Friday, September 30, 2005

Moral Knowledge via Connaturality

Christians often appeal to God as the ultimate ontological basis for moral values, but less is said about the epistemological basis for moral knowledge. It is sometimes suggested that we have a set of innate moral first principles. Others say that moral knowledge is instilled in us by way of our upbringing and that moral knowledge may be refined by comparing our moral beliefs with the beliefs of society. Both of these accounts are lacking. The former is not helpful in explaining the variety of moral sentiments, while the latter is not helpful in establishing an objective morality.

Jacques Maritain's notion of moral knowledge via Connaturality (or by way of natural inclination) appears to alleviate the above problems. It is not that we have an innate knowledge of moral principles, rather we have a natural inclination toward moral action and judgment. This incliniation may be refined or distorted. It may be refined by a good upbringing and a reflective character, or it may be distorted by a poor upbringing and an uninteresting character.

In support of this view is the universal fact of moral judgment. We may grant the fact that various cultures differ in their normative prescriptions. However, we are still left with the fact that all cultures have some sort of normative standards. If it is the case that action flows from a things nature or essence, then it would appear that man is by nature a moral being. He cannot help but condemn wrong action and praise noble actions. Even if he is confused about the moral rightness or wrongness of a particular action, he is not ignorant of the fact that there are right and wrong actions.

What then is the immediate epistemological grounds of our moral knowledge? Man is. Our nature cannot help but tend toward some sort of morality. Philosophy's primary task is not to justify the objectivity of morality, rather its job is to reflect on and elucidate the principles inherent in the nature of man. Of course as Christians, this is not enough. This is rather the beginning point for our inquiry into the study of morality. Ultimately, there must have been a Cause of our essence who pointed our nature in a particular direction. That Cause is God.

Any thoughts? Criticisms? Has anyone here read anything by Maritain on Natural Law?


Blogger davis said...

Would you agree that there are self-evident moral principles in Aquinas's moral theory? Not innate, but nevertheless foundational? There was a discussion at John Depoe's blog a while back concerning Thomas Reid's moral foundationalism and Hipsley claimed that any thomistic foundationalism will be the first principles of non-contradiction, identity, etc. I'm personally inclined to believe that Aquinas had a moral foundationalism, with certain self-evident moral principles. ie: Do good and avoid evil. Just tossing this idea around, what do you think?

3:22 PM  
Blogger Matthew Graham said...

My understanding of the thomistic view is that morals are learned. Our knowledge of moral's is very much like our knowledge of logic. Most people will change their view if they realize that they are contradicting themselves. They do this even if they are not able to formally define the law of non-contradiction. The formal definition of the law of non-contradiction is arrived at by reflecting on our rational activities.

Likewise, most people feel shame or guilt and adjust their behavior when they do something that they know is wrong. (At least at first) Formal definitions or elucidations of moral first principles are found by reflecting on man's moral activities.

So in answer to your question, "Would you agree that there are self-evident moral principles in Aquinas's moral theory?" I think as long as you don't claim that Aquinas believed in innate moral knowledge, you could say that he held to the view that there are self-evident moral first principles. That's my understanding anyways.

8:40 PM  
Blogger Ariel said...

How does "connaturality" compare with the Jewish notion of yetzer tov (the good inclination) and yetzer ra (the evil inclination), I wonder?

6:36 AM  
Blogger Matthew Graham said...

That's an interesting question. I don't know anything about the Jewish notions of yetzer tov and yetzer ra so as to compare it with the notion of connaturality. Could you elaborate on those Jewish notions?

1:22 PM  
Anonymous bd said...

Greetings, I just discovered this blog and am delighted.

Davis- See the Summa I-II Q.94 Art.2 (97% sure this is the right reference, I don't bring my Summa to work with me.) It is clear from this that Thomas thinks there are underived first principles of moral knowledge. Just like our speculative intellect discovers the first principles of demonstration with its initial contact with being, our practical intellect finds its first precepts in its initial contact with good. These are not innate but intuited.

Mr. Graham- How does this view avoid the naturalistic or is/ought fallacy?


12:43 PM  
Blogger Matthew Graham said...


Great to hear from you!! Hope you are doing well.

You are probably more capible of answering this than I am. I am not deductively reasoning from the fact of moral judgment to the fact of the objectivity of morals. I am making an inference to the best explanation. My case for the objectivity of morals is inductive. We have the fact that people make moral judgments, now what theory best accounts for that fact? Deductively, I would offer a disjunctive syllogism. The argument would be something like:

1. The fact of moral judgments is best explained by theory a,b,c,d,e or f.
2. Not a,b,c,d, or e.
3. Therefore F.


3:59 PM  
Anonymous bd said...

I'm having a hard time putting all the pieces together. So I'll just ask a few questions.

What would you say is the immediate epistemological ground of our logical knowledge (LNC)?

In what way is man the immediate epistemological ground of moral knowledge?

How do we know that morality is objective?

Is your argument just from the fact of moral judgment or from the fact of objective moral judgment?

Last, what work of Maritain is this from?

That should buy me some time.

9:53 AM  
Blogger Matthew Graham said...


I think the way we know about morals and logic is different from the way we philosophize about morals and logic. We know them by inclination because our nature produces moral and logical activities. We philosophize (properly) about them by reflecting on our activities. This is all found in Maritian's "Natural Law".

Man's activities serve as a starting point for our philosophical investigations about morality. And if the Thomistic principle that "action follows being" is true, then it follows that our nature produces moral actions and our actions are somehow tied to our nature.

This may not help the skeptic however, because often the skeptic wants a very particular kind of proof and wants a thing to be proven in a very particular kind of way. Unfortunately, in my dealings with skeptics, their requirements for proof are not "too high", they are just really absurd. (i.e. positivism, or scientism)

When you ask, "How do we know that morality is objective?" I can take that a couple of ways. In a way, I have already answered that question. We know my natural inclination. That is how we know that morality is objective. If, when asking the question you mean, "How do we show that morality is objective?" Then I think there are several ways. Like I said before I think one can offer a disjunctive syllogism and support their premises inductively.

1. The fact of human moral judgments is best explained by either emotivism, prescriptivism, subjectivism, or objectivism.

2. Not E,P, or S

3. Therefore Objectivism.

My first premise is not from the fact of objective moral judgment so as to beg the question. It is from the observable fact that people make moral judgments. The details of why the best explaination is objectivism is brought out when the premises are argued for.

Thanks for the questions! Bring it on man!

2:53 PM  
Anonymous bd said...

I'm in the middle of After Virtue right now, and it's making me rethink through a lot of this stuff and how it all fits together (I keep getting the feeling I'm missing some key distinctions). So I probably won't post until I get some more stuff hashed out. Don't worry though, I'll be back.

7:04 AM  

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