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Chapter 7: Natural Law and the Fundamental Principles of Morality

Question F: How is the first principle of morality to be formulated?

1. The basic principle of morality might best be formulated as follows: In voluntarily acting for human goods and avoiding what is opposed to them, one ought to choose and otherwise will those and only those possibilities whose willing is compatible with a will toward integral human fulfillment.

In his encyclical, Populorum progressio, Paul VI teaches about authentic development. It must include the development of each person, the whole of the person, and every person. Every individual has a personal vocation and is called to self-fulfillment in it. Each one is responsible for his or her own self-fulfillment, for all are endowed with intelligence and freedom. Moreover, self-development “is not left up to man’s option. Just as the whole of creation is ordered toward its Creator, so too the rational creature should of his own accord direct his life to God, the first truth and the highest good. Thus human self-fulfillment may be said to sum up our obligations.”27

Understood in context, “human self-fulfillment may be said to sum up our obligations” expresses the same propositional formulation of the first principle of morality as that stated here. For the Pope stresses that this harmonious integration of human nature is destined for a higher fulfillment in Christ, a fulfillment in divine life; that human fulfillment must be both personal and social; and that development must not only increase material goods, but serve the values of life, knowledge, culture, friendship, love, mutual respect, peace, prayer, contemplation, faith, and loving unity in Christ.28

Moreover, although Paul VI did not explicitly deal with proportionalism in Populorum progressio, the way he later dealt with the question of birth regulation made it clear that “human self-fulfillment may be said to sum up our obligations” as he understood it, excluded a proportionalist conception of human good and moral action. For many who criticized Populorum progressio and some who misread it believed the Pope would have to approve contraception as a method of population control if he were serious about international economic development. Instead, the following year he issued Humanae vitae.

There he takes note of real and widespread concern about the rapid growth of population,29 but firmly teaches that “it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it” and cites St. Paul (see Rom 3.8) on this point.30 Moreover, explaining that the Church has no choice about teaching the moral law, since she did not make and cannot change it, Paul VI confidently explains that in reaffirming the teaching on contraception he is acting for the fulfillment indicated in Populorum progressio as a principle by promoting the creation of a truly human civilization, defending the dignity of husband and wife, and helping men and women live up to their calling as children of God.31

2. To the first principle of practical reasoning, Good is to be done and pursued, this first moral principle adds a reference to choice. While the first principle of practical reasoning underlies even spontaneous, intelligent acts where no choice is needed, the first moral principle comes into play only when a choice must be made. Thus, the first moral principle underlies the differentiation of moral responsibility, for one can will otherwise than it directs.32 Moreover, in referring to human goods, the first moral principle envisages them not merely as constituting diverse possible fields of action but as together comprising the stuff of integral human fulfillment. The ideal of integral human fulfillment is that of a single system in which all the goods of human persons would contribute to the fulfillment of the whole community of persons.

In general, goodness is in fullness of being—that is, in realization of potentialities by which one is open to further and fuller realization of potentialities. This general notion of goodness also applies in the moral domain. By freely chosen human acts one determines oneself; in choosing one settles the thrust of one’s own will. Moral goodness is in choices which not only lead to some participation in particular human goods—as all choices do—but which maintain a constant disposition toward all human possibilities. In other words, moral goodness is characteristic of choices in which one avoids unnecessary human self-limitation.

Apart from faith, humankind cannot know that integral human fulfillment is possible, and faith teaches that this possibility can be realized only by the divine act of re-creating all things in Jesus (see Eph 1.3–10; Col 1.15–20). However, reason does not exclude the possibility of integral human fulfillment, and a generous and reasonable love of human goods will lead one to act in a way compatible with this ideal. In so acting, some degree (and a concretely expanding degree) of human sharing in goods will be achieved and openness to integral fulfillment will be maintained; at the same time, unnecessary self-limitation will be avoided.

3. Integral human fulfillment is not individualistic satisfaction of desires; it is the realization of all the human goods in the whole human community. But in the course of human history—even in the course of each person’s life—new dimensions of human goods unfold and new possibilities of serving them emerge. Moreover, the human community is not some limited group, but all human persons, past, present, and future. Thus, integral human fulfillment is an ideal corresponding to total human responsibility. Like the ideal of perfect love, it is something toward which one can work but which one can never reach by human effort. In other words, “integral human fulfillment” does not refer to a definite goal to be pursued as a concrete objective of cooperative human effort.

4. The guidance which the ideal of integral human fulfillment offers to choice is to avoid unnecessary limitation and so maintain openness to further goods. True, here and now one must pursue this or that; but one who chooses in a morally right way cares no less for the goods involved in the alternative not chosen. Constant openness to these goods is important for one’s future choices, for one’s attitude toward other people’s choices, and for one’s readiness to accept a share in divine life, which includes in a higher mode all the created goods of human persons.

5. This formulation and the one proposed by Vatican II (discussed in E above) are very close. The Council adds theological specifications: a reference to eternal law (“the divine plan and will”) and a reference to the complete fulfillment in Jesus to which humankind actually is called (“their total vocation”). The present formulation makes reference to the general principles of practical reasoning based on the many human goods. Thus the Council’s formulation, which benefits from the light of faith, presupposes and adds to the formulation proposed here, which can be understood by anyone, even without faith.

6. Because it is basic, the first principle of morality cannot be proved directly by being deduced from prior truths. However, several considerations indirectly support this formulation.

7. First, it shows the basis of morality in human goods. Proportionalism also wishes to show this, but the subordination of moral reflection to specific objectives, inherent in proportionalism, is here avoided. So, too, is the need to do the impossible by measuring and comparing goods as proportionalism requires. At the same time, the upright person is directed to remain open to goods beyond all the ways they can be embodied in courses of action which one could now pursue or even imagine. In short, the basic moral standard articulated here gives their due to aspects of morality which proportionalists tend to misconstrue.

A sound, nonproportionalist principle of morality will indicate how to make choices in such a way as to shape oneself in the light of the whole range and depth of the human possibilities opened up by the intelligible goods. The upright person will maintain openness to goods beyond his or her understanding of them as they are embodied in presently possible—or even presently thinkable—courses of action. This fact has two important implications for Christian morality.

First, the moral principle which shapes the life of every person of good will does not limit human fulfillment beforehand to a specific set of human satisfactions—for example, to the pattern of the “good life” taken for granted by the conventional morality of one’s particular culture. An upright Greek was not limited to the ideal of wisdom proposed by Greek philosophy, but was open to the wisdom of the cross (see 1 Cor 1.18–25). An upright American is not limited to the ideal of prosperity and success which is proposed as the middle-class standard of the American way of life. Hence, the moral principle to which every person of good will adheres maintains openness to goods beyond everything human persons can ask or imagine, including openness to the heavenly fulfillments which are promised by God, fulfillments both in human and in divine goods: life and more abundant life (see Jn 10.10).

Second, sound morality can make sense of choices which have the character of commitments. By a commitment one determines oneself in reference to the basic human goods. By a basic commitment one accepts a certain place in the community of persons striving together to realize and share in the whole range of human possibilities. But commitments go beyond any particular objective; indeed, they provide one with the power to creatively think out objectives which one without commitment would not even consider. (Commitments are discussed more fully in 9‑E.)

Choice inevitably involves a certain self-limitation. One actualizes one’s possibilities through choice only by pursuing some and setting aside others. Choices made according to a principle which is logically independent of any particular objectives (any determinant set of wants) do not involve any self-limitation arising from the set of wants one happens to have at a given time. Choices made on a principle which logically depends upon the specification of goods by particular objectives do involve self-limitation by the limits of the set of wants one happens to have at a given time.

Thus, the choice to marry is inevitably self-limiting in excluding other possible partners. But if the choice is an upright commitment, one does not limit oneself to satisfying the specific desires one happens to have at the time. Thus one can continue to carry out the commitment as its meaning unfolds and one’s desires change. But if the choice is not really a commitment, one limits oneself to carrying out a definite project. When marriage is found to be different from what one expected or when one’s desires change, the project will be abandoned as too demanding or as pointless.

8. A second consideration which indirectly supports this formulation concerns the fact that many in the Catholic natural-law tradition have said the standard of morality is right reason (e.g., S.t., 1–2, q. 18, a. 5; q. 19, a. 3; q. 71, a. 2). The present formulation articulates what is meant by “right reason.” Even the immoral person reasons; one cannot violate conscience without reasoning to form it and rationalizing to violate it. But a morally upright person is reasonable in a way an immoral person is not (see S.t., 1–2, q. 56, a. 3; q. 57, a. 4). He or she consistently follows reason, acknowledges all the goods, and accepts the openness of human possibility. By contrast, those who are immoral must curb reason and bring it into conformity with their choices; they must ignore or deny the openness of human possibility, in order to justify arbitrary limitations on human fulfillment.

9. Third, this view of the foundation of morality is reinforced by considering various ideas of moral evil with which it is consistent. Thus, moral evil is thought of as sin, as the violation of the rights of others, as a kind of practical folly, and as a sort of self-mutilation. It is sin (alienation from God), because it detracts from love of the goods God loves and prevents us from being open to him. It is likely to violate our neighbor’s rights (or at least to lessen his or her well-being, which is unfriendly even when not unjust) inasmuch as it detracts from a will to integral human fulfillment, which includes our neighbor’s good. It is surely a sort of folly, since it aims at unnecessarily restricted goods, while reason prescribes integral human fulfillment as self-evidently worthwhile, and to ignore in one’s action the clear claim of reason is folly. And it plainly is a kind of self-mutilation, inasmuch as it detracts from the existential fullness of human persons who choose wrongly, since by such choices they determine themselves to be less—and to be less open to goods—than they might be.

The correctness of what has been said about the first principle of morality can be confirmed by considering in greater detail its relationship to the conceptions of immorality.

First, rejection of God. Immoral action is considered sinful. A genuinely religious attitude acknowledges that human purposes and possibilities have meaning which transcends their particular significance for the individual—meaning related in some way to God’s goodness. However, when one chooses in a way incompatible with integral human fulfillment, one asserts in effect that the good is simply what one chooses, and that “goodness” means no more than what one causes it to mean by one’s choices. To choose immorally is to set up an idol. By contrast, choices which conform to the primary principle of morality—a will to integral human fulfillment—leave open the possibility that the meaning of human life is not limited to what persons actually choose and attain, but derives at least in part from humankind’s greater possibility of fulfillment in Jesus. Even without faith, one could see that immoral choice implicitly assumes that goods have no higher principle which sustains them when they are not chosen; morally upright choice, guided by the principle of a will toward integral human fulfillment, affirms (at least, in an implicit way) the reality of a more-than-human ground of human possibilities.

Second, violation of community. When one chooses a possibility which is not compatible with integral human fulfillment, one in effect makes a statement not only about the value for oneself inherent in the alternatives but about one’s determination as to their value in themselves. If, then, others confronted with similar alternatives make a different choice, it follows that they have chosen wrongly. Presumably an individual who chooses wrongly is either stupid or immoral. Thus, in making an immoral choice, one inherently creates conflict between oneself and others who make different (morally right or wrong) choices. By contrast, one who chooses rightly, because he or she maintains a constant will toward integral human fulfillment, is also able to acknowledge the reasonableness and decency of others who make other choices consistent with the same basic moral standard. Morally upright people genuinely appreciate the value of diversity; they rejoice in the richer community it brings about, since this richer community is a better approach to the ideal: integral human fulfillment.

Third, unreasonableness in action. If one chooses a possibility which is not compatible with integral human fulfillment, one deafens oneself to an appeal to which no one can possibly be deaf, because it comes from within oneself. It is necessary to deny the reality of that of which one is perhaps all too aware—since it is part of oneself. To put the point abstractly: In choosing immorally, one treats as nongood (or as less good than it seemed) what is not chosen, but what is not chosen had a chance to be chosen only because one recognized in it and was attracted by the good it offered. Here there is a kind of inconsistency which is not logical contradiction, but which is unreasonableness in action.

Fourth, self-mutilation. When we are confronted with a choice, each possibility expresses something in us reaching out for realization. In any choice, something inevitably goes unrealized. But if one chooses a possibility which is not compatible with integral human fulfillment, some aspect of the self is suppressed and denied. It is told in effect not only that it is not going to be satisfied here and now, but that it is in principle not entitled to the satisfaction of a part of the self sharing in the dignity of the whole. When one chooses thus, part of one’s personality is alienated.

27. Paul VI, Populorum progressio, 59 AAS (1967) 263–65; The Papal Encyclicals, 275.16, with introductory material, 275.13–15.

28. Ibid., AAS 265–68, 278; 275.17–21, 42.

29. Paul VI, Humanae vitae, 60 AAS (1968) 482; The Papal Encyclicals, 277.2.

30. Ibid., AAS 491; 14.

31. Ibid., AAS 494–95; 18.

32. It must be remembered that freedom primarily means self-determination and that conscience in the genuine sense is a grasp upon truth. Hence, responsibility primarily is for oneself and for the possible goods one can help to realize; only derivatively is it to anyone, and even then primarily to oneself, insofar as one’s free choices are self-determining. See Karol Wojtyla, The Acting Person, trans. Andrzej Potocki, ed. Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1979), 169–74. Much recent religious ethics, in stressing responsibility, has sought to transcend legalism, but by taking responsibility-to (God) as basic has failed to do so, and at the same time by softening the sharp edges of obligation legalistically conceived has introduced an element of subjectivism, sometimes articulated in a theory that moral norms themselves are to be generated by a communal exercise of proportionalist rationality—in other words, are merely human laws. See Albert R. Jonsen, Responsibility in Modern Religious Ethics (Washington: Corpus Books, 1968), 173–228, for a development of this line of thought on the basis of a summary of various ideas of responsibility in Karl Barth, Bernard Häring, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, H. Richard Niebuhr, and Robert Johann.