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Chapter 4: Some Mistaken Theories of Moral Principles


Today, as in the past, a number of mistaken theories of moral principles enjoy currency.

One is that judgments of conscience are essentially expressions of feelings. This has a certain plausibility, since disagreements over moral questions always concern what ought to be, not what is, so that it can seem as if morality itself is a matter of taste. But such a view rules out moral reflection, moral teaching, and even reasoned dissent. Moreover, it is incompatible with Catholic faith because it confuses superego with conscience. The difficulties, by no means insuperable, in settling moral disputes reflect the special character of moral principles—that they are neither matters of fact nor logical requirements—but do not show that there are no moral truths.

Again, it is said that judgments of conscience cannot be derived from any general principle. This reduces conscience to isolated acts of insight, sometimes thought to be divinely inspired. It is true that people of mature conscience do make immediate moral judgments and that people generally reason without being aware of doing so. But neither fact supports a view of conscience as intuition or inspiration. Besides being theologically unacceptable, this theory in effect takes away from human beings their ability to act humanly and radically undermines community.

Another theory has it that moral norms are in effect only if they are validated by personal choices, either one’s own individual decisions of principle or acts of consent to social policy. This, too, has a certain plausibility, since moral norms make no practical difference in one’s life unless one is willing to be guided by them, and moral principles do resemble laws in some ways. However, while it is true that one can assume or not assume some duties by choice, one cannot do away with the duties one really has merely by refusing to acknowledge them. A moral norm which is ignored or violated remains a moral truth.

According to yet another view, moral principles are established by God’s arbitrary choice. They are as they are, but they could be different; they are not truths but commands. It is certainly true that God’s will ought to be followed. But faith provides a cogent reason for doing so: that he is guiding us to our true good. By his wisdom he makes us what we are and so determines the requirements for our fulfillment. Moral norms, rather than being arbitrary demands made upon us by God, are truths about how to act in ways that are humanly good.

Cultural relativism is another mistaken view of moral principles. According to this account, moral principles are expressions of conditions for the survival and more or less satisfactory functioning of particular societies; they vary as these conditions vary from society to society. This, however, confuses social facts (what various societies actually do require) with true moral norms. It removes all basis for moral criticism of society. And it is contrary to the Christian awareness of the human condition, as fallen and redeemed, and the transcultural character of the Church.

The view which may be called “scholastic natural-law theory” holds that moral principles are laws of human nature: Moral goodness or badness can be discerned by comparing possible actions with human nature to see whether or not they conform to the requirements which nature sets. Nature does indeed have a certain normativity, from which certain requirements follow: for instance, the laws of diet. But this theory must be rejected because it proceeds by a logically illicit step—from human nature as a given reality to what ought and ought not to be chosen, from what is in fact to what morally should be. Scholastic natural-law theory’s use of nature as a norm helps explain the negativism and minimalism of classical moral theology. What does not conform to human nature can be absolutely forbidden, but what does conform cannot be absolutely required.

This critique indicates what an adequate theory of moral principles must show: against a theory of moral feelings, how conscience is a judgment; against intuitionism, how moral reflection starts from principles and proceeds by reasoning; against a personal-choice theory, how moral principles and norms are objective; against a divine command theory, how norms are truths; against cultural relativism, how norms are more than social facts; against scholastic natural-law theory, how norms guide persons to act for human fulfillment.