Monthly Archives: October 2022

Distinguishing Shame From Contrition

Before further explorations of personal, collective and vicarious contrition for abortion it is useful to distinguish shame from contrition. The theme is that our moral shame is of that for which we should have perfect contrition. Shame is a psychological condition* in reaction to what ought not have been while contrition is in part, at least, a moral judgment that a psychological condition of sorrow for being in conflict with the moral law specifying that for which there is shame ought not have been. I am guided somewhat by use of the prepositions “of” and “for.” Shame is of a concrete situation. Contrition is for violation of the abstract moral law. The distinction is made by observations about usage of these terms; not with precise definitions.

I begin with observations of my religious practice since that provides for me the paradigm cases of tallking of contrition.

I receive the Catholic sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) about every eight weeks. Long ago when I was a child, I was ashamed of what I had to confess, had the so-called imperfect contrition of dreading the loss of heaven and pains of hell and felt ashamed of not having the perfect contrition of sorrow over offending God. I did not have to confess the absence of perfect contrition. I am ashamed to admit that I still lack perfection contrition.

The absence of perfect contrition was not an immoral act or the result of any immoral act. Still, I was ashamed of that lack because it indicated that I was not a very good person, or so I believed. I believed that I ought to have perfect contrition. I did not, of course, think that I ought to feel perfect contrition immediately. I believed having perfect contrition was a condition I should try to develop.

I did not then, and do not now, know clearly what it is like to have perfect contrition. Implicitly, I knew then, and explicitly now, know that I ought not dismiss pursuit of perfect contrition as an important goal. Dismissing perfect contrition as a goal worth pursuing would be tantamount to dismissing love of God as a significant goal. Here, the normative dimension of perfect contrition has emerged. Loving God is an obligatory good .

The commonly used phrases “you ought to be ashamed of that” and “you ought to be ashamed of yourself” does not indicate a similar normative dimension of shame. Shame per se is not a good to be pursued. Contrition because it involves love of God is per se a good to be pursued. Actually, the apparent obligation to have shame is to accept, have respect for, the moral law condemning that for which we should be ashamed.

My previous thoughts on You ought to be ashamed of yourself do not undercut what I have written here that shame is not a good to pursue.

I am searching for a purely moral analogue to perfect contrition as the sorrow about the violation of a moral law over and above any dread of the consequences of the violation. As noted above, an element of perfect contrition is having love of God as a significant goal. I propose, then, that an element of the moral analogue to perfect contrition is having love of, respect for**, the moral law as a significant, if not preeminent, obligatory good.

In conclusion, consider a comparison between love of God and respect for the moral law when we identify respect for the moral law as love of God.

To love God is to choose the good of God. The good of God is what God wills. Hence, to love God is to choose what God wills.What God wills is obedience to the moral laws for attainment of human happiness. So, to love God is to choose obedience to the moral laws for attainment of human happiness. If “respect for the moral law” = “love of God,” we get:
To respect the moral law is to choose obedience to the moral laws for attainment of human happiness***.

Added Oct. 31. If we do not have a command morality, which is invariably a divine command morality, we cannot really find a place for contrition. Respect for the moral law is only half of contrition. For full confession we need sorrow for disobeying the source of the moral law. If the source is impersonal as rationality or morality itself, there is nothing which our immoral choice has offended.

* “Pyschological condtion” refers to a combination of cognitive and affective states – combination of thoughts and feelings
** Respect for the moral law is preeminent in Kant’s moral philosophy. I keep returning to Kantian moral thinking in all my thinking about morality. But I am not doing Kantian exegesis.
*** Note that if the moral laws are for attainment of human happiness, the elements of happiness, the basic human goods, are obligatory goods.

Collective Contrition

Collective Contrition

To build an authentic moral barrier to abortion we should cultivate a condition of collective perfect contrition for abortion.

I wondered why we, and I in particular, should care about almost unlimited access to abortion. We, and I in particular, are not threatened with any great harm. The extreme damage to unborn babies might well be outweighed by the social problems solved by their destruction. Some, but not many, might fear the wrath of God.

Yet, there is a deep sorrow that elective abortions are legally permitted and that millions of women have and will use that permission. Explicitly, or implicitly, those of us opposing abortion want having this sorrow about abortion become dominant in society. The goal is to have the dominant thinking be that abortion is immoral with the appropriate thoughts and sentiments that being immoral itself is what makes it horrible.

The effort to understand thoughts and sentiments connected with violating a moral law led to the concept of perfect contrition . Perfect contrition is primarily a religious notion of sorrow over offending God by violating moral laws which are His commands. This religious concept is readily generalized to be a candidate for the thoughts and sentiment, if any, about violation of a moral law over and above sorrow and fear of any consequences of the moral violation.

I write, “if any” to indicate the prospect that psychological analysis of any particular sorrow about violation of a moral law might indicate that it is in fact some fear or grief about the consequences of the violation to society or oneself.

The concept of perfect contrition is not meaningless even if no one came ever be certain that they really have it. The concept is meaningful even if we can never be absolutely certain that it has anything in its extension. The concept is necessary for moral thinking, but it is not necessary that it be exemplified in any individual.

For those who might still be interested in twentieth century concerns over cognitive meaningfulness, note that claims of perfect contrition are empirically falsifiable.

Indeed, there is no authentic moral thought without the thought of immorality being a reason for sorrow regardless of any physical or social harm. Perfect contrition is necessary for morality. Dogmatic claims of psychological egotism that people have only selfish concerns and can make only selfish choices are dogmatic denials of morality. Case by case analyses to raise suspicion about unselfish concerns, as alluded to above, are efforts to show that there is no morality.

As important as it is to be honest about motives etc., unceasing efforts to uncover selfishness are uninteresting. They seem to be based on the dogmatic assumption of psychological egotism that there is always some selfishness to be uncovered. Of course, we are selfish and hypocritical. What is interesting is to show what it is like for a person to be sincere and unselfish.

In any event, we can set aside the whole topic of tortuous psychological analyses of individual motives. Morality is primarily collective thinking. So, if morality requires perfect contrition, then perfect contrition is an element in collective thinking. I admit that contrition seems preeminently a condition of an individual. However, we learn to think from others. So, if we can have perfect contrition, we have acquired it from others.

Upcoming topics are exploration of what collective perfect contrition might be like and the possibility of vicarious contrition.

Ontology, theories about what is real, are inseparable from my pursuit of truth in moral theory. I close with an argument for the truth of one of my major ontological assumptions.

There is no doubt that I assume that there is collective thinking in what I have written. But of more significance for the reality of collective thinking my act of writing and the act of anyone writing in reaction to what I write assumes and presents the reality of collective thinking. More generally any discussion, written or verbal, of the reality of collective thinking exhibits the reality of collective thinking.

Famous Relatives of Perfect Contrition

The title “Famous Relatives of Perfect Contrition” signals the influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein. In his 1953 Philosophical Investigations, he introduced the concept of family resemblance amongst concepts. The concept of family concept is vague. It is introduced with examples. Wittgenstein illustrated it with games. “Game” is not well-defined but we identify activities such as hop-scotch, bridge and baseball as games. In an effort to understand what it is to play a game, those three along with many others might be part of the discussion.

So, when I identify a concept as having a family resemblance to the concept of perfect contrition, I am thinking of it as a concept which very likely would come up in a conversation aimed at understanding perfect contrition. Or, conversely, a common concept which someone might help clarify by introducing the more rarely used concept of perfect contrition.

The main purpose of this post is to establish the intellectual respectability of the concept of perfect contrition for use in moral theory and moral theology. It is not a special concept for Catholic moral and sacramental theology. It is closely related to widely used theological and philosophical concepts. Perfection contrition comes from a distinguished conceptual family!

Begin with love of God. For Judeo-Christian religions, the Hebrew Shema expresses a fundamental belief. Central in the Shema we read

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all you mind and with all your might.”

Personally, I am more perplexed by love of God than I am by perfection contrition. But if I had perfect contrition, I would have love of God. For in professing perfection contrition I profess love of God. If I happened to fall and loved God, I would have perfect contrition. For a sinner, there is perfect contrition if and only if there is love of God. Sinners need to discuss something like perfect contrition to understand love of God.

My phrase “something like” means that the words “perfection contrition might never be used.

Sinless angels might love God apart from any contrition. A dimension of the notion of original sin is that for humans love of God is inseperable from notions of contrition and pleas for mercy. Perfection contrition is related to the concepts of angel, original sin and even immaculate conception.

Claims that God loves us no matter what we do or think, threaten theistic belief with vacuity. What we do must matter to God and we must respond to what matters to God. Again, discussion of a significanct Divine Love will use some notion like perfect contrition – sorrow for improperly responding to God’s love.

Reformation notions of redemption and salvation involve something like the concept of perfect contrition. What is that faith which guarantees salvation? Perhaps, it is God’s gift of sorrow for being a sinner because we were offensive to God whom we love. Reception of this gift is one’s salvation by being a person who loves God. I only hint at these subtle Reformation notions. I want only to suggest that something like perfect contrition would be used in serious discussion to clarify them.

In general, I think that any discussion to clarify concepts of the theological virtues: faith, hope and charity, will introduce something like the concept of “perfect contrition.”

Perfection contrition has distinguished philosophical brothers and sisters. We cannot meet her without getting introduced to the whole family of moral philosophy.

In Gorgias, Plato has Socrates reply that it is better to suffer a wrong than to do a wrong. Figuring out what one ought to suffer in doing a wrong would help figuring out what perfect contrition might be.

In The Republic, Socrates tries to appreciate why someone who had the ring of Gyges making him invisible so that he could get away with any crime would not be happy. This might have been the earliest written account of the problem of identifying an especially horrible sentiment and condition based simply on an intention to do what is immoral. It continues up to our time with efforts to understand egotism, altruism et al.

Indeed, rationality would be on the list, started above. All attempts to show the rationality of morality face the question “Why be rational?” Any morality, worthy of the name, requires some inclination frustration. What is the sorrow connected with intending to do the irrational which makes such a choice worse than any sacrifice of our inclinations? The whole Aristotelian tradition holds that showing the rationality of an action guiding principle suffices for showing it is a morally valid principle.

I doubt that attempts to identify morality with rationality can answer “Why be rational?” Rationality is abstracted from anything which cares about what we do or what is good for us. One reason why I now work on a theory of morality as the commands of a moral commander is that if there is a personal relationship between the source of morality and us, we can realize why we desire to be moral.

I cannot close without mentioning Kant’s concepts of moral worth and respect for the moral law. Kant tells us that a choice has moral worth if and only if it is made out of respect for the moral law. We might begin to interpret this, perhaps unattainable, standard for moral worth by imagining of what we think and feel if we ignore the moral law in a choice. To what have we failed to pay attention and what do we feel about ignoring it.

Is Perfect Contrition Possible?

I closed my previous post Why Do I Care About Abortion? with a promise to connect my notion of moral harm with caring about it. However, I did not want to reduce the concern to an emotional state; it had to be a distinctly moral sentiment. Feeling a need for repentance or deserving pain as punishment might be marks of a distinctively moral sentiment. In this post, I begin to characterize the problem of finding a sentiment of sorrow about moral harm.

It is a deep problem which might, unfortunately, be raised by asking “Why be moral?” I write “unfortunately” because the question “Why be moral?” was dismissed in the early 20th century* as the trivial question “Why ought I do what I ought to do?” The question is at least “Why should I care about a moral law being violated by me or someone else?” Even if I have conceptually characterized the moral harm of violation of a moral law as willing that harm ought to be done, there remains the question of why care about this ad hoc norm that some harm ought to be done.

The question may be a mistake in the sense that there is no answer because there is no sentiment of regret conceptually and emotionally uniquely brought about by and directed to violation of a moral law. Such a sentiment may be illusory. However, I move forward under an assumption that the nature of the sorrow about violation of moral laws is only elusive; not illusive.

I began by recollecting my childhood efforts to capture this elusive sentiment. Then I wondered. Now, I explicitly ask “How is perfect contrition possible?” When I was seven or eight preparing for my First Confession in the second grade of Nativity Catholic school in St. Paul, Minnesota, I memorized an Act of Contrition which I would recite before the priest gave me Absolution for the sins I confessed. I remember and still recite in confession:

“ Oh, my God, I am heartly sorry for having offended you because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell. But most of all because they offend you, my God, who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve with the help of your grace to confess my sins, do penance, and amend my life. Amen”

We were taught that contrition is bipartite. First, there is the imperfect contrition of sorrow about losing heaven and suffering the pains of hell. Second, there is the perfect contrition expressed as sorrow about offending God who is deserves all of my love. I definitely had imperfection contrition. I worried about lying in the confessional id I said that I cared about offending God; let alone caring most of all about offending God.

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet wisely taught that if we did not feel perfect contrition, our expression of it meant that we were praying that we could get as we continued to practice our faith. If we could attain perfect contrition all our sins would be forgiven without Absolution. However, we should plan on going to confession throughout our lives because we could never be certain that we felt perfect contrition. I recall one suggestion in discussion was that after death, in purgatory, those of us who did not become saints would learn to have perfect contrition. We would never get to heaven without perfect contrition!

I cannot help but note that for me memorization and study of the Baltimore Catechism was never rote memorization. Catechism study was my introduction to philosophy.

In the context, where Divine Command morality is taken seriously, the question about the special sorrow for violation of moral laws can be expressed as “What is it like to feel sorrow about offending God?” and how is it possible to have such sorrow in this life. If perfect contrition is only possible in purgatory, it is an illusion, at least for moral theologians in this life. If saints attain it, it is not an illusion. But we have to understand sainthood to attain some sense of what it is.

In any event, characterizing the question about the unique sorrow over violation of moral as a question about the possibility of perfect contrition is a start towards appreciating what we are trying to understand moral harm to be. Subsequent posts bring out that holding a divine command morality does not raise a problem only for morality so understood. Secular understandings of morality still need an understanding of repentance for moral violations for which the penitents dread no harm to themselves. Think of middle-class Americans who feel deep sorrow for violation of moral laws inflicting injustices on ancestors of say, contemporary Indigenous peoples. What is the harm we now regret to what do we offer apologies?

* H.A. Prichard, “Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?” Mind (Jan. 1912)

Why Do I Care About Abortion?

On Wednesday, October 5, 2022, I participated in the Ohio Right to Life rally and march at the Ohio Statehouse. What did that amount to? I came alone; not as a member of any group such as Knights of Columbus. During the rally, I stood around listening to speakers, other people and read signs. I did not feel like an outsider. Nonetheless, I did not feel as someone committed to a cause. I walked six blocks through some downtown streets doing more listening and looking. I estimated that about 4,000 people participated in this peaceful event. There was no specific legislative program promoted. What was it about? Why was I there?

The signs were generic anti-abortion and prolife. After the June 24 overturn of Roe v. Wade, the prolife movement cannot focus on the overturn of a supreme court decision. What is the focus or, rather, what should my focus be?

I admit that I never cared about Roe v. Wade being overturned. I have never been concerned with any anti-abortion legislation. I have joined Catholic groups praying outside abortion clinics. I have run marathons wearing a “Democrats for Life” tee shirt. I was surprised at how many women runners would shout out “That’s what I am.” That’s not exactly what I am. I am too libertarian to be any kind of Democrat. I have contributed generously to pregnancy care centers. Why?

Abortion is the direct intentional stopping a human life innocent of any wrong. The act of aborting is morally wrong. Abortionists commit a serious moral wrong. Nonetheless, I have not cared greatly about the millions of morally wrong acts of abortion. There are so many immoral acts. I cannot honestly say that I care very much about the deaths of the millions of aborted babies. Death is simply part of life and sometimes death is a blessing. A baby whose mother wants to kill him or her might be a situation where death is a blessing. However, it is obvious that many, especially women, in the prolife movement grieve over aborted babies

I should care about the aborted and to be aborted babies. This lack of concern for the lives of the unborn may be a moral blind spot afflicting me and billions of others. We tend not to see the unborn as really human until we see it kicking and screaming after birth. In terms of John Henry Newman, we let ourselves have only a notional (theoretical) knowledge of the unborn baby as human. The birth forces us to have real knowledge of the baby’s humanity. This blind spot is a significant causal factor in the toleration of abortion.

There is a positive factor, though, in my moral insensitivity about the death of so many. The positive factor is that I do not try to give utilitarian arguments against abortion. It is far from clear that a compelling utilitarian case can be made against abortion. I am confident that a cost/benefit weighing non-moral goods justifies some abortions.

One sign read: Make Abortion Unthinkable. That sign led to a line of thought bringing into focus why I care about preventing choice of abortion. Yes, my philosophy projects are always in the back of my mind. . During the parade up Front St., the thought struck me that my notion of moral harm is what I need to develop to articulate what I care about on the abortion issue. What’s the connection?

Not being able to think of abortion means that we cannot think of it as morally permissible regardless of how we feel about it or regardless of the consequences of not having it. In short, the hope expressed with “Make abortion unthinkable” is transform the culture so that the dominant thought in public opinion is that abortion is genuinely morally wrong.

Why, though, care about people thinking abortion is morally wrong? Moral laws, as I am maintaining, are commands from God. Sooner or later, all except the most foolish, hear those commands. I care that billions of women are vulnerable to suffering the dread that some awful harm ought to happen to them. Once they realize too late that they have chosen that annihilation – never being at all- ought to be. Ought it be any better for them if they have chosen for their unborn child that it is best never to be born?

I care about abortion because I care about the moral harm, the harm that ought to be , inflicting women who make the foolish choice of abortion.

This calls for subsequent posts reconsidering my notion of moral harm to connect it with caring without reducing it to a natural emotional state.

Philosophical Arguments as Guides to Reality

This is the correction about my understanding of philosophical arguments which I promised in Choosing not to Live .

This post explicitly rejects a suggestion of some of my posts that the main purpose of philosophical argument is to trace out logical connections between beliefs so that we can accuse others of logical inconsistency if they hold some beliefs while rejecting others. In particular, I want to set aside the claim in Choosing Not to Live vs Choosing to be Killed that necessarily there is a logical contradiction between holding beliefs justifying suicide but rejecting nihilism.

Justifiable suicide and nihilism cannot be conclusively defined to a point at which we can say “here is what the terms really mean.” Then, using terms with this final, or real, definition, reveals that it is inconsistent to say that suicide is justifiable without accepting nihilism. Rather, those who believe that justifiable suicide is compatible with believing life is meaningful hold, implicitly at least, that their definitions of the crucial terms misrepresent reality until there is no inconsistency. If they seek philosophical justification via philosophical arguments, they will work on avoiding contradictions.

Of course, people need not seek philosophical justification. They can simply stop trying to justify their policy beliefs and continue acting on their policies without justificatory statements which lead to contradictions. The strategy is to let reality justify their policy beliefs. For instance, a scientistic outlook that only the natural sciences provide knowledge encounters a contradiction when considering whether a statement of scientism is a scientific statement or is not a scientific statement. Believers in scientism can, explicitly or implicity, dismiss the so-called law of excluded middle and not answer. They believe that reality will convince all but those blinded by some other ideology that only statements of science are reliable. People are to be convinced of the belief in scientism without being able to articulate the belief. Here we have a case of faith seeking conviction.

Philosophical arguments drive us to seek real definitions. But in some areas there are no real definitions. Indeed, a mark of an area where philosophy is needed is one in which no final definitions are obtainable. In these philosophical areas we respond to reality as we believe it to be and seek for the proper concepts to describe it consistently. We as individuals have to continually seek to resolve the contradictions. There is no absolute mind at working resolving contradictions.

I am not objecting to the style of philosophical argumentation uncovering logical contradictions in specific sets of beliefs. Reductio ad absurdum is my favorite style. I shall continue to use it. However, detecting contradictions is only for generating philosphical problems or for refining beliefs. It is only a preliminary phase. The most significant part of philosophy is refining beliefs to remove contradictions.

What do I intend philosophical arguments to accomplish?

I apply to philosophy what Augustine and Anselm wrote about theology. Philosophical investigation is faith seeking understanding (Fides quaerens intellectum). Philosophy begins with wonder on how it can be the way I belive that it is where “it” refers to reality. Amongst many other things, I wonder how life can be meaningful while death is sometimes desirable. Also, I believe that we can know in ways different from those of the natural sciences. I wonder how such knowledge is possible. I seek to understand these beliefs via the unending task of continually refining concepts of realities involved to have a consistent way of articulating these beliefs. Philosophy is better than the “silence response “on philosophy because here we have a case of faith seeking understanding to support conviction.