By: Paul Murano – August, 2019
The following two questions are related – the first was priority in premodern philosophy, the second is in modern philosophy:
1. How should people behave?
2. What behaviors ought to be allowed?
The first question is ethical – the science of self governance. The second is political – the science of community or state governance. The first question is much more important than the second, and the answer to second is shaped by the first. Yet, how many talking heads today in the media and academia discuss and debate ethics and morality rather than politics and government?
Why aren’t cable news shows spending their time debating what it means to be human and what behaviors correspond to the flourishing of human nature? Instead, people seem to be satisfied discussing the more shallow questions of politics and government. Why do we choose to focus on the more mundane level?
In short, one reason is that modern man has lost confidence in his ability to reason, and now holds ethics and morality to be the sole domain of religious faith. Matters of faith, it is falsely believed, are arbitrary subjective beliefs, not grounded in science or objective truth. There is nothing further from the truth. Yet, sadly, many believe this. Consequently the art of discussion and debate have been relegated to politics and government, and universal principles of morality and virtue are ignored in the public sphere.
This has dire consequences on society.
One consequence of this is the redefining of ‘liberty’ as meaning freedom from governmental interference rather than the freedom to do what we ought. Once confidence was lost in knowing what is objectively good, we were led us down the road of creating an all-encompassing “right to privacy”. Most people have lost hope that reasonable people can come to a consensus on what is true and good, leaving us with a very weak libertarian consequentialist ethic:
“As long as my behavior does directly harm anyone, I should be free to do it.” There are four main problems that come to mind with this ethic. First, there is no thought to whether the act itself is good or evil, right or wrong. Secondly, there is an unrealistic presumption that we can measure all the consequences of a potential action – immediate as well as long lasting, obvious as well as subtle. Some acts, for example, have positive immediate consequences that are easily foreseen but dire long-term effects that are not. Some acts may not cause physical harm, but could cause great psychological, spiritual, and/or social harm. Thirdly, no society will ever flourish if the focus is on doing what we desire and can get away with rather than doing what is good. Lastly, in this new ethic freedom is defined only in the pre-act choice to do the action, not in the result and effects of the act. This point is significant. The degree one’s personal freedom is always lessened when we violate natural law, i.e. act upon disordered desires rather than what is truly good. It is very easy to abuse one’s freedom to choose behaviors that lead to vice, obsession, or addiction. In other words, personal choice can end up in personal slavery.
Good and evil behavior can be known by people of good will. As the great philosopher Peter Kreeft stated, the principles of natural moral law are objective, universal, and can be known through human reason. They are worth debating in the public square, for there may be nothing more pertinent. While religious faith may confirm and add motivation to follow what is objectively true and good, all mature people have the innate ability through the use of clear and unbiased reason to know the common behaviors that make up the common good that enable people to flourish.
Therefore, two truths follow from this gaping hole that modernity has left in its social discourse between individual desire and government, and between church and state: 1) Because we stopped discussing ethics and virtue in the public sphere we as a people have declined in decency and civility; and 2) We are ‘spinning our wheels’ and getting nowhere with all the political talk because we ignore its foundation: politics without ethics is like building a second floor without ever establishing the first. Such dialogue alone can never be fruitful.
So let us reduce the shallow political chatter that is ubiquitous in modern times and focus on the more important topic of personal and social morality. Civil society will never be civil unless people of all faiths reason together to discern the objective truth of human nature and the objective goods that enable it to flourish. Reason without ideology can detect this. When there is self-knowledge, personal discipline, and good old-fashion social pressure to do what is good, government need not be that involved in people’s lives. Until this more basic discussion is reestablished in society, political talking heads will continue to lead us in spinning our wheels to nowhere.
Paul Murano teaches college philosophy and theology and is the talk host of ‘Beneath the Surface’ radio show and podcast. Check out Paul’s website at Paulmurano.com, and email him at PJDM@aol.com.