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Chapter 7: Natural Law and the Fundamental Principles of Morality

Question E: What is the function of the first principle of morality?

1. The principles of practical reasoning considered so far do not tell us what is morally good. Rather, they generate the field of possibilities in which choices are necessary. At the same time, when choices are made, the goodness of goods is never directly challenged. In making life and death decisions, for instance, no one assumes that life as such is bad and death good; choices to let die or even to kill are instead made on other grounds, such as the limitation of suffering or the justice of punishing criminals. Evidently, then, there is a need for moral norms which will guide choices toward overall fulfillment in terms of human goods.

2. The proportionalism criticized in chapter six is one proposal for guiding choices. But although it appears plausible at first, the suggestion that the right choice is the one which promises the most good (or least evil) is unworkable in principle.24

3. St. Thomas holds that the precepts of charity (see Mt 22.37–39) are the primary and general moral principles of natural law, and the Ten Commandments, which he also thinks belong to natural law, follow from these primary precepts as conclusions from principles (see S.t., 1–2 q. 100, a. 3, ad 1; cf, q. 98, a. 1; q. 99, a. 1, ad 2; q. 99, aa. 2–3).25 As St. Paul points out, love fulfills the law because one who loves certainly avoids harm to any neighbor and seeks the neighbor’s good (see Rom 13.8–10; 1 Thes 5.15).

4. Vatican II also has a formulation of the basic moral principle. The Council notes that human activity is important not only for its results but because it develops persons. The person is more important for what he or she is, than for what he or she has. Justice and friendship are more important than technical progress; the latter is only instrumental. Growth in human fulfillment is more important than any sort of riches. “Hence, the norm of human activity is this: that in accord with the divine plan and will, it should harmonize with the genuine good of the human race, and allow men as individuals and as members of society to pursue their total vocation and fulfill it” (GS 35). This has the merit of reflecting a nonproportionalist understanding of morality. Good human acts will harmonize with—not necessarily realize—the true good of humankind.26 Besides trying to realize some good in fact, one must maintain a dynamic openness to fulfillment, since the total human vocation goes beyond measurable goods.

5. The functions of a first principle of morality are indicated by the formulations proposed by St. Thomas and Vatican II. It must provide the basis for guiding choices toward overall human fulfillment. As a single principle, it will give unity and direction to a morally good life. At the same time, it must not exclude ways of living which might contribute to a complete human community.

6. Still, the formulations of St. Thomas and Vatican II are not entirely satisfactory for purposes of ethical reflection and moral theology. To serve as a standard for practical judgment, a formulation must refer to the many basic human goods which generate the need for choice and moral guidance. In short, there appears to be a need for a formulation which is related more closely to the principles of practical reasoning.

The meaning of Vatican II’s formulation of the norm of human activity is clarified by consideration of the context of this formulation and some of its applications. The Council’s effort in Gaudium et spes is to clarify the service the Church offers to humankind. Hence, the hinge of the treatment is “man himself, whole and entire” (GS 3). It belongs to God’s plan that human persons flourish and build up their world (see GS 34). Hence, objective standards of morality in respect to the regulation of births are based upon the nature of human persons and their acts (see GS 51). “In the socio-economic realm, too, the dignity and total vocation of the human person must be honored and advanced along with the welfare of society as a whole. For man is the source, the center, and the purpose of all socioeconomic life” (GS 63). Productivity must serve integral human fulfullment: Its purpose “. . . must be man, and indeed the whole man, viewed in terms of his material needs and the demands of his intellectual, moral, spiritual, and religious life. And when we say man, we mean every man whatsoever and every group of men, of whatever race and from whatever part of the world” (GS 64).

24. Max Scheler, Formalism in Ethics and Non-Formal Ethics of Values: A New Attempt toward the Foundation of an Ethical Personalism (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1973), 23–30, 42, and 206, proposes a basic moral principle radically opposed to proportionalism, namely, that moral goodness is in a preference for the positive value of a higher ranking. Dietrich von Hildebrand, Christian Ethics (New York: David McKay, 1952), 39–45, rightly objects that this proposal leaves out of account the pivotal distinction between the objectively valuable and the merely subjectively satisfying and is inherently unworkable. Von Hildebrand himself distinguishes (280–81) between moral values as such and other morally relevant values (such as human life itself) and proposes that moral goodness is in appropriate response to morally relevant values together with a will to be morally good. With this position one cannot quarrel, but its circularity makes it an unhelpful way of formulating basic moral principles.

25. In Summa theologiae, 1–2, q. 100, a. 11, c., St. Thomas suggests that there are other very general moral principles on a par with the precepts of charity. It is impossible to tell for certain what he had in mind, but one possibility is that he was aware that the fundamental principle of morality can be formulated in other propositional forms. Another possibility is that he had some inkling of the intermediate principles I call “modes of responsibility,” recognizing, for instance, that the Golden Rule is more basic and obvious than the specific norms of the Ten Commandments.

26. Hans Küng, On Being a Christian, trans. Edward Quinn (New York: Doubleday, 1976), 534, states a criterion of morality: “The morally good then is what ‘works’ for man, what permits human life in its individual and social dimensions to succeed and to work out happily in the long run, when freedom and love are engendered.” On this basis, he affirms proportionalism and reduces all specific norms to hypothetical imperatives: “All these precepts and prohibitions are valid therefore, not however for their own sake, but for the sake of realizing the greater good” (537). Of course, proportionalism is unworkable, so in practice Küng opts for a form of cultural relativism (540–41). In this way Küng attempts to justify his endorsement as normative for the Church of secular conceptions of social organization, women’s rights (including a “right” to ordination), and the new sexual morality for young and old (526–27).