Personal Responsibility for Moral Choices

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/4443.htm)

Personal morality requires making a responsible choice between alternatives on a case-by-case basis, finding “the middle path between opposing vices”.[1]  Moral choices have to be made by each individual, balancing all the different issues.

Although religious leaders can help with some of these interpretations, possibly through religious courts as mentioned in the next chapter (5.3.3), all are human and fallible.  Scholars often disagree with each other.  The final responsibility has to be personal because each person is in a unique situation, in terms of their relationships with family and community, and has to live with whatever choice is made.

For religious people, the true authority is the full scope of religious teaching, not merely the instructions of a human representative of it.  Unquestioning obedience to a single religious leader is an abandonment of personal moral agency and debases that leader’s followers to the amoral status of robots.[2]  A religious scholar may have acquired learning which would help with giving good advice, but scholarship alone does not guarantee good character or prevent a person from giving bad or antisocial advice.  It is possible to ask different people for advice and choose to follow leaders who are not in conflict with the society they live in.  An autonomous individual is responsible for choosing which advice to follow.

Following the Golden Rule avoids upsetting other people, so it should always take precedence – which is a position that all religions have formally endorsed (  Choosing a path which conflicts with socially-acceptable behaviour is not, therefore, sanctioned by anybody’s God and it is antisocial.  It is a sad irony that so many people have used religion as an excuse for violence even though that same religion forbids it.

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014


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[1] A.C.  Grayling, when referring to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, described the latter’s concept of the “ideally ethical individual” in these terms:

“He (predictably “he”) is a deeply thoughtful individual who works out, for each situation of dilemma he finds himself in, the middle path between opposing vices.”

This description appeared in an article entitled The importance of gentlemanly politicians which was published in the June 2015 edition of Prospect; it was available in March 2018 at http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/opinions/the-importance-of-gentlemanly-politicians.

[2] Michael Oakeshott, in an essay entitled Religion and the Moral Life from his book Religion, Politics and the Moral Life, argues that true religion is incompatible with unquestioning obedience to a religious leader.