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

Question I: How Should Residual Doubt and Moral Perplexity Be Dealt With?

Sometimes, their best efforts to find moral truth having failed, people find themselves with residual doubt or, even worse, in perplexity, as if there simply were no morally acceptable alternative. How are these unsatisfactory states of conscience to be dealt with?

It should be recalled that, in charting the quest for moral truth, problematic possibilities supported by merely emotional motives were excluded at the outset. Hence, in what follows, any option under consideration is assumed to be interesting because it seems to promise some real benefit to oneself and/or others.

1. If Doubt about a Norm Remains, It Can Be Dealt with Responsibly

Doubt remains only if there is a positive reason for thinking a possible option would be wrong. What should be done if the kinds of reflection already treated in this chapter are insufficient to eliminate doubt about the objective moral character of an option under consideration?

When the problem is important, someone who has not already done so should seek the help of an adviser who can articulate moral principles, is skillful in moral analysis, and is morally upright and mature in virtue. But what if such a person cannot be found or else gives advice inadequate to resolve the doubt? In that case, the character of the alternatives determines how to proceed.

a) One should not act with residual doubt when one need not. If doubt remains, one should ask oneself whether there would be any clear responsibility to do the act if it were found to be morally acceptable. If there is at least one alternative which one is confident is morally acceptable, the answer is no. In such a case, the act should not be done, since that would mean running an unnecessary, and so unreasonable, risk of doing something objectively wrong—something, therefore, which might harm or interfere with the service of some human good or goods in ways real though not now obvious. For example, an engaged couple who reasonably wish to express their affection but are uncertain whether certain sorts of genitally stimulating behavior are permissible have a morally acceptable alternative: to express affection in ways they are certain are chaste. Having no moral responsibility to engage in behavior about whose morality they are doubtful, they should not.

b) In other cases, the more probably true norm should be followed. Sometimes, after all one’s efforts, one remains unsure whether it would be right to choose a certain act, yet sure it should be chosen if it is right. For example, during the Nazi period, some conscientious Germans were uncertain about the moral permissibility of killing a tyrant, yet convinced that if such killing is permissible, they had an obligation to participate in a plot to assassinate Hitler. In such cases, the judgment should be followed which seems more likely to be true: that kind of act is permissible, or that kind of act is morally excluded. If it is judged more likely to be permissible, the risk of its being objectively wrong may be accepted, since this unavoidable risk is being taken only as a side effect of serving the relevant good or goods. For example, poor parents of hungry children are unsure whether they may rightly appropriate someone else’s supply of food; but if they may, they plainly should, since in that way they can fulfill their grave obligation to care for their children. Thus, the parents should follow the judgment they think more likely true: it is (or it is not) right to take that supply of food.35

2. The Significance of Residual Doubts of Fact Varies in Different Cases

When unable to resolve a doubt about a morally relevant matter of fact, how one should proceed depends on the way in which the fact is related to one’s moral responsibilities.

a) Those considering choosing moral evil should assume the worst. If a doubt of fact causes uncertainty about how seriously immoral an admittedly immoral act will be, it should be assumed that it is more immoral, not less. For even if one were certain about the fact and knew the act to be less immoral, there still would be no justification for doing it. If, therefore, one acts in the face of uncertainty about the fact which, objectively, could make the act still more seriously immoral, this willingness to do the greater wrong cannot be justified and one therefore is responsible for it. For example, if Samantha is not sure whether a form of birth prevention is contraceptive or abortifacient, she should assume it is abortifacient; if Robert is not sure whether the lie he is tempted to tell about someone will cause great or slight harm to that person, he should assume that the harm will be great.

b) In fulfilling responsibilities, one should take the safe side. People should prefer to err on the side of safety whenever two conditions are met: (i) a doubt of fact causes uncertainty about whether a certain way of acting will fulfill a clear responsibility to pursue some good or avoid some harm, and (ii) there is another morally acceptable way of acting which would more surely fulfill that responsibility. For example, the hunter who is unsure whether something moving in the bushes is an animal or a child should assume it is a child; the priest unsure whether the bread brought forward for consecration is valid matter should assume it is not; the physician unsure whether a new treatment will work should use a standard treatment he knows will work; a juror who remains unsure whether someone accused of a crime is guilty should assume the accused is innocent.

The reason for this norm is obvious: anyone who wholeheartedly intends an end is willing to use appropriate means to attain it; someone who fails to use appropriate means intends the end only halfheartedly at best. So, anyone conscientious and wholehearted about fulfilling responsibilities as he or she should be, will prefer to act in ways sure to fulfill them rather than ways which might well fail.36

Of course, this norm is defeasible. Sometimes acting on the safe side in respect to one responsibility necessarily entails acting on the risky side in respect to another, more compelling responsibility. Then it is necessary to take the risk of not fulfilling the responsibility which is less compelling. For example, fire fighters rightly use methods which are riskier to themselves in order more surely to fulfill their responsibility to rescue people trapped in a burning building.

c) In considering doing good, one should hope for the best. If a doubt of fact makes one uncertain whether an otherwise good act which is under consideration can be done successfully or is likely to produce the benefit anticipated, it should be assumed that it is worth trying. For example, people should try to obtain the education needed to perform valuable services to others, even though they cannot know whether they will succeed: Maria, who has the necessary gifts, should try to get a degree in medicine. Similarly, Mark should give his friend good advice, even though unsure whether the friend will understand, accept, and follow it.

This norm is not an absolute, since possible alternative good things one might try to do should be considered. Maria and Mark also must consider whether there are other opportunities for using their talents, time, energy, and resources. But Christians should be more ready than those without hope to try to do something good rather than conserve resources; God should be trusted to give success to the good works of one’s hands, and even good efforts which fail in this world nevertheless will contribute to the kingdom (see GS 38–39).

People also should rely on God to provide for future needs, instead of anxiously anticipating them like those who, lacking faith, are driven by the insecurities of life to amass wealth and seek status (see Mt 6.25–34; S.t., 2–2, q. 55, aa. 6–7). Moreover, if a possible act would carry out a vocational commitment, that is a further reason for trying it, despite doubts, and accepting the risk of failing. For in making the vocational commitment one already has pledged time, energy, and resources to implement it.

d) Doubts about beneficial side effects do not impede choice. If the doubt of fact is whether certain side effects will occur, consideration first must be given to whether these would be beneficial or harmful. If someone certain they would occur could rightly accept them, then uncertainty obviously does not bar the choice. The degree of probability may and can be taken into account in deliberation, just as all the other factors are taken into account in assessing the considerations in favor of that and other alternatives. For example, if Joe, a manager, can promote one of two otherwise equally qualified and deserving employees, Mary or Sally, he may take into account the small probability that the promotion would have good side effects for Mary and the greater probability that it would have good side effects for Sally, and judge it better to promote Sally than Mary.

e) Doubts about harmful side effects may not be ignored. If the side effects about which one remains uncertain would be harmful, the situation is more complicated. It is impossible to avoid all risks of harmful side effects, since every human act involves some. Sometimes it even is necessary to accept great risks incidental to one’s efforts to realize goods or prevent other harms. But if the side effects are such that they could not rightly be accepted if they were certain to occur, the risk may not simply be ignored. Lacking an adequate reason to do the act and accept the risk, one obviously should not accept it.

f) In taking risks, the risk itself becomes the side effect. But if there is some reason—especially if it would be a clear duty—to do the act, supposing it to be a morally available option, taking the risk must be considered. One should estimate how likely it is that the harmful side effects will occur, and should regard that degree of probability as the side effect to be accepted if the choice is made. In evaluating the risk, the reasons why it would be wrong to accept the harm, supposing it were certain, must be applied to the risk itself. Obviously, the greater the risk of harmful side effects, the more important must be the reason to do the act.

For example, if Harry can support his family by working in a mine and so risking lung disease, and if it would be wrong for him to accept the prospective disease if he were certain to contract it, he must estimate the risk and evaluate it by the same considerations requiring him not to accept the disease if it were a certainty. (These include the good of his own life and the goods that make up the well-being of his family, as well as the modes of responsibility demanding reasonable effort and sacrifice in the pursuit of these goods, and faithful fulfillment of family responsibilities.) Again, if Harriet is considering a mountain ascent which entails a risk of injury or death, the estimated risk is the side effect she needs to evaluate. She should do this using the same moral considerations she would use to reject the harm (injury or death simply for the sport of climbing the mountain) as unacceptable if known to be certain.

It can be fair to accept some risk of harm to others, even though unfair to accept a greater risk of similar harm or a similar risk of greater harm. For example, if citizens and public officials are considering whether to build a nuclear power plant, they should neither ignore the risk of its malfunctioning, with grave consequences, nor simply reject the proposal as if those harms were inevitable. Rather, they should estimate the risk as accurately as possible and then evaluate its acceptability by the same moral considerations which plainly would exclude accepting such harms if they were certain to follow from approving the project.

3. Even the Perplexed Should Try to Act According to Moral Truth

Perplexity arises in situations of choice in which none of the available options seems morally acceptable. The perplexed person thinks: I will sin no matter what I do. The nature and unity of the principles of morality guarantee that perplexity always is resolvable.37 Some philosophers deny this, however, holding that there are insoluble perplexities—morally tragic situations. Of course, some situations can be called “tragic” in the sense that the right choice is costly in terms of real human goods. But God’s goodness and providence ensure that in every situation there is some way to avoid sin. So, it is certain on the basis of hope in God that there is always at least one right alternative, and in many cases it can be found (see F.1.a, above), even though it may be simply to abstain from action and accept the bad consequences. Yet it does sometimes happen that, even after a vigorous effort, no morally acceptable option is found. Then one can proceed as follows.

a) If perplexed, one should examine one’s conscience. Perplexity sometimes arises because a person has made an immoral choice which he or she now takes as a given. For example, someone who has contracted to do something immoral (deliver a shipment of illegal drugs) may have to choose between two different immoral ways of fulfilling the contract (bribe customs officials or kill them). Thus, whenever perplexity arises, self-examination is necessary. If the situation is rooted in a prior immoral choice, it must be repented (in the example, give up dealing in illegal drugs).

b) One’s normative assumptions should be examined. In some cases perplexity arises from erroneously absolutizing nonabsolute norms. For example, a young girl who thinks it always wrong to tell on other children may be perplexed because she also recognizes a responsibility to tell adults when another child is playing with matches and gasoline. In such cases, an appropriate specification of the relevant norm solves the problem. The girl needs to learn that it is not always wrong to tell on others.

Sometimes the alternative to the erroneously absolutized moral norm is a good act which should be done. Cecilia supposes she must keep promises even when the real need to do something else makes it wrong to do so. Having promised to take the children Christmas shopping on Saturday, she feels perplexed about her duty when grandpa needs to be taken to the hospital emergency room to have his chest pains checked out. Cecilia should see that this is a case where the general norm to keep promises must give way to a more specific norm.

Sometimes the alternative to the erroneously absolutized moral norm is to refrain from doing an immoral act. For example, Henry, an insurance adjuster with several children going to college, supposes he either must sin by obtaining bribes for settling cases unjustly or else will sin by failing to do his duty to educate his children. Henry must see that, even if times are hard and there is no other way to educate his children, his duty to do so is defeasible, and he may not fulfill it by arranging unjust settlements.

c) One’s application of moral absolutes should be examined. In some cases, perplexity results from erroneous application of an absolute norm. For example, Mildred supposes that, since it is wrong to choose to kill, it also would be wrong to fulfill her duty to defend her children against attack by using possibly deadly force. If she discovers the root of this perplexity—for instance, by recognizing that she need not choose, but only accept, the foreseen harm as a side effect—her perplexity is dissolved (see CMP, 12.F).

d) If choice is unavoidable, the lesser moral evil should be chosen. The fact that a problem can be solved, objectively or considered in itself, does not mean every individual can solve it. In principle, perplexity always can be resolved—there are no morally tragic situations in which wrongdoing is inevitable—but, in practice, a person sometimes cannot here and now resolve perplexity, yet must make a choice. Then, among a set of possibilities all of which appear morally evil, the option which seems least evil in moral terms can reasonably be regarded as most nearly approximating what would be morally good.38

If, then, someone can resolve perplexity in no other way and must make a choice, it is morally good for him or her to choose what appears to be the lesser moral evil—not, however, insofar as it seems morally evil, but insofar as it is the option most likely to be good. In judging degrees of moral evil, the following criteria should be applied in the order given here: (i) whether the matter is grave or light; (ii) whether the sin would be against God or against human persons, whether against one’s neighbor or oneself; (iii) among offenses against God, the seriousness of the irreverence, and among offenses against human persons, the extent of the harm.39 If applying these criteria fails to solve the problem, the perplexed person does not sin in choosing the option which seems least repugnant.

35. An exegesis of St. Thomas’s account of conscience which comes to similar conclusions: Teófilo Urdanoz, O.P., “La conciencia moral en Santo Tomás y los sistemas morales,” La ciencia tomista 79 (1952): 529–76.

36. Someone might suppose that the rule that one should take the safer course in such cases is at odds with the legitimate use of probabilism. However, that is not so, since probabilism, even if one accepts it within its proper domain, concerns doubtful laws, not uncertain facts. Indeed, the norm stated here is enunciated by St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, and the examples are based on his; see his Theologia moralis, ed. L. Gaudé, 4 vols. (Rome: Ex Typographia Vaticana, 1905–12), 1:21–24.

37. A helpful philosophical treatment of perplexity: Alan Donagan, The Theory of Morality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), 143–53.

38. The judgment of least evil in moral terms is altogether different from the proportionalist attempt to weigh premoral values and disvalues: see CMP, 6.A–B.

39. See St. Alphonsus, Theologia moralis, 1:6. He also says (ibid) that one should avoid the transgression of natural law rather than of human or divine positive law. However, positive law only has moral force through a moral norm, and so the distinction between types of law seems irrelevant to determining which alternative would be the lesser moral evil.