Is Morality an “All or Nothing” Proposition?

I read many articles dissecting Paul Ryan‘s answer on the abortion issue in the vice presidential debate last week. Ryan’s response disappointed many people when he said he would support laws that outlaw abortion except in cases of rape, incest, and life of the mother. Because he added that exception, many people dismissed his entire stance as not being genuinely pro-life. You can read more about it on the political blog or news site of your choice. But to me this appears to be one of many case where people dismiss someone’s intentions or efforts to do good (or reduce the amount of bad) because it doesn’t instantly bring about the fullness of Jesus‘ teachings. It seems like every election season there isn’t just a battle between two candidates, but also between the “all or nothing” and “incremental improvement” camps as well.


We have to be careful when evaluating people’s intentions to bring about an eventual good end. For example, someone’s moral position cannot introduce an evil as a way of bringing about good (“the ends don’t justify the means” argument). But often, like Paul Ryan’s approach, no new evil is introduced by reducing the number of abortions in the general case and making exceptions in the edge cases for now (with the possibility of tackling them later). It’s accepting a political reality that the greatest good comes about one step at a time and rarely happens all at once. Nearly everything in life comes about in steps whether it be education, physical skills, spirituality, laws, and culture.

In my opinion, the “all or nothing” approach comes from people who are trying to justify their support of a position the Church opposes by making some sort of shaky moral equivalence  It’s a convenient way of convincing yourself that all politicians are really just the same so it doesn’t matter in the moral sense who you support. For some people, since Romney and Ryan would not outlaw 100% of abortions right away, they are just as pro-choice as Obama and Biden so the is no moral difference between the two on the abortion issue. I feel silly just writing that and hopefully you feel silly reading it. But if you’ve been on the Catholic Answers forums long enough, that is exactly the type of false logic many people hold.

Taking the logic of the “all or nothing” crowd, why should we help the poor since we cannot eliminate poverty entirely? Why should we treat the sick if we can’t end all illness instantly? Why fight for reforms in the justice system since our legal system will never be perfect? Why fight for freedom and liberty for some people if we cannot free all people around the globe? We fight these battles because we know that while we cannot help everyone, we do help many. After all, what is charity but trying to make small differences in some people’s’ lives? While I would love to wake up tomorrow to a world where there are no abortions, I’ll take a world where there are fewer abortions tomorrow than there are today. And if we all have that mindset where we fight to reduce the number of abortions tomorrow (even if just by one) then one day we might wake up to a world where there are no abortions at all. And those we save along the way will turn out to be our neighbours, our friends, our co-workers, our brothers or sisters, maybe our spouse, our parents, and so many other people who touch our lives who otherwise would not exist if we rejected every measure to do good because it wasn’t the ideal solution.

What Does the Rosary Teach Us?

What does the rosary teach us about how to face these social, political, and moral issues? Does it teach us that we should keep fighting for what is right and make small gains where we can or should we accept nothing less than the ideal solution? Jesus taking up His cross in the Fourth Sorrowful Mystery represents how the greatest good comes about one step at a time. Imagine how painful it must have been for Jesus, tired and beaten, to carry His cross to His crucifixion. Every second must have seemed like an eternity of anguish and despair. But Jesus showed resolve and determination knowing that His suffering was to bring about the salvation of all humanity.  Jesus’ Passion was a slow process that had its literal ups and downs but was always moving in the direction of redeeming all of humanity. And so we should remember this mystery when the things that we want and fight for don’t seem to come fast enough. We must remember that God‘s time is not our time. His plan may not necessarily be our plan. But we should all strive to live like Jesus in His Passion where we must endure the challenges and hardship understanding that living our faith is a process, not something that can happen instantly.

Icon of the Pentecost

Another rosary mystery that comes to mind when I think about how we must show patience for God’s plan is the Pentecost in the Third Glorious Mystery. When God sent the Holy Spirit to the apostles, the world did not instantly change that day. In fact, the outside world remained the same. And the Holy Spirit did not fill the apostles with the power to instantly convert all people to the fullness and truth of Jesus’ teachings. The apostles still had a long journey in front of them that would take them to the ends of the earth preaching the Gospel. The Church continues that mission thousands of years later of converting one soul at a time. Jesus’ message of love exists today because the early Church showed patience and endurance in spreading the Good News and didn’t quit because they couldn’t instantly convert the hearts and minds of all humanity.

What are your thoughts? Should we accept small and sometimes imperfect solutions to problems or do we wait and accept nothing less than the ideal solution?


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