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

Question B: What Are the General Norms for Seeking Moral Truth?

This question treats several general and very basic norms governing the whole process of seeking moral truth. Subsequent questions will focus on norms concerning problems which arise within the process.

1. The Quest for Moral Truth Requires an Appropriate Spirituality

In the fallen human condition, even the moral truth accessible to human reason often cannot be discovered without the help of revelation and faith (see DS 3005/1786). Moreover, besides the moral truth which everyone can know naturally, there is a specifically Christian morality and a specifically Christian prudence (see CMP, 3.D and 25.E).5 Hence, moral truth should be sought with the help of faith. While some of the ways in which faith is relevant will be treated in subsequent questions, three deserve attention here: commitment to discovering and following God’s wise and loving plan, prayer for the Holy Spirit’s help, and meditation on the models of Christian life.

a) One should commit oneself to discovering and doing God’s will. For Jesus, doing the Father’s will was the most basic need; it was his food (see Jn 4.34, 5.30, 6.38; cf. Mt 26.39, Mk 14.36, Lk 22.42, Heb 10.5–10). He taught his followers not only to pray that the Father’s will be done (see Mt 6.10) but, above all, to do it (see Mt 7.21, 12.50; Mk 3.35), and he pointed out that determination to do God’s will is required for discernment (see Jn 7.17). St. Paul likewise teaches Christians to offer their lives to God (see Rom 12.1); doing so, their minds are renewed so that they “may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12.2). Moral truth can hardly be found by someone who does not want to find it, but someone who consistently desires to do God’s will can hope he will make it known.

Approaching the matter in this way forestalls a whole set of “problems of conscience” which vex those enmeshed in legalism and minimalism. Prompted by some merely emotional motive to do something—for example, to go as far as one may in expressing erotic affection—they try to settle every doubt about the precise point at which sin (or, more likely, mortal sin) begins. But someone concerned to discover “what is good and acceptable and perfect” sets aside emotional motives not integrated with reason as soon as doubts arise about the reasonableness of acting on them. Hence, the entire effort to find moral truth will center on the examination of possibilities which seem to implement one’s faith and the commitments which make up one’s personal vocation.

b) In seeking moral truth, one should ask for the Spirit’s guidance. People sometimes think the Spirit’s assistance is required only on some occasions but not all, or is far more needed at certain moments than others. That is a mistake. At every moment in the quest for moral truth the Holy Spirit’s light is needed: so that one will remember to stop and think, to engage in even the most elementary moral reasoning, to pay attention to things one knows but tends to forget, and so on; and also to solve especially difficult questions and discover God’s will in important matters, such as discerning elements of one’s personal vocation among the available, morally acceptable options. Thus, it is a basic responsibility in the quest for moral truth to pray persistently and confidently for the light, needed at every juncture, which only the Holy Spirit can provide.

c) Jesus and the saints should be imitated. As the plan of a good life and noble character, moral truth finds its complete articulation only in a living person, and so the quest for moral truth necessarily includes imitating good people. Faith enables Christians to identify those they should imitate.

Jesus “fully reveals the human to human beings themselves and makes clear their most high vocation” (GS 22). He alone perfectly embodies the transforming effects of God’s love on human life and character. Hence, people should put on Jesus’ mind (see 1 Cor 2.16, Phil 2.5): meditate on the Gospels, try to perceive the relevance to their own lives of Jesus’ way of thinking, speaking, and acting, and imitate him.6

The Church canonizes saints partly in order to propose them as models. Their lives and writings are a storehouse of case studies of people not so different from us who—despite their errors, sins, and failures—on the whole splendidly followed Jesus. Studying the saints and looking to the example of holy people of today often help one learn how to do specific things necessary to find moral truth: settle a doubt, look for a better alternative, discern, listen to others’ advice but perhaps not follow it, and so on. So, part of studying how to follow Jesus is reading sound accounts of the lives of the saints, using worthwhile material about them available in other media, talking about them in the family and with friends, and so on.

2. One Should Maintain a Self-critical Attitude

One must seek wisdom—that is, full knowledge of moral truth—and prefer it to the satisfaction of any particular desire, or hostility, or laziness, or conformism. Since these feelings so often obscure moral truth, one can hope to find it only by maintaining a self-critical attitude.

a) One should repent and ask the Holy Spirit for healing. Insofar as they are in sin or remain emotionally attached to it, people not only cling to thoughts and feelings inconsistent with moral truth but are unreceptive to other thoughts and feelings without which they will probably not reach it, will perhaps not recognize it if it is reached, and will hardly welcome it if it is recognized. Sin leads them to shun the bright light of moral truth; living in sin, they prefer the shadows of self-deception and rationalization (see Jn 3.19–20).

Like a blind person unable to tell that he or she is in the dark, one cannot discover one’s evasions of moral truth and root them out by any direct effort. The only way to get rid of them is by praying for the healing of the Spirit and making good use of the sacrament of penance, with sincere contrition for one’s sins (see Ps 51.6–12; cf. 4.C.2.d–h).

b) The ideologies that sustain sin should be rooted out. Openness to reconsidering one’s opinions is necessary, for, as Socrates said, “an unexamined life is not worth living.” Someone who lives without self-criticism is content to believe whatever is convenient and to act on false opinions—to live in a cave, a world of shadows and illusions, rather than in the world of daylight and reality.7 That is far worse than Socrates realized, for, unaware that each human person is called to be part of God’s kingdom and contribute to its perfection, he had a very inadequate idea of what is lost when people willingly continue to dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

Therefore, a person should be alert to tensions between his or her faith and kinds of actions approved or even enjoined by colleagues, friends, or society. In resisting temptations or repenting sins, one can and should reflect on those elements of the group’s beliefs and attitudes which make sinful acts seem acceptable or necessary, and should set about ridding oneself of them. They constitute an ideology which not only sustains some particular sin one might be tempted to commit but extends beyond it. Thus, one must try to discover other ways in which that ideology’s false factual beliefs, inappropriate feelings, and mistaken evaluations might influence one’s practical thinking, perhaps even on seemingly unrelated matters.

For example, suppose a college professor realizes that he has unfairly opposed the promotion of an able female colleague because of her gender. In repenting this sin, he ought also to examine the ideology leading him and other male colleagues to assume that their academic community is some sort of private club, meant to serve their interests, rather than a body dedicated to providing professional services to the institution’s students and others. Again, suppose a woman has an abortion, deceiving herself that this is a valid exercise of her right to control her reproductivity, and repents of it; realizing she acquired her false notion of rights from certain leading feminists, she should examine their ideology to discover other ways in which it obscures her vision of moral truth.

3. One Should Seek Moral Truth to Guide Every Choice One Makes

An overarching norm is: people should try to know all the moral truth needed to guide each and every choice they make. This means discarding immature and conventional assumptions which would limit moral responsibility to some restricted set of choices.

a) No choice lacks moral significance. Nonbelievers recognize some moral limits, and those of good will accept the limits they recognize. But, generally recognizing no framework for their lives more basic than society’s common good, nonbelievers tend to reduce morality to social constraints. In matters where there are none, they are likely to overlook moral issues.

The common good of the heavenly kingdom, not the common good of any this-worldly society, provides the framework for Christian life. This common good includes every authentic human good. Thus, morality does not concern some limited part of life but the whole of it. Hope is not one interest among others, but the overarching interest responding to the precept: “Seek first the kingdom” (see 2.A.4). Faith and its moral implications should shape Christians’ daily work and play, business, politics, family life, and so on. It is necessary to look for the relevance of God’s word to everything one does, not just those matters usually considered important moral questions.8

Yet even many Christians assume that various kinds of choices are outside the moral domain and free of moral significance. Children, for example, naturally suppose that morality concerns only those matters in which they either obey or disobey parents and others in authority. Some young people think it is permissible to do anything provided no one else is hurt. Some people take it for granted that morality concerns only serious matters, while playful acts are morally indifferent. Few people think omissions are morally wrong unless they violate clear duties. And some assume morality concerns only private life.

Of course, those who hold such views limit their search for moral truth to these matters. Plainly, however, nobody ever will find moral truth without looking for it. So, the views just cited should be set aside, as should others that tend to limit the field of moral responsibility by excluding some sorts of free choices.

b) Social decision making is subject to moral evaluation. Some people implicitly or explicitly assume that the moral standards governing private life are irrelevant to public affairs. The actions of nations and public officials are, they claim, exempt from the ordinary requirements of morality concerning killing, promise keeping, and so on. For example, some legislators say: “I am personally opposed to abortion, but as a public official I must defend its legality and vote to fund abortions.” However, a moral norm applies to every action of the kind to which it refers; the actions of nations and public officials are not exempt (see CMP, 10.F).

Specifically referring to the relations political communities have to one another, John XXIII makes the point that the same morality applies to them as to individuals:

 This will be readily understood when one reflects that it is quite impossible for political leaders to lay aside their natural dignity while acting in their country’s name and in its interests. They are still bound by the natural law, which is the rule that governs all moral conduct, and they have no authority to depart from its slightest precepts.9
Vatican II generalizes Pope John’s point: all Christians should remember “that in every temporal affair they must be guided by a Christian conscience, since even in secular affairs there is no human activity which can be withdrawn from God’s dominion” (LG 36; cf. AA 5, DH 14).

4. Moral Reflection Should Be Thoroughgoing

People trying to be morally responsible will engage in moral reflection upon becoming aware of the need to do so. Not yet perfect in holiness, however, they easily overlook the need for moral reflection and/or terminate it prematurely. Thus, one should be watchful regarding the need to begin moral reflection and ready to press it far enough to grasp the full moral significance of whatever one is considering doing.

a) In many cases, one should reflect before acting. With respect to the initiation of moral reflection, the rule for morally responsible but imperfect persons is: look before you leap. Often people are inclined to do something, even by purely spontaneous action without choice, when they should stop, reflect, and examine what would be involved. “Look before you leap” means that, before acting, and especially before making any choice, one should hesitate and investigate, reflect on exactly what one is about to do, and try to determine whether a different choice should be made.

Children, seeing others doing something, typically tag along or join in, simply because they want to be part of the crowd and fear being left out. Similarly, adults sometimes join organizations or accept jobs for reasons that are obvious and good, yet without investigating what the employing organization is committed to, what their duties will be, and so on. Again, people agree to buy things without considering costs, the probable effects of ownership on other things they value, and so on. In all such cases, lacking the prudence which would suggest the appropriate questions to ask, people should make a conscious effort to hesitate and investigate before doing anything out of the ordinary.

b) In reflecting, every important factor should be considered. Even after having hesitated and begun to deliberate, a person sometimes terminates moral reflection too quickly. For people spontaneously consider only those elements of the possible action which led them to hesitate and deliberate, while easily ignoring other elements which should be considered and which might even be more important than those taken into account. For instance, a boy told to come straight home from school may deliberate about going with a crowd instead, yet fail to ask himself what the crowd actually will do; a woman may hesitate about taking a new job because she is (reasonably enough) concerned about pay and security in comparison with her present job, yet not ask about exactly what her duties will be in this new job.

c) One always should think about prospective bad consequences. People sometimes terminate moral reflection too soon because they regard foreseen consequences as irrelevant or, at least, do not take them seriously enough. Thus, the morally responsible but imperfect person should bear in mind the maxim: always count the costs beforehand (see S.t., 1–2, q. 20, a. 5).

A person should attend to the consequences of what he or she is doing even when following a moral judgment which is certainly true. Not even the probable consequences of refusing to violate a moral absolute should be ignored. Sometimes the bad consequences can be mitigated in some way, and, even if they cannot, others affected are due an explanation of why one is acting as one must, even while one prepares to accept and deal with any damage to oneself that might result.

d) One always should be looking for ways of doing good. Not every sin lies in choosing to do what should not be done; negligent failure to do what could and should be done also is a sin (see S.t., 2–2, q. 54; cf. Mt 25.41–46).10 So, doing one’s clear duty and avoiding doing what is wrong are not enough. In some cases the failure to do something good which could and should be done results from overlooking facts which point to the possibility and need to do it. Thus, it is necessary to be sensitive to others’ needs and to the opportunities to put one’s possessions and gifts to work. The constantly changing facts of one’s situation should be interpreted in the light of the gospel; God’s will for oneself should be discerned in them; and initiatives should be taken accordingly. In short, a morally responsible but imperfect person should bear in mind the maxim: do not wait for opportunities to do good to present themselves; anticipate them and go out to meet them.

Vatican II did that in noting the signs of the times: currently observable facts which need to be interpreted in the light of the gospel in order to discover God’s presence and providence in history, so that the Church can do today what he wills (see UR 4, AA 14, PO 9, GS 4, 11, 44). Each individual Christian and each Christian community must continually do the same thing (see above, 1.J.3).

e) Moral certitude suffices for choice and action. A choice may be made and acted on by someone morally certain that doing so will be right, that is, in the absence of a well-founded or reasonable ground for doubting the correctness of the judgment. For even if some possibility of error remains, someone who is morally certain can proceed without being careless about the good or goods at stake, because inaction or further delay would impede serving some good or preventing some harm.11

But when is doubt no longer well-founded or reasonable? That is so when someone sees no positive reason for thinking his or her judgment is false, and self-examination and consideration of others’ opinions fail to indicate that something has been overlooked or a mistake has been made in reaching the judgment. Even so, those who are morally certain may experience some feeling of uncertainty, especially if, as often happens, someone else disagrees with their judgment.

Of course, upon realizing that his or her prudence is inadequate to a problem, a person should look to the example of more mature and holy people. When something important is at stake, the question is whether, having the same level of certitude as oneself, such people do or do not proceed in a matter of the same kind.

5. Paul VI, General Audience (26 July 1972), Inseg. 10 (1972) 772, OR, 3 Aug. 1972, 1, teaches: “Does a Christian morality exist? That is, an original way of living, which is called Christian? What is Christian morality? We could define it precisely in an empirical way by stating that it is a way of living according to the faith, in the light of the truths and example of Christ, such as we have learned from the Gospel and from its first apostolic irradiation, the New Testament, always in view of a second coming of Christ and a new form of our existence, the so-called Parousia, and always by means of a double aid, one interior and ineffable, the Holy Spirit; the other exterior, historical and social, but qualified and authorized, the ecclesiastical magisterium.” See CMP, 25.E; Germain Grisez, “Practical Reason and Faith,” Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 58 (1984): 2-14.

6. St. Thomas, In symbolum apostolorum expositio, a. 4, argues that Jesus’ passion by itself suffices for the complete shaping of Christian life; to live perfectly is to love and hate what Jesus on the cross loved and hated, and no example of virtue is missing from the cross: charity, patience, humility, obedience, and so on; cf. CMP, 27.A.

7. Plato, Republic 8.514–17.

8. John Paul II, Christifideles laici, 17, AAS 81 (1989) 418–21, OR, 6 Feb. 1989, 5, makes this point (quoting Col 3.17) and stresses especially the need for “unity of life,” whereby everyday professional and social life is sanctified.

9. John XXIII, Pacem in terris, AAS 55 (1963) 279–80, PE, 270.81. A similar point has been argued by philosophers with respect to people acting in professional roles: they remain morally responsible. See Albert Flores and Deborah G. Johnson, “Collective Responsibility and Professional Roles,” Ethics 93 (1983): 537–45.

10. Of course, if such failure neither involves a choice nor flows from a previous, unrepented mortal sin, it is only venially sinful (see CMP, 15.C.12–15).

11. Pius XII, Address to the Rota (1 Oct. 1942), AAS 34 (1942) 339–40, Canon Law Digest 3 (1954): 607, explains: Moral certitude is “characterized on the positive side by the exclusion of well-founded or reasonable doubt, and in this respect it is essentially distinguished from the quasi-certainty which has been mentioned; on the negative side, it does admit the absolute possibility of the contrary, and in this it differs from absolute certainty. The certainty of which We are now speaking is necessary and sufficient for the rendering of a judgment, even though in the particular case it would be possible either directly or indirectly to reach absolute certainty.” See Arthur Caron, O.M.I., “The Concept of Moral Certitude in Canonical Decisions,” Jurist 19 (1959): 12–28.