On the Three Determinants of Morality – Part I

Although I would like to think it is commonsense, it is my observation that there is often some confusion on how to judge particular actions. There are a lot of technicalities which, although important, one can get bogged down on. Also, definitions can vary depending on who one asks or which textbook one reads.

For the purposes of this two-part article, I will take a broader approach that is hopefully not too long without being intellectually or emotionally cheap.

1.1 The Three Determinants

There are three determinants or conditions to consider when judging an act:

  • (A) the act itself (having intrinsic value), which is objective and absolute

  • (B) the intent (or end), which is subjective and absolute

  • (C) the circumstance, which is objective but relative.

All three conditions must be considered, as opposed to just one or two. In other words, none of these exclude each other.

1.2 Definitions

Before continuing, I should provide some broad definitions or descriptions.

  • Morality can be described as “the fundamental principles on which people and/or their actions are judged as having the quality of good or evil”. The words “fundamental principles” imply immutability. Also, “good” and “evil” are used as generic terms and not to be interpreted as emphasis. I will use “evil” and “bad” interchangeably.

  • Objective can be defined as that which is “independent of human thoughts and emotions”.

  • Subjective can be defined as that which is “dependent on human thoughts and emotions”.

  • Absolute can be defined as that which “stands on its own” or “not contingent on anything else”.

  • Relative can be defined as that which is “contingent or conditional on other things”.

  • Justice is to reward good and punish evil in a manner that is proportional and consistent by accounting for all factors.

1.3 Example

To illustrate with a simple example: Bob shot and killed Fred.

Question: Was it a good thing or a bad thing?

The question is deliberately vague to illustrate the point that is it not simple. However, it is not that complicated either if one breaks down the act into the three abovementioned determinants.

In terms of the act itself (A), it is objectively an evil—after all, a life has been unnaturally terminated. This assumes that life has intrinsic value and therefore to (deliberately) end it is objectively an evil. Everything is based on assumptions and this is admittedly an assumption. If, however, one assumes that is not the case or is indifferent, then why bother to examine the question?

The above being true does not say much about Bob or Fred morally. The act itself (A) is just that. In terms of culpability—that is, personal blame—the intent (B) and circumstances (C) must be considered.

“Bob shoots and kills Fred” does not reveal anything about the intent (B) and circumstances (C) of Bob and Fred. Without any further information, the question of culpability cannot be answered.

For the sake of example, assume Fred was waving a gun around in public and threatened to shoot people. Bob is a police officer who was on duty and shot Fred.

Given the circumstances (C), Bob can arguably be justified in shooting and even killing Fred since the latter was an imminent threat to others.

In terms of intent (B), that depends on what Bob was thinking at the time. Was he a trigger-happy cop looking for any excuse to shoot someone? Or did he do so honorably? Ultimately, only Bob and God know.

Nonetheless, in practice, determining merit and demerit is part of ordinary life in just about any context. Action is an expression of one’s intentions and therefore at least partially reveals it. It is for this reason that whilst the final judgement is between God and each particular individual, we in this temporal realm are allowed to use our brains and make judgements, including about people.

If one is to assess Bob’s intent, one might take the following approach. First, ask Bob for his version of events. If possible, see if it corroborates with eyewitness accounts and video footage. Check if Bob gave sufficient warning to Fred. Did Bob follow established police procedures given the circumstances?

If it is apparent that Bob followed procedure and gave Fred sufficient opportunities to surrender peacefully, then the most one can conclude is that the shooting was justified and no legal action against Bob is necessary. On the human side of things, that is the most we can do. We still don’t know in totality and for certain what was in Bob’s heart.

It should be apparent by now that one can go on forever that when it comes to the subjective and relative aspects, that any example is overly simplistic.

To repeat: objectively, killing is in itself an act of evil. In this example, just because Bob is not guilty of murder does not mean killing in itself is not an evil.

Since an evil act has been committed without the agent (Bob) being guilty, it does not follow that “bad things just happen” and that’s it. If something went wrong, it means someone has done some wrong at some point in time. At least one person must be culpable. Was Fred a bad guy? If so, was it purely his free will and/or did he have a bad upbringing? Perhaps his parents and to a lesser extent society are also to blame. If Fred was genuinely crazy, then perhaps the people who were meant to support him are at fault.

If one is satisfied with the above, then there is no need to keep reading. The next part will merely examine some common arguments for and against what is covered above.


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