Eclipsed by Darwin

In reading about evolution in terms of the survival of the fittest, the first name that comes to mind is Charles Darwin. Who has second place? Without question that honour goes to Alfred Russel Wallace. He, you may recall, was the naturalist who all but pipped Darwin at the post. To my mind, he is a much more sympathetic figure. Not only did he provide correctives to Darwin’s ideas, but he also was a religious man who, unfashionably, held that the spiritual side of human beings was not subject to evolution.

Unlike Darwin, Wallace was born into humble circumstances, and his career as a naturalist was a demanding one. He published many valuable works in his time, and his Malayan Archipelago was so distinguished that it has remained in print to this day. In particular, I value his conclusion that the 19th-century contempt for primitive races was prejudiced. His discussions with them showed him that, although lacking in modern knowledge, they were the equal, in every important way, to contemporary Europeans. He has the reputation of being the founder of biogeography – the discipline which relates species to locality.

The naturalists of the 19th century argued fiercely over the concept of evolution. It seemed clear to some, but not to others, that the species had evolved and transmuted over a long period of time. But the mechanism through which this occurred was not known. While a number of methodologies were proposed, it was the popular book by Robert Chambers, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, which attracted Wallace. He found it plausible but lacking a sufficiently rigorous factual basis. The research had not been done, so Wallace set out to go around the world in order to find evidence. He hoped that an analysis of the facts would lead him to understand the necessary mechanisms.

Then, recovering from fever in 1858, he suddenly understood. He had been considering how it was that populations in the wild did not increase indefinitely, and he realised that these were controlled by the fact that those who survived were the ones most fitted to their prevailing conditions. To us, this conclusion seems both necessary and obvious. It was not so to his contemporaries.

Except for one contemporary, of course: Charles Darwin. His inspiration had come to him on his voyage on the Beagle, in the 1830s, some 20 years before. While Darwin mentioned his views and the work he was doing to scientific friends, he did not publish. Aware that his subject was extremely controversial, and that many scientists with clerical backgrounds would be in opposition, he needed to amass convincing evidence. Darwin was aware of Wallace’s earlier work, and approved of it – without apparently being aware of it as any threat to his own work in progress.

But in 1858 he received Wallace’s paper, sent from Indonesia, which outlined clearly the whole theory of evolution. His reaction is recorded in a letter to Sir Charles Lyell: “Your words have come true with a vengeance – that I should be forestalled… I never saw a more striking coincidence; if Wallace had my MS. sketch written out in 1842, he could not have made a better short abstract! Even his terms now stand as heads of my chapters.” He gracefully acknowledged Wallace’s skill. But, distraught at the recent death of his young son, he passed the matter over to his trusted friends.

The result was a paper read to the Linnaean Society on July 1 1858. It consisted, in order of reading, of Darwin’s earlier summary of his central idea, a letter of Darwin’s which incidentally confirmed his originality, and the Wallace paper. There was little reaction at the time. In November 1859 On the Origin of Species was finally published.

Darwin continued to be uneasy about Wallace. “I would far rather burn my whole book than that he or any man should think that I had behaved in a paltry spirit,” he said. Wallace, a humble man, thought of Darwin as his scientific hero. And it is probably true that, if the great Darwin had not been associated with the event, Wallace’s paper published on its own might well have sunk without trace. And that would have been a pity, because it is a short but brilliant account of the mechanism of evolution. The further mechanism of genetic inheritance was not to be discovered until Fr Mendel’s work was recognised, almost by chance, in the early 20th century.

Wallace differed from Darwin on an important principle. Darwin started at the level of human beings and domestic animals. Wallace, who held that the development of domestic animals was artificially controlled by human choice, started with biological species in their natural state. Thus, Darwin maintained that the motivation for evolution lay in competition within the same species, while Wallace held that the major factor was the environment. The issue is not black and white but Wallace was closer to the mark. His meticulous research also proved strong evidence for the development of plate tectonics, or the movement over time of large areas of the earth. And he continued to believe that the human race was the ultimate reason for the universe.

Today, Wallace is no more than a footnote: the man who didn’t quite make it. Darwin himself fell out of fashion as other theories of development of the species held sway up to the 1930s. This is known as the “eclipse of Darwin”. When modern studies of inheritance confirmed his central ideas, and he came back into fashion again, all the focus was on his work, and Wallace was forgotten.

Wallace’s paper is included at http://www.indiana.edu/~koertge/H205c/index.php

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, evolution and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

105 Responses to Eclipsed by Darwin

  1. Andrew Lack says:

    Hey wait a minute. Wallace is far from forgotten. ‘Wallace’s line’ straddles across Indonesia; Operation Wallacea has wide participation among students; his books, as you say, remain in print. He is gaining ground in publicity too with several champions. It was he who coined ‘Darwinism’ as a term (perhaps it could be Wallacism?). He always acknowledged that Darwin had precedence – and Darwin genuinely did, but it is still most generous of him. I agree entirely that he comes across as a most attractive man, and have been fascinated by him for years. But we should not denigrate Darwin in the process.

    His ideas of the uniqueness of man deserve more publicity. Maybe it is partly that that has made Darwin the popular one as Darwin was, at best, ambivalent about our uniqueness and, in effect even if not explicitly, denied our spiritual nature (though his wife was devoutly Christian). Darwinism as Atheism is popular isn’t it. I do sometimes wonder why atheism is so popular as it is so unattractive and denies such interesting parts of the human imagination.

    Let us celebrate Wallace too. I must re-read his contributions on human nature.

  2. Advocatus Diaboli says:

    I was delighted to read Quentin’s account of Wallace. His paper on natural selection shows quite clearly that a “creator God” is an unnecessary hypothesis. He may well have held on to his spiritual beliefs out of habit. In doing so he has been aped by modern believers who will continue to hold on to their unprovable belief in God, whatever the natural explanation may be. Of course such believers claim that they are after “the truth”. But in fact they are after holding on to their comforting imaginations.

    • Anon-for-the-sake-of-peace says:

      Good to know you are still clinging to your beliefs, A.D.

      • Advocatus Diaboli says:

        On the contrary, Anon-for-the-sake-of-peace, I am holding on to my non beliefs. I cannot prove that God does not exist because I can’t prove a negative. You should follow my intellectual rigour and accept that your belief in God has no foundation either.

    • St.Joseph says:

      Advocatus Diaboli.
      As you mentioned ‘.the truth’.

      Either Jesus is God or He isn’t!.
      Either Jesus rose from the dead or He didn’t!.
      Either the Gospels are true or they are not!
      Either Our Ladies appearances are true or a figment of imagination
      ..
      You are entitled to believe as you wish!
      We believe that as Christians, you obviously are not – so you will believe in the negative.
      We call Him the Creator of all things.

      • RAHNER says:

        So belief and unbelief are equally reasonable? Hardly a Catholic position I would have thought……

      • St.Joseph says:

        RAHNER. I did not say it was a Catholic position,
        I was comparing the two measures of belief.
        See I believe that Jesus lived and died so that we would believe.That is my proof either one believes in that or they can go on searching,tormenting Christians who I have to say like your remark to me must have doubts.
        The unbelievers have not found an answer YET!!They will go on searching and searching but in the end ‘Leave them alone and they will come home dragging their tails behind them.As the Nursery Rhyme goes
        Explain how you thought it ‘was not a Catholic position’ to believe in the Truth revealed to us?.

  3. Peter D. Wilson says:

    A.D.- The belief in God (or at least in a god of some kind) is inherent in the conviction that no event can occur without a cause even if that is merely a chance fluctuation of energies in a not entirely stable atom leading to its disintegration. The idea that the proto-universe could have simply flashed into being through the operation of physical laws, without the pre-existence of some entity in which such laws might reside, is deeply repugnant to human reason. Conceivably, that could reflect a fundamental flaw or inadequacy in human reason, but to suppose so would fatally undermine all attempts at rational discussion.
    That said, it seems impossible to prove beyond doubt the validity of any particular idea of God. Nevertheless, many have experience that seems to confirm Christian teaching on the subject and provide a firmer foundation for belief than for disbelief.

    • RAHNER says:

      Perhaps the proto-universe/big bang is just a local feature of a larger, (infinite?) universe that has always existed in some form from all eternity and is not created? It is interesting to note that Aquinas accepted that it could not be demonstrated philosophically that the world had a beginning i.e., that it had a finite past history.

      • Peter D. Wilson says:

        Maybe so, but following that line seems to lead inevitably to thinking “It’s there, and speculating on how or why is pointless.” OK if that’s what you want!

    • Advocatus Diaboli says:

      Repugnant to human reason? I wonder whether quantum uncertainty and particle entanglement would not have been repugnant to human reason before it was experienced. It took about 175,000 years of human history to find that out. So it’s not surprising that there are phenomena around for which we don’t have an explanation.
      Rahner is right. If time is a measurement of change then there was no time when there was no thing. To talk about a happening before the universe started is not just repugnant to human reason, it is merely nonsensical.
      To say that we must have a reason for existence and then to think that by inventing an entity and calling it God to act as a reason is simply gratuitous.

      • tim says:

        AD, you are using ‘human reason’ in two different senses. There are many natural phenomena that we cannot currently explain. But there is a different between a reason and a cause. To say that an event can have no cause is to abandon reason as most of us understand it.

    • RAHNER says:

      P D Wilson
      “Maybe so, but following that line seems to lead inevitably to thinking “It’s there, and speculating on how or why is pointless.” OK if that’s what you want!”

      I am unclear as to what your point is in making this remark.

      • Peter D. Wilson says:

        Rahner – simply that if you are content with the idea of a super-universe of infinite age, I have neither the wish nor the ability to dispute it. As far as I can see (which is very limited), it would be beyond human comprehension but equally compatible with belief in an infinite God or none.

  4. johnbunting says:

    AD, you don’t get off the hook by calling your favoured ideas ‘non beliefs’. Either the world was deliberately created or it exists by chance: both are beyond proof, so the one is as much a belief as the other. If our beliefs are just ‘comforting imaginations’, then so are yours.
    Natural explanations are the province of natural science: they are necessary to explain how the natural world works, whatever your supernatural or metaphysical beliefs may be. The so-called ‘conflict of science and religion’ is almost entirely due to a failure to distinguish between the natural and the supernatural.

    • Advocatus Diaboli says:

      Sorry, johnbunting, your reasoning is at fault. You (I presume) hold that God exists. I do not hold that God does not exist — I am in the true sense of the word agnostic. I await the evidence. You leap to a conclusion without the evidence – and then build a whole tower, which you call religion, on top of it. But the tower has no foundation.

      • johnbunting says:

        AD, I have made it clear that I believe, but not hold as certain, that God exists. To me, an element of uncertainty is part of the nature of belief. In that sense I am agnostic, but I do not consider it dishonest to state what seems to me most likely.
        I have also made it clear that I accept that there is no ‘evidence’. of he kind that would convince anyone. You say you await the evidence. Do tell us what you would consider to be evidence in such a case. You seem to find it oddly difficult to accept that one may honestly profess a belief in matters where no conclusive intellectual proof is possible.

      • tim says:

        “But the tower has no foundation.”
        Like the universe?

  5. Vincent says:

    A point which has always struck me about evolution is how odd it is that no one thought of it earlier. it seems to me that, if you have living creatures which can reproduce, then it must follow that the progeny best fitted to survive will do just that, and continue to reproduce in turn. It’s not a big deal, it’s just what you would expect.

    • johnbunting says:

      Yes, I think one eminent Victorian, possibly T H Huxley, on hearing about natural selection, remarked “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!”.

      • ann farmer says:

        According to Gertrude Himmelfarb’s book, Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, many people did think of it, but it seems that although on first sight it looked a simple-sounding explanation for biological complexity, the problems multiplied on closer study. Darwin himself perceived the problems and moved away from natural selection and closer to Lamarckism.

  6. Andrew Lack says:

    Vincent, you may know that you are in good company – T. H. Huxley on first reading Darwin’s book said “How extraordinarily stupid of me not to have thought of that”. Charles Lyell had a lot of influence on Darwin as he gave a possible time frame. As for evolution and Christianity, I think Quentin has already alluded to ‘non-overlapping Magisteria’ in a previous column. It certainly seems that way to me. Evolution has nothing to say about our spiritual side. Do you know C.S. Lewis’s satirical ‘hymn’ “Lead us, evolution, lead us..”? well worth a look.

  7. Brendan O' Leary says:

    Isn’t it just so that ” Evolution has nothing to say about our spiritual side ” ? It seems hubris to believe that our 3 – dimensional mindset can traverse freely into the supernatural , like swapping theories between them. But can they really be compatible even given time ? In this sphere – and I borrow A.D.’s phrase, – “..it’s not surprising that there are phenomena around { the existence of God } for which we have no explanation.” Evidence proving a link between the inscrutable nature of God and our evolutionary state will always remain an illusion. On a topical note , like the discovery of the so called ‘ god- particle ‘ – not proving either way the existence or non-existence of God, it would be like saying that the analysis of a blood stain from the Turin shroud (if it was found ) revealing a unique factor ostensibly discovered in Christ’s D.N.A. then, amazingly found only in the human species – proves homo sapiens genesis from God ? Frankly, the doubters would still need that leap from the supernatural – FAITH.
    In that respect we are all doubters.

    • St.Joseph says:

      Brendan O’Leary
      I am not too sure what you mean,,would I be right in thinking that you are saying that we might find the relationship between humans and God from DNA found in Jesus’s blood if a spot was found on the Holy Shroud? I know you mean that to be hypothetical. However are we not supposed to believe that we are made in the image and likeness of God in our soul. not His body. God is pure Spirit but Jesus is made in our image as man. although still being one with the Father.
      The Miracle of the Eucharist would convince me more. ….

  8. Brendan O' Leary says:

    As I am sure it’s happened to us all – I’ve just lost a reply to St. Joseph by my computer re-configuring something. How annoying……. ! My train of thought has been interrupted but I’ll try again . Perhaps I should compose myself with a prayer , first.
    ” Image and likeness of God ” for me does not just mean the ‘ soul ‘. Holy Scripture screams out that God in his infinite wisdom and omnipotence has crossed the ‘ great ‘ divide to make Himself known to humanity in His Divine Son. Because we are called to share this Otherness with him , like no other class of creatures known to us , then we must at least entertain the possibility that ‘ joining with Christ ‘ is our evolutionary way of explaining our very existence. Yes St. Joseph, the miracle of the Holy Eucharist manifests that great Presence in us by joining us body and soul to Him on planet Earth at least. I can hear the rationalists now ! But there is the natural and then there’s the supernatural – Gods domain ! Confusing the two is not what Science and Faith is about. It seems only the dimension of Otherness of God can overlap and use history to do good – our salvation and ultimate destiny. Evolutionary Theory is our only way at present to point to that end . God’s footprint if you like. Giving us mere mortals small doses of what we can just about ‘ take in ‘.
    While we can only deal in hypertheticals before Gods majesty over human existence, Scientific Evolution is I believe , pointing our species, as a ‘ special ‘ case to the Godhead. Perhaps the more knowledgeable among us can find in the Church Fathers something of that proposition.. I suspect A. D. might still be on the prowl here !

    • St.Joseph says:

      Bendan O’Leary
      I think I know what you mean.
      But Jesus said ‘John the Baptist came to baptise with water, I come to bapiise with water and the Spirit’..I take that to share in His Life. and to believe in Him His Way and Truth..
      I always think of what Jesus said to Martha[‘Your worry about so many things where none are not necessary.’ I things ‘myself we trouble too much about where we came from and not enough where we are going, to me is the important message that Jesus came and died for!.
      If we look around at the world-the destruction the poor also in Spirit, the wickedness-obviously we would think about evolution, but only for the good of mankind.Which I don’t recognise yet.
      Just to argue Gods existence and keep people like AD happy in their. thoughts.

  9. Quentin says:

    The current discussion on belief and proof is very interesting but it’s worth exploring a middle way – which I would describe as ‘proving for oneself’.

    What I recognise in myself is moral obligation. For instance if you drop your wallet out of your pocket by mistake, and I pick it up, I sense a moral obligation not to pinch it but to give it back to you. My judgment here is objective because I hold that anyone in similar circumstances would be similarly bound.

    This sense of moral obligation appears to be common. For example Richard Dawkins recognises it because he is enthusiastic to spread his moral condemnations of many aspects of religious practice. He exhorts us to be similarly bound. He has in fact a very strong moral sense.

    He and I might well disagree about what constitutes right and wrong, but we are both agreed that we are obliged to embrace the good and to spurn the bad – as we perceive it.

    But what is the source of the good? I cannot be satisfied with an abstract or material source because that cannot bind me. It can only be an ultimate good which emanates from, or is personified in, an ultimate person. Nothing less will meet the case. And to that ultimate person I give the name of God.

    Thus, although I cannot prove the existence of God to you, I have proved it to myself. I can only exhort you to apply my line of reasoning to your own sense of moral obligation – and you may end up with your own personal proof.

    • St.Joseph says:

      Quentin.
      We can not speak about evolution without speaking about the spiritual-we are spiritual beings..
      Before Jesus came to show us the way,the OT had a lot of spiritual thinkers which we called prophets whereby God spoke to us to show Himself -but we needed a Saviour so that we can cope with the bodily and technology evolution which the Lord knew when He created us in the beginning. God is working with us all the way,and Jesus shows us that way- we ought to walk with Him whilst we are evolving towards Eternity..Without Him as a guide we could destroy ourselves.
      Adam and Eve a myth or not the story tells us how we ought to walk with God to bring peace and happiness not only to ourselves but to our neighbour.-your example of dropping a ‘wallet’.
      I hope this makes some sense,it is difficult to put into words ,simple I know!

    • RAHNER says:

      “But what is the source of the good? I cannot be satisfied with an abstract or material source because that cannot bind me. It can only be an ultimate good which emanates from, or is personified in, an ultimate person”
      Quentin, I am not clear as to what this means, especially your comment “cannot bind me”. Are you claiming that only a religious believer can make correct and reasonable moral judgments? Such a claim is surely false.

      • Quentin says:

        Most certainly he can. And for such a judgment to be a moral one it must contain moral obligation. It makes no sense to hold that I ought (in the strong sense) to return your wallet without the corresponding obligation to carry the principle through. He may accept this and think no further. Or, like me, he might ask himself what would be an adequate source for the moral obligation he recognises. If, as the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe argued, there is a moral law, we must then ask who is the lawgiver.

    • Peter D. Wilson says:

      “Proving for oneself” – I imagine that Dawkins would ascribe moral obligation to generations of social pressure. I feel compelled to gratitude for all the good fortune that has come my way over many years, and thanks can be effectively given only to a person (or persons). However, the need for such a person does not necessarily imply His existence, which remains simply a working hypothesis. Perhaps even Dawkins would respect that.

  10. St.Joseph says:

    That is why we need to believe in not only God the Father but Jesus Christ,as He is the perfect Law Giver.
    Peoples morals differ when it comes to one responsibility to God He comes first, neighbour second even before ones self..Then we know we will not have morals confused with natural sympathy.
    If I may mention the unborn child who happens to be our neighbour let alone Gods child.
    If the Lord wanted Him for any particular reason He would call the baby unto Himself.
    He does not put us in charge who lives and who doesn’t once. conceived.

    • ann farmer says:

      Under Darwin’s system Nature produced an abundance from which the best were ‘selected’. This argument has been used (paradoxically) by some Darwinists to dismiss the humanity of the embryo in order to justify killing it with chemicals. A bit like saying that because people get knocked down by buses it is OK to run them over with tanks. In truth what worries them is not the wastage of life but its abundance, and the ‘overpopulation’ that would result if they did not artificially control it.

      • Vincent says:

        Ann Farmer, you may agree that we have to look at population not only as a whole but also in different areas. Are there not areas of the world, parts of Africa for instance, where the control of birthrate is needed if people are to have a better, and so more human life?

        Gerry Danaher made a contribution to this blog whaich said: “I do hope that one of your contributors will hazard a guess as to how the relatively elderly, mainly prosperous, people of the European Union, numbering about 500 million, will interact with the relatively young mostly very poor people of Africa and the Greater Middle East as their numbers climb towards 2,400 million and beyond.” I don’t think he received an answer.

      • ann farmer says:

        Vincent – I agree, we should look at the population in different areas – if we did, we might notice that the advanced economies are dying on their feet. As to Africa and other poorer (on the whole) regions, birth rates are slowing there too. As to interacting, we are already doing that because, fortunately for us, we have attracted some of those poor people to come and work here and support our economy. The youthful population profile of poorer countries is the result of having shorter life-spans than in developed countries, and much of that has to do with high infant mortality rates. Address that problem and birth rates will fall. Who gave us the job of curbing birth rates in poor countries anyway? if you insist, let such countries choose between food and medicine, and birth control, and we’ll see what happens.

  11. RAHNER says:

    “If, as the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe argued, there is a moral law, we must then ask who is the lawgiver.”

    Quentin, A blog such as this is not the place for detailed philosophical argument. So I can only record that many, probably most, moral philosophers would reject Anscombe’s claim and argue that it is possible to find a source of moral obligation in the reasonable discernment of what it is that makes for human fulfillment and flourishing and that this does not require, of necessity, a law giver.

    • Quentin says:

      Let’s try just one philosopher, because what he says is very clear: A J Ayer. Now you will know him as an atheist philosopher who was scrupulous about logic – he could write a whole book about the meaning of a single word. Unfortunately he could find no basis whatsoever for morality. It just had no meaning. He became a champion of the ‘Boo! Hurrah!’ school. Thus, pinch your wallet = Boo!, and, return your wallet = Hurrah! Or, just as legitimately, the other way round. He argued that morality could never be anything more than a personal reaction of approval or disapproval. If you took one view, and I the other, we could no more usefully discuss our differences than if you liked blancmange, and I didn’t.

      Without a law giver, his rigorous logic led him inevitably to abandon morality in any sense in which we would understand it.

      That we are capable of “reasonable discernment of what it is that makes for human fulfilment and flourishing” is certainly true, but our obligation to conform to our discernment remains lacking.

      (The good nature of Ignatius’s friends [below] raises questions which we discussed in looking recently at natural and supernatural altruism. See “Do as you would be done by”)

      • RAHNER says:

        I can’t think of ANY contemporary moral philosopher who would defend Ayer or regard him as having made a significant contribution to ethical theory!
        But what role does the lawgiver have? Does he supply us with moral knowledge that we could not acquire by ourselves or does he just promise reward or punishment for our behaviour?

      • Quentin says:

        It is interesting in this context to look at Hudson’s A century of Moral Philosophy, in which he devotes an important chapter to Ayer, since his is the clearest exposition of the difficulty of distinguishing between belief and moral obligation. No discussion of moral philosophy can take place without at least indirect reference to him.

        Hudson does not solve this enigma. We should expect this because Anscombe’s Modern Moral Philosophy demonstrated the vacuity brought about by moral philosophy maintaining laws, having rejected a lawgiver. This brought about a substantial resurrection of virtue ethics, which continues to this day. And if you should think that her views are of little importance, you may reflect on Roger Scruton’s verdict that she was “perhaps the last great philosopher writing in English.”

        I wrote about her earlier this year. (Metamorals, in search box). You will see there a reference to Hume, whom I might have quoted just as well as Ayer, since they essentially take the same route in rejecting morality. Or perhaps you include Hume in your list of philosophers of no consequence?

      • Peter D. Wilson says:

        One of Ayer’s students once told me that the master was greatly perplexed by his inability to find a basis for the morality that I gathered he actually practised.

      • Quentin says:

        Yes, he seems to have been a good man. The story of his later conversion to repudiating his own ideas does not convince. But I look forward to meeting him in Heaven. I shall have to keep my wits about me!

      • RAHNER says:

        “Or perhaps you include Hume in your list of philosophers of no consequence?”
        Both Hume and Ayer dealt with many other issues apart from moral philosophy. And I would only repeat my earlier remark that few philosophers would want defend his position today. Hume’s moral philosophy is in any case more nuanced than Ayer’s.

      • Quentin says:

        I am sure you’re right. There must be many philosophers who disagree with both Hume and Ayer. I am not a philosopher, but obviously I disagree with them too, notwithstanding the huge importance of their writings on a key philosophical question. Perhaps you would just like to point me to any philosopher who accepts the force of moral obligation, and is able to explain adequately why it obliges. Just to save your time it may help to note that any philosopher who claims he is the source of his own obligation is guilty of a contradiction in terms.

      • RAHNER says:

        Quentin, I am quite sure Rawls, Parfit and Bernard Williams and many others would accept that we can have good, shared, reasons for doing something or for refraining from doing something – reasons that relate to the fulfilment/frustration of human needs. What better reasons could we possibly require? Of course this does not mean that everyone will accept these reasons. So what ? There are disagreements in every field of human understanding. And how would a Divine law giver provide additional reasons for us?

      • Quentin says:

        Yes, you have no doubt described the sort of moral content these philosophers would acknowledge, and the reasons for them. Perhaps in your next contribution you could explain why they are morally bound to follow them. Hume and Ayer tackled this question but could not answer it, so — in their different ways — they fell back on emotive response, which of course does not bind.

      • RAHNER says:

        “Hume and Ayer tackled this question but could not answer it, so — in their different ways — they fell back on emotive response, which of course does not bind.”

        Quentin, I think we will just have to agree to disagree on this topic. This blog is not the place for a detailed discussion of metaethics. I can be obligated to do something if it is reasonable way of behaving.
        In conclusion perhaps you could indicate how a Divine lawgiver binds me to do something?

      • Quentin says:

        For all I know you may not have any belief that you are bound to follow what you judge to be the good. You may remember that my post, which has led to this further discussion, was based on my own moral sense, and the conclusions I came to from that. If you care to define moral obligation in some other way of your own, you will no doubt come to another conclusion.

  12. Ignatius says:

    As part of my job I train osteopaths for a local University. Our degree is a part time one aimed at career changers. This means that I spend quite a bit of time with reasonably successful individuals who are interested in a ‘caring’ profession and able to take on board the not insignificant training fee and set aside the time over a five year period to gain a Bsc(Hons) and a license to practice. Mostly these individuals are extremely decent persons in their 30’s and 40’s with family lives, high moral standards and keen minds, usually they are sporty types who raise money for a variety of causes through their sports. As a teaching clinic we support Smile train and save up for new faces for cleft palate kids etc. Mostly none of these decent people have so much as a religious bone in their bodies and would simply laugh at the suggestion that their decency was proof of Gods existence. Surely it is clear that a large measure of satisfaction is to be gained from ‘doing the right thing’ and trying ones best regardless of origins or belief systems.

    • St.Joseph says:

      Ignatius.
      Decent people are having abortions decent people are campaigning for same sex marriage-decent people are using contraceptives that cause abortions,decent people are campaigning for euthanasia-decent people are committing adultery all who don’t believe it to be against Gods Laws.- a lot of those people believe in God. apart from the fact that people are killing for their belief it is Gods Will.
      Our human nature is weak we can all fall-however the Sacraments and believing in God will get us on the right road again eventually.because our conscience is formed and protected by the Grace we receive from being Christians…..

  13. Ignatius says:

    I had to study Ayers book ‘language, truth and Logic’ many years ago for a philosophy minor I did. I found him interesting and Prof Geech at Leeds University who taught us was very keen on him. But the point is did Ayer live a ‘good’ life?.. if he did then clearly he had an innate moral sense or a keen intuition for ‘the good’ regardless of how he argued it. It seems to me that the conscious possession of a moral sense based on absorbed beliefs and intuition isn’t the point-we all do that to some level or another. The issue is does the underlying conviction – as opposed to its conscious form- denote the handiwork of God in all mankind regardless of the structure of their belief?

    • Quentin says:

      ” does the underlying conviction – as opposed to its conscious form- denote the handiwork of God in all mankind regardless of the structure of their belief?” . I think this is the right question. And I answer for myself: yes. My perception of the existence of God is as strong as my perception that I am obliged to do good and to avoid evil. My perception is not infallible, but it’s the only one I’ve got. Other may hold that there is no such thing as moral obligation, or that there is some other adequate basis for moral obligation. Neither philosophy or religion in the whole history of mankind has proposed such a basis, but perhaps a contributor to Secondsight will break new ground.

    • St.Joseph says:

      Ignatius
      If one does not believe in God,their conscience is formed by their own opinion of what is right and wrong.
      Hence the amount of abortions performed for the good of a person. for,all sorts of reasons..Also to the riots in the big cities a year or so ago, They all thought presumably that raiding the shops and stealing things were what was their due to them as their rights to have. Christians would not do that! Nor would a lot of good living people who were not Christians.But they do have Christian values
      We can define telling the truth to someone or an untruth to save ourselves -can we justify that as being moral.Some would think it was all right and no one gets hurt,or as long as it was not themselves.But a lie is a lie after all-or an untruth.
      Can it be justified in certain cases for instance if someone phones you and you don’t want to speak to that person so say you are just ‘ going out ‘! Hundreds of incidents like that is it really morally wrong -are lies only lies when they effect someone else.In the end we have to be able to form our conscience as we go along,.
      I think we can not forget honesty-if we can not be trusted in little things how can we be trusted with things greater.A priest once told me ‘if he was undercharged for something he would not go back because it would get the cashier into trouble-but I think if it was an over charge would he do the same..Does he share in that sin for doing the shop out of their profit..Would his conscience be free-I think maybe ,but not from dishonesty,.. .

  14. Ignatius says:

    Hope this simple definition isn’t too long and wordy for the blog:

    The Definition of Morality

    The term “morality” can be used either
    1.descriptively to refer to some codes of conduct put forward by a society or, a.some other group, such as a religion, or
    b.accepted by an individual for her own behavior or

    2.normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.

    What “morality” is taken to refer to plays a crucial, although often unacknowledged, role in formulating ethical theories. To take “morality” to refer to an actually existing code of conduct put forward by a society results in a denial that there is a universal morality, one that applies to all human beings. This descriptive use of “morality”is the one used by anthropologists when they report on the morality of the societies that they study. Recently, some comparative and evolutionary psychologists (Haidt, Hauser, De Waal) have taken morality, or a close anticipation of it, to be present among groups of non-human animals, primarily other primates but not limited to them. “Morality” has also been taken to refer to any code of conduct that a person or group takes as most important.

    As I understand it ‘morality’ can be a strong personal conviction that one ought to do good or it may simply be the regulation of ones behaviour according to rules for no other reason than that the rules exist and seem to work. In personal terms I would say that I act mainly to please myself and have otherwise no great moral sense about how things ‘ought’ to be. Fortunately for me the act of ‘pleasing God’ brings me great pleasure and achievement…so I do it and am probably seen as a devout and moral sort of bloke…but I don’t operate on any ‘moral ‘ principle at all as far as I can see . Probably if I looked at it carefully though I would find the sermon on the mount embedded deep within my psyche so aspiring to that way of being is the thing that gives me pleasure.

  15. Ignatius says:

    PS Sorry forgot the quotation marks. The last paragraph is mine and everything else is a definition from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

    • St.Joseph says:

      Ignatius..
      I found that interesting thank you.
      How would you say that the natural law apply’s to what you say-for those who have no moral upbringing.. Because the young people who carry knives and go around in gangs terrifying others, when does that kick in-do you think. I feel it is mostly down to the environment they live in and big estates etc. Would you say.!

  16. Ignatius says:

    ST Joseph
    Everybody has a ‘moral’ upbringing of some sort – just different than yours. When I was a kid my Dads total moral advice was ‘do what you want but don’t get caught’

  17. Iona says:

    I too was wondering how the Church’s concept of Natural Law fits in (or not) with morality as a code of conduct. The Church sees Natural Law as implanted in each one of us by virtue of our having reason – see 1954 to 1960 of the “Catechism…”, while recognising that “the precepts of the natural law are not perceived by everyone clearly and immediately”. The gang members whom St. Joseph wonders about would seem to have no regard to Natural Law; the only “morality” in their situation relates (perhaps) to loyalty to their gang, which could be seen in evolutionary terms as defence of their own tribe.
    Through natural law we are supposed to see that abortion is wrong (except in a very few cases when it might be the lesser of two evils), based on our understanding of the inalienable dignity of all human beings; but lots of people don’t see this (arguing – if pushed – that in the early stages the foetus isn’t to be considered human). Even fewer perceive artificial contraception as “wrong” in accordance with natural law. Most people who don’t examine the basis of their moral judgements are probably working according to some kind of utilitarianism, plus respect for their fellow human beings (love of neighbour?) which leads them to hand back a dropped wallet rather than keep it.

  18. Iona says:

    There are good evolutionary reasons for our treating other people with respect, supporting them, defending them if they are vulnerable etc., – we have evolved as social beings, members of a family, or on a larger scale of a tribe, and as individuals we depend on the survival and well-being of the whole group which we are members of. This accounts for a lot of what we can recognise as moral behaviour. But not for all of it. Self-sacrifice for the sake of an ideal, for example, – not for one’s children, not for the tribe, but for an ideal, – martyrdom, perhaps. We admire it (even if we think it’s going beyond the call of duty).

  19. Ignatius says:

    “There are good evolutionary reasons for our treating other people with respect, supporting them, defending them if they are vulnerable etc., – we have evolved as social beings, members of a family, or on a larger scale of a tribe, and as individuals we depend on the survival and well-being of the whole group which we are members of…”

    It doesn’t have to be ‘evolutionary’ does it? I was in the building trade when I left (or rather was asked to leave) my fine upstanding school. My first couple of jobs were as a building labourer and one pretty quickly discovered a basic code of ethics-do as you are told, no lip, get a sense of humour and do your share…Work is a great instructor. When I was a kid I didn’t hand back the dropped wallet by the way…now of course I would run to find the owner. I think what we call ‘morality’ or ‘utilitarianism’ is at root a much more rough and ready, visceral kind of thing, certainly for young men it is based in tribalism and self preservation-there is nothing wrong with this and I think we need to own to it otherwise delude ourselves. So too the sacrifice of ones own life. I can envisage situations where one might die for a principle one held dear to-but that would probably for the sense of righteousness involved at the very moment- a kind of pleasure? It is not that difficult to identify a social class view of morality in which the view of it is different from different positions along the scale-expressed differently, felt differently and understood differently. None of these feelings need have anything to do with religious belief whatsoever though they may be couched in those terms.

    • St.Joseph says:

      If we moved the clock back to the Reformation how many of us would die for our Catholic Faith?
      It is all very well to be brave and discuss it on a blog-but would we defend it if our life was at stake.
      We owe a lot to those who did! If we do nothing else we ought to be defending our belief in the Catholic Churches teaching.
      How have we evolved in being so negative when it comes to speaking for proper teaching in our schools for example.

  20. claret says:

    It has been wonderful reading this particular blog which is devoid of some of the rancour posted on previous topics, of which I do not claim any immunity.
    Where though does it leave us ? I feel more educated for having read each contribution up to this point but along with that feeling is a strange sense of hollowness. Perhaps my feeble faith had had another more compelling knock.
    Having said that, I take some comfort from the fact that i am able to look out of my office window as I write this and look across a fairly uninterrupted view of about six miles in one direction. If by some miracle that which I view, in just a millisecond of time in one immeasurably small part of the world, could be counted in numbers of all types of life what would be the figure? Trillions of trillions I guess and yet, supposedly, all this is, along with all the other trillions of trillions in other parts of the world ( by my looking South instead of North, for example !) is no more than an accident of evolution that started in just one cell no bigger than a pin head.
    I find this a most unlikely scenario.

    • ann farmer says:

      Claret, you have hit on it. In creating (pun intended) a big debate about how things evolved, ideologically committed advocates of evolution (as distinct from those with a scientific interest) have been able to dodge the question about where they came from – Darwin wrote the ‘Origin of Species’ NOT the ‘Origin of Life Itself’, but his ‘followers’ have emphasised the effects on religion. Why, we may only guess.

      • St.Joseph says:

        I feel a bit uncomfortable with the way ‘procreation’ is being planned for the future. It is already here with the unknown egg and sperm,Who is who. Ought I to be concerned.!
        Is this meant to be the way we evolve in the future.Especially now with same sex marriage.
        Does it really l matter if we don’t know our ancestors? Is it going to be the survival of the fittest.
        Figures released by the British Dept of Health show 28 abortions performed on women giving an Irish address last year because the babies were diagnosed as having Downs Syndrome
        We may call this progress-is this what Jesus meant when He told the Apostles ‘you will do even greater things than me’?Or is this science gone over the top? For a better world.when so many are starving and we talk about over-population.
        Countries like S.Korea the government has taken on the role of a matchmaker to boost the rate of marriages in the hope of addressing the nation’s plummeting birthrate.
        Closer to home, Germany too is realising that if the dramatic population decline is not halted, the consequences will be grim..Local governments are trying to disguise the depopulation of towns,strategically replacing houses and department buildings with green spaces rather than leave them empty and derelict.
        Recorded and much more in’ Family & Life Magazine’, September 2013.

      • johnbunting says:

        Yes, I think it’s important, in thinking of evolution, to include the process of inorganic change that must have preceded the appearance of life, and eventually of complex organisms such as ourselves. The whole process depends on properties of matter that cannot themselves be products of evolution. An accident?
        Like you, claret, I find this a most unlikely scenario.

    • Ignatius says:

      Claret,
      You would probably like Teilhard de Chardin. His experiences mapping China -the density of the city population he encountered I mean – strongly affected his theology to the point where he began to identify life organically and collectively-the zoosphere or something that I can’t remember. His sense of evolution was of a far more colossal spiritual process being outworked through living matter, far less individualised than our currently self centred view of things. I don’t understand why anything on this topic should do any more than divest us of our fond notions.. which are always themselves a barrier to any genuine and transformational encounter with God. I was listening to a Dominican monk (and professor) preaching on the Lepers a couple of days ago , he said:
      “Most of us obey the rules but a few actually fall in love and then nothing else matters!”

      • St.Joseph says:

        I also listened a wonderful homily on the Lepers on Sunday by a OCSO, priest -every day in fact.
        I believe that it is underestimated how much Catholics give to this world when we evangelize.. It is not all about rules but about our Catholic Faith!Which is our duty to God. It is how we go about it that matters!

  21. ann farmer says:

    The idea of evolution is now applied to everything – including social changes being bulldozed through against public opposition, like genetically modified humans. So a sociological revolution is being used to usher in what its advocates see as real biological evolution. However, I think they will be disappointed – they can only take away from what is already there, or mix together the ingredients already to hand. They cannot create life, and their impotence to do so has created a rage against nature. Having got rid of God, and trounced their human opponents, there is no one else to get angry with. They would like to ‘breed out’ original sin, but any human that they succeed in breeding will still be human. Nietzsche’s Superman, ‘beyond good and evil’, will simply be a psychopath – made in the image and likeness of his maker, one might add.

  22. St.Joseph says:

    We could also evolve into a horrifying scenario of the time when women will no longer wish to be tied up with pregnancy of the carrying a child-so father and mother will produce their ovam and sperm in a dish-and place it into a man made ‘womb machine’, so therefore just watch the baby grow into full term,then they can look on a screen and see if the child is developing to their satisfaction.If not -press the button and the child will disappear , and then they can begin again.
    Although come to think about that is happening already,only it would be more convenient-just like all things for our convenience to-day… What a wonderful world we live in by playing God.!

  23. Iona says:

    I read (and very much appreciated) some Teilhard de Chardin – many years ago, before I became a Catholic or had any definite religious beliefs. When I was being “instructed” (in the early 1980s) I asked the priest what was the Church’s view of T de C. He said cautiously that he was considered “a bit over-optimistic”.

    Ann, are you thinking of the plans to create a human embryo with three parents, – the nucleus derived from two and the cytoplasm with mitochondria from a third? A little snippet from the Catholic Herald this week says that the Council of Europe has condemned British plans to legalise the technique. Which doesn’t mean it won’t go ahead, of course. I do wonder why Britain is at the forefront of this kind of research, – why the governments of other “developed” countries are prepared to draw a line saying “thus far, no further” but ours doesn’t.

  24. ann farmer says:

    Iona – yes, the ‘3-parent embryo’, another slide down the slippery slope. It has been presented as a compassionate measure, but also a go-ahead ‘scientific’ measure which, it is hinted, will make money. Sadly, few of its supporters seem to have grasped that rather than just manipulating one embryo, they are attempting to change the future. No one knows how healthy these 3-parent adults will be, even without the inevitable psychological problems incurred in learning of their origins, and even without the ‘rejects’ that will be discarded. I must admit to having a personal interest, as I have a genetic condition, and have experienced a great lack of compassion in trying to obtain treatment and help. For all I know, the scientists involved in these experiments may be overflowing with altruism, but that is the problem – we were created good, but we all retain the stain of original sin, and it leads us to believe that whatever we do must be good because we have good intentions. Instinct is good, but heads can overrule hearts, and we can devise all sorts of good reasons not to do good. Often, because we can’t do everything for a person, we don’t do anything. It was left to the Samaritan to do the simplest but most humane act. As to our present-day priests and levites, the answer to the child with a genetic disease is to find a cure for the disease. Since we now abort babies with minor disabilities, it is only a matter of time before we will genetically engineer babies to satisfy personal tastes.

  25. Ignatius says:

    Quentin and Rahner: I think there is probably space for a few concise words on metaethics if you could spare the time! Also, Quentin I’m quite interested to hear a little more about your sense of moral obligation-perhaps an example of its working?

    • Quentin says:

      Yes indeed. The concept is fundamentally simple, but it needs clarity of thinking. The first stage is to see that there are two distinct elements: the content of morality and the obligation of morality.

      We normally arrive at the content by applying reason to the human condition. Thus, if I consider the possibility of pinching your wallet, I argue that the good of society depends on accepting the concept of ownership. I can see that, if we do not respect the ownership rights of others, human society cannot operate. My view is not unchallenged. For example, a Marxist might argue that “all property is theft”. But I can only be guided by my own perception.

      With regard to obligation I could logically argue both ways. I could decide to take no notice of this content, on the grounds that I would benefit by pinching your wallet. But in fact I recognise that depriving you of your wallet would be wrong. What is more this recognition becomes objective in the sense that I hold that anyone in the same circumstances would be equally bound. So that, if you were to pinch a wallet, I would disapprove of your behaviour. I would say that you ought (in the strong sense) not to steal.

      The question at issue is what is the source of the moral obligation which I perceive? It cannot be sourced inside me because, if it were, I would have no grounds for my disapproval of you, since you would have your own subjective source. And, in its absence, it would actually be more rational to benefit myself rather than to benefit you. The question I ask therefore is what are the characteristics of the source which would adequately explain this obligation which I realise?

      (In specifically Christian terms, we might turn to the principle which most accept as the ‘pocket guide’ for a good person: treat others as you would have them treat you. But the issue, on analysis, is the same: what obliges me to do that, rather than to suit myself?)

      • RAHNER says:

        “The question at issue is what is the source of the moral obligation which I perceive? It cannot be sourced inside me because, if it were, I would have no grounds for my disapproval of you, since you would have your own subjective source. …….. The question I ask therefore is what are the characteristics of the source which would adequately explain this obligation which I realise?”

        I have to say, at this stage, that I am not sure I understand these questions.
        Are we looking for some absolutely compelling reason (whatever that might mean?) for performing or not performing some act or for some (causal) explanation of a morally correct action or………??

      • Quentin says:

        Rahner, perhaps you will find the answer in my contribution at 16 Oct 8:12, below

  26. St.Joseph says:

    Quentin. I don’t know if I am of the correct thinking of what you mean. But just say that a poor man who was broke and he had a few children to feed and needed desperately some money,and he was praying to the Lord that somewhere he could get some help,so he suddenly came across a wallet with some money in it, enough to buy some food (forgetting about social security help) So he felt it would be all right to keep it as it was a gift from God,(giving the state of his desperation) so he thought to himself,if I lost a wallet with some money in it I would hope that the person who found it would be spending it on a desperate needed cause! Would the morality be the case of the situation.Or is a sin a sin whatever the reason?

  27. Iona says:

    I think life is more important than property, so if the man is actually destitute and starving and has dependents, he is justified in taking money from the wallet to keep himself and family alive.

    • Quentin says:

      I think you express here what the moral theologians put more formally. They say that the right to the fruits of the earth required for survival takes precedence over the right of ownership.

  28. Ignatius says:

    “(In specifically Christian terms, we might turn to the principle which most accept as the ‘pocket guide’ for a good person: treat others as you would have them treat you. But the issue, on analysis, is the same: what obliges me to do that, rather than to suit myself?)”

    Domineering parents?
    An overweening conscience?
    Self doubt?
    Obsessive compulsion to be blameless?
    Neurotic fear that the world will break if you don’t?
    Self righteous pride?

    In fact there is no such thing as ‘obligation’ as you describe it Quentin unless you really are potty and put yourself under compulsions described above. There is no obligation in Christian life Quentin-all is gift and choice.

    • Horace says:

      “There is no obligation in Christian life. . . all is gift and choice.”

      I am obliged, if reasonably possible, to attend Mass on Sundays and Holidays of Obligation.

      • Ignatius says:

        Horace,
        Yes that did occur to me after I had written the above post. Not quite sure if that is the same as the broader obligation of which Quentin speaks but it does confer a sense of that requirement.

    • Quentin says:

      Ignatius, you ask about my broader definition. Perhaps the best way to answer this is the famous passage from Romans 2.
      “When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them”
      If God enables unbelievers to recognise moral obligation, I doubt if he will let us off the hook.

      • St.Joseph says:

        Of course you are right.. It can be seen too clearly the reason why God made man in His image-therefore with a soul. Adam and Eve were necessary even if only the prophecy from Him who Created us separate from the animal world ,as an example for all of us to remember who we have to be obedient to first. That was the beginning of our transformation and evolving into Him.
        We could not do it on our own even then we needed a Saviour whereby all Authority lies under His feet! Even the Law of the Land!
        Even if it hurts..As it did and still does the Martyrs bloody or unbloody..

      • Ignatius says:

        Quentin,
        This is a very interesting interlude I must say. It is abundantly clear in scripture that God makes requirements of us. It is also the case that Jesus makes obedience conditional on the allegiance of our hearts, frequently giving us option:
        “If you love me you will obey..” kind of thing.

        The question you pose though is not about scripture but about some ‘feeling’ you have in your heart or mind that ‘obliges’ you to live in a certain manner. You seem to intimate that this ‘feeling’ or ‘sense’ or otherwise felt imperative causes you to act in a certain way, further that this imperative is somehow objective. That would seem to go against the very nature of ‘love’ in that, acts of obedience, given freely and voluntarily are a huge part of Gods imperative for they show that humble contrite heart which he will not despise.

        Of course I understand your thesis because I would say the inner nagging urge -to pray when I ‘d rather sleep, to be kind to others when I would rather bellow insults at them and to genuinely reflect on the state of my own heart-that nagging urge I would recognise as something of the spirit….but as I said above it could equally easily be an aspect of my own psychology and a method of gaining peace purely from an addiction to ‘self righteousness’!!!

      • Quentin says:

        It is neither a feeling nor a sense. It is the power that conscience has to accuse us. And what the source of that power may be.

  29. claret says:

    The moral maze re-surfaces If I steal a wallet (not my property obviously,) to ensure my own/ family survival how do i know that I haven’t sentenced to death by starvation the owner of the wallet who was simply carrying around with him / her their sole means of survival?
    In order for me to steal the wallet would some level of violence be justified? A gentle push OK or a knife threat perhaps. Is it better for one man to die by an act of violence than for a family to starve to death?

  30. Ignatius says:

    Quentin,
    “.. it is neither a feeling nor a sense. It is the power that conscience has to accuse us. And what the source of that power may be…”
    Hmmmmmm, I don’t think this sticks very well. As I understand it you are saying that there is an objective force that operates on our being causing it to incline towards a certain direction morally speaking and in regard to action. …a sort of moral magnetism that causes our moral iron filings to line up in a certain way so as to cause action? It is true that much of the Divine Office prays that God might incline us to do good in the way you mention-but as an argument for the existence of God I can’t see it going anywhere!!. I certainly agree with you that our faith is active and inclines us towards the good -but you seem to suggest that that the ‘force’ that may be related to a guilty conscience is a demonstration of God. There seem to be two big problems with this, firstly the question of free choice and secondly that any force causing willed action most likely has to be a response to a feeling or a sensation…that is just the way human beings are. Sorry to pick you up on this Quentin but the issue of how Catholics understand ‘obligation’ is very interesting and pertinent to myself as, sooner or later, in order to be ordained I have to accept obligation by vow.

    • St.Joseph says:

      Ignatius.
      I feel I have to say this,I don’t mean to interrupt -however, your last statement says it all that is. ‘sooner or later, in order to be ordained I have to accept obligation by vow.

      Really if one is not able to be ordained in ‘love’ then they are not ready!

    • Quentin says:

      Ignatius, what would I do without you to keep me busy? I must really be falling down in my capacity to communicate for you to have got yourself into such a tangle. I am not talking about a ‘feeling’ or a ‘sense’. I am talking about something you experience, as I do, every day – and perhaps many times. So does the Gentile.

      I will really try to be simple this time.

      You no doubt make many decisions. An example may be that you have to decide whether to have one egg or two for your breakfast. Such decisions take a number of factors into account, but none of these factors are moral. It is a matter of convenience.

      Another example may be that in the supermarket the cashier gives you too much change. Now your decision is whether to point this out or to pocket the money. This is a moral decision: a matter of right or wrong. No doubt, being a virtuous person you scarcely have to think to make the decision. But if you analyse what has happened you can see the sequence. The issue is no longer one of convenience but one of right or wrong. You recognise that it would be wrong to keep the money, or, if you like, you ought to return the money, or, if you like, you have a moral obligation to return the money. You are of course free to pocket the money, but if you do so, you will realise that you have done wrong – and as the quotation suggests – you have to answer to your conscience.

      You might like to look at Gaudium et Spes for the Catholic answer. Para 16.

      “In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged.(9) Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths.”

      Such a description would not be recognised by the Gentile. But in fact this relationship between God and conscience applies to every human being. But the problem is that if you reject the law of God. or some other external cause, you are stumped for a reason for the demands of conscience. It is a law without a lawgiver.

  31. Ignatius says:

    Quentin:
    “I am not talking about a ‘feeling’ or a ‘sense’. I am talking about something you experience, as I do, every day – and perhaps many times. So does the Gentile…”

    Quentin, yes I do know perfectly well the experience of which you speak -but my experience has to come to me through my senses or I am simply not fully human- you don’t seem to want to acknowledge the fact that we are all free to choose -our conscience can either be listened to or seared-often its a mixture of both. You seem to me to be talking about a forced choice-which is no choice at all. Yes of course I live my life by such apprehensions and perceptions as you intimate-but they come as awareness which I choose to act upon or not Could you please -in equally simplistic terms as to a child-explain what you mean by obligation?

    • Quentin says:

      Yes, I can explain very easily. If I say I ought to have two eggs for breakfast, I have a reason of convenience, for example, that I won’t have time to have lunch today. If I say that I ought to return the excess change to the cashier my reason is that it would be wrong not to do so. But because the word ought can have two strengths of meaning, it might be clearer in the second case to say that I recognise a moral obligation to return the money. Of course I am free to reject the moral obligation, but then my conscience will accuse me of wrongdoing.

      I would find it hard to believe that you have never recognised a moral obligation. And it is at least possible that there have been occasions when you refused that obligation, and have afterwards asked for forgiveness.

      • Singalong says:

        I think it is Fr. Gerald Hughes who speaks of “hardening of the oughteries” in those who are over susceptible to feelings of guilt in this respect.

      • Ignatius says:

        Quentin,
        Thanks,
        Of course I recognise the twinging of my conscience and the more it is ‘informed’ the more it seems to twinge!! But we were talking about some ‘objective’ thing. You seem to be saying that a guilty conscience is the work of God in that it represents a reaction to an internalised norm. If this is the case then I would refer you back to oct 15th at 8.59 pm where I suggest only a few of the mechanisms which induce guilt-not neccesarily anything to do with deity but equally likely due to psychological process. Your proposal seems to say something like:
        ….We perceive an action according to how our conscience considers it and if our conscience accuses us then it is a sign of Gods moral imperative which is written on our hearts because we are created by God and therefore in some way able to apprehend Gid in a supra sensible manner….
        There is a very good argument which would put all this down to upbringing, is there not?

      • Quentin says:

        “There is a very good argument which would put all this down to upbringing, is there not?” might be an adequate explanation were it not for the fact that those who have never heard of God still find themselves responding to conscience. My upbringing merely, though importantly, presents to me the reason which I recognise to be the only adequate one.
        So, winding back the clock to the start of this thread, Professor Dawkins, by accusing Christians etc for behaving wrongly, bears witness to conscience, and his belief that the moral law applies to others besides himself. I debated this once on the Dawkins website. After some 30,000 words his disciples were still unable to explain the ultimate source of the moral law, on which they relied so much.

  32. Ignatius says:

    PS I’ve read Gaudium et Spes.

    • johnbunting says:

      If I may chip in here: do we need to distinguish between an ‘obligation’ and a ‘compulsion’?
      I would say a sense of obligation tells us clearly what we should do, but leaves us free not to do it.
      A compulsion removes that freedom, so the action then follows ‘a forced choice – which is no choice at all’. The Catch-22 situation is that once the moral obligation has been obeyed it is easy to say that the choice was never there in the first place.

  33. Ignatius says:

    John Bunting,

    Yes that’s better, Quentin seemed to be describing a compulsion. Still on the hook though. We now recognise that a sense of obligation is a kind of felt imperative yet one which is not of sufficient force to compel but leaves room for choice. OK that’s better but still the point of training remains. We all know the 10 commandments. Our legal system is practically built on them and they form pretty much the drummed in norms of our lives-drummed in pretty much from cradle to grave-particularly in Quentins case of being a cradle catholic of parents with strong convictions. Human beings come with their trainable software built in-its called a nervous system, we train our kids the way we were trained most probably and we live in a society with overarching norms for behaviour the penalty for transgressing which is written in our legal code. I really and honestly cannot grasp the substance of this argument at all, it is surely obvious that any child/ adolescent /adult will imbibe a sense of what should be done and then act in accordance or not depending upon the circumstance and the visceral power of their own need. This has nothing to do with religion per sec.

  34. RAHNER says:

    “I really and honestly cannot grasp the substance of this argument at all,”

    Neither can I.

  35. Iona says:

    (I realise that this discussion may by now have been abandoned in favour of the more recent one on Pope Francis). But I shall contribute anyway:
    I think there is a little more to it than just upbringing. In many situations involving moral choices, one is informed by a sense of balance and justice. The overpayment ought to be returned to the cashier because it belongs in the till because I have received the goods in exchange for the money. The goods and the money balance (I once returned to a cafe, some time after I’d left it, having realised from the notes in my purse that I must have been given change which was £5 short. The people running the cafe were very grateful to me, as they had already discovered that there was £5 more in the till than there ought to have been. So it works both ways.)
    Being truthful has a clarity and simplicity about it which spinning a web of lies doesn’t. Aborting a baby interferes with creation, like a wrench or a distortion.
    (I hope I make myself clear, but I fear I don’t).

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