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Chapter 7: Natural Law and the Fundamental Principles of Morality

Question G: What are the primary specifications of the first principle of morality?

1. By itself, the first principle of morality is obviously too general to provide practical guidance. Even if acts are defined in terms of choices and human goods, the principle’s bearing on them remains obscure. Specifications of the first principle are needed. They must have a clear bearing on possible choices, so that the relationship—positive or negative—between the choices and integral human fulfillment will be clear. The principles of practical reasoning in general—for example, Life is a good to be preserved—do not specify the first principle of morality, for each refers only to one basic human good, not to integral human fulfillment.

2. The primary specifications of the first principle of morality are intermediate principles which stand midway between the first principle and the completely specific norms which direct choices. Here these principles are called “modes of responsibility,” because they shape willing in view of the moral responsibility inherent in it. The modes of responsibility specify—“pin down”—the primary moral principle by excluding as immoral actions which involve willing in certain specific ways inconsistent with a will toward integral human fulfillment. An example of a mode of responsibility is the principle of impartiality which the Golden Rule expresses. This and seven other modes will be treated in the next chapter.

The principle of impartiality requires one not to favor oneself and those with whom one is identified by sympathy (for example, those who are near and dear) over others, unless one has a reason for discriminating which would be valid against oneself and those with whom one is identified by sympathy. In other words: “So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them” (Mt 7.12; cf. Lk 6.31). The first principle of morality is specified by the principle of impartiality because the latter is only one intermediate-level moral truth among others. This is obvious because one does not violate the Golden Rule if one chooses wrongly in a way not unfair to anyone else.

The principle of impartiality generates completely specific moral norms such as the following: Parents who act as judges in a game should not favor their own children over other children. This norm is based on the mode of responsibility and the way of willing involved in a particular kind of action. All modes of responsibility work in a similar general way. One must consider the basic human goods involved in a possible action, and see how one responsible for the act would be related by choice (or some other mode of voluntariness) to the goods.

3. A classic explanation of temptation is based on New Testament teaching, interpreted in the light of a particular Christian philosophy of the human person. According to this explanation, emotion and intelligible good compete to shape behavior. Insofar as they are based on sentient nature, emotions are not bad; but they do move us toward very limited fulfillments of our concrete, sentient self as it actually is (see S.t., 1–2, q. 71, a. 2, ad 3). By contrast, left to themselves, intelligent love and unrestricted reason would move us toward integral human fulfillment.

4. Despite having reasons for choosing otherwise, one can choose to follow one’s feelings. The modes of responsibility exclude various ways in which feelings might lead one astray. In other words, if the primary principle of morality articulates what is meant by “right reason,” the modes of responsibility exclude specific ways of acting unreasonably.

St. Paul suggests that there is a law in our members which struggles against the law of the mind (see Rom 7.22–23). Again, he talks of natural passions and desires which must be crucified so that Christians can walk according to the Spirit (see Gal 5.24–25). Denying that God tempts anyone, the Epistle of James points to an inner source of temptation: “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (Jas 1.14). Accepting the position that the activity of reason is the specific perfection of human persons, St. Thomas takes “passion” in such texts to refer to sensuality and the “law of the mind” to refer to the principles of reasonable judgment. According to this view, human persons are tempted because emotion competes with intelligible good for the role of determinant of behavior, and one can choose to allow oneself to be determined by emotion to the detriment of a fully reasonable judgment of conscience.33

If temptation begins from emotion, so does interest in every morally acceptable possibility. Emotions as such are not morally evil; Jesus himself experienced them and was tempted as we are but did not sin (see Heb 4.15). Sin begins only when one freely chooses to satisfy emotion even at the cost of restricting reason. In sinning one excludes from consideration some aspects of human fulfillment which were in view before the wrong choice was made. Thus, in the context of unrepented sin, not only emotion but bad will and rationalization contribute to further temptation.

Someone might object that sometimes people cooly and calmly choose to do what is morally wrong, moved by rational calculation rather than emotion. For instance, merchants sometimes make a policy of cheating customers to improve profits, and military planners sometimes adopt terror tactics to break an enemy’s will to fight.

This objection perhaps assumes that emotions operate only when people are so aroused and disturbed that they do not proceed cooly and calmly. But this is not so. Emotions are operative whenever anyone is concerned with a particular instance of good, whether experienced or imagined. Thus emotions play a role in every human choice, just as inner sensory cognition plays a role in every human thinking process. Normally, the emotional component of action does not call attention to itself; it does so only if it is not entirely integrated or brings about unusual physiological symptoms. Fear is not limited to cases in which a terrified person shakes, stammers, and so on. One who takes care in crossing a busy street also is moved by it.

Merchants who cheat and military planners who use terror usually are carrying out previous immoral commitments. Thus, their current immoral acts express bad will and twisted thinking. But the nonrational appeal of certain goods made possible the initial morally wrong choices and continues to play a role. The good of me and mine has an emotional appeal greater than that of the faceless public and the depersonalized enemy. The goods to be purchased with fraudulent profit or the status quo to be preserved by terroristic force can have emotional appeal greater than that of justice in competition or integrity in defeat.

The role of reason in such cases is clarified by the fact that one invokes against unfairness the rational principle of universalizability and against unprincipled pragmatism the rational noncommensurability of goods. The immoral merchant or military planner will allege their own “realism” against moral “idealism.” Contrary arguments will be set aside by an appeal to unanalyzable feeling, perhaps dignified with the title “common sense” or “the community’s scale of values.”

5. The definite goals people pursue appeal to imagination and emotion, while the intelligible goods to which upright persons are committed do not directly make such an appeal. For example, the goal of sexual satisfaction has an immediate appeal which faithful marital communion lacks. Hence, a temptation to act immorally often takes the form of an impulse to violate or neglect one’s commitments by pursuing some particular goal. One is tempted to subordinate being (interpersonal communion) to having—for example, being a Christian to having the rewards of worldly success, being a husband or wife to having pleasure in an extramarital relationship. All the modes protect commitments in line with integral human fulfillment against such subversion by inappropriate goal seeking.

6. The modes of responsibility take the form of negative propositions. This does not mean that morality itself is negative; the principles of practical reason in general are affirmative, and the first principle of morality calls for openness to integral human fulfillment. Each mode of responsibility simply excludes a particular way in which a person can limit himself or herself to a quite partial and inadequate fulfillment. Their negative form precludes conflict among them. Their demands cannot be incompatible, for one can always simultaneously not make any number of possible choices.

7. People are ordinarily interested in completely specific moral norms, not in the modes of responsibility which generate them. Thus, although the modes are more definite than the first principle of morality, one usually does not think about them by themselves. For this reason, in the history of ethics and moral theology modes of responsibility have not been discussed systematically up to now.

8. If not systematically discussed, however, most have been articulated—for example, as the principle of impartiality is articulated in the Golden Rule (see Mt 7.12; Lk 6.31).34 Many proverbs embody or are based on modes of responsibility. Also at one time or another, almost every one of these modes has been taken by some philosopher as the first principle of morality—an understandable error, since the modes embody the first principle. Finally, as chapter eight will show, there is some basis in Scripture for each mode of responsibility.

The modes of responsibility do not exclude the fulfillment of emotional needs and the pursuit of suitable goals. One’s concrete sentient self is part of one’s whole self; emotional fulfillment is part of integral human fulfillment. However, the demands of feeling and desires for particular goals can be satisfied rightly only insofar as they are included within some intelligible good, and that good, in turn, is chosen compatibly with integral human fulfillment. For example, parental affection should not be satisfied by unreasonable partiality among one’s children, but may be satisfied by carrying out parental responsibilities toward all of them. A desire to obtain rectification of particular injustices should not be satisfied by revolutionary terrorism, but may be satisfied by a campaign of nonviolent resistance to make the truth of the injustice clear to all concerned.

As explained above, the first principle of morality can be formulated in terms of right reason in action. The explanation in the present question further clarifies this formulation of the moral principle, since modes of responsibility exclude various ways of being unreasonable in action. Thus, stated negatively, the first principle is: Do not be unreasonable in acting. The modes of responsibility are: Do not be unreasonable in such and such ways (for instance, by partiality) in acting.

Since the first principle of morality is broader than any one of the modes of responsibility, a moral system based exclusively on one mode would be too loose. For example, the Golden Rule is not adequate as a general principle of morality, for it is exclusively concerned with the way one treats others. One might commit suicide without violating the Golden Rule. Suicide violates a different mode of responsibility. The commendatory saying of Jesus about the Golden Rule (see Mt 7.12) must be understood in context; it summarizes the law and the prophets only as to their moral implications for human interpersonal relationships, not, for instance, as to their implications for our relationship with ourselves.

33. The key text in which St. Thomas takes this view is S.t., 1–2, q. 71, a. 2 (esp. ad 3), where he explains that every vice is against nature inasmuch as it is against reason. The position demands that concupiscence be understood in terms of disordered sensuality, and Thomas understands it thus (S.t., 1–2, q. 82, a. 3; q. 91, a. 6). He interprets Rom 7.22–23 in terms of conflict between disordered sensuality and reason: Super Epistolam S. Pauli ad Romanos Lectura, vii, 4. This view was commonly accepted in classical modern Catholic theology, and the magisterium of the Church often assumed and developed it. See, for example, Leo XIII, Exeunte iam anno, 21 ASS (1888) 327–28; The Papal Encyclicals, 108.10. Yet this view has been challenged: Karl Rahner, S.J., “The Theological Concept of Concupiscentia,” Theological Investigations, vol. 1, God, Christ, Mary and Grace, trans. Cornelius Ernst, O.P. (Baltimore: Helicon, 1961), 347–82. Rahner thinks the opposition is between the whole of desire prior to free decision (a whole both sentient and volitional) and what one becomes as person by this decision; concupiscence is the residue of naturally given desire, morally neutral in itself, undetermined by freedom (368–69). This view also involves a particular philosophy of the human person, one in which what is proper to person as spirit is the dynamism of freedom, while nature is thought of as inert in comparison with spirit’s dynamism toward the transcendent. It seems to me that the data of deliberation (including temptation) and choice (including sin) are covered better by Thomas’ than by Rahner’s philosophy of the person.

34. St. Thomas has no general discussion of modes of responsibility. One finds in his works formulations which might be taken as expressive of the fifth (S.c.g., 3, 117; S.t., 1–2, q. 100, a. 8, ad 1), and perhaps of the seventh and the eighth: One ought not to harm anyone (S.c.g., 3, 129; S.t., 1–2, q. 95, a. 2). Sometimes he moves quite directly from a general principle (love of neighbor) to specific moral norms (the Ten Commandments), as question E explains. But in general the place which would be occupied by modes of responsibility is filled in his general moral theory by the virtues. However, without propositional articulation, the virtues cannot generate specific norms, and so in most of his treatment of specific moral questions, Thomas argues in ways which neither proceed clearly from his general moral theory nor depend essentially upon the concept of virtue, although the division of virtues serves to schematize the treatise (see, e.g., S.t., 2–2, qq. 151–54, where the treatise on sexual ethics is organized in terms of the virtue of chastity, but the arguments—e.g., q. 154, a. 11—are independent both of what he says about the virtue and the moral theory of S.t., 1–2).