Lesson 2c: The "Fonts of Morality" (The Moral Act)

In the prior lessons, we considered the "human act", i.e. those actions which proceed from the will with a knowledge of the end. In that effort, to some extent, we considered what a man CAN do; here, our concern is what one ought to do. If indeed, one cannot do something, there is no point in arguing that he ought to do that.

Here we concentrate on a fundamental and crucial criterion of morality. When we say that murder is evil (wrong), or, truth telling is good (right) -- on what basis do we make such statements? The concern here is not the individual case -- when John Q. robbed the bank, did he know what he was doing? what was his intention? The precise focus here is why do we call 'stealing' a wrong kind of act? On what basis -- what elements, what factors, what sources, indeed the classic term is fontes moralitatis, what determinants are relevant for predicating good or evil of human acts?

Again, as above, we do not and will not collapse morality into the physical (as if one could intuit morality from a photograph of a physical act; you can't); but, we do not prescind from the physical either. Thus, any stealing must involve a taking; any murder must involve a killing; any perjury must involve real speech; indeed, morality always involves the 'real' -- true chastity has to do with real flesh; true justice has to do with real property and ownership. Morality always has to do with the real.

Thus, when we say that stealing (taking against the reasonable will of the owner) is generically a 'wrong' kind of act in the moral order, on what basis do we make such a statement?

In traditional Catholic morality, three factors are relevant in predicating 'good' or 'evil' of human acts. The Catechism (1992) presents the three (CCC ##1749-1775) as:

  1. the moral object chosen (#1751) (the finis operis);
  2. relevant moral circumstances (#1754);
  3. the personal end or intention (##1752-3) (the finis operantis).

This is the classic and received teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa theologiae, I-II, q.18, aa.2-4. This requires very careful reading and correct understanding. The student should read these few articles in the Summa but if the style and method of that great work is unfamiliar it might be best to read the Farrell-Healy My Way of Life (1951) II, a, c.III, pp. 175-186 as a preparation and introduction. It is my experience that the conventional textbooks in Ethics are clearer in explaining these 'sources' than most moralists. Thus, R. McInerny, Aquinas on Human Action (1992) pp.3-157; T. Mullady,"The Moral Act" Ethics and Medics 19:9 (Sept. 1994) pp. 1-2; J. Smith, Humanae Vitae (1991) pp. 215-220. The presentation and definitions of these 'sources' in the Catechism (##1750-1756) are accurate but the Catechism is highly concise and gives no examples.

The corresponding section of Veritatis Splendor nn.71-83 is, without question, the most technical part of the Encyclical and demands a very careful reading. It is not the purpose of Catholic doctrine to define philosophy as such; but, the teaching of VS, nn.71-83 comes as close to defining the analysis of the moral act by St. Thomas Aquinas (ST, I-II, q.18, aa. 2-4) as possible. It does not say this is the only way to analyze the moral act, but it does teach that no other way accords so well with Catholic teaching.

According to received Thomistic teaching -- actions are specified by their objects. For this reason, in this context, we look first to the moral object of the action, i.e. what kind of an act it is in its moral estimation. Thus, 'stealing' (morally defined as: a taking against the reasonable will of the owner) as a 'kind' of act is a wrong kind of act. Why? What is it about 'stealing' that makes it wrong? Because the kind of act it is (taking against the reasonable will of the owner) has a bearing or relation to some norm or rule of morals (the 'norm' here, of course, is the 7th commandment and justice; it is true that we have not yet examined the 'norm' of morality (i.e. external norm being law; internal norm being conscience). Nevertheless, you know that when I say John Q. stole my car, I am not describing John Q. taking a shower -- that is a different kind of act. When I say John Q. is taking a shower, you know I am not describing the theft of my car.

'Taking' a shower is no kind of theft at all. Thus, actions are specified by their objects, and in their moral estimation, actions are specified by their moral object --that first determinant that has a real bearing (real relationship) on a rule or norm of morals.

The moral object answers the question "what?" in the question "What is going on here morally?" The moral object determines what kind of an act it is.

Thus, the Catechism teaches: "The object chosen is a good toward which the will deliberately directs itself. It is the matter of a human act. The object chosen morally specifies the act of the will, insofar as reason recognizes and judges it to be or not to be in conformity with the true good." (CCC #1751).

Veritatis Splendor teaches the same: "The morality of the human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the 'object' rationally chosen by the deliberate will, as is borne out by the insightful analysis, still valid today, made by St. Thomas (ST, I-II, q.18, a.6)

. . . The object of the act of willing is in fact a freely chosen kind of behavior. To the extent that it is in conformity with the order of reason, it is the cause of the goodness of the will; it perfects us morally, and disposes us to recognize our ultimate end in the perfect good, primordial love. By the object of a given moral act, then, one cannot mean a process or an event of the merely physical order. . . . Rather, that object is the proximate end of a deliberate decision which determines the act of willing on the part of the acting person. . . . The reason why a good intention is not itself sufficient, but a correct choice of action is also needed, is that the human act depends on its object, whether that object is capable or not of being ordered to God, to the One who 'alone is good,' and thus brings about the perfection of the person." (VS, 78)

Next, no one can place some act in general; in real life some act is done in some concrete circumstances for some reason. Thus, the conventional analysis considers circumstances, including consequences, which are secondary elements of a moral act. As the Catechism teaches, relevant moral circumstances can increase or diminish the moral species (good or evil) of an act -- e.g. the theft of $5,000 differs from the theft of 5 cents; obviously one is grave theft the other is light matter, but they are both thefts.

That is, the kind of act it is (its moral species) remains the same (taking against the reasonable will of the owner) but it can be gravely so or lightly so (cf. CCC #1754). Circumstances can quantify (greater or lesser) the moral species of an act but cannot change the kind of act it is generically. A tricky pyramid scheme can just as effectively separate someone from $100 as ripping $100 out of their pocket, but it still remains the kind of act it is -- theft.

Circumstances, then, are not the primary determinant of moral insight; by definition, 'circumstances' (circum stantes) stand around or surround the kind of moral object it is -- they answer questions like: how?, when?, where?, by what means?

Finally and importantly, there is the element of personal intention that answers the question why? Why did this person place this act in these circumstances? This is variously called the personal 'end', 'intention,' or 'purpose' -- technically, the finis operantis (cf. CCC ##1752-3). The 'intention', of course, resides in the acting subject. It is the voluntary source of the action and an element essential to its moral evaluation.

As above, one does something in some concrete circumstances for some purpose (personal intention). This intention may be for the best of reasons or the worst of reasons -- but a good intention does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered (e.g., perjury; murder; adultery) good or just. Some personal intentions may make things understandable but they are not for that reason alone ('good intention') justifiable. A (good) end does not justify the (wrong) means (Rms.3:8) (CCC #1753).

In this Thomistic and Catholic analysis of the morality of acts, it is the fullness of these causes together that determines the goodness of an act. There is an axiom: Bonum ex integra causa = goodness comes from the integrity of the causes; malum ex quocumque defectu = evil comes from any defect. Thus, it is not enough to place a good act for bad reasons, nor a bad act for good reasons; rather, an act must be good of its kind, in good or neutral circumstances and for a good purpose of intention.

We should admit that this understanding requires more rather than less: it is more challenging. There are, of course, other ethical theories, some with a single moral criterion: the Ethical Formalism of Immanuel Kant (NCE 5:570) holds that the agent's disposition (upright intention) determines the morality of his actions; the Utilitarianism of J.S. Mill (NCE14:503-504) holds that the consequences (circumstances) will determine the morality of acts.

The Thomistic theory involves a full criterion rather than a single one, as the Catechism states: "A morally good act requires the goodness of the object, of the end, and of the circumstances together" (#1755). It is this integrity, this fullness that locates the cardinal moral principle of Catholic moral teaching that the "End does not justify the Means"! This is, indeed, a biblical principle (Rms.3:8) and a truly important one if one is to avoid mere subjectivism in morals.

Located here is the notion of intrinsic (objective) morality, as the Catechism clearly states: "There are some concrete acts -- such as fornication -- that it is always wrong to choose, because choosing them entails a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil." (CCC #1755)

And more emphatically, "It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may never do evil so that good may result from it." (CCC #1756) For other specifics confer VS, 47, 80; and for the same teaching cf. VS, 78.


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