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The Human Person and Morality

11/24/2013 Comments (91)

Last time, we looked at our experience of beauty as a doorway into looking at God as the Good.  But, of course, there are other aspects of the Good that we experience as well.

Looking at the human person illustrates this, particularly because we are human beings, not just "impartial observers" looking at human beings. When we see this we begin to notice something besides our love of beauty: namely, morality. For we do with moral goods just what we do with all other goods: we presuppose some Ultimate Standard against which we measure moral acts and moral agents. 

A modern reader will almost surely snort at the word “morality”. If human beings are so moral, why do we act like such dirtbags so often? The objection, however, only highlights the central point. For though we complain strenuously that a man is evil if he kills, dismembers and eats a child, we do not similarly complain if a crocodile does this. In both cases, the same thing happens, but in the former case we recognize that the man is acting contrary to his true nature as a moral agent while in the latter case the crocodile is not a moral agent, but simply a creature of instinct. The crocodile is not "to blame" as a man is to blame for his act. The moment we recognize this (and only those lobotomized by trendy philosophical fads do not recognize it), we recognize that there is a component to human makeup not present in other creatures: the awareness of justice. Indeed, the essence of the complaint against "dirtbags" is that they treat others, not like people, but like lesser created things. That is, they are unjust and we know it.

That is why every attempt to reduce humans to equality with mere nature is doomed to failure. Some who try to do so note, for instance, that humans share many common physical traits with the beasts as though this made humans equal to beasts. The problem with this argument is that human beings alone in all the cosmos are aware of and interested in the fact of our similarity with our fellow creatures. Not one other critter in the world recognizes it because not one other critter in the world is capable of reason as human beings are. Cats do not rhapsodize about their brotherhood with mice. Oak trees seldom hug environmentalists. And great apes do not concern themselves with tracing the evolutionary evidence of their common ancestry with us. These are purely human activities, conducted by human persons who, alone in all the natural world, can see and reason about such matters.

And so we complain of injustice when human beings are reduced to nature lower than themselves.  We condemn the man who treats a woman like a "sex object" and not a person. We fault employers who treat their employees "like dogs" and not persons. And we rightly condemn the Nazis for butchering Jews and Slavs "like animals" and not respecting them like persons. In all these things, even human evil shows that humans are different than the rest of creation. Even in their distorted and evil acts, they image something of God that cannot be seen by contemplating the rest of the created order. For the demand of conscience shows, both in the breach and the observance, that humans are aware of some higher demand enjoined upon them for justice and common decency. When that demand is honored by human beings, they take care to respect and even love their neighbors in ways which could never occur to beasts. On the other hand, when they are determined to ignore this demand upon conscience, they can create evils no animal would ever think to perpetrate. Our race is related to other creatures on this planet like a race of gods, says Chesterton, and "the fact is not lessened but emphasised because it can behave like a race of demons." 

So when we say, “Martin Luther King, Jr. was a better man than Adolf Hitler” we don’t simply mean “I happen to prefer King to Hitler as I happen to prefer cheddar to swiss cheese.”  We mean one man was really objectively better and one was objectively worse quite apart from our subjective preferences, just as a lit match is really hotter than an ice cube whatever we happen to feel about it.  Indeed, when we meet the occasional lunatic or monster who says, “Actually I think Hitler was the great man and King was evil” we don’t say “Oh well, no accounting for taste.” We say that this person stands condemned by the same moral standard that condemns Hitler.

Now the curious thing is that not merely believers in God make this appeal to self-evident moral norms, but that everybody does it, including atheists.  Indeed, many atheists are full of moral prescriptions and proscriptions: We should be teaching children to reject racism. We should not be teaching children to litter. We should take care of the weak and dispossessed.  We should not reward arrogance and criminality. We ought to be doing X, we ought not to be doing Y, etc. All people, atheist and believer, talk this way.  And indeed, atheists particularly talk this way when people who claim to believe in God do evil things.  The charge of hypocrisy—that believers fail to uphold the objective moral law binding upon all humans—is one of the chief weapons in the atheist’s arsenal.

The problem is this: Trying to derive a moral universe—any moral universe at all—of Should from an atheist’s purely materialistic universe of Is turns out to be impossible. The perfectly just outrage of an atheist at some crime committed by a believer turns out—if you grant the atheists' materialist insistence that time, space, matter and energy are all there ever is, ever was, or ever will be—to be just one more biochemical reaction inside the atheist. And privileging a biochemical reaction merely because it is a lot more complex than, say, combustion, is as crude a mystification as bowing down to a rock because it's really big.

In the atheist materialist universe of Is the biochemical reactions going on in the brain of that piece of matter called "Adolf Hitler" can have no greater or lesser Oughtness than the biochemical reactions going on in the piece of matter called "Martin Luther King Jr." or, for that matter, in a shark, an exploding star, or a rotting apple. They just are. Attempts to impose meaning or value judgments on these biochemical processes are, in the final atheist materialist analysis, simply one more sample of the human brain's innate tendency toward pattern-making—which, according to atheist Richard Dawkins, is the source of the God Delusion.

And yet, the atheist moralist goes on (rightly) insisting that racism, murder, theft, rape, and pillage are really wrong, and not merely that he has a strong personal distaste for these things about which others may feel differently.  In short, it’s not that atheists are immoral, it’s that they cannot give a coherent account of their own intensely moral judgments. 

A theist, on the other hand, can give a coherent account.  He can say that just as we measure bad, better, and good against Best and cold, warm, and hot against Hottest, so we measure the deeds and character of people against some Ultimate Good.  He can say that Man and Woman, as rational creatures, manifest such qualities as “intelligence”, “creativity”, “will”, “a sense of right and wrong”, “freedom” and the various other things that make up personal qualities.  And he can say that since these created things, like all created things, find their source in Existence Itself it follows that Existence Itself—or rather Himself—contains things analogous to intelligence, creativity, will, righteousness, freedom and the various other things that make up personal existence and is therefore Himself Personal—or rather Super-Personal.  In short,as Mike Flynn has aptly put it, if Self-Existent Being could talk, it would say, “I AM”.

So the contingency, beauty, complexity, and vastness of creation does indeed betoken God's "eternal power and deity" as St. Paul says. This is exactly why most of the world has always been theistic in one form or another, not atheistic. Like any good Myst player, the average man, woman, or child can connect the dots. They're not so arrogant as to suppose they know much about the mysterious Power that made the world. But neither are they such fools as to gaze upon a cosmos pregnant with such meaning, design, beauty, and sheer wonder and attribute it to Nothing. It takes more dogged faith than most people can muster to be an atheist, which is why there are always so few, even in the atheist community.

With that, we come to the end of this quick survey of what can be known about God just by looking around. "God," says theologian Scott Hahn, "'writes' the world like men write words, to convey truth and love. So nature and history are more than just created things—God fashions them as visible signs of other things, uncreated realities, which are eternal and invisible."  And we can know those things by the light of our natural reason without prophetic bells and whistles or voices out of the sky. All we need is the sense God gave a goose.

The problem is, we often lack even that.  The other problem is: even if we got all this perfectly (a rarity what with our darkened intellect, weakened will, and disordered appetites) we still are in the position of Hamlet trying to meet Shakespeare.  Of which more next time.

Filed under natural revelation

About Mark Shea

Mark Shea
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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.