Virtue versus law

Insofar as I am reasonably literate in modern moral theology I owe a great debt to A History of Moral Theology in the Twentieth Century (Keenan). It is of course a demanding read, but clearly written. (Try Amazon) What is traced here is the movement from a moral decision wholly based on traditional law to a moral decision which is formed by the individual, taking into account his whole human nature and the circumstances which surround the decision. The various theologians concerned of course differ in details and emphasis, but the broad direction is common. Let me give you an oversimplified example (not taken from the book) which helps me to understand.

I imagine a homosexual man who, for whatever reason, has a strong orientation. He meets another man with whom he falls in love and with whom he would like to have a committed relationship. He decides that this would fulfil himself as a human being and offers to him the opportunity of love and commitment. And that is his choice.

We can all sit back and think about the mismatch between biology and orientation, or the Scriptural condemnations, or the Church’s explicit condemnation. But here, all that is beside the point. What matters is that the individual has used his reason to decide in line with what he understands is the good. And he rightly follows that.

That example is stark. But there are others. Let’s take a divorcée from a valid marriage who enters a second marriage. Must she insist that her new marriage should eschew sexual expression? Or, of course, a Catholic married couple who have good practical reasons to use artificial contraception. Again, whatever decision we think is right or wrong it is the individual who must choose.

We might contrast this with the moral theologian, Henry Davis SJ

“The Catholic Church insists therefore, in season and out of season, on the religious education of the child, explicit, dogmatic, determinate moral education… It says to the child: you must be good in the way I teach you to be good, so that afterwards you may know how to be good.” (Moral and Pastoral Theology,1958 edition)

I find myself undecided. I recognise two contradictory predilections in me. One is the absolute importance of the decisions of personal conscience. So I am minded to follow the more recent approaches. But because of the moral teaching of Davis’s confrères (I was at school in the 40’s) my response is programmed to accept law. Were I the homosexual in the example above, I would accept the relationship – but then feel guilty throughout.

Can you solve my dilemma?

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Moral judgment, Quentin queries. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Virtue versus law

  1. John Thomas says:

    My feeling, Quentin, is that one has to be very careful who or what is speaking to us, within us, if we put private conscience before Law. It may be the Holy Spirit speakng to us, or it maybe something nastier (eg. Satan, temptation, the urge – of fallen peope, as we all are – to put My Desires, Wants, etc., first, telling ourselves that, of course, all we are doing is using is human Reason, which God gave us, being as God made us … etc.) Worst of all, it may be the clamorous shouting of Society speaking to us.
    “Orientation”: I would want to know, if we were chatting in the pub – particularly in the context of your article – what exactly is meant by this word. (OK, you might not go to pubs to talk of these things).

  2. Nektarios says:

    I tend to approach this subject more psychologically than terms expressed.

    For example, when we are babies, up to around the age of two, we are self obsessed with all that is going on with us and the world around us. Relationships as such have not yet arrived.

    About the age of three to four, there is an expansion into other people and relating to them in terms of play.
    In our young years around 11-12 the issue of girls as interesting play friends starts up.

    By the time one is around 14-16 the issue of relationships, and with girls is on the ascendent along with expressions of sex.

    Now I want us to notice something, from the ages of 3-16 there is a life and death going on as one develops.
    Notice also, how young people, are introduced to groups, or gangs, usually of the same sex.
    To develop from that, one has to die to, and go beyond the group to become an individual.

    The morality one is taught, if one is not to stifled by it, one has to grow out of that to become an individual.
    One has to grow out of the group mentality to become yourself.

    From a Christian perspective, we rise through the group stages, painful though it is, to become
    Christlike.
    Virtue can only take place in the individual, not as a group.

    As a help to a sane sensible an rational to the above: Goole up, Prof. J. Peterson.
    He is a Clinical psychologist and University Professor who is always interesting.

  3. G.D says:

    ‘Virtue vrsus Law’?
    Virtue is a life enhancing way of Being; law is a set of rules.

    If i, as a man, live my life with a male partner, or female partner outside marriage, and it makes me a more creative and loving person in society (despite any guilt i may feel because of laws imposed from external sources) then what is wrong about it?
    If, as mother, i steal a pint of milk from the doorstep of a rich household to feed my starving child because i can’t afford to buy it, then law that says i’m wrong is immoral.
    If i’m in a relationship that makes me incapable of love or steal from others to suit myself, then the law opposed to that is moral.

    The conflicts between ‘law’ and being ‘virtuous’ is mostly due to preferance. Which might seem like a tautology (or whatever) when considered literally but, in the actuality of life, is true.
    (Impersonal) Law is not a judicature, when considering specific virtues (morality).
    Laws are external impositions, and can be (are!) moral or immoral; virtues, by definition, are ‘high moral standards’ and internal to everyone, even when they (seem) to go against official (accepted?) laws.
    The Ten Commandments (only ten!?) are guides for virtuous living; and go far beyond legal judgements.

  4. John Nolan says:

    G.D.

    Of the Decalogue, only three (murder, theft and perjury) are proscribed in criminal law, which concerns itself less with moral absolutes than with the impact of certain behaviours on society as a whole.

    That is not to say that they are merely external impositions, since they arise from an understanding of society which is based on a moral sense, since human society, from the family to the wider community, including the nation state, is ordained by God. Pope John Paul II explored this theme in his last published work, ‘Memory and Identity’ (2005).

    The laws against theft, murder and perjury cannot be regarded as moral or immoral according to their application in different circumstances. Ruth Ellis was hanged, and rightly so, in 1955 for wilful and premeditated murder. That her victim was (like her) a flawed character, and that she was an attractive young woman, is totally irrelevant.

    If I choose to live in an adulterous relationship I am not breaking the law, yet what I am doing is objectively immoral. It’s no use asking ‘what’s wrong about it?’ since the answer is self-evident.

    You seem to be arguing that human law may be moral or immoral according to how it is applied. Now, there are some laws, like the ones which permit abortion, which are immoral, but their immorality is not contingent on their application.

    You also imply that Divine law has no objective reality. Fine, if you are an atheist, but not so if you profess to be a Christian.

    • G.D says:

      John, you point out ‘You seem to be arguing that human law may be moral or immoral according to how it is applied.’ and yes i do; my badly expressed (lack of) thought.

      Was trying to say the law is used immorally by people, in certain cases, because they are not virtuous in their application of it. Which makes it ‘immoral’ in certain circumstances.

      The mother that breaks the ‘law of stealing’ to feed her starving infant is still guilty of breaking that law, of course; but the use of the law to condemn her with fines or imprisonment, to my mind, is an immoral use of it; lacking in compassion & understanding. (Which i consider virtuous traits).
      The accepted legal corporate tax havens, are immoral laws.

      It’s the principal of ‘immoral use’ that can make the ‘law immoral’. There are many examples of law being used in such ways.
      Law(s) is often seen and used (and passed in legislation!) as a justification for ‘immoral’ actions. ….. ‘Law is not a judicature, when considering specific virtues’. … By that i mean law cannot (should not) replace the use of virtue in ‘judgements’. But it does very often get used as such, and becomes an immoral act/legislation.
      ….. ‘Which might seem like a tautology (or whatever) when considered literally but, in the actuality of life, is true.’ …. And does make them ‘merely external impositions’ to suit the immorality of whoever is using them in this way.

      ———————————————————————————————–

      ‘You also imply that Divine law has no objective reality.’ no i’m definitely not (i fail to see how you got to that conclusion?) … Divine COMMANDMENTS are an objective virtuous and justified reality from God.

      I also believe they have been given to us all subjectively as well, as commandments for virtuous living, to be conscientiously & seriously imitated as best we can.

      ‘Concerned with judgement’ as the commandments maybe, i don’t think they are a ‘binding precedent’ with punishments attached (as humane ‘laws’). Consequences, yes, punishments no. If they were God would be devoid of mercy and forgiveness, and be a vengeful caricature. And Jesus Christ would become a nonsense.

      The eventual conclusion (‘binding precedent’ if you like) of those commandments for us is for God to decide. …. ‘I will not even judge myself’ … nor others.

  5. G.D says:

    John, you point out ‘You seem to be arguing that human law may be moral or immoral according to how it is applied.’ and yes i do. Badly expressed (lack of) thought as it was.

    Was trying to say the law is used immorally by people, in certain cases, because they are not virtuous in their application of it. Which makes it ‘immoral’ in certain circumstances.

    The mother that breaks the ‘law of stealing’ to feed her starving infant is still guilty of breaking that law, of course; but the use of the law to condemn her with fines or imprisonment, to my mind, is an immoral use of it; lacking in compassion & understanding. (Which i consider virtuous traits).
    The accepted legal corporate tax havens, are immoral laws, and are not virtuous.

    It’s the principal of ‘immoral use’ that can make the ‘law immoral’. There are many examples of law being used in such ways.
    Law(s) is often seen and used (and passed in legislation!) as a justification for ‘immoral’ actions. ….. ‘Law is not a judicature, when considering specific virtues’. … By that i mean law cannot (should not) replace the use of virtue in ‘judgements’. But it does very often get used as such, and becomes an immoral act/legislation.
    ….. ‘Which might seem like a tautology (or whatever) when considered literally but, in the actuality of life, is true.’ …. And does make them ‘merely external impositions’ to suit the immorality of whoever is using them in this way.

    ———————————————————————————————–

    ‘You also imply that Divine law has no objective reality.’ no i’m definitely not (i fail to see how you got to that conclusion?) … Divine COMMANDMENTS are an objective virtuous and justified reality from God.

    I also believe they have been given to us all subjectively as well, as commandments for virtuous living, to be conscientiously & seriously imitated as best we can.

    ‘Concerned with judgement’ as the commandments maybe, i don’t think they are a ‘binding precedent’ with punishments attached (as humane ‘laws’). Consequences, yes, punishments no. If they were God would be devoid of mercy and forgiveness, and be a vengeful caricature. And Jesus Christ would become a nonsense.

    The eventual conclusion (‘binding precedent’ if you like) of those commandments for us is for God to decide. …. ‘I will not even judge myself’ … nor others.

  6. Nektaros says:

    The Law of God was not given as a means or route to Virtue. The law was given as a schoolmaster to lead us to Christ who alone fulfilled the Law.
    The adherence to the Law as the Jews has it, was to make one blameless fefore the Law, little did they realise the Law pronounced all mankind guilty and worthy of death before God, no exceptions, the Law condemns making before God.
    To extrapolate Virtue to mean good deeds is also an error. Good deeds can proceed from Virtue, sure, but it one does necessarily follow that all seemingly good deeds proceed from Virtue. Many do it to be seen of men. To appear something internally they are not, but they would like it proclaimed they are Virtious, Cf. The comments of Jesus to the Pharisees.

    Virtue does not oppose the Law of God. The virtuous person tries however imperfectly to fulfil the Law of God, more than that, the virtuous man delights in the Law, and their obedience to the Law as it pleases God.

    Does this merit Salvation? Obviously not.

  7. Nektaros says:

    Sorry about the error: the Law condemns making before God. …..
    It should have read The Law condemns mankind before God.

  8. John Nolan says:

    G.D.

    To quote you verbatim: ‘If I as a man, live my life with a male partner, or a female partner outside marriage and it makes me a more creative and loving person in society (despite any guilt I may feel because of laws imposed from external sources) then what is wrong about it?’

    Well, sodomy and adultery are contrary to Divine law, which is not ‘imposed from external sources’ but is enshrined in our informed conscience, which Newman reminds us is ‘the aboriginal vicar of Christ’ and a ‘stern monitor’.

    Furthermore, one may not commit an intrinsically evil act and argue that good has resulted from it. The end does not justify the means. The principle of ‘double effect ‘ assumes that the original act was good, even if its consequences turn out to be ambivalent.

    According to St Thomas Aquinas, theft committed ‘in extremis’ would not be sinful. And even in the secular realm, justice is tempered with mercy. Yet the rule of law is what guarantees our lives and property. ‘Hard cases make bad law’ is a legal, not a moral adage. Judges in the 20th century would remind juries that ‘this is a court of law, not a court of morals’.

    We are legally obliged to pay taxes, but are under no obligation, legally or morally, to pay more than we have to. ‘Corporate tax havens’ presumably serve a useful purpose, and if governments decide not to levy taxes they are not acting immorally. It is not for the State to promote virtue, although the French revolutionaries tried to, and tens of thousands died as a result.

    • G.D says:

      Yes, John, i know what you are saying and agree. Literally i have no case.
      My bad examples are obviously against literal legal interpretations; and against recognition of the sinful acts inherent in mankind’s twisted nature. Don’t deny that. I’m not trying to ‘excuse’ immorality of any kind.

      What i am trying to get across is that the literal interpretation of ‘law’ is not the complete or final solution to obtaining & living the God given life as God would have us do.
      Virtue’s (and moral living) are being crushed.
      In a large part, due to the use of a ‘literal legal ethos’ used by some to rule society, for their own benefit, without good virtues, is the cause.

      Yes even in the secular realm justice CAN be tempered with mercy.. according to the morality of those measuring it out .. and NOT when they use it immorally to suit themselves.
      There are masses of examples of each. And statistical analysis (if one needs that kind of proof) of the injustices that are committed in society via the use of literal legal means.

      Tax havens are immoral. If a government decide NOT to levy taxes on certain members of society, and DO on others that function in the same way – it is immoral.

      We are legally obliged to pay taxes of course, rightly to contribute.

      Some of the taxes collected are used to support immoral purposes.
      Disproportionate rises in earnings of one group and not the other – Politicians and nurses come to mind. Not to mention disproportionate ‘expenses’ and subsidies for some.

      Some taxes are not collected because of ‘legal loop holes’ to suit the wealth of certain members of society. Put in place by them.
      All literally legal of course, but lacking good virtue of any kind; and immoral.

      They are obviously saving up to pay for the trip to Mars, will cost a lot you know, when they and their corporate immorality destroy this planet of ours. (That is a flippant joke; not to be taken literally).

      • John Nolan says:

        G.D. I agree with you when it comes to legal positivism, which I think you were (if somewhat obscurely) driving at.

        It is indeed an axiom that the individual is free to do as he pleases if it does not contravene the law. The law (at least in a free society) does not prescribe an individual’s actions. ‘You may only do this if we allow it’ is not the same as ‘you may do this unless we disallow it’.

  9. Nektaros says:

    Quentin

    I am still a little mystified but the topic heading – Virtue versus law.
    If we understood the source and power of virtue there is no versus with laws of mankind and Governments that make them. Man on the other hand does not make Virtue.

    • Quentin says:

      Without attempting a precise definition, virtue is the intention to do the good rather than the evil. The law expresses the narure of good and evil in practical terms. We are never free to reject virtue but there are instances where we can, perhaps must, reject the law.

      • John Nolan says:

        Yet the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and we are told with parsons’ skulls also.

        ‘Virtus’ in Latin is best translated as ‘manliness’ with its associations of power and strength. In English there are a number of definitions of virtue, including excellence and moral worth, and if used (paradoxically) of a woman it can even mean virginity. When Nektarios says that ‘Man … does not make Virtue’ he is presumably defining the word in a particular way, and unless he is clear as to how he defines it (which might be entirely subjective), we are none the wiser.

        I never had much truck with post-modernist deconstructuralism, but now I’m not so sure.

      • Nektaros says:

        John Nolan

        There is no one or truly precise definition of Virtue. Yes, many have attempted definitions of Virtue but these are approximations towards what Virtue actually is. Such approximations, illustrations attempts to define, can never be the actual.

        The reason is cannot be so easily defined is the virtuous person does not know he or she has it, others sense it. Like beauty, not easily defined, yet we all seem to recognise it when we see it.
        Virtue is a bit like that. It is a spiritual quality that proceeds from the life of Christ within.

  10. ignatius says:

    “..I never had much truck with post-modernist deconstructuralism, but now I’m not so sure..”
    🙂 🙂

  11. Nektaros says:

    John Nolan

    Just my last thought of Virtue verses law.

    Virtue makes a man/woman lawful. If a person thinks they are lawful and so virtuous, then than is not Virtue, but Phariseeism.

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