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Making Choices by Peter Kreeft

Making Choices: Practical Wisdom for Everyday Moral Decisions by Peter Kreeft, first published in 1990, is a text about morality and how to make moral choices. It is not written in the form of Socratic dialogue.

Making Choices by Peter Kreeft

The book is organized into 5 parts, spanning 13 chapters in total. The text starts with the general principles before discussing particulars. It is intended to be practical, to help the reader with moral reasoning. Whilst the author may use examples like one would use similes, he does not go through hypothetical exercises or “values clarification” exercises like “whom do you throw out of the lifeboat when the food runs out”.

For those who are familiar with the subject—such as objective truth and the three determinants of morality, for example—the first four chapters may merely be revision. Perhaps the entire book is a revision. (Kreeft often covers such topics in his talks and other books.)

That said, even for those individuals, the fifth part can be interesting and practical as it discusses the “how”. The below is not intended to be a detailed summary but to merely provide the focus of each part.

“Part 1 – Problems: The Modern Moral Crisis” (chapter 1 to chapter 2) is in effect the introduction. It begins by mentioning the obvious immorality prevalent in the world.

The author really hammers in the point that we have free will and cannot stop time, so not making choices is ultimately self-defeating. He also emphasizes the problem of “indifference” and, related to that, the lack of understanding of what justice truly means.

“Part 2 – Principles: The Fundamental Issue, Moral Absolutes” (chapter 3 to chapter 4) emphasizes the existence of moral “absolutes” which are objective as opposed to “values” which are subjective. Chapter 3 briefly explains the three determinants of morality: the act itself, intent and circumstances all must be accounted for in determining whether the act is good.

Chapter 4 discusses the common question of whether one needs religion and God to be moral. The commonsensical answer is No up to a point because we have a conscience and ultimately Yes because that morality must come from God. There is a distinction between objective fact and the knowledge of it.

“Part 3 – Possibilities: Classifying Moral Options” (chapter 5 to chapter 6) emphasizes the importance of taking a holistic view rather than being “confined to little boxes”. Chapter 5 goes through 12 common either/or pairs, including Right vs Left, faith vs reason, objective vs subjective, absolute vs relative, and head vs heart. The point is that it is not one or the other, it is both.

Chapter 6 examines the summum bonum (greatest good) for that is the end and standard by which one makes their decisions.

Morality means choice. Choice means priorities. Priorities mean a hierarchy. A hierarchy means something at the top, a standard. That is the greatest good. If you have no greatest good, you have no hierarchy of goods. If you have no hierarchy, you have no priorities. If you have no priorities, you cannot make intelligent choices. If you cannot make intelligent moral choices, you have no morality.

The obvious answer for the greatest good is “happiness” which is not a mere feeling but an objective state. The author then examines the 10 common candidates for the greatest good, including pleasure, money, wisdom and, of course, God.

“Part 4 – Particulars: Three Morally Crucial Issues” (chapter 7 to chapter 9) deals with the issue of sex and sexual sins. The author makes the point that societies in the past and even Scripture do not focus on sex as much as today’s obsession, hence chapters 7 and 8. The reason, it is suspected given the apparent state of affairs, is that it is part of the satanic strategy to ruin the family unit and therefore the younger generation and in turn society.

Chapter 9 is on the existence of objective truth, something many in today’s society reject even though subjectivism and skepticism are ultimately self-contradictory. Closely linked to that is objective morality. Most of this chapter discusses the four modes of “cultural revolution”: images, music, language, and promises.

Whether for good or evil, images and music can be powerful as they are appealing and can bypass reason. Even Christ in effect used images when he told parables. Language can change perception and the ability to think. It is not surprising that in the modern classic 1984, the totalitarian regime uses Newspeak to dumb down the population. Related to language are promises which, at the individual level, are not seen as sacred as they used to be.

“Part 5 – Practice: Where the Moral Rubber Meets the Modern Road” (chapter 10 to chapter 13) is about the “how” without, as already mentioned, resorting to unrealistic hypotheticals.

Chapter 10 “Simplicity” emphasizes exactly that. It is not being a simpleton, it is related to purity and action (choices). Whilst there is nothing wrong with complexity in itself, it does over-complicate life and therefore distracts one from more important matters. And, of course, internal or spiritual simplicity and external and material simplicity are related even if there is a distinction.

In other words, here is the fundamental argument: If you have simplicity of life, you will probably have simplicity of spirit. If you have simplicity of spirit, you will probably be a better person. Therefore if you have simplicity of life, you will probably be a better person. Simplicity leads to virtue because complexity leads to vice. Complexity is not vice, any more than power is vice. But just as power tends to corrupt, complexity tends to corrupt. For complexity leads to complicity and to compromise. For instance, an amateur boxing exhibition is simple. But when the boxer turns professional, he needs an agent, a lawyer, and an owner who makes him part of his “stable” (i.e., he is treated like a horse: ridden).

Most of the chapter elaborates on the means of simplicity: time, nature, smallness, poverty, silence, and independence.

Chapter 11 “Fight for It”: The Art of Spiritual Warfare” is on the reality of spiritual warfare, a reality that is ignored today. In turn, the enemies of the soul—the world, the flesh and the Devil—are also mostly ignored. Although the author does not use the word humanism, the modern “soft” mentality has taken the place of “hard” principles.

Chapter 12 “How to Know God’s Will: The Art of Discernment” again makes the distinction between the objective and subjective, which in this context is certainty (objective) versus certitude (subjective).

The chapter goes through 7 principles of discerning God’s will starting with the “embarrassingly simple”: love God. One cannot know God’s will without loving Him and wanting to know and do His will. Unconfessed sin, especially unforgiveness, can be an obstacle. Ultimately, it is not about mere feelings but about doing, it is a habit. Also, it is a gradual process for it is impossible for us to know everything at once and one can still act (or not) with the available information, however limited. In the seventh principle, the text finishes with 3 factors for discerning God’s will: 1. objective moral law 2. circumstances and 3. conscience, which can be wrong.

Chapter 13 “You Can’t Do It without Power” concludes with the need for the grace of God. Knowing right and wrong is like having a map, which is necessary, but it is not the same as having the power to act. As covered in chapter 4, we can by natural reason know and act up to a point but we ultimately require supernatural help from God. The author then outlines 7 “power aids”, starting with prayer. Prayer is needed to receive His help.

Like Kreeft’s other texts, it is succinct and plainly written. The one weakness is that it does not define or elaborate on the conscience.


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