"When is a rose not a rose?" : Reflections on Moral Decision Making

John Kleinsman
Issue 3, April 2001

We live in a time of increasing complexity, some would even say "chaos." Quantum technological advances are for the first time enabling us to envisage such possibilities as human cloning and designer organs, possibilities hitherto only dreamed of. In the light of these developments we are confronting questions and challenges never before faced by the human race. Yet, somewhat paradoxically, it is my perception that many people remain very certain about their judgements of what is right and wrong. Why is this?

My own observations relating to this question have led me to a further conclusion; that in very many cases people seem to arrive at their convictions only as an activity of personal judgement based on limited information - or misinformation as the case may be. In other words, consistent with the often quoted phrase, "Who can be so arrogant as to tell others that they are right or wrong?" it seems that no other standard of rightness or wrongness is allowed or needed than the standard of private choice. Some would say that this is what a) makes the process of decision making such a relatively straight forward affair and b) explains the certainty with which many people are able to express their opinions. In the words of John Kavanaugh: "The very fact that a man or woman makes a choice serves to defend its moral rightness." [i]

Characteristic of such an approach to moral decision making is the fact that ultimately we are left with only subjectivity and subjectivism - the idea that the 'right' and 'good' are finally determined by each of us individually according to how we feel! Furthermore, this approach embodies a certain - and I think incomplete - notion of conscience as being fundamentally about the assertion of individual human autonomy over and against the "tyranny" of authority in any form, be that Church or other. The popular and powerful advertising slogan from Nike; "Just do it!" seems to me to sum up well this particular approach to moral decision making. It is an approach that has come to be labelled by many as "relativism", an approach that rests on the assumption that there are few, if indeed any, "objective" truths or standards against which we can measure our behaviour and choices. [ii] What then is the measure of a person's behaviour? It is whatever we happen to value at the time. This implies an understanding of "values" being something we attach in the manner of a price tag. Value is ultimately a function of each individual. We "inject" as it were value into those things we feel strongly about or cherish. Things, persons, actions, we are led to believe, have no value outside of our subjective states or our wish to use them to satisfy particular wants of ours.

What exactly does a Catholic-Christian approach to moral decision making have to offer us in the face of relativism? And closely tied in with that question: What is it that is fundamental to a Catholic-Christian approach to moral decision making? These are questions that I now offer some reflections on.

The first point I wish to make is that the Catholic-Christian tradition has always asserted that the world we live in, our bodies, and significant human actions are not simply devoid of meaning and value until shaped by human freedom or particular human wants. Rather, a Catholic-Christian approach insists that certain things have an inherent or intrinsic (built-in) meaning and that being human demands specific forms, specific ways of acting and behaving. In other words, there are standards of behaviour proper to our dignity as persons, standards derivable from the nature of things as they are. Ultimately, it means that we ourselves are able to discern a rational basis for appropriate human behaviour. We are then able to conclude, by a process of reflection and discernment that certain behaviours are consistent with the way we have been created and lead us to realise more fully our potential, while other behaviours are undermining of our true dignity.

Of course, it is one thing to assert such a belief and it is another to be able to always discern easily what the particular standards of behaviour are. Yet, even in the face of difficulty, the Catholic-Christian tradition has never shied away from this most fundamental belief. To do so would be to subscribe to the notion that reality is no more or no less than what we make it to be. Or, alternatively, we would have to subscribe to a system of morality based on the assumption that we were totally incapable of deciding for ourselves what was good or right. We would, in that case, be left only with external standards, norms or laws imposed on us from without. Moral decision making would then consist only of "conforming" our will to the rule of an external authority. Again, the Catholic-Christian tradition has consistently rejected the adequacy of such an approach. In the words of the Second Vatican Council: "'The dignity of the human person is a concern of which people of our time are becoming increasingly aware.' Hence the insistent demand that people be permitted to 'enjoy the use of their own responsible judgement and freedom, and decide on their actions on grounds of duty and conscience, without external pressure or coercion.'" [iii]

A personal anecdote can serve as a helpful illustration. Three years ago we moved to Wellington and purchased the house we currently live in. The day we shifted in was hectic as we unpacked and frantically sought to create some order out of the chaos. Thankfully, early on in the day, our young son Daniel (then five) discovered his soccer ball and was happy to go out for a kick around - away from under our feet! Some time later he returned with a very disgruntled look on his face, scratches on his legs, and worst of all some deep scratches on his new ball. "Dad," he complained, "there is a huge prickle bush out there and it's in the way and I need you to pull it out." I responded that I would duly look into it. Later that day I went in search of the rogue "prickle bush" finding only a (by now) battered looking and solitary rose bush. Indeed the only rose bush on the whole property, as Kerry my (rose loving) wife had already pointed out, and because of that, for her extremely precious - an endangered species needing to be accorded full protection.

What does this story teach us? For Daniel the rose bush had no value outside of his subjective state. He failed - and probably still fails - to recognise its inherent worth. His wish was simply to kick a ball. Because the bush was stopping him from doing that it had absolutely no value for him, and his strong inclination was to get rid of it. This highlights an important fact. The moral decisions we make are above all a function of what we see. Daniel and Kerry both looked at the same "objective reality" (a rose bush) but each saw something quite different. This in turn led them to want to act in quite different ways - one to exterminate, the other to protect! Thus the first task in moral decision making is to check out what we see, to clarify our vision, to look closely at the way we view the world - our worldview. Acting in the "right" way depends on "seeing aright." We act according to the way we see things. And the world does not offer itself to us with unmistakable clarity, as my story shows. Another way of putting this is to say that moral decision making is essentially descriptive and only secondarily, though necessarily, about what to do or not to do, i.e. only secondarily prescriptive or proscriptive.

The worldview each of us subscribes to has been, and continues to be, shaped by significant others around us, by the various communities of influence which we constantly move in and out of. Every community, whether it be our family of origin, the media, a sports club, church or service group has its own "culture." What I mean by culture in this context is a certain hierarchy or ordering of values, a hierarchy that is constructed around what is seen as being most important and which will reflect certain attitudes about life and what it is to be fulfilled as a human person. Darragh puts it well: "All of our decisions and stands involve, whether consciously or unconsciously, a set of values and attitudes regarding what is most important. [iv] By definition then, to speak of a Christian worldview is to speak of viewing the world in a certain way - literally to view the world through the eyes of Christ and to embrace a set of attitudes and values that mirror those of Jesus Christ. This creates the expectation that those claiming to work out of a Christian worldview will have been shaped to a significant degree by a Christian community of influence.

It is herein that I believe the distinctiveness of a Christian approach to moral decision making lies. We strive to see the world in a particular way, in a way that reflects a particular set of values and attitudes chosen and ordered from the priorities operative in the life of Jesus Christ. These values and attitudes have been captured for us in numerous "sources" such as the scriptures and the living transmission of our faith down through the centuries. In addition we believe that the spirit of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, lives on continues to reveal the will of God in other ways including our own experience and the wisdom and knowledge available through contemporary sciences.

To see the world through the eyes of Christ is by definition to reject the relativistic approach to moral decision making that I have referred to above. It is to take a partisan approach, and involves us drawing lines in the sand, so to speak. It implies that we will uphold certain principles and embrace a specific set of attitudes and values. It implies that we will prioritise certain things over others and recognise that there exist limits that proscribe our behaviour.

Accepting that moral decision making is first and foremost about what we see then, from a Christian perspective, the first and most urgent task is to allow ourselves to be formed and informed by the values and attitudes of Jesus Christ. This is not necessarily an easy task. For a start we are not always clear about our own worldviews. We can so easily ignore the fact that most of our moral convictions are like the air we breathe - we never notice them, yet they influence us to see things in certain ways only and to describe the world in certain ways only.

Also, we are only too aware that Christians can have diverging, even opposing opinions with respect to particular issues and to what is God's will or viewpoint. It is all too easy for us to claim God's authority for a particular moral stance or decision, only to later realise the error of our ways. Christian history is full of such examples. In addition, we recognise that the Christian worldview exists in a "tournament of worldviews" many of them offering different priorities based on quite different pictures of what it is to be a fulfilled person. The reality is that we are often more influenced by these alternative worldviews than we might admit. For example, as a result of living in a "consumerist" society we are inclined to interpret some of the more challenging biblical stories relating to social justice and equity in a way that is least disruptive to our own comfortable lifestyles. Moreover we are then quite adept at justifying our own particular interpretations.

To conclude. I have argued that the first and most urgent task in moral decision making is to reflect critically on our worldview. Indeed I believe that an understanding of worldviews provides a valuable insight into why parties debating moral issues so often seem to make little or no progress. It is not that they are seeing different things in the same world. Rather, they are seeing different worlds. I have rejected the adequacy of a relativistic approach to decision making that operates from the assumption that value is something able to be 'attached' like a price tag according to subjective desires and wants. And while I have not attempted to even start defining the exact nature of it, I have argued for the existence of a Catholic-Christian worldview that reflects a partisan set of values and attitudes, namely those of Jesus Christ. Obviously, this still leaves us with a great number of unanswered questions, questions such as:

  1. What are the specific values and attitudes that are characteristic of Jesus Christ and a Christian worldview?
  2. How can we ensure that we allow ourselves to be shaped by the values and attitudes of Jesus Christ?
  3. How in practice does a Christian worldview assist us with the hard questions and decisions around issues such as cloning?

These are questions for another time. Yet there is an important lesson to be learnt. When it comes to debating the hard moral questions we must resist the overwhelming temptation to charge in with sleeves rolled up ready to fight tooth and nail for what we 'know' is right and wrong. We need to discipline ourselves and habitually make it the first step to clarify the worldview out of which we, and others, are operating. Then, not only will we be able to better understand others and ourselves, we will also make significantly more progress in advancing the issue. If on the one hand that means we will be a little more tentative in claiming a particular stance as being representative of God's view, I also believe that when we do finally forward such a claim, it will be with more certainty, clarity and pastoral sensitivity.


[i] Kavanaugh, J. (1997, January 18). A Daunting Task. America.

[ii] Pope John Paul II is among many who have written in a concerned way about the phenomenon of relativism. "To the affirmation that one has a duty to follow one's conscience is unduly added the affirmation that one's moral judgement is true merely by the fact that it has its origin in the conscience. But in this way the inescapable claims of truth disappear, yielding their place to a criterion of sincerity, authenticity and 'being at peace with oneself' so much so that some have come to adopt a radically subjectivistic conception of moral judgement ... There is a tendency to grant to the individual conscience the prerogative of independently determining the criteria of good and evil and then acting accordingly. Such an outlook is quite congenial to an individualist ethic, wherein each individual is faced with his own truth, different from the truth of others." See John Paul II. (1993). Veritatis Splendor: On Certain Fundamental Questions of the Church's Moral Teaching. Homebush, NSW: St Pauls, #32.

[iii] Declaration on Religious Freedom Dignitatis Humanae, #1, and quoted in Veritatis Splendor #131. See also Veritatis Splendor #15, where John Paul II speaks of the need to interiorise the demands of the commandments, and sees this as the way in which Jesus himself brought God's commandments to fulfilment.

[iv] Darragh, N. (1995). Doing Theology Ourselves. Auckland: Accent Publications. , 13.


John Kleinsman is on the Staff of the Wellington Catholic Education Centre