Telling right from wrong – 1

What is the difference between right and wrong? Our society is generally agreed that there is a difference, and that it is very important. But from that point onwards controversy begins. There are three main ways of discerning this difference: deontology, which sets out by “rule” that certain actions are permitted, and others forbidden; utilitarianism, which employs a judgment about the balance of consequences from an action; and virtue ethics, which focuses not on the action but on the quality of the actor. The three approaches may often, but not by any means always, arrive at the same conclusions, and there are many overlaps; nevertheless they are fundamentally different.

In this column I want to look at deontology because, by whatever name you call it, it is the approach which comes most naturally to Catholics. On later occasions I will look at the other two.

In our terms, the principle is based on the law of God as mediated to us through Scripture and the moral teaching of the Church. This, of course, is not arbitrary since God made us, and it is through his law that we conform to his will and so reach our fullness in being joined to him in heaven. Scripture is not a comprehensive guide because, as the theologian, Fr Josef Fuchs, pointed out, the Bible is not a manual of moral theology.

 Nevertheless, it contains the Ten Commandments and it is conventional (as indeed the layout of the Catechism shows) to set out the moral law, and its broad application, under the headings of the Decalogue. In this expansion, the teaching Church makes considerable use of the Natural Law, about which I wrote at some length in my column of July 4.

In this scheme, we find a division between those actions which are wrong by their own intrinsic nature, which means that the consequences – bad or good – are irrelevant, and those which may in certain circumstances be modified. The first category is derived from observation or understanding of our fundamental nature as created by God. Examples might be the wrongness of depriving someone of an organ or a physical faculty – except for the sake of the health of that person, or using the genital, sexual, faculty for purposes which are contrary to its innate structure. There are some who question the adequacy of this uncompromising approach where it seems to rest only on physicality rather than on the whole human being, or does not give full weight to the complexity of a human act.

The second, and much commoner, category requires the application of judgment. For example, we accept the principle that we are bound to keep our promises. Yet were we to discover that some money we had promised was to be used in the furtherance of terrorism, we would not regard it as binding. Clearly consequences can be a factor here. Into this category would come questions like torture or slavery. We find it hard to conceive of circumstances in which these would be justified, yet we can so conceive if we take sufficiently extreme examples.

However, the law is not legalistic since its purpose is only to define the boundaries of the territory within which the love of God is to be found. It is love which saves, and not the law as such. The meaning of the law is ultimately to be found, and comprehended, in love of God and love of neighbour.

But a deontological, or rule-based, approach is not confined to religion. The great philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that it could be discovered by practical reason alone. Kant believed in God, but did not attribute his moral principles to this. His “categorical imperative” was: “Act only according to the maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

Taking again the example of promises, Kant argues that we cannot wish that disregarding promises should be a universal law since we cannot rationally wish that people should not keep promises made to us. (And, incidentally, if there were no obligation to keep promises, the concept of “promise” would be meaningless.) And, as another example, he argues that we are obliged to assist another who is in dire straits, since we cannot rationally wish that others should not help us similarly.

He sums up his moral principle as “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.” This summary, which I hope we would all applaud, brings Kant’s system to conclusions which are very similar to those to which Catholics would subscribe. But it is important to notice that love itself has no place in the system, only the claimed objectivity of reason. So moral motive or obligation, as we understand it, does not apply. 

Yet, as Elizabeth Anscombe pointed out in an influential 1958 paper, modern moral philosophy, in which Kant was a pioneer, assumes the idea of moral obligation, and thus – unconsciously perhaps – maintains a law while omitting a lawgiver. Indeed Kant, in his notes published after his death, accepted that his system required the concept of God to be complete. We would, to borrow Fr Copleston’s example, wish to condemn the Commandant of Belsen because he was wicked and not merely because he was irrational.

I am conscious that I have only given the barest outline of deontology, and I am sure that many readers would want to criticise or elaborate on what I have been able to fit into such short compass. Indeed, I would have wanted to do so myself. But that is what Secondsight Blog is for. We can continue the discussion here.

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment, Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Telling right from wrong – 1

  1. dyoung says:

    Or Perhaps there is even a fourth way. An action can be judged on how much LOVE there is. Now I will try very hard to explain my concept. However imagine a candle in a dark room. The flame is the heart of love. The light is dims the further you travel from the flame until you will reach a point where there s no longer any light at all. That is the point of pure evil. In other words evil is not the opposite of good but evil is the absence of love.
    By love I do not mean some sentimentality but true love that is the total giving of your self to another even to your own detriment. In other words it is self sacrificing for the sake/good of another.
    To clarify my meaning in more realistic terms. You have two unmarried women who have been raped and are now pregnant. One aborts the newborn whilst the other decides that she could not harm her own child like that. Which woman has acted more in Love.
    Some acts are not offences against man as much as they are offences against God. For example with contraception we reject God’s gift of sexuality as he designed it and we swap it for our own version of sterile sex. An act of rejection is not an act of love.
    Deontology is Gnostic really but I also think that it is the method that comes most naturally to man to determine what is right or wrong.


  2. kouin says:

    Adult Jesus
    Catholic men intimitate (badly!)
    Protestant man challenge authority. Hindu tolerance.
    Islamic instinctual respect.
    Roman reversal and usurpation of jewish prophetic Christ.
    Wiki considered supinity.

  3. Ed1993 says:

    I think that dyoung’s approach based on love sounds better than it reads when you think about it.
    Look at one of her examples: contraceptive intercourse, and accept that, in itself, it is an act of rejection and therefore contrary to love. But now assume that it takes place in the marriage of a migrant worker who is only home for a brief annual break during the time that his wife if fertile. She wants it, he wants it, and the marriage needs it.
    If you take the act as a whole, is it not a good and loving one?
    Perhaps this what Quentin means by giving full weight to the complexity of a human act.”

  4. I think Ed’s example is an interesting one. The approach he has used is called Proportionalism, and perhaps it deserves fuller description in a column one day. Meanwhile here is a dilemma which raises some similar issues.
    Dr X and Dr Y are faced by a relatively common problem. Their patient, Mrs Z, has an ectopic pregnancy – the baby is growing in her fallopian tube.
    Dr X sees this is straightforward. It is legitimate, on Catholic moral principles, to remove the fallopian tube because it is in a serious pathological condition. That the baby will die is certain, but this is an unintended side effect. Dr Y says: open the fallopian tube, remove the baby, and close the fallopian tube. Dr X is scandalised – this is direct abortion. Dr Y’s defence is that the death of the baby will occur in any case, but his proposal will ensure that Mrs Z retains a working fallopian tube.
    How will you advise the two doctors?

  5. Horace says:

    To repeat a previous blog entry:-

    Horace on 20 Jun 2008 at 3:29 pm #
    Many people consider the principle of “double effect” [i.e. One good effect and one bad effect resulting from a single action. … as long as the action itself is good, or morally neutral, and the side effect is not intended then, providing that the side-effect is proportionate, the action is justified] as a piece of Jesuit sophistry (or casuistry), although the concept goes back at least to St Thomas Aquinas.?The real difficulty, as I see it, lies in determining that “the action itself is good, or morally neutral” since the morality of an action cannot be separated from the intention of the doer (Thomas Aquinas again :- Now moral acts take their species according to what is intended . . II-II, 64,7).?To argue that removal of part, or all, of a fallopian tube is morally neutral but that “shelling out the child from the damaged tube” is equivalent to an abortion and therefore morally unacceptable, seems to me unreasonable.?

    As you put it this time it is clear that Dr Y’s intention is to “ensure that Mrs Z retains a working fallopian tube”

  6. kouin says:

    As it is wrong to make money I’ll do any thing for pleasure.

  7. Horace, your argument seems to me to be sound , but it does raise some issues which you might like to develop for us.
    You may remember, decades ago, the question of the life of the mother versus baby. It has dropped from the public eye because the occasions where a choice needs be made are now so few. But at that time the standard theological answer was that neither life should be taken since both were sacrosanct Your conclusion runs counter to this. Similarly Ed’s example majors on the good intention to express and preserve the marriage, but does so by apparently contravening the HV teaching that the fertile ‘form’ of the marriage act must invariably be maintained.
    While you are right to refer to Aquinas, the passage you mention has its difficulties, and was later to be refined. More recent theologians seem to have followed the Jesuit, Gury (1850). One of his principles is that: “ The evil effect must not be the means to the good effect. The reason is that, if the cause directly produces the evil effect and produces the good effect only by means of the evil effect, then the good is sought by willing the evil. And it is never lawful to do evil, no matter how slight, in order that good may come of it. Therefore, one may never tell a lie even to save a man’s life.”
    In my example the removal of the baby into a lethal environment is the cause of the good effect of preserving the mother’s fertility, and so seems to be caught by this.
    Can you take us a bit further?

  8. kouin says:

    God bless and enlighten
    the people that frighten.

  9. Horace says:

    Firstly I must make it clear that I am not a Philosopher (still less a Theologian) but a doctor and I try to see things as simply as possible.
    I guess I am a deontologist (although I had never encountered the word until I read Quentin’s blog!).
    In the case as described we have:- “Dr X sees this is straightforward. It is legitimate, on Catholic moral principles, to remove the fallopian tube because it is in a serious pathological condition. That the baby will die is certain, but this is an unintended side effect.”
    This statement is clearly analogous to a well known and exhaustively analysed situation involving pregnancy associated with a cancer of the uterus in which the principle of double effect is used to justify removal of the cancerous organ which, of course, contains the foetus.
    From this it is argued that in the case of an ectopic pregnancy it is morally acceptable to perform an operation and remove the ‘pathological entity’ even though this will as a side effect entail the death of the developing foetus.

    The case of an ectopic pregnancy is different in that the ‘pathological entity’ is not the fallopian tube (which like the cancerous uterus contains a foetus) but the foetus itself! The tube is only pathological because of the foetus developing within it.
    My basic position remains that the statement:-
    [removal of part, or all, of a fallopian tube (containing a foetus) is morally neutral but “shelling out the foetus from the damaged tube” is equivalent to an abortion]
    – is unreasonable and simply casuistry.
    I cannot see how including a chunk of fallopian tube in the excision can possibly alter the moral nature of the act.

  10. I don’t think that it alters Horace’s argument that the foetus qua foetus in not pathological. It is its placement in the fallopian tube which leads to the tube being pathological, i.e. prone to rupture with serious internal consequences. Either way Doctor Y is directly aborting the foetus. Horace speaks of casuistry, and ultimately what we are discussing here is whether the principle of double effect is pertinent, despite the standing condemnation of direct abortion. Put this on one side and what we are doing is balancing Dr X’s procedure versus Dr Y’s. On that basis he and I are concluding that Dr Y is right because the outcome is more beneficial to the the patient, and does no additional harm to the baby. Perhaps we shall both be told off by the CDF. That would be interesting.
    By the way “deontology” comes from the Greek word for duty.

  11. tim says:

    It’s double effect. The object is to save the life of the mother: killing the baby (which will not in any case survive) is an inevitable unintended consequence. The legitimate and intended act is restoring the proper functioning of the fallopian tube: whether part of it is removed or not is beside the point. I think, if you want to provoke the CDF, you’ll have to do better than that.

    The time may be coming, of course, when the baby may survive.

    I’m not clear, incidentally, why the migrant worker and his wife have to contracept. They may not want a child, or another child: but if they have one, it should, in spite of difficulties, ultimately be a blessing rather than the end of the world for them. (You can of course construct a situation in which it would be the end of the world for them – but in that case there may be a duty not to take even the reduced risks of pregnancy that contraceptive methods entail).

  12. Tim, were I to be defending the classic double effect methodology in all cases, I would say that you have it exactly the wrong way round. You cite the good intention of saving the life of the mother and, though good intention is necessary it is not sufficient. Your action is to abort the baby – just as clearly as if you had drowned it. That is your primary action which, in itself, is wrong. Secondly, the good intention you seek is brought about through the “bad” primary action. Again this is directly counter to the classic double effect rules.
    But what your example illustrates is how double effect may be inadequate in such a case. Effectively, you are saying: the procedure should be taken as a whole and, seen as such, you judge it to be a good procedure. So do I.
    Don’t be too sure about the CDF. Believe me, I have experience.

  13. tim says:

    I may have misunderstood ‘double effect’, or my reasoning may be at fault (it has been known). But the specific situation is not uncommon. It must have occurred in practice sufficiently often for there to be Church teaching on the matter. Are you telling me that that teaching is that it is unlawful to operate in those circumstances?

  14. Double effect is only mentioned in passing in the Catechism but you may find the section starting at 1731 gives a good overall picture and makes clear that an evil act cannot be justified by intention. At 2271 occurs the passage “Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means(my italics), is gravely contrary to the moral law.”
    Moral theologians would no doubt differ in their interpretation of the fallopian tube example (which is not original to me, by any means.) It is one that has caused difficulties in the past. But I know of no official ruling – perhaps a blog reader can help us here. If you really want to get stuck in to double effect, you’ll find a good piece at But take a cold towel with you, it’s thorough.

  15. Fariam says:

    I wish to return to the comment made by Quentin earlier on in which he states “In my example the removal of the baby into a lethal environment is the cause of the good effect of preserving the mother’s fertility, and so seems to be caught by this”.

    I wonder about the proposal to preserve the woman´s fertility in this case by direct abortion. A fallopian tube is, by its very nature, narrow and fragile, therefore I cannot see how it can withstand the onslaught of such intervention. There is also the obvious fact that a woman has two fallopian tubes! Yet another point can be made with regard to an ectopic pregnancy: I read earlier this year is that a developing baby was successfully placed in the womb and came to full term. Unfortunately, I do not have the reference here. As far as I can see, these facts completely undermine any argument for direct abortion.

    I could also take the example of Ireland in which several well qualified specialists with many years of experience have
    publicily stated that in their experience, abortion (as in the direct and intentional destruction of the developing baby) is never necessary. They have also stated that when abortion is not an option, more resources are put into developing better prenatal care to the advantage of both mother and child.

    In my opinion, their statements carry much weight in view of the fact that Ireland has a very low infant mortality rate. For example The World Mortality Report 2005 tells us that Ireland has “only” 5 deaths for every 100,000 births, and The United Nations Report,in 1993 and in 2007, stated that “Ireland is the safest place in the world for a mother to have a baby”.

    It seems to me – as also in the case of artificial birth control, abortion, embyronic research and IVF – the more these areas are researched and the more pro-life alternatives are made available the less there will be a need for arguments and practices which do not respect human life. It seems to me that modern pro-life science, psychology and research – when allowed a voice – are clearly showing that they actually coincide with and uphold Natural Law.

    These sites provide valuable, up to date information:
    Life Fertility Care:
    Mater Care International:
    After Abortion:
    Rachel´s Vineyard Ministries:
    Abortion is the UnChoice:
    Adult Stem Cell research:

  16. Fariam is right in being suspicious of salpingo(s)tomy (removal of embryo from withing fallopian tube) because it may have after- effects. Nevertheless it is still regarded as desirable in the right circumstances. But we should not get bogged down in a particular instance, provided as an example of moral thinking. The claim that might be made here is that it illustrates the value of taking a human action as a whole, and deciding whether the bad bits, e.g., removal of the baby and the good bits, e.g. maintaining fertility, give the right proportion. Thus it could be argued that the whole procedure is not abortifacient, even though technically an abortion, by definition, has been involved.

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