Most people do not like it. They do everything possible to avoid it. They deny it. They throw it onto someone else. They try to escape it personally by spreading it over society collectively. It challenges them and makes them uncomfortable.
What is it? Personal moral responsibility!
One school of psychology says that man is only a machine (and who ever heard of a machine being morally responsible for anything?). Stimulus-response associationism places all the blame on in-coming stimuli (“society made me do it; my social and physical environment stimulated me, and I had to respond the way I did. I am a victim.”).
Maybe it is heredity (“it’s my glands, you know”); or parental influences (“my mother dominated me as a child”). Sometimes it sounds theological (“it’s my sinful nature”); or religious (“the devil made me do it”).
You name it; somebody has thought of it.
Of course, many things influence us or appeal to us. But they do not make us do anything. The choice is still ours. We are not the product of these influences unless we choose to be.
We are more than machines or animals. Our thoughts, feelings, attitudes, values, hopes, joys, sorrows, and affections are not just complex electro-chemical processes. There is a spiritual part of our being that is uniquely human. One of its functions is the power of intelligent, self-determined choice–choice either in conformity with reason or in opposition to reason. And because these choices are self-generated, we are personally responsible for them. We are morally obligated to choose intelligently in conformity with the will and Word of God.
THE CONDITIONS OF MORAL OBLIGATION
“There are various forms of obligation: obligation to choose an ultimate end of life, obligation to choose the necessary conditions of this end and obligation to put forth executive efforts to secure this end.”19
A little later we shall discuss the foundation or basis of moral obligation. Right now we shall explore the conditions of moral obligation, that is, the two things a person must have to be under moral obligation.
The first is moral agency. A person must be a moral agent to be under personal moral obligation. And what must a person have to be a moral agent?
“The attributes of moral agency are intellect, sensibility and free will.
“Intellect includes… reason, conscience, and self-consciousness.
“Sensibility is… feeling.
“Free-will is… the power of choosing, or refusing to choose,… in compliance with moral obligation.
“Unless the will is free, man has no freedom; and if he has no freedom, he is not a moral agent, that is, he is incapable of moral action and also of moral character.”
So then, to be capable of responsible choices one must have (1) a functioning intellect, (2) feelings by which we are aware that happiness is valuable (whether our own happiness or the happiness of others), and (3) the ability to choose without coercion. These three capacities make a person a moral agent.
But before our choices can have real moral character, we must have something else:
“A second condition of moral obligation is light, or so much knowledge of our moral relations as to develop the idea of oughtness.”
We must realize what is valuable in itself and that we ought to choose it because it is valuable in itself. The moment that we realize that God’s happiness is supremely valuable and that the happiness of others is just as valuable as our own, we have light. We know what we ought to live for, and therefore we come under moral obligation to love God with all our heart and our neighbor as ourselves. The more we understand how to please God and do good to others, and how our words and actions affect others in practical every day living, the greater is our light.
Moral obligation cannot go beyond our knowledge, but it does go as far as our knowledge. It demands that we live up to all the light we have, and that we get all the light we can. Love can do no more. And love will do no less.
So then, as we become aware of the value of what we should live for, we become aware of personal moral obligation and of the development of a sense of right and wrong.
We human beings know right from wrong because we know the valuable. That is, we know what we ought to live for and we know whether or not we are living for it.
EXTENT OF MORAL OBLIGATION
Now that we have established what is required for us to be personally morally accountable, let us consider what we are morally accountable for. That is, to what does moral obligation apply?
We start by eliminating the things that are not directly under moral obligation.
Physical action is neither right nor wrong in itself. The right or wrong is in the motive for choosing to act in a given situation. And some bodily actions are purely reflexive, with no deliberate choices or purposes behind them.
At the instant the choice is made in the heart, moral character is determined, whether a person has the opportunity to carry the choice out into practice or not.
When does a person become a murderer? When he pulls the trigger, or when the decision was made to do the deed? The answer is obvious–the person became guilty of murder the instant the decision was made (see 1 John 3:15). And so Jesus taught us “That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matt. 5:28).
Feelings also are not directly under moral obligation. They are not directly within our power of choice. For that reason our moral character does not depend upon how we feel. It does depend, though, on what we do with our feelings. More about this later.
Involuntary mental conditions and actions are not under moral obligation, either. The actions of people who do not know what they are doing (babies, sleepwalkers) are not under moral obligation. The actions of people who are senile often come into this category.
To what then does moral obligation directly apply? The answer is simple: moral obligation applies directly to our ultimate motive, freely and knowingly determined by and within ourselves personally.
Now, every moral agent who has any degree of light has chosen an ultimate end or purpose and is living to fulfill it. Having chosen an ultimate end, moral agents are also choosing the known means to secure that end, and they are actively working on those means.
Yes, we can give up one ultimate end and choose the opposite ultimate end. But as long as we actually choose a particular end, we cannot deliberately refuse to pursue it. Choosing an end is the same thing as choosing to go after it by all known available means. Refusing to go after a goal is the same thing as giving up the goal.
So then, if we really love God, we will live for Him. If we refuse to obey Him, we do not love Him.
We might experience certain sentiments about Him or toward Him. But these in themselves are involuntary and have no moral character. Our moral character is determined not by how we feel but by what we are living for!
Suppose you walk up to a friend at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago:
“Well, hello there, Mike. Getting ready for another ride on the DC-8, eh? Where to this time?”
“Oh, uh …, hi, Glen. I’m heading for New York City. Really important that I be there immediately.”
“New York City? Then how come your ticket is for Los Angeles?”
“Well, you see, Glen. It’s like this. I really want to go to New York. And I’ll make it to New York somehow. But right now … oh, excuse me, Glen. My flight to L.A. is boarding at Gate 3. See you later.”
And so Glen walks slowly away, muttering to himself, “Poor Mike. He’s flipped. He’s really flipped.”
What was Mike’s real goal? It was the one he was knowingly using means to secure, not the one he professed.
“Men are to be judged by their motives, that is, by their designs, intentions …. If a man intend evil, though perchance he may do us good, we do not excuse him …. So if he intend to do us good and perchance do us evil, we do not and cannot condemn him …. He may be to blame for other things connected with the affair. He may have come to our help too late … but for a sincere and of course hearty endeavor to do us good he is not culpable ….
“The Bible… recognizes this truth. ‘If there be a willing mind,’ that is, a right willing or intention, ‘it is accepted’ [2 Cor. 8:12]. Again, ‘All the law is fulfilled in one word, love’ [Gal. 5:14]. If the intention is right, or if there be a willing mind, it is accepted as obedience. But if there be not a willing mind, that is, right intention, no outward act is regarded as obedience.”
The motive is what really counts with God. If the heart (supreme motive) is truly right, all else will be right. But if the heart (supreme motive) is wrong, all is wrong.
Remember the Pharisees? Jesus reviewed their religious activities, and then disposed of them all by saying, “But all their works they do for to be seen of men…” (Matt. 23:5). Their motive was selfish, and so all their religious actions were selfish also. They were only religious means to a selfish end.
In fact, 1 Corinthians 13:3 informs us that it is possible to give all one’s goods to feed the poor and to give one’s body to be burned, and to have it all amount to nothing in the sight of God if the motive is wrong.
“Example: A student labors to get wages, to purchase books, to obtain an education, to preach the gospel, to save souls and to please God. Another labors to get wages, to purchase books, to get an education, to preach the gospel, to secure a salary and his own ease and popularity.
“Now the proximate ends, or immediate objects of pursuit, in these two cases are precisely alike, while their ultimate ends are entirely opposite. Their first or nearest end is to get wages. Their next end is to obtain books; and so we follow them until we ascertain their ultimate end before we learn the moral character of what they are doing…. One is selfish and the other benevolent.”
Now, before we can choose means and exert actions intelligently, we must first choose an end. It is the choice of an end that sets moral action in motion. In fact, it can be said that the choice of an ultimate end or purpose in life is the great moral action. All others flow from it.
Once the ultimate goal or end has been chosen by a moral agent, the will immediately embraces all the known available means to obtain that end and generates actions accordingly. This is unavoidable. The choice of a supreme object automatically sets a moral agent in motion toward securing that object. And please notice, it is the choice of a supreme object, not just the recognition, admiration, or desire of an object.
A river system is a good illustration. Each drop of water finds its way into a rivulet, each rivulet into a creek, each creek into a tributary river, each tributary river into the main course. Finally, everything surges past the mouth of the mighty river to its end or goal–the ocean.
Choice is the same way. Every intelligent and meaningful choice contributes directly or indirectly toward securing the great ultimate goal of the moral agent.
And there are only two ultimate ends to choose from. One is “the highest well-being of God and the universe,” that is, God first, and our neighbor as ourselves. The other is self. There is no other mode of moral action. As ultimate objects, the two are mutually exclusive, antithetical, antagonistic.
So if Jesus Christ is not occupying first place in the heart, it is for one reason and one reason only: self has usurped the throne and is ruling there.
Moral obligation applies directly only to free-will choice or motive. If that be true, and it is, then moral obligation applies indirectly to everything that is controlled in some way by the free will, and that is an expression or result of free choice.
For this reason right thoughts, actions and even feelings are required by the moral law because a right heart will produce them under normal conditions.
On the other hand, if thoughts, actions, and even feelings that seem to be good and righteous proceed from a selfish ultimate motive, there is no real virtue in them.
“Sinners do many things outwardly which the law of God requires. Now unless the intention decides the character of these acts, they must be regarded as really virtuous. But when the intention is found to be selfish, then it is ascertained that they are sinful ….
“Moral obligation then indirectly extends to everything about us over which the will has direct or indirect control.
“We speak of thought, feeling and action as holy or unholy. By this, however, all men really mean that the agent is holy or unholy, is praiseworthy or blameworthy in his exercises and actions, because they regard them as proceeding from the state or attitude of the will.”
The character of the end determines the character of the means and actions. The means and actions are right only if the end is right. The heart, or motive, is what counts with God. This will become clearer and more meaningful as we proceed to apply this principle to everyday living.
Continued at “IT ALL ADDS UP TO LOVE… Let’s Talk About Love”
By: J.W. JEPSON
Copyright 1977, 1984, 1995(Revised)
All rights reserved, including the right to grant the following permission and to prohibit the misuse thereof:
The Author hereby grants permission to reproduce the text of this book, without changes or alterations, for non-commercial distribution for ministry purposes.
Published 1995 by
GOSPEL TRUTH Ministries
P.O. Box 6322
Orange, CA 92863