Engaging Morality Vs. Following Legalism

Engaging Morality Vs. Following Legalism March 11, 2020

Jacopo Tintoretto /Allegory of the morality of earthly things / Wikimedia Commons

Many, if not most people, have a very simple understanding of morality. They reduce everything to being black or white bad, or good, without any gradation. Something is either simply bad or good.

A way this over-simplification of morality is achieved is by reducing everything to the objectivity, ignoring the subjective dimensions behind moral activity. Similarly, various categories used to discuss morality are often misunderstood. For example, many think the category of “intrinsic evil” means “the worst kind of sin.” That, however, is not what intrinsic evil means; all it indicates is that for such actions, when all the moral qualifications are assessed, the action will always be seen as containing some level of evil in it. By saying something is intrinsically evil, we are not talking about the gravity of evil involved. Instead, with intrinsic evils, nothing can be seen as overriding the fact that such actions are wrong, as St. John Paul II explains:

Consequently, circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act “subjectively” good or defensible as a choice. [1]

And so:

If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain “irremediably” evil acts; per se and in themselves they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person. “As for acts which are themselves sins (cum iam opera ipsa peccata sunt), Saint Augustine writes, like theft, fornication, blasphemy, who would dare affirm that, by doing them for good motives (causis bonis), they would no longer be sins, or, what is even more absurd, that they would be sins that are justified?” [2]

When some act is understood to be intrinsically evil, we must not think such an act is absolute evil. Nor do should we assume it is gravely evil. Lying is intrinsically evil, but most lies would qualify as being venial, and indeed, among venial sins among those which are lesser in gravity. Thus, even though lying is intrinsically evil, this does not mean there cannot be good intentions, and some good results, which come out of a lie. People who lie to save someone’s life still have sinned, but even Augustine recognized the sin was very slight indeed (and those who act with such lies could be seen as near perfection). Thus, to say some act is intrinsically evil does not mean that those who act upon an intrinsic evil do not do any good.

What is important, when dealing with moral questions, is for us not to find reasons to justify evil through some sort of consequentialism. We must not ignore the evil or blemish involved in our acts, even if the act is done with good intentions and leads to some good result. When we intend some good, and do some good, if we employ some objective evil choice as our means, we will be blemished with sin and must properly deal with that sin. The same, to be sure, can be said in reverse: objectively good actions can be blemished by bad intentions and bad objectives, so that though the end result is sinful, the good within it remains good and is not overcome by the evil which is included with it.

This is why determining the morality of an action is difficult, because there are many layers involved in the determination of the good and evil which has been done by any particular action. Indeed, most actions probably have a mix of good and evil involved in their execution. The objective value of the act is important. If an act is intrinsically evil, there will always  be some level of evil involved, but this does not mean the whole of the act is bent towards evil, even as if an act is intrinsically good, there will always be some level of good involved, even if the overall bent of the action is towards some greater evil.

The law of gradualism is one way in which the Catholic faith recognizes the degrees of good and evil involved with moral actions. It recognizes the role knowledge has in relation to the value of the evil involved: the greater the knowledge and understanding of the various variables involved with a particular act, the more culpable a person is for what they do, while the less knowledge they have, the less likely they will be culpable for any evil which results from their actions:

Along these lines, Saint John Paul II proposed the so-called “law of gradualness” in the knowledge that the human being “knows, loves and accomplishes moral good by different stages of growth.” This is not a “gradualness of law” but rather a gradualness in the prudential exercise of free acts on the part of subjects who are not in a position to understand, appreciate, or fully carry out the objective demands of the law. For the law is itself a gift of God which points out the way, a gift for everyone without exception; it can be followed with the help of grace, even though each human being “advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God and the demands of God’s definitive and absolute love in his or her entire personal and social life.”[3]

Likewise, a person must have some level of freedom to be truly culpable for what they do; someone who is forced to act contrary to their will finds their culpability diminished, if not outright removed from them. This means that if others decide for us what we do, and force us to act in ways contrary to our conscience, we have lost our freedom and so our culpability is affected in accordance to the force which was employed:

Yet in the field of ethical awareness and moral decision-making, there is no similar possibility of accumulation for the simple reason that man’s freedom is always new and he must always make his decisions anew. These decisions can never simply be made for us in advance by others—if that were the case, we would no longer be free. Freedom presupposes that in fundamental decisions, every person and every generation is a new beginning.[4]

Thus, moral acts must be deliberate:

Human acts are moral acts because they express and determine the goodness or evil of the individual who performs them. They do not produce a change merely in the state of affairs outside of man but, to the extent that they are deliberate choices, they give moral definition to the very person who performs them, determining his profound spiritual traits. [5]

Someone who is tortured and forced to act under torture, such as when Ossius of Cordova was forced to sign a theological document against his will, can be found to be innocent of what they do (as St. Athanasius understood and explained in his defense for Ossius). Someone who has been drugged in such a way they no longer have self-control, likewise, would find they are unlikely to be culpable for what they do in such a state.

These considerations are important, but is there a way we can systematize this, and help us understand the various possible levels of moral culpability, and with it, the various parts of an act in which we can find ourselves gaining merit or accumulating demerit?  Yes, though perhaps, the best systematic representation of these considerations is found outside of the Western Christian tradition and instead in India with its traditions, as they were especially concerned about our actions (karma) and determining the makeup and consequences of such actions. These systems were engaged and examined in detail by Buddhists who developed them further, and though we do not necessarily have to agree with all the foundations of their moral theory, the general outline they set up to determine the consequences of particular actions can be useful for us as we try to determine something similar from a Christian perspective.[6]

To be sure, there is not one Buddhist system, one Buddhist school of thought, but many. They hold many things in common, but their differences must not be ignored. The presentation which follows tries to engage those common principles, but it must be understood, not all Buddhist schools of thought would agree with every aspect of what follows.

In his work, The Four Noble Truths, Ven. Lobsang Gyatso gives a good, simple summary, of how the Buddhist tradition determines the moral value associated with an act, indicating four chief considerations

There are four characteristics which are necessary for a complete action. A complete action is necessary for the full effect(s) of that action (karma) to occur. These characteristic represent different phases of any action. They are: (1) intention, (2) preparation, (3) performance, and (4) finality (rejoicing).[7]

The consequence of an act is based upon all four qualifications; all four must be aimed towards what is evil (or, be considered unwholesome, according to Buddhist terminology) for the full objective value of the evil to be realized, just as all four must be aimed towards what is objectively good (or wholesome) for the full good to be realized:

That is, the strength of the karma accumulated varies with the completeness of the action. A person may perform a negative action (such as lying) from a good intention (to avoid causing distress), and therefore the full karma is not accumulated. Similarly, there may be both positive and negative aspects within one phase of action, such as occurs when one acts out of a mixed motive. [8]

Thus, within any particular action, there are four aspects involved. Our intention counts. What we do to make the particular act happen counts (if we try to avoid the act and fight against it, this will make the act incomplete and so the objective value of the act will be affected). The performance of the act, the objective act itself, is of course involved (and certainly plays a major role in determining the ramifications of the act). But then there is our relationship to the outcome of the act: if we support the outcome of a particular act, even if we have not been involved in steps 1-3, we join in the act and accumulate some of its merit or demerit (such as if we rejoice in the death of someone we did not kill). Likewise, if we dislike and reject the outcome, we have not fully joined in with the objective value of the act, and our culpability is similarly limited as a result.

Similarly, Buddhism sees that moral acts have two kinds of effects, which Damien Keown designates as transitive and intransitive:

Moral actions are unlike other actions in that they have both transitive and intransitive effects. The transitive effect is seen in the direct impact moral actions have on others; for example, when we kill or steal, someone is deprived of his life or property. The intransitive effect is seen in the way moral actions affect the agent. According to Buddhism, human beings have free will, and in the exercise of free choice they engage self-determination. In a very real sense, individuals create themselves through their moral choices. By freely and repeatedly choosing certain sorts of things, individuals shape their characters, and through their characters their futures.[9]

The objective value is the transitive effect of the act, while the moral culpability and how it affects the one involved in a particular act is its intransitive effect. The more we act, the more we become transformed by our actions, so that it is important to try to act in as pure or wholesome fashion as is possible.

From the Buddhist perspective, the determination of the ultimate value of a particular act is difficult, if not impossible, for ordinary people to judge, because there are too many factors involved. Only someone who is fully enlightened and knows all the conditions behind a particular act, a Buddha, is capable of properly declaring the ramifications of a particular realized act:

The law of karma is not regarded as rigid and mechanical, but as the flexible, fluid and dynamic outworking of the fruits of the volition associated with actions. Thus the full details of its working out, in specific instances, are said to be ‘unthinkable’ (acinteyya) to all but a Buddha (A. IV.77).[10]

This does not mean the system is useless. It shows us that the morality of our actions is not so simple as many think it is. But likewise, it shows us different factors involved in our actions which we must take into consideration. Objectively speaking, we can make some judgments, but subjectively speaking, we must be cautious, since we do not know all the variables involved. This is exactly what Jesus wanted us to realize when he said it is not for us to judge, for us not to be judgmental. He is not telling us we should not discern the objective value of the actions involved; rather, he is telling us that we will never know all the qualifications necessary to make a proper judgment on the person who has done a particular act. Jesus is the one who knows all that is necessary to make such a judgment. This is why he is the one who will judge us all.

What is important for us to realize is that objectivity, while a part of the determination of the value of an act, is not the whole of the act itself. Our intention plays a role. Our level of involvement with the act plays a role. Whether or not we actually commit the act plays a role. And our association with the act plays a role.

This is why morality can never be reduced to a legalistic determination of guilt. As Bernard Häring explains, legalism relies upon objectivity, upon strict codes, while morality deals with more than objectivism but persons and their relationship with the actions involved:

The legalist or formalist outlook does not distinguish between the different sources of morality – namely, man’s innermost being and calling, the needs of persons in their growth toward greater maturity, their historical position and social adjustment, and the signs of the times. The legalist is concerned only with barren formulations, not life and persons. Having lost contact with man in real life, he has lost contact also with values and with the sources of life and truth. Bare principles, or rather formulas, guide him, and there is no consideration of how and why they were formed or what human values originally justified those principles. [11]

Legalism simplifies morality and in doing so, often inverts it and uses that inversion to promote evil ends as it ignores all the qualifications involved in the determination of a moral act. Thus, for example, in politics, it is easy to see how such legalism encourages people to vote for bad candidates; people are encouraged to ignore the full ramifications of engaging a particular politician for the sake of one particular objective stand (such as those who reduce their consideration to a particular politician’s stand on abortion). The ends never justify the means, even in politics.

Morality, therefore, requires more than knowing the objective value of a particular act. It requires us to realize the full conditions involved with the act and the ramifications those conditions have in evaluating the actual implications of the act. Thus, we need more than prescriptions (and objective legalistic standards). We need to live our life in the spirit, transcending such a simple application of ethics. Moral theology, as St. John Paul II points out, requires us to appreciate all the principles of ethical decision making, and not just one aspect (the objective or formal prescription) involved:

Moral theology has perhaps an even greater need of philosophy’s contribution. In the New Testament, human life is much less governed by prescriptions than in the Old Testament. Life in the Spirit leads believers to a freedom and responsibility which surpass the Law. Yet the Gospel and the Apostolic writings still set forth both general principles of Christian conduct and specific teachings and precepts. In order to apply these to the particular circumstances of individual and communal life, Christians must be able fully to engage their conscience and the power of their reason. In other words, moral theology requires a sound philosophical vision of human nature and society, as well as of the general principles of ethical decision-making. [12]

Over-simplification of the moral value of our actions undermines morality itself. It easily promotes evil under the guise of the good, because it ignores the gradations of good and evil possible within a particular act. By seeing how actions can be broken down to particular parts, we can much more easily understand why a particular act can be, and often is, mixed in its ethical value. And once we understand this, even if we will never be able to know all the variables involved to give a final and definitive judgment on the value of a particular act, we will be able to make better, more qualified, statements on what we do. We will promote a holistic approach to our activity instead of a legalism which undermines the full moral capability of humanity. Legalism levels off all moral activity as it reduces and ignores the human subject. It knows only good and evil based upon rules, but when the rules are wrong, because they ignore various dimensions of human activity, they will remove much of the good which is needed in the world. Morality can never be limited to such a simple legalism. It must rise above all objectivism and recognize the gradations possible in our activity so that it can then point to and promote the greater good.


[1] St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor. Vatican Translation. ¶81.

[2] St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, ¶81.

[3] Pope Francis, Amoris laetitia. Vatican translation. ¶295.

[4] Pope Benedict XVI, Spe salvi. Vatican translation. ¶24.

[5] St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, ¶71.

[6] Someone might ask, why should we look to India? Because, as St. John Paul II recognized, there is much we can learn from its religious traditions:

In India particularly, it is the duty of Christians now to draw from this rich heritage the elements compatible with their faith, in order to enrich Christian thought. In this work of discernment, which finds its inspiration in the Council’s Declaration Nostra Aetate, certain criteria will have to be kept in mind. The first of these is the universality of the human spirit, whose basic needs are the same in the most disparate cultures. The second, which derives from the first, is this: in engaging great cultures for the first time, the Church cannot abandon what she has gained from her inculturation in the world of Greco-Latin thought. To reject this heritage would be to deny the providential plan of God who guides his Church down the paths of time and history. This criterion is valid for the Church in every age, even for the Church of the future, who will judge herself enriched by all that comes from today’s engagement with Eastern cultures and will find in this inheritance fresh cues for fruitful dialogue with the cultures which will emerge as humanity moves into the future. Thirdly, care will need to be taken lest, contrary to the very nature of the human spirit, the legitimate defense of the uniqueness and originality of Indian thought be confused with the idea that a particular cultural tradition should remain closed in its difference and affirm itself by opposing other traditions.

–St. John Paul II, Fides et Ratio. Vatican translation. ¶72.

[7] Ven. Lobsang Gyatso, The Four Noble Truths. Trans. Sherab Gyatso (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1994), 36-8.

[8] Ven. Lobsang Gyatso, The Four Noble Truths, 38.

[9] Damien Keown, Buddhist Ethics: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 6.

[10] Peter Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 24.

[11] Bernard Häring, Morality is for Persons (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971). 117.

[12] St. John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, ¶68.

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