“Ask a Priest: How Can We Tell Right From Wrong?”

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Q: You can spend a lifetime pondering what to do or how to do it. However, when you do what you think is right, you just come to notice that it was wrong. How can an individual determine the difference between what is good and evil? I just don’t think you can. No matter how hard I try or even how little I care there is no “good” ending. Either way it’s wrong. There are many different perspectives to look at, but which is the right one? The one with the better outcome? –T.Z.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: Thanks for your note. It would take a book-length reply to do justice to your question. But perhaps a few observations might help.

First, the very fact that you are asking this question indicates that you do have a sense that there really is a right and a wrong. We might struggle to discern one from the other, but we at least are sure that there is a good to be pursued.

Second, it is true that we sometimes have the sense that we are just grappling for the truth, perhaps without finding the exact answers. Our knowledge of situations is imperfect, and often we have to make decisions quickly. It doesn’t seem fair, does it?

The good news is that we don’t have to go it alone. The Church is a teacher and a mother who guides us with valid principles. We are fortunate to be able to find many of them spelled out clearly in the Catechism.

Put another way, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Many of the big issues have long been understood and articulated by the Church. Just as we don’t need to know a lot about computer science in order to take advantage of a smart phone, we don’t need to research every moral issue from scratch in order to live a good life. The Church has already done a lot of the heavy work.

Still, we have to use those moral principles in day-to-day life. And life can be very complicated. This is where we need to form our conscience as best we can — we do this by studying what the Church teaches on certain issues, for instance — and then we make our best decision. So long as we don’t violate an explicit moral law, we have flexibility about how to proceed in a given situation.

A masterful summary of principles about the conscience can be found in the Catechism, Nos. 1776 to 1794.

You ask about outcomes. Outcomes are not a reliable way to judge whether an action is good. Lots of “good” outcomes could be attained through bad means. We might consider robbing a bank in order to pay for life-saving surgery for a loved one. The end is good, but the means is evil. A basic principle in morality is that we cannot do evil in order to achieve good. Otherwise, we could justify doing just about any evil in the world.

Moreover, we cannot predict all the outcomes of our actions. There are times, however, when we might have to weigh one likely outcome with another. That is OK and prudent, so long as we choose good means. (For a substantial read, see The Sources of Christian Ethics by Servais Pinckaers, O.P.)

Even though we often make decisions without perfect knowledge, we can get close to the mark if we are diligent about learning moral principles and if we remain sincere with ourselves. All of us have to deal with uncertainties, and yet we see around us a wide range of behavior. Some people by the age of 20 or 35 or 50 or 70 are saints. Others seem to be on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Why is that? One reason, to paraphrase a sage, is that we become the sum of our decisions. If we make enough good decisions, we end up being good people (with the grace of God, of course). If we make enough bad decisions, we end up being not-so-good people. Either way, we do have to make decisions. So better that we are guided by solid and licit principles at every step.

If you trying to discern between two good options – “Should I take this job or that one?” – you might find this article helpful.

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