Morality 101 (CCC 1755-1761)

The universal nature of morality

One of the most important things about Catholic morality is that it is not just Catholic morality. Many non-Catholics – when presented with a Catholic moral teaching (for example, the Catholic teaching on contraception) – will say “Well, that’s all very well – but I am not Catholic so that doesn’t matter.”

The apologist should point out that the reason Catholics follow certain moral teachings is not merely because this is what the Church says, but rather Catholics follow them and the Church teaches them because they are true. Morality is universal – what is good for one person to do is good for all people, and what is bad for one person to do is bad for all people. Abortion is always wrong, for example – it does not matter who the person is or what the situation is.

The purpose of this article is to show the Catholic apologist what the moral principles are and assist him in explaining to and defending them from non-Catholics who have a differing opinion. With these moral principles the apologist will not only be able to explain what the Church teaches and why, but also how the Church arrives at this teaching.

Definitions

Good and evil are often mentioned in morality. Many people have a faulty and populist understanding of what good and evil are; they define “good” as “that which is pleasant” or “that which saves lives”. However, the correct definition of good is “acting in accord with the nature of a thing” or “that which perfects or completes a thing’s being”. For a human to be morally good is to act in accord with the nature of humanity; we are made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26) and should therefore act as He would have us act. We are made to love and serve God, and to be morally good is to act in accordance with that.

Evil is defined as the absence or lacking of a good – thus, a moral evil is to act against the wishes of God.

The reason good is defined as acting in accord with the nature of oneself is that only this allows the creature (in our case a human) to be completed and perfected. The nature of a human is to be human – to act in a manner different to that is to deny it. Non-Christian moralists may disagree on the nature of what humans are, but the Bible (which is inspired by God) tells us that our nature is to be made in the image of God, and hence to act in accord with His will.

This definition of good and evil immediately shows many forms of moral reasoning to be faulty, merely because they assume a different definition of good and evil. All other forms of good and evil are relative and not absolute. Without absolute definitions of good and evil no act can be called truly called good or evil, as from a different perspective what is good could be evil and vice versa.

Intrinsic evil refers to actions that are morally evil in such a way that is essentially opposed to the will of God or proper human fulfillment. The key consideration here is that intrinsically evil actions are judged to be so solely by their object, independently of the intention that inspires them or the circumstances that surround them. “Intrinsic” has nothing to do with how heinous the act is (although all heinous acts are intrinsically evil), but rather that the act is wrong no matter what its circumstances. A good example of an intrinsically evil act would be deliberately willed abortion.

Moral principles

Moral principles are methods which allow us to analyze complex moral situations. Knowing what is good or evil is not enough in complex moral situations; situations (for example) where there is no choice which is purely good or which totally avoids evil are an example of this. The moral principles allow us to determine how we should act in a specific situation. The following moral principles are not an exhaustive list, but are some of the main and most significant ones.

Principle of beneficence

This is known as the “first principle” of morality – it means that one must do good and avoid evil. This is a very obvious moral principle – in order to act in a morally good manner one must do good actions! Although obvious, this principle is not always followed.

Principle of nonmaleficence

This is sometimes defined as “first, do no harm”. This principle means that we should avoid doing what is evil. Again, this is a very obvious moral principle – but one which is not always followed. This is a harder principle to follow absolutely because in the complex moral universe we inhabit most actions have at least some harmful effects. The principle of double-effect (described below) is essential in these situations. As it is often difficult to completely avoid harm, this principle is perhaps better defined as “do no evil first”, which connects it intimately with the principle of double effect.

Principle of double effect

The principle of double effect recognizes that – for many actions which are good in themselves – there are consequences which are both beneficial and harmful. The principle of double effect exists to determine the moral good or evil of an action, and to determine if the action should be undertaken; even if it will lead to a foreseen effect which is a moral evil.

When there is a clash between the two universal norms of “do good” and “avoid evil”, the question arises as to whether the obligation to avoid evil requires one to abstain from a good action in order to prevent a foreseen but merely permitted concomitant evil effect. The answer is that one need not always abstain from a good action that has foreseen bad effects, depending on certain moral criteria identified in the principle of double effect. Though five are listed here, some authors emphasize only four basic moral criteria (the fifth listed here further specifies the third criterion):

  1. The object of the act must not be intrinsically contradictory to one's fundamental commitment to God and neighbor (including oneself), that is, it must be a good action judged by its moral object (in other words, the action must not be intrinsically evil);

  2. The direct intention of the agent must be to achieve the beneficial effects and to avoid the foreseen harmful effects as far as possible, that is, one must only indirectly intend the harm;

  3. The foreseen beneficial effects must not be achieved by the means of the foreseen harmful effects, and no other means of achieving those effects are available;

  4. The foreseen beneficial effects must be equal to or greater than the foreseen harmful effects (the proportionate judgment);

  5. The beneficial effects must follow from the action at least as immediately as do the harmful effects.

A practical example of this would be the case of a pregnant woman who requires the removal of her womb or she will die. In this case the action of removing the womb for theraputic reasons is not intrinsically evil. The death of the child is an unintended consequence and would be avoided if at all possible. The woman's life is not saved by the death of the child – the woman's life is saved by the removal of her womb. In this case it would be permitted to remove the woman's womb, even though this will result in the death of the child.

Principle of tolerance

The principle of tolerance has very little to do with the commonly held view of the word. It refers to the tolerance of some moral evils by those elements of society who are responsible for the common good (in a democratic society, this can be argued to everyone) in certain circumstances. Along with the principle of double effect this principle was developed as a set of moral criteria for discerning how to pursue good in a world in which evil is inevitable.

According to this principle those who govern both society and the individual institutions that constitute important elements of the common good may at times tolerate the evil actions of others (including some intrinsic evils) provided two criteria are met. Firstly, a greater good or set of goods would be lost if the evil action were not tolerated or, secondly, if greater evils would occur were the original evil not tolerated.

This principle should never be considered a “loop hole” to justify evil actions. In other words, this principle can never justify performing an intrinsically evil action, but only the toleration of others performing evil actions where the eradication of these evils is not practically or morally feasible.

A good example of this would be politicians voting for a bill which bans late term abortions, but keeps early term abortions legal. The abortions are an intrinsic evil, but if this bill were not voted for then more abortions would occur – which would be a greater evil (that is not to say that late-term abortions are worse than early term abortions, but rather that more abortions are worse than fewer).

Principles of cooperation

The principles of double effect and tolerance show that it is impossible, under many circumstances, for an individual to do good in the world without being involved to some extent in evil. The principles of cooperation were developed in the Catholic moral tradition as a way of helping individuals discern how to properly avoid, limit, or distance themselves from evil (especially intrinsic evil) in order to avoid a worse evil or to achieve an important good.

  1. Formal Cooperation. Formal cooperation occurs when a person freely participates in the action(s) of a principal agent, or shares in the agent’s intention, either for its own sake or as a means to some other goal. Implicit formal cooperation occurs when, even though the cooperator denies intending the object of the principal agent, the cooperating person or organization participates in the action directly and in such a way that the it could not be done without this participation. Formal cooperation in intrinsically evil actions, either explicitly or implicitly, is morally illicit.

  2. Immediate Material Cooperation. Immediate material cooperation occurs when the cooperator participates in circumstances that are essential to the commission of an act, such that the act could not occur without this participation. Immediate material cooperation in intrinsically evil actions is morally illicit. There has been in the tradition a debate about the permissibility of immediate cooperation in immoral acts under "duress." When individuals are forced under duress (e.g. at gunpoint) to cooperate in the intrinsically evil action of another, they act with diminished freedom. Following Church teaching, the matter of their action remains objectively evil, but they do not intend this object with true freedom. In such cases, the matter remains objectively evil as such, but the subjective culpability of the cooperator is diminished.

  3. Mediate Material Cooperation. Mediate material cooperation occurs when the cooperator participates in circumstances that are not essential to the commission of an action, such that the action could occur even without this cooperation. Mediate material cooperation in an immoral act might be justifiable under three basic conditions:

  1. If there is a proportionately serious reason for the cooperation (i.e.,for the sake of protecting an important good or for avoiding a worse harm); the graver the evil the more serious a reason required for the cooperation;

  2. The importance of the reason for cooperation must be proportionate to the causal proximity of the cooperator’s action to the action of the principal agent (the distinction between proximate and remote);

  3. The danger of scandal (i.e. leading others into doing evil, leading others into error, or spreading confusion) must be avoided.

Faulty moral reasoning

There are many examples of faulty moral reasoning. All of them are faulty because they fail to recognize one or more central moral truths.

Relativism

Relativism teaches that there are no moral absolutes, that there is no such thing as truly good or evil actions – actions have consequences which are pleasant or unpleasant for individuals, but there is no objective standard for what is good and bad. Relativism is a flawed notion because it denies that humanity has an essential nature. It also denies the existence of any absolute moral laws, which implies the denial of an absolute moral authority (God).

Relativism is, in fact, a complete denial of morality. It denies the idea that there is any sort of morality that can be discussed or debated – all actions are simply personally judged to have a pleasant effect or unpleasant effect. Actions which result in pleasure are seen as being good, no matter how much pain they may cause others.

A relativist can sometimes be convinced of the wrongness of his position by considering how he would feel if the positions were reversed for a specific event – relativists are fundamentally very selfish individuals, however, and are generally speaking inconsistent. Their actions are judged according to relative morality, but actions which harm them are considered to be evil. Pointing out this inconsistency can sometimes have a beneficial effect.

It will sometimes be necessary to show that an absolute God exists in order to defeat relativism – for this apologetics towards atheists are advised.

Consequentialism

There are many different types of consequentialism (utilitarianism, situational ethics and others) but all of them can be summed up by the phrase “the end justifies the means”. This moral reasoning suggests that the only thing that truly matters is the end result, not the methods used to get there. As can be seen by the principles of double-effect and tolerance there are times where evil can be tolerated or permitted to happen in order to achieve a moral good. Consequentialism allows for the deliberate performing of intrinsically evil actions, however – something that the principle of double effect does not allow.

Consequentialism is an incorrect moral theory because it allows and encourages humanity to perform actions which are contrary to its nature in order to achieve ends which are in accord with its nature. In essence, consequentialism causes harm in order to cause benefit; this is a violation of the principle of nonmaleficence.

Consequentialism also often encourages the performance of evil acts in the hope that good actions will occur as a result. The evil is inevitable (because that is the direct consequence of the action) but the good is not always inevitable. This is morally unacceptable for obvious reasons.

Additionally, many forms of consequentialism include a faulty understanding of what “good” is. Utilitarianism, for example, defines good according to “happiness” - something which is highly subjective and has absolutely nothing to do with genuine moral good. Many sins are pleasurable (this is why people commit them – human beings do not naturally do things which they do not enjoy unless there is some definite benefit for carrying the actions out) and so happiness cannot be considered to be a benchmark of moral goodness.

Fundamental Option” theory

This is not so much an example of faulty moral reasoning, but rather a method by which faulty moral choices are excused as not being relevant. The view is that once we have established a relationship with God we cannot lose that relationship except by explicit repudiation of God; committing a sin which is against God's will is not considered to be an explicit repudiation of God. Under this moral reasoning actions can be evil, but this is not relevant to our moral state and does not change it.

This is simply a form of eternal assurance (“once saved, always saved”) and should be dealt with using the apologetics provided against that heresy. Additionally, it is obvious that this moral reasoning never succeeds in even suggesting that evil is good; all it merely does is state that evil does not matter.


Moral theory is an exceptionally complicated field of study, although the basics are relatively easy to understand. Apologist wishing to explore this fascinating subject in greater detail are directed at works such as Aquinas' Summa Theologica which contain excellent chapters on all aspects of morality.