On following moral rules

On following moral rules
Everyday Philosophy

There’s an interesting tension in Catholic moral thought. On the one hand, we have the prevalent idea that living well as a Catholic is not a matter of rule-following. The last few popes have spoken extensively about how authentic faith is not about obeying a set of rules, but a relationship with God. This is not a modern innovation. The popes are echoing St Augustine, who said “love and do what you will”.

There are some rules, like ‘don’t murder’ the breaking of which are pretty definitionally unloving”

On the other hand, Catholics have a lot of rules. What, we might ask, is the deal? One part of it is that faith and the practice of Catholicism amount to much more than morally good action. That is more theology than philosophy, so I won’t say much about it. But St Augustine’s remark does seem to be about morality: it’s about what you should do with yourself, what counts as acting well. So there’s definitely an idea in the Catholic tradition that morality itself is not about following rules but coexisting with a highly codified set of moral rules. That’s what I’m going to talk about.

One easy way to resolve the tension is to say ‘well, following the rules is the loving thing to do!’ If this feels a bit youth pastor, we must concede that the youth pastors of the world sometimes have a point. There are some rules, like ‘don’t murder’ the breaking of which are pretty definitionally unloving. The youth pastors are also right that sometimes tough love is called for: it’s a boring truism that parents are not loving their children if they refuse to give them any rules of conduct, but it’s no less true for that.

But if this was all that was going on – if acting with love was always equivalent to following a certain set of rules – then Augustine’s claim would be a bit redundant. It might even seem like a trick: sure, he says “love and do what you will” but what he really means is “if you’re really being loving you’ll follow all the rules”. There must be more to it than this.

We get closer to the heart of things when we think about moral goodness like a skill. If you’re a complete beginner learning to cook, you won’t just need recipes: you’ll need a lot of specific instructions for how to hold the knife to quickly and safely chop vegetables, how to whisk eggs in a way that gets air into them, and the like. But as you get better at cooking more and more of it will be automatic to you. Make the same recipe enough times and you don’t need to consult it any more. With morality, as you do more and more good actions you’ll be teaching yourself to love goodness and virtue for its own sake. The more you do this, the less you’ll be thinking about rules. Your character will have transformed so that what you want, what you love, is to do good things. Notice: it will not be case that what you want is to ‘follow the rules’ any more than a really good cook develops a desire to follow the recipe. What the cook wants is to make good food, and if he has spent enough time following a recipe he no longer needs it to make the meal he wants. Moral rules can thus serve a teaching function: you obey them until you no longer need to, because you’ve developed the skill of being virtuous and acting out of love.

But there’s more to Augustine’s words even than this. Just as a true chef can modify a recipe, a virtuous person will know when moral rules do and don’t apply in a given situation. Relatively few moral rules are absolute and apply in every conceivable situation. All of the ones that are negative, denote types of action that are always wrong and that people must accordingly never do (murder, torture, adultery etc.). Thomas Aquinas believed that there was no such thing as an absolute positive requirement, a type of action that must always be done regardless of the situation.

A person who acts out of love – and, crucially, a person who has wisdom – will be able to know how to implement what the rules require as well as when to bend them”

A monk may have made a commitment to pray with his brothers every day at particular times: but if his mother is on her deathbed the virtuous thing might be to miss one of these to be with her. In much more ordinary situations too, knowing moral rules doesn’t itself tell you what to do. “Be kind” is a moral rule: but being kind to different people may involve doing very different things. A person who acts out of love – and, crucially, a person who has wisdom – will be able to know how to implement what the rules require as well as when to bend them. Living well involves rules, but Augustine is right that the good life goes beyond them.