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

Question H: How Can Partiality Be Recognized?

Acts which would involve injustice often can be recognized by norms one already has on hand. They may be such that doing them is always wrong, and so would be wrong even if done to oneself, for example, killing an innocent person. They may be wrong because they fail to fulfill a recognized duty or violate a recognized right, for example, failing to do one’s job or failing to pay someone an earned wage. Sometimes, though, an act would be unjust only because it would not be chosen except for feelings inclining to partiality. Only by attending to emotional motives is it then possible to avoid the false judgment that the unjust act should be done.

1. In Many Cases, Questions about Partiality Should Not Arise

Many people recognize hardly any moral issues besides fairness. They begin moral reflection on every question by asking: Can I make this or that choice without being unfair to anyone concerned? When thinking about what is fair, however, a person should consider only those options for choice which are morally acceptable in other respects. For example, fairness in making the “benefit” of abortion available to all is beside the point, both because abortion is unfair to the unborn and because it is the destruction of an innocent human life.

This point is equally valid, although perhaps less obvious, when the question of fairness concerns accepting side effects. Whenever one sins, even venially, there can be no valid reason for accepting any bad side effects whatsoever. Hence, whether or not partiality is involved, one always acts unjustly toward others if in sinning one accepts side effects which are harmful to them. For example, a couple who are fornicating and are worried about the possibility of passing on some disease should satisfy their concern to be fair to each other in this matter by avoiding fornication itself; parents who engage in idle gossip should satisfy their concern to avoid giving bad example to their children by breaking the habit of gossiping.

Of course, people examining their consciences should look for every aspect of moral evil in any sin, including any unfairness done to others in carrying out acts wrong in themselves.

2. In Two Ways, Emotions Inclining toward Partiality Can Cause Injustice

In one kind of case, the act distributes benefits among a group of people, and the question is whether inequality in distribution would be due to partiality or to some reason that justifies the inequality. Suppose a mother divides a candy bar among her three children and gives her son a bigger piece than she gives her daughters. Is this favoritism? Or is it a justified inequality—for example, is it the boy’s birthday, or did he pitch in and do the girls’ chores which they had neglected?

In another kind of case, the choice to do something would require accepting bad side effects for another or others. Would it be reasonable to accept those side effects, in pursuing the good for whose sake the act would be done, or unreasonable due to partiality? For example, if a garden is being ruined by rabbits and the owner considers using poisons to get rid of them, while accepting some risk of harm to the neighbors’ pets, would it be unfair to use the poisons or may the risk be accepted?

3. The Golden Rule Should Be Used to Exclude Partiality

In cases of both kinds the Golden Rule should be applied to determine whether there is partiality. Each possibility can be tested in this way by considering it empathetically from the points of view of the various persons involved, imagining oneself in the place of each. The simplest cases concern instances of recurrent situations in which all involved play each role at different times: “How do you like it when someone does that to you?” In more complex cases, memory and imagination must be used to put oneself or someone near and dear into each role, thus applying the test for partiality to one’s emotions about each possible solution: “How would you like it if someone followed that policy in dealing with your children?”

a) To apply the Golden Rule, benefits and harms must be considered. Since the point of applying the Golden Rule is to exclude partiality, no attempt should be made to apply it without first carefully considering the possible matters concerning which partiality could be at work. These are different potential benefits and harms to the different persons involved. Since one must be fair not only in what is intended and chosen but also in accepting whatever side effects are foreseen, all foreseen benefits and burdens of choosing and carrying out a possible action—or, alternatively, not choosing it, and perhaps choosing some alternative—should be considered. It is necessary to ask: Whom will this action benefit? Whom will it harm? If the act is not chosen, whom will that benefit and harm? And, likewise, for any alternative. It also is necessary to ask: Considering each benefit and harm, what sort of good is at stake? Is it a basic good of persons or an instrumental good? How extensive and serious will each benefit and harm be?

Reflecting as a Christian, a person must bring fully into play any specifically Christian benefits and harms. For instance, does doing or not doing an act, doing this or that, involve risk to someone’s salvation? Does it involve harming or enhancing apostolic witness?

b) Others’ wishes sometimes are fairly ignored. To the extent that a point of view is determined by immorality, it is of no help in reaching moral truth to take that point of view, whether the person holding it is subjectively guilty or not. Thus, in applying the Golden Rule, one should refuse to take into account the views of others insofar as these are morally unacceptable. Of course, such a refusal may be considered unfair by those concerned. For example, pederasts sometimes complain that a boy who refuses to accommodate them is unfair to them.33 However, the boy’s refusal need not be motivated by partiality, for it can be based on a prior moral consideration, the wrongness of sodomy, and an emotional detestation of it entirely in harmony with reason.

Sometimes a person whose point of view is unwittingly determined by immorality indicates a preference which violates his or her own sincere but erroneous conscience. Someone trying to treat such individuals fairly should take as the measure for fairness that aspect of them believed to accord with moral truth. For example, a patient believes receiving a needed blood transfusion would be wrong, yet desires one; a fair person who considers accepting the transfusion the right thing to do will identify with the patient’s desire for it, while a fair person who believes it wrong will identify with the patient’s conscience on the subject. In general, one treats fairly those who are inconsistent within themselves by identifying only with those aspects of their personality and conflicting wishes which one believes to be in accord with moral truth.

c) One can be unfair to others without harming them. It is possible to be unfair to those to whom one has no established duty and does no harm. This happens when the general responsibility to use gifts in the service of others and build up the kingdom is imperfectly fulfilled because a person fails to choose impartially whom to serve and so fails to do good to some who would benefit if he or she were guided entirely by love of neighbor. For example, those influenced by racial preference act unfairly, though they harm no one, in donating exclusively to charities which serve people of their own race despite the greater needs of other people.

d) The “veil of ignorance” is a use of the Golden Rule. One technique for using imagination to put oneself in others’ places has been called “stepping behind the veil of ignorance.” A community’s members are asked to imagine that they lose part of their memory, just enough so that they no longer know which role they play in the community. Then they are to make policies affecting all the members. For example, students, faculty, administrators, and service personnel at a college might engage in this exercise while jointly considering the school’s budgetary policies concerning tuition, salaries, job security, living and working conditions, and so on. According to the rules of the game, each participant would share in policy making without adverting to whether he or she was the college president, the worker who cleans the latrines, a student without a scholarship, or a senior faculty member. The idea is to set aside, insofar as possible, factors like one’s own social status, which often are obstacles to fairness.

4. Some Moral Problems Require Several Kinds of Analysis

Some complex cases, while involving considerations of fairness, also require criticism of emotional motives, and presuppose careful analysis of the action. For instance, the question of whether comatose patients ought to be fed and hydrated by tube involves all these elements.34 This example is worth considering to illustrate how the different kinds of analysis complement one another. (For norms regarding accepting health care, see 8.F.3.)

a) An action can appear to be morally acceptable. At the outset, stepping behind the veil of ignorance, people might say in all sincerity that if they were comatose, they would not wish to be kept alive indefinitely by tube feeding and would be willing to accept death. Thus, it seems that there need be no partiality motivating the judgment that a permanently comatose patient is not to be fed and hydrated. Moreover, discontinuing such care need not be carrying out a choice to kill. The care is expensive and seems to provide no benefit except to prolong a life which the patient will never again consciously enjoy; thus, it appears that the choice to discontinue can be made for the sake of using the resources for another good purpose, with the comatose patient’s death accepted as a side effect.

b) Reflection may show that some good has been overlooked. In examining the goods at stake, however, one notes that survival is not the sole benefit. Feeding and hydrating, as well as other elements of life support—keeping the patient sheltered and clean—also express respect for his or her humanity and maintain human solidarity with the person. To see this point, it is only necessary to consider how decent people in earlier times did what they could to care for disabled, demented, and/or slowly dying family members. Feeling the bond of family solidarity to be an important good, not only for themselves but for the loved ones for whom they cared, they were willing to make considerable sacrifices for an aunt disabled by a stroke, a demented brother, or a slowly dying grandfather.

c) Reflection may call the act analysis into question. Perhaps the patient’s death is not included in the proposal to avoid the costs of continuing care. But even so, feeding and hydrating are a rather small part of the total cost, whereas sheltering and keeping a comatose patient clean cost far more. However, virtually all the savings will be realized only after such patients die; and so it seems that the choice to discontinue feeding and hydrating, made to save the total cost of care, either is a choice to bring about death or a choice to discontinue care entirely, as would be done if the patient were already dead. The former clearly is wrong, and the latter much harder to justify than a simple choice to discontinue a burdensome treatment.

d) Reflection can reveal that more people’s interests are at stake. The comparative burdens and benefits of caring for permanently comatose patients are very like those involved in caring for people of other kinds: the senile, the severely retarded, and the hopelessly insane. If it is right to adopt a social policy of discontinuing all care for the permanently comatose, it is hard to see why that policy should be limited to them (unless adopted on a discriminatory basis, as is suggested by the pejorative language, such as vegetable, which is applied to them). Moreover, it is not easy to diagnose the state of being permanently comatose, so in practice certain other severely debilitated patients are likely to be mistakenly identified as permanently comatose.

e) The action is excluded because of its partiality. While following someone’s own wishes about care could be wrong for other reasons—for example, the person could be bent on suicide—it would not be unfair. So, there would be no partiality in a policy of not caring for permanently comatose persons who had made it perfectly clear in advance that, in order to avoid burdening others, they would not wish to be cared for in that condition. But what about those permanently comatose and other severely debilitated persons who did not make their wishes known?

However broad or narrow the class to be deprived of care might turn out to be, could the policy of withholding or withdrawing all care from such persons ever be fairly adopted in an affluent society? In a society with extremely limited resources, a community of hunter-gatherers, say, living from day to day on the very edge of survival, it might be, since in that situation caring for the severely debilitated would mean depriving others of the necessities of life. But it seems plainly unfair—another expression of carelessness about human dignity and solidarity—in a society which spends large sums of money on luxuries.

33. John Wilson, Logic and Sexual Morality (Baltimore: Penguin, 1965), 219–21, argues in support of that view.

34. See William E. May et al., “Feeding and Hydrating the Permanently Unconscious and Other Vulnerable Persons,” Issues in Law and Medicine 3 (Winter 1987): 203–17; Germain Grisez, “Should Nutrition and Hydration Be Provided to Permanently Unconscious and Other Mentally Disabled Persons?” Linacre Quarterly 57 (May 1990): 30–43.