A Common Morality

Following up on the CUA conference (see previous post), here’s some wisdom from Jacques Maritain, the “old peasant of the Garonne” who helped us understand the “true new fire” of the post-Vatican II church:

We would be making a big mistake, as I said in a previous section, if we believed that men who are divided in their speculative convictions are thereby prevented from reaching a practical agreement of thought in regard to the principles that govern their actions.  But we would be making a mistake at least as serious in the opposite direction if, on the pretext of making this practical agreement more secure, we tried to camouflage the irreducible oppositions that persist in the speculative order between the parties involved, by lying as to what is and by adapting the true to the false in order to make the dialogue more smoothly cordial, and more deceptively fruitful. [The Peasant of the Garonne, Macmillan paperback edition (1969), p. 98]

In a section of this book entitled, “Practical Cooperation in a Divided World,” Maritain spends most of his time justifying the claim that human beings, no matter their religious beliefs or differences on the theoretical or speculative level, can nevertheless find that they share common, basic moral intuitions.  He recounts a an address he was asked to give to a UNESCO meeting in 1947 on the question of such global cooperation.  He answered that

the finality [i.e., the end in view] of UNESCO was a practical finality, and hence agreement among its members can be spontaneously achieved, not on common speculative notions, but on common practical notions; not on the affirmation of the same conception of the world, man and knowledge, but on the affirmation of the same set of convictions concerning action.  This is doubtless very little; it is the last refuge of intellectual agreement among men.  It is, however, enought to undertake a great work.”

When it is a question, not of a common speculative ideology, nor of common explanatory principles, but on the contrary, of the basic practical ideology and the basic principles of action implicitly recognized today, in a vital if not a formulated manner, by the consciousness of free peoples, this happens to constititute grosso modo a sort of common residue, a sort of unwritten common law, at the point of practical convergence of extremely different theoretical ideologies and spiritual traditions.  To understand that, it is sufficient to distinguish properly between the rational justifications, inseparable from the spiritual dynamism of a philosophical doctrine or a religious faith, and the practical conclusions which, separately justified for each, are, for all, analogically common principles of action.  I am fully convinced that my way of justifying the belief in the rights of man and the ideal of liberty, equality, fraternity, is the only one which is solidly based on truth.  That does not prevent me from agreeing on these practical tenets with those who are convinced that their way of justifying them, entirely different from mine, or even opposed to mine in its theoretical dynamism, is likewise the only one that is based on truth.  Assuming they both believe in the democratic charter, a Christian and a rationalist will, nevertheless, give justifications that are incompatible with each other, to which their souls, their minds and their blood are committed, and about these justifications they will fight.  And God keep me from saying that it is not important to know which of the two is right!  That is essentially important.  They remain, however, in agreement on the practical affirmation of that charter, and they can formulate together common principles of action. [p. 82]

Maritain is speaking about the conditions of our globalized world, “a world which, from now on, is one world for life or for death, while it remains disastrously divided as to political passions and interests.” [p. 84]  In this divided world, still, there are things which we cannot not know: that good politics is first and foremost just; that justice demands a sensitivity to the common good and an “awakening of mutual understanding;” that “to place national interest about everything is a sure means of losing everything;” that a community of free persons must recognize that “truth is the expression of what is, and right is the expression of what is just, not of what is most expedient at a given time for the interest of the human group;” that it is “not permissible to take the life of an innocent man because he has become a useless and costly burden to the nations;” that “the human person is endowed with a dignity which the very good of the community presupposes and must, for its own sake, respect;” that persons have both fundamental rights and fundamental obligations; that the “masses have a right to participate in the common treasure of culture and of the spirit;” that “the domain of conscience is inviolable;” that it is a duty of states to respect religious liberty as well as freedom of research.  Maritain concludes:

If a state of peace worthy of the name, firm and enduring, is to be established one day among the peoples of the world, this will depend not only upon the economic, political and financial arrangements reached by diplomats and statesmen, nor will it depend solely upon the juridical building up of a truly supra-national co-ordinating organism endowed with efficient means of action; it will depend also upon the deep adherence of men’s consciousness to practical principles like those I have recalled.  And to state things as they are, it will depend also upon that bigger soul which, according to Bergson, our world, become technically greater, needs, and upon a victorious outpouring of that supreme and free energy which comes to us from on high, and whose name we know–whatever may be our religious denomination or school of thought–to be brotherly love, a name which has been pronounced in such a manner by the Gospel that it has stirred the conscience of man for all time.

Maritain teaches that to find we have a common, unwritten sort of natural law to guide human action is a bare minimum, enough to  start a great and necessary work, but not enough to finish it.  Nevertheless, will we not start it?  We will forever argue (even when it reduces to mere quibbling) about the bare minimum, while the world descends into a very old madness in perhaps new and more devastating ways than ever?  Will we continue to confuse hair-splitting over the bare minimum with the profundity of seeking and contemplating the essence of the true, the good, and the beautiful.  The bare minimum should guarantee our liberty of conscience and freedom of research into the religious and metaphysical source of our existence–and the freedom to debate those speculations vigorously (even endlessly, should providence require).  But letting those debates thwart our absolute requirment for seeking and defending the bare minimum of common morality is a recipe for disaster.


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