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

Question F: When and How Should Better Options Be Sought?

People engaged in deliberation often should look for alternatives besides those which spontaneously come to mind or are suggested by others. Although there is no way to guarantee that a better alternative will be found, there are certain things to do which can be helpful. Moreover, if alternatives are sought in the light of faith, some are likely to be found that would be either entirely unavailable or too unappealing to consider except in faith’s light.

1. In Many Different Situations, One Should Look for Better Options

People very often tend to make the best of a situation, perhaps complaining ineffectually but not trying to change it or break out of it. Moreover, being reluctant to deliberate, many tend to choose what they take to be a morally good and appealing possibility without looking for alternatives. In following these tendencies, however, better possibilities often are overlooked; but someone who makes a practice of looking for better alternatives often will find them.

a) Sometimes perplexity is resolved by finding a good alternative. People are perplexed when it seems they will do something wrong or fail to fulfill some responsibility no matter what they do. This situation will be treated (in I.3, below). But such perplexity sometimes arises because the morally right—but unappealing—possibility has been excluded from consideration. Hence, the first and obvious thing to do when perplexed is to look for the overlooked morally acceptable alternative. For example, confronted by an implacable enemy bent on doing grave harm, George may seem to face a choice between doing whatever is necessary to dissuade that enemy (even by using morally excluded means) and surrendering (perhaps even cooperating in great moral evils to placate the enemy). Someone considering such a case in the light of faith sees an alternative: George could resist the enemy with morally acceptable means and explain the limits of his resistance by his faith. In this way, he would bear witness to the gospel and call his enemy to conversion, while praying both for that grace for his enemy and for success in his resistance with the limited means he is morally free to employ. Of course, he might fail, and failure will lead to some form of martyrdom. But for a Christian, martyrdom always should be acceptable. Again, a priest who thinks he must either tell a lie or give away someone’s confessional secret perhaps has overlooked the possibility of saying: “As a matter of policy, I do not answer questions of that sort.”

b) When refusing to sin, one should try to mitigate any bad effects. Even when it is necessary to refrain from something sinful, a person should look for an alternative better than simply not doing it. While considerations and feelings which might tempt one to do evil must be set aside, they should not be ignored. Perhaps the alternative which must be chosen can at least be altered by also doing something further. For example, Thomas More judged that he could not swear an oath he believed false. His refusal had bad effects both for himself and for his family. Not only did he refuse to swear the false oath, however, but he also tried to help his family understand why, sought to arrange for their safety, and asked God to mitigate the prospective harm.

c) To resolve a conflict, one should consider yielding one’s rights. Sometimes finding a better alternative will resolve a seemingly intractable conflict among individuals or groups. For, in general, faith and hope make it clear that to overcome evil and promote good it is necessary and appealing to sacrifice what is due oneself in justice for the sake of peace, service to others, the spread of the gospel, and so forth. Thus, whenever conflicting claims raise questions of fairness, Christians must consider whether a solution can be found by not pressing their claims and instead yielding what they think they have a right to. For example, if three children disagree about fairly sharing a candy bar, one can solve the problem by giving parts of his or her share to the others until they are satisfied with their shares. And if the wealthy members of society choose to give up their wealth, even though they justly hold it, they can mitigate class conflict. In many cases, Christians should choose such merciful alternatives (see Mt 5.38–42, Lk 6.29–30; CMP, 27.F).

d) To fulfill responsibilities, better alternatives should be sought. Sometimes, finding an overlooked alternative will enable one to fulfill a responsibility that at first seems morally impossible to fulfill. For example, Sam, a salesman working for an unscrupulous contractor, thinks he must either defraud customers or fail to support his family. But Sam may find some honest way to use his talents and make an adequate living, perhaps by setting up a business that will help customers who have been defrauded to obtain the compensation due them.

Sometimes, even though finding a better alternative is not necessary to solve a moral problem, it is called for by some other moral responsibility. Whenever none of the options under consideration is appealing and well suited to implement one’s faith and the other basic commitments made in harmony with faith, more adequate ways to implement them should be sought. For example, the head of a family who has a marginally adequate job and is offered another, better in some ways but not so good in others, should seek other possibilities, not simply choose between accepting and refusing that particular job offer.

e) In important matters, many alternatives should be examined. Sometimes, a better alternative should be sought even though the available alternatives include one or more good and appealing options. For even when the alternatives under consideration include morally acceptable and appealing ways of implementing faith or vocational commitments, people should try to widen the range of alternatives in important matters, and not simply choose among those which spontaneously come to mind or are suggested by others. For instance, if a woman is considering becoming a nun, she should examine a variety of forms of religious life and different communities. And a family seeking a place to live should consider a wide range of possibilities, taking into account how each would affect the family as a whole and each of its members.

2. To Find Better Alternatives, Several Things Should Be Done

No method can guarantee that alternatives will be found better than those which spontaneously present themselves. But it often helps to ask appropriate questions, and inventiveness can be cultivated; also, one should be realistic rather than wasting time thinking about impractical possibilities.

a) One should ask oneself the appropriate questions. When a person is not entirely satisfied with the alternatives already under consideration, the appropriate starting point of reflection is: I am about to make a choice which seems either at odds with goods in which I am rightly interested or hardly adequate to serve these interests. Is there nothing else I might choose which would be not only acceptable but appealing?

Lacking any special dissatisfaction with the alternatives already under consideration, the appropriate starting point of such reflection is: I am about to use my gifts and resources to do this, for the sake of realizing this good in such and such persons. Could I realize the same good in more people or more good in the same people, or even do both? Could I do a similar service where it is even more needed? For example, a young man, considering entering religious life to serve in Christian education, might find better alternatives by asking questions like the following: Where could I contribute most? Where could I help meet the greatest need for Christian education? These questions might lead him to consider various unfamiliar communities, such as those working in mission territories, whereas otherwise he might consider only a familiar one, with an apostolate in his home town.

b) One should do what one can to be inventive. It also is necessary to be inventive, as, for instance, St. Dominic was when, seeing the great need for the preaching and teaching of doctrine going unmet in his day by the diocesan clergy, he founded the Order of Preachers to meet it. Although there are no rules for being inventive—inspiration is a gift—people can dispose themselves to receive the gift. For instance, one can search one’s memory, consult others, and look to somewhat analogous cases in biography, history, and fiction to discover possibilities which would otherwise be overlooked. Moreover, now and then one can retreat from constant activity to spend some quiet time in prayer and reflection, not pressing to solve problems, but making oneself ready to receive the Holy Spirit’s suggestions.

In social and economic matters, an important source of better alternatives is the reflection in which individuals, groups organized for Christian social action, and other communities engage when examining the facts in the light of the Church’s social teaching. While much of that teaching can seem inapplicable, many of its elements really can help a person see how certain general principles might apply to the particular situations he or she faces. In this way, an individual can think of fresh alternatives, options consonant with faith.

c) Time should not be wasted on wishful thinking. In looking for better alternatives, people often make the mistake of becoming fascinated with imaginable alternatives which are appealing but completely impractical. The tendency arises from a defect of hope: the realities one cannot change ought to be accepted as the conditions God has providentially provided (or, at least, permitted) and should trust that, with his help, all the good he wills can be done.

For example, a nun works out an elaborate plan about how she would run the parish if she were a priest; a married man daydreams about how pleasant his life would be had he married a different woman, when he should be thinking about how to make the best of his marriage. (On the sinfulness of such daydreaming by married persons, see 9.D.4.a.)

Again, a mother suffering from a disability can waste time and energy imagining how well she would care for her children if she were free of the disability, while failing to think of what she might really do to overcome her disability to some extent and care for the children as well as she can. Or a young priest might spend much of his time thinking about how he would assign the priests in the diocese and solve its major problems if he were the bishop. Perhaps his ideas not only appeal to him but are sound; but he is not the bishop, and he should instead be thinking about how to do the job he now has and perhaps making up, so far as possible, for the bishop’s limitations.

In sum, while inhibitions should not be allowed to limit imagination’s work of proposing alternatives for consideration, people should distinguish between proposals which are merely unconventional or somehow uninviting and those which are totally impractical, and waste no time discarding the latter.