What are the three conditions of the Human (Moral) Act?

 

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Three conditions of the Human Act

Human (moral) acts are acts which are chosen by exercising one’s free will as a consequence of a judgment of conscience. Human acts are moral acts because they express the good or evil when someone is performing them.[1] The morality of acts is defined by the choices that one makes in accordance with the authentic good, which is based on the eternal law that has a desire for God as our end goal. This external law is the “natural law” based on God’s Divine Wisdom, made known to us through His supernatural revelation[2]. A human act is thus morally good when we make choices coherent to our true good and brings us closer to God.

The goodness of a moral act is assessed based on three conditions: object (and its goodness), intention (or end as expressed by Saint Thomas Aquinas), and circumstances[3]. For a moral act to be considered good, all three conditions must be met. A defect in any of these three conditions causes the act to be deemed morally evil[4].

Difference between Human Act and Act of Man

A human act involves a person deliberately exercising their intellect and will. The person is able to discern the choice by having the knowledge, freedom, and voluntariness to do so.

Acts of man, however, are acts which do not take place because of one’s deliberation and does not involve fully utilizing one’s intellect. It is undertaken without knowledge or consent and without advertence. Examples of acts of man which are not under the control of one’s will include acts of sensation (the use of senses), acts of appetition (bodily tendencies such as digestion), acts of delirium, and acts when one is asleep[5]. The presence of these factors (ignorance, passion, fear, violence, and habits) causes an act to be classified as acts of man.[6]
Since a human act arises from knowledge and free will, acts of man do not have a moral quality as they do not possess a conscious nature. If either intellect or will is lacking in the act, then the act is not fully human and therefore not fully moral.[7]

Human Act: Object

Saint Thomas believes that the morality of the human act depends primarily on the object, rationally chosen by someone who deliberately exercises their will and intellect. The object is the primary indicator — other than intention and circumstance — for someone to judge whether an action is good or evil.

Pope John Paul the Second offers that it is not enough to possess good intentions. Since a human act depends on its object, one needs to exercise prudence in assessing whether that object is capable or not of being ordered to God — who in His goodness — brings about the perfection of the person that God intended for him through the object[8]. The object encompasses the desire for the good that is perceived.

There exist objects which are ‘intrinsically evil (and) incapable of being ordered’ to God, as they contradict the goodness of a person’s nature.[9] The Second Vatican Council provides the following examples: “homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and suicide; mutilation, physical and mental torture; subhuman living and working conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, and trafficking.”[10]

Human Act: Intention

In any human act, “the end is the first goal of the intention and indicates the purpose pursued in the action. The intention is a movement of the will towards the end, concerned with the goal of the activity. The intention is essential to the moral evaluation of an action.”[11] Since God is our final end, we evaluate that our acts are good when they bring us closer to God. Our intention to please God will make our acts good and perfect.[12]

We employ the terms ‘proximate end’ and ‘remote end’ to further understand the concept of an intention. For instance, a person gives alms to the poor. The proximate end is the almsgiving, and the remote end is what a person hopes to achieve by means of the proximate end. The remote end could either be praise and vainglory, or love and charity.

A good intention does not make a disordered action (such as lying), good. The ends do not justify the means.”[13] Conversely, an ill intention (vainglory) changes an act which was good (almsgiving), to an evil act.”[14] Saint Thomas observes that “often, man acts with good intentions, but without spiritual gain because he lacks a good will. (If) someone robs to feed the poor: even though the intention is good, the uprightness of the will is lacking.”[15]

Human Act: Circumstance

Circumstances “are secondary elements of a moral act. They increase or diminish the moral goodness or evil of human acts. They also diminish or increase a person’s responsibility”. [16] Circumstances mitigates a bad act by making it more acceptable or less bad, or it aggravates an act by heightening the consequences. For instance, the consequences of stealing are aggravated or mitigated depending on what is stolen, the parties involved, and the location. Circumstances, however, do not diminish the moral quality of acts; they make neither good nor right an action that is evil. Stealing is morally wrong regardless of the circumstances.

Conversely, circumstances can make an otherwise good action, evil. For instance, when a firefighter does not respond to an emergency because he is loafing. Circumstances can increase one’s guilt when a husband lies to his wife about his extramarital affairs, or minimize one’s guilt when someone tells a white lie to save a colleague from being fired. Therefore, we need to understand the circumstances to understand the moral quality of human acts[17]

 

[1] Catholic Church. Pope (1978-2005: John Paul II), & Paul II, P. J. (1993). Encyclical letter: Veritatis splendor. Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

[2] ibid

[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1755

[4] J. McHugh, OP, and C. Callan, OP, Moral Theology Vol. 1, New York 1958

[5] M, Alyssa (2015, July 19). Human acts & Acts of man. Retrieved from https://prezi.com/bcw322zficka/human-acts-acts-of-man/

[6] ibid

[7] Father Kenneth Baker, S.J. “What Makes Human Acts Good or Bad?” In Fundamentals of Catholicism Vol. 1 Part II, Chapter 2 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1983), 123-126.

 

[8] John Paul II, Enc. Veritatis splendor, 78; cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1751

[9] John Paul II, Enc. Veritatis splendor, 78; cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1751

[10] Rev. James T. Bretzke, S.J., S.T.D. Veritatis Splendor, and Moral Object.  Retrieved from https://www2.bc.edu/jamesbretzke/VeritatisSplendorAndMoral%20ObjectsTextAndCommentaryByBretzke.pdf

[11] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1752

[12] Veritatis Splendor, 78; St. Alphonsus de Ligouri, Pratica di amar Gesu Christo, VII, 3

[13] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1753

[14] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1753 cf Mt 6:2-4

[15] Rev. James T. Bretzke, S.J., S.T.D. Veritatis Splendor, and Moral Object.  Retrieved from https://www2.bc.edu/jamesbretzke/VeritatisSplendorAndMoral%20ObjectsTextAndCommentaryByBretzke.pdf

[16] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1754

[17] Father Kenneth Baker, S.J. “What Makes Human Acts Good or Bad?” In Fundamentals of Catholicism Vol. 1 Part II, Chapter 2 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1983), 123-126.

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