Human persons are moral beings. We all have an innate sense of good and evil or right and wrong. Some may argue against this, claiming that what is good for one person is not necessarily good for another. That might be true in certain circumstances, for example, taking a different job. But total moral relativity (“There is no difference between good and evil”) and ethical subjectivism (“I am free so I can do what I want/I decide what is good or evil without reference to another”) are false. One’s suffering of an instance of violence or injustice can help in understanding that. As soon as a man or woman experiences an injustice, he or she knows the treatment received was wrong. In addition, they can acknowledge by reflecting on their own conduct that good things are to be pursued and evil things are to be avoided.
Despite this knowledge, however undeveloped it may be, men do evil deeds. Under the pretense of some “good,” a person can do all sorts of things that are harmful to the self and to others. For example, a person doesn’t steal in order to commit a crime; he or she steals in order to obtain a desired object. The object is usually a material one; the action is deemed “good” in the judgment of the person doing it because a desire is fulfilled. At the same time, that action is a violation of justice, private property, etc., and objectively it is a morally wrong action, in spite of all the reasons one may give to justify it. Stealing is wrong. In such a case, before the person steals he can consult the moral code (or “law”) to know clearly what really is good and what really is evil. The law, in that sense, is the boundary setter. Licit, or illicit? It answers the question.
This, however, is a minimalist way of looking at ethics. The moral law is a means to the end; it is not the goal of life. One could say that it gives the rules of the game, but there is far more to playing the game than knowing what is fair and foul territory. In baseball, for example, how does a coach or a parent teach a kid baseball? First, he shows him a video of the best players. Then he puts a glove on his hand and hits him ground balls. Then he teaches him how to throw. Then he puts a bat in his hand and sets up the tee. He doesn’t give him the dimensions of the baseball diamond, or explain what a dropped third strike is. Not right away, at least.
Not only that, the coach has to instill in the players the understanding that good practice creates good technique, which in turn creates good players. Keeping the rules is not the goal, but one has to do so in order to actually play the game. To play the game well, the great player knows the rules, learns the techniques, and practices them diligently. Plus, she always keeps her head in the game. As everyone knows, baseball is 80 percent mental (even though Yogi Berra insisted that 90 percent of the game is half mental, and he was a stickler on statistics.)
In the same way that a Little Leaguer doesn’t learn the rules of baseball and forsake picking up the bat and stepping into the batter’s box, so human persons as moral agents don’t learn how to lead the good life and then set their hearts on evil. To be a great person — that is, a morally good human being — one looks at and imitates the best people, learns what the moral law is (love of God and neighbor, in a nutshell), and practices good acts. This is the ethical equivalent of stepping into the batter’s box of life. As the prophet Micah wrote: “You have been told, O mortal, what is good, / and what the Lord requires of you: / Only to do justice and to love goodness, / and to walk humbly with your God” (Mi 6:8).
Man needs the moral law because it is an objective standard; it is something, in a sense, outside of him that every person can consult. It answers the question, “What must I do to be a truly good person?” It forbids the thoughts and actions that turn people away from that goal, away from God, and away from friendship.
At the same time, the moral law is something within us; it is a real participation in the wisdom and goodness of God. As moral agents, human beings do not create what is good and what is evil; they recognize it as it truly is. The task for each person is to mature that seminal understanding of pursuing good and avoiding evil throughout life. Just like batting practice improves the hitter’s ability to drive to the opposite field if done correctly, good actions become part of a person and enable him or her to become happier. Swinging a thousand times will perfect things like stride, shoulder angle, grip on the bat, etc.; repeated good actions perfect one’s ability to choose and to act; this is called virtue. The moral law becomes part of how one plays the game.
After a while, when the batter swings, she does not have to explicitly think, “I have to keep my elbow up,” or “Swing level, swing level.” So also in the moral life. A man doesn’t need to tell himself, “Don’t steal, it’s not right to steal, that’s not mine!” Being honest and fair will become part of him, provided he practices justice consistently. Eventually, he won’t even want to steal. The idea itself becomes repugnant, and the same goes for other immoral behavior, but it takes practice.
The model for this way of looking at ethics can be found in any saint or truly good person, but especially in Jesus Christ. This is why Saint Paul could say, “For to me life is Christ” (Phil 1:21). If he could say that, it meant that his actions were those that Jesus would do. He is the perfect rule; if a man or woman conforms to that standard, he or she becomes freer, more able to play the game with abandon and joy.
Sister Anna Marie McGuan is with the Religious Sisters of Mercy in Alma, Michigan.