Are Moral Absolutes Unfair to Individuals in Difficult Cases?

Adultery is sinful, marriage is indissoluble, and divorce is forbidden. Let us assume that we accept the validity of these precepts in principle—but is it possible to apply them in practice, without committing a serious injustice to individuals in difficult cases? Every statement only covers a limited part or aspect of reality, and in this sense, one cannot deny that life is greater than ideas. But the key question is different: is life greater than ideas (i.e., interpretations, explanations, etc.) in the sense that there is a chasm between thinking and reality, theory and practice? If so, this would have serious implications. It would mean that moral precepts do not adequately align with concrete acts and situations, and that one can accept them on a general level, without recognizing the necessity to submit to them in real life.

The notion of a chasm between life and ideas is supported by a sophisticated argument. On the deepest level, it questions the objectivity of general terms. Concepts and terms that we use for thinking are general, i.e., they somehow unite many individual entities. These are placed into “groups” or “categories” based on what they supposedly have in common, while necessarily disregarding the differences (e.g., all individual cats are covered by the same word “cat”). The result is that unique things are stripped of their individual characteristics. It has been argued that this loss of information impairs knowledge, and so to avoid distortion—or at least reduce it—one should come as close to concrete things as possible. After all, it is individual things that unquestionably exist, not abstract terms or categories, often without clear borders or fixed qualities, so the grouping of entities or segmentation of the world involved in the formation of general terms must be conventional, rather than dictated by reality itself. Therefore, it will be safer to focus on something concrete that can be observed or touched, and to approach abstract “truths” with reserve.

So, whether one argues that by applying general terms and precepts to individual things we falsely reduce their existence to essence, or that things have no (fixed) essence at all, the result is the same: individuality is what matters, differences need to be respected, and discernment brings one closer to real life. In this perspective, covering specific things by general terms is not only incorrect but also unjust towards them, and therefore morally wrong. For example, using the term “state of adultery” for specific cases is false and cruel, and “irregular situation” (at least without quotation marks) is not much better; a safer option is perhaps “complex situation.” Calling somebody an “adulterer” is entirely unacceptable; it would be better to use an expression such as “vulnerable children of the Church.”

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This approach has a serious shortcoming, however, namely the fact that after every discernment we are left with what we tried to avoid: general terms. Moreover, if general ideas are not valid in practice, then neither is the idea that “life is greater than ideas.” It may not be obvious at first, but denying the objectivity of general terms ultimately leads to a rejection of the possibility of achieving true knowledge, and therefore to relativism. But as I tried to explain in my Crisis article on Jiří Fuchs’s noetics, it is impossible to deny the existence of truth as correspondence between thinking and reality, and the validity of the principle of non-contradiction. General terms are necessary to form statements, which are in turn necessary to express correspondence. The way in which we grasp things (i.e., by abstraction) is not identical to the way in which things exist. But this does not mean that general terms are just projections of our ideas on reality. The only possible way out of contradiction is to admit that general terms do convey the necessary and fixed characteristics of things, i.e., their essence. But how does the relationship between a concrete object (e.g., action, quality etc.) and the general term that describes it (e.g., “adultery”) work?

Let us draw a parallel between adultery and a toxic mushroom, say an amanita. The Catechism defines adultery and states that adultery is sinful; a guide to mushrooms gives a description of amanita and states that amanitas are toxic—let us assume that this information is correct. Now imagine that during a walk in the forest you stumble upon a solitary mushroom that has all the characteristics of an amanita. What should you do? You ask two friends for advice. The first one (let’s call him a “nominalist”) claims that “amanita” is just a name, whereas this “mushroom” is unique and specific; one cannot know for sure that it is toxic until one tastes it, and even if some people died after eating this “mushroom,” one can never be certain that it would harm everyone; there is no proof that there does not (or cannot) exist a person who would survive tasting it. The second friend (a “realist”) warns against eating or even touching the mushroom. He says that because it looks like an amanita, we should assume that it is an amanita; because amanitas are toxic, this one is most probably toxic as well, and you could die after tasting a toxic mushroom—there have been many such tragic cases.

It is true that there are mushrooms that look very similar to toxic ones, but are edible. The first friend might suggest that the specimen could be examined in a lab to find out if it actually is toxic. But even such “discernment” would not eliminate the general character of knowledge. The lab would need to apply objective criteria (e.g., the quantity of certain chemical substances the mushroom may contain without being toxic)—it would be risky to trust an “expert” whose “findings” are based solely on his feelings and intuitions, and not supported by logical reasons. It would be false to suggest that there is an opposition between precise and general knowledge, or that a high level of discernment is necessary for an idea to be true. For example, the statement that truth exists is very abstract, yet its theoretical and practical validity cannot be denied. An idea can be true (or false) regardless of its “distance from concrete life.” To sum it up, the objective character of general terms is a necessary condition for any meaningful knowledge, including scientific findings.

The same is true when assessing the sinfulness of a specific action. If it matches the correct definition of the sin of adultery, it is objectively sinful. The fact that human action involves subjective aspects does not mean that its assessment using general terms should be avoided, or that such assessment can be based solely on feelings and impressions, and attributed to the voice of conscience. To recognize and evaluate subjective (i.e., cognitive and voluntary) aspects of sin, one needs general terms and objective criteria, which do not go against logic and Catholic teaching. We cannot exclude the existence of some hidden factors reducing culpability, but as we do not have access to them, it is necessary to leave them to God.

The attack on truth inherent in modern philosophy and Modernism involves a rejection of the objectivity of general terms and the practical validity of general precepts. This leads to the idea that moral laws, including prohibitions of intrinsically evil acts, may be valid on a theoretical level, but need not or cannot be applied in practice. However, if someone says that the general character of thinking is an obstruction to adequate knowledge, they deny the existence of truth, and thus contradict themselves. In short, if we reject general knowledge, we can know nothing, and then even such a rejection becomes impossible. It may sound uncompassionate, but general terms with their definitions—which can be applied to specific cases and statements whose truth-value can be assessed—set the boundaries of reliable human knowledge. The ability to understand ideas has been given to us in order to recognize the truth, and, by following it in our lives, come closer to the source of Truth, the Creator of Life. Suggesting that there is a gap or an opposition between life and ideas is an error whose consequences—like the consequences of any error—in human lives are tragic.

Editor’s note: Pictured above, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn (detail) holds a copy of Pope Francis’s post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia or The Joy of Love at the Holy See Press Office on April 8, 2016 in Vatican City, Vatican. (Photo credit: Franco Origlia/Getty Images)


  • Marie Tejklova

    Marie Tejklová earned a degree in English and Sociology from Palacky University in Olomouc (Czech Republic). She lives in the Czech Republic and works as a translator.

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