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Chapter 10: From Modes of Responsibility to Moral Norms

Question B: How are specific moral norms derived from the modes of responsibility?

1. Usually people do not personally derive moral norms from the modes of responsibility. Rather, having a stock of moral norms on hand, they reach a moral judgment by applying one or more to the act in question. A student tempted to slip a book out of the bookstore without paying recalls that this is theft and theft is wrong; the norm forbidding theft is “on hand.” If such a norm is a moral truth, not merely a rule of conventional morality, it is derived from the modes of responsibility, even if the process by which this is done is not repeated each and every time the norm comes into play.

2. How, then, are such norms derived? In answering this question, it is best to begin with the conclusion to be reached—a specific moral norm. It is a proposition about a kind of action; the predicate characterizes the kind of action normatively, as wrong, good, obligatory, or permissible. For instance: “Trying to teach someone a lesson by beating him with a definite, foreseen risk to life is wrong,” “Feeding a hungry person is good,” “Keeping promises is obligatory,” “Excluding all meat from one’s diet is permissible.”

3. Since specific moral norms refer to kinds of actions and apply to them moral determinants, one obviously needs something common to kinds of action and to moral principles as the middle term of the reasoning by which a specific norm is drawn from a mode of responsibility. What is common to both are relationships of the will to basic human goods. The modes of responsibility indicate the moral exclusion of certain relationships, and various kinds of action are morally significant insofar as they involve such relationships.

Of course, as a matter of historical fact, specific moral norms have not been derived by people who had clearly articulated the basic human goods and the modes of responsibility, and who then set about to formulate norms for various kinds of acts. Rather, the principles of practical reasoning and the normative principles were understood by direct insight, but not explicitly formulated. Consideration began from deliberation about possibilities for choice, and also (perhaps even more) from criticism of actions which in one way or another led to trouble and second thoughts. Reflection often refined previous formulations. (However, in the fallen human condition, criticism also encounters blocks which eventually confine the moral reflection of the vast majority of people within the limits of the conventional morality of their society.)

4. Thus, a specific, negative moral norm can be derived as follows. First one considers how the voluntariness involved in a certain kind of action is related to basic human goods. Next one considers the moral determination which the modes of responsibility indicate for this relationship. From these two premises one deduces the negative moral determination of that kind of action. For example, beating a man to teach him a lesson, with a definite risk to life, is a kind of act which involves a will hostile to the good of life. “To teach a lesson” in the sense intended here brings this kind of act under the seventh mode of responsibility, for one is acting out of hostility and accepts the destruction of a basic human good. Therefore, this kind of act is wrong.

5. A specific, affirmative moral norm logically depends on the affirmative first principle of morality, which directs the choice of those and only those possibilities whose willing is compatibile with a will toward integral human fulfillment. Thus, a certain kind of act is morally good if it offers a way of voluntarily serving a human good and involves no voluntariness excluded by any of the modes of responsibility. Not all morally good acts are obligatory—for example, feeding the hungry is good yet not obligatory. The reason is that an act of this kind can have an alternative itself morally good. However, whenever a morally good kind of act is such that its alternative is excluded by one or more modes of responsibility, then that sort of act is obligatory.

6. Promise keeping is an example. Promise keeping is a kind of act that bears upon the good of interpersonal harmony. One sets up expectations in others by making a promise, and one fulfills or disappoints these expectations by keeping or breaking it. Mutually creating and satisfying expectations is a very important part of interpersonal harmony; without it, cooperation is impossible. Among the various modes of responsibility, the fifth will certainly be relevant to making and keeping promises. If one allows the keeping and breaking of promises to be determined by one’s own convenience, one violates this mode. By contrast, one who keeps promises is plainly not doing so because of differences in feelings toward different people. Therefore, keeping promises is obligatory; breaking them is wrong.

7. In everyday speech, “permissible” sometimes is used to refer to the morally good but nonobligatory act. In a narrower sense, kinds of acts which can be characterized neither as wrong, good, nor obligatory are called “permissible.” In this sense, “permissible” is not a moral determinant on the same level as the others. To call a kind of act “permissible” is merely to say it has not been specified sufficiently to tell whether willing it would or would not be consistent with openness to integral human fulfillment.

8. For example, excluding all meat from one’s diet is permissible. But the description of the act, although it specifies certain behavior, is insufficient to specify a moral act. Does excluding meat promote or damage health? Is it an act of religious abstinence? To begin to characterize the act morally, one needs to know something about the proposal under consideration. Only then could one say what modes of responsibility might be relevant and how they would determine the morality of the act.