Brian Lewis, Ballarat, Australia
QUESTION OF A CONCRETE ETHICAL AGENDA
commonly distinguish character from action, though of course we know that they
are intimately connected. Moral norms (we lump together under this head moral
rules, laws, precepts) which tell us about developing character are called
formal norms – they define the form or shape of the person we should
be and continually strive to become: loving, honest, just, unselfish, and
so on. But they do not tell us precisely what we should do in order to be
loving, honest, compassionate, caring and just persons.
are other kinds of norms (moral rules, laws, precepts) which are concerned with action.
They are called concrete moral norms,
because they do give very specific information about what we should or should
not do in particular situations in order to be just, compassionate, honest, and
so on. Examples of such norms would be: 'secrets given in confidence should be
kept', 'pay your lawful debts', 'do not speak falsely', 'do not kill'. They
attempt, in other words, to prescribe a strategy, to write a script, to provide
us with a definite moral agenda, for right living in society.
moral norms serve as guidelines, not in the sense that we can choose to follow
them or not, but in the sense that they are a help in discovering the right
moral decision in a particular situation in the light of all the relevant
factors bearing on the case, whether we are dealing with the violation of a
professional confidence or performing a duty to the community by revealing
confidential information to the authorities to avoid a disaster. This means
that, unlike formal moral norms, they admit of exceptions. A starving man may be
justified in taking food from a supermarket. One may kill in self-defence in
certain conditions. One is not obliged to return his revolver to a homicidal
maniac. But this does not mean that they are not important.
all have inbuilt checks and balances in the way of at least some basic concrete
moral norms, particularly negative ones like not telling untruths, not killing
innocent people, not taking the possessions of others, to which we subscribe and
which serve us as guides for living morally. These sorts of norms have been
formulated in human history through the experience of much pain and experiment.
But it must be remembered that, not only does the individual person mature and
develop through life, but society and social groups evolve over time. Many
things that in an earlier age were not considered wrong at a later stage of
human evolution are judged quite differently. Slavery and the taking of interest
on a loan are cases in point. And today western society is coming to accept that
capital punishment is wrong. Similar differences of moral evaluation are to be
found across different cultures.
is evident from this that there is a development in our understanding of what it
means to be and to live as a human person in community, and so in the
elaboration of concrete moral norms, which may not be hard and fast for
everybody forever; there is no general consensus among all peoples about the
rules themselves or their formulation or their obligatory force. Although
actions such as lying, stealing, killing, adultery are so destructive of human
relations and community living that no culture or time frame would consider them
morally irrelevant, the fact remains that people still disagree about what is to
count as lying, stealing and unjustified killing.
moral norms, bearing on the respect due to every person and on being morally
good are universally valid and do not admit of exceptions. But concrete moral
norms do admit of variability and exceptions. This is endorsed by Aquinas, for
whom only the most basic and general moral principles are unchangeable and
universally valid. The fundamental ones, such as the obligation to love and do
good and avoid evil, always hold good. According to Aquinas, this is also the
case with those norms which command the preservation of personal and social life
and the search for truth and social order. But the more we come down to
particulars about how these things are to be realised the more difficult it
becomes to cover every situation and to preclude every exception.
is a problem then with making such concrete moral norms absolute or
exceptionless, unless we could state them so as to exclude all exceptions. This
has long been recognised. Generally speaking, it is wrong to kill a human being,
but the norm does not apply, most people believe, when one does so in self-defence
or maybe in a just war or, some still say, in the case of capital punishment. We
may say that murder is always wrong but that these exceptions do not qualify as
murder, because arguably they are justified killing and by murder we mean unjustified
killing of an innocent person. Similarly, we can affirm that the rule 'Do not
steal' always obliges but that not every act of taking another's goods qualifies
as stealing. Stealing means taking another's property against that person's
it all depends on how we define the term lie when we consider the rule that
lying is always wrong. Is any deliberate falsehood a lie, as has been
traditionally said? Or is it the case, as many today hold, that a lie means
telling what is untrue to one who has a right to the truth? The example is given of the Gestapo demanding to
know if there were Jewish patients in a German hospital during the Nazi regime
and being told by the administrator (untruthfully) that there were none there.
According to the second view this falsehood is not morally wrong (and therefore
it is not a lie) because in the circumstances the inquirers have no right to be
told the truth.
short, murder, stealing, lying and so many of the terms we use to refer to
immoral conduct are evaluative terms and they must be strictly defined. As is
evident from the examples given, we need also to take into account, not just the
material happening as such, but all the morally relevant circumstances which may
call for exceptions to the norm.
Finally, it is worth noting that concrete moral norms are a vital part of our moral language. They are important for educational, catechetical and pastoral purposes. Not only do we need to be made aware through the moral language we learn of the deeper possibilities of living, but we also must be alerted to patterns of living that damage or destroy these possibilities. Children need to be told what to do and what not to do. They must learn the language that reflects the experience of their parents and of others who have come before them. Particularly today, in the confusion that prevails in so many areas of modern life, such as the field of genetic engineering, questions about prolonging or terminating human life, homosexuality, social justice, we can all profit by enlightenment and guidance. We need a script, an ethical agenda, not necessarily to settle every complex issue, but to ensure that our thinking and action are at least on the right lines. This is what concrete moral norms seek to accomplish for the benefit of all in the community.