Philosophy against Misosophy


Francis Canavan, S.J.



Essays by Me

Essays by Others



My diary entry for February 3, 1994 records the following: “After lunch I stopped by St. Paul’s Bookstore,” which was then located at 150 East 52nd Street in Manhattan and was regularly host to lunch-hour lectures by distinguished Catholic writers, “to ask Sr. Susan a question, but she already had something for me. It happens that Fr. [Francis E.] Canavan, S. J., remembered my question about the definition of the good and remembered me (“young man” “in the first row”).  He wrote a six-page essay developing the notion of how we know the good and is sending it to New Oxford Review.

The undated accompanying note refers to his “talk earlier this month,” and my diary indicates that the date of that talk was January 20, 1994.  His essay intended for New Oxford Review follows.  Seizing the opportunity provided by Father Canavan’s overture, I wrote to him, but it took me until March 22, 1994 to finish it and drop it in the mail.  (The good old days.)  That reply is posted here.  His reply to me of April 6, 1994, here.

Anthony Flood

August 3, 2011


[No date, but January 21?-31?, 1994]

THE JESUITS OF FORDHAM                                   

Loyola-Faber Hall

Fordham University

Bronx, N. Y. 10458-5198

Dear Sister Susan,

In the question period after my talk at your place earlier this month, a young man asked me a question.  I was not satisfied with my answer, so I have written the enclosed short piece.  I have sent it to The New Oxford Review, which I presume will publish it [I cannot verify that it was published there.—A.F.], and it should therefore not be published elsewhere.

But if you happen to know the young man who asked the question (he was sitting in the front row), you might let him have this for his own information.

Sincerely yours, 

Francis Canavan, S.J.


Knowing What Is Good

Francis Canavan, S.J.


Early this year I gave a talk in the bookstore of the Daughters of St. Paul in Manhattan.  In the question period, a young man asked me if we know what is good by intuition.  I gave him such an answer as I could on the spur of the moment.  But, as often happened in my teaching career, I was not satisfied with my answer, and thought about it at length later.

On reflection I thought, yes, one can say that ultimately we know what is good by intuition.  We know good as we know all first principles that furnish the premises of argument but are not themselves arrived at by inference from more basic premises.  Many human goods, of course, are derived goods; we say that they are good because they protect or promote more basic goods.  But we must finally arrive at goods that are not so derived, but are the first principles of moral reasoning.

One can call that intuition.  But I do not like the term, because for many people it implies a mysterious and inexplicable feeling.  It is this sort of subjective emotivism that is destroying moral thought today.  It leads to sloppy thinking and sloppy language: “It’s wrong for you if you think it’s wrong, but other people think it’s right, so it’s right for them.”  What I think only means how I feel about it.

What I understand by “the good,” however, undoubtedly has feelings associated with it, but is more than the object of feeling.  It is the object of intellect recognizing what is good for human beings as human, and conversely, what is bad for them.

For example, no one has to teach a newborn baby to eat.  The baby ingests food because he’s hungry, and food removes hunger and gives pleasure.  Yet, as he grows up, he can and should come to understand that at underlying and prior to the craving for food there is a true need of his body.  The human body is built to ingest and digest food because it has an inherent, natural, and objective need for it, and not only an appetite.  It is the body’s natural need and natural equipment for eating and digesting food that make the pleasure possible; the need, not the appetite, reveals the purpose of the equipment.

More generally speaking, living material beings are organisms that are organized for the life of the organisms.  They are not mere collections of organs but organic wholes whose organs and functions all serve the life, growth, development, and eventual reproduction of their kind.  The object of the science of biology is not only cells and organs, but living organisms which can be understood only as organic wholes whose functions serve their lives, which is to say, their being.

The life of an organism is its being, for if it isn’t alive, it isn’t an organism.  But—and this is the essential point—to understand what an organism is, is to understand its natural good.  As the old Scholastic axiom had it, bonum et ens convertuntur, being and good are convertible terms.  Who says being, says good.

Indeed, all things that are, whether living or not, even the rocks on the ground, tend to be rather than not to be.  That is why the universe continues to exist.  “The good,” therefore, in its most general definition, is that toward each thing tends by nature.

That the being of every thing is its natural good is an objective truth open to intellect, and not merely the object of a subjective urge in a particular being.  The mosquito will fly away when it sees a hand raised to swat it and, if we wish, we can explain that as a subjective “instinct of self-preservation.”  But a tree has no subjective urges.  It feels neither pleasure nor pain, and does not fight against the lumberjack who cuts it down.  But it is a single, unified, living whole, all of whose functions serve its life.

The tree cannot be understood, simply as a matter of fact, unless it is understood as an organic whole, organized for life and for growth, not for disease and death.  Its inherent tendency to live is the constituent principle of its being, without which it would not be a tree.  Its nature is to live; its life, therefore, is its natural good, the built-in goal of its being as a tree.

All trees eventually die, but we cannot say that, for that reason, trees are indifferent to life and death.  All material beings, since they are composite things made of parts outside of parts, can and will finally wear out and fall apart.  As they say in French, tout lasse, tout casse, tout passe.  [Everything passes, everything breaks, everything wears out.] But what makes a tree a tree, so long as it remains one, is its inner, unifying thrust to live, not the fact that it will some day die.

The thrust to live is the law of its being and therefore its life (including its growth and development) is its natural good.  It is a true, objective good, intellectually knowable by us because we can know the tree as a natural whole.  It is this knowledge that makes it possible for us to speak of a particular tree as deformed, diseased, or dying.  The being of the tree is the standard by which we can judge its good or ill, and not merely way we feel about it.

Judgments about the morality of human actions concern moral and intellectual as well as physical goods, of course.  Endowed by nature with reason and therefore with free wills, we can know the higher goods of human nature as objects of rational choice.  The exercise of our minds, for example, can achieve knowledge of truth, but often enough results in error, and too frequently is used for rationalization and sophistry.  It does not follow that all three results stand on the same plane as goals of the mind.  After all, even a skeptic has to give us reasons to convince us that we know that we don’t know.

Similarly, however skeptical we have grown today about judgments on moral character, we still recognize some characters as better, i.e, more good, than others.  It is sophistry to pretend that we “don’t know” whether the shiftless, aimless drifter, who runs away from all responsibility and never accomplishes anything, has merely chosen a lifestyle or has wasted his life.  And I have yet to meet the mother who proudly introduces, “my son, the psychopath.”

Much more, obviously, should be said on the range of human moral goods, and in fact, much has been said, for example in Robert P. George’s recent Making Men Moral (Oxford:  Clarendon Press).  All I have tried to do here is to suggest that we can make rational choices that develop and perfect our human nature in the light of what we recognize as our nature’s true goods. Widespread though disagreements about morality are among us, we are not incapable of moving to “ought” from the “is” of human nature.

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