07 May 2013

Prolegomena to a Taxonomy of Moral Arguments

Every moral argument must appeal to some evident good which serves as the motivating principle for an imperative.  The general form of all moral arguments is prudential (the attainment of this good requires that action), though the aspect under which the action in question causes or detracts from the motivating good may differ.  Before we work through a catalogue of different kinds of moral argument, let's look at different ways actions can cause ends.  Note that these different relations frequently overlap, though each retains its logical distinctness in the consideration of the relationship between act and end.  Thus the commendation of some temperate act as the efficient cause of temperance is distinct from the commendation of the same act as an element of a temperate life or the makings of temperance, which is likewise distinct from the commendation of the same act as being temperate, which is likewise distinct from the commendation of the same act as being good simpliciter.  By distinguishing between the ways an act and an end can be related, we begin to see different possible species of moral argumentation.

Efficient Causation:  The action is generative of the good in question.  The acquisition of nails and boards, the use of a hammer, the implementation of a design—these actions are productive of the good of having a bookcase.  

Material Causation: The action is what is to be perfected, and must be supplied as the matter to be worked on for the attainment of some more perfect act.  The man who strives for courage, though he strives imperfectly, produces acts which (though not courageous) may ultimately be transformed into virtuous acts.  Those imperfect acts must be supplied for the attainment of the virtue, as the raw wax for a candle, which is first refined and then shaped.  OR... The action is a part of a desired whole, formed either by a series of actions performed by one person (e.g. a career, the folding of a thousand paper cranes) or a collection of actions performed by a variety of people together (e.g. a successful social event, an election).

Formal Causation:  The action is a manifestation of the goodness desired and participates directly in the end.  In this way an act of genuine charity or faith is not merely productive efficiently of our attainment of everlasting life, is not merely the matter in which we are progressively sanctified, or an element in the life of the Church, but is the manifestation of eternal life begun in us.

Final Causation: The action is simply a good thing desired in itself, done for its own sake.