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Chapter 8: The Modes of Responsibility Which Specify the First Principle

Question E: What is the fifth mode of responsibility?

1. The fifth mode is this: One should not, in response to different feelings toward different persons, willingly proceed with a preference for anyone unless the preference is required by intelligible goods themselves. Violations occur when, responding to feelings of partiality, one adjusts one’s choices in such a way that one does not act altogether in accord with the possibilities for realizing intelligible goods; that is, in making a choice which affects two or more persons, one subordinates the good of all to the advantage of some. This also obstructs the formation and smooth functioning of community, without which integral human fulfillment is impossible. Instead of proceeding in a manner consistent with a will toward integral human fulfillment, one who acts with partiality settles for an unnecessarily limited fulfillment of certain people.

2. Sometimes one is aware—or could and should be aware—that what one is doing or omitting affects others in ways one would consider unreasonable if the positions of various people involved (perhaps including oneself) were reversed. Still, one is moved to act or deterred from acting—by self-interest, or sympathy (say, toward those near and dear), or antipathy (for instance, toward people different in some way from those one identifies with). This is different from cases in which one makes distinctions among people on a basis which has some intelligible relationship to the action in which one is engaged. It must also be distinguished from fulfilling responsibilities which arise from commitments to particular people—for example, of parents to their own children. Impartiality does not dictate egalitarianism, nor does it detract from the special responsibility which individuals have for themselves and their dependents.

3. Although partiality is often expressed as selfishness, simple egoism is only one form. Possibly more common, and certainly as unreasonable, is allowing one’s choices to be shaped by personal likes and dislikes, jealous love of one’s own family, group prejudices, culturally established patterns of bias, and so on.

4. Philosophical moral theorists have tried to clarify the concept of fairness by investigating the principle of fair rule making, called the “principle of universalizability.” This says that a fair rule is one which can omit proper names and apply equally well to any and all persons who meet its intelligible conditions. Such a rule is not composed on an ad hoc basis to serve partiality in a particular situation.

5. Here are some examples of violations. Somebody accepts favors but always finds excuses when asked to do them. People resent gossip about themselves and their loved ones but gossip freely about others. Professional people give better treatment to more respectable and congenial clients than to others with similar needs and claims to their service. Lawmakers favor powerful interest groups which support them, rather than working for the laws and policies they think best for the people as a whole.

6. The virtuous disposition corresponding to this mode is most appropriately called “fairness”; a person who violates it acts unfairly. Although fairness is an important aspect of justice, justice is a wider concept, since it includes other modes of morally right action toward others (see S.t., 2–2, q. 61; q. 63, a. 1). Often, people who are fair are said to be “disinterested.” They do not lack interests, but in acting on interests they are not motivated by partiality. The vice opposed to fairness is variously called “unfairness,” “bias,” “partiality,” “selfishness,” “favoritism,” “prejudice,” and so on.

7. Divine revelation deepens the foundation for this mode of responsibility even before Jesus by making it clear that human beings all stand in a similar relationship to God, who is fair to all. Humankind is universally weak, helpless, in debt, yet God acts toward this fallen humanity with faithfulness and loving kindness. One desires mercy from God (and from those in power) for oneself and one’s dear ones. The covenant assures such mercy. Hence, under the covenant, fairness tends to demand mercy toward others; there is no clear line between justice and mercy. The Jewish law also rectifies much unfairness common in other conventional moralities.

God has no favorites and accepts no bribes; his people must act in a similar manner (see Dt 10.17–19). The judges especially are enjoined to imitate God in this respect (see 2 Chr 19.7). Jesus is complimented on the same quality (see Mt 22.16; Mk 12.14; Lk 20.21). God is not “unduly partial,” even to the weak (see Sir 35.13). St. Paul repeats the teaching that God plays no favorites (see Rom 2.11; Gal 2.6; Eph 6.9; Col 3.25). James insists on the necessity of fairness, nondiscrimination, and social justice (see Jas 2.1–9; 5.1–6). The prophets often denounce injustice and oppression (see Is 5.7, 23; Jer 22.13, 15; Am 5.7; 6.12); James writes in this tradition.

Frequently in Scripture, “justice” means the rightness of the action of one who fulfills the law. This concept is common to all conventional moralities; people consider someone just if he or she commits no crimes and fulfills all legal obligations. The difference in the biblical context is that one who fulfills the law is being faithful to the covenant, and so fulfills God’s will and can hope for God’s reciprocal faithfulness in keeping his promises. “Justice” used in this sense does not specifically characterize the disposition proper to the fifth mode of responsibility, since law-abidingness can extend to all sorts of responsibilities, and good law presupposes a generally sound moral foundation.

One formulation of the Golden Rule, which undertakes to express this mode of responsibility in an explicit way, is found in the Old Testament: “What you hate, do not do to anyone” (Tb 4.15). An affirmative formulation is found in the Sermon on the Mount: “So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets” (Mt 7.12; cf. Lk 6.31). It sometimes is argued that the affirmative formulation substantially extends the negative one, but whether it does depends upon the precise interpretation one gives the various formulae. As they stand, both can be taken to express the requirement of impartiality, which extends to all actions and omissions.

In establishing the covenant, God acts freely, with no obligation to do so, but rather out of pure generosity and mercy (see Ex 33.19; 34.6–7). Within the context of the covenant, God has assumed obligations which he fulfills out of faithfulness. Yet, the people are unfaithful and God still continues in mercy (see Mi 7.18–20). Eventually it is recognized that only the sinner’s refusal of pardon blocks God’s tender compassion (see Is 9.12, 16; Jer 16.1–13). Mercy extends even to those altogether outside the covenant (see Jon 3.10; 4.2; Sir 18.1–13; Ps 103).

This extension of mercy stretches the terms of the covenant, as it were, and by fairness itself demands that those who experience God’s mercy show mercy also to others (see Is 58.6–11; Job 31.16–23). The sage, Sirach, teaches:

  Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done,
and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray.
  Does a man harbor anger against another,
and yet seek for healing from the Lord?
  Does he have no mercy toward a man like himself,
and yet pray for his own sins? (Sir 28.2–4)
One who has become a recipient of mercy and wishes mercy in the future for his or her own self and friends must also forgive others.

Jesus demands of his followers perfection precisely in this: that they be merciful as the Father in heaven is merciful (see Lk 6.36). The parable of the prodigal son drives home the lesson and justifies Jesus’ associating with sinners (see Lk 15.11–32). The parable of the merciless official—who refuses to forgive a small debt after having been forgiven a great one—makes the same point as that made by Sirach (see Mt 18.23–35).