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

Question K: How Should One Resolve Conflicts of Duties?

Duties in the strict sense are specific responsibilities to another or others, arising from a moral norm regarding action bearing on others, a just and applicable law, or a social role one is bound to fulfill. Sometimes, however, two (or possibly more) duties make conflicting demands: to be in two places at the same time, to use the same money for two purposes, or something of the sort. Sometimes, too, a duty conflicts with another affirmative moral responsibility; for example, somebody on the way to work notices a person who needs help and can only fulfill the common responsibility to help others by failing to fulfill the duty to be at work.

1. Duties Generally Take Priority over Other Responsibilities

Duties in the strict sense correspond to rights: the duty of parents to care for children corresponds to children’s right to their parents’ care; each persons’s duty not to kill others corresponds to their right to life. Other responsibilities do not correspond to rights: the general responsibility to help others in need does not correspond to a right of this or that needy person to one’s help; the responsibility of Christians to love enemies does not correspond to enemies’ right to be loved; and the responsibility to avoid cruelty to animals does not correspond to a right to kind treatment. (Rights and duties will be treated more fully in 6.B.6, and the claim that animals have rights in 10.C.1.)

Conflicts between duties in the strict sense and other affirmative responsibilities are rather easily resolved. Since failing to do one’s duty always is detrimental to others, the question is whether it is fair to leave the duty unfulfilled for the sake of fulfilling the other responsibility. The procedure already explained for applying the Golden Rule should be used. Because one’s duty surely should be done unless the other responsibility overrides its claim, a doubt still remaining should be settled in favor of fulfilling the duty.

2. Most Conflicts of Duties Should Be Forestalled or Resolved

Some conflicts between duties in the strict sense are inevitable, but many should be foreseen and prevented, and others can be resolved.

a) In making commitments, conflicts of duties should be forestalled. Christians should bear in mind that fulfilling the duties that flow from their commitments is a serious responsibility toward others and part of their role in building up Jesus’ body. Thus, they should avoid making commitments which they foresee they probably will be unable to fulfill in significant respects. For example, both men and women who marry and have children should avoid other undertakings likely to generate conflicts of duties at odds with a stable family life and the children’s upbringing. God calls no one to inconsistent commitments. Thus, not only those called to be priests or religious but those with other callings—for example, to certain professional or civic roles—which they foresee would regularly lead to conflicts with the responsibilities of marriage and family life also are called to permanent or temporary celibacy for the sake of the kingdom.

b) One should give up less binding roles to fulfill others. If some of a person’s roles based on breakable commitments regularly lead to conflicts with the duties of roles based on unbreakable commitments, the former should be given up for the sake of the latter. Thus, a man should give up a second job if it repeatedly conflicts with his family responsibilities and provides comforts rather than necessities of life; a woman should give up civic involvements if they regularly impede her from fulfilling her responsibilities as wife and mother.

c) One’s life should be simplified to gain freedom to fulfill duties. It is common for people habitually to engage in certain activities which once had a legitimate place in their lives but now conflict with duties. For example, before taking on the responsibilities of a mature state in life, young people rightly have many activities: hobbies, certain forms of recreation, sports, friendships, and so on. But when a major commitment has been made, some of these activities, although good in themselves, can regularly conflict with duties. Plainly, in this situation, they should simplify their lives by changing their habits.

Similarly, the ownership of any kind of property entails the responsibility of caring for it and seeing that it is properly used (see 10.E.4.a, 10.E.5). Having obtained something for a good use, however, people tend to retain it even as their need for it declines. Very often, then, freedom to fulfill duties can be gained only by dispensing with something to which one has become attached, and the burdensome item of property should be disposed of unless retaining it is essential to fulfilling other responsibilities.

d) Some conflicts of duties can and should be resolved. Even people as careful as they should be to forestall conflicts of duties sometimes seem to encounter such conflicts. But a dutiful person often can find ways of resolving apparent conflicts so that no duty need go unfulfilled. When it appears that duties conflict, a person should look for an alternative to leaving either duty unfulfilled. Two things cannot be done at the same time, but it might be possible to transfer one to some other time; one cannot personally do something, but might be able to get someone else to take one’s place.

Moreover, laws and social roles usually include implicit exception clauses, which under specific conditions limit duties. For example, the duty to attend Sunday Mass implicitly is limited by exceptions for cases in which doing so would endanger one’s own health or that of others, interfere with taking care of a sick person, and so forth. One important form of exception clause is the possibility of obtaining a dispensation or permission from someone in authority, so that one is freed of the duty, for example, of participating in Sunday Mass (see 3.B.4.d).

3. Conflicts of Duties Are Solved by Impartiality and Discernment

If such efforts do not eliminate the problem, a person really does face a conflict of duties. Tempting as it might be to fulfill the duty whose nonfulfillment is likely to elicit a more unpleasant reaction, or to fulfill the duty one thinks looks easy and pleasant to fulfill, such motives should be recognized and firmly set aside.

a) Partiality must be avoided. Since the nonfulfillment of either duty will be detrimental to someone, the most important factor to examine is whether one is moved in one direction by partiality. Conflicts of duties are likely to be more or less recurrent, and someone who chooses with partiality to fulfill this or that duty almost surely will eventually do grave injustice to those he or she regularly fails to serve.

b) One must discern which duty is more appropriate to fulfill. If all the tests are passed, the problem of conflict of duties is exactly like any other case in which it is necessary to discern between two good options. Since no one ever is morally obliged to do the impossible, the situation is not one of perplexity. Because the fulfillment of either duty would be obligatory if it could be fulfilled, the choice to fulfill either will be morally good. Nonfulfillment of the other is not itself chosen. Rather, it is only a side effect of the good and morally required choice to fulfill the first.

c) An overarching commitment provides the standard. In carrying out this discernment, one’s emotions about fulfilling and not fulfilling each of the conflicting duties should be considered and compared with one’s more general emotions related to the object of the single commitment common to both. For example, if both duties pertain to professional life, discernment between the two should depend on a general sense of professional responsibility. But if the conflicting duties have no single principle short of faith itself, then one’s religious emotions should be used as a standard, just as in making vocational commitments.