Feser and Bessette: The general philosophical approach

In Feser and Bessette’s philosophical case for the moral legitimacy of the death penalty, the first thing to notice is their general approach to moral reasoning.  They claim to represent traditional natural law theory, which they put forward as the approach taken by St. Thomas Aquinas and advocated by Pope St. John Paul II (page 21), and they devote a few pages to explaining what this approach is.

The approach set out, however, does not appear to me to be what Aquinas and JPII had in mind.  Let me explain with a couple of examples from F&B’s principles:

  1. You must not consider the morality of your action from within your own, first-person perspective.

Fesser and Bessette take it as fundamental that our moral knowledge depends on taking a third-person view of our actions:

From the traditional natural law theorist’s point of view, knowing what is truly good for us requires taking an external, objective, third-person view of ourselves rather than a subjective, first-person view; it is a matter of determining what fulfills our nature, not our contingent desires. (Page 25)

  1. We learn the moral law by studying human nature.

Why is this important?  Because we only come to know what is morally good or bad by studying the natures of things and the teleology built into those natures:

Hence just as, in chemistry, botany, and physiology, knowledge can be acquired merely by studying the natures of chemical, botanical, and physiological phenomena, so too can moral knowledge be acquired just by studying human nature. (Page 31)

Let’s compare these two principles with a couple of principles from the natural law approach of Aquinas and JPII:

  1. You can only understand the morality of an act from within the perspective of the person acting.

Possibly the most famous statement in John Paul II’s encyclical The Splendor of Truth comes in paragraph 78 (italics in original):

The morality of the human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the “object” rationally chosen by the deliberate will, as is borne out by the insightful analysis, still valid today, made by St. Thomas. In order to be able to grasp the object of an act which specifies that act morally, it is therefore necessary to place oneself in the perspective of the acting person.  The object of the act of willing is in fact a freely chosen kind of behavior.

A few months ago I set aside time to re-read Aquinas’s treatise on the moral act carefully.  My conclusion:  This statement from John Paul II perfectly captures what Aquinas was saying.

  1. The natural law is self-evident to human beings.

The idea that morality must be judged from within the perspective of the acting person—from the first-person point of view—is bound up with a particular idea about what natural law is.  In the view of Aquinas and JPII, natural law is not something “out there” in natures for us to study, but rather something “in here,” built into the very way we see things with our reason.  As JPII says (VS paragraph 42):

It also becomes clear why this law is called the natural law: it receives this name not because it refers to the nature of irrational beings but because the reason which promulgates it is proper to human nature.

Aquinas says the same thing:

Wherefore [the rational creature] has a share of the Eternal Reason, whereby it has a natural inclination to its proper act and end: and this participation of the eternal law in the rational creature is called the natural law.

This is why Aquinas says that “the precepts of the natural law” are “general and indemonstrable principles” that are not acquired by “the effort of reason” (ST I-II.91.3).  Or as John Paul II says, quoting Leo XIII, the natural law is “written and engraved on the heart of each and every man” (VS 44).

One could say a lot about the contrasts between Feser and Bessette on the one hand and Aquinas and JPII on the other, and about the implications of those contrasts.  But for this series of posts, I’ll stick to how the principles play out in the case F&B make for the death penalty.

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Feser and Bessette: The Philosophical Argument, overview

No matter what criticism one brings against their book or its argument, one must admit that Feser and Bessette make their argument clear.  On page 52, they offer an overview of their philosophical argument for the moral legitimacy of the death penalty.  Notice that steps 4, 5, and 6 form a syllogism:

  1. Wrongdoers deserve punishment.
  2. The graver the wrongdoing, the severer is the punishment deserved.
  3. Some crimes are so grave that no punishment less than death would be proportionate in its severity.
  4. Therefore, wrongdoers guilty of such crimes deserve death.
  5. Public authorities have the right, in principle, to inflict on wrongdoers the punishments they deserve.
  6. Therefore, public authorities have the right, in principle, to inflict the death penalty on those guilty of the gravest offenses.

Continue reading “Feser and Bessette: The Philosophical Argument, overview”

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Feser and Bessette: The Theological Argument

After my recent post about the death penalty, I bought the new book by Edward Feser and Joseph M. Bessette, By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed.  They offer a veritable encyclopedia on the issue, taking up all manner of objections and citing all manner of sources.  Over the next few posts, I would like to offer my reactions to at least the first part of their work.

To start with, their strongest point: the theological argument of chapter 2 is imposing.  Citing not only sources but even critics of the death penalty, Feser and Bessette bring out the following: Continue reading “Feser and Bessette: The Theological Argument”

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Experiencing Sacred Time

The Solemnity of All Saints stands out for me as—well, solemn.  By celebrating the communion of saints as such, the day seems to offer thanksgiving for the fact that we celebrate the saints, for the very existence of the sanctoral cycle.  So every November 1st, I find myself reflecting on the fact of sacred days and times.

Charles Taylor argues that a loss of the sense of sacred time was key in the transition to modernity.  Medieval man experienced times as defined by content and as ordered not only by chronology alone, so that “Good Friday 1998 is closer in a way to the original day of the Crucifixion than mid-summer’s day 1997.”  But modern man experiences time as homogeneous and empty, ordered simply by one time’s replacing another in sequence.  Modern man can believe in eternity, says Taylor, but he can’t experience eternity’s penetration into time in a naïve, unreflective way.

Taylor is surely right that this was one strand in the transition to secularity.  But how absolute a doom is modernity?  Can a man today experience sacred time in an immediate way, or will it always be mediated to him through some kind of abstract consideration?  Or will it—even worse—always be constituted by a wistful recollection of a bygone era when Christians really experienced the seasons, like those nostalgic Christmas cards depicting horses and sleighs and Victorian houses?

In this post, I want to describe my own experience of sacred time.  I don’t know whether it would count for Taylor as “immediate” or “naïve,” but there is something immediate and unreflective about it to me.  The experience is complex, because time is complex. Continue reading “Experiencing Sacred Time”

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Three notes on the death penalty

Over the past year, I have made slow progress toward deepening my grasp of moral philosophy.  As a philosopher, I am still not ready to join all the discussions that swirl around the Internet.

But when people began to wrangle about Pope Francis’s comments on the death penalty, I noticed a few points that I could contribute as a theologian.  Here are some key lines from the Holy Father’s remarks:

It must be clearly stated that the death penalty is an inhumane measure that, regardless of how it is carried out, abases human dignity.  It is per se contrary to the Gospel, because it entails the willful suppression of a human life that never ceases to be sacred in the eyes of its Creator and of which—ultimately—only God is the true judge and guarantor.

This is a strong argument, to be sure.  I hope to do some justice to the strength of the argument below.  But as a Catholic biblical scholar, I see three points that might deserve consideration: Continue reading “Three notes on the death penalty”

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To love the Lord with all your mind

As a college teacher, I often have to reflect on what a college education really aims at.  What should we be doing?

Jesus was asked a similar question once: “What is the greatest of the commandments?” The question was very broad, of course:  it meant something like, “What should we be doing with the whole of our lives?”  But the answer he gave, because it applies to every part of life, applies to a college as well.  He cited Deuteronomy 6:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord and you shall love the Lord you God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.

One could spend a life unpacking that one sentence. But what I want to focus on now is the fact that Jesus didn’t quote it the way it is found in Deuteronomy—the way I just wrote it out. What he said was this: Continue reading “To love the Lord with all your mind”

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Holmes’s Law

To criticize X is one thing, to mock X is another; but the more you do of either, the less you see the distinction.

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A note on the Latin text of Veritatis Splendor

In my last post, I offered an argument that Amoris Laetitia was written in a modern language and then translated into Latin later, with the various modern language translations based not on the Latin but on the modern-language original.  The argument had two bases: (1) The Latin text appeared on the Vatican website months after all other languages had been published; (2) the various translations share features that cannot be explained on the basis of independent translation from the Latin.

There are other possibilities, of course.  Maybe the Italians translate a text first, and then all the other translators use the Italian translation as a guide to their translation of the Latin.  Maybe all the translators get together at a pub to decide what the text should really say, and then go home to make it say that.  I don’t know!  But a couple of conversations with people who work in the Vatican Latin offices have left me, rightly or wrongly, with the impression that it has been a long time since a papal encyclical was originally composed in Latin.  Rumors have it that BXVI did compose in Latin, but even these rumors put the claim as a remarkable exception.

But since we are having fun with linguistic geekery, I thought I should look at the word “ideal” in John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor, too.  The famous paragraph, the one people often cite in comparison with Amoris Laetitia 303, is VS 103: Continue reading “A note on the Latin text of Veritatis Splendor”

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A note on the Latin text of Amoris Laetitia

When Amoris Laetitia was first released in all the various modern languages, the geeks among the onlookers were frustrated to find that no Latin text was available on the Vatican website.  Months went by, and eventually a Latin text appeared, long after the debate over Amoris Laetitia was underway.  Just looking at the Vatican website, one would suppose that the Latin text was not the original text but was created some time after the various modern language editions.

Is this true?  I became curious.  Now that there is a Latin text, we can check.  If the Latin is original, then one will expect to find that the various translations render the Latin various ways, with the Polish sometimes agreeing with the Latin against the Spanish, and the Spanish sometimes agreeing with the Latin against the French, and so on.  But if the Latin was later, then one would expect to find sometimes that the various translations all agree with each other against the Latin, and one would expect to find this in a situation where a given phrase is especially hard to get into the Latin. Continue reading “A note on the Latin text of Amoris Laetitia”

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Standing in the Solar System

My home was in the path of the total eclipse of 2017.  The hype before the event made us all doubt it could possibly live up to the anticipation—and yet it did.  And how.  Follow this link to read my essay over at The Peregrine Magazine, “Standing in the Solar System”.

Image credit: The Peregrine Magazine
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