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Moral decision making

30 November, 1999

In this book, (one of ‘Into the Classroom series’) designed for second level teachers, Patrick Hannon examines some understandings of morality and the implications of these understandings for personal moral decision making.

155 pp. Veritas, 2005. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie .


Series Introduction

  1. What Being Moral Means Why Be Moral?
  2. Making Moral Decisions Moral Dilemmas
  3. Becoming Moral
  4. Morality and Religion
  5. Sources of Christian Moral Teaching Gospel and Law
  6. Christian Faith and Morality Morality and Spirituality
  7. Morality and Law
  8. Pluralism and the Common Good

Select Bibliography


If you ask someone what being moral means, the reply is likely to be along the lines of one of the following: ‘ doing what’s right and avoiding what’s wrong’, ‘doing good and avoiding evil’, ‘keeping the moral law’ , ‘acting according to conscience’ – or, if the person is religious, ‘keeping the Commandments’, or ‘keeping God’s law’, or perhaps ‘following Jesus’. And if you press the question it will emerge that at the core of the experience which we call morality is, first, recognition of a distinction between right and wrong, good and evil, and, second, a sense of obligation to do what is good and right, and to avoid what is evil and wrong.

Recognition of such a distinction and the accompanying sense of obligation are universal. People may differ concerning what is right or wrong, as when some consider euthanasia or capital punishment to be morally permissible while for others these are wrong because they are the deliberate taking of a human life. People differ also as to the nature and source of the obligation in question, some believing it to be in a law of God, others believing it to be a trait of our nature which impels us towards what will ensure our happiness or at least our survival. Later we shall have to explore some of these differences, but for now it is enough to notice that the belief that there is a right and wrong, and that we ought to do what is right, is normally and generally found, and people who lack a sense of the distinction and obligation are thought to suffer from a psychopathology.

Moral imperatives
But we use the terms ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and’ ought’ in various contexts, and it requires little reflection to see that the words don’t carry the same weight in each of the contexts in which they may occur. Consider for example the following propositions:

• You ought to respect human life
• You ought to read Shakespeare
• You ought to drive on the left hand side of the road .
• You ought to use a fish-knife

Each of these is in imperative form, each injuncts us to an attitude or action or activity, each intimates some kind of obligation. But is the ought of the same weight in each case? (1)

One way of approaching this is to ask about the significance of what is enjoined in each – the question of whether the imperatives are equally important. Intuitively we should ascribe greater importance to the first and the third, somewhat less to the second, and not a lot to the fourth. If asked about this line of preference we should probably respond in terms of the importance of each for ‘life’ or ‘living’ or some such. We are also likely to say of the injunction to read Shakespeare or – if we give it much credence at all – the injunction to use a fishknife, that in these cases ‘it all depends’.

Of course we ought to read Shakespeare if we are following a course in which his plays are on the syllabus, or if in any case we want to acquaint ourselves with the achievements of English literature. Of course we ought to use a fish-knife if one has been provided by a punctilious host or hostess; not to do so would betray some lack of table etiquette, and to refuse to do so would at the least seem ungracious. Reading Shakespeare is the relatively more important pursuit, failure to use a fish-knife is not a matter of great moment; and any obligation which might arise in either case is a conditional one.

Not so with the imperative ‘you ought to respect human life’. We have already remarked that the subject matter of this is more serious – the injunction has to do with life or living in a quite fundamental way. We shall see later something of what respect for life might mean, but for now we can take it that ‘respect’ in general terms means having regard for, being constructive about, not making little of, not harming, above all not destroying. And it’s plain that lack of respect for human life strikes at the root of everything we consider important about human living.

Of this first imperative, then, we can say that it holds unconditionally – absolutely, if you like – because it is fundamental to any kind of human well-being. But can we say the same about the third – you ought to drive on the left? Ordinarily it will be for us a derivative of the first, or based on it, for it is intimately connected to safety on the roads and so to the protection or non-endangering of people’s lives. But it is not unconditional, for of course it doesn’t hold in most of continental Europe nor in the United States, to mention but two large territories in which it is not the law: Nor would one insist on driving on the left if to do so meant driving over someone who had fallen on the road. So a topic arises which we shall have to examine at some length later, for although in this and other matters morality and the law intersect, they are separable aspects of our experience, and the differences between them are important.

We might summarise the foregoing by saying that as we live life we meet various kinds of imperatives and obligations, some relatively trivial as to content and weight, some more important. The important ones bear upon important aspects of human living, that is they have to do with what we value most about life because they are connected with the enhancement of our existence. In addition, to respect for life, one might add regard for other rights, such as the right to a good name or a fair wage; or one might say such things as we ought to be just and truthful and faithful and compassionate. In each case we should be saying that ‘virtues’ or traits or qualities such as these, and the actions to which they give rise, are what make for our flourishing as human persons.

But we need to notice one other feature of the imperatives just examined, which is that they all have to do with our relationships with each other and with the world around us. And here we hit upon a critical aspect of our existence as humans, which is that we are relational beings, and we cannot adequately be understood if this is lost sight of We come into the world as the fruit of the relationship of our parents, and even for survival we need from the outset to be in some kind of sustaining relationship with another. In normal circumstances a child is in a dependent relationship first to its mother, and he or she comes to maturity in a network of other relationships which contribute to nurturing and education in a complex variety of ways.

At first our relationships are non-reflective, some of them even unconscious: spontaneously we just are – children or sisters or brothers or pupils or friends, or a doctor’s patients or a hairdresser’s customers. But as we grow in self-awareness we become aware of our relationships, and we become aware of being able to make some choices in their regard. I cannot change the fact that I am a child of X and Y, but I find that I have some control over the way in which I behave towards them. I cannot avoid being in the relationship of classmate to Z, but I can choose whether or not I want Z for a friend.

Understanding, choice and responsibility
These characteristics of the human being, awareness (more exactly, understanding) and a capacity for choice, are the foundation of morality. Understanding tells us something about the way the world is, and our capacity for choice allows us to decide how we are going to conduct ourselves in it. A more familiar way of putting this is to say that humans are knowing and free, and that their knowledge and freedom are the basis for morality. An even more familiar account is that it’s because we possess intellect and will that we can distinguish and choose between right and wrong.

Not that our knowledge is often full and clear, or our freedom ever absolutely pure. We can forget, make mistakes, are sometimes ignorant of truth; and sometimes our judgment is clouded by excess of emotion, or by factors deep in our psychology of which we may not even be conscious. Our freedom is always bounded by our knowledge, and it may be trammelled too by compulsions and fears and other stirrings of the psyche, including, again, forces within us of which we may not even be aware. (2)

Our knowledge and our freedom are invariably affected also by our environment. This may be seen in an obvious way when we look at, say, a child from a deprived urban setting. The child may not know right from wrong simply because he or she may never have been taught, either at home or at school (for of course these are where moral rules and values are normally mainly learned). Or they may have been taught in a nominal sense but the values or rules may not have registered, perhaps because of a discrepancy between what they hear and what they see others do. Or indeed what has been taught may have registered, but a social pressure seems nevertheless to drive them to steal or maim or take drugs.

This kind of illustration of the influence of the environment is commonplace, but we needn’t think that environmental or peer pressure is confined to those whom we think of as ‘deprived’. Moral sensibility may be imperilled also in settings which we usually think of as ‘privileged’: as when the context in which I live precludes my ever seeing dole-queues or the signs of homelessness, and I remain untroubled by the inequities in our society of which these are symptoms. Any of us might be blinded by the prejudices of our background so that we are deprived of the capacity to recognise and respond to certain kinds of good and evil.

Yet normally we have sufficient knowledge and capacity for choice to be able in some fashion to direct and shape our lives. The recognition that we are always influenced by the make-up or our environment has not persuaded people to abandon the language of praise or blame, or to cease to try to change our ways, or encourage others to change theirs. This is to say that people generally hold on to the idea of moral responsibility – to the idea that we are able to make something of ourselves and our world, and that we are answerable for what we make of ourselves and how:

So the dimension of experience which we call morality is founded on our capacity to know and to choose; these characteristics of the human are what enable us to choose how we are to relate to other people and to our world. And at this stage we might hazard a description of morality as the art of right relationship with each other and with the world around us. (3) The choice of the word ‘art’ may at first be puzzling, and I shall explain it in due course. But first we might take a closer look at the word ‘right’, and the notion that there is a right and a wrong way of relating.

Right or wrong, good or bad?
Right and wrong in terms of what? We may for the moment think of right as indicating conformity with a rule: with being just, for example, as required by a rule that we ought to be just; or giving help to someone in need, in accordance with the principle that we ought to help the needy; or refraining from stealing, according to the precept that we ought not to steal. But why these rules or principles or precepts, or where did they come from, and why should we conform to them?
We might answer this by reflecting that another way of putting the foregoing is that it’s ‘good’ to be just, or to help those in need, and that it is ‘evil’ or ‘bad’ to steal. Speaking very strictly, the terms right and wrong, even in a moral context, are in the first place descriptive of compliance or otherwise with some standard. But inevitably there is also a suggestion of commendation or disapproval of whatever or whomever is said to be right or wrong. And with the expressions good and evil this evaluative ingredient comes into prominence: a good radio is to be prized and praised, as is a good read – or a good hurler or footballer or carpenter or parent; and a good person makes, as it were, a demand upon our regard.

A good person? It’s not hard to judge whether a radio is good or bad, or a book – or indeed a singer or footballer or student. For it is not difficult to find criteria by which these judgments may be made, even if people sometimes disagree as to the precise criteria, or on how they are to be ranked, or how exactly applied. But a good person? Following a classical philosophical tradition and adapting the Oxford English Dictionary we can say that we call a thing good when it is what it was called to be. So a person is good when she or he is what he or she is called to be. ‘Call’ is figurative; a religious person may think here of the call of God, but the expression need mean no more than that a particular way of being or acting is according to our nature.

And what is that? Several answers are possible. If what characterises the human person are the twin gifts of reason and freedom, we are what we are called to be when we exercise our freedom rationally. And that is indeed an apt description of what being moral means. But it is abstract and general, and people may be attracted by a somewhat warmer way of putting it; and more than one religious or philosophical tradition would be happy with the proposition that human beings are called to love.

Love is a troublesome word, its meaning confused in the variety of its usage. A child loves ice-cream as well as his parents, a whole generation loved the Rolling Stones, Dante loved Beatrice, Diarmuid loved Grainne, Hamlet loved Ophelia, and Don Juan (it seems) loved many women. C.S. Lewis wrote a book called The Four Loves, from which it may be seen that even when we use the word aptly we may be talking of different forms. But there is at least the residue of a core meaning, and for present purposes we can say that love means wishing people well and doing them good.

So the good person is one who loves. But this is too general, it tells us nothing about how we ought in practice to behave, and we need immediately to give it concrete content. We could say that to love is to appreciate another, to have regard (in more than one sense); and to express this appreciation and regard in our dispositions and attitudes and intentions and actions. We should therefore acknowledge the dignity of others, respect their life and person, aim to do them good, be just and truthful, don’t steal from them or take away their good name, and refrain from harming them in any way.

These are some of the ‘rules’ of morality, and they follow from the nature of the enterprise, and the nature of the enterprise is determined by our nature as human beings. Humans are called to love, and the ‘precepts’ or ‘commandments’ which are a feature of all moral systems are simply statements of a standard or test of loving. Later we shall have to see how the various kinds of principle and rule can help us achieve moral truth. Meanwhile we must ask the question, why be moral?


1. We should not be misled by the colloquialism by which ‘ought’ is often understood as meaning ‘it would be a good idea’, as when someone says you ought to take an umbrella because it’s likely to rain. In the language of ethical discourse’ ought’ signifies obligation.
2. Connections between psychology and morality (and spirituality) are explored in Vincent MacNamara, New Life for Old, Dublin, 2004.
3. ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’ is a familiar expression of the central moral imperative of Christianity. Right relationship with other people and with our world presupposes right relationship with oneself


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