Monthly Archives: August 2022

Eve’s Eating the Apple is the Paradigmatic Grave Matter

The Gravity of Eating the Apple of Eden

God directly commanded Adam and Eve not to eat fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They disobeyed That disobedience was a grave matter. It was bad enough for humanity to be banished from paradise. We had to struggle with choices of good and evil as a fallen race; always being by our own choices less than what we ought to be.

It is not my intention to develop an interpretation of the Adam and Eve myth. It is my intention to support my interpretation of “grave matter” as disobedience to the divine moral commander. My definition of “grave matter” is not idiosyncratic. In a fundamental myth of our civilization a physical and moral triviality has existential consequences for all of humanity. The only outstanding feature of eating the apple was its relation to God’s command. That relational property made an act of apple eating a grave matter.

The Adam and Eve myths are well worth taking seriously by all of us whether religious or irreligious, atheists or theists, educated or uneducated and young or old. The myths are clear and interesting shared stories for a wide variety of discussions of the human condition. Probably, the only uninteresting discussion of the myths is whether or not they report literally true facts of human history. To learn from a myth requires putting yourself, imaging yourself, in the story. One blessing we did not lose in the “fall” is our capacity to live vicariously in stories.

For uses of Adam and Eve myth see Moral Gravity and Forgiveness of Original Sin and the last paragraph of The Supernatural Origin of Humanity

Moral Gravity as Degrees of Disobedience to a Moral Authority

It is inconsistent to use “moral gravity” to specify degrees of immorality. However, my Church uses a concept of moral gravity to mark out some acts as morally grave. If the “matter of the act” – what the act is- is morally grave and done with full consent of the will after sufficient reflection the act is a mortal sin. For the Church, “morally grave” has the negative connotation of morally wrong. I intend to follow the Catholic Church’s usage.

(Added Sept. 1, 2022: Perhaps I should not write of “morally grave matter” but write simply “grave matter. For when I transition from command moral theory to divine command moral theory, I should allow for direct commands of God to do more than what is morally required. But I do not need to allow for the prospect of the divine moral commanded directly commanding an act contrary to morality. For in development of this moral theory we move up from being a moral commander to being a divine moral commander.)

The question remaining for me is, “What do I intend to say about acts when I follow the Church in labelling them “grave matters?” I am developing an intension -definition- to cover the extension picked out by the Church’s use of “grave matter.”

Here is how the Church specifies “grave matter” in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

1858 Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man: “Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and your mother.”132 The gravity of sins is more or less great: murder is graver than theft. One must also take into account who is wronged: violence against parents is in itself graver than violence against a stranger.

For one, I intend to use it with the negative connotation of being wrong. To say that a type of act is a grave matter is to say that it ought not be done.

But of most importance, I intend to use it as a moral concept in command moral theory and then as a religious morality concept in divine command moral theory. Because I intend to use the concept of “grave moral matter” in divine command moral thinking, I wrote of grave matter as generally “something which ought not be done” instead of as specifically “something which ought not morally be done.”

There are no degrees of immorality. But there can be degrees of the disobedience in the disobeying of a moral command. Disobeying a moral command places an agent in confrontation with the moral commander. This confrontation need not be total confrontation which puts the agent at enmity with the moral commander.

So, I propose to use “moral gravity” to measure the degree of disobedience in disobeying a moral command. An act is a grave moral matter if its performance is the highest degree of disobedience to the moral commander.

There is a critical point in the gravity of acts at which they become grave. Below this point grievousness is not grave. At this critical point acts are grave. Above this critical point acts become more and more grave.

How might we decide that an act is a grave matter? If we stay at the level of command moral theory, brevity of the argument to show that the act violates a moral command might measure degree of disobedience. Acts whose wrongness is almost axiomatic would be grave matters. If we move to religious command theory, resources of the religion such as scriptures, tradition and teaching authority are available to specify what comes directly from the religious moral commander.

Note, though, neither the intentions of the agent, the circumstances of the act and consequences of the act are used to determine its gravity. The gravity of an act, thus, seems similar to intrinsic immorality of acts. Gravity, though, is a concept of a relation between the act and the moral commander; thus, not only about features intrinsic to the act. Independently of the performance of an act, there is a degree of command relation between the moral commander and the act. There is a varying degree of directness of command. That relation prior to performance is measured by moral gravity. There is a declining scale of directness of command by the moral authority of immoral acts.

For instance, Killing someone is directly forbidden by the Fifth Commandment. But punching someone in the face is only a distant implication of this commandment.

Call the performance of an act an “action.” The sinfulness of an action is not an intrinsic feature of the act performed. Sinfulness is a relation between the agent of an action and the moral commander. Sinfulness comes in degrees and it depends upon the intention of the agent and the agent’s circumstances as well as what is done, viz., the matter of the action.

Inconsistency of Using “Moral Gravity” to Specify Degrees of Morality

In intelligent usage, “moral” and “immoral” do not admit of gradations. Acts are immoral or not.

When people jokingly profess that everything, they like is illegal, fattening or immoral, they do not really mean “immoral.” They do not think that their little vices are really immoral practices. They mean that what they are referring to as immoral has been erroneously thought to be immoral.

For people who speak carefully about morality, calling an an act already labeled “immoral” seriously immoral is a confusing redundancy. It is like saying the act is seriously a serious matter. I do not want to revise this feature of moral thought because it rests upon a fundamental feature of moral thought. This fundamental feature can be called the “over riding “ or “dominating” feature of morality. If an act A is obligatory, it ought to be done regardless of the consequences of doing A. If an act A is forbidden A ought not be done regardless of the consequences of refraining from A.

People who hold a consequentialist theory of morality accept the dominance of morality. Consequentialists accept that if act A has the best overall consequences, then A is to be done regardless of the consequences of not doing alternatives to A.

To appreciate the overriding implications of the concept of immoral, imagine someone saying, “I know it is immoral but what are the other reasons for not doing it?” We can rightly suspect that person of not understanding what is implied by admitting that an act is immoral. Admitting that an act is immoral is admitting that there is a sufficient reason for not doing it. Imagine further you ask, “What else do you want to know about doing it?” He replies, “I want to know how refraining from this act promotes my happiness.” Now, our proper response is, “If promoting your happiness is a standard you use in deciding on morality, you made a conceptual mistake in not considering promotion of your happiness before admitting that the act was immoral.”

So, it is inconsistent to talk of degrees of morality. Hence, if “moral gravity” is to be used consistently, it should not be used to speak of degrees of being immoral.

Abortion As a Safe, Legal but Rare Grave Evil

Note added 10-29-2022: Instead of “legal” I should have used “legally regulated.” I am opposed to abortion being made legal in the sense of legally permitted as a right beyond further legal control. I want abortion to be legally regulated as are many dangerous and harmful practices which might in some cases provide what many consider benefits.

In so far as I am able to influence public opinion, I hope to avoid a time when a large minority think abortion is totally permissible and most other people think that it is morally wrong but not gravely wrong. It’s naughty but nice as long as safe and legal.

Reflection on the notion of moral gravity have helped me to articulate my support for President Clinton’s 1992 campaign proposal that abortion should be safe, legal and rare. The widespread and unabashed endorsement of abortion in reaction to the US Supreme Court’s decision, Dobbs, June 24, 2022, that abortion is not a US constitutional right has vindicated opponents of abortion who nonetheless expressed tolerance of legal abortion with the formula “safe, legal and rare.” We dreaded the moral corruption of our fellow citizens that develops when there is widespread enthusiastic support for unlimited access to abortion.

The formula refers to elective abortions. These are abortions simply on the basis of the pregnant woman’s choice. The formula can be used to express toleration of the legality of some elective abortions. The formula does not specify which are to be legally tolerated. Certainly, not all are to be legal. The rarity requirement emphasizes that many elective abortions are to be illegal. Legislative action is needed to fulfill the rarity requirement.

Why did I support the formula”

Abortions should be safe. We should not wish ill health or death for anyone. There are at least two reasons why abortions should be legal. Legal abortions can controlled by legal statutes. Furthermore, a complete ban on abortions at this state of human culture perverts human attention to the temporary goods attainable by abortions. This is attested to by the current unabashed endorsement of abortion because of fears of abolition of abortion. Abortion should be rare because it is from the moment of conception always morally wrong. It is always the intentional stopping of a human life. We should promote the good of human life and oppose the evil of immoral choices to stop the good of human life. Abortion is intrinsically wrong even in cases of pregnancies due to forcible rape and incest.

In 2022 and several years after, there is no basis for believing that legal abolition of abortions would lessen the evils of abortion and promote the good of human life. In the US abolition of abortion might lead to glorification of abortions as prohibition led to romanticizing excess drinking. At this time, mere fear of the highly unlikely abolition of abortion has corrupted the public to turn away from the ugly evil of abortion to focus on the temporary good of solving “hard cases” where abortion seems to be the best solution.

Apparently, many, many people do not think abortion is a grave matter even if they think it is not quite right.
The political means for educating ourselves and others about the moral gravity of abortion is to use laws to marginalize and stigmatize abortion in public perception along with reducing abortions. As the saying goes promote laws which have “a chilling effect” on abortions. Keep abortions difficult to attain and perceived as morally dubious, if not outright wrong. But do not go far enough to raise fear of abolition. Keep the extreme pro-choice people focused on combatting specific anti-abortion legislation. We want them defending some type of dubious abortion; but not cheer leaders for all abortions.

But in the US and EU the situation has deteriorated to the point where there may be abolition of any legal restrictions on abortions. Abortions will be safe and legal. Rarity will be sought only in the sense that in general people prefer avoiding medical procedures.

With abortion the public perception of its moral gravity has degenerated from a grave evil to a trivial matter.

The struggle to re-establish a culture in which abortion is dark and dirty, i.e., gravely wrong, is to lead popular imagination* to contain images of particular abortions as gravely wrong. Debating the merits of kinds of abortions is more effective for this end than debates in political theory about rights of women and their unborn children.

* Philosophic tasks keep multipling, and not without necessity. Now I owe an account of collective imagination as well as collective thoughts.

Moral Gravity is Not an Intrinsic Feature of Immoral Acts

Moral Gravity is Not an Intrinsic Feature of Immoral Acts

Masturbation is intrinsically immoral. The purpose of male orgasm is procreation and the unitive bond of male and female. These basic human goods are never to be directly inhibited. Male masturbation and homosexual acts directly inhibit the procreative and unitive goods of sexuality. This moral judgment was reached independently of any consideration of the intention of the actors, the circumstances of the action or consequences of the action. So, they are always on the wrong side of being right. That takes care of intrinsic wrongness.

But how wrong? How grave? My Church, The Roman Catholic Church, teaches that they are always gravely wrong. I accept that teaching because I accept the teaching authority of the Church. But Church teaching about the gravity of an act is an extrinsic characterization of the act. So, the moral gravity of masturbation in Church morality is not intrinsic as is masturbation’s moral wrongness.

These observations about masturbation can be generalized to cover all of the Church’s judgments of gravity.
A major significance of a judgment of moral gravity for the Church is providing a mark of a mortal sin. In general, a mortal sin must be forgiven with sacramental absolution after confessing the sin in a sacrament of reconciliation. Judgment of how an act makes a person ritually impure is a judgment made apart from the characterization of the act for moral judgment. Ritual impurity is decided by reference to features about the ritual which are not part of the act.

So, Church teaching about moral gravity does not allow for intrinsic moral gravity. We have seen that in law and daily practice gravity is an extrinsic feature of immoral acts. See Gravely wrong So, it is safe to conclude that judgments of moral gravity are separate from judgments of rightness or wrongness.

This seems like a straightforward result. But it is has tremendous implications for moral theorizing.
Some, not me, may conclude that it shows that we should not distinguish gravity from immorality. That line of thought leads to consequentialist moral theories.

Here I want only to note for fellow Catholics that all immoral acts are sins. If the immorality is not grave, the sin is venial. However, a corruption of Catholic morality is to belief, perhaps unconsciously, that if an act is only a venial sin, it is permissible.

Intrinsic Wrong vs. Formal Wrong

This post justifies use of the terms “intrinsically wrong” and “intrinsically grave” instead of “formally wrong” and “formally grave.”

There is some plausibility behind a proposal to use “formally.” The intrinsic wrongness is said to be based on a characterization of the act. For instance, the description of masturbation is allegedly sufficient for showing its wrongness and gravity. The description could be called presenting the form of the act. From a proper description of what masturbation is, it can be determined that masturbation is wrong regardless of any circumstances, intentions or consequences of the act. From the form of the act we can deduce, in the proper moral theory, that masturbation is immoral regardless of anything else. So, why not say that masturbation is formally wrong? What is added by labelling masturbation intrinsically wrong? And, does not “intrinsic” obscure the fact that the wrongness is derived from the form?

“Intrinsic” adds that the wrongness is not in the form itself but in the reality of the act with the form. Use of “formally” can mislead us to think that an act is only formally wrong but perhaps in actuality not seriously wrong on not wrong at all. We might hear :It’s formally wrong but is it actually wrong?” For instance, saying that masturbation is formally wrong can mislead one to think that in reality some acts may not be wrong. “intrinsic” leads us to think of the wrongness as being in the particular acts. So, there is wrongness -evil- in each and every act of masturbation. We want more than a belief that masturbation is an act of a wrong type as suggested by use of “formally”.