The tough question
Every year, around November, I have an involuntary front row seat to the latest round of teenage angst dealing with University applications. One year was particularly intense because two of my philosophy students were debating between attending a nearby secular University and one much farther away run by the Dominicans. In one case their new found love of philosophy was warring against parental urgings for something more practical like Sociology and Human Sexuality (?).
Many a lunch hour was spent listening to worries and concerns, confusions and misconceptions. I tried not to be biased and merely corrected false assumptions and presented various scenarios and options for them to consider. Time and again their main fears revolved around making the wrong choice, losing a year and wasting the corresponding tuition. They didn’t know what they were “supposed” to do! Of course, at their age neither did I!
Fortunately, I have been blessed to have learned from the school of hard knocks. I was a terrible student in high school, didn’t go to University until I was twenty-four (as a mature student) and that was only because I thought I had a vocation to the priesthood. I didn’t start teaching until I was thirty-six and that was because my wife wanted to stay home with our children and I needed a better paying job. I learned two things:
- God can bring something good out of the most convoluted life and
- As long as you are pursuing the good, you are not “wasting time” and are very likely to find yourself pleasantly surprised by the outcome.
You can imagine then the consternation of my students when I would respond to their lament of, “Sir, I don’t know what to do!!” with the simple reply, “Do what is good.”
How “purpose” determines good and evil
In our last article, we discussed that reason shows us that God designed everything and beauty is found in that design. We also realized that nothing is designed without a purpose behind that design. In my article listing the first principles[i] we spoke of the Principle of Finality which states that everything that exists, exists for a reason, e.g., for a purpose. Msgr. Kevane further explains it this way:
The principle of finality states that every efficient cause, namely, everything that acts for doing or making something, has a purpose in doing so. One of the chief differences between the mentality of believers and atheists lies here. Atheists often think there is no purpose to anything. All comes by chance. Sometimes the purpose is fulfilled unconsciously, as we see throughout nature. An archer has a conscious purpose, and the arrows fly purposefully. But the arrow itself has no conscious awareness of the purpose toward which it has been aimed. Another way of stating this is that everything exists for some good, namely, the purpose or end in view. [ii]
If we simply examine how we speak in everyday situations, we recognize that goodness is intrinsically linked with purpose. For example, a good arrow is one that flies straight and true. A bad arrow is one that does not. I am our school’s archery coach and before our recent tournament, I examined each arrow and made a judgment about which one was good or bad based on its primary function. During the tournament our school’s archers competed with archers from other schools to determine which archer is best according to gender and category. During the competition many arrows missed their target indicating that there were either bad arrows or bad archers – or both.
Now, before we continue we need to make a distinction here. There are two categories of good in the metaphysical sense: the ontological and the actual. The ontological sense of good means that anything that “is”—that “exists”—is good insofar as it has being. A reference to Shakespeare’s Hamlet fits here. The question, “To be or not to be” is—in today’s slang—a “no-brainer”. It is always better to “BE” than not to exist at all. In this sense, we can even say that Satan is good in the ontological sense because he was given existence by God and everything that God creates is “ontologically good”.
By actual goodness, I mean what is good insofar as it fulfills its given purpose. A broken pencil, in actuality, is a bad pencil because it does not fulfill its function—which is to make a legible mark on a writing surface; it becomes good again when I sharpen it. A good student is one that does what a student should do: learn, study, do their homework, participate in discussions, hand in assignments on time, follow instructions, exercise insight and creativity, etc. (Note also that a good student does not necessarily mean one that has good grades. I have had plenty of “A” students who were poor students. They never studied, or took notes or participated in class discussions. They did well on raw talent and aptitude, but they were not “good students.” It is the student who tries to do everything right, no matter what the grade, who is the GOOD student.)
This applies to everything. The song, “Highway to Hell,” by the rock band AC/DC might be a good song to listen to while you’re driving on the Interstate, but it is a bad song for a Catholic funeral.[iii] It does not fulfill the purpose of what a funeral hymn should be. And of course there is no “actual” goodness in Satan because he has rejected God and has become the antithesis of what God intended for him to be.
The Principle of Finality also gives us an understanding of what “evil” truly is. If “the good” is what fulfils its purpose, then “evil” is what does not. Evil (or badness) does not exist in itself, it always has to exist in relation to an ontological good and a final cause or purpose. In other words, evil has to be an absence of something that should be there: sickness is an absence of health, darkness is an absence of light, and vice is the absence of virtue and so on.
We also can see that there are two types of evil: natural and moral. Natural evil, for example, can be in the form of natural disasters or physical/mental disabilities. Losing an arm or leg due to injury or disease is a natural evil since something that ought to be there is missing. Moral evil is the lack of goodness in thought or action. Theft for example is the absence of the virtue of Justice and jealousy is an absence of Charity, and so on. This “moral evil” is linked with the Principle of The Moral Order. Since we are creatures that can think and choose, we have the capacity, unlike all other creatures, to direct ourselves towards “the good.” When we choose something other than the good, we introduce evil into reality, we “miss the mark” (what “sin” means in Hebrew), and we do not fulfill our purpose. I could go on, but we will examine moral evil in more depth when we focus on ethics.
Ideas have consequences
So where does all this leave us… and what are the consequences of this concept of “purpose?”
What I have been trying to do from a metaphysical perspective is to show that this purpose is “written into” the very fabric of reality—written into our very essence: it is not something that is simply a mental construct nor how I “feel” about it. The purpose is there; it is real and because what is real is true, then it is a true purpose, not an imaginary one or a socially-constructed one. Once we grasp this simple truth. it gives us focus for the rest of our journey of self-discovery. I can find comfort and assurance that “I have a purpose” – that “My life has meaning!” Now let’s discover what it is!
The answers to the BIG questions of life are amazingly simple; the hard part is filling in the details. I am not being flippant when I tell my students to “choose the good.” I know there is more to it than that, but that is the main answer—everything else is “merely” the details. St. Augustine saw this simplicity when he said, “Love God and do what you will.” Have your eye on the target and everything will fall into its proper place.
This brings us to the end of our (very) brief examination of metaphysics. We have, in a sense, set up the “big picture”. From this point forward, we will simply fill in the details. In my next article I will summarize what we have discussed and will set the stage for our next area of focus: Human Nature. I pray that this series has been of help to you and that you will continue to read along.
[ii] Chervin, Ronda, Ph.D. & Kevane, Msgr. Eugene, Ph.D; “Love of Wisdom: An Introduction to Christian Philosophy”; Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1988; p134
[iii] This is not to say that this song is morally acceptable in its own right because it is evident that the lyrics are objectionable. I was using its obvious unsuitability for funeral music to make a point.
Editor’s Note: This is the sixth article in an ongoing series, Ideas Have Consequences by Dennis Buonafede. Check back next Wednesday for another article.