TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


Chapter 10: From Modes of Responsibility to Moral Norms

Question A: Do all the modes of responsibility have normative force in the same way?

1. The answer is both yes and no. All the modes of responsibility exclude unreasonable grounds for acting. Their normative thrust comes from the priority of intelligence, which comprehends the whole of human possibility, over emotion, which is limited to some parts and aspects of what a human person can be. Thus, all the modes have normative force in the same way in this sense: All are requirements of practical reasonableness (see S.t., 1–2, q. 18, a. 5; q. 21, a. 1; q. 71, a. 2, ad 3).

2. Furthermore, all the modes embody the same first principle of morality. This unitary first principle makes a single demand: that one live in a way consistent with openness to integral human fulfillment. This human ideal is the ultimate normative principle of the requirements of human morality. (As chapter nineteen will show, integral human fulfillment is part of the fulfillment of all things in the Lord Jesus, which is the purpose of the plan of eternal law.) Thus, the modes of responsibility all have normative force in the same way in this sense, too: Their thrust comes from integral human fulfillment, and they shape life toward this fulfillment.

3. However, the eight modes also differ in their normative force, since they exclude somewhat different unreasonable grounds of action. For example, laziness, excluded by the first mode, is plainly different from favoritism, excluded by the fifth. In disregarding any mode of responsibility when one makes a choice, one determines oneself in a way which does not comport well with all the basic human goods. In not responding fully to all the principles of practical reason which correspond to these goods, one is more or less unreasonable. But violations of different modes comport badly with human goods in somewhat different ways—there are different ways of being unreasonable.

4. In other words, unreasonable self-determination can dispose one badly toward integral human fulfillment in a variety of ways, depending on which mode of responsibility is violated. But the normative thrust of the modes comes precisely from their orientation toward integral human fulfillment. Thus, the normativity of the different modes is somewhat different. In disregarding various modes, one’s disposition—or, more properly, indisposition—toward human goods and integral fulfillment is diverse; and this indisposition is more or less radical, depending on which mode one violates.

5. Reflecting upon the modes and upon one’s dispositions toward human goods in disregarding them, one can see the variety of ways in which violations dispose (or indispose) one toward integral fulfillment. Thus: A person deterred from acting by emotional inertia lacks adequate commitment to the good, but is not determined against it. A person pressed by impatience or enthusiasm to act individualistically is disposed favorably to the good, but not committed enough to respect the social conditions for integral human fulfillment. A person moved to act out of reasonless desire lacks adequate commitment to the goods to prefer reasonable action for an intelligible good. A person deterred by fear from acting is disposed to the good, but not committed enough to persist in acting for it. A person moved to act or deterred from acting by partiality is disposed to the good, but more concerned that certain people enjoy it than that its realization contribute to integral human fulfillment. A person moved to act or deterred from acting by apparent goods or evils is disposed to the good, but more concerned with the conscious experience of it than with its full reality. A person moved to act destructively out of hostility is committed against the good, and there is no relevant commitment to a human good. A person moved to act for an emotionally qualified “greater good” or “lesser evil” is committed against one good, but there is some disposition toward another good. Plainly, the relationships of unreasonable choices to goods are not all alike.

6. This point can be illustrated by considering different modes of responsibility and violations of them whose actual effects on a human good are similar. For example, even though one’s immoral actions in several different cases are equally likely to lead to someone else’s death, one’s immorality can nevertheless be more or less grave depending on the mode of responsibility in question in each case. Thus, it would be worse to try to hurt somebody one hates (a violation of the seventh mode) than to assign somebody to hazardous duty unfairly (a violation of the fifth mode), and worse to do the latter than fail to help somebody in distress (a violation of the first or fourth modes).

7. All the modes of responsibility bear upon choices, and some of them bear only upon choices. In choosing, one can violate any mode, and often one violates two or more at the same time. The fifth mode of responsibility, impartiality, bears upon every sort of voluntariness—simple and spontaneous willing aside—including that with which one accepts foreseen consequences of choices and that with which one is limited by former choices (see 9‑F). How the other modes of responsibility bear upon the acceptance of foreseen consequences and the other varieties of voluntariness which presuppose choice can be worked out in analyzing various moral questions.

8. Even in their bearing upon choices, different modes of responsibility set different requirements. Some demand appropriate acts, others forbid inappropriate ones, and some do both. This difference is important because, as will be seen shortly, only negative specific moral norms can hold without exception.

9. Because different modes have a normative character which is also different and because they set different sorts of requirements for choices, a sound conscience does not experience all specific moral norms as having the same degree of definiteness and force. There is a moral obligation to help starving children and a moral obligation not to kill unwanted children; but the second obligation is more definite and exigent than the first.

To show that modes of responsibility differ in normative force, the following example compares the guilt of a person who brings about three deaths by acts chosen in disregard of three different modes of responsibility. In all three cases, there is responsibility for someone’s death, which is foreseen as having the same degree of likelihood.

In the first instance, an individual—call him “Titus”—is driving along an expressway before the morning rush. Driving in the left of the two lanes, as is his custom, Titus notes in passing a woman lying in the middle of the right lane waving frantically. Titus is too surprised to stop at once; by the time he does, he realizes he probably is more than a half-mile beyond the woman. He could walk back or he could proceed to the next exit and drive back on the other side or he could summon emergency help. He decides that the third course is safe and reasonable, and sets off for the next exit.

But as Titus drives toward it, it occurs to him that summoning help will be a nuisance and is likely to lead to questions, which will waste more time. He did not come near the woman. Even if he does not summon help, someone else might help her, although she is likely to be struck soon if no one does. Titus is having a hard time making up his mind as the exit looms. He decides not to turn off. The next day he reads in the morning paper that the woman was killed on the expressway.

In the second instance, Titus is at work, doing his job as an assistant fire chief directing operations at a large fire. The fire is threatening to spread to a wide area, and it would be useful for one man to do an especially hazardous job. Titus cannot do it himself, but there are two men who can. As is his custom, Titus asks them if either will volunteer, but neither will, although both say they will do the job if ordered to. Titus recalls the morning when he did not summon help; the chances of the man who does this job are about the same as were the chances of the woman on the road. “Decisions, decisions!” Titus thinks, “Who if anyone will I order to do this?” The one more likely to do the job successfully and survive—but more likely only by a slight margin in Titus’ judgment—is a man Titus likes. If he were the only person available, Titus thinks he would not order the job to be done. The other is a man Titus does not know well, who somehow gets under his skin. Titus orders this man to do the hazardous job. He does it successfully, but does not survive.

In the third instance, Titus has been spending a night drinking with a group of relatives, including his father-in-law, whom Titus detests. The older man is a very unpleasant drunk, but quite strong; he also has a bad heart. Father-in-law tries to pick a fight with Titus, who brushes him aside several times. But eventually Titus begins to think that he will teach the old so-and-so a lesson, and if he has a heart attack, that will serve him right. Recalling the two previous incidents, Titus is aware that there is about the same likelihood that his father-in-law will not survive the strenuous exertion of a fist fight. However, Titus relishes the thought of pasting the old so-and-so. Finally, he says: “Okay. If you want to fight, come on outside.” They fight; the older man is amazingly tough, but Titus gets the better of him. In the morning Titus receives a call; his father-in-law is dead of a heart attack.

In all three instances, the death for which Titus is responsible follows upon a choice Titus makes. In the first instance, his failure to help violates the fourth mode of responsibility; in the second instance, his choice of the fellow he likes less violates the fifth mode of responsibility; in the third instance, his decision to fight violates the seventh mode of responsibility. In all three cases, there are various distractions and pressures; let us assume they even out. In all three there is the same chance of a death, which Titus is willing to take.

Intuitively, it seems that in the first instance Titus is not so guilty as in the second, and in the second not so guilty as in the third. In all three cases, Titus makes a choice which does not comport well with the principle of practical reason: Life is a good to be preserved. But in the first instance, Titus just does not care enough about life; in the second instance, he cares, but he cares more about one life than another; in the third instance, any concern about life is submerged by hostility, so that the destruction of life has some appeal.