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Law, culture, and Catholicism...up in smoke!

Friday, September 22, 2006

Metaphysics and Morality (and a little casuistry)

The recent statements coming from the Iranian president or the al-Quaeda leadership or Islamic nutjobs should not be surprising. Ultimately it comes down to theological principles, something we would do well to consider. Not only is it theological but it is philosophical--specifically, that branch of philosophy that deals with the highest things, metaphysics. One's theology and metaphysical posture will play a profound role in how a person or society acts. Let's take the age old problem for moral theologians and philosophers: whether it is ever permissible to tell a lie.

The basic definition of a lie is uttering something that doesn't conform to the content of the mind. This is intrinsically wrong. Now, there are certain times when the telling of the truth may legitimately be concealed from, say, an "impertinent questioner." But the question remains: how does one "conceal the truth" (for lack of a better phrase) without telling a lie? This is where the Jesuit principle of broad mental reservation comes in. Briefly put, one may answer the impertinent questioner with certain information but not all the information; but--and this is key--the respondant must, none the less, disclose enough information to allow the questioner to know what the truth is. In this way, the respondant does not tell a lie, and likewise he is pursuing a moral good by maintaining that which the "impertinent questioner" has no right to. But I digress.

Now, if one were to suggest that telling a lie is ok in certain circumstances, then this may reflect one's view of reality and ultimately, God. In short, it may have profound theological and metaphysical implications. If telling a lie is permissible in certain circumstances, then one must either (1) take the position of the "situational ethicist" where there is no intrinsic right or wrong, but only extrinsic circumstances which determine the moral content of the act, or (2) hold the theological position that God is pure will. This is exactly what the pope was referring to when he quoted that Ibn Hazm "went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practise idolatry."

Would God contradict Himself? Could God contradict Himself? If the answer to both of these is yes, then there is no metaphysical or moral basis for the admonition to tell the truth. Perhaps this is the root of our difficulties in talking to the Islamic world.

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