Lesson 10: The Structure of the Human Act

The discussion of the cardinal virtues, with its remarks about practical reason and its phases and moments, as well as about the areas in which practical reason deploys its directive capacity, leads us on to a discussion of the structure of the human act.

Knowledge + Will = Human Act

Earlier we said that the human act, as opposed to some activity which might truly be assigned to a human being, has the dual notes of knowledge and will. In order to want anything I must have some notion of it, but having a notion of something to be done is not sufficient to doing it. When we act, accordingly, there are these two components, the cognitive -- awareness of what we are doing -- and the appetitive -- setting ourselves to doing it. Whenever there is a defect in one of the other of these, the act ceases to be a human or voluntary act.

If for example you press a ballpoint into my hand, seize my hands and trace on a sheet of paper my signature and then claim that I have assigned to you all my worldly goods, quite apart from the fact that you would not be much better off than you now are, I would retort that I did no such thing. Did your hand grip the pen that traced that signature on the document? In a sense yes, in a sense no. I did not guide my hand. Thus, although I can be aware throughout this sordid scenario what is going on, I am not doing what is being done. My will is not engaged; indeed is actively though ineffectually bent in the opposite direction.

Where unforced willing is absent or diminished, the action either ceases entirely to be a human act or is one only in a diminished sense.

Likewise, when what I set out to do is not what I set out to do because of ignorance on my part, I can scarcely be said to do that of which I am unaware. That is, I would not be held accountable for it. If you hop from the train and dash to your waiting car, pull open the door and plant a wet kiss on the driver's mouth and are subsequently abashed to learn that behind the wheel is the uniquitous and iniquitous Fifi LaRue and not your lawful wife, even though the resourceful Fifi has managed to have the scene recorded on film, even though she can call up a dozen witnesses to your osculatory performance, you will plausibly claim that you did not kiss Fifi LaRue. Of course in some sense you did. But that was your car, your wife is in the laudable habit of picking you up at the depot, it never enters your mind that Fifi has chloroformed your bride, having gained entrance to your mortaged home in the guise of an Avon Lady, appropriated your vehicle, met the train with the results already sadly reported. You intended to kiss the lady at the wheel because you thought and had good reason to think that she was the wife of your bosom, the mother of your children, with a half interest in everything you possess. The lady at the wheel turned out to be Fifi, not Desdemona. If you had become aware an instant before crushing your lips to Fifi's who the recipient of your ardor would be, of course you would have checked yourself and drawn back in horror.

Here you are acting willingly enough, but your willing is guided by defective awareness and knowledge. Needless to say, if you simply pulled open at random the doors of waiting cars and planted a kiss on the driver, this would be a very different situation and invoking the case we have developed would not even fool your wife.

Once we see that mind and will are the essential components of the human act, we can go one to a finer-grained discussion of the two.

The Elements of the Complete Act

In the Summa theologiae, IaIIae, after he has discussed the matters touched on in our previous lesson, Thomas goes on to talk of the different will-acts that make up the complete human action. This teaching provides us with a theory of incomplete acts as well; indeed, as we shall see, it is because an act can be broken off at one point or another that we distinguish the different components of the complete act.

The end of understanding or knowing is the true, something attained in a judgment which matches the things judged. The end of will is the good, that which is completely fulfilling of the agent. But if the will bears principally on the end, it also bears on the means to achieving that end. The will is an appetite that follows on intellect. The mark of intellect is that it knows the natures of things in a universal way. The senses grasp the singular and the appetite that follows on sense perception bears on the singular as such -- this food, this drink. It is a mark of mind that the individual thing is sought as something, as an instance of a kind. The myriad of things that we can want are thus seen as desired under the most common feature that they either are constituents of our complete good.

Thus a human agent humanly desires food as an isntance of nourishment and, furthermore, implicitly at least recognizes that nourishment which insures bodily well being is a sine qua non of complete fulfillment. The will is the particular willing it is because of its aim or object, and that aim or object is provided it by mind. This does not mean that the will wants whatever comes to mind. Most of the things we recognize as good are far from exhausting the formality of goodness under which they are seen as desirable. They are particular or partial goods; there are dark and shadowy sides to them as well as their attractive aspects. It is this that grounds the freedom of the will. The passage from seeing something as desirable under some formality or other and actually desiring it involves a number of steps.

In distinguishing these steps, Thomas divides them into those which bear on the end, and those which bear on means to the end.

    a. Will Acts Bearing on the End

      i. Voluntas -- Will

      ii. Fruitio -- Enjoyment

      iii. Intentio -- Intention

    b. Will Acts Bearing on Means

      i. Consensus -- assent

      ii. Electio -- choice

      iii. Usus -- Use

It is well to have the whole schema before us in this way. In the first place, we must always remember that acts of will follow on understanding, so that for each of these will acts there is a corresponding act of intellect. Secondly, we must remember that we would be able to give a streamlined account of action such as this: A person sees something he wants, sees further than it can be achieved in this way or that, selects this way and goes for it. The analysis of human action Thomas is giving is meant to cover career decisions, the selection of a shampoo, taking a right on the way to work and any of the other billions of things that count as human acts. But let us examine the schema.

Reading Assignment

Ethica thomistica, chapter 4

Selected Writings. Selection 23.

Writing Assignment

Trace a human action through the various phases Thomas distinguishes.


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