Debates over ethical questions often conceal a more fundamental disagreement about whether morality can be objective. A moral judgment that is subjective does not bind anyone, while a judgment that is objective is binding because it is grounded in something that is recognized to be true. The statement, “everyone is entitled to his own opinion” is a good example of the first approach. The second approach holds that moral judgments can be right or wrong because they stand in relation to something that exists apart from our feelings, desires, and personal opinions. Because this standard is external, it can serve as a common object of agreement among two or more people.
A fuller description of this objective system of morality begins with the term teleology, which comes from the Greek words: telos, meaning “purpose, goal or end,” and logos, meaning “knowledge, reason or science.” Our ability to know the purposes of things is the foundation of the traditional Western view about the nature of the good. Those who seek to defend a common and objective moral standard would do well to appeal regularly to the idea of purposes in nature.
To take a very simple example, food is a purpose, goal or end of human action. We devote a great deal of time and energy to growing, cooking and consuming food. Food is an objective good. This is obvious. We would laugh at anyone who said that this is just our opinion. Obviously, we cannot just eat anything we want. Babies may sometimes put dirt in their mouths, but it is not food. Because food is an objective good, it generates moral problems, for example, malnutrition and starvation, waste of food, and the transmission of disease. All of these evils are also objective. They inhere in the goodness of food and the possibility of its loss or corruption.
Life is likewise an objective good. All things strive to preserve themselves in existence. Again, no one would say that this is simply a personal opinion. We know this to be true through observation. Human beings strive to preserve their lives. By stressing that the unborn child naturally desires to live we compel our opponents to deny the obvious. Thus a fetus is just a “blob of tissue.” Of course, the fetus is a highly complex organization whose entire purpose is to grow, develop and perfect its own life. This too is obvious, and we win when our opponents deny what is as obvious as this.
Other goods are more complex, but nonetheless show themselves to be inherently purposeful. Marriage, for example, has several interrelated purposes. Companionship and sexual intimacy are two, and these are directly related to the birth and education of children. The wider secular society tells us that marriage is just a social construct, as if it were produced by our own imagination. Nature tells us otherwise. The purpose of the male and female sexual anatomy is the engendering of offspring. So too are the psychological differences between men and women. Some couples are sterile and so cannot have children, but it is obvious that nature intends the difference between the sexes for the purpose of generation.
All of these examples take their bearings from what is objectively given within nature. This is the only proper basis for moral argumentation. When we form our arguments around the purposes of nature we compel our opponents to confront what I like to call “moral facts.” The goodness of food, life, marriage, and other similar examples, shows itself in nature. We want our opponents to deny what is obvious, namely, that these goods are objective, and when they do, ask them how they can take a position that is so contrary to self-evident fact. Nature exists as a teleological system. Our arguments are at their best when we appeal to the purposes of nature in defense of the objectivity of the good.
EDWARD J. FURTON, M.A., PH.D., is an ethicist at The National Catholic Bioethics Center (Philadelphia), Director of Publications, and Editor-in-Chief of NCBC’s award-winning National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly.