Saturday, May 19, 2012

There are no morally neutral voluntary actions

  1. Every action either is or not a legitimate expression of love for God and/or his creatures.
  2. Every legitimate expression of love for God and/or his creatures is morally good.
  3. A voluntary action that is not a legitimate expression of love for God and/or his creatures (either because it is not an expression of this love or because it is not a legitimate such expression) is morally wrong.
  4. So, every voluntary action is either morally good or morally wrong.


elliottroland said...

Premise 3 seems wrong to me (unless I misunderstand, of course). For example, the choice of words use I communicate my thoughts in this comment is a voluntary action which is not a legitimate expression of love for God and/or his creatures, but no-one would say it's a morally wrong action.

Another example: a potter breaking a piece of his pottery because it doesn't look the way he wants it to seems to be a voluntary action which isn't a legitimate expression of love for God and/or his creatures. But once again, I can't imagine anyone would say it's a morally wrong action.

Alexander R Pruss said...

We are to love God with all our heart. I think this implies that the love of God is supposed to in some way motivate all our actions.

The choice of words to communicate your thoughts is presumably directed towards the reader better understanding you, towards your communicating the truth to the reader, and I would hope that comes from your love for the reader.

The potter's action could be an expression of love for God, in that the piece of pottery does not express the beauty of God (presumably all art that aims at beauty should aim in some way to express the beauty of God--if it doesn't aim at beauty, then the a different story needs to be given), or it could be an expression of love for himself, in that it is done out of respect for his own artistic vision.

Jonni said...

Concerning premise 3:

I am interested in whether wrong actions are divisible into two categories (1) illegitimate expressions and (2) annihilations.

It seems that all actions aim to accomplish some end.
That ends are chosen because they are perceived to be rationally desirable.
That when we choose ends other than Godly ends (that is absolute love of God, conditioned love of other, conditioned love of self) that our actions could be redescribed as expressions of love for God, but illegitimate ones...mistaken ones.

But sometimes we act in a way which cannot be described as love at all, even as love with some other object than God.
This action only seems to take an end in a negative sense.
This is the act of annihilation, destruction... the irrationality of despair or hatred.

So, in conclusion, I am asking whether you think that actions which are not legitimate expressions of love for God (that is morally wrong), but which are not illegitimate expressions of love for God are necessarily destructive/irrational/annihilating actions. Or is this division overly simplistic?

Kev said...

Premise 1 is the one with a problem. There are loving actions, there are loveless actions, and there are actions that have no bearing on God. Me clapping right now, itching my leg, or moving my eyes to catch a movement I saw in my peripheral field of vision does not bring glory to God or take away from it.

I agree that MOST actions have a moral bearing (and there is a large problem in our society of people thinking that the range of activities that involve morality is very limited). But not all. There are amoral actions.

Dan Lower said...

Actually, if there's a problem premise, it's not #1.

Basically it just says "X is either in the category of L or in the category of ~L." Which is tautological and can't be denied. Denying the truth-value of that statement would essentially deny our ability to have a further argument about the matter at hand.

I agree the argument may be wrong, but if it is there's something else interesting at work. Premise #2 is pretty uncontroversial, at least Catholically speakiing, so I kind of think we're still arguing about premise 3.

I do however still think the examples Kev gives are good ones that could create problems for premise 3.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Itching isn't an action. I assume you're talking of scratching the itch. Well, if a patient asks a nurse to scratch an itchy back, because she (the patient) can't do it herself, it's potentially an act of love for the patient on the part of the nurse to do so. But by the same token, scratching one's own back can be an act of love for oneself. I spoke about love for God and creature, and we are ourselves creatures.

Looking at a movement can be (and often is) an instance of seeking after truth. Aristotle begins the Metaphysics thus: "All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight."

Your clapping right now could be all sorts of things. It could be an expression of joy. It could be exercise for your hands. It could just be an expression of your God-given freedom. Or it could be an annoying of your spouse. If it's the last, it's probably not an expression of love for God or creature. But if it's one of the former, it may well be.

It isn't that hard to do morally good actions.

Here is my favorite quote from George MacDonald (The Princess and Curdie):

'But, please, ma'am - I don't mean to be rude or to contradict you,' said Curdie, 'but if a body was never to do anything but what he knew to be good, he would have to live half his time doing nothing.'
'There you are much mistaken,' said the old quavering voice. 'How little you must have thought! Why, you don't seem even to know the good of the things you are constantly doing. Now don't mistake me. I don't mean you are good for doing them. It is a good thing to eat your breakfast, but you don't fancy it's very good of you to do it. The thing is good, not you.'
Curdie laughed.
'There are a great many more good things than bad things to do. [...]'

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

We are to love God, not with just all our heart, but also with all our strength and all our soul, and our neighbor out of love for God. But do we really do that? I think 99.9% of us do not. We think we do, but we do not. Let me state the following cases:

Case 1:

You go to church or whatever place you worship at. You here a wonderfull sermon on loving others, how we are all brothers and sisters how we all belong to each other. How we all should turn the other cheek. You are all fired up at the words thinking (or shouting if you are at a more contemporary service) Amen brother. And if you are Catholic attending a Novos Ordo Mass, you sing the hymn with the words "We are one bread, we are one body..." and the recesional "They will know we are Christians by our love..." You leave the service driving home all fired up with love for your fellow humans. Then someone cuts you off. Poof, the spell is broken and how many of us will cut loose with our favorite expletives? I wonder if that figure is like 99%?

Case 2: Later on that day you go to your cousin's big back yard barbeque. Seems like everyone is there including your buddies and guy who could potentially become an important business contact. Also present is a woman who is relative of one of the guests. She's not attractive at all. She seems a little different. Her face, movements and other body language are a bit odd shall we say. The reason she is that way was because of a bad car accident which gave a severe head injury, but we don't know that. How many of us will spend some time with her, letting her tell us her story, her struggles, or will we schmooze with our buddies and that potential important business contact, while she remains practically invisible to us because we don't notice?

Case 3: You go to your Rosary prayer group meeting. This evening it's the Joyous Mysteries, You lead the recitation of the Second Joyous Mistery belting out "The Visitation - I desire the virtue of charity towards my neighbor" and all the Hail Marys. On your way home you stop at the local Wawa, Sheetz, or Quick Mart to get your favorite calorie bomb. When you step out there is a down and out looking person who is not your race. He asks if you can spare him some money. Not much, just whatever. What do most of us do? Do we give him some of our money? Do we think, "He's just a professional panhandler, I shouldn't give him anything." Or "I made a donation to St Vincet de Pauls, he should go there to get something." Or "He'll just probably spend it on booze or drugs."

Note each of these cases involves actions that are moral choices. They do not seem like big ones. They seem kind of small and perhaps insignificant. But are they really that insignificant? How do 99% of us actually respond in each case? Do we ever stop and think that maybe God is testing us through these irritating, different, or otherwise inconvenient people?

James said...

Suppose you're a student in a mathematics course, and you're asked to write a proof that the square root of 2 is irrational.

You choose to do so via a proof by contradiction, supposing first that sqrt(2) can be written as a ratio of integers. You could have chosen to prove that the square root of every prime number is irrational, and therefore in particular sqrt(2) is irrational since 2 is prime. Is this action "morally right" or "morally wrong"?

In writing the proof, you may also decide which variables to use in expressing sqrt(2) as a ratio of integers; say you choose "a" and "b", rather than "m" and "n" or "j" and "k". Is this a "morally right" or "morally wrong" action?

Alexander R Pruss said...


1. Sometimes one has a choice between multiple morally good options. All our choices in heaven will be like that.

2. The choice of method of proof touches on the values of truth and beauty. This gives it moral significance. Maybe not much moral significance, but moral significance nonetheless. Cf. my MacDonald quote.

3. The choice of variable is the more problematic of your examples. I have a couple of potential answers.

Answer A: The action of writing "i" can be a morally good action, assuming you're doing the proof with good motives, the circumstances are appropriate (it won't be good if you should be saving a drowning person instead), etc. That does not mean that the choice of "i" over "j" is a morally good action. That's not an action but a choice. The action is the writing of the "i".

I don't like this answer, because I think choices are actions.

Answer B. You're not just choosing "i" over "j" and "k". There are more options than that, such as giving up entirely, using the capital letter "O", using the Hebrew letter `ayin, etc. While "i" isn't any better than "j", it is much better than giving up entirely. It is better than using the capital letter "O" (which is ambiguous). And it is better than the Hebrew letter `ayin, because by using "i", you are appropriately participating in the life of a vibrant and valuable community that has a tradition that uses roman characters for ordinary variable letters and reserves Hebrew letters for other purposes. And that participation is valuable in itself, indeed an expression of our sociality and hence our love of neighbor and our imitation of the Triune God. In a very small way.

This is a good partial answer, but what if you really are just choosing "i" over "j"? What if the other options simply don't occur to you?

I am inclined to think that there still is an aesthetic component as well as a component of participation in the mathematical community involved. Different letters get used for different sorts of things in proofs, depending on area of mathematics. Normally, "i" and "j" are used for indices, with "j" being preferred for the first index in use in areas of mathematics where the square root of one might occur and "i" being preferred in other areas. This is a minor issue, but it is an issue of aesthetics and community, and hence one that has slight moral significance.

But let's suppose there is no aesthetic component. Let's suppose there is no reason at all to choose between "i" and "j", or at least no reason occurs to you. So now we're talking about a completely reasonless choice situation, like that faced by Buridan's ass.

I actually don't think such choices are possible. This is obviously controversial, but I think all choices are made for reasons. Where there are no reasons, the best we can do is to trigger a random non-rational process (perhaps a mental one) that determines us to act one way or the other. And in this case the decision to trigger such a process, rather than, say, to agonize over the choice for another half hour, is a good choice, exhibiting love of self.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Think about it this way. St Paul says that we are to pray constantly. He doesn't want us to be muttering prayers every second of every day. But we can fulfill the command to pray constantly by making every action of ours an expression of our love for God. Would that I did!

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

Would that I did too.

Helen Watt said...

What about a slightly different point: that even morally evil actions have SOME good in them, to which your intention is in SOME way connected, however evil they may be. If health (the ability to function well) has value, then actual exercises of healthy functioning surely also have value (which is why we don't randomly tube-feed ourselves, and why even gluttony has a good aspect elective tube-feeding lacks).

Of course, it's not much help for practical purposes to say that evil actions still have some good in them when they remain so thoroughly to be avoided - even stabbing innocent people would have some good in it, on this theory. For that matter, even deliberately self-destructive actions would have some good in them (intended process, if not intended result...)