Lesson 9: Evaluation of a Moral Action

Lecture 5A

In this lesson you will hear an introduction to the complex question of how to evaluate a moral action. The following text offers a sample analysis to show how one may arrive at an authentic judgment about proceeding with a proposed surgical procedure. The question has been raised: Given that actions are specified by their objects, what makes the snipping of a cancerous vas deferens morally different from the snipping of a non-cancerous vas deferens? The way that the standard casuists would have replied to this question is as follows:

(1) Some circumstances of a moral action are of such an aggravating nature that they actually alter the moral object itself, for which the scholastic Latin used the phrase "transit in rationem objecti," viz., the circumstance passes over into the definition (ratio) of the object.

(2) Therefore, strictly speaking the question does not enquire about doing something when (quando) it is a case of a cancerous organ (quid),

(3) but whether the circumstances "when cancerous" and "a cancerous organ" together so modify the moral object that it is possible to discover adequate grounds for a new moral meaning.

(4) On this basis, the action of snipping the diseased vas deferens is judged good, i.e. therapeutic, even though there also occurs a sterilization.

(5) However, this approach requires careful consideration, for some theorists will argue by analogy that sterilization in an over-populated country (ubi) and on a psychologically worn out 35 year-old father of ten (quis) also constitute circumstances that pass over into the definition of the moral object. Moreover, they will use such "proportional" arguments to justify actions that remain bad moral actions.

In the judgment of experienced moralists, it is required to know how the moral theologian constructs the objective borderlines for moral conduct before one can reasonably discuss the exceptional cases. Remember Veritatis splendor urges us to pursue a good end, not to discover reasons to justify objectively bad actions.

Recall that the old casuists were legalists at heart, but they had the consolation of knowing that the "exceptional cases" remained firmly in their, i.e. the "consulted authors," control. The new moral theology of Veritatis splendor warns against situationalism pure and simple and outright intentionalism. The Church does not envision that every circumstance become the opportunity for the individual to decide about how his or her historical circumstances and personal intentions can determine the basic moral goodness or badness of every action.

To be sure, more ecclesially-minded theorists will argue that the Church's teaching is a factor to be considered, even seriously, in making a moral choice, but they will still leave matters on the slippery slope of supposing the neutrality of moral objects. It remains for contemporary moral realists to show that moral objects are the only way that one can make virtue the accepted currency of moral theology. And we all know from Alasdair MacIntyre how important getting the intellectual, moral, and theological virtues straight is.

The virtue of prudence is one of the four cardinal virtues that shape human actions; it ensures that our activity achieves an end perfective of the human person. The other moral virtues, justice, fortitude, and temperance, each influences a particular appetite of the human person. As the rounding off of natural law inclinations in us, prudence develops a recta ratio for making a complete and happy human life. The teaching reaches back to the earliest centuries of Christian teaching. For example, Saint Ambrose observes: "first comes that which I may call the foundation of all, namely, that our passions should obey our reason" (See his De officiis ministrorum I, XXIV, 106). In Christian practice, moral truth always coexists with the moral virtues.

In a complete Christian life, all the virtues work towards the perfection of human flourishing and, if we consider the theological and infused virtues, beatitudo. To include nature and natural law in Christian ethics does not make life-in-Christ an after-thought for Roman Catholic moral instruction. On the contrary, Jesus stands at the center of every Christian life. To those who remain united in friendship with him, Christ shows the Way, teaches the Truth, and communicates Life itself. These promises cash out into a life of virtue, which in turn gives the virtuous person a fuller comprehension of what the scriptures teach about the moral life.

Moral virtue forms a good action according to reason in a given circumstance of one's life. Most immediately reason connotes human intelligence as the principle whereby we measure things, i.e. apprehend them according to a certain ratio. But is our intelligence, which measures things, itself independent of measure? Plainly not, since it in turn is measured by the reason, or reasons, in things, as when one asks, "What is the reason for the sun's coming up in the morning?" In response one posits some real cause, something in the nature of things, e.g. "The rotation of the earth on its axis is the reason, or cause, why the sun 'rises' daily." So for something to be "according to reason," it must be grasped as being ultimately according to the reason in things, in the nature of things. Conversely, when something is spoken of as against reason, one means, not only against the human capacity of that name, but fundamentally against the reason in nature and reality, i.e. the objective order, or reason, in nature which the mind grasps. Our human reason operates as a "measured measure" not only in speculative matters, but also, and especially, in practical reasoning.

Reading Assignments

Introduction to Moral Theology, Chapter Four

Three essays in Veritatis Splendor and the Renewal of Moral TheologyStudies by Ten Outstanding Scholars. Edited with J. A. DiNoia, O.P. (Chicago: Midwest Theological Forum, 1999). Section One: Perspectives.

Pinckaers, Sources, pp. 327-399

Writing Assignment

Write a five-page paper that explains to a class of young adults why some kinds of actions can never perfect the human person.


The moral object is what one is doing relative to reason, and not merely the physical character of one's act. Yet the physical character of what we do is one of the essential causal elements in determing the moral species or character of the object. Explain how this illustrates the character of our reason as a "measured measure".


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