Moral Philosophy

Chapter III: Of Human Acts.

Section I. -- What makes a human act less voluntary.

1. See c. i., nn. 2, 3, 4.

2. An act is more or less voluntary, as it is done with more or less knowledge, and proceeds more or less fully and purely from the will properly so called. Whatever diminishes knowledge, or partially supplants the will, takes off from the voluntariness of the act. An act is rendered less voluntary by ignorance, by passionate desire, and by fear.

3. If a man has done something in ignorance either of the law or of the facts of the case, and would be sorry for it, were he to find out what he has done, that act is involuntary, so far as it is traceable to ignorance alone. Even if he would not be sorry, still the act must be pronounced not voluntary, under the same reservation. Ignorance, sheer ignorance, takes whatever is done under it out of the region of volition. Nothing is willed but what is known. An ignorant man is as excusable as a drunken one, as such, -- no more and no less. The difference is, that drunkenness generally is voluntary; ignorance often is not. But ignorance may be voluntary, quite as voluntary as drunkenness. It is a capital folly of our age to deny the possibility of voluntary intellectual error. Error is often voluntary, and (where the matter is one that the person officially or otherwise is required to know) immoral too. A strange thing it is to say that "it is as unmeaning to speak of the immorality of an intellectual mistake as it would be to talk of the colour of a sound." (Lecky, European Morals, ii., 202.)

4. There is an ignorance that is sought on purpose, called affected ignorance (in the Shakspearian sense of the word affect), as when a man will not read begging-letters, that he may not give anything away. Such ignorance does not hinder voluntariness. It indicates a strong will of doing or omitting, come what may. There is yet another ignorance called crass, which is when a man, without absolutely declining knowledge, yet takes no pains to acquire it in a matter where he is aware that truth is important to him. Whatever election is made in consequence of such ignorance, is less voluntary, indeed, than if it were made in the full light, still it is to some extent voluntary. It is voluntary in its cause, that is, in the voluntary ignorance that led to it. Suppose a man sets up as a surgeon, having made a very imperfect study of his art. He is aware, that for want of knowledge and skill, he shall endanger many lives: still he neglects opportunities of making himself competent, and goes audaciously to work. If any harm comes of his bungling, he can plead intellectual error, an error of judgment for the time being; he did his best as well as he knew it. Doubtless he did, and in that he is unlike the malicious maker of mischief: still he has chosen lightly and recklessly to hazard a great evil. To that extent his will is bound to the evil: he has chosen it, as it were, at one remove.

5. Another instance. A man is a long way on to seeing, though he does not quite see, the claims of the Church of Rome on his allegiance and submission. He suspects that a little more prayer and search, and he shall be a Roman Catholic. To escape this, he resolves to go travelling and give up prayer. This is affected ignorance. Another has no such perception of the claims of Catholicism. He has no religion that satisfies him. He is aware speculatively of the importance of the religious question; but his heart is not in religion at all. With Demas, he loves the things of this world. Very attractive and interesting does he find this life and for the life to come he is content to chance it. This is crass ignorance of religious truth. Such a man is not a formal heretic, for he is not altogether wilful and contumacious in his error. Still neither is it wholly involuntary, nor he wholly guiltless.

6. Passionate desire is not an affection of the will, but of the sensitive appetite. The will may cooperate, but the passion is not in the will. The will may neglect to check the passion, when it might: it may abet and inflame it: in these ways an act done in passion is a voluntary act. Still it becomes voluntary only by the influx of the will, positively permitting or stimulating: it is not voluntary precisely as it proceeds from passion: for voluntary is that which is of the will. It belongs to passion to bring on a momentary darkness in the understanding: where such darkness is, there is so much the less of a human act. But passion in an adult of sane mind is hardly strong enough, of itself and wholly without the will, to execute any considerable outward action, involving the voluntary muscles. Things are often said and done, and put down to passion: but that is not the whole account of the matter. The will has been for a long time either feeding the passions, or letting them range unchecked: that is the reason of their present outburst, which is voluntary at least in its cause. Once this evil preponderance has been brought about, it is to be examined whether the will, in calm moods, is making any efforts to redress the evil. Such efforts, if made, go towards making the effects of passion, when they come, involuntary, and gradually preventing them altogether.

7. What a man does from fear, he is said to do under compulsion, especially if the fear be applied to him by some other person in order to gain a purpose. Such compulsory action is distinguished in ordinary parlance from voluntary action. And it is certainly less voluntary, inasmuch as the will is hedged in to make its choice between two evils, and chooses one or other only as being the less evil of the two, not for any liking to the thing in itself. Still, all things considered, the thing is chosen, and the action is so far voluntary. We may call it voluntary in the concrete, and involuntary in the abstract. The thing is willed as matters stand, but in itself and apart from existing need it is not liked at all. But as acts must be judged as they stand, by what the man wills now, not by what he would will, an act done under fear is on the whole voluntary. At the same time, fear sometimes excuses from the observance of a law, or of a contract, which from the way in which it was made was never meant to bind in so hard a case. Not all contracts, however, are of this accommodating nature; and still less, all laws. But even where the law binds, the penalty of the law is sometimes not incurred, when the law was broken through fear.

Readings. -- Ar. Eth., III., i.; St. Thos., 1a 2ae, q. 6, art. 3; ib., q. 6, art. 6, 8; ib., q. 77, art. 6.

Section II. -- Of the determinants of morality in any given action.

1. The morality of any given action is determined by three elements, the end in view, the means taken and the circumstances that accompany the taking of the said means. Whoever knows this principle, does not thereby know the right and wrong of every action, but he knows how to go about the enquiry. It is a rule of diagnosis.

2. In order to know whether what a man does befits him as a man to do, the first thing to examine is that which he mainly desires and wills in his action. Now the end is more willed and desired than the means. He who steals to commit adultery, says Aristotle, is more of an adulterer than a thief. The end in view is what lies nearest to a man's heart as he acts. On that his mind is chiefly bent; on that his main purpose is fixed. Though the end is last in the order of execution, it is first and foremost in the order of intention. Therefore the end in view enters into morality more deeply than any other element of the action. It it not, however, the most obvious determinant, because it is the last point to be gained; and because, while the means are taken openly, the end is often a secret locked up in the heart of the doer, the same means leading to many ends, as the road to a city leads to many homes and resting-places. Conversely, one end may be prosecuted by many means, as there are many roads converging upon one goal.

3. If morality were determined by the end in view, and by that alone, the doctrine would hold that the end justifies the means. That doctrine is false, because the moral character of a human act depends on the thing willed, or object of volition, according as it is or is not a fit object. Now the object of volition is not only the end in view, but likewise the means chosen. Besides the end, the means are likewise willed. Indeed, the means are willed more immediately even than the end, as they have to be taken first.

4. A good action, like any other good thing, must possess a certain requisite fulness of being, proper to itself. As it is not enough for the physical excellence of a man to have the bare essentials, a body with a soul animating it, but there is needed a certain grace of form, colour, agility, and many accidental qualities besides; so for a good act it is not enough that proper means be taken to a proper end, but they must be taken by a proper person, at a proper place and time, in a proper manner, and with manifold other circumstances of propriety.

5. The end in view may be either single, as when you forgive an injury solely for the love of Christ: or multiple co-ordinate, as when you forgive both for the love of Christ and for the mediation of a friend, and are disposed to forgive on either ground separately; or multiple subordinate, as when you would not have forgiven on the latter ground alone, but forgive the more easily for its addition, having been ready, however, to forgive on the former alone: or cumulative, as when you forgive on a number of grounds collectively, on no one of which would you have forgiven apart from the rest.

6. Where there is no outward action, but only an internal act, and the object of that act is some good that is willed for its own sake, there can be no question of means taken, as the end in view is immediately attained.

7. The means taken and the circumstances of those means enter into the morality of the act, formally as they are seen by the intellect, materially as they are in themselves. (See what is said of ignorance, c. iii., s. i. nn. 3-5, p. 27.), This explains the difference between formal and material sin. A material sin would be formal also, did the agent know what he was doing. No sin is culpable that is not formal. But, as has been said, there may be culpable perversion of the intellect, so that the man is the author of his own obliquity or defect of vision. When Saul persecuted the Christians, he probably sinned materially, not formally. When Caiphas spoke the truth without knowing it, he said well materially, but ill formally.

8. In looking at the means taken and the circumstances that accompany those means, it is important to have a ready rule for pronouncing what particular belongs to the means and what to the circumstances. Thus Clytemnestra deals her husband Agamemnon a deadly stroke with an axe, partly for revenge, partly that she may take to herself another consort; is the deadliness of the blow part of the means taken or only an accompanying circumstance? It is part of the means taken. The means taken include every particular that is willed and chosen as making for the end in view. The fatal character of the blow does make to that end; if Agamemnon does not die, the revenge will not be complete, and life with Aegisthus will be impossible. On the other hand, the fact that Clytemnestra is the wife of the man whom she murders, is not a point that her will rests upon as furthering her purpose at all; it is an accompanying circumstance. This method of distinguishing means from circumstance is of great value in casuistry.

9. It is clear that not every attendant circumstance affects the morality of the means taken. Thus the blow under which Agamemnon sank was neither more nor less guiltily struck because it was dealt with an axe, because it was under pretence of giving him a bath, or because his feet were entangled in a long robe. These circumstances are all irrelevant. Those only are relevant which attach some special reasonableness or unreasonableness to the thing done Thus the provocation that Clytemnestra had from her husband's introduction of Cassandra into her house made her act of vengeance less unreasonable: on the other hand it was rendered more unreasonable by the circumstance of the dear and holy tie that binds wife to husband. The provocation and the relationship were two relevant circumstances in that case.

10. But it happens sometimes that a circumstance only affects the reasonableness of an action on the supposition of some previous circumstance so affecting it. Thus to carry off a thing in large or small quantities does not affect the reasonableness of the carrying, unless there be already some other circumstance attached that renders the act good or evil; as for instance, if the goods that are being removed are stolen property. Circumstances of this sort are called aggravating -- or, as the case may be, extenuating -- circumstances. Circumstances that of themselves, and apart from any previous supposition, make the thing done peculiarly reasonable or unreasonable, are called specifying circumstances. They are so called, because they place the action in some species of virtue or vice; whereas aggravating or extenuating circumstances add to, or take off from, the good or evil of the action in that species of virtue or vice to which it already belongs.

11. A variety of specifying circumstances may place one and the same action in many various species of virtue or vice. Thus a religious robbing his parents would sin at once against justice, piety, and religion. A nun preferring death to dishonour practises three virtues, chastity, fortitude, and religion.

12. The means chosen may be of four several characters: --

(a) A thing evil of itself and inexcusable under all conceivable circumstances; for instance, blasphemy, idolatry, lying.

(b) Needing excuse, as the killing of a man, the looking at an indecent object. Such things are not to be done except under certain circumstances and with a grave reason. Thus indecent sights may be met in the discharge of professional duty. In that case indeed they cease to be indecent. They are then only indecent when they are viewed without cause. The absence of a good motive in a case like this commonly implies the presence of a bad one.

(c)Indifferent, as walking or sitting down.

(d)Good of itself, but liable to be vitiated by circumstances, as prayer and almsgiving; the good of such actions may be destroyed wholly or in part by their being done out of a vain motive, or unseasonably, or indiscreetly.

13. It is said, "If thy eye be single, thy whole body shall be lightsome." (St. Matt. vi., 22.) The eye is the intention contemplating the end in view. Whoever has placed a good end before him, and regards it steadily with a well-ordered love, never swerving in his affection from the way that reason would have him love, must needs take towards his end those means, and those only, which are in themselves reasonable and just: as it is written "Thou shalt follow justly after that which is just." (Deut. XVI., 20.) Thus I am building a church to the glory of God; money runs short: I perceive that by signing a certain contract that must mean grievous oppression of the poor, I shall save considerable expense, whereas, if I refuse, the works will have to be abandoned for want of funds. If I have purely the glory of God before my eyes, I certainly shall not sign that contract: for injustice I know can bear no fruit of Divine glory. But if I am bent upon having the building up in any case, of course I shall sign: but then my love for the end in view is no longer pure and regulated by reason: it is not God but myself that I am seeking in the work. Thus an end entirely just, holy, and pure, purifies and sanctifies the means, not formally, by investing with a character of justice means in themselves unjust, for that is impossible, -- the leopard cannot change his spots, -- but by way of elimination, removing unjust means as ineligible to my purpose, and leaving me only those means to choose from which are in themselves just.

14. With means in themselves indifferent, the case is otherwise. A holy and pious end does formally sanctify those means, while a wicked end vitiates them. I beg the reader to observe what sort of means are here in question. There is no question of means in themselves or in their circumstances unjust, as theft, lying, murder, but of such indifferent things as reading, writing painting, singing, travelling. Whoever travels to commit sin at the end of his journey, his very travelling, so far as it is referred to that end, is part of his sin: it is a wicked journey that he takes. And he who travels to worship at some shrine or place of pilgrimage, includes his journey in his devotion. The end in view there sanctifies means in themselves indifferent.

15. As a great part of the things that we do are indifferent as well in themselves as in the circumstances of the doing of them, the moral character of our lives depends largely on the ends that we habitually propose to ourselves. One man's great thought is how to make money; what he reads, writes, says, where he goes, where he elects to reside, his very eating, drinking and personal expenditure, all turns on what he calls making his fortune. It is all to gain money -- quocunque modo rem. Another is active for bettering the condition of the labouring classes: a third for the suppression of vice. These three men go some way together in a common orbit of small actions, alike to the eye, but morally unlike, because of the various guiding purposes for which they are done. Hence, when we consider such pregnant final ends as the service of God and the glory of a world to come, it appears how vast is the alteration in the moral line and colouring of a man's life, according to his practical taking up or setting aside of these great ends.

16. We must beware however of an exaggeration here. The final end of action is often latent, not explicitly considered. A fervent worshipper of God wishes to refer his whole self with all that he does to the Divine glory and service. Yet such a one will eat, drink, and be merry with his friends, not thinking of God at the time. Still, supposing him to keep within the bounds of temperance, he is serving God and doing good actions. But what of a man who has entirely broken away from God, what of his eating, drinking, and other actions that are of their kind indifferent? We cannot call them sins: there is nothing wrong about them, neither in the thing done, nor in the circumstances of the doing, nor in the intention. Pius V. condemned the proposition "All the works of infidels are sins." Neither must we call such actions indifferent in the individual who does them, supposing them to be true human acts according to the definition, and not done merely mechanically. They are not indifferent, because they receive a certain measure of natural goodness from the good natural purpose which they serve, namely, the conservation and well-being of the agent. Every human act is either good or evil in him who does it. I speak of natural goodness only.

17. The effect consequent upon an action is distinguishable from the action itself, from which it is not unfrequently separated by a considerable interval of time, as the death of a man from poison administered a month before. The effect consequent enters into morality only in so far as it is either chosen as a means or intended as an end (nn. 2, 3, p. 31), or is annexed as a relevant circumstance to the means chosen (n. 9, p. 34.). Once the act is done, it matters nothing to morality whether the effect consequent actually ensues or not, provided no new act be elicited thereupon, whether of commission or of culpable omission to prevent. It matters not to morality, but it does matter to the agent's claim to reward or liability to punishment at the hands of human legislators civil and ecclesiastical.

18. As soul and body make one man, so the inward and outward act -- as the will to strike and the actual blow struck -- are one human act. The outward act gives a certain physical completeness to the inward. Moreover the inward act is no thorough-going thing, if it stops short of outward action where the opportunity offers. Otherwise, the inward act may be as good or as bad morally as inward and outward act together. The mere wish to kill, where the deed is impossible, may be as wicked as wish and deed conjoined. It may be, but commonly it will not, for this reason, that the outward execution of the deed reacts upon the will and calls it forth with greater intensity; the will as it were expands where it finds outward vent. There is no one who has not felt the relative mildness of inward feelings of impatience or indignation, compared with those engendered by speaking out one's mind. Often also the outward act entails a long course of preparation, all during which the inward will is sustained and frequently renewed, as in a carefully planned burglary.

Readings. -- St.Thos., 1a 2ae, q. 18, art. 1; ib., q. 18, art. 2, in corp., ad 1; ib., q. 18, art. 3, in corp., ad 2; ib., q. 18, art. 4-6; ib., q. 18, art. 8, in corp., ad 2, 3; ib., q. 18, art. 9, in corp., ad 3; ib., q. 18, art. 10, 3; ib., q. 18, art. ii, in corp.; ib., q. 20, art. 4, in corp.

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