New research suggests there are two basic moral mindsets. I’ll call them “Balancers” and “Principled Deciders”
“Balancers” are the folks who are nervous about being “too good” or “too bad.” Moral Balancers tend to make their next moral decision based on the last moral choice they made. If they were generous last time, they might be more likely to give you the short end of the stick this time. By contrast, if they feel that maybe they were a little selfish last time, they might be more likely to be more generous this time.
“Principled Deciders” are people who make decisions based on their understanding of more objective moral principles. That’s not to say that they always choose what’s good, just that whatever decision they make–for good or ill–they make it because of what they understand to be a universal standard of right or wrong.
The downside to balancers is that they tend not to be particularly reliable. Their choices are all relative to their self-perception. If I think well of myself, I can allow myself a moral “cheat day.” If I feel a little guilty, I’ll balance it out by letting the old lady have the parking space…this time.What’s most interesting is that the research shows the Principled Deciders can actually do the most damage. If they manage to convince themselves that a bad moral choice is actually the right one, they’ll keep making it time and again and they won’t feel much guilt about it. It can be difficult to convince a Principled Decider that they are wrong even when there are serious consequences to their actions.
What I think all this highlights is the importance of forming our conscience according to the mind of the Church. Neither personal feelings or reason alone is sufficient to empower us to consistently do the right thing. We need an objective standard to weigh our decisions against and we need the accountability and humility that comes from submitting our will to that of Christ in his Church. Good pastoral guidance and confession can provide important checks and balances no matter what our personal style of moral decision making happens to be.