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On the Logic of Morals

The following “ends” of man seem at least thinkable: 1) A supernatural end. It calls him to what is beyond his nature. It is offered to him by the Creator as a gift; 2) A purely natural end that corresponds to and is limited by man’s own natural powers; 3) An inner-worldly natural end to establish a human city appropriate to man’s own knowledge and work, yet in harmony with a supernatural end. 4) An inner-worldly chosen city of human design explicitly geared to deny any natural or supernatural end in man.

“Natural law” means, roughly, that within each existing thing is found an implicit order through which, by its actions, it manifests what it is. Its order or form can be known by reason. Each being, including human beings, displays characteristic actions that are best for it. This “natural law” operates because beings exist. It is designed to be known. The “natural law” of human beings is to know what they are and then to act accordingly.

Any deviation from natural laws automatically puts into effect a “logic” of deviation from the good of its initial order. This deviation incites a natural “impetus” that gradually, relentlessly, unless identified and corrected, leads from one deviation to another until the opposite of what is the natural good is put into effect and enforced. This effect is then claimed to be “good,” not evil. The natural law is replaced by positive law that alone defines what man is.

Within nature, human beings differ from other beings. They are empowered to achieve or reject their own good. On this choice, they decide their ultimate status. This possibility was the necessary consequence of having a being in the universe that was created with freedom to accept or reject what it is. Aristotle’s principle that nothing in nature is “in vain” is key to understanding the order of declination. Each step becomes more meaningless.

The distinction of the sexes, for example, “male and female He created them,” has a purpose. It is to provide the best way to continue the human race. The proper context in which this continued existence occurs is the family, composed of one man married to one woman with the off-spring begotten of them.

In the fifth book of Plato’s Republic, a much-imitated alternative to the family was imagined. Those who beget were not to know each other or their specific children. Children were not to know their parents. Children were to be begotten with genetic consideration as in the case of thoroughbreds. All of this anonymity was to promote equality by genetic screening. The guidance of the state was to determine who is to be born and kept. Education is in the hands of a state that allows no children to know their own parents. The family was inimical to the state’s purposes.

The “logic” of Plato’s “shocking” proposal (as he realized) is everywhere present in our thinking about marriage. Sex, eros, and begetting are separated. Contraceptive acts and homosexual acts are equally “in vain,” since no natural results are possible. Acts that do result in conception are rendered “in vain” by abortions.

Once the principle of “in-vain” sexual relations is legally established, two new issues come into view. Children, that society needs, can be designed and fertilized in a laboratory. Surrogate mothers who have no relation to the genetic origin of the child can be hired. Artificially designing children becomes “feasible.” Children can be “ordered” and assigned by the state to any individual or group that wants them. Secondly, through genetic manipulation, the state can presumably produce the kind of children it wants. It mixes races, talents, sizes, and colors, as it desires, for the preferred state.

All of this manipulation is a result of a “logic” that impels the next step to be taken until we finally arrive at the opposite of what was intended by nature. Instead of having known children of known parents in stable families, we have unknown children of unknown parents placed in groupings with no relation to the child. All of this “rearrangement” of life is brought about in the name of independence, liberty, justice, and equality.

How does this “logic” relate to the possible “ends” of man? It is the conscious and deliberate replacement of what nature intended. This alternative way of life leaves no natural relationships between individuals. All are equally isolated, equally anonymous to each other. Human individuals are then free to do whatever they want except anything that has any natural consequences outside of themselves.

We, as a society, have not quite arrived yet at what is, in effect, a diabolical, wholly “in-vain,” order. But the principles are now logically in place. They are carried out in practice in our laws, customs, schools, and medicine. They, not nature, are coming to define what man is.


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James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.