Two Types of Physicalism in Moral Theology

The teaching of the Roman Catholic Church on intrinsically evil acts is often falsely accused of physicalism. But physicalism, properly defined, is an erroneous approach to ethics which uses the mere physical or biological aspects of an act to determine its morality. For example, a proponent of physicalism might claim that all killing (of one human person by another human person) is immoral. There are some Catholics who hold this view. They fail to distinguish the moral aspects of the physical act of killing, which might make one concrete act of killing moral and other acts of killing immoral.

The Magisterium has rejected this error. For when a human person knowingly chooses a physical act, this choice has a moral meaning before conscience and God. The key to avoiding physicalism is to understand that knowingly chosen physical acts (and all knowingly chosen acts, even those that are not physical) have a moral meaning because they are knowingly chosen by a person, and because our acts are judged by God and have an effect on our neighbor and ourselves. Human persons are called to love God above all else, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Our knowingly chosen acts, physical or not, have an inherent moral meaning because of this relationship between the person who acts, God, and neighbor.

There are essentially two versions of physicalism in moral theology today; both are of course erroneous. The first is to try to derive the morality of the knowingly chosen act from its physical or biological aspects only.

The second error goes to the opposite extreme, dissociating the knowingly chosen physical act from its moral meaning. In the second case, proponents will claim that they are thereby avoiding the error of physicalism, because, after all, they are not deriving the morality of an act from its physical aspects. But it is just as much an error to remove the physical act from morality as it is to derive the morality of an act solely from its physical or biological aspects.

Pope Saint John Paul II: “A doctrine which dissociates the moral act from the bodily dimensions of its exercise is contrary to the teaching of Scripture and Tradition. Such a doctrine revives, in new forms, certain ancient errors which have always been opposed by the Church, inasmuch as they reduce the human person to a “spiritual” and purely formal freedom. This reduction misunderstands the moral meaning of the body and of kinds of behavior involving it (cf. 1 Cor 6:19). Saint Paul declares that “the immoral, idolaters, adulterers, sexual perverts, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers” are excluded from the Kingdom of God (cf. 1 Cor 6:9). This condemnation – repeated by the Council of Trent”88 – lists as “mortal sins” or “immoral practices” certain specific kinds of behavior the willful acceptance of which prevents believers from sharing in the inheritance promised to them. In fact, body and soul are inseparable: in the person, in the willing agent and in the deliberate act, they stand or fall together.” [Veritatis Splendor 49]

The human person is a body united to a soul as one being. Our bodily acts are acts of the whole person, body and soul; they are not mere physical acts, devoid of moral meaning.

Figuratively speaking, human acts have a “body”, which is the concrete act (physical or not), and a “soul”, which is the inherent moral meaning of that concrete act. Why do concrete acts have an inherent moral meaning (its moral nature or moral species)? Because these acts are chosen by human persons, who have a relationship with God and other persons.

If a wife finds out that her husband has been cheating on her, will she accept the explanation that his physical acts with another woman don’t mean anything; that these are mere physical acts, devoid of moral meaning? No, she will not. For she understands that this type of physical act, knowingly chosen by her husband, has a moral meaning because of the relationship between her and her husband and between human persons and God.

Before we delve further into these two types of physicalism, let’s review (yet again) Catholic teaching on the three fonts of morality.

Three Fonts

The three fonts of morality are: (1) intention, (2) moral object, (3) circumstances. It is always wrong to act with a bad intention. It is always wrong to choose an act with an evil moral object. It is always wrong to act in circumstances where you realize your act will do more harm than good.

The moral object is the end, in terms of morality, toward which the knowingly chosen act is intrinsically ordered (inherently directly). The end inherent to the act (finis actus) has a moral meaning because human persons are called to love God and neighbor by doing good (acts ordered toward that love), and avoiding evil (acts contrary to that love).

The second font is called the moral object (or simply “object”), but this font does not consist solely of the object. Rather, the full font is the deliberate knowing choice of (a) the concrete act, with (b) its moral nature, as determined by (c) its moral object. And these three components of the font — act, nature, object — are inseparable. By the knowing choice of any concrete act, the person also chooses the inherent moral meaning of that act (its moral nature or moral species), and its moral object. And the concrete act (physical or not) has a moral meaning because human persons have a relationship with God and with one another.

And if the person who acts protests, saying that by his knowing deliberate choice of a concrete act (an act in a particular case) he in no way chooses this moral nature or that moral object, then he misrepresents his own choice. By choosing any concrete act, the human person necessarily always chooses, at least implicitly, the morality inherent to that act (its moral meaning before the eyes of God), which is determined by it object. And that object is moral or immoral based on the love of God, and the love of neighbor as self.

Example: If you choose, with the (1) intention of saving the life of the mother, (2) a concrete act of direct abortion, in (3) circumstances where the mother’s life is likely to be saved (whereas she would otherwise likely die), the choice of that concrete act necessarily includes its moral nature (direct abortion), which is determined by its moral object (the death of an innocent prenatal).

The moral object is the death of the prenatal. But not all deaths of prenatals are direct abortion. Why? It is because the second font is not solely the object (death of the prenatal). It is the knowingly chosen act, with its moral nature, and that nature is nothing other than the ordering of the concrete act toward its object. The death of the prenatal is an evil object only when it is the result of a knowingly chosen concrete act, which is inherently ordered toward that death. For cases of indirect abortion or accidental miscarriage, the death of the prenatal is not in the object, but in the circumstances, precisely because the object is determined by the knowingly chosen act, and its inherent ordering toward that end.


Now the first type of physicalism would claim that the killing of a prenatal is always wrong, erasing the moral distinction between direct and indirect abortion, because the physical act seems the same in both cases. The distinction is found in the ordering of the knowingly chosen act, not merely in the physical description of the act. The difference is that direct abortion is ordered toward the death of the prenatal, but indirect abortion is ordered only toward the saving of life.

Now consider the act of a surgeon cutting a patient with a scalpel, as compared to an assault with a knife. There is a similarity in the mere physical act, but the moral content differs. The one act is ordered toward healing, and the other act toward harm.

Similarly, the physical description of a man who shoots another man in self-defense would be much the same as if he were shot as an act of murder. But the moral meaning of the act is found in the ordering of the act toward different ends, as judged by the love of God and neighbor. In one case, the killing is ordered toward self-defense, since the other man is attacking with deadly force. We love God who is justice by His very Nature, and our love of neighbor distinguishes between neighbors who are attempting to kill us, and the innocent. The love of God and neighbor sees a distinction between the first and second cases, since the person being killed in the second case is innocent. Physically, the acts are the same, and yet every knowingly chosen act, physical or not, has an inherent moral meaning due to the love of God and neighbor.

The first type of physicalism (the classical version) might see all killing as wrong, because the physical act in each case results in the death of a human person. But the second type is more insidious. For by separating the morality of the act from its physical aspects, the condemnation of all murder as intrinsically evil loses its foundation. An evil moral object is evil because it contradicts the love of God and neighbor; but it is also only an object at all because it is the end toward which a knowingly chosen concrete act is ordered. And in the case of physical acts, we cannot separate the body (concrete act) from its soul (moral nature). A physical act of murder has a moral meaning that is NEITHER entirely dependent on its physicality, NOR entirely independent of its physicality. Both extremes are a serious error in moral theology, and both deserve to be called physicalism.

In the second type of physicalism, since the physical act is not used to determine the moral object, what would be the basis for that object? Often, it is claimed that the intention of the person or the purpose which the person has in mind for the act, is the basis for its object. But this claim confuses the first font of intention with the second font of object.

Certainly, all three fonts proceed from the human will, and so each font has a relationship to intention. But that relationship differs in each font. The first font is the intended end; the purpose (reason, or end) which the acting person wishes to fulfill by means of the act. The second font is the intentional choice (the knowing deliberate choice) of a concrete act, its moral nature, and its object. In the first font the person choses an intended end, independent of the choice of acts. Different acts might be chosen for the same intended end. The same act, in different cases, might be chosen for different intended ends. But in the second font, the person can only choose an object by choosing a concrete act; and the choice of any concrete act necessarily includes the choice of its nature and object. The end of the first font is directly chosen by the acting person (finis agentis), whereas the end of the second font is inherent to the chosen act itself (finis actus).

The second type of physicalism (as I am calling it) attempts to use the intended end as if it were the moral object, or as if it determined the moral object.

But the true basis for the moral object is the inherent ordering of the knowingly chosen act. That ordering is nothing other than its moral nature. But the moral nature is the “soul” of its “body”, the concrete act. So as concerns the second font, the human person can only choose concrete acts. The choice of any concrete act is also the choice of nature and object. But no object can be chosen independent of concrete acts and their nature.

Many times in this blog, I’ve explained the three fonts of morality to my readers. But most Catholics today are still poorly catechized on this subject. They have not taken the teachings of Veritatis Splendor and the Catechism of the Catholic Church on morality to heart.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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