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May 19, 2011
Morality for the rest of us
By Andrew Haines *

By Andrew Haines *

I recently had a discussion with a friend on a rather divisive moral topic. In the end, our opinions seemed to meet. But as part of her particular concern, she raised a worry that applies pretty generally across the board—and it’s something that deserves mention, here.

Her concern was something like this: with all the complex issues we face nowadays—from whether or not we can “lie” to save lives to increasingly complicated (and nebulous) methods of IVF, stem cell research, and the like—how can “normal” Catholics be practical about making good, ethically sound decisions? After all, while we’re all called to be reasonable, we’re not all called to be philosophers and theologians. How does a professional businessman, accountant, or nurse make sense of what most of the world opts simply (and conveniently) to overlook?

Two things stick out to me as critical in this arena: baby steps, and gut reactions. We can all take baby steps; and we all have a gut reaction. And oddly enough, these two very human—and very accessible—responses are the secret to making good moral decisions.

Baby steps have to do with how we prepare for important decisions. They pertain, in theological parlance, to how we form our consciences. The Church has endorsed a few tried and true means to forming one’s conscience, and they all require baby steps: prayer, reading Scripture, academic study, and consulting with the wise. It’s fair to say that none of us would claim any of these actions comes easily, or is mastered without some toil—study and learning require persistence and patience, while prayer and consultation require wisdom and discernment. But none of us, I hope, would deny that these are all roads open to us, if and when we choose to pursue them.

When it comes to making moral choices in our professional lives, then, we can’t expect to acquire an immediate sense of what’s right and wrong in some given situation. Rather, to know what’s right and wrong requires persistence, study, attentiveness, and discipline—all naturally good qualities of both saints and professionals! To form our consciences takes time; but it’s something that is available to each of us. We have only to seek it.

On the other hand, gut reactions have to do with exercising our consciences in the critical moment. A gut reaction doesn’t require any seeking; it just arises. It is a complement to the “higher brain function” of conscience development—it’s visceral, and it speaks to the sort of willful choices that help define who we are as human beings. Making a choice—any choice—is just as important as knowing which choice to make. To recall the maxim of Edmund Burke, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” To paraphrase: knowing what’s good doesn’t substitute for doing it.

As Catholics, we believe that morality isn’t something relegated to the ivory towers of academia. Instead, it’s something sensible precisely because it resonates with the makeup of the individual human person. In short, being moral and acting ethically aren’t incompatible with who we are—even when things get complicated. Rather, what’s required of us in touch situations is to engage precisely those features that make us human—i.e., our intellect, will, discipline, and passions—in order to take the steps necessary to make good, informed, upright decisions.

For professionals and contemplatives alike, then, the path to moral action consists of the same two steps: seeking to understand what is right (to the best of our abilities), and acting on those convictions. Moral action resounds in the life of a balanced human person. It’s natural. And enacting the full potential of our nature is something that all of us can aim to acheive.

Andrew Haines is president of the Center for Morality in Public Life and a PhD student in Philosophy at The Catholic University of America. He lives in Virginia with his wife, Kathleen, and their son.
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