Can a Catholic Critique this Moral Philosophy?

I want to know how a Catholic would respond philosophically, maybe point out errors or inconsistencies in my view, so that I might grow and broaden my understanding.

As I understand morality:

I believe morality is intersubjective, grounded in human nature. Morality is not “objective” the way a chicken sandwich is “objective” - that is, “out there” and separate from human cognition. Objective morality would at any rate be meaningless if this were the case. Morality only makes sense when it relates to human subjects and the shared subjectivity we each possess. It is through this shared subjectivity that we can reflect and make moral demands on each other. We all know, through reflection, that some things are wrong. This isn’t “objective” - it doesn’t have to be. All that is required is a consensus that exists regarding what is right and wrong, through agreement. Not agreement by arbitrary fiat, but by direct perception of what is good - the same way we come to the consensus of what the color red is.

Consensus does not have to be objectively factual, such as whether the earth is round or flat. There is a consensus even now that the earth appears to be flat from one vantage point. This appearance does not correspond to objective fact, but it is a perception that we can still agree on. In that it has a degree of reality on its own. In my view morality is something similar. If we stick to subjectivity, we can say something is right or wrong because we have similar intuitions about it, the same way humans have a common perception of red qualia, even when that qualia is limited to human cognition, and not strictly speaking objective.

I would argue that, on the basis of human nature, we are all the same. Our subjectivity is determined by our human essence (which isn’t infinitely malleable, as per Sartre), and so I would argue that all healthy human agents DO in fact share the same basic intuitions about morality (though of course, things like delusive thinking and mental illness may cloud our better judgments). These moral intuitions are therefore universal and factual, but they do not have to be objective.

Why should we have these oughts hard-wired in us?

An account would be, perhaps, that we are image bearers of God, if one looks at it through the Christian lens. We mirror something ontologically greater, and that’s how we justify our dignity, etc. Although, I suppose Christianity would subscribe to objective morality or moral realism, which to be honest, I’m iffy about.

Something in someone who does not share our common moral intuitions would not only be unhealthy, it would be anti-human and anti-moral, morality being inextricably tied to the human subject in a way that makes them interchangeable in a way.


So then if we all agree that it’s good to, for example, have sex with prepubescent children, that means it’s really a moral thing to do?

1 Like

First of all, I would point out that this is not the case. It is not the state of reality as it exists, the same way it isn’t the state of reality that 2+2=5. If it were, then I would perhaps bite the bullet and say “yes” - but only in a non-real, purely hypothetical “reality” that, again, doesn’t exist and so is meaningless - the same way a square circle is meaningless. It has nothing to do with reality as it ACTUALLY is…

Secondly, what I mean by agreement is such intersubjective agreement whereby we are beholden to our perceptions, not that we “decide” by arbitrary fiat what we want to agree with. Our own perceptions make demands on us, such that we owe it to ourselves to behave morally in a certain definite way. It isn’t about manufacturing your own arbitrary morality. That is not what I argue.

Morality IS objective. If you go through a stop sign and tell the police officer that you don’t believe in stop signs because they’re a limitation on your freedom, the judge will throw the book at you and you’ll probably end up in a psychiatric institution and/or jail.

God has written the moral law in the hearts of men (c.f. Romans 1). He has given us Divine positive law (i.e. the 10 Commandments), the infallible dogmatic teaching of the Church to guide us, the Sacraments to enlighten and fortify us etc.

Seriously… :grimacing:


There has to be objectivity to start with. Then, as circumstances inevitably come down to details, decisions and actions are increasingly based on the judgement of that particular situation, and so those judgements can seem to be more relative than objective. It’s kind of like a sliding scale going from objective to subjective that considers the circumstances all along, always trying to refer back to something more fundamental and objective.

1 Like

So, you say that morality is based on consensus that, in turn, is based on human nature.

You also seem to agree that consensus is imperfectly based on human nature.

So, why not say that morality is directly based on human nature? That would give you Natural Law.

After all, consensus is not very stable. For example about two hundred years ago in some parts of the world the consensus was that there is nothing wrong with slavery. Now in those same parts of the world the consensus is that slavery is completely unacceptable. Which of them is to be followed?

So, why not accept Natural Law directly?

I do believe in the existence of stop-signs. That is not what proves objective morality though. Objective morality, if it exists, would have to be a different kind of entity or set of entities than any physical object. An object only has meaning insofar as it relates to ideas of meaning. A red mark is meaningless on its own. But if I intend that red mark to signify the absence of a student in class, then it has meaning. My whole argument is, why believe in morality as objective or “out there” when one may stop at human perceptions and ideas of morality?

You seem to be pointing out different concepts than objectivity. You are rather pointing out the ‘absolute’ or ‘relative’ nature of morality; whether it holds always or only sometimes. By objectivity I mean moral realism: that one has to look beyond human cognition to establish or think about morality.

I think morality can be absolute, but I do not think one has to look beyond human nature for it.

Morality is based on Divine law, not human positive law. As Pope Leo XIII said the prescriptions of human law must conform to the eternal law (Libertas, iirc).

Furthermore, since we have a fallen human nature (except Our Lord and Our Lady), ignorance is one of the effects of original sin. Our first parents had infused knowledge which they lost after committing the first sin (original sin).

Now we have to learn and re-learn what is necessary (look at all the CAF threads asking if ___ is a sin). If we went by fallen human nature, we’d go back to the late 17th/18th/19th/early 20th centuries where people thought that man was naturally good. Look what happened then: the American & French Revolutions, the Napoleonic Wars, the War of 1812, the 1848 revolutions, Communism, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Social Darwinism, WWI, eugenics which led to Nazism etc. Were they good? NO.

St. Paul writes in Romans 7 about 2 laws - the law of God and the law “in my members”. So we can’t go by fallen human nature as a guide.

I don’t see how this can be at all congruent with your idea that it’s not objective, unless you hold that our perceptions aren’t dependent on objective reality - in which case our perceptions are arbitrary and your argument refutes itself.

I believe that our moral sense is, in one respect, infallible. That is, by virtue of being human, we know the moral law, at least in a general way. But this does not mean we know all that it entails or that we don’t have to develop our ideas so as to align them with our basic moral intuitions. It took a while for slavery to be seen as the patent moral evil that it is, but this process was necessary given how our intuitions were lost and mediated through the haze of wrong ideas and acculturation.

I am not so sure what you mean by natural law, it’s something I should definitely study more in depth (partly that’s why I’m here!) but I don’t think any law can be separate from our human consensus. Human subjectivity and consensus is what seems to give law meaning and grounding. I still do not understand what morality is apart from an agent’s perception of it.

1 Like

I’m not certain what you are arguing here. So bear with me. I suspect you are an atheist and you are trying to argue morality is grounded in the human experience and is subjective in so far that we agree with it but not objective in that it is not universal. Is that the crux of the argument? So, again, I would write if you are an atheist you are in the Humanist branch of things, which from a religious stand point I don’t understand.

I’m 38 and from my human experience in Finance and elsewhere, a lot of people don’t subscribe to a moral code. Womanizing and Hedonism is common as is insider trading, short-selling, and other ways of ethically egregious actions taken by many. So, OK, you want to stand your ground as an atheist and write, “we are moral animals.” In my experience, not really. You can go ahead and live by whatever ethical and moral code you live by for whatever reason, but I promise you many are not living by your standard that are secular. In their circles you would be at a disadvantage.

I am a Catholic and a big part of this experience of being Catholic is holding myself to a higher standard while remaining humble among the common man and providing an example of a good religious life. This involves effort that comes with not monetary gain. I do it both because I love God and people, but also because it makes me happy. Again, I am aware that I am in the minority of humanity but I wouldn’t follow the rest to perdition.

Again, I won’t engage in theory with you. I’m not trying to be smart nor do I value smart. I’m just explaining that in terms of human experience or my life experience your theorizing doesn’t coincide with the Secular World around.

Perhaps it is accurate to say that our perceptions are dependent on at least some aspects of objective reality - namely, human nature, together with cognition and everything else it may entail. But I would say that our perceptions alone suffice to dictate what is and is not ethical. Our moral perceptions (or intuitions) dictate to us a certain moral way of life. They are not “arbitrary” because they contain in themselves definite and uncompromising content that determines what we “ought” to do. The moral law is alive within us, and we don’t need to come up with any other entities to explain or demonstrate it.

1 Like

Actually, I would say that inasmuch as humanity is universal, so too is morality. They are inextricably linked, the more I think about it. Our very subjectivity demands that we be moral.

The fact that human beings fall short of the moral law seems to me a moot point regarding this discussion. Something is wrong even if 99 out of a hundred think differently, so I’ll leave it at that.

Interesting post Dimmesdale
Where do you place enforceabilty in your moral framework?

A moral law - whether objectively ‘good’ or not - that isn’t universally and inescapably enforced can hardly be called anything other than an opinion.

For me, enforceability is the last piece of the epistemological jigsaw puzzle.

  1. Does a moral law even exist? Is there such a thing as a moral compass and “True North” on that compass? The existence of God answers these questions to my satisfaction.

  2. Is the moral law based on truth? (Is it true or false that a given moral law will in fact lead to maximal human happiness?) God’s omniscient wisdom is the only necessary and sufficient condition that answers this jigsaw puzzle question as far as I can tell.

  3. If we concur that a moral law really exists (ontology) and that that law is based on 2+2=4 transcendent truth (epistemology) then the last remaining question is …can we objectively/demonstrably see that law in existence? A supposed law without consequences may as well not even exist. It would be like the Emperors New Clothes.

This is not to say that might equals right is all that’s needed. Clearly, an all powerful Being could be malevolent in impose/enforce laws with resulted in maximal unhappiness rather than laws which are for our benefit. Nor am I conflating enforcement with enforceability. Yes, God enforces His law but He alone can demonstrate that His law is more than just personal opinion or popular zeitgeist.

1 Like

A mistake is being made here. It seems to view objective morality as only being possible if it were some kind of platonic ideal that exists independently. The neo-Aristotlean view is that morality is objective, but not because it exists independently. Human beings exist (as that chicken sandwich is said to exist), and all human beings share in human nature, in being of the same kind. There are things that are true of human beings as a shared kind, and morality is a subset of what is true and exists as part of human nature (specifically the principle of final causes, and as that relates to a concept we would call final goodness (not good for a human being or what human beings are good at, but just in what way the goodness of human nature in itself is manifested)).

The Aristotlean holds that goodness is not just a concept for rational beings, or organic beings, but that all beings (inorganic included) have final goodness insofar as they exhibit obedience to their own natures. Moral goodness applies only to rational beings insofar as it applies to choices made with respect to final goodness.

To circle on back, objective moral goodness doesn’t exist out there. It only exists insofar as rational agents exist and as intrinsic to those rational agents.

1 Like

Thank you for clarifying that. I suppose I am guilty on that score of seeing objective morals as Platonic ideals. If they are not that, but are intrinsic to moral agents in some other sense, I should look more into what this means.

Perhaps I am too focused on morality or moral goodness existing as only one dimension of the human being (seeing it manifested most tangibly in things like sentiments and other moral intuitions) and not seeing how it interrelates with goodness as a whole - that is, seeing the human and his relation to reality more holistically. I suppose this might be the biggest drawback of my understanding. I have not really pondered things like whether a thing is true to its own essence, or how that would qualify for itself. I suppose this also takes into account other factors like teleology. I welcome a fuller exploration of the human as Catholicism might envision it.

Some interesting points yourself.

About enforceability - this is something I’ve heard again and again whenever I’ve had conversations in the past about morality, but I must admit I do not fully understand it. Why does there have to be some power or sanction behind a certain law for it to be binding? I can see how it can foster respect to have that sort of authority, but I don’t see why it’s essential. Then again, maybe I’m missing something essential myself because, as I’ve said, I’ve heard this many times.

But in a way I think I can answer your question just the same. In a way our own inner reflective landscape seems to hold sanctions that it places on us whenever we break a moral law. Healthy people “feel bad” when they are caught, or even just feel guilty without being caught. Immorality causes the human to lose integrity and become disfigured by not being true to his or her own moral demands. One in effect becomes alienated from oneself the more one becomes embroiled in wrongdoing, and thus suffers.

So in a way morality enforces itself whenever we disobey it in our lives, both in terms of inner and outer consequences. On the other hand, when we cleave close to morality, we enjoy greater happiness, virtue and peace of mind than if we didn’t, though these are not the main reasons for being moral. This is the true visible evidence of a moral law “really” existing, in my view.

1 Like

So, have a look at some resources:

Basically, “Natural Law” in the relevant sense is a theory saying that morality is derived from human nature.

The things you were saying are somewhat inconsistent: in one place you were talking about “human”, then you were talking about “agent”.

So, let’s imagine a world inhabited by rational ponies (like in “My Little Pony”). Would it make sense that they have morality? Yes. Would it make sense that non-rational ponies, as exist on Earth, have morality? No. So, it’s rationality that is important.

Thus, as St. Thomas Aquinas defines law, it is “an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated”. And “The natural law is promulgated by the very fact that God instilled it into man’s mind so as to be known by him naturally.”.

1 Like

That “inner feeling” of guilt or of somehow intuiting that a thing is wrong doesn’t seem to meet the criteria of enforcement.
At best, it might be a sort of (optional) self-regulation by remorse.
I would argue that doesn’t even fall in the category of enforcement.

To me, it sounds like you’re describing the ontological acceptance that a thing called “morality” exists and that, yes, one ought to do this and ought not do that.

Bugs and Daffy both agree that a thing called a (hunting season) law exists - and they both agree that people ‘ought’ to obey that law. But they get bogged down at this point. Who is the Umpire? Does the law actually ever get enforced?

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit