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


Everyone naturally knows some moral principles, but not always what should be done in a given situation. To know that, moral principles must be brought to bear on the alternatives available for choice, and that requires practical reasoning guided by prudence.

Prudence presupposes experience and all the moral virtues, and is developed by seeking moral truth. Conscience, rather than being a substitute for such knowledge, is formed by this quest. Moral truth should be sought as the guide for one’s every choice. To find the full moral truth necessary for living a Christian life, the light of the gospel is essential, and others’ advice often is needed. Moral reflection should be thoroughgoing, taking every important factor into account.

Moral norms are important in several ways, and they are acquired from various sources. While experience of certain sorts is presupposed by the knowledge of moral truth, there are various erroneous theories of experience as the source of sound moral norms. One knows moral truths naturally and from revelation, and the Church’s teaching articulates and confirms them.

Depending on the circumstances, there are several ways of solving problems about moral norms and their application. Doubts of fact sometimes need not be resolved, but ordinarily a reasonable effort should be made to do so.

Often one should look for options better than those immediately apparent. This requires asking oneself appropriate questions and trying to be inventive.

When facing a choice, a person should deliberate rationally despite emotional obstacles. But emotions are not to be ignored; in some situations they should be carefully examined, and their harmony with reason, or lack thereof, established. Since partiality can cause injustice, the Golden Rule should be used to exclude partiality. It may take several sorts of moral analysis to uncover partiality, however.

Depending on circumstances, there are various ways of dealing with residual doubts about norms, doubts about facts, and perplexity. Even the perplexed should do their best to act according to moral truth.

When a choice is necessary between morally acceptable options, discernment is needed. It involves attention to feelings and the comparison of different sets of emotional motives. It should be practiced in many cases, not just before making major commitments.

Most conflicts of duties should be forestalled or resolved. Impartiality and discernment are the keys to solving them.

In deliberating with others, one is fully responsible for one’s own proper contribution, limited though this may be. Compromise is sometimes permitted, but one may not intend what one judges wrong. One also should help other participants to judge and act rightly.

Moral advisers should be both teachers and nondirective counselors, providing instruction as needed and promoting self-awareness and insight. They should never try to discern on others’ behalf. Giving moral advice and exercising social authority are distinct functions, though sometimes the same person must do both. Moral advisers should never counsel the lesser evil, and those counseling people with a legalistic mentality have special responsibilities.

It should be noted that this chapter provides no support for proportionalism. Although several senses of proportionate reason are clarified here, all presuppose traditional morality.