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Chapter 7: Natural Law and the Fundamental Principles of Morality

Question H: How are the modes of responsibility related to the virtues?

1. Much that Scripture and Christian teaching say about morality is cast in the language of virtues. Furthermore, the normative content of statements about virtues can be organized and clarified by the modes of responsibility. Hence, an explanation of the relationship between the modes of responsibility and the virtues will be helpful.

2. The modes of responsibility are, to repeat, propositions which specify the first principle of morality. They are understood and generate judgments of conscience prior to choice. Thus, they are present in the thinking of the child who first chooses with or against conscience, and they remain present in the thinking of immoral people as long as they are aware of the moral truth they violate.

3. Like the modes of responsibility, virtues are not concerned with specific kinds of acts. Virtues are aspects of personality as a whole when all the other dimensions of the self are integrated with morally good commitments (see 2‑I). Commitments establish one’s existential identity; a whole personality integrated with a morally good self is virtuous. Since such a personality is formed by choices which are in accord with the first principle of morality and the modes of responsibility, the virtues embody the modes. In other words, the modes of responsibility shape the existential self of a good person, this self shapes the whole personality, and so good character embodies and expresses the modes.

As was explained (5‑A), goodness is a realization of potentialities which tends to further and fuller realization; badness is in a realization of potentialities which blocks further and fuller realization. Thus a virtue is a disposition to goodness, and a vice a disposition to badness. Because of the dynamic character of goodness, dispositions defined in terms of it do not lead to habits—that is, to repetitive patterns of behavior of the same sort. Rather, a virtue will dispose one to a constantly changing pattern of behavior, whose only regular feature will be that it realizes potentialities in any given instance in a way consistent with the openness and growth which define goodness. Because immorality is limiting, vicious dispositions do involve elements of habit.35

This point can be illustrated in the nonmoral sphere. (English barely recognizes the existence of nonmoral virtues.) A great painter, such as Monet, had the dispositions to do excellent work in his art. The result of these virtues is not empirically describable constancy in his work, although Monet was limited by certain aspects of his style and techniques, which can be described. Rather, the effect of the artistic virtues of Monet was that his performance continued to improve and his works continued to show unexpected freshness and originality.

4. Discussion of virtues is thus helpful in describing what is required by the various modes. Furthermore, one who understands the virtues sees the essential point of being morally good, since good action of itself makes one virtuous, and being virtuous signifies fulfillment of the person with respect to the existential goods.

5. Insofar as character is a unified whole, distinct virtues are not separate entities but only aspects of a good person. They, and their corresponding vices, can therefore be distinguished in various ways. In chapter eight, the modes of responsibility will be used for this purpose. Furthermore, since the modes correspond to the Beatitudes, as chapter twenty-six will explain, a discussion of the virtues in the framework provided by the modes escapes the limitations of a conventional, worldly morality.

6. During the classical period of moral theology, some theologians, reacting against too narrow a view of human acts and too minimalistic an understanding of moral norms, called for an ethics of virtue rather than law. As the preceding explanation of the relationship between virtues and modes of responsibility makes clear, however, virtues do not provide a normative source distinct from propositional principles such as the modes and the completely specific norms they generate (cf. S.t., 1–2, q. 51, a. 1; q. 94, a. 3; 2–2, q. 47, a. 6). The account given here and above (2‑I) makes it clear that there is no dichotomy between propositional moral principles, the choices which realize them existentially, and the virtues which body them out in the personality as a whole. Chapter twenty-six will show the even more intimate relationship between specifically Christian modes and virtues.

Those who wish to emphasize character and the general trend of one’s life, rather than particular human acts, are partly correct. Not all particular acts are of equal significance. Some sins are only venial, and there are various reasons why this is so. Moreover, even mortal sins are not all equally grave, and a mortal sin from which one is quickly converted by God’s grace is less important than the act of faith which maintains the continuity of one’s Christian life.

Theories which emphasize character and the general trend of one’s life nevertheless suffer from a major defect: They fail to realize that character itself—which is one’s virtues or vices as a whole—is chiefly (although not solely) the enduring structure of one’s choices. Choices are self-determinations to do something or other; they are the most central principle in oneself of one’s acts. The enduring, spiritual reality of one’s choices, especially the larger ones which mainly shape one’s identity, is the principle of an integrated moral self. Character simply is this self, regarded as the source of further acts.

Thus, those who wish to emphasize character rather than particular acts are setting up a false dichotomy between them. Character itself essentially is particular choices, and it manifests itself in further particular acts. Of course, one who has a developed character often acts with no need for further choices, since the self is well enough defined by past choices. Most possibilities which suggest themselves or are suggested by other people seem uninteresting or definitely less appealing than lines of action which express one’s character.

35. Although “habit” in Aristotle has a somewhat different meaning than it has in modern psychology, the position taken here is deliberately at odds with Aristotle’s view. Aristotle’s thinking on virtue is mainly to be found in his Nichomachean Ethics. A useful introduction: David Ross, Aristotle (London: Methuen, 1964), 187–234. The notion of the voluntary is a key one for Aristotle and it often is mistakenly confused with that of free choice. On voluntariness, see Nichomachean Ethics iii, 1109b30–1111b3. In fact, Aristotle’s voluntariness is consistent with soft determinism, and some who hold that position use Aristotle to support their claim that free choice is unnecessary for moral responsibility. In treating virtue, Aristotle stresses certain features which moral dispositions have in common with habit—for example, that it is acquired by repeated acts. Actually, the repetition of acts is important only for the secondary aspect of virtue—that is, the integration of other dimensions of the personality with one’s commitments. Aristotle also was heavily influenced in his analysis and description of virtues by conventional morality. The conventional morality of the time presented a somewhat too definite ideal of human perfection, since it lacked the distinction between what is naturally given and what is existentially possible. The notion of moderation probably was adopted in ethics from medicine, which considered health to consist in a proper balance of organic factors. This model is plausible for the organism. It is not as plausible for the existential self.