Treatise on Action


Question 6: The voluntary and the involuntary

Question 7: The circumstances of human acts

Question 8: The objects of the will in general (what we will in general)

Question 9: What moves the will (final and efficient causes of acts of will)

Question 10: The ways in which the will is moved

Structure of a complete human act (outline of elicited acts)


Question 18: On the goodness and badness of human acts in general

Question 19: On the goodness and badness of interior acts of will

Question 20: On the goodness and badness of exterior acts of will

Question 21: On what follows upon human acts because of their goodness and badness

  • Question 6: The voluntary and the involuntary
    • 6,1-2: St. Thomas distinguishes four orders of principles of acts or motions by their relation to the thing moved:
      • 1. Principles of motion that are extrinsic to the things moved. In such cases the things are moved from without and do not have an intrinsic inclination to or desire for the end. These are violent motions. (These may include various bodily changes in animals.) Note: While such motions may be violent with respect to the individual as such, they may be natural or at least non-violent in the wider scheme of things. In such a case the individual is said to have an "obediential potentiality" for the motion in question.  For example, in Aristotelian science water is naturally cold and yet has an obediential potency for being heated.
      • 2. Principles of motion that are intrinsic to the things moved. Here the things moved have an intrinsic inclination--either natural or acquired (i.e., following upon apprehensions)--toward the end of the act or motion. Within this category we can make the following distinctions:
        • a. Motions in which the thing moved does not move itself. Here there is no cognition of the end and hence the thing moved does not act in view of the end. In this sense it is moved imperfectly for the sake of the end. (Example: the motions of corporeal substances qua corporeal; the vegetative activities of plants and animals.)
        • b. Motions in which the thing moved moves itself to the end but not to it as an end. This is the imperfect voluntariness characteristic of the proper acts of brute animals, which have only sentient cognition of the end and act immediately upon sentient desire triggered by this sentient cognition. Their acts are voluntary in that they have a sentient desire to act in the way they do. But although they apprehend the thing which is an end and desire it, they do not apprehend it as an end and are unable to proportion means to end. These are instead characteristic only of rational beings. Brute animals, by contrast, act by instinct and without choice.
        • c. Motions in which the thing moved moves itself to the end as an end. This is the perfect voluntariness characteristic of properly human acts. It involves rational cognition of the end as an end and rational desire for that end, the ability to deliberate about means to the end and to proportion those means to the end, the ability to choose or reject proposed means to the end, and the ability to will to refrain from the acting.
    • 6,3: Here St. Thomas makes an important addendum about omissions for which rational agents are responsible. In such cases the omissions are voluntary human acts in a broad sense, even though they do not always involve the exercise of a power. Sometimes omissions involve a direct interior act of willing not to act; sometimes they involve simply a not willing to act (W~p vs. ~Wp). 
    • 6,4-8: Here St. Thomas denies that there can be a violent or coreced elicited act of will, since by definition an act of will is nothing other than "an inclination that proceeds from an interior cognitive principle," whereas what is coerced proceeds from an exterior principle. So just as a natural inclination cannot be violent, so neither can an acquired rational inclination (i.e., an elicited act of will) be coerced. However, acts commanded by the will can be coerced in various ways. (Note ad 3 of art. 4.)
    • In arts. 5-8 St. Thomas names violence, fear (in a certain way), and inculpable ignorance as causes of coerced commanded acts, i.e., acts that occur against one's will (contra voluntatem). On the other hand, he denies that sense desire (concupiscence) and culpable ignorance make for coercion. In the case of fear, even though an act done out of fear is involuntary in the sense that it would otherwise be repugnant to the will, it is nevertheless voluntary simpliciter, since one directly wills the object in order to avoid the feared evil. As for ignorance, if what I am doing is something that I intended to do but now do unknowingly, then the act is to this extent non-voluntary rather than involuntary. (Suppose that I am out hunting and intend to kill the deer now and also intend to kill my uncle for his money at some future time; I shoot the 'deer' and it turns out to be my uncle. In such a case I directly or per se choose to kill this animal, mistakenly but non-culpably thinking it to be a deer, whereas the act of killing my uncle describes only per accidens what I actually do. However, since I do indeed intend to kill my uncle, my killing him at this time and in these circumstances is non-voluntary rather than involuntary.) This is concomitant ignorance. Ignorance is consequent to the extent that the ignorance itself is voluntary. This can happen either deliberately or non-deliberately, but in either case one should have known what one in fact did not know. Such ignorance does not make the act involuntary except in the weak sense that I would not have done the act knowingly; however, since the ignorance is culpable, I'm morally responsible for the act. Antecedent ignorance is not culpable and hence makes for involuntariness simpliciter. (Note that in all cases we must carefully specify the act (or act-description), since an act can be voluntary in a certain respect and involuntary in another--or, perhaps better, the same performance can be part of several acts, some voluntary and some involuntary.)

  • Question 7: The circumstances of human acts
    • 7,1-4: The circumstances of a human act include characteristics like its time and place, the agent's mode of acting, the agent's motive (final end intended, or finis operantis), the means employed, etc. St. Thomas treats human acts by analogy with substances. A human act can be thought of as a "substance" that has a nature or essence determined by its object--which includes its proximate end (finis operis) and whatever "specifying circumstances" (ala specific differences) go into determining its species. The substance of the act is the object, that which is willed (more specifically, that which is chosen or consented to). All other circumstances of the action are, as it were, its accidents.  Among these St. Thomas singles out the end or motive as the most important.
    • Note for future reference:  Our sense of which 'circumstances' of a given act are part of its substance, thus determining its species, and which are merely accidents depends to a great extent on our ability to make moral discriminations. For example, an act's being an act of sexual intercourse does not by itself determine its substance or nature, morally speaking. Its being an act of sexual intercourse with one's spouse makes it a kind of act which by its nature it is good to will in many (but not all) accidental circumstances. But its being an act of sexual intercourse with another's spouse makes it a kind of act which it is bad to will in any accidental circumstances. In this last case, the fact that the other person is married to someone else is not an accidental circumstance but instead changes, as it were, the substance of the act. We will see more of this difficult topic below in questions 20 and 21. (It seems in general that if a circumstance transforms a genus into a species of action that it is bad to will no matter what, then it is a specifying circumstance. But, you will ask, how do we know when an act is bad to will no matter what? This is the nub of moral disagreement, and presumably both faith and reason are guides here.)

  • Question 8: The objects of the will in general (what we will in general) 
    • 8,1-3: In this question St. Thomas is concerned with what we will. He argues that whatever we will voluntarily is willed as something that is apprehended as good, even if it is in fact morally evil. For such an object will always have something good about it. The medievals generally divided goods into the pleasant or pleasurable or enjoyable (bonum delectabile), the useful or advantageous (bonum utile), and the moral or virtuous or noble (bonum honestum). (The latter is roughly what someone who is acting from a virtue wills for its own sake as well as for the ultimate end.)  So something can be willed as pleasant or useful even if it is morally evil. When the opposite of something evil is willed, then that opposite is itself willed as a good. Also, in a given situation to will the good might involve refraining from any further action. In art. 2 St. Thomas points out that there are acts of will with respect to both the end and the means to the end, but the means are willed as ordered toward the end, which is the principal object of the will. Later on he notes that there can be three types of acts of will with respect to an end: (a) simple willing of a good (velleitas); (b) willing the good + delighting in the thought of possessing it (fruitio); (c) simple willing of a good + delighting in the thought of possessing it + intending it (intentio). A good is intended just in case one has an inclination to deliberate about means to the end.

  • Question 9: What moves the will (final and efficient causes of acts of will)
    • 9,1: In this question we are concerned with the causal factors, both efficient and final, that contribute to acts of will. The fact that such acts have causal antecedents helps explain why they are not random even though they are voluntary and hence do not occur by a necessity of nature. (This helps to undermine one common, though not very deep, objection to the claim that we are free in a sense that rules out the necessitation of our acts of will and total actions. The claim is that non-necessitated are thereby random.)  St. Thomas begins by distinguishing two ways in which a faculty is in potentiality to be moved by something: (i) with respect to the exercise of its act (that is, with respect to whether or not it acts: W or ~W); and (ii) with respect to the specification of its act (that is, with respect to what it does when it does act: Wp or Wq or Wr ...). The will itself moves the powers of the soul, including the intellect and indeed itself, with respect to exercise -- as when I will to investigate something or will to deliberate about how to get to Boston or will to instigate a passion such as daring or will to raise my hand. The practical intellect, on the other hand, moves the will with respect to the specification of the will's act, since it presents objects qua goods to the will. And such objects determine the nature of the will's subsequent act (if there is a subsequent act) in much the same way that the form heat is determined by its nature to acts of making things hot (rather than, say, making them purple).
      9,2: This is an important first statement of the relation between the will and the passions, which are acts of the sentient appetite. The will, as we saw above, is moved by an apprehended good as by a final cause. St. Thomas points out that whether or not an object is apprehended as a good depends on two things: the nature of the object itself and the condition of the one to whom the object is cognitionally presented. (For instance, a drink of water, but not a drink of gasoline, will normally be perceived as good here and now by someone who is thirsty.) The passions affect the condition of the one to whom an object is presented. (For instance, revenge here and now will often be seen as a good by someone who is angry but not by someone who is able to control his anger.) So the passions affect whether or not objects presented to us by cognition are apprehended by us as goods.  This is an important aspect of virtue-centered moral theories, since it is not the case that every agent is equally situated with respect to discerning (both habitually and at the time of action) the moral principles that apply to this or that situation.  In this sense the virtues are not "blind," to use Frankena's characterization.  (See David Solomon, "Keeping Virtue in Its Place:  A Critique of Subordinating Strategies,"  pp. 83-104 in  John P. O'Callaghan and Thomas S. Hibbs, eds., Recovering Nature:  Essays in Natural Philosophy, Ethics, and Metaphysics in Honor of Ralph McInerny (Notre Dame, IN:  University of Notre Dame Press, 1999.) )
    • 9,3-6: The will, given that it wills an end, moves itself to the exercise of an act of will with respect to the means to that end -- just as it moves the other faculties of the soul to exercise with respect to their own ends. Notice that this movement in the order of efficient causes presupposes that the will is primevally moved by another with respect to its ultimate end (art. 4). For the ultimate end is the only end that cannot also be a means to an end and thus the only end that cannot be willed after deliberation. But what is this external efficient principle of the will's "logically first" motion? It can only be that which gives the will its nature and concurs with it in willing ultimate fulfillment for the one whose will it is. This efficient principle cannot be the celestial bodies, since they can move the will only indirectly, viz., only insofar as they causally contribute to bodily changes and hence to the stirring of the passions. Instead, this mover is God, who alone is the efficient cause of the rational soul and who alone is a universal good with no admixture of evil. Hence, the will's first motion or inclination toward ultimate human flourishing is bestowed by God, just as a body's gravitational behavior is bestowed by whatever generates it--though in both cases the resulting motion is congruent with the thing's nature and hence not a violent motion. (Note that in the case of the will God acts as a general efficient and final cause; he can also act as a particular cause as in the movements of grace, but this is another matter.)

  • Question 10: The ways in which the will is moved
    • 10,1: Here St. Thomas asks whether the will is naturally moved with respect to any object, and he begins by spelling out the different senses of the term nature: (1) intrinsic principle of motion in movable things, either matter or form or both together; (2) whatever accords with the substance of a thing, i.e., whatever is traced back to what is in the substance per se, in the way that self-evident truths are said to be known 'naturally'. In this second sense, just as the intellect knows self-evident truths naturally, so the will wills the good in general (the ultimate end) naturally, along with the good of each particular human faculty and indeed the good of the whole human being himself. Thus, the will of a human being 'naturally' wills the good in general, knowledge of the truth, life, society with others, and other goods which were catalogued above as goods of the body, goods of the soul, and external goods. But there are no particular or wholly determinate goods that we will naturally.
    • 10,2: The will is never moved by necessity with respect to the exercise of its act, but there is one object, viz., the universal good--or ultimate human fulfillment in the vision of God--which is such that the will wills it (and whatever it presupposes) necessarily if it wills anything at all. By contrast, every 'particular' good is such that one can see some evil (unpleasantness, disutility, moral evil) in willing it here and now, and so no good of this sort is such that the will wills it necessarily.  (This holds true even of God seen not in his essence but in the more obscure way we know him in this life.)
    • 10,3: Here St. Thomas points out that sometimes the will is "totally bound" by the passions in such a way that the person no longer has the use of reason. In such cases the person, like a brute animal, necessarily acts in accord with the relevant passion. (You can still be responsible for having gotten yourself into such a state, however.) There is no act of reason in such a case and hence no act of will, either. In any case which falls short of this total binding, free choice remains and so one does not necessarily will in accord with the movement of the passions. Look carefully at the replies to each of the three objections, since they all contain interesting comments about the relation between the sentitent and intellective appetites.
    • 10,4: As for God, St. Thomas claims that outside of the goods which we will naturally, God does not move us necessarily to will any particular goods.

Structure of a complete human act

  • Elicited acts of will with respect to an end (each of these acts presupposes acts of the intellect by which goods are grasped and, in the wholly virtuous agent, ordered to one another and to the agent's ultimate end):
    • voluntas: willing some intellectually cognized good as an end, i.e., as something desirable in itself; in other words, being attracted to an end presented by intellective cognition.  (This is mere wishing if it does not move beyond this stage to intentio.)
    • fruitio (pleasure or delight or enjoyment): willing the end as something possessed; antecedently, enjoying or taking pleasure in the end insofar as the end is presented in thought as being possessed.
    • intentio (intention): willing the end as something to be acquired through means that are ordered to the end, i.e., willing the end in such a way as to order someone, oneself or another, toward the end.
  • Elicited acts of will with respect to the means to an intended end:
    • Each of these presupposes consilium (deliberation), and choice presupposes iudicium (judgment):
      • consensus (consent): willing one or more means as acceptable.
      • electio (choice): willing a particular means as to be executed.
    • The following presupposes imperium (command):
      • usus (use): willing to apply the appropriate faculties to exercising their acts so as to attain the intended end.

  • Question 18: On the goodness and badness of human acts in general
    • 18,1-4: Acts have the fullness of their being in diverse ways. For instance, every human act qua being is something good. However, it is absolutely good only if it has moral goodness as well. Since acts can fall short of absolute goodness, some of them are bad, absolutely speaking. The problem, then, is to articulate the standards with respect to which acts can be defective as human acts. In 1, ad 3, St. Thomas identifies this standard tersely as "the order of reason," i.e., practical reason insofar as it judges correctly what is and is not consonant with our ultimate end. (This is often called right reason, though it is important to note that right reason can include, in one who has the gift of faith, the further illumination that faith provides with respect to our ultimate end and the means to attain it.) In arts. 2-4 St. Thomas explains that a human act derives its goodness or badness from (a) its object or what is directly willed (wherein it gets its species as a "substance"), (b) its circumstances, and (c) its end (motive), which is the most important of its circumstances and is thus singled out for special consideration. A general rule is that a human act must be good with respect to all three in order to be a good human act, absolutely speaking; otherwise, it is a bad act. We will examine each of these elements in articles 5-11.
    • 18,5-11:
      • Object: (Arts. 5, 8, 10) The object ('exterior' or commanded act) that is willed gives a human act its moral species, i.e., its moral goodness or badness, insofar as willing that object is or is not in accord with the order of reason. So, for instance, acts such as marital intercourse with one's own spouse and marital intercourse with the spouse of another, though the same in species vis-à-vis the generative power, differ in species vis-à-vis right reason--the latter being bad in its species and hence bad to will and the former being good in its species and hence good to will. (When I say "bad to will," I mean bad to will simply or to delight in or to intend or to consent to or to choose or to execute (usus).) In 5, ad 4 St. Thomas adds that certain circumstances (we can call them specifying circumstances), far from being accidental to the 'moral substance' of an act, should instead be taken as specific differences determining the moral species of the act--this because "they add a special note for or against the order of reason ..... This is necessary whenever a circumstance changes an act from good to bad; for a circumstance does not make an act bad except because it is repugnant to reason." (See also q. 88, art. 5). Now some acts are morally bad in their species, as determined by their objects, whereas others are morally good in their species, and still others (see art. 8) are morally indifferent in their species. However, a concrete human action is always either absolutely good or absolutely bad when performed by a given agent in concrete circumstances (see art. 9), since a concrete human act includes not only its own moral species as an exterior act, but also its accidental circumstances and the end for which it is willed.
      • Circumstances: (Art. 11) There are some circumstances that, instead of making an action good or bad in its species, add to the goodness or badness it has in its species. For instance, to take what belongs to another is bad in its species, but to take something of great value from a poor man is worse than to take something of little value from a rich man. By the same token, giving monetary support to one's church is a good act when done for a fitting end, but the widow who gives a small donation out of her need does something better than the rich man who gives from his excess.
      • End: (Arts. 6, 7) Beyond the goodness or badness that a human act has from its "substance" and "accidents", it derives goodness or badness from its final cause, which is the agent's end or motive in acting. We have to be careful here about the metaphysics, since otherwise what St. Thomas says may seem hopelessly confused--or at least hopelessly confusing.

        First of all, a complete human act, though a unity, includes both an interior act and an exterior act as integral parts.  Note again that an 'exterior act' in the relevant sense can be an act of intellect or will; that is, it need not be exterior in the sense of involving, say, bodily motions. It's exterior only in the sense that its object is the object of acts of will with respect to the means, whereas the interior act is such that its object (the end) is the object of acts of will with respect to the end and of acts of will with respect to the means insofar as they are elicited in the service of the end.

        Second, a complete human act is a whole, and so the division of a human act into interior and exterior acts must not be thought of as a division into acts that are complete in their own right.

        Third, an exterior act is not to be thought of as a mere natural motion of atoms in the void, as it were; to the contrary, it is a motion that is capable of being entertained, delighted in, consented to, chosen, and commanded--and, as we saw above, it has a moral species in its own right, at least within the given concrete circumstances. Given this, St. Thomas says that the end (or motive) is properly the object of the interior act.  After all, the intending of the end is what gets everything started in the intentional order, and those interior acts by which we will the means to the end (or exterior act) also have the antecedently intended end included in their object. In this respect, the willed exterior act is, as it were, the matter (e.g., taking this thing that belongs to another, committing adultery with this person) informed by the end or motive (interior act).  It is in this sense that one can say that the interior act takes its species from the end.

        This seems complicated but is in fact consonant with the way we speak:  "You claim that you were only taking back the toy that belongs to you, but in fact what you were really doing was getting even for an insult."  That is, in appropriate circumstances we point to the motive as the most important determinant of the moral species.  In the case at hand, it is true that what you did is something good or indifferent in its species as an act, but your motive vitiated the actIn a similar vein, Aristotle says that one who steals in order to commit adultery is more an adulterer than a thief (though he is both), because his basic defect is more a lack of temperance (as evidenced by his ulterior motive or end) than a lack of justice. Likewise, St. Thomas says that an act of fortitude done out of love for God is materially an act of fortitude and formally an act of charity. Since there are some motives which vitiate any action of which they are the end, they can make what would have been a good action to be evil in species. For instance, any action that is done with the direct purpose of committing adultery is an evil action, even if the exterior act is good in its species (e.g., helping someone get her car fixed).

        This is a different way of looking at the action from that given above under "object", since there the moral species was said to be determined by the object, i.e., the exterior or commanded act. Art. 7 tries to relate the two ways of looking at acts to one another. In the previous discussion we were looking at the exterior act and asking about its moral species. The question is whether the species-derived-from-the-end and the species-derived-from-the-exterior-act willed as an object are subordinated to one another. The answer is: sometimes no and sometimes yes. In one of the above examples, the complete act is both an act of helping someone out (exterior act) and an act of adultery (interior act); the end is, as it were, external to the object of the exterior act and in this sense accidental to it. You can, after all, help someone fix her car without intending to commit adultery with her. On the other hand, the interior and exterior acts may be ordered to one another. The soldier fights well with the intention of achieving victory--here the end is, as it were, internal to the object of the exterior act; in such a case the object of the exterior act is subordinated to the object of the interior act. Another example: the adulterer may seduce the spouse of another simply in order to satisfy his or her desire for pleasure.

        Later we will ask (i) whether a bad motive or intention can turn an otherwise good exterior act into a bad act (yes, as shown in some of the above examples) and (ii) whether a good motive can turn an exterior act that is evil in its species into a good act (no).

  • Question 19: On the goodness and badness of interior acts of will
    • 19,1-3: The goodness or badness of an interior act depends solely on its object--viz., the end in the case of simple willing, delight, and intention, and the means-as-ordered-to-the-end in the case of consent, choice, and use. Since this object is proposed to the will by the intellect, we can say that in this sense the goodness or badness of an interior act depends on the intellect or reason.

      Note on 2, 3 and ad 3: Suppose I will an object in some circumstance in which I should not will it. Doesn't the circumstance in question render the act of will evil, and doesn't it follow that the goodness and badness of the interior act depend on the circumstances and not just the object? Answer: Either (i) the circumstance in question is a specifying circumstance, in which case the object of the act is evil, or (ii) the reason why the action is wrong in these circumstances is not that it itself is wrong per se but rather that by willing this object I am neglecting to will something I should have willed. For example, willing to play basketball at 9:00 on Saturday morning for the sake of exercise is not per se bad, but is bad per accidens if mom told me to clean my room at that time.

    • 19,4-6: Now the goodness or badness of an act of will is a matter of its conformity to the standard of right reason, i.e., practical reason insofar as it judges what is and is not in accord with our ultimate end. But practical reason is not itself the ultimate measure of goodness and badness.  It is because of this that St. Thomas here introduces for the first time the notion of law, which imposes obligations and prohibitions. His claim is that the regulative role of right reason is derived from the eternal law, "which is God's reason ... and so it is clear that the human will's goodness depends much more on eternal law than on human reason, and where human reason is defective, one must have recourse to eternal reason." What all this means will become clearer when we get to the treatise on law. For present purposes, it is important to note that (i) practical reason is "right reason" insofar as it judges correctly what is and is not in conformity with our ultimate end, and that (ii) the judgments of human reason regarding which acts are good and evil are themselves subject to error, where the true standard is the eternal law. (Note 4, ad 3: "Even though the eternal law is inaccessible to us insofar as it exists in God's mind, nonetheless it is in some way known to us either through natural reason, which is derived from it as its proper image, or through some revelation that is added over and above natural reason.")

    • Because of the possible disparity between the eternal law and our judgments on given occasions about what that law decrees, St. Thomas now adds two articles dealing with goodness and badness in cases where the judgment of practical reason about the goodness or badness of an act is mistaken. He first asks (art. 5) whether an act of will is good when it goes against a mistaken judgment of practical reason. The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is no. That is, an erring conscience does indeed bind, since it is our own considered judgment about right and wrong, and so to flout it is to show contempt, at least indirectly, for God's eternal law. But in art. 6 he cautions that following an erring conscience is also bad, given that one's ignorance is culpable. So it is possible to be in a situation in which you go wrong whether you follow your mistaken conscience or not. However, you can get out of this "dilemma" by correcting your culpable ignorance.
    • 19,7-8: Here St. Thomas first makes it clear that to the extent that an interior act of will is directed toward the means to an antecedently intended end, that act has the end itself as part of its object, so that the overall goodness (or badness) of willing the means depends in part on the goodness (or badness) of intending the end. Things are a bit more complicated if one refers an already willed means to a consequently intended end. Then the original goodness or badness of willing the means does not depend on the consequently intended end except to the extent that one now reiterates the willing of the means with the context of the intending of the new end.

    • In art. 8 St. Thomas asks whether the amount of goodness or badness in the will's act varies directly with the amount of goodness or badness in the intention. He replies that there are two types of quantity of goodness and evil to be considered: (1) the amount of goodness or badness in the object willed (i.e., the means [exterior act] as chosen or executed) as compared with the object intended (the end); (2) the amount of goodness or badness associated with various degrees of intensity in the very act of willing such-and-such an object or in the very act of intending such-and-such an object.
      • Case 1 (the objects): The amount of goodness or badness in the object willed does not vary directly with the goodness or badness of the end intended. For you can will an object that is not fitting for the end intended, in which case the object willed is not as good (or bad) as the object intended; this applies to both the interior and exterior acts. Also, in the case of an exterior act, impediments might keep you from actualizing your good (or bad) intention, so that the resulting exterior act ends up not being as good (or bad) as the object intended.

      • Case 2 (the intensity of the acts): The intensity of the act of intending does of itself intensify the goodness or badness of both the interior act and the exterior act. However, if intensity of willing or doing is itself the object of intention (e.g., I want to will intensely to do whatever my wife asks me to do, I want to work intensely, etc.), this does not necessarily entail a greater intensity of the act thus willed or done. (After all, I can rather languidly will to do something intensely; for instance, I rather un-intensely will to will intensely to quit smoking, or I will rather un-intensely to work intensely.)
    • 19,9-10: The last two articles relate the goodness of acts of will to their conformity to God's will. This is an important part of Christian ethics, since our goal of attaining happiness is extensionally equivalent to conforming our wills to God's will. Indeed, this question is important for the practical matter of what we may or should pray for in the present life. In art. 10 St. Thomas tries to make clear exactly what conformity to God's will means here and how it comes out in what we will. How, after all, can we will what God wills when in many particular cases we do not know what God wills (obj. 1)? Again, does one who will in fact be condemned to hell by God have to will that he himself be condemned to hell (obj. 2)? Again, if God wills the death of my father, must I, too, will the death of my father (obj. 3)? So in what sense must we will what God wills?

    • St. Thomas's reply is long and complicated. Keep St. Thomas's example in mind: The judge wills well in willing the execution of the murderer, whereas the murderer's wife wills well in willing that he not be executed. God, like the judge, wills whatever he wills under the rubric common good of the whole, and yet we, like the wife, can still correctly will the opposite under the rubric particular good when this opposite is indeed correctly thought of as a good proportioned to our nature or situation. However, we must still formally will (i.e., will in general) the common good of the whole at the same time; that is, we may will this good, the opposite of which God has willed, but we must always at the same time will that "God's will be done."  In this case, we are willing what God wants us to will, as long as the particular good in question is one which it is appropriate for us to will. The highest form of conforming our wills to God is to will something out of charity. In reply to the objections we see, first, that we can at least know that God wills something and that he wills what he wills for the good of the whole--even if we do not know what this amounts to in the concrete. Again, God wills various things like damnation and death only under the rubric of justice. So it is sufficient for us to will formally that God's justice be served.

  • Question 20: On the goodness and badness of exterior human acts
    • 20,1-2: An exterior act can be called good or bad in two ways: (1) according to its genus and circumstances considered apart from any end it might serve; (2) insofar as it is ordered to an end. As far as (2) is concerned, the goodness or badness is found first in the act of will by which the exterior act is willed qua ordered to an end (choice, consent and use, all presupposing intention) and derivatively in the exterior (or commanded) act itself. As for (1), the goodness or badness of an exterior act is found not in the will, but by comparison to right reason as a standard. Acts that are good in their genus and circumstances are, so far forth, good to will, whereas acts that are bad in their genus and circumstances are bad to will, no matter what the end. Now given that the execution of an act always involves an end for which it is chosen, the goodness or badness of the act always follows the goodness or badness of the act of will which is its principle. In art. 2 this is spelled out in more detail. A concrete exterior act is good only if (i) it is good to will that sort of act and (ii) it is ordered by the will toward a good end. On the other hand, a concrete exterior act is bad if either (i) it is not a good sort of act to will or (ii) it is ordered by the will toward a bad or unsuitable end. In other words, good intentions are not sufficient to make an act good--vs. consequentialism and proportionalism.
    • 20,3-4: The next two articles delve into the relation between the goodness or badness of the exterior act and the goodness or badness of the interior act that is its principle. In art. 3 St. Thomas points out that the goodness (badness) of the two acts is the same when all of the goodness is derived from the interior act, but not when the exterior act is good (bad) in its species. And in art. 4 he expands this last point as follows:

      • (1) Even when the exterior act's goodness or badness is derived wholly from the interior act, the very doing of the exterior act can per accidens serve to confirm the will at least a little more in either goodness or badness:
        • Case 1: Sometimes we put off the exterior act and have to renew our intention when we finally get around to doing it. Thus the intention, good or bad, recurs and tends toward becoming habitual. (Number)
        • Case 2: Sometimes it might be difficult to carry out the exterior act, and in such a case one who persists is a bit more confirmed in the goodness or badness of the intention than one who gives up and never carries out the exterior act. (Extension)

        • Case 3: Because certain exterior acts are more pleasurable or more painful, the will often intends them more intensely than less pleasurable or painful exterior actions, and in this way the will becomes more confirmed in goodness or badness. (Intension)

      • (2) Sometimes, as we have seen, the exterior act has goodness or badness in its own species: In such a case the interior act is not complete unless the exterior act is carried out when the opportunity presents itself. Of course, sometimes it becomes impossible to carry out the exterior act even though one wills it completely. In such a case the loss of goodness or badness is involuntary, with the result that none of the merit or demerit associated with performing the exterior act is lost.
    • 20,5: The next article asks whether the effects or consequences of an exterior act can add to its goodness or badness. St. Thomas replies that foreseen (praecogitatus) consequences do indeed add to the goodness or badness of the act, at least to the extent that they reveal a will that has more or less rectitude. If, foreknowing that many evils will follow from my act, I do not desist or at least hesitate, then my will is more disordered than if I were to desist or at least hesitate. Suppose, though, that the effects in question are unforeseen. Then the consequences that always or for the most part follow from an action of the sort in question add to its goodness or badness--these are the sorts of consequences that any normal person could foresee. By contrast, per accidens effects, i.e., flukes or effects not normally or directly associated with this sort of exterior act, don't add to the goodness or badness of your exterior act. (Note ad 2: teachers get some credit for the good works they inspire in their students; I suppose it works the other way, too. Of course, if you rebel against me and live a dissolute life because you are angry with my denunciations of moral dissoluteness, then that's a per accidens effect of my teaching and I'm not to blame.)
    • 20,6: Finally, St. Thomas asks whether a given concrete exterior act can be both good and bad. Why might one think that the answer is yes?
      • Case 1: You are walking to church. At first you are motivated by a desire to honor God, but then you remember that Leslie, with whom you would like to fornicate, will be there ...... It seems that the exterior act of walking to church starts off good and goes bad.
      • Case 2: I command you to write a paper for your own intellectual good but this becomes an occasion of sin for you, given your perverse desire to annoy me with bad grammar. Then my act of commanding is informed both by my good intention and your bad one. So my act of commanding you to write the paper turns out to be a bad act of mine.
      St. Thomas replies that it is impossible for the same human act to be both good and bad. In case 1 a new human action occurs when you adopt the sinful intention; so there are two human acts, one good and one bad. In case 2 my act is (luckily) distinct from your act once you adopt your perverse intention.

  • Question 21: On the things that follow upon human acts by reason of their goodness and badness
    • 21,1-4: Here St. Thomas introduces some technical concepts for which it is difficult to find precise English equivalents, and this can lead to some confusion. On the side of evil, there are four relevant terms: malum, peccatum, culpa, and demeritum. On the side of good, there are four corresponding terms: bonum, rectum, laudabile, and meritum. In each case the terms are ordered from the more general to the less general, with each term in order adding something to its predecessor. Let's look at each series in order:
      • 1a. malum = any privation of a good that ought to be present.
      • 1b. peccatum = any act that is malum, i.e., lacks due measure (e.g., limping, missing a free throw, committing adultery) and is not well-ordered toward the end in question. So even though peccatum is usually translated as sin, its root meaning is wider and covers any act that is in any way defective or that misses its mark (corresponding to the Greek harmatia). We might think of a peccatum, then, as an objectively disordered act, even though the term does not by itself imply any culpability on the part of any agent. The translation sin implies, then, that the act is morally disordered (e.g., 'adultery is a sin'), but this translation can be misleading if peccatum is thought to imply by itself the moral culpability (or degree of moral culpability) of any agent who commits the act.
      • 1c. culpa = a peccatum, i.e., an evil act, which is imputed to an agent as a fault and which incurs blame because it is within the agent's power. Indeed, fault and blame are the usual English translations, though sin would often be better. A culpa, is an evil act or peccatum for which the agent is blameworthy.
      • 1d. demeritum = a morally blameworthy act for which the agent in justice deserves punishment or retribution from some individual or social group. In the supernatural order, such an act is the contrary of meritorious act.

      • 2a. bonum = the opposite of malum.
      • 2b. rectum = the opposite of peccatum, i.e., an act which has due measure, is successful, well-ordered, etc.
      • 2c. laudabile = the opposite of culpa, i.e., an action that is morally praiseworthy.
      • 2d. meritum = the opposite of demeritum, i.e., an action that deserves a reward from some individual or from some community.
      With these distinctions in mind, we can now understand the articles in question. In art. 1 St. Thomas asserts that to the extent that it is good or bad, a human act falls under the notion rectum (correct, successful, well-ordered) or peccatum. This is because such an action either has or lacks the due measure dictated by right reason (and the eternal law) and thus leads one either toward or away from our goal, i.e., our ultimate end. 

      In art. 2 St. Thomas explains that human acts are praiseworthy and blameworthy because we have dominion over our acts. (Degree of culpability is a different matter and depends on various features of individual acts.) 

      In art. 3 St. Thomas ties reward and punishment to the individual or social unit which is affected by the act. For instance, our acts can be meritorious or demeritorious with respect to an individual, a family, a city, a nation, etc. 

      Finally, in art. 4 St. Thomas relates the previous discussion of merit and demerit to our relationship with God insofar as (i) God is the ultimate end to whom all our actions should be worthy of being referred, and also insofar as (ii) God is the ruler and governer who cares for the whole universe. Thus all our human acts are either meritorious with respect to God (viz., when they respect the order that God has instituted) or demeritorious with respect to God (viz., when they do not respect that order).