TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


Chapter 12: Moral Judgment in Problematic Situations

Question E: How can one resolve a doubt of conscience which arises from the appearance of conflicting responsibilities?

1. Since the first principle of morality is one and the various modes of responsibility are negative, there can be no conflict at the level of moral principles. Faced with an apparent conflict of responsibilities, one should first consider the facts and the relevant norms, to see whether there has been an error in identifying possibilities or in applying moral principles to arrive at specific norms. Usually, apparent conflicts are cleared up by careful reflection.

2. If one has mistakenly assumed a false norm, conflict is likely, and it cannot be resolved until the false norm is corrected. For example, if attaining certain goods or avoiding certain harms is taken to be an unconditional responsibility, there can seem to be a conflict with a norm derived from the eighth mode of responsibility. Excessive attachment to certain goods and failure to rely on divine providence often lead people to think they must do things which are always wrong. In such cases, proportionalism is often invoked to rationalize the wrongdoing.

3. If a person accepts a sinful commitment—for example, a promise to do something wrong—as normative, conflict cannot be resolved until the sinful commitment is set aside. Conflicts will also arise if a person takes received norms simplistically: for example, by reading Scripture without sound, traditional interpretation. Similarly, conflict is inevitable if one erroneously absolutizes rules of conventional morality, etiquette, or law.

Perplexity is the condition of a conscience doubtful about a specific question: Which of these two possibilities, both of which seem wrong, is right? An example is the situation of a child who thinks it wrong to tell on other children and also thinks it obligatory to inform adults that another child is doing something very dangerous, such as playing with matches and gasoline. Since the principles of morality reduce to an ultimate unity, incompatibility between two true moral judgments is not a possible source of perplexity. However, the complexity of some moral issues in the fallen human condition and the limits of moral insight lead to perplexity as a subjective experience.

The experience of perplexity often indicates that one has acted immorally and in doing so created a situation within which no morally good possibilities can be chosen. In such cases, the perplexed individual can resolve the problem only by repenting the immoral act which is at its basis. However, the experience of perplexity also can arise for individuals who are personally upright but are caught within the somewhat false demands of a conventional morality, which has been adapted to the fallen human condition. The child in the example is perplexed because of the false absoluteness which children give to the norm forbidding telling on one another.

4. If no false norm has been assumed, the appearance of conflicting responsibilities arises from the fact that nonabsolute norms have not been sufficiently specified. There are different kinds of cases. In one sort, two definite responsibilities arising from some law or social role—duties in a strict sense—make incompatible demands: They require one, say, to be in two places at the same time. In another sort, a definite responsibility arising from law or one’s social role conflicts, not with another duty in the strict sense, but with some other perceived moral responsibility.

5. When duties in the strict sense conflict, one must bear in mind that fairness is the moral ground of both definite responsibilities. One’s task is therefore to formulate a more specific norm which resolves the conflict in accord with fairness. Sometimes the best one can do is simply to fulfill one or the other of the conflicting duties, choosing between them on the basis of inclination or chance.

6. Similarly, when a duty requires a choice contrary to what a nonabsolute norm would indicate if the requirement of duty did not exist, one must resolve the conflict by formulating a more specified norm in accord with fairness. For example, a person who ought to go to work but who stops to help someone desperately in need of help, even though there is no specific duty to render such help, acts rightly if he or she judges impartially—if, that is, any reasonable and impartial person affected by the behavior would approve what is done. It is necessary to bear in mind in such a case that one’s duties in the strict sense also serve the needs of others and cannot usually be set aside without partiality. If there is doubt, one ought to fulfill one’s definite responsibilities rather than substitute other good works.

7. When duties would require one to do something inconsistent with an absolute norm, the latter prevails. For example, St. Thomas More could not fulfill his family responsibilities without taking what he believed to be a false oath. He rightly judged that, despite the consequences for his family, he should not take the oath. Such cases involve no true conflict of duties, for duty can never require a person to do what is morally evil.

In practice, many conflicts of duties can be avoided by being careful not to overcommit oneself (the second mode of responsibility) and by planning one’s schedule. Incipient conflicts of duties can be forestalled by arranging to fulfill one of them at another time or by another means—for instance, through someone else’s help. Most laws which require the regular fulfillment of a duty at a precise time—Sunday Mass attendance, voting, participation in an academic exercise—carry at least implicit exception clauses. Moreover, in cases of conflict one often can solve the problem by obtaining a permission or dispensation.

Still, there remain certain conflicts. For example, a professor might have a conflict between a professional duty to meet his or her classes, which cannot be taken over by someone else or made up, and a family duty to participate in the funeral of a parent, which would require a day’s absence. (The latter, it is to be noted, is a definite duty, for although it is not prescribed by law, it does pertain to one’s role in the family.) If there were no conflict, it would be wrong to omit either act. Because it is impossible to do both, only one can be morally required.

In cases of this sort, one must be careful not to act with partiality. To avoid unfairness, one must ask oneself how one’s omission of either duty would affect everyone involved, and one must try to put oneself in the place of the various persons or sorts of persons affected. Having done this, one possibility is likely to be identifiable as the proper duty to fulfill. If not, one may blamelessly omit either duty.