No Harm, Ought, and Other Moral Muddles

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 a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.