Thinking Morally

October 1998By Gerard V. Bradley

Gerard V. Bradley is Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame, and President of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.

The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vol. 3: Difficult Moral Questions.  By Germain Grisez. Franciscan Press (217-228-5670). 927 pages. $35.



Here is a uniquely valuable work, practical and direct, written in plain English by a mature scholar who wears his immense learning lightly. The “difficult moral questions” it treats are two hundred in number, each with an Analysis and a Reply. (And there are two narrative Appendices.)

The questions are difficult in two ways. First, they pose hard and genuine problems, not pedantic quibbles. Second, none of them, Grisez writes, has heretofore been the object of “explicit or clearly applicable Church teachings.” May a dentist hasten to do costly work before a patient’s insurance ends? May a physician prescribe a placebo for an anxious patient? May a woman who separates from her abusive husband continue to have marital relations with him?

Sometimes a question is made harder by the oblique angle at which the questioner approaches the problem. A woman wants to know whether to “tolerate” her husband’s incest with their daughter. May a parent “condone” a son’s homosexual activity? May a physician “refer” a patient for morally objectionable services? May a taxi-driver simply “deliver a fare” to a place where the person intends to buy drugs or sex?

Down-to-earth as it is, Difficult Moral Questions (DMQ) is not a Catholicized Dear Abby or Miss Manners collection. Grisez intends it to be “a seminary text or instructional resource” for moral counselors and particularly for confessors. Conscientious lay people, he says, “will find here guidance not available elsewhere.” Grisez hopes that the book will be “a model for thinking” about moral questions. DMQ is not a book of do’s and don’ts, but it is the work of a faithful Catholic who accepts as true all that the Church proposes as true, who says “If any reply should lead in practice to a judgment in conflict with the Church’s teaching, I would follow and urge others to follow the Church’s teaching.”

The questions reach into all the corners of life. May a woman spend $10,000 on a facelift to conceal the ordinary effects of aging? May a mechanic continue working for an auto repair shop that cheats customers? Let’s say you are wondering whether to tip for a service, and if so how much of a tip to give. Grisez has a fascinating dissection of the problem. It is his personal opinion that the practice of tipping should be abolished, mainly because it puts people into a morally significant situation without a clear notion of what they should do. This side of abolition, tipping is not, Grisez says, all “gratuity.” A tip is due when a service is performed and where the server depends, according to the customs of the locale, on tips for basic income. To withhold a tip from such a person may be a form of theft.

May one use unordered merchandise? Or reuse uncanceled postage stamps? In limited circumstances, maybe. Should a man stop his elderly mother from driving, as Dan Ackroyd did in the movie Driving Miss Daisy? The answer depends upon applying the Golden Rule: How would you feel if you were one of those at risk due to the old woman’s impaired abilities? Grisez rescues these seemingly nonmoral decisions from the neglect pile; they are moral decisions and all moral decisions matter.

Many questions are about professional ethics (medicine, law, business, university life). Each would seem to have a limited audience. But a question from one field often calls forth a treatment of matters — compassion, burnout, fees — common to all. And many of the questions about what a professional should do are relevant to the rest of us who depend on those professionals. May a physician order unnecessary exams to protect himself against possible malpractice claims by patients with unrealistic expectations? May a lawyer handle matters that the client could handle alone?

Grisez’s treatment of professional ethics is the best I have seen. Why? Because he sticks to the question of what a conscientious person’s options are, avoids rationalizations of the “if-I-don’t-do-it-someone-else-will” sort, and eschews the sophisticated stratagems for getting more of what one happens to want which pass for professional ethics elsewhere. Grisez holds out the possibility that abandonment of a job, career, or profession is a live option, that it may be necessary to save one’s soul. Call it occupational martyrdom.

Some questions deal with situations outside the realm of most of us. These are, however, often about matters of great societal significance. May legislators follow public opinion against their own judgment? Or support casino gambling? Should a manager voluntarily adopt an affirmative action plan? May an entrepreneur locate a factory in a Third World country (and, I would add, send jobs overseas while reducing prices at home)?

Just a handful of questions are truly remote, at least at first hearing. May islanders use primitive (cruel and wasteful compared to state-of-the-art) methods to slaughter whales? How about a girl’s use of her gangster brother’s money for college expenses? What are the conditions in which separating Siamese twins is appropriate? These questions, like all the others, allow Grisez to illustrate moral decision-making. The islander’s plight allows Grisez to point out both the subordination of nonhuman resources to the legitimate needs of persons, and the wrongness of unnecessarily inflicting pain on animals. “Those who treat animals cruelly act both against natural sympathy without a good reason to do so — which injures their own character — and irreverently toward God.” The gangster question he uses as an example of co-operation in past immoral acts. The twins’ case calls for application of Grisez’s compelling (but controversial, even among faithful Catholic moralists) account of intention and side-effect, a daring but welcome advance beyond the more familiar doctrine of “double effect.” There is scarcely a wasted word in this 900-page book, and virtually no repetition.

Some questions permit Grisez to develop short treatments of important contemporary questions that could stand alone as essays. These include questions about affirmative action, homosexuality, plea-bargaining in criminal cases, negotiation among lawyers more generally, the conditions for Catholic health care providers’ co-operation with those providing immoral services, and the distinctive role and mission of Catholic colleges.

The most creative part of this rich work — and the part most urgently needed — is Grisez’s ethic of the marketplace, which comes through in replies to several questions. Among them are inquiries into the propriety of driving competitors out of business, duties of disclosure in various market exchanges, and hotels’ pricing policies (they often, like airlines, offer identical services for wildly different prices). Grisez holds as a very general matter that market prices may be presumed fair, and that private enterprise, including the market and profit incentives, is basically a just institutional arrangement. Grisez certainly carries no brief for public ownership of enterprise (beyond the mid-point of contemporary opinion), and rarely sounds a call for legal intervention on the strength of his very sharp criticisms of our marketplace.

Grisez’s conception of the business enterprise — the company or partnership — is worth quoting. “The directors and managers of a profit-making business are bound by not only the legal requirements but the normal norms binding all groups and individuals.” Businessmen “may not intend as either an end or a means that the business’s activities injure anyone or any community; they may not unfairly accept side effects harmful to anyone; they must see to it that the business fairly plays its part in wider communities to which it belongs — for example, by avoiding unfair competition and obeying just laws.” That is to say that market actors, even in arm’s-length transactions, are not moral strangers; the Golden Rule rules even on Wall Street. Customers are not (potential) suckers; they are “associates cooperating in a common economic enterprise.” So are employees. So, indeed, are competitors. A competitor’s enterprise is an instance of valuable co-operation, and so “instantiates the basic human good of community.” Purposely to drive someone out of business is to choose to destroy an instantiation of a basic human good, and is “always wrong.”

Co-operation on so vast a scale obviously requires effective communication. That communication must be truthful if it is to serve the genuine good of the associates in the economic enterprise. So, lying and deception are out in the marketplace (and elsewhere, for that matter; Grisez holds that lying is always wrong). Salesmen must be “not only truthful but candid.” Why? Because merchants and customers are engaged in, or should be engaged in, genuine co-operation for their mutual benefit. Salesmen “should entirely avoid deception and supply the information potential customers require if they are to choose…those items that will best meet their needs” (though, because they work for the merchant, they need not tell a customer that he could do better with a different merchant).

One question asks, is it wrong to increase efficiency and thereby to reduce the number of jobs? Not necessarily, says Grisez. The harm to displaced workers need not be intended, but rather accepted as the side-effect of the morally acceptable effort to find more efficient means, an effort that generally has good effects, such as less drudgery, probably lower prices, and more leisure for workers. Even some displaced workers may be better off. Unemployment benefits may adequately support them while they retrain for more satisfying jobs that pay more. But there is a moral obligation to mitigate the bad effects, especially in poorer parts of the world, where those effects are liable to be greater and the social safety net is more porous.

DMQ may not be a hit on Madison Avenue (though we would all be better off if it were), for it says that advertisers may not lie or deceive. “Encouraging self-indulgence and waste, and representing immoral attitudes and behavior as acceptable, clever, or funny” are also morally excluded.

In fact, special solicitude must be our attitude when the less fortunate, the less informed, or the more needy are across the bargaining table from us in the course of business. In reply to several questions Grisez calls for exercising the virtue of mercy, the “justice of the Kingdom.” Christian mercy may require a prosperous seller to sell a used car at less than market value to an unsophisticated, poor buyer. Grisez reminds us that material resources are for everyone’s good, and that after our own needs and those of our dependents are taken care of, the legitimate needs of others have their claim on us. That question above about the face-lift draws from him the suggestion, “Instead of investing in a face-lift for yourself, invest in the kingdom of heaven, where alone we can hope to remain forever youthful.”

DMQ is a monumental work, but still just one volume. It is the third in what Grisez describes as “a four-volume effort to contribute to the renewal of Catholic moral theology called for by Vatican Council II.” The first volume, Christian Moral Principles, appeared in 1983 and the second, Living a Christian Life, in 1992. The fourth volume, treating the special responsibilities of clergy and religious, is scheduled for publication in 2004.

Grisez’s response to the Council’s call is evident in practically all he has written. He has, for example, contributed greatly to the revival, or creation, of a proper theology of the lay life, criticizing along the way the clericalism of earlier times. He has done more than any other moralist to develop a positive theology of marriage and married life. For Grisez and clearly now for the Church, marriage is not a concession to fleshly weakness, a second-best state for those not up to the rigors and rewards of celibacy. And Grisez has done more than any other scholar to put the concept of vocation — each person’s unique, divinely assigned share in building the Kingdom — at the heart of what it means to be a Christian.

The Christian life should be, according to the Council, both this-worldly and otherworldly at the same time. As the Council Fathers said in Gaudium et Spes, “after we have promoted on earth…all the good fruits of our nature and effort — then we shall find them once more, but cleansed of all dirt, lit up and transformed, when Christ gives back to the Father an eternal and universal kingdom.” The Council called for a moral theology that shows, in Grisez’s words (from Volume 1), “why one should seek fulfillment in this life, what the specifically Christian way of life is, and how living as a Christian in this life is intrinsically related to fulfillment in everlasting life.”

Germain Grisez’s deeply incarnational moral theology is more than any response the Fathers could have hoped and prayed for. DMQ is the penultimate volume of a project of unsurpassed importance, already an achievement the like of which has not been seen since the days of St. Thomas Aquinas.



Back to October 1998 Issue

Read our posting policy Add a comment
Be the first to comment on this note!


©