TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


Chapter 10: From Modes of Responsibility to Moral Norms

Question C: Why are some specific moral norms absolute and others nonabsolute?

1. If people always personally derived specific moral norms directly from the modes of responsibility, the present question could be omitted. The exposition could proceed at once to question D, where the relationship between general moral principles and judgments of conscience will be explained, and the role of specific norms clarified.

2. Of course, most people, for good reasons, do not personally derive specific moral norms directly from the modes of responsibility. Rather, they reach moral judgments by drawing on a stock of moral norms they have on hand. Most of these norms are not absolute. For instance, St. Paul teaches: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom 13.1). But the people who carried out the Nazi policy of genocide surely should not have obeyed orders. Norms which admit of exceptions are here called “nonabsolute.”

3. Most specific moral norms are nonabsolute because they are open to further specification by recourse to the same principles from which they were derived. The basic human goods, the first principle of morality, and the modes of responsibility generate norms in the first place, and they can generate more refined norms when necessary.

4. For example, a specific norm such as “Keeping promises is obligatory” is true and guides choices as long as the only thing in question is the aspect of interpersonal harmony underlying the making of promises and the norm that they should be kept. However, promises and the cooperation they foster very often concern other goods besides. When keeping a promise would affect these other goods in a way which can be taken into account without partiality, one faces a choice which is more specified than that involved in simple promise keeping. A more specific norm is needed to govern this more specific action, and this second norm limits the comparatively general norm that promises should be kept.

5. Suppose a person makes a promise and afterwards discovers it cannot be kept without violating the eighth mode of responsibility. The promise ought not to be kept. On this basis, German officials were not bound by allegiance to the nation to carry out orders to kill the innocent. They were bound by reverence for life not to carry out their orders.

6. Again, if the choice one makes in breaking a promise involves no partiality, the foundation of the obligatory character of promise keeping is undercut. For instance, if one promises a friend to go sailing on a certain day but wakes up on the appointed day with what seems an attack of appendicitis, one should break the promise. Normally one should keep one’s promises because one wants others to keep theirs, and it is unfair to expect this of them if one is not reciprocally steadfast. But no reasonable person would want a friend with an apparent attack of appendicitis to keep a promise to go sailing; so the fairness which usually demands promise keeping does not demand it in this sort of case.

7. However, some specific moral norms are absolute. In some cases, an already-given determination settles a kind of act as morally wrong. Thus, “One should not get rid of unwanted children by killing them” is a norm expressing the moral determination of this kind of act by the good of life and the eighth mode of responsibility. No matter what further specifications might be added in a particular case of killing an unwanted child, an act of this sort is necessarily incompatible with openness to integral human fulfillment.

8. Even so, the absoluteness of certain specific moral norms will not be apparent if the actions they morally determine are described behaviorally rather than morally (see S.t., 1–2, q. 20, a. 6). For example, “Killing is wrong” does not express an absolute moral norm if “killing” is taken to mean “behaving in any fashion which brings about someone’s death.” On this behavioral definition, Jesus “killed” himself, for he behaved in a manner which brought about his death. Absolute moral norms—which are generated by the third, fourth, sixth, seventh, and eighth modes of responsibility—must be formulated with respect to the moral act, which includes the wrongful choice. Jesus did not choose to kill himself; he freely accepted death as a foreseen consequence of carrying on his mission.

Those who deny that there are any absolute, specific moral norms often divide norms into two kinds: (1) nonabsolute rules concerning kinds of acts described behaviorally (which they sometimes call “material norms”); (2) absolute truisms concerning kinds of acts described and characterized morally (which they sometimes call “formal norms”). “Killing is wrong” is of the first type; “Murder is wrong” (where “murder” means wrongful killing) is of the second type. The second does not settle the problems raised by the first, for in disputed cases—for example, the abortion of unwanted children—the problem just is whether this killing is wrongful and so appropriately rejected as murder.1

By contrast, the position explained here focuses upon another type of specific moral norm. The description of the act goes beyond mere behavior, yet does not go so far as to build in the moral determinant. “Getting rid of unwanted children by killing them” is specified sufficiently to make clear that the act involves a choice to destroy their lives, yet the description is morally neutral in itself. The application of the moral determinant, “is wrong,” comes through the logical step of bringing this kind of act under the eighth mode of responsibility. The absolute norm follows from the fact that killing of this sort includes in itself a will incompatible with openness to integral human fulfillment.

A proportionalist might say that the norm about getting rid of unwanted children by killing them is virtually exceptionless, since such killing is hardly ever likely to be the lesser evil. However, the proportionalist cannot admit a genuinely absolute specific norm in this case, because proportionalism rejects the eighth mode of responsibility.

The thesis that norms using concepts such as “murder” and “adultery” are mere truisms (“formal norms”) useful only for exhortation also is questionable. According to received Christian teaching, “murder” limits the concept of killing in two ways. The killing is deliberate killing of a human being, and there is no divine authorization of it. The first sets aside behavior which results in death accidentally or as a side effect. The second sets aside capital punishment, war, and killing in obedience to divine commands.2 This second limitation is theologically questionable (see 8‑H). As for adultery, Christians of earlier centuries probably would have been amazed by the suggestion that “adultery” means wrongful—but not necessarily all—extramarital intercourse involving at least one married person.

9. An analogy with the norms of diet illustrates the distinction between absolute and nonabsolute norms. There are general principles of good diet, and a dietitian applies these in making the judgments involved in drawing up menus. Although many specific norms are formulated, most are nonabsolute. For example, children should have milk—but not if they are allergic to it. However, some norms of diet are absolute. A diet of pure strychnine is, for example, to be avoided, and this norm will hold good no matter what one’s special problem or condition. Now, as the point of eating is health, so the point of acting is integral human fulfillment. As some sorts of diet can never be healthful, some kinds of action can never be right. Therefore, as some norms of dietetics are absolute, so some norms of morality are absolute—although most norms of both dietetics and morality are nonabsolute inasmuch as they can be refined to fit actions more specific than those envisaged in formulating them.

10. Not only most specific affirmative norms but most specific negative ones are nonabsolute. For instance, it is wrong to drink oneself into a stupor. This norm is generated by the third and sixth modes of responsibility and by the goods of health, rational functioning, and genuine self-integration. (The latter requires that one seek real solutions to problems, not escape into drunkenness.) Nevertheless, one might rightly choose to drink oneself into a stupor—if, for example, one’s leg had to be amputated and no other anesthetic were available. It is not that getting drunk is a lesser evil here. Rather, one has a different state of affairs and so a different norm. Although the outward behavior might be the same, the moral act is simply not the usual act of drinking too much. One is motivated not by a mere craving nor by escapism but by a reasonable wish to facilitate the operation required for one’s health. The third and sixth modes of responsibility do not rule out this choice. In dietetics, an analogous case would be: Do not consume barium sulfate. Generally a sound rule of diet, yet subject to exception when one needs a stomach X-ray.

11. The preceding explanations clarify a point made previously (6‑D): Proportionalism is not needed to account for the nonabsoluteness of most moral norms. Nonabsolute norms simply are those which can be specified further, with the result that the moral determination changes. But the change is not dictated by some impossible weighing of goods and bads promised by various alternatives, to see which will yield the greater good or lesser evil. Rather, it is dictated by the basic human goods and the modes of responsibility, which generated the nonabsolute norm to begin with.

12. Still, an upright person who correctly judges that a nonabsolute norm requires further specification is likely to talk in a way that sounds like proportionalism. A German physician who refused to obey a Nazi decree to kill the innocent might well have said that disobeying constituted authorities is a lesser evil than killing the innocent. But “lesser evil” is defined here by a moral principle, not by a comparison of premoral goods. Disobeying authorities in such a case is not an evil at all. Instead, it is the morally good act of an upright person who has subjected a nonabsolute norm (obedience to authority) to appropriate further specification.

1. See Richard A. McCormick, S.J., Notes on Moral Theology: 1965 through 1980 (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1981), 576–81, for some references and discussion.

2. See Catechismus ex decreto Ss. Concilii Tridentini ad Parochos, Pii V., Pont. Max., iussu editus (Rome: Propagandae Fidei, 1839), 2:125–31.