“The world has to be creased by my material performance, which is identifiable with my act of purchasing, for the act to take place. Everything before that, even the coherence that settles in when I ‘make up my mind,” and even the choices that lead up to what I want to do, is anticipatory. Ontologically, all those anticipating things do not exist for what they are until the transaction takes place. They truly are anticipations.” — Robert Sokolowski, Moral Action, 2017.1
“We can crease the world by saying words as well as by pushing someone or handing over something to someone: Homer often has one of his characters ask: ‘What sort of word has escaped the barrier of your teeth?’ (Iliad, 14:83), Letting words go can be just as decisive as feeding or striking another person. Insult, gratitude, consolation, discouragement, encouragement, dedication, all can take place through speech.” — Robert Sokolowski, Moral Action. 2017.2
The Catholic University of America Press has recently re-issued Msgr. Robert Sokolowski’s insightful book, Moral Action. This book was originally published in 1985 by Indiana University Press. It is a timely book in a culture of relativism that celebrates the primacy of self-will. The subtitle of the book—“A Phenomenological Study”—is not intended to be intimidating. It simply indicates the approach that Sokolowski takes in this book.
Sokolowski has long been a careful, renowned reader of the German philosopher, Edmund Husserl.3 This background means that he approaches and critiques the subjectivism of much modern thought with careful attention to what actually goes on in our everyday experiences of seeing, hearing, speaking, understanding, and willing. He is comfortable with the fact that we are both mind and body in such a way that the one almost always affects the other. Things are less subjective than we are often given to think. We soon realize, on reading him, that Sokolowski’s philosophical laboratory, as it were, is ourselves: what we do know by accounting for what happens to us in knowing and willing.
As in all of his books and lectures, Sokolowski is a master of clarity. He is conscious of the need to give brief, recurring, and often amusing examples of the point he is making. The reader knows exactly what is under discussion. While this book is a model of intellectual acumen, it remains a book that can be read and understood by any ordinary student or layman. “Moral action” is that sphere of our lives closest to what we make ourselves to be. The subject matter of this book deals with a specific category of reality. Sokolowski has spent his life working his way through the different areas of reality to see and make available to our understanding what each is about.
Philosophy, including moral philosophy, he emphasizes, is a matter of making proper distinctions. With our given minds, what we first want to know is simply the truth of things. And this truth is made manifest when we distinguish, when we affirm that this thing is or is not that thing. Truth occurs when we know that what we affirm or deny of something outside ourselves really is what we understand that it is.
“Philosophy raises the most radical questions,” Sokolowski writes, “because it tries to make an issue out of the way things have to be, to show the necessity that everyone takes as granted. Philosophy deals with what is going on all the time around us and for all of us, and what it states should be capable of being appropriated by anyone.” The purpose of philosophy is that we might know, really know, what it is to know the truth of things. We reduce something to its proper category and find its causes.
In many ways, the truth surrounding moral action is the most difficult to explicate. Ontological truth is the conformity of mind with what is. Moral truth is the conformity of our actions with what ought to be. Aristotle warns us that, if we do not live our moral lives well, we will most likely not think too well. We will be busy using our minds to justify what we choose to do. Sokolowski is right in this book to teach us exactly what it means to will and to choose.
Sokolowski understands that, presupposing his Metaphysics, Aristotle’s Ethics, Politics, and Rhetoric (along with Aquinas’ Commentaries on them) stand at the heart of any accurate comprehension of human action. With his classes over recent decades, Sokolowski has perceptively gone over these texts of Aristotle again and again. I suspect he is one of the few professors in our universities who have taken on this deeply satisfying endeavor.
As he made clear in his earlier and definitive book The Phenomenology of the Human Person, Sokolowski is concerned with the “agent” of truth.4 Truth does not exist apart from someone actively knowing it as true. Things, of course, simply are there for us to encounter them. We did not put them, or ourselves, there. What is out there, because it is there, is what incites us to know and to ask “What is this thing?”
When it comes to the subject matter of this book, what we want to know is this: What are moral or ethical actions? How are they distinct happening in the universe? We do not just run into them like we run to a tree or jump into a river. But we cannot get through a couple of hours each day without encountering some command, law, passion, desire, crime, joy, or sorrow. The title of the book is “moral action,” not “moral philosophy,” because Sokolowski, as a philosopher, wants to know, as a philosopher, what goes on when we will and choose something. What good do we seek? Are we to be praised or blamed for our actions? If so, why so? This book is about the “why so?”
The title of these reflections is “On the Creases in Being.” No doubt, at first, that will seem like an odd title. The two citations at the start provide some context for it. As I read the book, after a while, I kept noticing the use of the word “crease,” meaning a small line or ridge in something, as in a crease in legs of a pair of trousers. A crease can also be the small area in front of the goal in lacrosse or soccer.
When I started to think about why Sokolowski used this particular word it became evident that, in its own way, it epitomizes the book’s meaning. Our lives, he would say, make a difference in reality because of our moral actions. Something happens when human beings act. That is, their actions “crease” existence. The word is appropriate. We are not everything, but we are not nothing either.
Each of our lives has transcendent importance before God. Still, billions of us have existed on this planet. Each of us knows the names of but a few of our fellow earthlings. The best that most of us can do is to “crease” existence. Even the most famous of our kind are but creases to most others. Our actions, particularly our moral actions and words, display the free activities over which we have control and for which we will be judged. We each make a difference to someone, in some place, and at some time. No one passes through this life without creasing existence in some way, even, I suspect, the aborted, perhaps especially the aborted. The word “crease” allows us to retain the notion that even the most insignificant soul as the greatest of our kind still counts.
What Sokolowski is mainly concerned to establish is the fact that a moral act is not simply one’s intention, but the whole act which always has an objective existence that can crease reality. Human beings have a peculiar capacity that comes with their combination of body and spirit in one unified and personal being. No other beings in reality have quite this basis of action. We can “do” something, or say something, for which are, and should be, praised or blamed. We can be praised and blamed only if we are responsible for what we do. The book explains why we are responsible for what we do. Ultimately, this capacity to do things is why we exist, why we can crease the world.
We have a free will that can focus on any of the many ends or objects that we decide to undertake. We encounter an already existing creation that is itself good in its being. Thus, each existing thing that crosses our paths is good. When we act morally, we always decide to do something good. Even when we do something wrong, we do it under the guise of good while failing to put into existence what ought to be there
The whole action thus includes our intention, our understanding, our choice, our doing it because it is good or bad for someone, and finally the judgment of whether it is to be praised or blamed, that is, whether it is objectively good or bad. Our character is formed inexorably by the things we put in action in the world. Our friends know us through the habits we form in ourselves and, as such, suggest what we do most of the time.
In this sense, the book is a polemic against the subjectivizing of moral action as if the word or act we put into the world itself had no significance. In Sokolowski’s view, it makes all the difference. In short, again, our acts “crease” the world. We do many voluntary things simply because they are good. They do not involve elaborate choices. But some things do involve choice. After deliberation on what we should or should not do, we decide or will put an act into the world whose very being contains a goodness or badness that directly is placed into the world by our act. Sokolowski’s chapter on the moral significance of speech, over which we also have much control, is quite remarkably good.
“What we want to do, what we are after, is itself a possibility we have come to expect in the things around us. It is not an abstract value or an imperative but a good in things, a good to be pursued. Thus, both what we are after and what we choose to do in view of what we are after are available to us in the world in which we live.” Moral action has to do with accepting or rejecting real goods in our world. Sokolowski never forgets that what counts is what we do, and the internal processes by which we put our actions into the world, and their effect in the world that they crease.
In many ways, no area of philosophical thinking is more in need of the clarity that this book provides for us. Chapter 6 is entitled “Doing What We Do Not Want to Do.” In a basic sense, our very civilization was once, and still should be, built on the Socratic principle that it is never right to do wrong. We had to learn through practice that some things we did not want to do were things that we needed to do. We needed to acquire the virtues to do them. Civilization does not rest on doing what we want to do, but in doing what we ought to do.
Yet, as Sokolowski points out again and again, the world is filled with many good things that we simply want to do. It is perfectly all right to do them. No reason exists why we should not do them if we see that they are good and do them because they are good. Understanding these sorts of moral actions put into the world is what moral philosophy is about. It is to the credit of this book that this area of reality that only exists because of the possibility of human action is carefully examined and illuminated for us.
The book of 220 pages contains seven chapters and four short appendices, one on Stoic ethics, one on Aquinas’ view of our final good, one on Abelard’s placing all morality in the intention, and one on Kant and the limits of duty. Each of these appendices is worth the price of the book. Also included is a very illuminating, brief discussion of the meaning of marriage vows and of the significance of sports. Its central concern is with the moral virtues as they are displayed in moral actions. Hence, it must explain what we mean by prudence, by the intellectual of the moral virtues, the element of reason in all of our acts and how it relates to will. The discussions of temperance and courage are quite lucid.
This is a seminal book. I have only “creased” its contents. Few books come closer to explaining to us, in our own terms, why we are what we are. It explains to us, in terms we can grasp, the stakes rooted in our own existence as acting persons, as agents of our own destiny.
Sokolowski called my attention to the text’s final sentence: “Philosophy is to remind us of the necessity in things: not just to the necessities to which we have to resign ourselves, but those we can find splendid.” And what are these things that we can find “splendid”? Surely, in the case of moral action, it is the discovery that we are happier when we do what we ought to do rather than just what we want to do.
1 Robert Sokolowski, Moral Action: A Phenomenological Study (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press 2017), 69.
2 Ibid, 77.
3 Robert Sokolowski, An Introduction to Phenomenology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2000).
4 Robert Sokolowski, The Phenomenology of the Human Person (New York: Cambridge University Press 2008).