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
[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
His reply to me of April 6, 1994,
August 3, 2011
[No date, but January 21?-31?, 1994]
THE JESUITS OF FORDHAM
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it should therefore not be published elsewhere.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.
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
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,
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
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
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.