General Ethics: Peter Kreeft’s Summa Philosophica Part VII

Evil and Good, together again.
Evil and Good, together again.
Read Part VI.

Remember, we’re doing summaries of summaries here; only bare sketches are possible. Buy his book for more detail.

Question VII is fun: General Ethics. That morality really exists and such forth. Specific rules follow next time.

Article 1: Whether moral laws are objectively real?

Oh my yes. But isn’t it the case that “moral laws are not agreed to by everyone, but argued about, in all times and places”? And isn’t it true that moral laws are values and not facts? Or maybe morals are nothing but subjective feelings?

On the contrary, all men, in all times, places, and cultures, argue about whether certain acts…are morally right or wrong. But we argue only about objective truths, not subjective feelings…

Kreeft likes to say no one “argues about private, subjective feelings. No one responds to ‘I feel well’ with ‘No, you feel sick.'” Disagreement about objective matters does not prove subjectivity. That would make every scientific disagreement subjective. If you can find anybody who disagrees with any mathematical judgment, and if mere disagreement made topics subjective, then all of mathematics is subjective.

It’s true that “[a]ll judgments exist only in a subjective consciousness, including judgments about material things like size, judgments about mathematical truths, and judgments about moral laws. But the objects of these judgments, unlike feelings, are objective.”

We’re not empiricists, because if we were we’d have to toss out all of mathematics, logic, and all other metaphysical judgments like the existence of other minds. Positivism is dead.

Since there are objectively real moral laws, it is our task to discover them.

Article 2: Whether there are any universal, exceptionless norms?

Yes, afraid so.

Whenever an exception is made to a moral law, there is always a more general moral law that justifies the exception…The commandment forbids murder, not killing. The attempted murderer forfeits his right to life by threatening other lives.

Also, “[m]otives and situations cannot make an act that is wrong in itself to be right. They can only make an act that is otherwise right to be wrong. As T.S. Eliot said…about motives, ‘The last temptation is the greatest treason:/ to do the right thing for the wrong reason.'”

The clich´ says the exception proves the rule, but what it means is “that an exception presupposes a rule. Some rules have exceptions and some do not. If all rules have exceptions, what about that rule?”

Article 3: Whether ‘ought’ is a kind of ‘is’?

Yes. Yet Hume says an ‘is’ does not entail an ‘ought’ and Hume cannot be praise too much.

Now it is “common-sensical to argue that what you ought to be and do depends on what you are and on what is. For instance, ‘be a man’ is meaningless if addressed to an animal.” And it is only sensible to tell a man what to do what can be done. There cannot be a moral commandment to ride unicorns or to wipe the sauce dropped from flying spaghetti monsters.

“What is” is ambiguous. It can mean an empirical fact as distinct from a value…or it can mean, more broadly, any objective truth at all, including the truth that values are objective, and including truths about what these objective values are…

When we say justice “is” good, we are not merely using a logical copula as in “a unicorn is a mythical beast,” but we are asserting something about reality, about what really is.

Even better:

Moral arguments have two premises, not one. One of them is about values and one about facts. Thus there is no non sequitur. E.g. “Killing an innocent person is morally wrong; abortion is killing an innocent person; therefore abortion is morally wrong” derives the specific ethical conclusion from a more general ethical premise combined with a metaphysical premise about the real nature of abortion and its object.

Article 4: Whether there is a natural law?

Yes. And not in the biological sense of “We saw this group of men do this and that under such and such conditions.” While biology is important, men are not pandas or centipedes. From the anthropological observation that many men murder, we do not derive the moral law that murder is just. There’s more to us than our bodily workings.

Now anyone “can discover the natural law simply by an honest attention to his conscience.”

Since it is part of man’s essential nature to have free choice of will, rather than to be determined unfreely, the natural law for man is a law that prescribes rather than describes, or which describes what man ought to do rather than what man necessarily does.

Stating there is a natural law does not, of course, show us what the natural laws are. We do these next time.

Article 5: Whether evil is real?

Yes: don’t you read books? A popular non-argument is to say, “If we treat people as if they were good, they will respond by being good.” But this assumes people can respond oppositely, which is to say evilly, therefore there is evil.

Article 6: Whether evil is ignorance?

No. If you think so, try telling the cop who pulled you over you didn’t know the speed limit was only 35 MPH.

A brother fallacy of the preceding one is “Raising Awareness”, a radioactive byproduct of the Enlightenment which says that if only we expose people to “the truth” (which often just means “our belief”) they will automatically act properly or in a way which we desire. If this were true, every one of you reading this post would become saints (and so would your author). As much as I’d love that, smart money says it ain’t gonna happen.

Article 7: Whether mankind is insane to choose evil over good?

Yes, amen. Kreeft includes a third Enlightenment-driven counter-argument which claims that to broadcast we’re all bat-guano crazy is “harmful to our self-esteem, which is a necessary precondition to motivate us to improvement. Therefore it is counterproductive and should not be made.” There is no modern (non) crime worse than to hurt somebody’s feelings.

“When one is repeatedly given the opportunity for joy or misery and repeatedly chooses misery, it is not too severe to call this disorder insanity”. Now insanity has degrees; grips on reality or more and less firm. Those wearing sunglasses in the dark can see better than those with their heads wrapped in tinfoil covered in duct tape. So that just because we’re all nuts, doesn’t mean we can’t recognize people nuttier than us.

Article 8: Whether there is more good than evil in man?


Evil cannot be greater than good because evil is a corruption of good and can exist only in a subject that is good by nature. If it corrupted all the good, it would cease to exist, since it would have no subject to exist in, like a parasite who killed its host.

As St Thomas Aquinas famously said, “Good can exist without evil, whereas evil cannot exist without good.”

Article 9: Whether virtue always brings happiness?

It does. Eventually. Though in the moments of sin, it feels so good. There is however always (as in always) a price.

[A]nyone can verify in his own experience, by experiment, so to speak, the fact that practicing virtue, especially charity, always produces deep happiness, while sinning against the virtues, especially charity, always produces deep discontent and inquietude.

Boethus: “All things seek again their proper courses and rejoice when they return to them.” And there’s no problem deriving pleasure from being virtuous.

It is not self-serving to desire one’s own happiness, or the “good of delight” (the bonum delictabile) together with the good of moral virtue (the bonum honestum), because they are consummated together. Proper self-love is not wrong but right, and proper self-love and proper altruism should coincide: thus “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Article 10: Whether sanctity is the key to ontology?

Yes—and hadn’t you thought about sanctity and ontology? Consider “Heidegger’s new and radical idea…that the mode of be-ing…[which] is usually called personhood or subjecthood, i.e. being an I rather than an It, is the key to being itself…and thus to ontology.”

The two realms of the personal subject and the ontological object, or person and being, are joined in God, who is the standard for both, and for their relationship. This when He revealed His own true, eternal name as “I AM,” He revealed the unity of personhood (“I”) and being (“AM”).

Also worthwhile is Kreeft’s speeach “Is Anything Really Right or Wrong?” (youtube video).

Read Part VIII.


  1. Ye Olde Statistician

    “The exception proves the rule” hearkens back to the original meaning of “proof,” which was a verb meaning “test” or “probe.” Hence, Aberdeen Proving Grounds, the proof of distilled spirits, and “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” The aphorism means “The [apparent] exception tests [the validity of] the rule”

  2. William Sears


    Although commonly believed, this is not the origin of this expression. It comes from a Roman legal principle. It is explained clearly in the following link.

    I have seen this same analysis in many places and I think that we can trust Wikipedia here.

  3. MattS

    “Article 6: Whether evil is ignorance?

    No. If you think so, try telling the cop who pulled you over you didn’t know the speed limit was only 35 MPH. ”

    Moral Legal : immoral illegal.

    I don’t dispute your answer to the base question, but your speed limit example is irrelevant.

  4. ad

    Sickos. I watched a Kreeft video: very scary man.

  5. Briggs

    Penetrating comment, ad. I can’t speak for the other readers, of course, but you’ve convinced me.

  6. Sander van der Wal

    Regarding hurting someone’s feelings and Enlightenment, shouldn’t that be that Romanticism is to blame here?

    The Enlightenment is about Reason, Romanticism is about one’s feelings being the main driver for interacting with the world. Twart that interaction, and one hurts the feelings of the person being twarted.

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