as Morally Significant

                As indicated near the end of the preceding section, the perennial tradition’s normative theory is rooted in the idea that human good is determined, or partly determined, by what is “natural.”  Now, the terms nature and natural can be taken in a variety of ways; if we are to understand this moral philosophy correctly, we must explore the present matter in some detail. 

According to one common use of “natural,” the speaker is referring to what happens, or can happen, in nature—sometimes by contrast with what is artificial or subject to creative human intervention.  The bonding properties of hydrogen and oxygen that make possible the formation of water are instances of the natural in this sense.  But so also are the tendencies toward territorialism and violence that are manifest throughout the animal world—including, all too obviously, our human world.  Moral philosophers clearly will not regard this way of being natural as having positive normative significance.

In another sense, the term “natural” relates to what earlier was called a thing’s “essence.”  Features of a being, or of a power or act, are natural in this sense inasmuch as they are rooted in the nature of the being in question.  Here a common contrast would be with features that depend upon events in the external or internal environment, or that depend upon human decision and agreement.  Thus, for example, to be able to communicate through language is natural for human beings: this power is rooted in our rationality and sociality.  However, depending on his or her circumstances, an individual may speak well or poorly (or, in the case of those mute by birth or by accident, not at all).  Again, many individuals speak only one language, while others speak two or even several.  Moreover, particular features of a given language, for example, the assignment of gender (i.e., being masculine or feminine) to all nouns in Spanish and other Romance languages, clearly are products of human agreement among speakers, rather than being essential to human communication as such.  As in the first case, speaking of what is natural in the sense of what is part of a thing’s essence, or is a feature specifying that essence (e.g., speaking one or several languages), does not itself have direct implications for ethics.             

Again, the term “natural” sometimes is used to mark what is within the power or range of activity of beings of nature (including human nature) as such—by contrast with what is other than nature (e.g., mathematical objects and relations).  In this sense it is natural for us to have a certain height and weight, but not to be inversely proportional to one another, or to manifest any other mathematical property.  The present contrast also extends, for religious and spiritual traditions, to what is “beyond” nature (e.g., for Christianity, God and the created pure spirits called angels).  Thus it is natural for human persons to be able to develop organized societies, but the possibility of enjoying everlasting life with God, supposing this is real, is something that must come from beyond (and therefore is commonly referred to as “supernatural”).  As before, to speak of the “natural” in these ways is not to point to matters which—in and of themselves—have genuine significance for ethics.  Acts and conditions that are within the range of human nature may have varying moral qualities or none.

                There remains to be discussed a fourth sense of the term “natural;” this one, according to perennial philosophers, does have normative force.  In light of our earlier discussions, it can be said that human beings (like all other beings of nature) have an intrinsic end or telos—i.e., mode of fulfillment—one that to some extent can be discerned by reason.  Human acts and conditions that genuinely accord with our fulfillment (what Aristotle, as we have seen, called eudaimonia) will be natural in this specific sense; ones that impede or detract from or preclude this state will not.  Thus, taking reasonable steps to maintain one’s health can be called a “natural” thing to do, for it contributes to our overall human good.  But living in abject poverty—or allowing others to do so when such a condition can be prevented or ameliorated—is not “natural” in this sense; rather, such things militate against authentic human good.  In this way, acts and conditions that are natural in the sense that they contribute to our end or fulfillment as humans (or unnatural in the sense that they detract from that end) come to have moral significance.  And statements enjoining us to pursue—or to avoid—such acts and conditions are expressions of natural norms. 

                At this point let us recall that the perennial philosophy seeks to embody what we have termed “critical realism.”  As we have seen, this in part means that there are limits on the proper recognition of the good.  It also means that our appreciation of what is natural in the present, morally relevant sense is subject to a degree of historical development.  Thus the recognition of what contributes to or is perfective of ourselves as human beings—and of the reverse—is an ongoing project for “right reason” (in Latin, recta ratio).  A pertinent instance of development can be seen in the fact that only a generation ago there was much less appreciation than there is today of the moral significance of dietary and other lifestyle factors that promote human health.  Moreover, while in earlier periods poverty typically was regarded as a condition that much of humanity (including, for Americans, large numbers of their fellow citizens) simply had to endure, today all right-thinking people at least question this proposition and many find it morally unacceptable.  (This blade, however, can cut both ways; that is, there can be a falling back with respect to recognizing what is necessary for the human good.  For example, a formerly freedom-loving people may, due to a variety of cultural influences, come to vote away significant aspects of their autonomy and to embrace, in effect, a dictatorship.  A historical instance occurred in connection with the Vichy regime in World War II France.)

Students of perennial thought should be aware that certain philosophers have expressed objections to all forms of naturalism in ethics.  For example, at the beginning of the 20th Century, G. E. Moore spoke of what he called the “naturalistic fallacy.” A popular way of exposing this fallacy was to say, “You can’t derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is.’”   That is, from an understanding of how things factually are one cannot draw conclusions as to how things should be.  However, on reflection we can see, in light of  that the above distinctions and analyses,  that such an objection misses the mark in relation to the tradition of Aristotle, Aquinas, and their followers in the present day.  For to speak of the “natural” in the context of ethics is to speak of what is in accord with and perfective of our natures as human beings, and in accord with the intrinsic ends of our typical powers and acts.  To refer to “what is” in this sense (the fourth sense noted above) is, therefore, already to recognize an aspect of the good; here, that is, the term “natural” already incorporates a normative dimension.  The present account obviously depends upon the metaphysical and anthropological positions developed in preceding sections; however, supposing the positions in question are sound, it should be clear that there is no fallacy in speaking of the good as partially determined by nature in the way proposed by perennial philosophy.

Let us now contrast the normative theory we are articulating with what we have identified as the “scientific naturalism” supported by certain followers of John Dewey.  The latter bears a superficial similarity to an approach to ethics rooted in the classical and medieval authors.  That is, pragmatists also speak of “nature,” and they hold that this notion can figure importantly in discussions about moral and social advancement.  However, as mentioned earlier, these thinkers regard things’ natures—and especially human beings’ natures—as being plastic or subject to development.  Thus, for them, no general understanding of human nature and its ends can serve as a firm basis for the articulation of moral principles.

A recent, and more hopeful, philosophical movement should be mentioned at this point—one which stresses the moral significance of our nature as personal beings and which explores this nature’s distinctive traits.  This movement, called personalism, originated in Europe in the middle decades of the last century with the Jewish writer Martin Buber and Catholic writers such as Gabriel Marcel, Emmanuel Mounier, and Dietrich von Hildebrand.   In the present day and in this country a prominent “personalist” thinker is John Crosby, who himself was a student of von Hildebrand.  In works such as The Selfhood of the Human Person and Personalist Papers, Crosby has discussed philosophical implications of recognizing the uniqueness of human personhood, as well as relations between the resulting ideas and those of the perennial tradition.

Personalist philosophy brings forth a number of points that have implications for ethics.  Importantly, many acts which, biologically speaking, we share with other animals do not have the same significance for us as humans.  (Think of the meaning and importance that historically has attached to family meals; and consider, for example, the social and moral implications of a student’s deciding not to attend a meal specially arranged by one’s parents to celebrate one’s return home—e.g., for the mid-year holiday, or for the successful conclusion of one’s academic program.)  To take another type of case, recent personalists—including Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II—have contributed to philosophical reflection on the human or personal significance of our sexuality, again by contrast with biologically similar tendencies and acts in other species of mammals.  (This point we shall explore further when we turn to Applied Ethics in part 2.)

                Questions arise about how to assimilate personalism’s themes to the perennial tradition.  As just noted, this more recent philosophy indeed makes significant contributions to our understanding of interpersonal relations, including those involving sexuality and family life; it also, the present author believes, can help articulate the basis of moral concern for our poor and disadvantaged fellow human beings, both at home and around the world.  (See the discussion of the virtue of “solidarity” in section 1.7, below.)  However, it is less clear how personalism can produce practical principles for choice and action regarding, e.g., questions of war and peace, except insofar as it is grafted onto the perennial (or some other) normative theory.  A similar judgment seems in order regarding issues surrounding the state’s duty to protect what we shall come to identify as “common goods” of its citizenry, and thus regarding various provisions of the criminal law. 

Still, reflections on personal and interpersonal relations are relevant even to these latter issues; moreover, such relations certainly are an integral part of our human nature.  Thus it is a worthy project for philosophical thought to pursue a personalism that would be consistent with the critical realism and naturalism of the perennial tradition—or, alternatively, to seek to incorporate the resources of personalism within the ongoing development of perennial ethics.  The aforementioned John Crosby might be said to pursue the former project; in this text we are pursuing the latter.

Human Acts and Their Ends

                At this point, let us recall the metaphysical principle: “Every agent acts for an end.”  As metaphysical, this principle applies universally, i.e., it applies to all that is or can be.  In most cases, as noted earlier, things act simply in ways dictated by their natures, as these are affected by other things in their environment; but in other cases—namely, human or personal acts—at least some of the “ends” in question are chosen. Thus it may be said that human acts have a dual teleology:  they can involve ends or goods by nature, and ends or goods that receive their character because of human intentionality and choice.  By “intentionality” is here meant what the agent has in mind (or “intends”)—in particular, the purpose or purposes he or she wishes to pursue.  

                In expressing this dual nature of the teleology of human acts, perennial philosophers traditionally have distinguished the “end of the act” and the “end of the agent.”  From the standpoint of philosophical analysis, the former relates to the act’s intrinsic teleological orientation—what it objectively accomplishes, precisely as the type of act it is.  The latter relates to subjective elements in human undertakings, i.e., people’s individual purposes or motives.      

                In order to further clarify the dual teleology of human acts, let us discuss two types of case.  First, consider speech communication, or the uttering of a statement by one person to another or others.  Here, we might say, the intrinsic end (the “end of the act”) is to provide true or reliable information, as the speaker genuinely believes it to be.  However, in the vast majority of cases, speakers aim at more than simply providing information.  Their subjective intentions (i.e., their purposes or motives, or, once again, the “ends of the agents”) may include things as diverse as impressing a teacher with a classroom answer and persuading a friend to join a political cause.  In good human communication, the two aspects of teleology come together and cohere.

                Again, consider the act of producing a work of art.  When a sculptor produces a statue (e.g., Rodin’s The Thinker), he or she typically has a number of goals in mind—to earn a monetary commission, to secure fame as an artist, and/or to complete a long-planned project.  (The Thinker, in fact, originally was one element within a much larger project by Rodin, called The Gates of Hell.)  But the end of the act, in and of itself, is simply the production of a work that is aesthetically pleasing or, due to its appropriate fitting of form with matter, in some other way meritorious.  Again, ideally, the two aspects of teleology—intrinsic end and subjective motive—will, while remaining distinct, be fully compatible.

                Before proceeding to apply these points to the moral evaluation of human acts, we should take up a theoretical issue that has been raised about the idea of the end of an act.  Although this idea (corresponding, as we have seen, to Greek telos and Latin finis) has been consistently upheld by the perennial tradition, certain modern writers question whether human acts, just as such, can be said to have intrinsic ends.  Drawing on our discussion in section 1.1, let us explore this matter further.

What we have called teleology, or final causality, is seen by the perennial tradition as built into the very nature of things.  Hence the Scholastic principle noted at the beginning of this sub-section.  Now, the ends for which things act are as various as the types of things there are.  Instances of the element hydrogen have as an aspect of their nature a tendency to bind with instances of oxygen, so as to form molecules of water.  Acorns have an internal dynamism toward becoming oak trees.  Human persons, in turn, naturally seek such fulfillment (what we have termed “integral human good”) as may be available to them.  Importantly, such teleological considerations apply not only to the beings themselves, but also to their characteristic acts and operations.  Thus, if we see an acorn begin to put down roots, we recognize that the end or purpose of this operation is to develop physical structures that will support vegetative growth and development.   And, if we see a high school senior poring over college brochures, we recognize that he or she is seeking to determine which school will best enable that student to fulfill his or her educational goals.  Thus teleological structures extend to those acts undertaken with a view to our end or fulfillment as human persons.  It perhaps should be noted that, contrary to certain writers (including certain Catholic theological writers), this perennial account is not to be understood as a type of “biologism” or “physicalism,” i.e., as having its moral focus on the physical act just as physical.   The high school senior certainly is a physical being; but his or her act of choosing a college is not, strictly speaking, a physical act.  Moreover, even in cases in which human acts are physical ones, the focus of ethical analysis is on their character as specifically human or personal, rather than on their physicality.

At this point, let us recall two earlier-noted philosophical views which question the idea of natural ends.  These are scientism on the one hand and atheistic existentialism on the other.  For upholders of scientism, only propositions that can be directly supported by the empirical sciences (with their structures of observation, hypothesis-testing, etc.) deserve our assent; and the idea of “ends” or “purposes” in nature clearly falls outside this scope.  (Even the philosophers of pragmatism or scientific naturalism question intrinsic purposes, since these thinkers regard natures as essentially plastic and thus as subject to modification in terms of human experience and choice.)  For existentialists, of course, everything depends on human choice; thus they too reject the idea that our acts have associated purposes simply because of the types of human acts they are.

                Now, intrinsic ends or purposes are not among “natural” phenomena in one of the senses noted earlier:  they are not, for example, observable in the way that the activity of chemical reagents are.  (“Adding an acid to a base produces a salt plus water.”)  Still, even in the latter case, it must be assumed that the natures of the elements in question have dispositions to bond in the ways indicated; thus, while there can be no question of conscious purposes here, there in fact is a sort of teleology within nature even at the level of chemical investigation.  (It is, in a way, “good” that elements can combine in these ways; the universe, it might be said, is more complete insofar as it contains the possibilities of acids, bases, salts, and water than it would be if it did not.)  Moreover, while we can agree with existentialists that human fulfillment crucially involves choice, the objects of choice—if they are to contribute to genuine fulfillment—must fall within a certain range established by the nature of things, including the nature of human relations within society.  (Thus, as mentioned earlier, in spite of what a given individual may wish to be the case, no one is genuinely fulfilled by choosing to become, and to act as, a bank-robber or a murderer-for-hire.)

                The upshot of this discussion is that we rightly seek to identify the intrinsic ends of human acts, not as empirical phenomena, but rather as things that can be understood via reflection on integral human good.  Genuine human acts, therefore (i.e., ones resulting from deliberation and choice), are complex in their teleology.  Each will have an objective end or ends related to the nature of the act itself; and each also will have a subjective end or ends, i.e., the agent’s own motives or purposes.


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            I hope the above paragraphs give you a taste of what I am trying to do in this textbook of perennial moral philosophy.   In the pages immediately following, I go on to articulate the traditionally recognized “determinants” or “sources” (Latin fontes) of morality—moral object, end (i.e., motive or purpose), and circumstances.  The text then proceeds to set this normative theory within the structure of “Law” as outlined by Aquinas (eternal, natural, divine, and human), and to take up the vexed question of whether there are exceptionless moral norms.  Following Maritain and Simon (and, of course, John Paul II in Veritatis splendor), I argue that there are.  But the matter, as readers will be aware, is complicated.  I round out the discussion of ethical theory with sections on conscience, moral virtue, and morality in the context of society (i.e., questions of the common good, justice, rights, subsidiarity, etc.). 

                A number of people—including my co-panelist William Murphy—believe that philosophy curricula in the seminary should include a special course on political philosophy, in order to provide an adequate background for the appreciation of Catholic social teaching.  For what it is worth, I endorse this idea.  However, in the context of the two course sequence within which I am forced to work, such political philosophy as is to be presented to students in their core curricula will need, as just indicated, to be covered as the last phase of ethical theory.

                Again, I am delighted to have this opportunity to share with you my ideas on these important matters of common interest!   

Copyright © John W. Carlson 2010

Version: 12th June 2010

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