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Chapter 10: From Modes of Responsibility to Moral Norms


The modes of responsibility are normative principles but not specific moral norms. It is necessary to see how specific norms are drawn from the modes of responsibility.

All the modes exclude unreasonable grounds of acting, and all embody the same first principle of morality. To this extent, all have normative force in the same way. But their normative force also differs, since different norms exclude different nonrational motives (laziness, unreasonable partiality, and so on), and violations dispose one differently toward integral human fulfillment. Similarly, although all of the modes bear upon choices, they do so in different ways—some demanding appropriate acts, others forbidding inappropriate ones, and still others doing both.

Specific moral norms can be derived, first, by considering the voluntariness involved in the kind of action under consideration in relation to relevant basic human goods, then considering the moral determination which the first principle of morality and the modes of responsibility indicate for such volition; from these two premises one deduces the moral determination of that kind of action.

Most specific moral norms nevertheless admit of exceptions (are not absolute). This is so because most norms are open to further specification by the same principles—basic human goods and modes of responsibility—from which they were derived. It is true, for instance, that promises ought to be kept; but one is justified in breaking a promise—for instance, if keeping it would involve violating the eighth mode. However, some moral norms are absolute—that is, an already-given determination settles a kind of action as morally wrong.

Proportionalism is not needed to account for nonabsolute moral norms. Such norms are simply those which can be specified further, with the result that the moral determination changes. But this does not come about by some proportionalist weighing of goods and bads to ascertain the greater good or lesser evil; rather, it is dictated by the basic human goods and the modes of responsibility, which generated the norm in the first place.

Some judgments of conscience can be criticized conclusively by absolute moral norms. Others cannot, but the method of deriving norms described here is adequate for criticizing these as well. This is so because all the morally relevant features of the unique acts which conscience judges are found among the principles from which specific norms are derived. Thus, if a judgment of conscience is defective, its defect can be discovered and rectified only by developing a more fully specified norm which is adequate to the situation.

What bridges the gap between a fully specified norm (which still is logically universal) and a judgment of conscience (which is logically singular) is a judgment that all the moral determinants in the situation have been sufficiently considered, and one may proceed in this situation by treating one’s choice as an instance of a specific moral type. This judgment—that reflection has gone far enough—defies articulation and so requires prudence. Likewise, the prudent person often solves difficult moral problems by thinking of new options, which fulfill new specific norms corresponding to them and conform better than any of the options initially available to a will toward integral human fulfillment.

All of the modes apply to those acts of a person which have an effect upon others. Duties are responsibilities which one person or group has toward another or others. Arising from diverse modes, duties differ as they do. Many are not absolute; others are. Some exist prior to any choice and can be called “natural duties.” But others (“positive duties”) arise from one’s own commitments and/or the decisions of authorities.

Rights are not separate entities. Rather, right and duty are the same reality, “right” signifying its bearing upon the person or group affected by the action which the duty determines. Rights also are both natural and positive, absolute and nonabsolute. But they are not basic moral principles. They are intelligible only in terms of duties, and duties must be reduced to moral principles—to human goods and the modes of responsibility.

The actions of groups are governed by the same moral principles as those of individuals. It is true of course that the acts open to individuals and to groups are not the same; thus there are some specific norms which apply only to individuals and some which apply only to groups. If, however, a certain kind of action is always wrong for any individual, it is always wrong for any group. The notion that “reasons of state” justify a nation in doing whatever is necessary to survive and maintain public order is simply an instance of proportionalist rationalization. Similarly, the idea that individuals can be sacrificed for the common good of society, much as one amputates a diseased limb from a body, is based on a notion of the state as a quasi-organic whole. But this view of the state is false, and the common good, which is defined in terms of moral principles, cannot justify violating any of the modes of responsibility.