On Mistaking Morality

In a lecture I listened to recently via podcast, a distinguished evolutionary biologist asked the question, “What is goodness?” In developing his answer, he distinguished between two views of goodness: the absolutist and the relativist. The absolutist view holds that goodness is a “formula” or “rule” that can be applied, always and everywhere, to whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. The relativist view says simply that there is no single, “one-size-fits-all” rule of goodness for human beings. The good is simply the name we give to the collection of our preferences.

I found it interesting that in setting up the history of ethics in this way, the evolutionary biologist left out a third understanding of goodness, the one, in fact, that dominated Western culture for some 1,500 odd years until the Enlightenment and which, to this day, is the core of the Church’s moral theology. This is the view that goodness is the exercise of virtue, that is, of perfected character.

Interesting that he left it out, but not at all surprising, given that he is an ardently secular evolutionary biologist. What is more surprising is that many of my fellow Catholics reduce the question of goodness to more or less the same dichotomy. According to them, goodness is following the moral law, and relativism is its opposite.

As with most mistaken opinions, there’s a kernel of truth in this view. After all, there are rules in the Catholic understanding of the good life. We have the precepts of the natural law as well as the commandments of divine positive law. And these, to put it mildly, are no small consideration. But in the tradition of the virtues, the good life always goes beyond mere rule-following.

Consider a sports analogy. What is excellence in soccer? Does it simply come down to following what is found in the Official Rules? When a world-class player such as Barcelona’s “Leo” Messi exhibits his excellence on the field, his excellence is always more, much more, than what can be found in the rulebook. Following the rules is essential for his success, no doubt. One serious infraction can see him ejected from the game. But his excellence, his soccer-playing virtue, really comes down to his habitual ability to create, to improvise, to dazzle, to take the game boldly where no other player has taken it before.

St. Paul Preaching on the Areopagus by Leonard Porter, 2010 [Segnatura Fine Arts]

Our English word “morality” comes from a Latin word meaning “customs, or manners.” The etymology is instructive. It reminds us that morality is not essentially about making sure we stay on the right side of the moral law. Rather, the etymology reminds us that morality and the good life are essentially about forming our character in appropriate habits and practices.

Questions of morality are above all questions of formation. Formation of the mind in truth, and, in turn, the mind’s formation of the passions and the will in that truth. Such character formation allows for a kind of improvisation and “dazzle” analogous to the kind we marvel at in the superior athlete. In its supreme form, it is the outlandishness of sanctity. The rich young man kept the commandments all his life, yet Christ asked him to go beyond the commandments: to sell everything he had, give it to the poor, then come and follow him.

And because morality is at its heart character formation, then our moral focus should always be on the “accustomed places” where that formation occurs, or fails to occur. Accordingly, the customs and manners of the household, where the most fundamental and long-lasting character formation takes place, should always hold the paramount place in the hierarchy of our moral concerns.

Indeed, every effort of the New Evangelization depends upon keeping the focus on customs and manners. If we really want to win over the ambient secular culture to Christ, then we have to understand that, typically, this effort will require more than abstract argument about moral laws. It is of course imperative that conceptual arguments be made in defense of traditional marriage, religious freedom, the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death, and the like. No one is talking of abandoning the law courts or other corners of the public square. But it is rare for these kinds of arguments, all by themselves, to transform the minds of those whose formation in character does not already dispose them to agree.

So what we really have to do is to go to the sources of moral formation. We have to find ways to speak not just to the minds of those whose outlook is very different from our own, but also, and more importantly, to their hearts. We have to learn the “language,” so to speak, of their “moral habitats” so that we can talk to them in words they can understand.

This kind of effort will take us out to what Pope Francis calls the “peripheries,” where ardently secular evolutionary biologists and their allies dwell. But this is what the New Evangelization asks of us. This is a large part of what it means to pursue the good in our increasingly godless contemporary world.

Daniel McInerny is a philosopher and author of fiction for both children and adults. You can find out more about him and his work at danielmcinerny.com.