Power and Morality

Ethics Objectivity Philosophy Power Theology

The Jesuit magazine America features an essay by Cathleen Kaveny, which discusses the concept of inherent evil and it’s political implications. This passage caught my attention:

Some Catholic commentators have claimed that the certainty we have about the wrongfulness of intrinsically evil acts means that we should give their prevention priority over other acts, which may or may not be wrong, depending upon the circumstances. Their argument seems to run like this: the church teaches that abortion, euthanasia and homosexual acts are always wrong, but not that war or capital punishment is always wrong. Therefore, good Catholics ought to focus their political efforts on preventing acts they know to be wrong, and remain agnostic about the rest. One commentator has suggested that the church gives us “wiggle room” on issues that do not involve intrinsically evil acts.

If abortion and homosexuality are intrinsically wrong but war and capital punishment are not always wrong then one need not be a cynic to notice that power is enmeshed into the definition of intrinsically evil. Compared to the rulers who have to decide about war and peace and who have people executed, gays and pregnant women are relatively powerless.

Theologians and church leaders that accuse rulers of being evil may very well be held accountable, especially when the thinkers are insensitive to the exigencies of life. By contrast, a raped woman rarely has the capacity to hold church leaders accountable.

The notable exception is, of course, euthanasia. Confronting the Nazis for poisoning mentally disabled children, Bishop Count Galen risked his life. Since heroes are rare, however, belief systems are unlikely to be systematically grounded in heroics, which would control for various levels of power.

It’s probably no accident that there is “wiggle room” for war but not for homosexuality but a consequence of the fact that the typical ruler is much more powerful than gays.

I do not think that Catholic theology is purposefully insensitive to the exigencies of less powerful people. It is just that accountability focuses the mind. Power generates incentives that certain problems get more attention than others.

Short of coercion, it might actually be a good thing when thinkers have to answer for their knowledge claims. Considering a problem more carefully by taking people’s exigencies into account and will improve moral philosophy. Insofar as the distribution of power is inherently connected to certain kind of ethical questions, we have to expect that the quality of ethical philosophy and theology will be uneven because some problems are not inherently associated with powerful actors.

It follows that we ought to remain skeptical, humble, and suspicious with regard to human knowledge claims, especially, when we are dealing in absolutes.

I found the essay thanks to Andrew Sullivan.

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