Chapter 5

Morality and the choice

What I want to do now is first of all spell out some of the moral implications in the fact that it is the choice to do something that carries with it the eternal implications, rather than the act you actually do; and after this list and briefly discuss what has been called "personal ethics": those acts which can be inconsistent even if no one else is affected by them.

First, then, we will take it from Sections 3 and 4 of the third part that our overt acts cease at death with the decay of our bodies, but our consciousness goes on, containing in one act every act of consciousness we have ever had, including every choice we have ever made. Our choices imply goals that we intend to reach, meaning that we consider ourselves to be unstable and in a self-contradictory condition if we do not reach them: we are frustrated without them. If the choice is to do something inhuman (one that contradicts the genetic potential we were given, or one that contradicts what we have already made ourselves), then eternally we have set up a goal for ourselves which eternally cannot be achieved, and so we are eternally frustrated.

With that presupposed, let me begin by stating the general moral rule, which takes into account that morality deals with the choice:

Basic rule of morality: A person must never be willing to do what is morally wrong.

It either never or almost never happens that a person does what is wrong simply because it is wrong, or that his goal is the precise wrongness of the act he does. Augustine, St. Thomas and others have said, in fact, that to choose evil for evil's sake is psychologically impossible, because the will is oriented automatically toward "the good." I argued in Chapter 6 of Section 3 of the third part 3.3.6 that this is not the case, and so it is possible in principle to do something simply because it is wrong. But that doesn't alter the fact that this would be a very very rare sort of thing, and just about all morally wrong acts are chosen because the wrongness has some unavoidable connection with some good the person wants to achieve: either it is a means toward it, or a side-effect of it, or a consequence of it.

In this case, however, if you want the goal in question, you also can't avoid the wrong act: for instance, if you want the inheritance your father has left you in his will, and the only way to get it is to kill him, and you kill him to get the inheritance, then one of the things you chose was his death, and you can't get away with saying "All I wanted was the money." You may have wanted the money, but you were willing to kill your father.

And this is why the moral rule was stated as it was. It is not enough not to actively desire what is wrong, or be actively seeking it as even a secondary goal; your choice must be directed away from the wrong, or the wrongness will enter your choice as part of it, and you will suffer the eternal consequences. If you kill your father for his money, you will find after you die and your full consciousness reawakens that one of the things you will be striving for eternally is to have the power of life and death over those you don't have the power of life and death over--because this self-contradictory goal was entailed in your choice.

There are times when wrong side-effects of the act can be kept out of the choice, and we will discuss them later under the Principle of the Double Effect; but in general, if there is something wrong connected with what you choose, you have to be willing that the wrongness be done in order to make the choice, and that means that the choice is immoral.

I also said in Chapter 6 of Section 3 3.3.6 that a choice depends on the factual information one has at the time about what he is choosing; and so the contradiction and its frustration would only be set up in a person's choice if he had some information that what he was doing was wrong (self-contradictory). Choices, I said, are not directly affected by emotions (it is the fact that I have a given emotion, not the emotion itself that forms a motive for the choice); and if morality deals with the choice, then this means the following:

Conclusion 5: Emotions, instincts, and drives are not directly relevant to morality. It does not matter morally how you feel about something.

I said that they are not directly relevant to morality; but they do have an indirect relevance, because indirectly they can affect a choice, even if as such they don't directly enter it. So in discussing morality and the choice, let us first speak of the relation of morality to emotions, to clear away the underbrush; and then we will deal with the relation of morality to the factual information you have at the time you make the choice (your conscience); and finally the relation of morality to the act in the situation you find it in.

How would an emotion or a drive, which is not in itself part of the choice, be morally relevant? Emotions and drives, as I said in Chapter 5 of Section 2 of the third part 3.2.5, are the operation of instinct, which has two functions: attention and an automatic tendency toward a behavioral response to the stimulus.

When instinct is operating, then, it tends to push some data below the threshold of perception, using the energy gained by this to make operation of the particular program more efficient, but by that same token (since consciousness is another "dimension" of that same act) making the consciousness favorable to the drive's operation that much more vivid.

It follows from this that, the stronger the drive in question is, the less information is available in consciousness that there is anything wrong with doing what the drive leads toward, and the clearer it seems that doing what the drive leads toward is the right thing. You can't think of a fact, as I said in Chapter 3 of Section 3 of the third part 3.3.3, if the proper sensation isn't raised above the threshold of consciousness; and it follows from this that the operation of instinct would naturally tend to blind you to facts you would otherwise know against what the drive is leading you towards.

And, of course, this is everyone's experience. If something seems attractive to you, there seems little reason for not doing it; and the more attractive it gets, the less reason you can think of against doing it, until in the limit, as I said, temporary or permanent insanity occurs (psychosis) and you see no reason at all for not doing the act, however heinous you might regard it when the drive is not operating.

Obviously, when that point is reached, the choice you make to do what would normally be understood by you as morally wrong is a moral choice, precisely because you can't, in this condition, understand that there is anything wrong about it. It is a moral choice, but an ignorant one, ignorant, not because you didn't have the information stored somewhere within you, but because you had no access to that information and were not aware of it.

Conclusion 6: To the extent that emotions or drives actually block out of consciousness information that would normally be accessible to us, to that extent choices to do what in fact is wrong based on this lack of information are moral, not immoral.

If the drive has in fact totally blocked out the information from your consciousness, then it's the same as if you never had it, because there is no way at the moment you could be conscious of it, and so there is no way it can enter or affect the choice.

It's not quite that simple, however, because you're not always at that stage, and can sometimes prevent yourself from getting there. But let me table that for a moment, and take the other side of the coin.

A drive can also create, by using imagination, hallucinatory sensations, sensations that are images that we take to be perceptions, and by which we think we can understand facts. These need not be visions of unreal objects popping into our field of vision, though this can sometimes happen when the drive is strong enough. Some psychotics do see things and hear voices, and so on. A poor woman on trial in Cincinnati when I first wrote this now says she killed her six-year-old daughter because she heard voices from the radio telling her she had to do so to save the world. She had had a history of mental problems.

More often, however, the imagination simply enhances favorable aspects of things or even attaches imaginary characteristics to things that are real, creating "information" that these things are what they really aren't. I read in Tolstoy's War and Peace a mother's view of her son, who was a notorious rake, wounded in a duel with Pierre Bezukhov, his friend he had cuckolded:

No one cares about virtue anymore, it's a reproach to everyone. Now, tell me, Count, was it right, was it honorable of Bezukhov? And Fedya, in his noblehearted way, loved him, and even now never says a word against him. All those pranks in Petersburg, and that trick they played on the policeman, they were in it together, weren't they? Yet Bezukhov got off scotfree, while Fedya took all the blame on his shoulders. And what he has had to go through! True, he has been reinstated--but how could they not reinstate him? I don't suppose there were many such brave sons of the fatherland out there. And now--? This duel! Have those people no feeling, no honor! Knowing him to be an only son, to challenge him to a duel and then shoot straight at him like that! We can be thankful that God had mercy on us! And what was it for? Why, who doesn't have intrigues nowadays? And if he was so jealous, well, as I see things, he ought to have shown it sooner...

and on and on. Everything is a virtue in her Fedya, even his intrigues. She would be startled indeed if you told her that she was distorting the facts out of all recognition. "Why," she would say, "who sees more clearly than a mother's heart? I know him!"

So the drive not only can block out information, it can create misinformation, and of course to the extent that a person thinks the misinformation is a fact, his choice is based on the facts as he thinks them objectively to be, not what they in fact are--and if his choice is to do something in fact morally wrong, but his emotion has made it seem objectively innocent, then his choice is moral, not immoral.

Conclusion 7: To the extent that emotions or drives create misinformation which the person takes to be factual, to that extent his choosing what he would otherwise know is morally wrong is a moral choice.

Of course, this sword cuts both ways. Some temporary or permanent psychosis can lead you to think that an act is wrong when in fact there is nothing morally wrong with it. In that case,

Conclusion 8: To the extent that instinct misinforms the person, making him think that something which is in fact innocent is morally wrong, his choice to do that act is immoral.

In that sense, the emotion is really not morally relevant in itself; because insofar as it affects the information, all that happens is that your choice is based on ignorance--on the information you possess--and you can't be held to what you can't in practice know or be bound to correct a mistake you don't know you're making.(1)

The other thing a drive can do, as I said in discussing drives and choices, is take over control of the act, so that it is made in spite of the choice. This, as I mentioned, when it becomes chronic, is what I called a neurosis.

Of course, in this case, the morality follows the choice, not the act you perform. The alcoholic, for instance, who chooses not to drink and finds himself drinking in spite of himself, has made a moral choice.

Conclusion 9: If a person chooses to perform an act and a drive prevents him from doing so, his moral status depends on the choice, not the act.


Generally speaking when some drive attracts us to an act, it doesn't strike with its full force all at once; and for a good while we have a certain amount of control of our attention and can direct it away from the "program" that the instinct is trying to run at the moment. I mentioned in Chapter 5 of Section 2 of the third part 3.2.5 that we can concentrate and control, to some extent, the energy-flow in our brains; and by concentrating we can wrest our consciousness out of the control of a drive--until it gets too strong for our powers of concentration to handle, which is part of the evidence for our "fallenness" that I discussed in Chapter 5 of Section 4 of that part 3.4.5.

The moral implication of this is the following:

Conclusion 10: If a person in control of himself finds an emotion leading him toward some act that he now recognizes is morally wrong, he makes an immoral choice if he chooses to let the drive grow stronger until it makes the act seem morally innocent or forces him to act in spite of his choice.

That is, to the extent to which a person foresees that in this situation, if he simply lets things take their natural course and doesn't use his concentration to get him out of the thought-pattern that the drive is leading him toward, he will eventually find nothing wrong with what the drive wants him to do--to that extent, he is now (i.e. when he foresees the outcome) willing to do the act, which he now understands is wrong, and is simply using the instinct as an excuse because when it gets strong enough its misinformation will then make him think the act is all right.

True, when he actually does perform the act later, under the control of the drive, his choice then is not immoral; it is the earlier choice to get into that situation when you can prevent it that is the immoral choice.

I spoke earlier of temptations, which were attractions to something we found undesirable, whether or not it was morally wrong. Let me make a definition here in a moral context:

A moral temptation is any reason or emotion that would make it seem a good thing to do what is known or suspected to be morally wrong.

"Giving in" to a temptation, strictly speaking, would involve making an immoral choice, because if you "give in" to it, you are still in a position to realize that what you are doing is wrong, but you decide to do the act anyway--in which case, you are willing to do what you know is wrong, and that is the essence of immorality, as I said.

But what I was discussing above means that there are instances of apparent giving in to a temptation that in fact you could not control, when the drive gets stronger and stronger in spite of your efforts to concentrate, and you find yourself with less and less reason for not doing the act, and eventually can't see any realistic reason why you shouldn't. In that case, since you haven't deliberately let this happen, your choice isn't a giving in at all, really, but something you really had no power over.

And this is a point that needs emphasizing.

Conclusion 11: A person who is under the grip of a drive toward some morally wrong act is only being immoral if he is willing to let the drive take over (or retain) control.

That is, it might not in practice be possible, by concentrating, to get out of the behavior-pattern that the drive is leading you towards; even from the beginning you are actually out of control, even if you see clearly what is happening, and even though theoretically (because your will is free) you could prevent the act. This is particularly the case with neurotics, and is one of the causes of the distress that comes from neurosis.

An alcoholic, for instance, who sometimes can resist the temptation to drink, can argue from this that "if he put his mind to it" he always could resist the temptation to drink (certainly enough of the people around him tell him that). So he "gives in" to the temptation and drinks, hating himself all the while he is doing it, and thinking that he chose to drink, when even while he is raising the glass to his lips, he is wishing he wasn't doing this. "Motivating" him while he is doing this is totally useless, because he simply can't hear what you are telling him. You say, "If you don't care about yourself, think of your wife and children!" What will immediately pop into his mind as he does so is how they don't care about him or they would leave him alone and stop getting on his case, which would help him to quit.

This man is not willing to do what he is doing; he would gladly stop if he could. He hasn't "given in" to the temptation; there was no way he could, even at that stage, keep himself from taking the drink. You might think that, even if this is true when faced with the drink itself, he can at least control himself and not get out of the house and drive to the tavern. But very often not even this is possible for the alcoholic; the need for a drink has become so essential in his physical and mental life (because his brain has arranged itself so as to be able to cope with the poison he is introducing into it, and cannot now function without the poison, just as a teen-ager can't study any more without blocking out the rock music in the background) that it obsesses him; and while he is at home, it keeps intruding itself onto his consciousness, like a headache, no matter how often he tries to put it out of his mind. And in this process of coming back and coming back, he can figure out all sorts of ingenious ways of getting a secret drink without being able to prevent himself from doing so.

So those who aren't alcoholics can't use their own minds to assess what is going on in the alcoholic's mind, and suppose him to be in control because they would be in control if they were in his situation.

There are severe dangers in "motivating" an alcoholic and trying to convince him that he is in control of himself and can stop if he "really wants to badly enough." The first is a practical one, connected to his behavior: He knows--or rather suspects strongly--that he's not in control; but if you're right and he is in control, then he is loathsome, evil, and depraved, not helpless; and so, to escape this horrible evaluation of himself (which in his heart of hearts he doesn't believe), he will be that much more motivated to drink to prove to himself that he is helpless. You don't realize what he thinks you are calling him when you tell him the harm he is actually doing to himself and everyone around him and supposedly "encouraging" him to stop doing it. He hears you telling him, "Because you are doing this when you could stop if you wanted to, you are the vilest of the vile."

But the second danger is even worse. To the extent that the alcoholic believes you and thinks that he can control himself and that he doesn't because he freely chooses not to (i.e. he freely chooses not to put forth the effort--both of you realize that it would be "hard" to stop), then this notion that he is in fact being immoral can lead him to say, "Well, what the hell, if I'm damned anyway, no matter what I do, why fight it? What good does fighting it do? This is the way I am, and from now on I accept it." What has he done? He has now become willing to be a drunk; and this is immoral.

Yes, by your wrong-headed attempt to "save" him, you have been instrumental in damning him. Up until the time you convinced him that he could stop if he really put his mind to it, he was resisting his unconquerable drive to drink; now, he has made the choice not to put his mind to it, and has become willing to do what he can't help doing anyway.

The "tough love," that I mentioned in Chapter 6 of Section 3 of the third part 3.3.6, only works in forcing on a person's attention information that he couldn't see because of the distortion that instinct causes; but if the person knows what he is doing and can't control himself anyway, keeping after him to "get hold of himself" and not treating him as handicapped is just as apt to lead to his damnation as it is to his "solving his problem."

But how can a person know whether he is out of control, or whether he still has enough control so that he can pull himself back if he really wants to? He must look at the rest of his life: is he a person who doesn't care about himself and what happens to him in other areas of his life? Is he a person who does harm to others and doesn't care about doing it? If in other areas of his life, he tries to be decent and to avoid doing harm, and if what he is doing now distresses him except when he is faced with the prospect of drinking (when he seems not to care about anything except the drink), then he can assure himself that he is not willingly a drunk.

Conclusion 12: If a person under the grip of a neurosis is in other respects a moral person and if he is dissatisfied with himself as tending toward this wrong conduct, he has a psychological, not a moral disorder. If he "accepts himself" and does not care that the tendency is toward what is wrong, his disorder is still psychological, but his willingness to be this way is immoral.

That is, even though immorality and psychological disorders are not the same thing, they are not necessarily separated in a person. There are all kinds of combinations of how a person can be. Let me use the homosexual as an example now, instead of the alcoholic, since the different combinations can show up more clearly. I will discuss in the next section why homosexual sexual intercourse is morally wrong; but let us here take for the sake of argument that such activity is objectively inconsistent with what sexuality is, and simply see what different sorts of ways homosexuals can be related to their acts:

First, a person might not be aware that there is anything wrong with homosexual intercourse; he might be able to prevent having sex homosexually if he wants to, but sees no reason for not having sex in this way. This person has no psychological disorder (he can do what he chooses), and is not being immoral, because as far as he knows, what he is doing is perfectly all right. He is simply ignorant of what the facts really are. He is doing what is wrong, but there is no immorality in his choice.

Second, a person may know that homosexual intercourse is wrong (or even merely suspect that it is in fact wrong) and be able to prevent himself from performing the act whenever he chooses; but he likes the act and chooses to do it. This person has no psychological disorder, but is being immoral, because he is in control of himself and deliberately chooses to do what he knows is wrong (or is willing to do what he suspects is wrong, which amounts to the same thing).

Note that in this sense, homosexuality is not of itself a psychological disorder; it only becomes so in the following cases:

Third, a person may be unaware that there is anything wrong with homosexual intercourse, but may have found that when he didn't want to have sex with someone (for reasons other than moral ones), he couldn't help himself and had sex with the person. This person has a psychological disorder with no moral overtones, because he is out of control of himself, but doesn't see any reason why morally he must prevent this act's from happening if he can.

Fourth, a person may know or suspect that homosexual intercourse is wrong, and try to prevent himself from having sex; but he finds that the urge is too strong for him, and he performs the act in spite of himself. This person has a psychological disorder because he chooses not to do something that he does, and therefore cannot control himself. But he is not being immoral, precisely because he does choose not to do the acts.

Finally, a person may know or suspect that homosexual intercourse is wrong, and realize that he can't prevent himself from having sex this way and is out of control. But he has decided to "accept himself" as a homosexual anyway and live out his life consistently with his homosexual nature. This person both has a psychological disorder and is being immoral. He has a psychological disorder because he is in fact out of control; he is immoral because he doesn't care that he is out of control; morally speaking he is the same as the person in the second case, because even if he were in control and could prevent the acts, he wouldn't; hence, he is willing to do the acts he knows are wrong.

In this last case, the psychological disorder is a "disorder" only in an abstract sense: in the sense that the person could not prevent the acts if he wanted to. But in point of fact, he doesn't want to, and so there is no sense in which he could be "cured." All that a "cure" of a psychological disorder does is put the person back into control of himself; but in this case, putting him back into control wouldn't change his behavior, because then it would simply be the same because of his choice and not because both of his choice and his neurosis. Further, he would not seek "treatment," precisely because the "cure" would make no practical difference to him; and in fact, he would actively resist "treatment" insofar as he suspected that the "cure" would change his behavior, which he wants.

Hence, a person who is willing to do what he can't help doing can't hide behind his "neurosis" on the grounds that neurotics have psychological problems, not moral ones. He has no psychological problem, any more than a person has a psychological problem in the fact that he can't prevent himself from breathing. He might have a psychological disorder in the sense that his act objectively is inconsistent with some aspect of his nature and he can't help performing the act; but it isn't a psychological problem or handicap unless he wants not to perform it.

I suppose here is the place to point out that the way for a person with a psychological disorder to look on himself--and the way for others to look on him--is that he has a handicap rather than a problem. The reason why looking at it as a "problem" can be counterproductive is that problems imply that there is a solution and that something is to be corrected.

But it may not be possible to correct some psychological disorders. For instance, alcoholism can't really be corrected, so that the person can become a rational drinker the way many normal people are; he can never "take it or let it alone" the way normal people can. Similarly, there is a good deal of evidence that homosexuals can't become heterosexuals, even when they can learn to have heterosexual intercourse to orgasm, and when they can avoid having homosexual sex; but this is not to change their orientation, any more than a heterosexual who can be brought to orgasm by one of his own sex is thereby homosexual (or even bisexual, for that matter). So even if homosexuality is a tendency to do something which in fact is inconsistent with the agent, it in itself is probably not a "problem" which can be corrected. And the same goes for many other psychological disorders.

But a handicap is something that can be either lived with or "overcome." An alcoholic who stops drinking is an alcoholic who still has his handicap, but has overcome it; a homosexual who has no homosexual sex has overcome his handicap. But it may be that the alcoholic can't in fact stop drinking (they say that only 25% of alcoholics permanently stop), and it may be that the homosexual never can stop his sexual activity.

In this case, the person must maintain his unwillingness to do the acts he knows are wrong, but certainly can accept the objective fact that he can't prevent them, and need not hate himself because of this. He is no more "hateful" because of this than a man with paralyzed legs is "hateful" because he can't walk, or a man with St. Vitus' Dance or Parkinson's disease is "hateful" because he can't stop shaking his head. The latter sort of people have physical handicaps; the former, psychological handicaps. But the principle is the same: the person cannot do what he chooses to do, because of some malfunction inside him. In the case of the psychological handicaps, it is something wrong with the circuitry in the brain, not with his "will." His will is oriented properly; it is just that his brain won't let him fulfill his choices.(2)

Hence, the alcoholic or homosexual or neurotic who can't help himself has got a difficulty: he must never be willing to do what he can't help doing anyway; but he doesn't have to fret about it or keep beating his head against the wall, trying this and that and the other to get "cured." He can "learn to live with it" in the sense that he can know that, barring a miracle, he'll be this way until he dies and there's nothing he can do to get out of being this way; and can accept that fact without "accepting himself" in the sense of acquiescing in the acts he can't prevent.

I remember one time I persuaded my father (who was blind) to go back and have his eyes examined, because I told him that medical science had made many advances in the thirty years or so since he was last tested, and it might be that they could do something for him. He went back, and after several tests, they started fitting him for glasses, at which point he said, "Don't bother; the improvement isn't enough to make any difference." When the nurse was filling out a questionnaire about the testing afterwards, she asked, "Does it bother you that we couldn't improve your vision?" and he answered, "No. I've lived with this all my life, and I can go on living with it." She said, "Then I'll put down, 'Is satisfied with his condition,'" and he shot back "Don't say that! I'm not satisfied with it! I just said I can live with it because there's nothing I can do about it!" It is this sort of "acceptance" that the person with the psychological handicap with moral overtones must have. He can never morally be satisfied with himself; but he doesn't have to keep trying to be different in order to be moral.

Obviously, this situation is anything but a desirable one to be in; and if a person can overcome his handicap, it would be beneficial for him to do so. The point is that he doesn't morally have to be wearing himself out trying to overcome something he can't in practice overcome.

Just a word about virtues and vices before we go on to talk about the moral implications of the choice and the information it is based on.

Some definitions:

A habit is an automatic stimulus-response pattern that is not innate, but acquired through repetition of the same act on being presented with the same stimulus.

I mentioned habits briefly in Chapter 5 of Section 2 of the third part 3.2.5, where I was discussing instinct and drives. They function like drives, except for the fact that in themselves they have no emotional overtone connected with them.

A virtue is a good habit.

A vice is a bad habit.

A moral virtue or vice is the habit of doing something morally right or wrong.(3)

For moral purposes, a habit functions the same way a drive does; it makes the act happen more or less independently of the choice--and can take sometimes take control even against a choice to the contrary. In fact, many if not all psychological disorders are complicated by the fact that they also involve habits, because the person who is initially somewhat out of control tends to perform the act in the situation in question, and so a habit begins to be formed, making him that much less in control as time goes on.

It is probably the fact that psychological disorders are as much if not more habits than drives that means that when we have them, we eventually find the act in question necessary rather than pleasurable. People, for instance, who have smoked or been drinking for years don't feel much pleasure from it; it is just that it becomes less possible not to do the act, and the agony from not doing it is very great.

But if virtues are good habits and vices are bad habits, and habits function independently of the choice, why are virtues regarded as very good morally and vices regarded as worse than actual immoral choices?

The answer is that a habit is a virtue rather than a disorder if (a) we recognize that there is nothing wrong with the act it automatically produces, and (b) we are willing to have it happen. If the acts are totally unconscious, then what you have strictly speaking isn't a virtue, but just automatic behavior, analogous to sleepwalking, however noble the act might be in itself. In this case, it has no connection whatever with your will. For a person to have a virtue, he has to realize what he is doing and give no resistance to it. Thus, when I brush my teeth in the morning (to take a virtue that isn't a moral one), I'm not in much of a position yet to be making choices and deliberating "Should I brush? Should I not brush?" It just happens; but at the same time, I'm not so unconscious that I don't know that it's going on. I just approve of it and don't try to stop it. I have the virtue of tooth-brushing.

In this sense, a virtue is better than a single moral choice, because (a) it is a willingness, because the act is conscious and approved; and (b) the person has a permanent orientation toward this good behavior, and so it is "more" "his" in a sense than the single act that he chooses as his. He is, if you will, more like what he will be eternally, because he has not only chosen this act, he has fixed it into himself as a permanent part of himself. All choices will be like habits after we die, because they will all be consciously permanent parts of ourselves; but we imitate this here by creating habits.(4)

Similarly, a vice is worse than a single immoral choice, because the person is willing to do the act, and is willing to keep doing it whenever the situation presents itself; he has a permanent orientation toward what he recognizes is self-contradictory.

Note that a vice turns into a psychological disorder if the person stops being willing to do the act he has got into the habit of doing. It is then, as I said above, not a vice but a handicap.

There is this we can say about virtues and vices and their acquisition:

Conclusion 13: It is immoral to allow oneself to acquire a vice if (a) one realizes that the acts are wrong and leading to a habit of doing wrong acts, and (b) one makes no effort to prevent the habit from forming.

That is, it is one thing to choose something wrong; but there is an added dimension to the immorality if you realize that this choice is also getting you into the habit of doing this wrong act. Then the choice is to do something both wrong in itself and wrong in its effect; and it has the added overtone of being willing to be permanently oriented toward this wrong act.

This, of course, supposes that you are in control at the time. It might be that an alcoholic from the earliest stages is one who can't prevent himself from falling into the habit. This is even more apt to be the case, they tell me, with certain other drugs like "crack." I am told that sometimes just one experience is enough to get a person out of control; and from then on he is "hooked."

To the extent that one realizes that this might happen to him, it would be immoral to choose to have the first experience, even if in itself it was not morally wrong (we will see what is wrong with drugging yourself later), because one would be deciding to perform an act whose effect is permanent dependence on something which, if habitual, is destructive. But of course, if one has no reason to believe this might happen, then one would not be choosing this effect along with the act. So, since many many people can drink and control it, it does not follow that when you take your first drink you have any reason to believe that this will make you an alcoholic. You would suspect that you were becoming an alcoholic if you felt you needed a drink. The day you say to yourself, "I need a drink" must be the day after you have had your last drink, or you are in serious danger of alcoholism. This is no pleasantry; the difference between the alcoholic and the controlled drinker is that the latter never needs a drink.

Many authors spend a great deal of time listing and categorizing the various types of virtues. Since it should be obvious that I am not terribly fond of lists nor of pigeonholing things, I am not going to bother with that. Nevertheless, I think it useful to say a couple of words on what are called the four "cardinal" virtues, traditionally called "prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance." I will give them names closer to their modern significance shortly; but first why are they called "cardinal"? The word comes, not from the bird or the Princes of the Catholic Church, after the color of whose robes the bird was named, but from the meaning of the word which also is behind why these people are called "cardinals." The Latin word cardo (cardin-) means "hinge"; and these virtues, or these people, are the ones on which other things "hinge." They are what we would call the pivotal virtues; if you don't have all of them, no other act can be virtuous, nor can you acquire any other (moral) virtue.

What are these virtues habits of doing? First, discretion ("prudence") is the habit of adjusting the act to agree with all the physical circumstances of the act; it might also be called "common sense." Without this virtue, your act is reckless, and is apt to be at cross-purposes with itself because it did not pay attention to something about the situation which modified it significantly.

Secondly, honesty ("justice") is the habit of adjusting the act to be consistent with the persons involved in the act. It is, as Aristotle mentioned, synonymous with morality itself if you take it in the general sense of "being true to that person which is yourself, including all your relations with everything and everyone." It includes within it the virtue of justice in the strict sense when it adjusts the act so that it fits other people who are affected by it. Obviously, without this virtue, your acts would be dishonest and/or unjust and could violate your own or someone else's reality.

Thirdly, courage ("fortitude") is the habit of preventing negative emotions from taking control and forcing you to avoid an act reason tells you is desirable. All negative emotions can be classified under "fear" of some sort; and so the person who does not have this virtue is a coward, who won't do what he knows he must do because fear prevents him from doing it.

Finally self-control ("temperance") is the habit of preventing attractive emotions from taking control and forcing you to do an act your reason tells you is undesirable. Obviously, the person who lacks self control is intemperate and cannot prevent himself from doing what is wrong if he is attracted toward it. Clearly, a person may be intemperate with respect to only one type of activity and have self-control in the rest; lust, for instance, is sexual intemperance, gluttony intemperance with respect to food, and so on.

You can see why you have to have all four of these virtues working together to be able actually to do what is morally right; it you don't pay attention to the physical or personal circumstances, then your act can violate one of them; if you can't control your emotions, then your act won't follow your choice.

But let that be enough about virtues. Since my view of morality is that you must not choose (or be willing) to do what is wrong, it is not a virtue-ethics, and not even an anti-vice ethics. I have nothing against virtues, by any means; but what virtues you acquire are part of your self-definition of yourself, and morality as I see it simply deals with how to keep contradictions out of this self-definition.

But there is one last point dealing with the choice's control of the acts that needs clear statement, since it has moral implications:

Responsibility is the fact that the act and its consequences "belong to" the person insofar as his choice could have made them different.

That is, responsibility is "answerability," not "duty." When one talks about the "responsibilities" of the Senior Vice President of the company in the company's manual, one is talking about the duties of the Senior Vice President. They are "responsibilities" in the sense that if they don't get done, he is the one (then) responsible. So these are "responsibilities" in an analogous sense, presupposing the sense above.

In other words, responsibilities in the strict sense are after the fact; they imply that (a) you had control over the fact, and consequently (b) it happened as it happened because you chose what you chose. Responsibility implies that you were free and could have chosen that the act not happen this way, in which case, it wouldn't have happened this way. But one of the implications of responsibility is this:

Conclusion 14: A person cannot be responsible for what did not happen (even if he intended it to happen).

Responsibility supposes a concrete event, and "attributes" it to the person it "belongs to," in the sense of the person who could have prevented or altered it by his choice. If the event didn't happen, then there's no "it" that he could have altered, and so he can't be responsible for "it." To talk about a person as if he were responsible for a non-event which he intended is to confuse guilt (which I'll mention shortly) with responsibility. The two are not the same.

There are various levels of responsibility, not all of which are recognized as distinct, and whose confusion can lead to false judgments:

At the lowest level is physical responsibility which is the responsibility a person has for an event because it was in principle possible for him to prevent it by choosing differently, irrespective of whether (a) he had any idea that he could do so, (b) he was in control of himself, or even (c) the choice would have been immoral.

I was told by a friend who had just come back from Saudi Arabia never to get a driver's license and try to drive there; because the law (at that time, anyway), according to him, was such that, if you were in an intersection and the light was in your favor, and a Saudi ran the red light and crashed into your car, killing himself, you would be prosecuted for murder, on the grounds that if you hadn't decided to come to Saudi Arabia, you wouldn't have been in the intersection for him to smash into you. This is physical responsibility. You could have prevented the accident by choosing not to come to the country; but your choice to come to the country certainly did not include placing yourself in the path of a reckless driver, let alone his death.

The point of merely physical responsibility is that, while you could have made a different choice, there is no reason why you would have made a different choice, and there might be all sorts of reasons why you would not have made a different choice--or even, morally speaking, could not have made a different choice. For instance, you might choose to have an arm amputated because it is gangrenous and you would die otherwise. Obviously, you now can no longer pick up things with the hand that is gone; but you could not morally choose to keep your body intact and kill yourself; hence, you are only physically responsible for the mutilation. In the "true" sense, you are not responsible for it, because you didn't intend it in any meaningful sense.

The highest level of responsibility is moral responsibility. This implies that the act and its effects were known when you made the choice and you were willing to have them happen. Obviously, this choice may be either moral or immoral, depending on whether the act and its known consequences were consistent or inconsistent with yourself. In this sense, the act was (as known) part of the choice, in which case it obviously "belongs" to you.(5)

But in order to be morally responsible for an act or one of its consequences, you must be actively conscious at the time you make the choice about the particular aspect of the act or its consequences; if you didn't in fact realize that the gun might be loaded and you chose to point it at someone and pull the trigger, you would not be morally responsible for the death you caused.

"Well, but wait just a minute!" you say, "You certainly ought to have suspected that the gun might be loaded!" That's legal responsibility, which I'll get to in a minute.

If you take what I said before about how emotions can block out information, it is clear that sometimes you simply are not conscious of information that you might normally be aware of; and, as I said, in that case morally speaking it is the same as if you never knew the information, since there is no way in can affect your choice at the moment. The same can be said of temporary lapses of memory or attention that don't have any particular emotion or drive behind them. If you aren't aware of the relevant information, you aren't, and therefore, it isn't part of your choice; and therefore, morally speaking, that aspect of the act isn't yours, because there was no reason you knew of to keep from choosing it.

Conclusion 15: A person is not morally responsible for aspects of an act that he did not in fact foresee at the time he made the choice.

Secondly, there are aspects of an act that you foresee will happen but which you cannot morally prevent, because to do so would be to make an immoral choice. No matter what the harm done, no immoral choice can be made to prevent it, because the trade-off is eternal frustration in comparison to the avoidance of temporal harm, and the scales always tip against the eternal frustration, no matter how slight. I mentioned this in Chapter 4 of Section 4 of the third part 3.3.6, where I showed how it was always better to avoid being immoral, no matter what harm you avoided by being immoral.

Therefore, if the harm that comes cannot be avoided except by making an immoral choice, you are not morally responsible for the harm--though of course you would be physically responsible for it, since in principle you could have avoided it by being immoral. But obviously you can't be morally responsible for what you couldn't morally avoid. Morally speaking, such things are out of your control. Hence,

Conclusion 16: A person is not morally responsible for any aspect of an event that could not be avoided except by making an immoral choice.

If you can't avoid some harm to another person without being immoral, you aren't morally responsible for the harm. But since your choice did bring on the harm, you are, as I said, physically responsible for it; and so there is a sense in which the harm is "yours." Because of this, you have an obligation to correct or mitigate the damage insofar as this is reasonably possible without harm to yourself.

Thus, for instance, a doctor whose knife accidentally slips during an operation (even though he was exercising care) and paralyzes a patient permanently is not morally responsible for the patient's paralysis, but is physically responsible for it. He then must do what he can to correct the situation or to make his life as comfortable and as close to what it would otherwise have been as he can; though he need not impoverish or actually harm himself in the process.

In this sense, physical responsibility sometimes has moral overtones.

But since other people cannot know, unless you tell them, what you actually knew at the time you made the choice, or whether even you actually chose the act in question or were out of control for some reason and did what you chose not to do, or finally whether you chose the act to avoid being immoral, then a level of responsibility between physical and moral responsibility exists, because other people, and particularly those who have to enforce laws, have to have some way of assessing your act and its relation to you.

It would obviously be unjust to punish acts on the basis of physical responsibility, as the example of the person in Saudi Arabia makes clear. Then you would be punished for what you could not in practice prevent, and which no one in your situation would have been able to have prevented. On the other hand, if a person can get away with claiming that he was not morally responsible ("I didn't know the gun was loaded, your honor") then obviously no criminal would ever be punished, because all he would have to do to go free would be to lie--and a lie which no one could disprove, since it would deal with his own consciousness, which only he is privy to.

To get between the horns of this dilemma, a mental fiction is created: that of the "ordinary person." If the "ordinary person" would have been aware of the facts involved, or if the "ordinary person" would have been in control of himself, then you are held responsible for the act, whether you were in fact morally responsible or not. The idea is that if the "ordinary person" would have been morally responsible for the act, you ought to have known what he would have known or had the control that he would have had, and it is your negligence and culpable carelessness that prevented it.

Hence, the following definition:

A person is legally responsible for what the "ordinary person" would be morally responsible for in the same circumstances.

The reason this is called "legal responsibility" is that it is the kind of responsibility that generally applies in courts of law; but it is actually the kind of responsibility we ordinarily assign to people because of the fact that we can't know what is going on in their minds. The "ordinary person" is a person who has average intelligence, average access to information, and average control over himself; if he would be expected to know the facts in question, then if you claim not to have known them, the presumption is in favor of the fact that you are lying, unless you can present evidence showing why you couldn't have been expected to know them in your case. "I just forgot" will get you off morally in God's courtroom, because he can tell whether you're lying or not; but if you make that claim in a court of law, then it is more probable that you are lying just to get yourself acquitted than that you actually did forget. You would have a strong reason for lying, and there is no real reason why you would forget what "the ordinary person" would have remembered.

However, if you can show why it is reasonable to assume that you were not aware of the facts in question (why, for instance, you would have been preoccupied with seeing to it that the tub of scalding water didn't tip on you), then you are not held legally responsible; because if the situation is peculiar, "the ordinary person" would also have not noticed the fact in question. Similarly, if the situation was so provocative that the "ordinary person" would have lost control, you can get away with a defense of "temporary insanity." If you shot someone because you saw him in the act of raping your wife, the jury would probably recognize that when you said, "I just couldn't help myself" they would have been unable to help themselves either in that situation, and so they won't hold you responsible for what you did.(6)

Now then, I said that responsibility is not necessarily the same as guilt. What is guilt? It's not "feeling guilty." Guilt feelings are actually a fear of punishment, and they can occur, as I have so often said, without your being guilty of anything at all. What are you when you are guilty of something?

A person is guilty when he has chosen to do what is morally wrong or illegal.

A person is morally guilty when he has chosen to do what he knows or suspects is a morally wrong act, whether or not it happens.

A person is legally guilty when he is legally responsible for an act violating a law.

Note first of all that for legal guilt you must actually have done something that violates the law; the event you are guilty of must actually have occurred. Hence, you can't be legally guilty without being also legally responsible for what you are guilty of. "They can't arrest you for thinking" is legally true. Nor can you be legally guilty of choosing an act if for some reason not under your control you couldn't carry out your choice.

Thus, for instance, John Hinckley, who tried and failed to assassinate President Reagan, is not legally guilty of killing him, because in fact he didn't kill him. He is legally guilty of "shooting with intent to kill," because he actually did that (it is presumed that if you point a gun and pull the trigger that legally you had the "intent" to kill--whatever your actual intention, unless it was in self-defense), and there's a law against it.

But assuming that Mr. Hinckley knew what he was doing and knew that it was wrong, he is morally guilty of killing President Reagan, because he chose precisely to do that, even though, through no fault of his own, he couldn't carry his choice to its chosen goal. Hence, his choice on this assumption carried with it the eternal frustration connected with killing the President of his country--and, presumably, the added frustration of knowing that he didn't actually do it.

Nevertheless, Mr. Hinckley was not morally responsible for killing Mr. Reagan, because in point of fact that didn't happen, and so how could he be responsible for it? So in moral matters, you can be guilty of something you are not responsible for, in the case where your goal didn't actually get achieved in spite of your intention.

The other distinction between responsibility and guilt is that you can't be guilty of choosing something good, but you can be responsible for what is good. That is, good effects as well as bad ones "belong to" you if they are the results of acts you chose; and so you are the one responsible for them. But guilt always deals with what is wrong or illegal.

In fact, you can be morally guilty of something bad and legally responsible for something good at the same time and by the same choice. Suppose you went into your father's sickroom with the intention of frightening him to death in his weakened condition, so that you could inherit his millions (I'm not sure I want to have much to do with a person like you, come to think of it). You go in and shout at him, startling him so that he stops the hiccups that were bound to kill him in his debilitated condition--and he recovers. You are then responsible for his recovery, because it was the act you chose that caused it; and you are legally responsible for it, because the "ordinary person" knows that shock stops hiccups. But you are morally guilty of killing him, because that was your goal in startling him. Far-fetched, perhaps, but it shows the distinction.



1. This is what has been known as "invincible ignorance," as opposed to "vincible ignorance," where you have reason to suspect the truth, and it is a question of looking for it. Some ethicians would interpret the ignorance I have described as vincible, on the grounds that the person ought to have known the facts, which were right in front of him. But if his emotions have blinded him, how could he even know there were facts to be known. These people confuse what an ordinary person would be aware of with what the actual person could in practice be aware of.

2. This is the kind of thing St. Paul was referring to in Romans (7): "This [the fact that I am material while the Law is spiritual] is shown by the fact that I don't even recognize the acts I do; what I do is not what I choose to do; I do what I hate doing. And if what I do is what I don't want to do, then I am in agreement with the Law as a good thing; and so in fact, I am not the one who is acting; it is the sin that has its home in me that acts."

3. To these definitions we could add that the Theological virtues are the faith, hope, and charity which initially are given us in the new life that is received in becoming Christian; from this point on, they can be developed like any habit by repetition of the appropriate acts. There is nothing a person can do to acquire these virtues; they are given as a free gift by God when he bestows his own life upon us in our incorporation (literally) into the Body of his Son. But we can by our choices put up more or fewer obstacles in the way of their operating, and so they can grow stronger or remain weak.

4. A sign, by the way, that you have acquired a virtue is what you do in your dreams. If in your dreams you "overcome temptations," then, since dreams do not involve full consciousness, as we saw in Chapter 5 of Section 2 of the third part 3.2.5,and so don't involve actual choices, your dream-self's acting morally is the result of a habitual resistance to the temptation rather than deliberate concentration; one thing you definitely can't do in dreams is concentrate. I hasten to add here that if you "give in" to the temptation in the dream, (a) this is not an immoral choice, because your consciousness in a dream is more or less like watching a movie of yourself, and does not involve control, and (b) is no sign that you don't have the virtue in question, because you may have the habit in your waking life given the assist your full consciousness gives to the proper behavior-pattern. Since dreams have nothing to do with choices dreams have no moral significance at all. When they tell you (as above) that you have a virtue, all they are indicating is that the habit in question is deeply ingrained.

5. I.e. it belongs to you as a "moral agent" or as a person. This is what Pope John Paul II calls in The Acting Person an act that one "does" as opposed to an act that the person is only physically responsible for, which he calls an act that "happens to" a person. It belongs to the body, so to speak, but not to the person, since the person is essentially the spirit.

6. Of course, what you say still could be a lie. I had a policeman in class one time, and after the class where I discussed this, he came to my office and told me that he had killed his wife, who was about to take custody of his daughter; he pleaded temporary insanity and got acquitted, but he said to me. "I knew what I was doing; I just wasn't about to let that bitch get her hands on my daughter."