One of the most important tasks for ethics is the moral judgment of individual acts. Moral judgment would be simple if there were objective and easily understandable standards that could be used. In their absence, some aspects need to be considered to help a person morally judge both their own actions and those of others. The list below is not intended to be exhaustive or a guide to action, but it clarifies some valuable concepts and is based on the works of Alasdair MacIntyre and Jaime Balmes.
Firstly, the moral agent must be considered. Ethics is a product of human reason, so the moral agent needs to be a person with the full capacity to reflect and understand what is involved, a person who can formulate alternative courses of action, critically analyze each one, and make an autonomous decision about what to do. Directly associated with reason, in this case, is autonomy. The moral agent needs to be free to make a choice, which must be dictated by their own reason and not determined by third parties.
Next, there needs to be a properly articulated conception of the good. The good manifests itself in two ways in human action, one of them substantive, which is intrinsic to the action itself – that is, some actions can be considered intrinsically good because they accomplish something that allows human flourishing – and the other instrumental, in which it is verified whether the result is good for the agent and/or the people around them. Thus, an action in which the virtue of charity is practiced can be considered intrinsically good, bringing a good to the agent that can be described as something that makes him better than he would be if he didn’t practice it (in other words, he is better for acting in this way), while an action such as giving a beggar a bigger handout than his friends give in order to gain their admiration produces a good result for the recipient and makes the giver admirable – but it was designed to generate this good, not because it is good in itself. The most important aspect is that this conception of the good can be presented and rationally defended; that is, it is possible to argue in its favor and defend it against the alternatives.
Another essential element is the context of the action. The moral agent must be a person endowed with information about the conditions of the situation they are experiencing; in other words, they must know (albeit imperfectly) about what is involved in that situation, and, being rational, they must be able to understand it. An action undertaken in a context where no alternative was possible needs to be evaluated differently from those in which other possibilities for action present themselves to the agent. For example, in combat, a soldier who advances against the enemy at great risk of death could be morally evaluated through the virtue of courage – but if he does so because he has been ordered to do so, he would only be exercising obedience. The agent must know the context to decide how to act – this knowledge is also crucial for those who morally judge the action.
A moral judgment, therefore, must be made considering that action was undertaken by the judge or another person in a rational, autonomous, and sufficiently informed manner and that this action aimed to produce a good that can be defined, discussed, and defended, always considering the situation in which the action took place. It should be noted that the agent’s motivation was not mentioned here, simply because it is considered that the motive of any action, ethically speaking, is the good. It’s true that if an action is intrinsically good, the context doesn’t matter to define whether it is ethical, but one can always question whether it is possible to carry it out at that time and place. When judging an action morally, it is essential to have elements that allow us to understand what was done and why it was done, and the shortlist presented here provides a starting point.
But before I finish, one caveat: if you judge someone else’s action, discussing the judgment you are forming with them is important, as new information can shed light on what happened. But even if no further information emerges, dialog is always about learning – and ethics involves learning to live to achieve (and do) good.