Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Is there really "only one 'absolute'?"

Michael P. writes: 

Misunderstanding is predictable here, so I hesitate to say, but will say nonetheless, that in my view, there is only one invariable, only one "absolute":

"I give you a new commandment:  love one another; you must love one another just as I have loved you."  John 13:34.  See also John 15:12, 17.

Well, I don't want to misunderstand Michael, so let me ask:  What about the absolute norm that forbids having sexual intercourse with a woman against her will or without her consent?  It seems to me that there are only a couple of ways Michael could go here.  One is to affirm the exceptionless norm against rape and say that it is merely a specification of the love commandment of John 13:34.  If so, fine with me.  I would then want to argue that there are many such specifications, including the exceptionless norm against the direct killing of innocent human beings at any stage or in any condition, and those against adultery, fornication, sodomy, and other intrinsically non-marital sexual acts.  Michael might disagree with me about some or all of these, but our debate would not be about whether there is only one exceptionless moral norm.  In each case, it would be a debate about whether a particular norm is exceptionless, or a valid norm at all.  The other possibility would be to say that rape is usually wrong, but not always or intrinsically wrong.  There are at least imaginable circumstances in which it could be justified, e.g. as promising to produce the net best proportion of benefit to harm overall and in the long run.  (The standard science fiction example--philosophers specialize in these--is of a kind and decent man who will be given the key to a vault filled with medicine capable of curing thousands of victims of a raging deadly plague only if he rapes a post-menopausal woman in a minimally conscious state who will feel no pain or discomfort and never know she has been raped.)  Of course, this is not fine with me.  I think that position is dead wrong.  But it would be a position that genuinely presents the question:  Is there really only one absolute?


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