The Catholic Thing
No Harm, Ought, and Other Moral Muddles Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Wednesday, 24 July 2013

In a previous column, I mentioned that one of the most frequent questions I am asked about the Church’s moral teachings comes in this form: “Why can’t I do what I want, as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else?”  This so-called “harm principle,” is, for various reasons, not a particularly good way of thinking about moral questions. Besides, teaching Catholic morality is not only a matter of stating what the Church teaches, but also of showing why she has a better way of thinking about life’s most fundamental questions than the other options on offer. 

By contrast, Catholics can get themselves tied in knots trying to answer questions that shouldn’t be answered within the questioner’s terms.  Whether an act can be shown to “harm” others is not the sole criterion of whether it is “right” or “wrong.”  Try showing a young adolescent boy that masturbation, for example, “harms” someone else.  Those of us with experience might agree it will “harm” his future wife. But it’s very unlikely you’re going to get most young American males, especially those who style themselves very “sophisticated” about such matters, to see the problem.

Utilitarianism and the “harm” principle are not, however, the only options on offer today.  The other common question I sometimes get goes something like this: Why is this act intrinsically wrong?  That’s a better question than the “harm” question, but it still involves a serious difficulty: namely, what does the student mean by “wrong”? 

As many readers will know, the other option commonly on offer in America’s secular ethics classes, along with utilitarianism, is the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant, who famously proclaimed what is sometimes called “the principle of universalizability,” that is: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” 

Now, to be fair, the precise meaning of universalizability is the subject of much debate among scholars, precisely because of the sorts of problems I’ll suggest in a moment. But the way my students understand the principle – and note, not because they’ve read Kant, but merely because they’ve assimilated the idea from their environment – is this: For an act to be “wrong,” it must be shown to be always and everywhere be wrong with no exceptions.

The problem with thinking about moral “wrongness” in this way, however, is that it doesn’t take much ingenuity for a student to come up with what they take to be a legitimate exception to the general rule.  Let’s say they’re told the general rule is: “Don’t lie.”  Immediately they’ll ask: “But what if I’m hiding Jews in my house, and a Nazi comes by and asks me, ‘Are you hiding Jews in your house?’” 


Or, let’s say they’re told the general rule is: “Don’t fornicate.”  Then they’ll ask: “Well, let’s say my girlfriend and I are the last two people on the planet, and there’s no priest to marry us, can we still have sex to re-populate the planet even though we’re not married?”

There’s no point going on here about the distinction between “lying” and not saying everything you know, nor about the fact that the spouses confect the sacrament of marriage while the priest merely officiates, so hypothetically one can marry without a priest.  Nor need we mention the suspiciously convenient thought process by which every other person in the world has been removed except a young man and one fetching-looking fertile young woman.  (The question never involves a fertile, but dowdy-looking, middle-aged woman.)

The real problem here is the underlying assumption that if I might be forced to lie in one very special instance – to the Nazi soldier about the Jews hiding in my house, for example – then lying can’t be considered “wrong,” and no one can insist, for example, that it’s “wrong” to lie to the government about my taxes or to my girlfriend about that little business with her best friend last week. 

But maybe the universalizability principle is not the final word in ethics. Let’s say you choose to lie to the Nazis abouthiding Jews – we can argue about that – but would this alone justify your lying to your mother about where you were last night?  Why would anyone assume that it does?  Probably because they’ve assumed, largely without thinking, the principle of universalizability, and that may not be entirely wise.

One of the problems of using that principle has always been figuring how to specify the maxim so that it covers all the cases you want it to, but none of the cases you don’t.  But then the problem is, the more you tinker with the general principle, the more it will seem to many people that you’re just manipulating the system to get the results you want.  And quite frankly, they’re probably right about that.

So, if not the utilitarian or Kantian way of thinking about moral questions, then what?  In the modern world, we tend to focus our ethical thinking solely on this one individual act as conceived of and chosen by a completely rational, self-possessed, autonomous being.  The Church, by contrast, generally prefers for us to think about our individual acts in the context of deeper reflections on the meaning and character of a whole human life and its attendant obligations to both God and neighbor. 

Which makes more sense? 

More on this in the future.

Randall B. Smith is Professor at the University of St. Thomas, where he has recently been appointed to the Scanlan Chair in Theology.
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Comments (13)Add Comment
written by ib, July 24, 2013
What has always fascinated me is that Kant admits the human heart is innately rooted in evil. In "Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason" he explains that all human beings are radically evil because the propensity toward evil lies so very deep in human nature that it corrupts our power of choice at its very root. For Kant the “radical innate evil in human nature (not any the less brought upon us by ourselves)” comprises our “innate guilt” and is “the foul stain of our species”. Without exception, all human maxims are corrupt, unless Kant writes, the person is transformed by an inexplicable "revolution" to acquire a “holy will.” Since there is no way this "revolution" can be further explained, it can only be asserted as a possibility, not produced as an actuality. I could never see how Kant gets beyond the hopeless conclusion that humanity is doomed to a radically evil fate.

Such is the horizon of Kantian ethics ... Maybe once students realize how dismal Kant's ethics truly are, they will realize that his Universalizability principle dooms humanity to a hopeless and radically evil fate.
written by Jack,CT, July 24, 2013
Great Read look forward to the follow up articles..
written by Manfred, July 24, 2013
This has to be one of the most bizarre columns I have ever read on this site! The only reason one would become Catholic is to avoid eternity in Hell and to achieve salvation for eternity in Heaven. Accordingly that person would be directed to the teachings of Saints of the caliber of Augustine and Aquinas. They would be directed to the Gospels and the history of the early Church (Bp. Eusebius and St. Athanasius). They would be directed to the Fatima apparitions where the children SAW HELL and souls and devils there! The catechist would be told that most souls are in Hell, Mary said, because of SINS OF THE FLESH! What are they? Read St. Paul where he cites those who will never see God and describes what actions committed had caused this loss. One can't rely on the "teachings of the Church"(?????) as they often change from one parish/diocese to the next as well as from one pontificate to the next. Most Saints have lived and died without ever hearing the name Immanuel Kant.
written by Grump, July 24, 2013
Religion is a list of do's and don'ts, the vast majority of which are don'ts, as Moses found out.
written by Rich in MN, July 24, 2013
One of the most tragic of modern delusions is the notion that the moral correctness of a decision can be judged by the clearness of a person's conscience -- regardless of the extent to which that conscience is formed, unformed, or malformed. While we would never claim, "Gosh, I'm as good a basketball player as Lebron James because, doggoneit, basketball is all subjective, anyways," we seem to operate under the bizarre belief that the Pope and the Magisterium have nothing to teach us about morality.
In Prof. Janet E Smith's video, "Contraception, Why Not?", Prof. Smith talks about Humanae Vitae and Pope Paul VI's four predictions about what would happen if we, as a culture, accepted artificial contraception: lowering of morality, lowering of the regard for women, coercive force by governments to impose contraception, increasingly utilitarian view of the human person. Then she asks, "How did Pope Paul VI know these things would happen?" She replied that the Church considers Herself an expert of human nature. Also, the Church believes She is guided by the Holy Spirit in Her teaching Magisterium and through the bishops in communion with the Pope.
I realize this is a 'hard sell' to the general public, but Catholics need to work much harder on following the teaching authority of the Church so that they can be a clear example to the culture. As the ship goes down, we need to be standing in the life rafts waving our arms, not wandering about the deck like everyone else.
written by ron a., July 24, 2013
All 'sin' is not social in nature. The "no harm" principle discounts the fact that our greatest responsibility is to God, not our neighbor. So often in today's culture the vertical is overshadowed by the horizontal---at man's peril.
written by Howard Kainz, July 24, 2013
Utilitarianism was devised by Jeremy Bentham explicitly as a replacement for natural law theory, and the "universalization principle" was explicitly devised by Kant as his substitute for natural law. The Church, which insists on the coordination of revelation with reason, has always supported natural law as the rational approach to questions of right and wrong. The last seven of the Ten Commandments are basically elements of natural law. The first of the three precepts of natural law, according to Aquinas, is the duty and right of self-preservation -- which suggests an answer to that question about the hypothetical Nazi.
written by breasedh, July 24, 2013
ok ,you have got me thinking...i think i am going to need to hear more of this.
written by Randall B. Smith, July 24, 2013
Dear "breasedh,"

If it suits your interest, you might consult the previous three posts in this series:

"The Harm Principle," The Catholic Thing, 11 July 2013.

"Lust, Language, and the Un-level Playing Field," The Catholic Thing, 20 June 2013.

"Robot Sex," The Catholic Thing, 6 June 2013.

These too, of course, should be understood as no more than "dipping one's toe" into the vast ocean of the Church's moral teaching.

With regard to that rich moral tradition, I will merely say that last year, I taught a student who was perhaps something like yourself: questioning, but not convinced (those are the best kind). It is not my job to "program" my students like robots, and my exams test nothing more than knowledge of the course material, so I don't try to figure out whether they "really believe" or not, which would be impossible anyway. But I can say that by the end of the semester, this young woman did say that things had changed for her in at least this one respect: "Before," she told me, "I thought it was all just a bunch of rules. I didn't realize that there were reasons and lots of thinking behind them."

So, dear "breadedh," please keep thinking. And if you come back in approximately two weeks, I'll have another piece on why the Church's way of approaching moral questions is quite different from the usual options on offer today.

That article will likely not satisfy you either. But it may help you to ask good questions and search more deeply for yourself into the Church's moral teachings. That, at least, would be my hope.
written by Sir Mark, July 24, 2013
No, Manfred,
We become Catholic in order to become good and to see God. You want to be saved from Hell. So do I, but that is only a start. We need a longing to be good. We need to desire God beyond all else. That is more than mere salvation; it is life itself.
written by ib, July 24, 2013
@Howard Kainz:

Been reading your book "Hegel's Phenomenology: Not Missing the Forest for the Trees". Very good! Read the Kierkegaard chapter first and am working my way through it now from the beginning ... Lots of pertinent reminders of Hegel's reply to Kant!

written by John McCarthy, July 24, 2013
In my small world, an ethical argument that seems to trump all others is 'toleration.' If you don't approve of same-sex marriage, or homosexuality, or divorce, or abortion, or euthanasia, or suicide, etc., you better keep your beliefs to yourself. Otherwise, you are intolerant, and intolerance has become a supreme sin.....And the argument for tolerance fits in well with the 'no harm, no foul' rule also espoused by so many. Finally, Jesus' saying, "Let him (her) who is without sin cast the first stone," shuts a lot of us up.
written by ib, July 24, 2013
@ John McCarthy

Archbishop Chaput had something to say concerning this in a talk he gave at the University of Toronto in 2009. It's on the Zenit website. Here's a bite from that talk:

"Here's the third point. We need to be very forceful in clarifying what the words in our political vocabulary really mean. Words are important because they shape our thinking, and our thinking drives our actions. When we subvert the meaning of words like "the common good" or "conscience" or "community" or "family," we undermine the language that sustains our thinking about the law. Dishonest language leads to dishonest debate and bad laws.

Here's an example. We need to remember that tolerance is not a Christian virtue. Charity, justice, mercy, prudence, honesty -- these are Christian virtues. And obviously, in a diverse community, tolerance is an important working principle. But it's never an end itself. In fact, tolerating grave evil within a society is itself a form of serious evil. Likewise, democratic pluralism does not mean that Catholics should be quiet in public about serious moral issues because of some misguided sense of good manners. A healthy democracy requires vigorous moral debate to survive. Real pluralism demands that people of strong beliefs will advance their convictions in the public square -- peacefully, legally and respectfully, but energetically and without embarrassment. Anything less is bad citizenship and a form of theft from the public conversation."

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