Personal Responsibility for Moral Choices

Everyone has personal responsibility for moral choices; others can issue instructions or offer guidance, but they can’t be held responsible.

Moral choices have to be made by each individual, balancing all the different issues, on a case-by-case basis – as described in A.C. Grayling’s article, The importance of gentlemanly politicians, when referring to Aristotle’s concept of the “ideally ethical individual”:

“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.”

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.

Michael Oakeshott, in an essay entitled Religion and the Moral Life from his book Religion, Politics and the Moral Life, wrote:

“An order imposed by God otherwise than through our own sense of right … would be no true moral order. Nothing is morally observed which is done as the exaction of God’s will.  It must, even if it be only in submission, be the expression of our own.”

He argued that morality is meaningless without autonomy.  Unquestioning obedience to a single religious leader is an abandonment of personal responsibility for moral choices.   It debases that leader’s followers to the amoral status of robots.  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.


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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/4443.htm