In Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, Alasdair MacIntyre distinguishes between two types of reasoning: theoretical reasoning and practical reasoning. These types of reasoning have differing structures that often go unacknowledged. Theoretical reasoning functions within the rules of logic. MacIntyre says that theoretical reasoning functions, such that, whenever we take the premises of any sound argument and combine them with additional true premises, the argument will remain sound. Consider “if A and B, then C is true.” You can add any premise to this, and C will continue to be true. (“If A and B and D, then C”, “if A and B and E, then C”, etc.).
But practical reasoning doesn’t work this way. MacIntyre gives the example of someone needing to fly to Chicago:
“I need to catch a plane to Chicago. If I do not leave in the next ten minutes, I will fail to reach the airport before the time for its scheduled departure. So I prepare to leave in the next ten minutes. Then I learn that all flights have been cancelled. The effect of adding the new true premise to those that already informed my reasoning is to render the inference that I was about to make unsound.”
Practical reasoning doesn’t always work like theoretical reasoning. The flight example might be written as: if X (leave in 10 minutes), then Z (make it to the airport in time for departure). But you can’t just add premises and keep the true conclusion. If X and Y (flights have been cancelled), then Z is no longer true.
This is the case in all kinds of moral matters, and this fact can make giving moral advice very dangerous. Suppose a stranger comes to me and says, “I love my boyfriend, and he’s Catholic. Should I marry him?” It would be preposterous for me to give her a strong answer to this question. There are a lot of other things I need to know before I can give her good advice. Does he also love her? Are they in a place emotionally to get married? Is he trustworthy? Does he have health insurance?
Or say a teenager reaches out and tells me that he is gay and asks if he should “come out.” I might be inclined to say, “Yes! Coming out is a liberating experience and a way to be honest about yourself!” But simply jumping to this response overlooks important factors to take into account. Will his parents disown him and kick him out of the house? Does he run the risk of being emotionally and physically harmed in a school setting that will neither affirm nor protect him? Is he still figuring himself out, needing more time to weigh other possibilities (such as bisexuality) before coming to a decision?
But there is a type of Christian who is always biting at the bit to tell people what to do, especially when it comes to matters of love and sexuality. They take minimal contextual information and fill in the gaps with their own prejudices and presumptions about how people work in order to provide firm advice on a wide range of matters. Advice can run the gambit from, “In order to stop masturbating, put a rubber band on your wrist and snap it when you get the urge” to, “Letting yourself fall in love with this person will lead you to grave sin.”
I’m not saying that there aren’t people in a place to give similar advice (though I’m generally skeptical of the rubber band suggestion). But these people need to be fully formed moral agents who know the peculiar particularities of the person seeking advice. Advice-givers need to recognize their limitations in giving advice, and see the other person as the moral agent who needs them to be able to really “step into their shoes.” Advice-givers need to recognize that their advice will almost always be subject to limitations. As someone who loves giving love advice myself, this is something I need to consistently remind myself. Good advice-giving will often take the form of, “If this were my situation, I might consider…” or, “If this doesn’t work for you, don’t do it, but in my experience…” or, “Some questions I might ask myself include…”
MacIntyre’s concerns for sound practical reasoning are generally instructive and provide some additional help:
“Sound [practical] reasoning requires him to think or have thought more widely about the range of individual and common goods that it is open for him to achieve. Failure so to think is at once a failure in reasoning and a failure in the exercise of the virtues. Such failures can be of very different kinds: not only lack of imagination about the range of goods that might be achieved, but also careless or inept assessments of the harms and dangers to be confronted, insensitivity to the needs of others or to one’s own needs, overrating or underrating one’s own abilities or the abilities of others, and so on. Education into the virtues consists in key part in making those so educated aware in detail of the possibilities of error and of the errors to which each of them will be particularly inclined, because of temperament or social role, or whatever.”
This helps us to understand why so many Christian apologists are terrible at giving advice: because they have been trained to be bad practical reasoners. They can’t identify the line where apologetics stops and practical reasoning begins. Their primary focus is on defending a theoretical position that they think can be mass-produced with little qualification. And while practical considerations may be in play for them, those considerations are used primarily in order to defend that conceptual position, whereas for good practical reasoners, the theoretical considerations are used primarily to help promote a particular person and community’s general flourishing. (Insofar as apologists focus more on the right rules than the complex dilemma of the person in front of them and the needs for a full flourishing, their approach to morality may be more post-Kantian than Thomistic-Aristotelian.)
I’ve received bad advice, especially as a gay man, because of most of the failures MacIntyre lists. Some apologists I’ve encountered have lacked the imagination to imagine a wide range of goods in my life, instead obsessing over the moral dangers to avoid. They have severely underestimated the extent to which moral failures can be attributed to failures of imagination, both on the part of the individual and on the part of the communities he inhabits. Others have recommended harmful approaches to my sexuality or dubious institutions to join, in part because they had not seen how badly these recommendations had worked out for others. (They sometimes relied on online recommendations or recommendations from people with limited personal experience with them or people who probably should not be trusted.) And still others have made assumptions about how my sexuality and affective life work, based largely on projections from their own lives. The list could go on. At various points during my time as an apologist, I have done all of these.
There are pronounced dangers in certain Catholic circles where moral advice and virtue formation have become associated with a sort of manualist tradition, where goods and the good are understood in syllogistic theological terms that need only be repeated (verbatim as far as possible) in order to appropriately form and advise the lay Catholic. For many Christian advice-givers, context is never a qualification for theologish syllogism. But what this amounts to is, again, bad practical reasoning, a faulty (and not really Thomistic, whatever they may claim) understanding of moral virtue. (The problem is similar to the presumptions built into the pernicious distinction between “theological” and “pastoral” pastors.)
These considerations may be partly why MacIntyre recommends starting with the Secunda Secundae when reading Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. That portion has all of the practical moral questions, those covering things like stealing bread and raising prices of consumer goods. MacIntyre says that working through the reasoning in these practical matters is the most reasonable way to understand Aquinas’ approach to virtue. Virtue both begins and ends with these sorts of practical situations and decision-making.
None of this is to preclude the recognition of intrinsic moral evils, or to say that moral manuals have no place in education or formation. Theoretical reasoning is good, and valuable, and important. But theoretical reasoning should not be equated to practical moral reasoning, or be treated as practical moral advice. We need to better recognize the limitations of theoretical “moral education.” And we need to understand that, when it comes to the laity, pastors are usually more important (and more morally helpful) than apologists.
is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. His writings focus primarily on Catholicism, homoeros, and law, and have appeared in Logos, Commonweal Magazine, Church Life Journal, and other publications. In his free time, he enjoys hosting seminars, creative writing workshops, and dinner parties.