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Chapter 5: Seeking Moral Truth: Moral Judgment and Problem Solving

Question A: Why Consider Responsibilities with Respect to Moral Truth?

This chapter considers responsibilities which concern the quest for moral truth. Yet everyone naturally knows some moral truth, so that at first it might seem pointless to pursue the quest. Why, then, must one seek to know moral truth? And how can one have choices to make in that quest—choices which must be made responsibly?

In fact, there is no need to seek the moral truth which is known naturally. But even though one naturally knows moral principles, what is to be done in a given situation is not always known. To know that, it is necessary to bring the principles to bear on the possibilities available for choice, and that requires reasoning. But the necessary reasoning does not always occur spontaneously; often it calls for choices.

Prudence facilitates moral reasoning, so that judging rightly what should be done becomes second nature for a thoroughly prudent person. However, prudence is not given by nature; it requires experience and all the moral virtues (see S.t., 1–2, q. 57, a. 4; 2–2, q. 47, a. 15), which are stable dispositions of the will and emotions in line with moral truth. Moreover, because human nature is fallen, redeemed, and called to heavenly glory, the full moral truth needed to guide Christian life can be found only by using the light of the gospel (see CMP, 25.E).

1. To Develop Prudence, One Must Seek to Know Moral Truth

One must pay attention to one’s responsibilities with respect to moral truth in order to fulfill them, and only in fulfilling them does prudence develop. As it does, less and less conscious effort to seek moral truth is required to know what one ought to do.

a) Knowledge of moral truth and moral virtue presuppose each other. A normal adult who is well integrated, well instructed, and holy is prudent, that is, morally wise (see S.t., 2–2, qq. 47–51; CMP, 3.D). Prudent people spontaneously fulfill their responsibilities with respect to moral truth. When hesitation and deliberation occur, any inclination or suggestion to act inappropriately will lose its appeal to them or be set aside easily as soon as it is seen to be inappropriate. Hope for the coming of the kingdom and their own share in it pervades all their motivations, and vocational commitments shape their goals in this life. Very often, the right thing to do will be recognized without much effort, prescribed, willingly accepted in virtue of previous commitments, and so done without any need for a new choice. The choices a prudent person must make are among morally acceptable means, and they are guided by discernment. It follows that prudent persons’ other virtues and their prudent judgments, which attain moral truth, are mutually interdependent. That raises the question: How can children develop prudence and the other virtues?

b) To develop prudence, one should ask God for this gift. Beginning with the infusion at baptism of faith, hope, and charity (see DS 1530/800), the whole of Christian life is the fruit of grace, and moral wisdom and other moral virtues are essential for living this life. Nobody develops prudence and the other virtues without God’s help, which takes many forms, both extraordinary and ordinary. That is why Scripture says: “I prayed, and understanding was given me; I called on God, and the spirit of wisdom came to me” (Wis 7.7–8). Again: “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind” (Jas 1.5–6). Children, of course, are hardly likely to think about “prudence” and “virtue.” But they can pray: “Jesus, teach me what I must do to please you and become like you”; and anyone who says this and really means it is asking in faith for wisdom.

c) People who regularly choose as well as they can develop virtues. Raising children well often is said to be forming them in the virtues. That raises the question: What is meant by forming?

Endowed with the gifts they received at baptism and helped by God’s grace, Christian children whose characters are not yet fully formed can make morally good free choices, that is, they can freely choose in accord with judgments reached by practical reasoning which has been carried out as soundly as possible.1 The practical reasoning of children who are brought up well is likely to be sound, and they also enjoy the advantage that morally good alternatives are presented to them in their most attractive light. But even if a child’s moral reasoning is more or less unsound and his or her moral judgments are sometimes false, the child can make good free choices, which begin the process of developing good character.

While sometimes a child’s judgment concerns only whether or whom to obey, in other cases other moral questions are at issue—for example, how to behave in play situations—and no one involved in the child’s upbringing happens to take much interest in them. How, then, does the child proceed? Helped by good example and instruction, children lacking mature prudence can understand the truth of many negative moral norms, and thus can know very well what they ought not to choose and do. Moral wisdom presupposes such knowledge, since prudent people simply refuse to consider options they know can never be rightly chosen. What moral wisdom supplies, and good children without it lack, is the ability to consider everything, think of new options, and, when two or more survive the test of negative norms, select the one which should be preferred.

When a child lacking mature prudence reaches his or her ultimate judgment prescribing a particular option—“This is what to do”—the judgment often falls short of full moral truth; a different option, usually one the child never thinks of, would be prescribed if he or she were morally more mature. Still, the child’s will, not only exercised but formed in making such judgments and choices, need in no way conflict with moral truth and, indeed, can conform to it fully insofar as the child is aware of it. In sum, although their character is still undeveloped, children who choose in accord with moral truth as they know it already have good will, and that good will is the budding forth of virtue.

Thus, Christians have the core of the virtues insofar as they cherish the gifts they received at baptism and, having responsibly done their best to seek moral truth whenever they realize they should, choose in accord with their best judgment. As people carry out such morally good choices, other aspects of their personalities will gradually be drawn into line, errors in moral thinking will be corrected, and they will gain facility in carrying out right choices. In this way, people acquire virtues.2

d) One should attend to responsibilities regarding moral truth. In sum, to develop virtues, people must do their best to know moral truth and choose in accord with it. But insofar as one is not already prudent, one can come to know moral truth only by deliberating and choosing to do the things by means of which it is most likely to be found. Therefore, a person has responsibilities with respect to the quest for moral truth; and their fulfillment requires reflecting on them. This chapter aims to encourage and assist in that reflection.

e) The quest for moral truth often requires help and advice. Someone might object: The kind of reflection described in this chapter is too difficult for most people. But individuals need not carry on such reflection all by themselves. The responsibility to seek moral truth by no means excludes, and sometimes actually requires, advice and help from others, for example, a parent, a priest, or some other intelligent, upright person.

Among the greatest obstacles to sound moral judgment are self-deception and rationalization. Self-deception occurs when emotion leads a person to overlook relevant facts or possibilities that otherwise would be obvious; rationalization occurs when the desire to evade responsibility for a wrong choice leads to fallacious reasoning. Talking over a problem of conscience with a sound adviser helps to prevent or overcome self-deception and rationalization, since one is forced to articulate the problem and one’s thinking about it, and the adviser can call attention to overlooked facts and possibilities, question implicit assumptions, and criticize one’s reasoning. Often, too, a sound adviser who is learned or experienced, or both, can help resolve doubts of fact, clarify relevant norms and their proper application, and so on—in short, help carry out many of the responsibilities described in the following questions.

2. Conscience Is No Substitute for the Quest for Moral Truth

Everything to be treated in this chapter could be dealt with in terms of conscience and its formation, since to form conscience is precisely to do what can be done to reach sound judgments concerning what choices to make. But the remainder of this chapter dispenses with the word conscience.

a) To form conscience is to seek moral truth. Today, forming conscience often is misunderstood or else understood too narrowly. Conscience, rightly understood, simply is a person’s apprehension of moral truth considered insofar as it serves to direct particular choices or evaluate them retrospectively; in other words, it is one’s last, best judgment of the moral truth about a choice one is about to make or has made in the past (see CMP, 3.B). Today, however, conscience often is used with subjectivist connotations, so that some people will expect a discussion of conscience to free them from “burdensome rules” rather than help them discover moral truth. It therefore seems preferable to talk, not about conscience, but about how to reach the moral truth concerning what is to be done.

b) Everyone must engage in a personal quest for moral truth. In treating formation of conscience, classical works on moral theology and spirituality treated some of the matters to be considered here, for example, methods for resolving doubts (probabilism and its alternatives) and the method of discernment. Since most of these works were addressed to priests, one might wonder: Why include this chapter in a volume on the moral responsibilities which everyone must fulfill? Is it not sufficient for moral theologians to discover the moral truth, priests to know it, and the faithful to follow their guidance? The answer is no, for at least two reasons.

First, by the time Vatican II began, it was generally agreed that the earlier approach to conscience formation involved confusions and abuses. The Council’s teaching makes it clear that Catholics must avoid these. No longer acceptable is the legalistic outlook with which confessors and spiritual directors tried to tell people what would be permissible and forbidden, while the faithful felt free to do as they pleased within those boundaries. Today, all Christians are called on to try to reach moral truth as best they can so as to shape their lives as a whole by it (see CMP, 12.D, 12.1).3

Second, for many people, life today is more complicated than it used to be. There are more choices to be made, more alternatives to choose among, and more information bearing on those alternatives. No individual can be expert on all moral issues, and to some questions even the Church offers no answer. While people often should ask for and listen to others’ advice, in the end each individual must make a personal effort to learn the moral truth relevant to his or her own life.4 Therefore, no adviser should be expected to relieve one of the responsibility to find moral truth. Rather, an adviser should be looked to for enlightenment, not for a permission to do this or a prohibition against doing that.

1. Virtuous persons often short circuit reasoning and judge by connaturality (see S.t., 2–2, q. 45, a. 2). But to point this out would be no help to a child who needs to develop prudence and the virtues, since judgment by connaturality presupposes the mature virtue which the child must develop. Moreover, when one does not know what is right, “prudence” surely cannot provide the answer by substituting a judgment based on feelings and/or will for reasoning (see CMP, 3.D); cf. Pius XII, Humani generis, AAS 42 (1950) 574, PE, 240.33.

2. As many commentators have pointed out, Aristotle has the notion of choice, but lacks the concept of free choice: see, for example, D. J. Furley, “Aristotle on the Voluntary,” in Articles on Aristotle, vol. 2, Ethics and Politics, ed. Jonathan Barnes, Malcolm Schofield, and Richard Sorabji (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978), 47–60. Aristotle thus misses both the self-developmental role of free choice and the responsibility each person has to acquire prudence. Some today, claiming to follow Aristotle, embrace act intuitionism, and mistakenly think that moral truth can be reached only by the virtuous person’s prudence. Contrast this view with the account of prudence (and the reading of Aristotle) given by St. Thomas, according to whom prudence applies naturally known principles to particulars, and so always presupposes those principles, which also underlie the will’s orientation to a human being’s natural ends (that is, the basic human goods): see S.t., 1–2, q. 10, a. 1; q. 47, a. 4; 2–2, q. 47, aa. 3, 6; In Sent., 3, d. 33, q. 2, a. 4, qu’la 4. An incisive critique of act intuitionism: John Finnis, Moral Absolutes: Tradition, Revision and Truth (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1991), 101–5.

3. See Germain Grisez, “Legalism, Moral Truth, and Pastoral Practice,” Anthropotes 6 (1990): 111–21.

4. CIC, c. 229, §1, declares: “Lay persons are bound by the obligation and possess the right to acquire a knowledge of Christian doctrine adapted to their capacity and condition so that they can live in accord with that doctrine, announce it, defend it when necessary, and be enabled to assume their role in exercising the apostolate.”