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La Crisi della Morale.

Rome: Dino Editore, 1991. 225 pp. L35,000--In the attempt of post-Hegelian philosophies to substitute ethics with politics, failure is most evident in Marxism, the most powerful, politically speaking, post-Hegelian philosophy. This failure points out the need to rethink ethics. In La Crisi della Morale Buttiglione does not claim to satisfy this need, but this is for him the horizon to deal with a specific moral question: sexual ethics. The focus of this book is Humanae Vitae and the teaching of Karol Wojtyla, as Pope John Paul II. This collection of essays is particularly interesting for Catholic philosophers, and for whomever is interested in a rational discussion and justification of Catholic "opinions" on sexuality, marriage, contraception. Moral norms are rational norms for Catholicism, and even if the adherence to these norms may be external to a rational-philosphical process, as is normally the case, their content is rational (p. 15). In this review I will not be able to summarize the entire book essay by essay, but will try to give a taste of some of the major points, as an invitation, for those who read Italian, to read this book directly.

The real question of Humanae Vitae is not the prohibition of artificial birth control. A reading of this document in such a perspective both reduces and misstates it. The central question of the encyclical is rather "whether or not stable couples (Catholic and not) shall exist in general in the future" (p. 60). Is the institution of marriage essential to human nature, or has marriage been merely an institution fitting for a certain age in the development of humanity? Is this not the time in which "the disinterested impulse of passion is set free from the ties kept by the bourgeois family and by the entire Judeo-Christian tradition?" (p. 61).

Buttiglione looks at the question from the point of view of contemporary Western society, in which the welfare state has become large and strong, while the family has become weak and increasingly irrelevant to the individual needs of citizens. Referring to Aquinas and Horkheimer, Buttiglione argues that the separation between sexuality and procreation does not set love free but, on the contrary, destroys it. When sexuality loses both seriousness and connection with the transmission of life it loses also its being the place in which the sense of life discloses itself as donation (p. 62). In a society in which sex is unrestrained, the person starts to lose an important element on his or her way to self-control and self-awareness. If the subject does not master his own instincts and passions, by framing them within his own project, then those instincts and passions master him. The result is a kind of human being which is not free, because it is not autonomous. This kind of man is "heterodirected": he is available to be directed by whomever has ways to control his elementary passions (p. 63). The logical alternative to self-control is being controlled. To use Freudian language, a certain measure of repression, that is, obstacles on the way to the immediate gratification of instincts, is necessary for the human being to become human, to become a free agent (p. 63).

Moral laws concerning sexuality do not decrease the joy which the Creator has placed in sexual difference, but express the nature of a human sexuality. "The absence of law, or its uncertainty, does not at all foster the sexual satisfaction, but (paradoxically) renders it more problematic;. . .the difficulty is not in the norm of Humanae Vitae but in the very nature of sexuality" (p. 117). Sex is so connected with life and its sense and meaning that, like life, it is a wonderful, as well as a dangerous and difficult, adventure. With sex, there is no irresponsible and easy way, because there is not irresponsible and easy way with life. Moreover, responsibility toward the generation and nutrition of a new life is not only a material responsibility. Buttiglione, following Aquinas's arguments for the natural indissolubility of marriage, underlines spiritual generation and nutrition--what we normally call education--as the natural and human element of a marriage. Already for Aquinas this was a major argument against polygamy in the case of wealthy persons who might support more than one partner.

To understand Humanae Vitae it is necessary to understand the very nature of a moral norm. Conscience and norm are the two polarities of moral experience (p. 69). Humanae Vitae excludes two alternative anthropologies: legalism and absolute autonomy of the conscience. On the legalistic position, what matters is merely the external conformity of a human act to the objective order of good. Here the only distinction is between a good and a bad act; and this distinction is an objective distinction. For an ethics of the conscience and of subjectivity what matters is not the content of an act--there are not good or bad acts; the only acceptable distinction is between authentic and unauthentic acts. Human being is free, and a human action is authentically human when it is free, no matter which action it is. These two positions make explicit the possible opposition between the right of truth and the right of conscience.

The argumentation which attacks Humanae Vitae by asserting the supreme and absolute rights of the conscience, however, "proves too much." Before such a concept of conscience no norm can stand: whatever appears to someone to be right would be right. Humanae Vitae's doctrine that certain actions are intrinsice malum, independent of any possible judgment of the conscience, does not imply the legalist position. An unauthentic action, indeed, is never a good action. Moreover, conscientia errans obligat: a human being is always justified by his conscience. But this does not transform a bad action into a good one. Buttiglione notes that conscience is not a pure primitive datum. By reading the "masters of suspicion," we cannot forget that what we call conscience is not simply the interior light of the divinity, but a process of mediating what is subconscious (the internal pressure of what used to be called passions), as well as what is societal (external pressure, economic situation, social power, envy, and so forth). In order to exercise human freedom we must recognize the different masks of free choices that conceal the concessions to the unethical. Often what is called individual judgment of conscience is but a mask for giving in, for surrendering without the displeasing feeling of the injustice of the act. Buttiglione reverses the use of the masters of suspicion by showing that to renounce oneself to this unqualified freedom is not to choose freely to obey a norm, even if difficult, but rather to give in to each masked heteronomous passion and to the pressure of any power capable of endangering us. The fact that everyone must act always according to his conscience, and that the only criterion of imputability is the conscience, does not lead to moral relativism. It is right to say that "those, who do not recognize the trught of the norm of Humanae Vitae, do not have to follow this norm" (p. 127). But this does not affect the truth of it. Moreover, for those who know that conscience is not only and always the light of God, the opposition between norm and conscience does not imply immediately that the norm is wrong. It could imply the necessity of a process of internal formation of the conscience, and the necessity of time, difficulty, and struggle as the way to a good human life. --Paolo Guietti, Universita' Cattolica, Milano.
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Author:Guietti, Paolo
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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