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Chapter 4: Some Mistaken Theories of Moral Principles

Question C: Are moral norms in effect only if they are validated by personal choices?

1. The view is that moral norms are in force only if they are adopted or accepted by choices. In one version, these choices are personal decisions of principle by which one sets one’s course in life.11 In another, they are acts of consent to social policy decisions.

2. If the Church’s moral teaching is thought of as policy proposed by Church leadership, it is not difficult to suppose that it must be validated by the consent of the faithful. Some who appeal to the sensus fidelium against the Church’s teaching seem to have something of this sort in mind.12

3. Three things help explain why some find this view plausible. First, moral norms indeed make no practical difference unless one is willing to be guided by them, and one can always choose to violate them. Second, moral principles do resemble laws in many ways, so that it is easy to imagine they are the same. If moral principles were laws, it would seem reasonable to suppose that they lacked force if they were not popularly accepted. Third, since moral norms are not a matter of facts and logic, the source of their force is obscure; locating this source in personal choices seems to solve the problem.

4. But this view must be rejected. It makes the human person’s choice stand on its own without any ultimate measure, for it ignores the requirements which arise from the meanings and values God has embodied in creation, including human persons. Therefore, it allows grossly immoral ways of life equal moral status with the way of Jesus, and even makes it difficult to see how a clever person, careful about adopting moral norms, can go wrong. Some proponents of this view suggest that one can go wrong if one is inauthentic—inconsistent with one’s self-constituted standards. But they do not show why such inconsistency should be immoral, nor do they recognize the ease with which one can avoid inconsistency by being careful not to make decisions which truly tie one down.

5. This view loses its plausibility when three confusions are removed. First, although it is true that one can avoid or assume some duties by choice, this does not mean one can avoid moral responsibility for wrongdoing merely by refusing to endorse the norm one is violating. For example, if one does not choose to marry, one has no duties to a spouse; but if one does marry, one cannot do away with such duties merely by not choosing to acknowledge them.

6. Second, arguments to support this view are often based on equivocations. For example, “decide” means both “judge” and “choose.” Judgments of conscience and choices can both be called “decisions,” but they are decisions in very different senses. One can decide that something is wrong (conscience) and decide to do it anyway (choice). When “decide” refers to judgment, it is a matter of detecting what is right or wrong; when it refers to choice, it is a matter of doing what is right or wrong.

7. Third, though moral norms are like laws in some ways, the two also differ. Moral norms can be true even if they are widely ignored. To be sure, one can render moral norms ineffective in one’s life by choosing to be immoral. Even so, they do not lack their proper force. A violated moral norm remains a moral truth and condemns as immoral the choice which violates it (see Rom 2.12; 3.9–20).

11. For a clear account and critique of one version of this sort of ethics, systematically proposed by R. M. Hare, see Joseph M. Boyle, Jr., “Aquinas and Prescriptive Ethics,” Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, 49 (1975), 82–95.

12. One finds tendencies in this direction in much popular discussion of conscience and the authority of the magisterium, but Catholic theologians generally explicitly reject this theory of conscience and moral principles, since they hold to the traditional view that the task of conscience is to discern truth. Still, the theory is fairly clearly assumed by Jean-Marie Aubert, “Pratique canonique et sens de l’humain,” Revue de droit canonique, 28 (1978), 91–104. It seems implicit in the argument of Andrew Greeley on the effect of Humanae vitae in Andrew Greeley et al., Catholic Schools in a Declining Church (Kansas City, Mo.: Sheed and Ward, 1976), 313–27. And although the exposition is very ambiguous, a theory along these lines seems to underlie the treatment of commandment and conscience in A New Catechism: Catholic Faith for Adults (New York: Herder and Herder, 1967), 371–76. For a clear distinction between “sense of faith” and the vulgar misunderstanding of it as “sensus fidelium,” see John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, 74 AAS (1982) 85–86; Eng. ed. (Vatican City: Vatican Polyglot Press, 1981), 9–11 (sec. 5). An impressive monograph on this point: Jesús Sancho Bielsa, Infalibilidad del Pueblo de Dios: “Sensus fidei” e infalibilidad organica de la Iglesia en la Constitucion “Lumen gentium” del Concilio Vaticano II (Pamplona, Spain: EUNSA, 1979).