Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

On Making Moral Decisions

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

On Making Moral Decisions

Article excerpt

What is it like to make a choice? We easily give way to the temptation to think that it is always the same kind of thing, or that there is one kind of decision making that is serious and authentic and that all other kinds ought to be like it. In the present climate, our tendency is to imagine that choices are made by something called the individual will, faced with a series of clearly different possibilities, as if we were standing in front of a supermarket shelf. There may be disagreement as to what the "right" choice would be, but we know what making the choice is about. Perhaps for some people the right choice would be the one that best expressed their own individual and independent preference: they would be saying "no" to all attempts from outside to influence them or to determine what they should do, so that their choice would really be theirs. Others would be wondering which alternative was the one that best corresponded to a code of rules: somewhere there would be one thing they could do that would be in accord with the system, and the challenge would be to spot which one it was-though it might sometimes feel a bit like guessing which egg-cup had the coin under it in a game. In either case, however, the basic model would be the same: the will looks at the range of options and settles for one.

But of course we do not spend our lives in supermarkets. Some of us, indeed, come from environments in which this kind of consumer choice is at best a remote dream, where it can sound like cruel mockery even to talk of such possibilities. For the rest of us-the ones who do have the power to exercise such choices-is this model really a sensible account of what it is like to make decisions in general?

Whom shall I marry? Shall I marry at all? Which charity shall I support this Christmas? Shall I resign from this political party, which is now committed to things I do not believe in-but is still better than the other parties in some ways? Should I become a vegetarian? Should I break the law and join an anti-government protest? Should I refuse to pay my taxes when I know they are partly used to buy weapons of mass destruction? How should I finish this poem or this novel? How should I finish my life if I know I'm dying? Think about these and choices like them. Each of them-even "Which charity shall I support?"-is a decision that is colored by the sort of person I am. The choice is not made by a will operating in a vacuum but by someone who is used to thinking and imagining in a certain way-someone who is the sort of person who finds an issue like this an issue of concern (another person might not be worried in the same way by the same question). This means that an answer only in terms of the "system," the catalog of right answers, would help us not at all. What kind of code, we may ask, would give us impersonally valid solutions to the dilemmas just listed? We believe that in some contexts we can say, "You ought never to do that," but there is no straightforward equivalent formula allowing us to say, "You ought always to do that." As the Welsh philosopher Rush Rhees argues in an unpublished paper, telling someone else what he or she ought to do is as problematic as telling someone else what she or he wants. There is a significant sense in which only I can answer the question, "What ought I to do?" just as only I can answer, "What do I want?" But for me to answer either question is harder than it sounds at first. Rhees is careful to say that "What ought I to do?" is drastically different from a question about my preferences, what I happen to want (or think I want) at some specific moment. Herbert McCabe, a prominent British Roman Catholic theologian and moralist, wrote many years ago-not without a touch of mischief-that "ethics is entirely concerned with doing what you want"'1; he goes on to explain that our problem is that we live in a society-and indeed as part of a fallen humanity-that deceives us constantly about what we most deeply want. …

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