Summer 2010

Experience of Nature, Moral Experience: Interpreting Veritatis splendor's "Perspective of the Acting Person"

David S. Crawford

"Is the perspective of the acting person really exhaustively intentional?"

In recent literature on moral action, the famous phrase cited in my subtitle1 is typically interpreted as a decisive rejection of what are said to be “physicalistic” notions of the human act, that is to say, notions thought to confuse the act’s moral species with its natural or physical structure. Failing “to place oneself in the perspective of the acting person,” it is argued, leads to a merely third-person account of the material aspects of an act. Rather we need to look to its intentional structure.2 At times, Veritatis splendor’s lapidary phrase seems almost to have become a slogan, as though its meaning were clear and obvious, capable of resolving a host of knotty ethical issues. But what in fact does the phrase mean? We can certainly agree that it refers to the basic experience of being a moral agent, the experience not only of causing situations and effects in the world but of being caused as a moral agent in one’s own actions (cf. VS, 71). As such, we can agree that it implies a rejection of a merely material or purely third-person account of human action. Clearly, it seeks to reclaim a properly ethical perspective. This starting point, however, leaves a great deal of leeway for further elaboration. Is the perspective of the acting person really exhaustively intentional?

My argument here will be that the dominant interpretation of the “perspective of the acting person” is questionable, both as an interpretation of John Paul’s encyclical and as an action theory. Of course, intention and choice are crucial ingredients of action. However, the dominant interpretation marginalizes the role of the physical structure of actions and, by implication, the status of moral agents as embodied, physical beings who neither stand over and against a world of “merely” material objects nor simply engage that world intentionally. Indeed, I will argue, the dominant interpretation reflects a modern and in the end reductive notion of nature. The main title, given to me by the conference organizers, links the ideas of nature, morality, and experience. The leitmotif of this paper will be that our “experience” of nature has been profoundly shaped by philosophically (and theologically) informed ideas about reality as a whole (but which we only very rarely consider thematically), and that both our experience and our ideas in turn set a context and a foundation for what we take moral action to be.

Needless to say, I have bitten off far more than I can chew in a project of this scope. Nevertheless, I hope at least to sketch the outlines of a position.

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1. The phrase comes in the following sentence: “In order to grasp the object of an act [it is] necessary to place oneself in the perspective of the acting person” (78). A version of this paper was presented at the conference, “The Nature of Experience: Issues in Culture, Science, and Theology,” at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., 3–5 December, 2009.

2. Martin Rhonheimer, for example, speaks in this context of “intentional actions” (cf., for example, “Intentional Actions and the Meaning of Object: A Reply to Richard McCormick,” in Veritatis Splendor and the Renewal of Moral Theology, ed. J. A. Di Noia and Romanus Cessario [Scepter Publishers, 1999], 241–68).