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Nature as Guide:
Wittgenstein and the Renewal of Moral Theology

by david goodill 
catholic university of america, 304 pages, $75

The Abuse of Conscience:
A Century of Catholic Moral Theology

by matthew levering 
eerdmans, 368 pages, $45

In the mid-1980s, the Catholic philosopher Elizabeth ­Anscombe drew up a syllabus of errors, which she delivered—rather appropriately—in Rome, to a group of moral theologians. Her syllabus consisted of twenty theses, commonly held by her fellow analytic philosophers, that she deemed “inimical to the Christian religion” and that could, she insisted, be shown “false on purely philosophical grounds.” They include:

—We are not members of a species, but “selves.”

—There are no absolute moral prohibitions.

—The laws of nature afford complete explanations of everything that happens.

Anscombe’s complete syllabus is comprehensive, comprising theses in metaphysics, psychology, ethics, semantics, and even natural theology. Nearly all of the theses pit nature—conceived as formless, and thus empty of objective meaning or purpose—against reason. Of course, this error is not unique to the analytic school, nor to the discipline of philosophy. It is simply the conceptual world we’ve ­inherited—the ideological air we breathe.

As a graduate student, I had ­Anscombe’s syllabus tacked on my office wall for two reasons: first, to remind myself why I was so invested in recondite, abstract questions about reasons and causes; second, to avoid falling into error myself. For error is the default when the vast majority of philosophers (including a great many self-described “Aristotelians” or “Thomists”) cannot adequately account for the fact that we are rational animals: creatures whose material form of life is shot through with norms that place definite and necessary limits on the imaginative possibilities for authentic human flourishing. The self-conception that pervades contemporary moral philosophy is that of the autonomous self whose freedom consists of the introduction of form into a natural world that is bereft of it. Anscombe clearly believes this is a false image of man, and much of her work sets out to attack it from different angles. Ultimately, the problem is metaphysical, which is why, in her most influential essay, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” she asks her readers to stop doing moral philosophy altogether until we have a metaphysically respectable account of human nature.

Anscombe was Wittgenstein’s most famous student as well as his literary executor. (She learned German for the sole purpose of translating his late masterwork, Philosophical Investigations, which he believed she understood better than anyone else.) Her syllabus, and her failed attempt to issue a cease-and-­desist order for moral philosophy in the modern mode, kept coming to mind as I read David Goodill’s new book, Nature as Guide: Wittgenstein and the Renewal of Moral Theology. ­Goodill argues that Wittgenstein’s enduring legacy is the development of a form of philosophical realism that avoids pitting reason against nature. His main claim is that ­Wittgenstein’s philosophy helps us to overcome two central, animating dualisms of contemporary philosophy: that between reason and ­nature, and that between theory and practice.

One of the signal achievements of the book is Goodill’s demonstration that these two divisions are conceptually bound up and ­mutually reinforcing. Despite an extensive concern with ­Wittgenstein’s philosophy, the book’s thesis is ­ultimately theological. For Goodill, Wittgenstein is important insofar as the philosophical integration of reason and nature is necessary to the operations of moral theology, the principal goal of which is to provide an account of how human nature is healed, elevated, and perfected by God’s grace.

Readers may be skeptical that Wittgenstein is the philosopher who will help us overcome the ­ideologies of modernity. After all, on the standard reading, ­Wittgenstein is a quintessentially anti-­metaphysical thinker, resolutely uninterested in finding ultimate, metaphysical foundations for our beliefs and practices. But this reading is out of joint with Anscombe’s understanding of Wittgenstein; she very clearly believed that his use of “grammatical investigation” was closer to Aristotelian metaphysics than to anything in contemporary linguistics. This closeness to ­Aristotle is revealed in Wittgenstein’s claim that “essence is expressed by grammar.” We need to pay careful attention to the use of words if we want to know the essences of things, including the essence of the human.

Goodill’s own presentation of Wittgensteinian grammatical investigation is bound up with his account of ­Wittgenstein’s dialectical method: the bringing to bear of opposing perspectives on a question in order to arrive at a proper starting point for inquiry. Philosophy, in this view, is less about finding specific solutions, and more about formulating better questions. Many of our philosophical assumptions turn out to be based on grammatical confusions, and proper ­dialectics brings this fact into sharp relief.

Taking dialectics seriously, ­Goodill argues, leads us to rethink the nature of metaphysical inquiry altogether. Metaphysics is not the project of constructing static systems of reality; rather, it is a lived praxis whose defining aim is wisdom. Wittgensteinian dialectics, Goodill argues, “arises out of our everyday forms of reasoning and involves the exchange of differing points of view” for the sake of unmasking false opinions and establishing the starting points of inquiry. In the Philosophical Investigations, for example, it is clear that Wittgenstein is not advancing any particular thesis, but using opposing voices in order to overcome philosophical illusions and see reality more clearly. Goodill argues that Wittgensteinian dialectics helps to expose the modern picture of the will—as autonomous and sovereign over nature—as radically out of step with the underlying grammar of our practices.

To some ears, this emphasis on praxis may sound like the opposite of metaphysical realism. Practices, prima facie, are conventions, which may or may not track nature appropriately.Consider, for example, how much the “language game” of gender has changed in the last one hundred years, especially in the last decade. Many people take gender talk to be a game whose rules are up for constant revision. How can we distinguish between good and bad human practices, between language games that capture reality and those that distort it?

I don’t think Goodill has a compelling answer, though central to his reading of ­Wittgenstein is the idea that our practices are not mere conventions, nor can grammar be invented at will. Goodill demonstrates this point convincingly when he turns to explain human action. He argues that Wittgenstein’s treatments of intentionality, interiority, training, and rule-following reveal the ­exercise of reason and freedom to be embedded in our practices in such a way that human agency cannot be reduced to a causal mechanism and remain recognizably human. But it is unclear to me that we can shift so easily from this analysis of action to sweeping claims about practices generally. As Anscombe noted, some essences are products of human ­intelligence.

Despite his emphasis on it, Goodill is attuned to the limits of Wittgenstein’s value for moral theologians. Though Wittgenstein can help us clear the ground for an account of the metaphysics of nature, that account will need to arise from sustained reflection on ­Aquinas. The Wittgensteinian aspect of ­Goodill’s Wittgensteinian Thomism is about method more than content. ­Wittgenstein can help free us from the false picture of ourselves as rational minds set over and against nature, but that cannot get us all the way to an account of nature. And we need such an account.

It’s important, however, not to downplay method. Nature cannot be a guide apart from some form of realism. The whole edifice of natural law rests on the idea that the starting points of reason are given by nature, that we are naturally ordered and inclined to self-­transcendent norms of truth and goodness, and that authentic human freedom cannot be conceived apart from this natural ordination to a final end that both defines and ­evaluates our actions. The best pitch for Wittgensteinian dialectical realism, then, is that it can help us to achieve a vision of reality in which reason and nature are shown to be not opposed, but mutually illuminating.

Further evidence of the need for philosophical realism comes from Matthew ­Levering’s latest book, The Abuse of Conscience: A Century of Catholic Moral Theology. Though Levering is no Wittgensteinian, his project complements Goodill’s by showing, in painstaking detail, what happens to moral theology when nature, freedom, and reason are held to oppose each other in our account of the human person acting in nature. The result is that freedom is no longer meaningfully bound up with the pursuit of the good understood as a transcendent end, but is reduced to the activity of the authentic and autonomous self, and judgments of individual conscience begin to supplant judgments of right practical reason. Virtue, vice, and sin become sidelined topics, if they are taken seriously at all.

As Levering notes at the outset, conscience-centered moral ­theology has been with us since at least the sixteenth century, and perhaps the paradigmatic instance of it is the work of St. Alphonsus ­Liguori (1696–1787). Prior to Vatican II, moral theologians began mounting a critique of the conscience-centered manual tradition, with its emphasis on casuistry, law, and obligation, and favoring an approach that emphasized virtue and growth in charity. Post-­conciliar theology put conscience back at the center of morality, but with a quite different, more existentialist understanding of what conscience is and how it functions. The difference becomes plain when we review the philosophical sources many post-­conciliar theologians were drawing upon: existentialist philosophers such as Heidegger and Jaspers. In his most depressing chapter, on conscience and German thought, Levering traces a line from ­Heidegger’s emphasis on conscience as authenticity—the “summoning [of] Dasein to its ownmost potentiality of being-a-self”—through ­Jaspers’s account of conscience as “the deepest core of the self, choosing for or against Existenz” and ideally keeping us “faithful to the existential decision to be the self that our core self calls us to be,” to the moral theology of Karl Rahner, Josef Fuchs, and Bernard Häring. As the contemporary German Church continues on its “synodal way” toward explicit, public rejection of longstanding church teaching on sexual desire, chastity, marriage, and the family, understanding the theology that animates these developments becomes more important than ever. Levering’s detailed account of post-conciliar German moral theology is for this reason timely and important.

Karl Rahner, one of the most influential Catholic theologians of the twentieth century, labored mightily to reconfigure Catholic theology along existentialist lines, and many German theologians followed suit. Rahner’s account of freedom was grounded in a denatured, transcendental philosophical anthropology that emphasizes the particular over the universal, and self-actualizing freedom over the authority of norms common to all persons in virtue of their shared nature. It is clear that for Rahner, freedom must be understood apart from nature, and bound up with the “self”—an inner space of existential experience that cannot be encroached upon ­without subtracting from our responsibility to make ourselves what we are.

In addition to making conscience the center of the moral life, Rahner casts doubt on the possibility of arriving at and rightly applying universal moral norms grounded in human nature. Human nature changes, Rahner argues, so that norms that once were binding have lost their force. Discernment about these changes rests not primarily with the Church, but with “spirit filled believers” who will consult their own experience. Josef Fuchs goes even further than Rahner and puts forward a radical historicity of human nature, which flatly denies the existence of any universalizable norms that regulate right practical reasoning. For Fuchs, an act of rape or murder might be in accordance with Christian conscience, with “the inner core of the person” who experiences himself as “marked by the inner demand to realize the self” through free action. Though all of the German theologians Levering canvasses in this chapter concede that conscience can err, most of them don’t seem too worried about it. So long as the freedom and striving are done in good faith, authentically and autonomously, we needn’t trouble ourselves with the question of whether their deliverances are actually correct.

Of course we know where all of this led. Almost an entire generation of Catholics were told, when they asked whether they really had to refrain from sex outside of marriage, remain chaste after divorce, refrain from using contraception, or attend Mass every Sunday, to examine and follow their own consciences; nor were they given direction about how to make such an examination responsibly. Is it any surprise that, when ordinary and barely catechized people went on journeys to find their “authentic selves,” their consciences told them exactly what the secular culture was telling them on any given issue? At the end of the day, all the high-minded talk of “transcendental freedom” and authenticity simply bottomed out in ordinary Catholics’ following secular custom rather than the authoritative teachings of Jesus Christ, as articulated in Scripture and proclaimed by the magisterial authority of his Church.

If the existentialist account of conscience leads to empty confessionals and the synodal road to explicit dissent (and perhaps, inevitably, complete schism), what is the alternative? Levering’s answer can be found in his chapter on twentieth-century Thomists; here we find an account of conscience as an expression of human nature, and as such, bound by the natural law, which provides the measure of right practical reasoning: reasoning ordered to acting well. For Aquinas, conscience is not an inner, autonomous sphere of existential freedom in which one is answerable only to oneself. Conscience, as an act of practical reason, is good insofar as it reaches the truth about the good to be done, and it does this only insofar as it operates in light of prudence and the other virtues, which are necessary for living well generally. Since conscience, like any act of reason, can err, it remains a work of prudence to form our ­consciences properly so that error is rare and perhaps even excusable. Failure to do this is negligence of the highest order.

Conscience is also understood, like all acts of reason, to be teleologically ordered to the good. It operates from first principles that are given it by nature, principles that order it to the good so that, in cooperation with the exercise of prudence, it can reach the truth about what is good to do. This understanding of conscience is in keeping with Thomas’s Aristotelian anthropology, in which all the powers of the human soul operate for the sake of the natural and defining goal of human flourishing. Such a goal is not chosen by the self in its existential freedom but rather given by nature, and it is the necessary limit of our freedom to pursue what is objectively true, good, and beautiful. When we exercise our conscience well, we freely act in accordance with the natural law, which is the same as to obey God’s eternal law. In this account, freedom, reason, nature, obligation, and virtue are unified.

Levering does not merely tell the story of twentieth-­century Catholic moral theology; he attempts an intervention and correction. In the end, he sketches a path forward, one remarkably similar to that offered by Goodill: We need to arrive at a philosophical account of nature. Doing so would help us return conscience to its proper place—as part of an account of the moral life according to which we realize the full potential inherent in our human nature through the development of specific natural virtues, virtues that in turn must be taken up into the life of grace. In this account, conscience, though an important part of the life of virtue, by no means replaces it.

Both Levering and Goodill emphasize that theology must turn to philosophy to work out how to understand reality at the level of nature, and that how we understand freedom, reason, and nature at the level of philosophy will have profound implications for moral theology. And though Thomists naturally draw on Aristotle as a resource in philosophy, we cannot simply mine Aristotle and Aquinas for insights as if modernity had never happened. If we wish to defend natural law in a contemporary context, we must first heed Anscombe’s call to develop a proper philosophical ­psychology—that is, an account of the capacities that belong to the human person to use freely, and that must be shaped by a proper education if something like human flourishing is to be achieved. As Anscombe’s own efforts toward this end make clear, Wittgensteinian dialectical realism is one valid approach.

But whether that method is to be used or not, Goodill and ­Levering make clear that it is we philosophers who must first bridge the gap between reason and nature, in order to arrive at a proper account of freedom and responsibility in the moral life. If we can manage this, we will avoid nearly every heretical opinion on Anscombe’s syllabus of errors, opinions that have significant practical consequences once they make their way into Catholic moral theology and the life of the Church.

Jennifer Frey is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina.

Image by Levan Ramshvilli via Creative Commons. Image cropped.