Thursday, October 25, 2007


“Morality” comes from the Latin, mos (plural, mores), for “custom”. It is synonymous with “Ethics” (Greek, ethos), the science of the goodness of human acts (i.e., actions that involve our intelligence and free will).

There are two bases for judging the goodness (or badness) of human acts: the objective (from the Latin, ob-, “in front of”, and –jectum, “thrown”) and the subjective (sub-, “under”). The objective basis is the “natural moral law”. The subjective basis is the “conscience” of the individual actor or agent.

The natural moral law is the set of “norms” or rules that derive from our “authentic” human nature, discernible by human reason. These norms are “objective”; i.e., they have an existence outside the individual human person, originating from God’s governance of the universe. Whether one agrees or not, murder, adultery, and theft, are immoral as they run counter to our true nature. Because of original sin, however, and the resulting “darkened” intellect of our “wounded” human nature, it is often difficult to figure out what these norms are. Fortunately for us, out of His goodness, God revealed these norms by way of a summary in the Ten Commandments.

While the norms of the natural moral law constitute the objective aspect of morality, the individual’s “conscience”—the judgment of the intellect concerning the goodness or evil of one’s action in the particular, concrete, situation—constitutes its subjective aspect. Thus, the moral blameworthiness of the individual for a particular act (and his legal liability also in many cases) depends not only on his violation of the natural moral law but also on whether he acted voluntarily and knowingly, i.e., against his good conscience. Thus, the insane or feeble-minded are exempt from moral and legal culpability.

A person must indeed act conformably with his conscience or else be “divided against himself” (diminishing his “integrity”). Still, a person’s conscience may be in error; in which case, while he might not be morally culpable for following his conscience, he would still suffer from the consequences of his objectively wrongful act. Thus, an insane person who ingests a lethal dose of poison would die despite the absence of moral culpability; and one who thought nothing wrong of drunken driving may wreck his car and injure himself or others. Accordingly, man also has a duty to educate his conscience, to have a “right” conscience. Ignorance of the objective wrongness of one’s particular act does not erase moral culpability if “he should have known”; i.e., if it was a contrived ignorance or one that he could have overcome (vincible ignorance).

Often, immoral acts result not so much from ignorance as from a refusal to accept the existence of objective norms; an assertion of “freedom” to define right and wrong, as Adam and Eve succumbed to the temptation to become “like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5). Pope John Paul II teaches:

“In the book of Genesis we read: 'The Lord God commanded man, saying, "You may eat freely of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die."' (Gen 2:16-17)….With this imagery, Revelation teaches that the power to decide what is good and what is evil does not belong to man, but to God alone. The man is certainly free, inasmuch as he can understand and accept God's commands. And he possesses an extremely far-reaching freedom, since he can eat 'of every tree of the garden.' But his freedom is not unlimited: it must halt before the 'tree of the knowledge of good and evil', for it is called to accept the moral law given by God. In fact, human freedom finds its authentic and complete fulfillment precisely in the acceptance of that law. God, who alone is good, knows perfectly what is good for man, and by virtue of his very love proposes this good to man in the commandments….God's law does not reduce, much less do away with human freedom; rather, it protects and promotes that freedom.” (Veritatis Splendor, No. 35; italics in the original)

To reach our end, union with God in His eternal happiness, we must live morally good lives. Our interior dispositions must be firmly oriented towards truth and goodness; otherwise, we cannot be united with God, Truth and Goodness Himself. “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48)—like Christ, Who is “perfect man” as well as “perfect God” (Athanasian Creed). We must behave according to our authentic human nature, neither as animals nor as disembodied spirits neglectful of the demands of our corporeality. On the other hand, because of the “weakened” will of our wounded nature, it is not easy to choose the good always. St. Paul attests: “The good that I want to do, I do not do; the evil that I do not want to do, that is what I do” (Rom 7:19). We are a bundle of “disordered tendencies”; hence, we need to struggle and we need grace (God’s help). We must use our freedom to “correspond” with the graces that we receive.

The norms of the natural moral law are not arbitrary, burdensome impositions from a tyrannical lawgiver; on the contrary, they are a guide to happiness from our loving Father. May we never give up in the struggle to be good, in all the events and circumstances of daily life.