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Chapter 9: The Voluntary: What Moral Norms Bear Upon

Question E: What are the special characteristics of commitments?

1. The word “commitment” has many meanings. In the sense in which it is used here, commitments are among the large choices described previously (2‑G). Here commitment will be explained more fully and its special voluntariness will be clarified. The act of faith, marriage promises, religious vows, oaths of allegiance, a decision to reform one’s life—these are examples of commitments.10

2. Commitments bear directly upon goods of the existential domain. One commits oneself in view of religion, justice and friendship, practical reasonableness and authenticity, and/or one’s own self-integration. Since these are interrelated, commitments can bear upon all at once. Moreover, since existential goods are understood practically as possible forms of harmony in personal and interpersonal relationships, one commits oneself both to a particular person or persons, and to some goods which will be shared.

Many of the interesting characteristics of commitments depend upon the goods of domains other than the existential which provide a common substance for the personal and interpersonal relational harmonies of the existential domain. For instance, the commitment of Christian faith has certain characteristics which arise from its specific relationships to life and truth. Marriage has characteristics which follow from the fact that this type of companionship makes possible a service to new life impossible by any other cooperation.

3. Ordinarily, in making a commitment, one initially makes only a symbolic gesture toward realizing the goods to be shared. Their fuller realization will depend on making and carrying out many additional choices consistent with the commitment. Still, the commitment also is a choice, and one has the same general sort of experience in making it as in making other, lesser choices (see, e.g., Jos 24.14–28).

4. At the time the commitment is made, it is impossible to foresee precisely what observing it will require; the concrete implications unfold only as it is lived out. Even at the outset, however, the commitment excludes certain choices which might otherwise be acceptable. In this way, one marks out negatively the good which will be creatively realized by living out the commitment, continually reaffirming it, and growing in it. When, for example, a couple marry, they do not—for they cannot—know what life together will be like. Only in living their married life will they creatively unfold the reality of this sort of friendship in their particular case. But even though they cannot fully understand marital love in advance, from the beginning they can grasp the meaning and wrongness of adultery. By pledging fidelity they are not choosing negatively. Rather, they are affirming, in the only way they can, the yet-to-be-conceived, unique good of their life together.

5. Thus, to make a commitment is not simply to decide upon a long-range goal for oneself. In pursuing a definite goal, however long range, one can follow a method for selecting and using proportionate means, and can measure progress toward the goal. In carrying out a commitment, one cannot proceed efficiently—for example, there is no recipe for making a good marriage. One who faithfully serves a commitment continues to discover new depths in the good—growth in marital love leads to a corresponding enrichment of the ideal—which is always being realized yet never becomes exhausted. Service of any morally upright commitment is a gift of oneself, and the fulfillment one receives in service is a merited response to this gift. Such fulfillment must be distinguished from the good one achieves by successfully pursuing any definite goal.11

6. Although making a commitment is not choosing a long-range goal, commitments do organize one’s life somewhat as goals do. Commitments can require or exclude choices not only of particular actions but also of goals. Moreover, commitments themselves differ in scope. Some bear upon more human goods than others, and some are to a wider community of persons than others. A more inclusive commitment will shape a greater part of one’s life. Morally mature persons make some basic commitment which organizes their entire life, including all other commitments and goals. Morally upright mature persons at least implicitly establish a relationship with all other human persons and with God. (This point was treated in 8‑I.)

7. One who has made a commitment faces the realm of possibilities in a new way. Before, he or she was limited to possibilities which suggested themselves and so, usually, to lines of action which others had set and followed. For the creativity of a person without commitments is in respect to thinking or performance, but not in respect to the existential goods themselves. Having made a commitment, however, one is now in a position to reflect upon the goods to which one has committed oneself and upon one’s powers in relation to all possible ways of serving those goods. In short, a person with a commitment can think of altogether new ways of acting in the service of goods and realizing them in the context of the commitment.

Thinking creatively about how to realize goods to which one is committed is extremely important in living a Christian life. Very often, the only apparent possibilities are the alternatives of committing a sin or accepting some very bad consequences. One who is without commitments and creative reflection based on them is likely to use this common occurrence as an argument for proportionalism. A person faithful to commitments very often (not always) can find possibilities no one else would have dreamed of. Love finds a way. This is one reason why the lives of saints are more varied and original than the lives of sinners.

8. The freedom of choice with which one makes a commitment pervades what one does in carrying it out. Often, even creative activity in the service of commitments requires no further choice. Caring, one looks for a way to help; love finds a way, and one takes the way love has found. Such actions, generated by commitments, are no less free and morally responsible than those which carry out additional acts of choice. When one acts spontaneously but willingly under a commitment, even without a further act of choice, one is acting freely, with the freedom of the commitment itself.

9. Unfortunately, this is as true of sinful commitments as virtuous ones. One who persists in sin and acts spontaneously but willingly to carry out a sinful commitment—for example, an ongoing adulterous relationship—is responsible for further sinful acts, even if these are done without any additional choice. The freedom of the unrepented sin persists in the life one knowingly lives in accord with it. This kind of voluntariness, here called “executive willing,” is discussed in G below.

10. The conception of commitment, as distinct from acceptance of a long-range goal, has hardly been analyzed up to now. However, some contemporary philosophical work points in this direction. See, for example, Charles Fried, An Anatomy of Values: Problems of Personal and Social Choice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970), 87–101, on the concept of “life plan” and life as an ordered set of rational acts; Gabriel Marcel, Creative Fidelity, trans, Robert Rosthal (New York: Noonday Press, 1964), 104–19, for the notion that the life of a person is a unique act; John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971), 407–16, for the idea of life plans, and 548–67, for arguments against reducing the human good to a single dominant goal.

11. In an earlier work, the points being made here about commitment were made by distinguishing between “second level” and “third level” action, and between contractual and communitarian relationships: Germain Grisez and Russell Shaw, Beyond the New Morality: The Responsibilities of Freedom, rev. ed. (Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1980), 8–9, 16–23, 30–32, and 45–50. Gabriel Marcel clearly develops the distinction between commitment and setting objectives, although he uses different terminology. See, for example, Being and Having: An Existential Diary (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), 154–74; The Mystery of Being, vol. 1, Reflection and Mystery (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1960) 182–270.