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

Question L: What Are One’s Responsibilities When Deliberating with Others?

In general, of course, people’s responsibilities with respect to moral truth are the same whether they deliberate individually or together. However, when sharing in decision making with others, a person faces a few special problems and temptations, and has some special responsibilities.

Their basic, general principle is that each participant in communal decision making is personally responsible for the common good, that is, the whole good that can be realized in and through the community’s morally good cooperative action. While some may see their role merely as an opportunity to pursue or protect their personal or partisan interests, that attitude disregards the reality of the community and the right of all its members to their appropriate share in its common good. Thus, someone deliberating with others should try to determine how the community should act to realize its common good. Personal, party, or group interests should be pursued insofar as they can contribute to that common good and can be realized as parts of it, but not apart from or against the common good.

1. One Is Fully Responsible for One’s Proper Contribution

Plainly, someone who shares the responsibility of making decisions for a group should seek moral certitude about what that group should do. In doing so, all one’s relevant knowledge should be taken into account. Sometimes moral certitude can depend on human faith in others. While compromises often are warranted, a person may not consent to anything he or she judges wrong in order to reach them.

a) Each principal participant should seek personal moral certitude. In many cooperative projects, an individual can responsibly make a very limited contribution, leaving it to others to make sure the effort as a whole realizes its proper objective. That is so especially when many work together to make something or bring about some definite state of affairs: landing an army on a beach, building a barn, cleaning up the dinner dishes, moving a family, and so on. But when two or more deliberate and decide together, each principal participant must personally choose to promote or approve one option for common action, and so each should personally try to attain moral certitude concerning his or her personal choice. Therefore, when participating in a group’s deliberation and decision making, a person should pay attention to and examine every step of the deliberation insofar as that is required for moral certitude concerning what personal position he or she should take on questions to be decided by the group.

Often, however, many members of a deliberative body fail to meet this responsibility. One or a few are deeply concerned about the body’s common business, energetic in developing proposals and promoting their acceptance, and patient enough to carry on the body’s work even when it becomes tedious; but others are inclined not to prepare for meetings, attend to the problems and available alternatives, question factual assumptions, look closely at the application of norms, come to meetings, persist when the hour grows late—in short, they are not inclined to contribute seriously to decision making by seeking moral certitude about what the group should do and doing what they can to win acceptance of their judgment.

Such persons usually are roused to action only upon perceiving some threat to their personal or partisan interests; otherwise, they tend to follow the lead of the few. Some follow one leader, others another, not because of confidence that their leaders have reached the truth of the matter, but because of emotional attachment, personal profit, or a merely general agreement with their opinions and policies. But because each person should seek moral truth to guide his or her personal choice concerning what proposal to promote or approve for common action, such docility and conformity are wrong precisely insofar as they replace the conscientious judgments people should make about how to use their personal power in the group’s process.

For someone who reasonably foresees, or should foresee, that the community could do a grave injustice or suffer a serious harm if the common decision is not what it should be, abdicating personal responsibility in the common deliberation obviously is grave matter.

b) Nothing relevant that one knows should be set aside. While every participant in communal deliberation should direct his or her judgment by the requirements of the common good, it does not follow that each should judge exclusively on the basis of information and moral norms available and acceptable to all the others. Sometimes one person has some relevant knowledge which the other participants in deliberation are unaware of or deny. For example, one may possess secret information which may not be divulged or, as a Christian, may know a relevant moral norm that nonbelieving participants do not accept. In such cases, what is known should be taken fully into account, not set aside, as one considers what proposal the group should adopt to serve its common good. For one’s duty is to try to identify the truth about what the community should do, and it cannot reasonably be expected that the truth will be identified if any relevant fact is ignored or any norm known to be true and relevant is set aside.

c) Moral certitude can rest partly on human faith in others. Although people should seek moral certitude concerning what proposal to support or approve, it does not always follow that they must personally examine, understand, and gain direct certitude about everything leading to the judgment favoring a particular proposal. Otherwise, nobody could serve responsibly in any deliberative body dealing with a wide range and quantity of business, for example, a national congress or parliament, or a provincial or state legislature. The necessary moral certitude sometimes can be achieved by believing others, either concerning what proposal to support or approve, concerning subordinate questions leading to that judgment, or concerning procedural matters.

If, however, an individual’s judgment is based on human faith in another, he or she acts responsibly only if that faith is reasonable: there must be good reason to think that those trusted personally believe what they say and are likely to be correct. Many common motives for following leaders at best have no bearing on the reasonableness of trusting their judgment. Very often, it is unreasonable to accept another’s judgment on faith until after examining, understanding, and gaining direct certitude about at least certain matters which led to it.

d) One’s role and corresponding responsibility may be limited. Sometimes a person shares in a common deliberation not as a principal participant but only as a subordinate contributor. For example, an individual may be asked for his or her thoughts about a problem concerning which some authoritative body is deliberating, or may be asked by a superior for advice about a decision to be made. In such cases, the person’s role in the decision-making process is limited, and his or her responsibility is only to carry out that role. Hence, it is not necessary to consider every alternative, investigate every doubtful fact, and so on. Rather, one need only attempt to understand the question as it is presented, consider it in the light of the common good of the community concerned, and offer the information and advice which appear appropriate.

Of course, when the matter seems very important or a seriously mistaken or wrong decision seems likely, a greater effort should be made, within the limits of one’s responsibility, to bring about a sound outcome. But one should not feel responsible for communal decisions one cannot make, and so should not try to usurp others’ responsibilities; rather, within the proper limits of obedience, a person should be prepared to accept the decision, even if he or she would have decided otherwise.

e) In compromising, one may not intend what one judges wrong. Sometimes, all of the proposals under consideration by a deliberative body are morally acceptable, and the issue is which is likely best to protect or promote the common good. In such cases, an individual should promote the proposal he or she judges best. But if it cannot gain approval by the body as a whole, one should compromise, that is, help to work out and join in approving what one considers the best alternative the body as a whole will approve. In compromising, however, consent may not be given to anything one considers to be wrong, even if that would serve as a means to gain support for a proposal one regards as urgently required by the common good.

Still, this must be distinguished from two other actions which sometimes are morally acceptable.

First, sometimes none of the alternatives for choice is morally acceptable. Then, a person may and should oppose what is morally worse even by voting for what is less bad, since it is not what is judged wrong which is intended but only the prevention of something more seriously wrong. For example, members of a legislative body may vote for a measure which partially rectifies some social injustice but also leaves it partially in place if their only alternative is to vote against the measure and let the injustice continue unrestricted.

Second, very often the question is whether to support or oppose a morally mixed omnibus proposal including both morally unacceptable elements and elements in accord with the true common good. In such cases, the proposal sometimes should be supported—its good elements intended while those which are morally wrong are only accepted as side effects. For example, members of a labor union perhaps should support a proposed contract they consider generally fair even if they judge that one category of workers will gain excessive advantages. Sometimes, however, the side effect cannot justly be accepted, and so such a proposal should be opposed. For example, members of the board of a professional association probably should oppose a proposed policy statement containing many sound and excellent elements but also including the authorization of a gravely unjust practice.

2. Other Participants Should Be Helped to Judge and Act Rightly

Insofar as the work of a deliberative body is a cooperative effort, a person not only should seek moral certitude for himself or herself but should try to help his or her colleagues judge and act rightly. It is necessary to take their beliefs and motives into account and proceed within their limits, but without saying or doing anything inconsistent with what one judges to be the truth and the true common good of the community.

a) The case for what one judges right may be limited but not distorted. Often it is clear that others will not accept some part of one’s grounds for moral certitude about what proposal to support or approve; sometimes even stating such unacceptable elements evidently will do no good and, indeed, will draw opposition to what one judges true. Then such elements need not be stated. However, one should try to help others reach the truth on a basis one believes to be sound, and so the case for what one judges right may not be distorted by asserting anything believed to be false or invoking any motive not considered at least an element of a good reason.

b) One may point out to others what consistency requires of them. Sometimes others will not accept any good reason for adopting a proposal one judges should be adopted. However, consistency with their own convictions would lead them to support the proposal, though on grounds one judges unsound. In such cases, one may point out what consistency would require, for that need not involve asserting anything false or approving anything wrong.