Sunday, February 20, 2011

Realism vs Idealism

In a recent post I raised the question Is It Ever Morally Licit to Lie? with regard to the Lila Rose: Live Action debate occurring across the Catholic blogosphere.  The debate has continued on.  I recently came across an article by Dr. Peter Kreeft which takes up the same question.  He pins the realist point of view versus the idealist point of view.

Here is his article:

When I talk about abortion, I often surprise most of my audience, even some prolifers, by saying that not only is abortion always evil but that it is not a “complex issue,” that deep down we all know that it is evil; that Mother Teresa is very clearly right when she says “If abortion isn’t wrong, nothing is wrong.”
I want to say a similar thing about Live Action: not only (1) that its actions were right but (2) that they were very clearly right.
An immediate objection arises to my second point. If it was very clearly right, why do some sincere and intelligent pro-lifers insist that it was wrong?
This is not surprising, for many sincere and intelligent people disagree with the even more obvious truth that abortion is always wrong. Not all pro-choicers are insincere or stupid. Some are both sincere and intelligent, like the pro-lifers who disagreed with Live Action.
The controversy about Live Action probably is rooted in a controversy about method in ethics, specifically about which should have priority, (1) clear definitions of general moral principles and valid logical reasoning from them (“casuistry”) or (2) moral experience, instinctive moral judgments about concrete situations by our innate moral common sense. I think it is (2) and I think these critics think it is (1). I think they are so (rightly) afraid of moral relativism that they have (wrongly) fallen into moral legalism.
I teach Logic, I have written a Logic textbook, and I value logic very highly. On some other occasion I may take the time to argue logically against the serious arguments of the pro-life critics of Live Action, and about the proper definition of “lying.” But in this short piece I want to appeal to something that I think is prior in importance, in clarity, and in time, namely our immediate, intuitive moral experience. For that is what I find missing in their arguments.
The question of method in moral reasoning has a long and heavy history. Beginning with Ockham (Nominalism), exacerbated by Descartes (Rationalism), and even more by Kant (his ‘Copernican revolution in philosophy’), our concept of ‘reason’ has been increasingly separated from experience and narrowed to something more and more resembling what computers do. The Aristotelian and Thomistic (and, more generally, pre-modern) meaning of ‘reason’ is broader. It had to be, to justify the definition of man as ‘the rational animal.’ It included the immediate, intuitive understanding (‘the first act of the mind’ in Aristotelian-Scholastic logic) and intuitive judgment (‘the second act of the mind’) as well as inductive or deductive reasoning (‘the third act of the mind’).


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