Jacques Maritain Center : Elements of Moral Theology


§ 1. What constitutes the voluntary and the involuntary?

Human acts are peculiarly voluntary.

In some actions or motions the impulse which produces them is to be found in the agent, or thing moved. In others, we find an external impulse. Thus we speak of the attraction of the earth towards a stone, and of the stone towards the earth, as if there were an inward impulse producing the motion. But when the stone is thrown upwards, the impulse is from without. But some of those actions or motions which proceed from within are those of self-moving things, others are not. Granting that there is an end or object to be attained by the motion or action, we find that some things act with knowledge of that end; they act on account of, for the sake of, that end. In these there is not only the impulse to act, but to act for the sake of that end. Where there is no knowledge of the end, which nevertheless guides the action, an external principle or cause must be assumed which possesses that knowledge. Such things are not said to be self-moved, but to be moved by others. But those which have knowledge of the end are called voluntary agents.

Now man knows the end of his operation, and moves himself; therefore human acts are voluntary.

It may be objected, (1) that his desire is moved by what is desirable. But this does not conflict with the definition of the voluntary given above, for the inward principle of action need not be the first principle of action; i.e., if we consider some other kind of motion or action, such as is the presenting at extra of some object to our desire.{1}

Every new motion or action of desire must have an outward antecedent as a condition of the new existence, but this daes not hinder the inward motion being self-caused with knowledge of the end, i.e., voluntary.

(2) Man does not act per se, for God is the source of all action or change (S. John xv. 5). It is true that God is the first mover of the will, as He is of all natural motions. But in neither case is the action thereby robbed of its proper character whether as natural or as voluntary.

The voluntary may he found where there is no act.

For a thing may proceed from the will not only directly but indirectly. So a shipwreck may result from a negative cause, sc., the pilot who desists from his official duty, when he can and ought to attend to it. In this case he is rightly called the cause of the disaster. For if he were not able to direct the vessel or had no charge of it, he would not be the cause of the event. So the will by willing and acting can prevent the not willing and the not acting. And if it ought to do so, but does not do so, then the not willing and the not acting are imputed to it. Thus, then, there may be an interior act without the exterior, as when we will not to act; or even the interior act may be absent, as when we do not will to act. It is plain, therefore, that there is a difference between the privative concept of being unwilling, i.e., willing not to act, which is voluntary; and the purely negative concept of not willing, which causes the involuntary. The same thing is true of the act of cognition which accompanies the voluntary. We may will not to consider; or we may act inconsiderately in a simply negative sense, which so far goes to make the action involuntary.

Can the will be forced?

The act of the will is two-fold (1) the immediate willing, which, we may say, is solicited by the will itself; (2) acts commanded by the will (i.e., by ourself), and accomplished by the mediation of other powers, as walking or speaking.

As respects the second, the will can be said to suffer violence, since the members of the body may be hindered from doing what we will. But the will itself (our proper self) can in no manner be forced. For its act is one proceeding from an inward, conscious principle; but force is external, and contrary to the very nature of the will. The man can be violently dragged, not his will.

It may be objected (1) that God is all-powerful, and can move the will irresistibly (Prov. xxi. 1). But if this were by force, it would not be with the act of the will; the will would not be moved, but something accomplished against the will.

(2) The will indeed is moved by that which seems to it to be desirable. But this is not violence, for that means what is contrary to the nature of the thing passively acted upon. In all alterations or generations of things there is an inward disposition which may make the change natural. So is it with the will.

(3) But is not the act of sinning against nature? And does not the will therefore suffer violence therein? The answer is, yes, and no. That to which man tends in the act of sinning is indeed against a rational nature, but it is apprehended nevertheless as good and suitable to the perverted nature of the sinner. Violence therefore causes the involuntary, so far as acts commanded by the will are concerned.

Observe, also, that when the will does not actively contribute to the result, it may do so passively by consent. And the action of the man, though produced simply by an external agent, will not in that case be properly involuntary.

What shall we say of the effect of fear?

Actions done through fear have a mixed nature. In themselves considered they are not voluntary, yet they are conditionally so; sc., in order to avoid an evil which is feared. Simply they are voluntary, and involuntary secundum quid. The individual act, here and now and under its other individualizing conditions, is willed, i.e., is voluntary. So goods are voluntarily thrown into the sea, in order to preserve the vessel. But the action may be viewed in a general way as apprehended in thought apart from the special conditions. So viewed it is not willed; therefore it is involuntary secundum quid.

(Grave fear, therefore, does not totally excuse actions which are intrinsically bad; but it may diminish their guilt.)

Force and fear differ not only in reference to present violence and future injury dreaded, but also in that the will does not consent at all to the one, but does to the other, not on its own account, but on account of something else, sc., the avoiding of the dreaded evil. But not only is that voluntary which we will for its own sake as the end which is sought for, but also that is voluntary which we will as means to an end. The will then contributes something in what is done through fear.

Does concupiscence cause the involuntary?

(Understand by this term the motions of the sensuous nature opposing the spiritual nature, while they are seeking some pleasurable good.) Instead of concupiscence causing involuntary action, it is rather to be said that it renders action voluntary. For by concupiscence the will is inclined to will that which it so desires (that which we desire).

The passion of fear is different; for it directly regards the evil, which is contrary to the nature of the will whereas the seeming good is in agreement with its nature.

The incontinent, it is true, may act contrary to his previous purpose, but he has changed his purpose; so that his act becomes simply voluntary; while, on the contrary, the fearful man acts in opposition to that which at the time and in itself he wills.

It may also be objected that the voluntary act requires cognition of it, which cognition concupiscence tends to destroy. And it is true that if that concupiscence should totally take away reason, it would at the same time prevent voluntary action. But then the man would be insane, and his action would be neither voluntary nor involuntary. But sometimes, also, cognition of those things which are done through concupiscence is not totally destroyed. It is only actual consideration of the particular thing which is to be done which is thus taken away. Yet this very want of consideration is in the power of the man, for he can resist his passion, and choose to consider if he will.

Does ignorance cause the involuntary?

I answer that that ignorance does so which takes away that knowledge which is requisite to make action properly voluntary. But it is not every kind of ignorance which does so. With respect to the act of will, ignorance has three relations (1) concomitant; (2) consequent; (3) antecedent.

(1) The first is when there is ignorance of that which is done, and yet, if it were thoroughly understood, it would still be done. Ignorance is not the cause of the act of will, but is, as it were, accidental to it. So some one wishes, indeed, to kill his enemy, but ignorantly shoots him while aiming at a deer. Such ignorance produces not the involuntary, but the not-voluntary. That is, the act is neither voluntary nor involuntary.

(2) The second is when the ignorance itself is voluntary in one of two ways (a) when the ignorance is directly willed, wilful ignorance, in order to have an excuse for sinning, or in order not to be prevented from sinning (Job xxi. 14); (b) when there is voluntary ignorance of that which one can and ought to know. In this way one does not actually consider what he can and ought to consider, which is the ignorance of an evil choice, either from passion or from previously existing habit. Or, again, one does not take pains to acquire the knowledge which he ought to have. So, in human law, ignorance of that which one is bound to know is treated as voluntary, since it proceeds from antecedent, voluntary ignorance.{2} Such ignorance does not cause the involuntary, speaking simply, but only the involuntary secundum quid, since it precedes the act of will which produces the action in question, which would not have been done, say something done in heat of passion, if full consideration of it had been present.

(3) The third is when the ignorance is not voluntary, and yet it is the cause of the willing what would not otherwise have been willed (invincible ignorance). One may be ignorant of something connected with his act which he was not bound to know, and consequently he may do what he would not have done if he had known that circumstance. For example, he is firing his rifle with all requisite precautions, and shoots a man. Such ignorance causes the simply involuntary.

§ 2. On the circumstances of human acts.

Whatever we consider to be outside of the substance of the act, and yet to pertain to it in any manner (so that that individual act could not exist without these conditions, i.e., is inseparable from them), we call its circum4tances, its accidents.

For three reasons Moral Theology must consider these circumstances (1) because it views human acts in their relation to man's beatitude, and these acts are fitted to it by due circumstances; (2) it considers acts as they are moral in various degrees of goodness and badness, which circumstances vary; (3) it considers human acts as meritorious or blameworthy, and this view of them requires that they be regarded as voluntary, and they are judged to be voluntary or involuntary according as there is knowledge or ignorance of the circumstances of the act. Note, however, that we are not speaking of all accidents of the act, but of those which are related to its end as a moral thing.

Aristotle (Nic. Eth., iii. 1){3} wisely makes eight circumstances of an act quis, quid, ubi, quibus auxiliis, cur, quomodo, quando, circa quid. These are connected, first, with its cause; (a) the final cause (why?), some end connected with the act, as when one acts courageously in order to save his country; (b) the material cause, or object (what?), the outward act; (c) the efficient cause or agent (who?), i.e., the peculiar state or condition of the agent as constituting a special circumstance of the action, as when a police officer shoots a criminal escaping from arrest; (d) the instrumental cause (with what instruments?).

Secondly, the act itself has its circumstances: (e) when? (f) where? (g) how? in what manner?

Thirdly, the effect or result of the act (h) what? Thus, in pouring water on the hands, the cooling or the washing of them is a circumstance of the act.

§ 3. Acts elicited by the will. The end. What is willed in reference to the end.

The end which we will is only the good, or the seeming good.

For will is rational desire. But desire can never be of anything except the good, i.e., what is so regarded. For desire is an inclination to that which appears to be in some way suited to that which seeks for it. Our avoiding evil may be called unwillingness (noluntas, not voluntas). It is true that we sometimes will non-entities, as not to walk or not to talk; but these maybe called entities of reason, i.e., negations regarded as desirable and so chosen and willed.

Do we will also the means to the end?

I answer that we may consider our power of willing, or the immediate act of the will. If the first, we see that the idea of the good and desirable, which is the object of the will, is found not only in the end, but in the means to that end. But if we speak of the act of willing, it is principally and properly of the end alone. For that is on its own account good and is willed. But the means are not deemed good and willed for their own sake, but in order to the end. Our will is directed to those means only as it is directed to the end which is in view; therefore, what in them we will is the end.

§ 4. On motives.

Is the will moved by the reason?

A power which is potentially capable of many results needs to be directed by some actual thing in order that it may be actually exercised. But a power of the soul is twofold in this respect: first, it is capable of acting or not acting; and next, it can act and produce this or that. It therefore needs a motive, first, to produce action, next, to determine the act produced. The first depends upon the agent himself; the second upon the object from which the act gets its "specification." The first takes its origin in the end sought for. The good in general being the object of the will, in this regard the will moves the other powers of the soul to their appropriate acts; for we employ those powers when we will to do so. But the intellect presents some object conceived under a general notion, and so determines the will to that specific object.

In like manner the imagination presents some desirable individual thing to sensuous desire, and, if it is viewed as desirable or injurious, it moves that desire.

It is, then, the practical, not the speculative reason, which we are now considering. And it is true to say both that the will moves the reason and that the reason moves the will; the first, in producing the exercise of its function; the second, as determining the act of will.

Is the will moved by sensuous appetite?

Anything appears good and agreeable from two circumstances; sc., first, from the condition of that which is presented; next, from the state of that to which it is presented. The agreeable is a relation which depends upon each of the things related. Thus the sense of taste in different conditions finds the same thing agreeable or disagreeable. Now any passion of the sensuous appetite changes the disposition of a man. Under the influence of that passion a thing appears to be agreeable which would not so appear under different conditions. It is so in the case, e.g., of an angry man. In this way sensuous appetite moves the will.

Thus the inferior power may have strong influence over the superior. And this is especially true because actions and choices concern individual things; and such are the objects of sensuous desire, not those general notions which belong to the sphere of reason. Reason, indeed, has natural authority over passions; but, as Aristotle remarks (Polit., i. 3), its sway is not despotic, but limited; i.e., the passions can make resistance.

Is the will self-moved?

I answer that the will in willing the end moves itself to will what is requisite in order to reach that end. This is not saying that it moves itself in all respects, but that when it actually wills the end, then its power, by its own activity, becomes actual in respect of the means.

Is the will moved by any external moving and efficient cause?

I speak now of the very exercise of its act of willing, not of the determination to this or that object. It is a universal principle that any agent which is not continually acting needs, in order that it may change from its passive state of power to actual exertion of it, some external impulse. But it is manifest that we begin to will what previously we were not willing. According to this universal law we must, therefore, have been moved from without. We have seen that in willing the end, we make ourselves to will the means. But this requires the mediation of some deliberative thought. Thus, when one wishes to be cured of disease, he may reflect how this can be brought about. And having thus found the means, he chooses them. But because he is not continually willing to be cured, he needs some external motive power to lead him to begin this new act of will. If he moved himself to begin it, he would still need some deliberative act to produce that act of will. Now we cannot go back in this way ad infinitum. Therefore we must assume some primal impulse of an exterior mover.

What is voluntary must indeed have its principle within the agent; but it is not necessary that this be the primal priniciple unmoved by any other. The will is not forced to act. For in that case, it would contribute nothing to the result. But it is we ourselves who will, though moved by another, sc., God.

God only can do this.

We may be moved from without by that which is not the cause of our being, but this cannot be voluntary motion. But the will is a rational power caused by God, being created by him (and sustained by him). And the will has relation to the universal good. Any special good cannot give this inclination to the universal good. God is this good, He only; therefore he only can move the will efficiently. Without this man can will nothing. But by his reason he determines himself to will this or that good, or the seeming good which in reality is evil.

§ 5. How is the will moved?

Do we naturally will anything from necessity?

The will naturally tends towards the good in general, its ultimate end, as every power does towards its proper object. In general we naturally seek what is in accordance with our nature, its powers, our whole human constitution. Thus we seek knowledge of the truth, which is the object of our reason; and we naturally seek to live, and the like, which belong to our human nature.

Is the will necessarily moved by its object?

The will is moved in a two-fold manner: (1) as respects the exercise of its power, (2) as respects the specification of the act in willing this or that. In the first manner it is not necessarily moved by any object. for it is able to exclude that object from thought. Then there is no act of willing that object. But as regards the second, the will is necessarily moved by some objects of it, by others, not. If an object is proposed to us which is universally good in every point of view, our will necessarily tends to that, if we will at all, for we cannot will the opposite of it. Such good is happiness (beatitude).

But if some special good be presented to us which is good only from certain points of view, we do not necessarily will it. Being deficient, it may be regarded as not good, our attention being given to that deficiency. So the object may be rejected or approved by the will, since we may view the same thing in different lights.

Not only the ultimate end, but those means which are regarded as necessary for the attainment of that end, are necessarily willed; e.g., life itself. But other things which are not so regarded are not necessarily willed by him who wills the end.

Is the will necessarily moved by lower appetite?

This, through some passion, disposes a man to judge something to be agreeable and good, which would not be otherwise so judged. Passions may change the condition of the brain to such a degree that the man is insane. Here there is necessity. We may conceive of the condition of the brutes in the same way.

But sometimes, also, the reason is not totally annulled by passion, and its free judgment still remains. So there still remains some free motion of the will. In this case the will does not of necessity incline to that towards which passion draws it.

S. Paul, indeed, says (Rom. vii. 19), "The good which I would, I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do." But he seems to mean that we cannot prevent the motions of concupiscence from arising. Yet we have the power of not willing to have these motions, or of not consenting to them.

Man has two natures, the rational and the sensitive. If his being is well ordered, the sensuous part of it is totally subject to the other. This constitutes the virtuous man. The opposite case is that of some forms of insanity. But sometimes, although reason is clouded by passion, it still remains more or less free. Then the man can either totally repel the passion, or prevent himself from yielding to it. In such a condition diverse parts of the soul are diversely disposed; one thing seems good to it according to reason, another according to passion.

It may be objected, finally, that the will is not moved to any particular good, except through the mediation of sensuous appetite, the function of which concerns those special goods and not the universal good which is the object of the will. I reply that the will is moved not only by the universal good apprehended by reason, but by the particular good apprehended by sense. So it can be moved to that good without any passion of the sensuous appetite, by free choice of such a good. There is no necessity in that act of will.

Is the will necessarily moved (compelled) by God? Divine Providence preserves, does not destroy all corruptible things. Hence all things move according to their constitution (their condition). From necessary causes follow, through Divine power, necessary effects; from contingent causes, contingent effects. And the will is an active principle, not determined to one thing, but capable of turning to many things. God moves it therefore, not turning it of necessity to one thing, but leaving its action contingent, except in those ends to which it is by its nature directed.

(1) It is said, indeed (Rom. ix. 19), "who hath resisted his will?" But that Divine will not only orders that something be done by the thing which He moves, but also that that be done in accordance with the nature which He himself has given. It would be more repugnant to the Divine motion that the will should be compelled, which is contrary to its nature, than that it should freely move, which is according to its nature.

(2) It may be objected, again, that the will necessarily is moved in that which it naturally wills, and that is natural which God works in it; therefore, we necessarily will whatever God moves us towards. But I reply that that is natural to each thing which God makes so. But He does not will that all which He works in things shall be natural to them, e.g., that the dead should rise again. (That is supernatural.) But He wills it to be natural to everything that it should be subject to His power.

(3) It is true, again, that if God moves the will to any particular thing, we shall be drawn to that precisely according to the exertion of His power, for otherwise His operation would be inefficacious. But that truth does not affect the question before us.

§ 6. On the choice of means for the end.

Choice is always of means, not of the ultimate end.

But that which is the end in one point of view may be the means for something else. Thus in the science of medicine the restoration of health is the ultimate end, and does not fall under the physician's choice. But if that restoration of health is a means to the health of the soul, or if its opposite were so, it would fall under judgment and choice of means. We choose only what we regard as possible for us.

Our choice always has reference to some action of ours. Such action is deemed possible, otherwise it would not be chosen. We choose it in order that through it we may attain our end, or that which leads to that end. If it is deemed impossible in this regard, it is abandoned for other means. No one is moved towards that which seems impossible. No one tends to an end which seems totally out of his reach, because the means are unattainable. Therefore, that which is impossible cannot be chosen.

I am speaking, however, of the perfect act of the will, which implies operation. For that imperfect act of it which is called wishing for a thing means that we would will it if it were possible to be accomplished. But choice means the determination of the will to that which is now to be done in order to reach the end sought for.

It will be seen that in speaking of the possible and the impossible, we have in mind what is so judged by the agent.

Are we free in choosing?

What is possible to be or not to be, does not exist of necessity. Now it is possible to choose or not to choose. (1) It is of the very nature of a rational being that he can will and not will, act and not act. He can will this or that. For whatever the reason apprehends as good, the will can incline to. But the reason can apprehend as good not only the willing and acting, but also the not willing and the not acting. (2) And again, in all particular goods, it can consider the notion of that good and its defects which are regarded as evils, And so it can apprehend any such good as a thing to be chosen or to be shunned. But only the perfect good, which is beatitude, the reason cannot apprehend as possessing any evil or any defect. Therefore man necessarily wills his beatitude, and cannot will to be not happy, or to be miserable. But since choice is not of the end, but of means to the end, it is not of the perfect good, which is that happiness, but of some particular goods. Therefore man chooses, not of necessity, but freely.

(1) It is true that this principle may require that means which are necessary to the end be necessarily followed. But this is not true of everything which has some relation to the end.

(2) And the judgment of reason about things to be done is, in this case, a judgment respecting contingent things, which are possible to be done. Those are necessary only under a condition; e.g., if he will to run, he must move.

(3) Two things apparently equal in one point of view may be presented to choice. But nothing hinders their being regarded as unequal from some other point of view.

Deliberation of reason precedes choice. For actions respect contingent things, which require a preceding search of the reason before a judgment is made. This only concerns the means, not the ultimate end, respecting which there is no such deliberation.

Then follows consent, not to the end, but to the subject of judgment, sc., the means for attaining that end.

Next comes the use of those means by the will under the direction of the reason.

§ 7. On acts commanded by the will.

Self-command belongs to the higher nature of man, his reason and his will.

Each of these controls the other. Reason can say to us, "this is now to be done;" and, on the other hand, we will in issuing this command. We will in attending to this or that, which is a prerequisite for the exercise of reason. Gan the act of reason be commanded?

This act can be considered in two lights. If we speak of the exercise of the act, it is always in our power to attend, or not to attend, to use or not to use our reason. But as regards the object of our thought, it is not in our own power that we apprehend the truth presented to us. We can only say that this is seen by some natural or supernatural light. But there is, also, a rational (and voluntary) assent to the truth presented; not, however, in all cases, for the assent to knowledge proper, to truths scientifically demonstrated, is not in our own power. But there are also things apprehended which do not so convince the reason but that we can give or withhold our assent, or suspend our judgment respecting them.

Herein, then, the act of reason is in our own power. (Such are the verities of the Christian faith.)

Are acts of the sensuous appetite subject to our higher nature?

First note that these appetites are connected with bodily organs (the brain and nervous system). The will is not so connected. But every act of a power employing a bodily organ depends not only on the soul's power, but also on the condition of that organ. So far as the former is concerned, it follows apprehension of the object. But the apprehension of the imagination, which is of particular objects, is regulated by the apprehension of reason, which is of the universal idea of the same object. So far the act of the sensuous appetite is subject to the empire of reason. But the condition of the bodily organ is not (directly) so subject.

Sometimes, also, it happens that the sensuous appetite is suddenly excited through sense or imagination presenting the object to it. Then that motion is not subject to reason, although the higher part of the man might have hindered the motion, if it had been foreseen (venial sin).

The acts of what Aristotle called the "vegetative soul" (hunger, thirst, etc., natural appetites) are not subject to the dominion of reason.

If we consider the bodily organs, we notice that there are some vital organs, nutritive, generative, etc., which are not subject to the empire of reason. They belong to the "vegetative soul." (It is different with organs which directly serve the higher part of our nature.)

{1} This will be rendered clearer to the student if he considers the seven steps in a consummated act of will; so.

(a). Natural inclination to the object, which is involuntary;

(b). Voluntary contemplation of the object by the intellect

(c). Complacency in that contemplation (involuntary)

(d). Desire of the object (natural and involuntary)

(e). Consent of the will to try to possess the object

(f). Rational choice of means for attaining the object

(g). Voluntary use of those means (Duct. Dubitant., iv. 1, rule 3). See p. 23.

{2} Common law makes no excuse for ignorance of the law, because it is so easily counterfeited. Ignorance of the fact may be complete or partial justification (Blackst., iv., p. 25).

{3} The student should be reminded, once for all, that in the science of practical ethics our author closely follows the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle. But our divine science, while employing a work which still, perhaps, remains without a rival in its own sphere, lifts up natural and rational ethics to a far higher plane, places them before the throne of God, and subjects them to His revealed law.

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