How do we know what the morally right thing to do is? The fundamental criterion is the human person adequately and integrally considered (I am indebted here to the thought of Louis Janssens). The morally right thing to do is that which promotes or achieves things or situations that are good for human beings, or that minimise harmful or “evil” things or situations for human beings, in ways that take the human person holistically into account.
There are lots of things that are good for us: food, oxygen, exercise, friendship and so on. But the moral question arises from how and when it is right to choose these things. Too much food stops being good for you. Too much oxygen will kill you. Too much exercise can too. And there may be times when friendship could become clingy and co-dependent in unhealthy ways.
So, morally right consumption of food means choosing healthy food, in appropriate amounts, at appropriate times. This example helps us to understand what it means to say that the human person adequately and integrally considered is our primary moral criterion. The human person is not reducible to the desire to eat, even though food is a necessary condition of human life. Being human is not satisfied merely by eating enough.
While it is true that we are miserable without food, it is not true to say that we are truly happy just because we have enough food. And more than enough food would not make us happier in the long term.
What is true of the desire for food, is true of all aspects of the human being. We are not reducible to our capacity for rational thought, or free choice (important though they are); we are not reducible to our relationships with others; we are not reducible to our physical appearance, or our biological needs; we are not reducible to our self-perception, or the way others see us, or our role in society. Rather, we are complex wholes constituted by all these things, always already existing in relationship to all that is, and situated in a particular place and time.
It is this complex whole, adequately and integrally considered, who possesses dignity or worth. Because we are all complex wholes in this way, we are each unique and all fundamentally equal. Good moral choices (that is free and knowing) are those that promote the holistic flourishing of all individuals in a community of always already interconnected human beings.
Temperance is the virtue of self-control. In order to make good choices and do the right thing, we need self-control. Otherwise, we would simply respond to whatever desire presented itself. We would not be able to reflect rationally about what is good or right, and we would not be able to make free choices. The problems with that are evident. If we responded to every craving for cake we would quickly become unhealthy. Temperance can also apply to emotional reactions, like anger. Temperance prevents anger from becoming rage, with all the consequences that flow from uncontrolled violence.
When temperance is applied to sexuality, it is called chastity. Chastity is simply self-control of sexual desire. Why is it necessary? Just as a world where people ate endlessly would be chaotic, so too would a world in which sexual desire was acted on whenever and howsoever. But more importantly, a lot of other good things wouldn’t get done. The virtue of chastity is about developing the habit that allows sexual desire and behaviour to be put into proper perspective relative to other goods.
Neither sexual desire nor sexual intercourse are “bad” or “evil” in themselves. Rather, their moral quality is determined by how they occur relative to the criterion of the human person adequately and integrally considered. Sexual desires or actions that denigrate or objectify either another person or one’s own sexuality by reducing them or oneself to “merely” sexual beings is morally wrong.
All human beings benefit from chastity because it allows us to choose to channel our sexuality into relationships that respect other people and our own personhood in a way that love flourishes. This in turn enables the relationship to become creative, both in terms of welcoming children as a gift and in extending hospitality and friendship to others.
Chastity is not about making human beings “asexual” or “repressing” our sexual nature. Rather, chastity is about developing habits of thought and practice that allow our sexuality to find its best expression and to contribute to our flourishing and the flourishing of others as multidimensional, irreducible, unique human persons in relation to each other, the world, and God.
Dr David G. Kirchhoffer is the Director of the Australian Catholic University’s Queensland Bioethics Centre