The Personalist Project

Inevitably, at some point during my Ethics courses, a student will raise the question, "So, who decides what is right and what is wrong?" Having grown up in the modern world, they're all-too aware that there are many different and opposing views about every ethical issue under sun. They also know that philosophers throughout history have disagreed. So when they hear me defend the objectivity of moral truth, they naturally wonder "Whose truth? Who gets to decide what is objectively true?"

A first answer

My first answer to this question is generally to point out that it is badly formulated. It is a loaded question, because it assumes the point at issue. It takes for granted that moral norms are the result of a decision. In reality, no one decides what is right and wrong. Rather, we discover it. We find it in experience. (In a similar way, no one decided that the earth was round. The fact was gradually discovered and confirmed by various observations.)

But that answer by itself doesn't fully satisfy, because it doesn't really get at the underlying question these students have, which I think has at least two aspects.

  1. Given that even people who are much smarter than I, and who have studied the matter for years, can't come to a consensus on the question, how am I supposed to know who is right?
  2. Even if I was able to find the true answer to an ethical issue, what to do about all the people who disagree with me? I can't very well impose my views on them. So who then, practically speaking, decides what answer is going to be enforced?

A second answer

To the first of these questions there is no easy answer. The fact is that, in the end, after thinking things through and taking various opinions into account, each of us must make up his own mind—not, of course, by deciding which answer we like best, but by judging which is true and right, and then freely conforming ourselves to it.

This is not easy, first, because truth is sometimes hard to find. But, more importantly, because it means taking responsibility, which is typically something we don't like to do. It's "safer" and more comfortable to go with what others decide, or to rely on what most people (in my circle) think. Making my own judgments requires not only intelligent inquiry, but also moral maturity and moral strength.

In light of this, we can see that the question "Who decides?" can be motivated by a kind of laziness masquerading as sophistication. It functions, at least partially, and perhaps unconsciously, as an excuse for evading responsibilty. For analogous reasons, skepticism has sometimes been called an infirmity of the mind. It is not so much an intellectual position, as a failure to hold on to what one knows (or should know) is true.

A third answer

What about the problem of "imposing morality" on others? This aspect of the question is essentially a political one. Because "no man is an island," even in a pluralist society like our own, there must be some agreed upon moral standards. Who decides, then, and how, what those standards are going to be?

I don't have a well-thought out or thorough answer to that question. One hope I have in writing this, is that readers will offer their own thoughts. But one thing seem pretty clear to me. Ideally, every society would have a broad consensus about the moral standards to be upheld by law and custom. And such a consensus can be real and sustainable only if it is based on persuasion and on deeply held, shared values, rather than on force, coercion, manipulation, mere majority rule, or other things of that nature. A vigorous, serious, honest, and ongoing public debate on fundamental questions is therefore indispensible.

Secondly, I more and more think that America has gone overboard in celebrating the "right" (which, so interpreted, is not a real right) of everyone to live the lifestyle he or she chooses, regardless of social consequences. The question "Who decides?" has been answered by saying "Everybody decides for himself," with too little regard for the fact that we can't live absent general norms and values that must be decided by the community as a whole. Without those, there can be no real community, only a collection of individuals continually at odds with one another.

Here, too, we have to do with a shirking of responsibility. But it in this case it is a communal responsibility. A political community owes it to itself, and to its members, especially the more vulnerable ones, to formulate and nourish some kind of shared and true vision of a common good. Can we not agree, for instance, to rein in the spread of pornography? Or of extremely violent computer games? Not to do so out of respect for freedom of speech, or because it would be an imposition of our values on others who don't share them, seems to me a very lame excuse.

Anyway. Do you, dear reader, have any thoughts? Have I left out something important? Are there better or other good answers to that frequently repeated question: "Who decides?" If so, let's hear them.

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Comments (11)


#1, Jan 27, 2013 5:03pm

As persons we are endowed with intelligence and free will. The first is our tool to know what's right, and the second is our tool to love this what's right. The problem is not just about the first (who decides, or what's really right and wrong), but also, and perhaps foremost, about the second ("respons"-ibility, the ability to respond).

Our will is free: it is capable of denying what's evident, out of pure pride. And obedience is considered the virtue of humility: to live by the rules of another. The decisions of our free will can never be neutral: there is no middle way between right and wrong, or something like half right and half wrong. And our decisions to obey or reject engage our whole person, they are indeed the response of our whole being: not just based on our intellect, but also on our passions, our desires, and in the end, our freedom.

I've always liked this definition of freedom: not the ability to do what you want, but the ability to want what you should.


#2, Jan 27, 2013 5:09pm

"Atheism as the denial of the existence of God isn't the worse rejection of God possible. Some have found God and yet do not serve Him: they serve Him the lesser for it. Those are not atheists, they recognize all the articles of the faith, and yet, they reject God in the most radical way, knowingly. They surpass atheism and make us discover a darker place, all the more sinister in that it uses light to thicken its darkness. This is the place of evil. [...] It's not as much about wanting what's wrong, than about wanting what's right but without obeying another, to achieve it by its own strength, in a gift that presumes to receive nothing, in a kind of generosity which coincides with the finest pride."

From the backside of the book "La foi des démons" (The Faith of Demons) by brilliant French philosopher and convert Fabrice Hadjadj.


#3, Jan 28, 2013 2:48am

"The issue with truth is not to discover it but to resemble it." (André Frossard)

Katie van Schaijik

#4, Jan 28, 2013 10:36am

Sapperdepitjes, Jan. 27 at 6:03pm

Our will is free: it is capable of denying what's evident, out of pure pride. And obedience is considered the virtue of humility: to live by the rules of another. 

Now, wait a sec.  Isn't this way of formulating it problematic?  I mean, it's not as if the central moral call is to obedience—unles you define obedience in the very braod sense of free confomring to God's design, or to the moral law. 

I raise the point, because much harm has been done over the years (I've experienced it and witnessed it) by Christian leaders and teachers who set themselves up as authority figures and then instruct others about humility and obedience.

What they demand, in practical effect, is obedience, not to the moral law, but to them.  They neglect completely the role of conscience, and the sovereignty of the individual over his own interior terrain.  

Further, what is evident to me isn't necessarily evident to all.  I can't demand that another person act according to what is evident to me, if he doesn't see it.  All I can do is say what I see, and try to help him see it.

Rhett Segall

#5, Jan 28, 2013 2:00pm

Katie's critique of obedience needs to be said, given that insistence on this virtue can be used in an authoritarian manner.  But when considered from the point of its etymology as "listening" than obedience and attentiveness to right and wrong makes much sense indeed.

I think what is evident by definition should be clear to all. I like Adler's explanation that something is evident if we recognize the opposite to be impossible. Thus it is evident that torturing a child can never be justified.

I also think that the American Declaration of Independence is exceptionally significant in this regard:" We HOLD these truths to be self evident." We need to hold on to them because so much in society tends to blind us to what is evident, e. g. that marriage should be between a man and woman.

It is the task of education to unmask the blinders of our day and open our eyes to what is there.

Katie van Schaijik

#6, Jan 28, 2013 2:52pm

Rhett Segall, Jan. 28 at 3:00pm

It is the task of education to unmask the blinders of our day and open our eyes to what is there.

 Yes, exactly, Rhett.  

And, just (as Jules pointed out) we tend to be lazy about the obligation to search out what is true—preferring to hide behind a kind of "Who knows?" excuse, like Pilate--teachers can be lazy about their responsibility to bring the truth to evidence for their hearers. Since the truth of some norm or principle is evident to us, we feel justified in establishing it by force, because "error has no rights."  

This is a great temptation in Catholic circles.  In the circles of all who hold that there is such a thing as objective truth, really.


#7, Jan 28, 2013 4:54pm

I fully agree with your comments!

Jules van Schaijik

#8, Jan 28, 2013 5:11pm

I just came across a passage in Josef Pieper's Guide to Thomas Aquinas, that is apropos here (specially since today is the feast of St. Thomas):

l[One thing] which brought Thomas into the Order of Preachers was his passion for teaching… Teaching in the real sense takes place only when the hearer is reached—not by dint of some personal magnetism or verbal magic, but rather, when the truth of what it said reaches the hearer as truth. Real teaching takes place only when it's ultimate result—which must be intended from the start—is achieved: when the hearer is "taught." And being taught is something else again from being carried away, and something else again from being dominated by another's intellect. Being taught means to perceive that what the teacher has said is true and valid, and to perceive why this is so. Teaching therefore presupposes that the hearer is sought out where he is to be found. (p. 32)


#9, Jan 29, 2013 5:33am

Yesterday's status update of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen's facebook page:

As all men are touched by God’s love, so all are also touched by the desire for His intimacy. No one escapes this longing; we are all kings in exile, miserable without the Infinite. Those who reject the grace of God have a desire to avoid God, as those who accept it have a desire for God. The modern atheist does not disbelieve because of his intellect, but because of his will; it is not knowledge that makes him an atheist…The denial of God springs from a man’s desire not to have a God—from his wish that there were no Justice behind the universe, so that his injustices would fear not retribution; from his desire that there be no Law, so that he may not be judged by it; from his wish that there were no Absolute Goodness, that he might go on sinning with impunity. That is why the modern atheist is always angered when he hears anything said about God and religion—he would be incapable of such a resentment if God were only a myth. (continues below)


#10, Jan 29, 2013 5:34am

His feeling toward God is the same as that which a wicked man has for one whom he has wronged: he wishes he were dead so that he could do nothing to avenge the wrong. The betrayer of friendship knows his friend exists, but he wished he did not; the post-Christian atheist knows God exists, but he desires He should not. (Archbishop Fulton Sheen, Peace of Soul)

Katie van Schaijik

#11, Jan 29, 2013 9:59am

Beautiful quotation!

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