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Chapter 10: From Modes of Responsibility to Moral Norms

Question D: Is the method of deriving specific moral norms adequate for conclusive criticism of every judgment of conscience?

1. Conscience is primarily a practical judgment, one’s last and best judgment of the moral quality of a choice one is about to make (see 3‑B). Question C has shown that some judgments of conscience can be criticized conclusively. A true moral absolute holds in every case. If it is wrong to kill unwanted children, any particular choice to do so will be wrong, no matter what additional factors complicate the situation.

2. But can judgments of conscience other than those which follow directly from absolute norms be criticized conclusively? If the preceding account of moral principles is correct, nothing determines the moral rightness or wrongness of an act except the relationships between the will and basic human goods involved in it. If this is so, then the method explained in question B of deriving specific moral norms seems adequate to criticize conclusively every judgment of conscience. For, while a judgment of conscience must refer to individuating factors, these do not affect the intelligible relationships between varieties of voluntariness and the basic human goods. (In the remainder of this question, these intelligible relationships will be called “moral determinants.”)

3. However, many philosophers and theologians have thought that some judgments of conscience cannot be conclusively criticized by any rational procedure. The reasons which make their view plausible will be examined here. The conclusion will be that although many factors can block conclusive criticism of judgments of conscience, nothing can do so except by making it difficult or impossible to discover and articulate the relevant moral determinants.

4. The personal character of conscience seems to many to block conclusive criticism of its judgments. No one is in a position to assume another’s view and criticize his or her judgments of conscience. No two persons share the same prior commitments, level of maturity of conscience, clarity about principles, awareness of relevant goods, creativity in generating alternatives, and ability to reason accurately. Hence, it seems that if conclusive criticism of judgments of conscience is attempted, the result can only be an intrusion into the heart. Systematic reflection should limit itself to general principles and stop short of this intrusion.

5. This concern to respect the interiority of others is sound. But the present question does not call for a judgmental project. The issue, rather, is whether the method which has been explained is adequate to develop and criticize judgments of conscience for oneself or for a group in which one participates. The present discussion will not concern subjective factors which often limit moral responsibility by limiting moral reflection. Rather, the point here is that there are no factors other than the moral determinants which could block attempts to make and criticize judgments of conscience by the method proposed in questions B and C.

6. Again, the theory of natural law articulated thus far in this work seems at least incomplete. Although the method is grounded in divine revelation and its unfolding by the Church’s teaching, thus far no moral determinants proper to Christian life have been described. It seems that if there is to be a specifically Christian morality, some factors knowable only by faith must be brought into play.

7. Indeed, as we shall see (25‑E), there are specific norms, knowable only by faith, whose fulfillment is strictly required by Christian love. These are generated because faith brings to light new options for fallen men and women, ones they would not otherwise think of and find appealing. But the present question is: If one does think of these options with the help of faith, can the judgment of conscience that they ought to be adopted be conclusively criticized and found sound by the method of deriving specific moral norms explained here? This methodological question can be answered without examining the content of specific moral norms.

8. The way people actually carry on moral reflection also seems to block any effort to criticize conclusively every judgment of conscience. For, normally, people make use of principles such as the basic human goods and modes of responsibility without reflecting upon them. In trying to reach a sound judgment of conscience, one focuses on the problem to be solved, not on the intellectual tools one uses. Just as people can reason deductively without being able to criticize their results conclusively by the canons of syllogistic reasoning, so they can reach judgments of conscience without being able to criticize them conclusively by the method described here.

9. This point is well taken. If one has not articulated the principles and procedure of reasoning, so that these are available to reflective examination, conclusive criticism of the results of reasoning will be impossible. However, the principles and process of moral reasoning have been articulated more and more fully in the course of the history of moral philosophy and theology. As this work has proceeded, progress has been made toward conclusive criticism of judgments of conscience. If the present account were entirely adequate, then the method described here would make it possible to criticize judgments of conscience as conclusively as possible. But even if, as is likely, the present account is imperfect in some respects, it still will make possible a closer approximation to the theoretical ideal of conclusive criticism of all judgments of conscience.

10. The seemingly decisive obstacle to conclusive criticism of many judgments of conscience is that the principles of moral reasoning are intelligible factors known in universal propositions, while judgments of conscience must fit choices. Choices are unique, individual realities, not only inasmuch as they are made by a certain person (or group) at a certain time and place, but inasmuch as they bear upon a unique performance in a unique situation. True, absolute norms which exclude certain ways of willing hold in every single instance, and so conclusively falsify judgments of conscience which violate them. However, most judgments of conscience cannot be conclusively criticized by any absolute norm. Conscience must judge: “I (or we) ought to do this here and now.” Plainly, it is logically impossible for such a judgment to follow from any set of universal propositions.

11. This point has been emphasized by Thomists, who see clearly that whenever a person makes a judgment of conscience, the choice it guides is a concrete instance of a kind of action, embedded in a unique set of circumstances. In the circumstances, the action might have side effects which should be considered; there might be significant alternatives; and so on. Such factors are morally relevant and cannot be dismissed, and no general norm can anticipate them. Thus, prudence is needed, not to override absolute moral requirements which are known, but to generate the affirmative judgment: This is what I ought to do. For the good person not only avoids evil, but does and pursues the good.

12. This position is acceptable if it is correctly understood. Judgments of conscience are reached by nondeductive reasoning. The final step in this process has two premises. One of these is the specific norm one has developed to guide this choice—often a norm far more complex and richly specified than any of the norms one has on hand as one begins to reflect seriously on a moral problem of a kind not previously considered. The other is a judgment that no morally relevant factor will be overlooked if this specific norm is followed in the present case. The conclusion of this reasoning—the judgment of prudent conscience—directs choice as an instance of the kind characterized by the specific norm one has developed and now ought to follow.

13. Some theories of prudence suggest that this final step in moral reflection utterly defies articulation. This is only partly so. In deliberating together, two or more people often reason to a single judgment of conscience concerning what they ought to do cooperatively. In deliberating, they can rationally articulate everything involved in the proposal they are considering which affects its morality. Still, as experience teaches, there is an element which defies complete analysis in ending reflection and reaching a judgment of conscience. This element is in the judgment that reflection has proceeded sufficiently—that no further effects, possibilities, or aspects of the action which should be considered will come to light if reflection is widened or a decision delayed. Still, if a judgment of conscience is made, nothing nonrational enters into its moral characterization of the choice. Rather, the judgment of conscience simply determines the choice under consideration to be an instance of the moral norm—usually a richly specified one—which makes it morally acceptable or not.

14. After moral reflection is terminated, one sometimes discovers something which would have led to a different judgment of conscience. This happens in two ways. Sometimes errors in the reasoning which led to the judgment of conscience come to light. But if the reasoning was sound, nothing will overturn the judgment of conscience except the discovery of additional moral determinants which should have been taken into account. Morality primarily is in willing; willing bears upon goods one understands; so unique features of a situation only make a moral difference insofar as they affect these moral determinants. Had the moral determinants taken into account been different, they would have led to a different, more specific norm. Nothing could lead to a different judgment of conscience in any other way.

15. Thus, Thomists are correct in holding that a prudent judgment must take into account all the circumstances of an action. In reaching judgments of conscience other than those determined by an absolute norm, one cannot directly settle the choice’s moral character by treating it as an instance of a norm one has on hand. One must first ask if there are not other morally relevant factors in the situation.

16. However, if the norm one uses in making a judgment of conscience really is adequate to a given situation, no matter how complex, then the same norm would be true in any other situation whose intelligible features were exactly the same. If all the ways in which will is related to basic human goods are the same in two actions, then the actions will be morally the same no matter how greatly they differ in other respects.

17. This explanation of the possibility and limits of conclusive criticism of all judgments of conscience also helps account for the creativity of people who are prudent in the genuine sense. Such persons go beyond legalism. They not only conform to recognized norms but direct all their lives toward integral human fulfillment. To do this, in many situations they refuse to choose among the options which initially present themselves. Instead, examining factual possibilities more thoroughly and extensively in the light of human goods and moral principles, they think of new options. Proposing new approaches and plans, they circumvent the seeming necessity of choosing either an immoral or humanly repugnant option. Thus, they think out a new option in better conformity with their will toward integral human fulfillment and choose it as an instance of a new specific norm. They generate this norm in the very process of prudent deliberation which fashions the action to fulfill it.

People who talk about the need to allow for exceptions in “unique situations” always offer examples, and these examples lend their argument some plausibility. But the examples are effective only because of some intelligible features which in principle can occur over and over.

For instance, a woman in a concentration camp committed adultery with a guard in order to become pregnant, since pregnancy would gain her release and allow her to return to her family. The action described is a specific kind, potentially repeatable ad infinitum. It is not a morally unique act in a unique situation. The example is proposed with the information that the woman’s name was “Bergmeier,” that the concentration camp was Russian, that the woman already had three children named “Ilse,” “Paul,” and “Hans,” and so forth. None of this is relevant, nor does it do anything for the rational plausibility of the argument.3 (The particular details do stir one’s sympathy.)

What makes the argument plausible is nothing unique, but something specific. This woman was not committing adultery in violation of the third and/or sixth modes of responsibility (which probably usually is the case); one might plausibly argue she is not committing adultery in violation of the fifth mode of responsibility (fairness), since she rightly presumed that her husband would be pleased that she acted as she did. Usually adultery does violate fairness; it clearly is wrong to the extent that it does.

The question is: In the very specific kind of case exemplified by Mrs. Bergmeier’s act, do any of the modes of responsibility exclude what she did? If so, which human good is at stake here?4

3. See Joseph Fletcher, Situation Ethics: The New Morality (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966), 164–65.

4. Paul Ramsey, “The Case of the Curious Exception,” in Norm and Context in Christian Ethics, ed. Gene H. Outka and Paul Ramsey (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1968), 74–93, argues the same point (although he also makes several incidental points with which I do not entirely agree). Regardless of one’s moral theory, if a specific moral norm is to admit justifiable exceptions, then there must be some feature which is morally relevant on which the specification can be based rationally. But if there is such a feature, then one really is articulating another specific norm, which might not in fact apply to many instances, but still is logically universal—that is, open to any instance of an indeterminate set which meets the intelligible condition that grounds the justified exception.