Knowledge and Experience

Doug McManaman
Copyright © 2008
Reproduced with Permission

Students tend to make the case that in the moral realm knowledge acquired through experience is far better than a purely theoretical knowledge. The implication is that, like the investigative sciences, knowledge requires some sort of empirical verification before it can be accepted as true or reasonably certain. Lacking this, those who pronounce on personal moral issues such as abortion, contraception, marriage, or issues of reproductive technology, etc, are at best arm chair thinkers whom we needn't take too seriously, at least not until the evidence is in.

Hence, those who have had an abortion know better about the issue than those - men in particular - who have not, and only the former are properly qualified to address the issue. As well, only married couples who have experienced the difficulties of raising kids know about contraception and are qualified to comment on it, and if couples are going to marry, and over 50% of marriages end in divorce, it is much wiser for them - or so it is argued -, to live together and get a taste of it before making such a serious commitment.

Although there is a great deal of truth in the idea that experience is fundamental to moral knowledge, there is much that is overlooked in the above made claims. Firstly, philosophical knowledge does not require empirical verification. In fact, it is impossible to empirically investigate a genuinely philosophical issue, such as the nature of truth, life, goodness, being, universals, or even the nature of scientific knowledge itself. One can only reason to their conclusions on the basis of first principles, and if the premises of an argument are true and the reasoning is logically valid, then one can be absolutely certain that the conclusion is true.

Nevertheless, experience is very important, even in theology, not to mention philosophy. In fact, the biblical understanding of knowledge is inexorably linked to experience. Recall Mary's reply to Gabriel at the Annunciation, who announces that she will conceive and give birth to a son, who will be called Son of the Most High God: "How can this be, since I do not know man?" (Lk 1, 34) In other words, she has never experienced sexual union with a man.

Moreover, in the Garden of Eden, the woman "saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, and she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat and gave also to her husband with her, and he did eat (Gn 3, 6). The "fruit" in this allegory represents knowledge or sophistication (wisdom) acquired through "tasting", that is, through experience.

Consider too the birth of Seth after the expulsion of Cain: "And Adam knew his wife again; and she bore a son, and called his name Seth" (Gn 4, 25). Again, for Adam to know his wife was to experience her through sexual union.

And so it is valid to stress the role of experience in knowledge. But it certainly does not follow that one must "experience" evil in order to know that a particular choice is evil. It is enough for a person to experience the good. In fact, choosing evil leads inevitably to a certain intellectual blindness. Very few who do evil fully appreciate the gravity of what they do, and the more they sin, the easier it becomes to make choices of increasing moral depravity. And so the least qualified to pronounce on good and evil in human action are those who experience the morally bad by choosing it.

Morality in many ways can be compared to art. Man has the onerous responsibility of "making himself" via his free choices. He is like the artist who sculpts a work; at the same time, however, he is the matter upon which he works. We shape our moral identity (character) by the choices that we make. But evil is a deprivation, a deficiency, a depletion of being. Choosing evil does not make us more, but less; and a person who is less, is less qualified to pronounce on moral good and evil than one who is larger and more complete.

One does not have to have an abortion to know that abortion is wrong - although countless women who have had abortions report unforeseen psychological and physical repercussions. All of us know that deliberately destroying an innocent and developing human life is morally bad precisely because all of us know through experience that human life is fundamentally good; for we all have an instinctive will to live.

None of us have to go through the experience of destroying a friendship in order to know that doing so is malicious, because all of us experience a natural inclination to establish ties between ourselves and others. Sociability is experienced by all of us as good and desirable. Hence, every one of us knows that sowing seeds of suspicion, lying, detraction, and gossip, etc., are morally wrong. In fact, the honest know it better than any of us, for their greater reverence for others and their reputations has made them more sensitive to the seriousness of lying, and their personal experience of integrity and the inner peace that accompanies it allows them to know from within that dishonesty will destroy the liar before it hurts the victim.

And if empirical evidence is what one is looking for, consider that statistics have consistently revealed that the divorce rate is highest for those couples who have "experienced" more than one sexual partner prior to marriage, second highest for those who were sexually experienced before marriage but only with the person they ended up marrying, and lowest for those couples who were virgins when they married.

Note that all couples of every category went into their marriages with experience of one kind or another. Those in the first category of couples experienced sexual license leading up to their wedding, but this variety of experience, contrary to their expectations, did not increase their chances of a successful marriage. Virgin couples came to their marriages not with the experience of sexual license, but with the experience of self-sacrifice and a rather high level of communication, which pre-marital sexual activity tends to render difficult to achieve, but which is necessary for any marriage to succeed.

Although morality is not an empirical science, moral norms such as those against lying, adultery, divorce, cohabitation, abortion, and contraception, etc., continue to receive the support of empirical or sociological verification. Divorce hurts kids, adultery hurts spouses, lying destroys trust, abortion hurts women, and the divorce rate for couples who use NFP is under 4%.

All of us have the necessary experience to begin to reason about the nature of right and wrong in human action, but what renders us even more able to discern genuinely good choices from those that are evil is a moral character that lacks a certain kind of experience, that is, a spirit of innocence unstained by the knowledge of sin and selfishness. For it is no coincidence that sin and evil have always been associated with darkness. Experiencing evil by choosing it only immerses us more deeply into darkness, rendering us less able to see, but it is the light of virtue that gives us a good grasp, a real experiential knowledge, on what is truly good and morally beautiful.