A collection of personal reflections. Copyright © 2005-2011 K. Gurries

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Sources of Morality

Why is it that the secular media so often misunderstands Papal statements regarding basic questions of morality?  Furthermore, why does it often seem as if Catholics themselves are pitted against each other on various moral questions?  For example, consider the recent controversy over comments made by Pope Benedict XVI regarding the question of condom usage in exceptional circumstances.1  Certainly there can be a variety of reasons2for such disconnects, however, much of the confusion and controversy can be resolved by having recourse to the classical distinctions on the sources of morality.  The Church teaches that there are three basic components that together define whether a particular action is morally good or morally evil.

The morality of human acts depends on:

- the object chosen;

- the end in view or the intention;

- the circumstances of the action.

The object, the intention, and the circumstances make up the "sources," or constitutive elements, of the morality of human acts. (CCC 1750)

These three sources of morality need to be considered together in order to distinguish good acts from evil acts.  The goodness of all three together are required for the human act to be good.  On the other hand, a defect in any one of the three elements can alone qualify the human act as evil.3

A morally good act requires the goodness of the object, of the end, and of the circumstances together. An evil end corrupts the action, even if the object is good in itself (such as praying and fasting "in order to be seen by men").

The object of the choice can by itself vitiate an act in its entirety. There are some concrete acts - such as fornication - that it is always wrong to choose, because choosing them entails a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil. (CCC 1755)

Moral Object
The moral object defines the “what” of a given human act and is morally specified by the "proximate end of a deliberate decision."4  Therefore, the “object” here is not understood in the material sense (e.g., a gun or a condom).  Neither is the "object" understood as a generic "act" exclusively in the physical sense (e.g., the physical act of shooting a gun at a person).  Rather, the “object” of morality is the interior “object of the will-act, that act which the will chooses to perform, and this is nothing else but the act itself which is deliberately willed." (Cf. Fagothey, Right and Reason, TAN, p. 146)

The object chosen is a good toward which the will deliberately directs itself. It is the matter of a human act. The object chosen morally specifies the act of the will, insofar as reason recognizes and judges it to be or not to be in conformity with the true good. Objective norms of morality express the rational order of good and evil, attested to by conscience. (CCC 1751)

Moral objects, therefore, are specific acts that are deliberately willed (i.e., moral objects are expressed by verbs rather than nouns).  Many moral objects (interior will-acts) are either “good” or “evil” by their very nature.  For example, intrinsically good objects include such things as prayer, charity, etc.  On the other hand, there are intrinsically evil acts such as lying, cheating, stealing, fornication, contraception and murder.  Such concrete actions are “always wrong to choose, because choosing them entails a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil” (CCC 1755).5  Furthermore, such actions can never be justified by appealing to a “good intention” or other “circumstances” (CCC 1756).  Finally, there are morally indifferent actions such as walking, sitting, running, etc.  The morality of such acts will ultimately be derived from the other two sources of morality: the intention and circumstances (Cf. Fagothey).  

It is important to properly identify the moral object in a given human act.  Confusion on this point will inevitably lead to misunderstandings.  For example, in the context of the recent controversy (mentioned above), the Pope was not referring to the intrinsically evil act of contraception (an act rendering procreation impossible within the context of the conjugal act) (CCC 2370).6  Rather, the Holy Father was commenting on prophylaxis (a preventative act against the spread of infection).  This is the moral object (will-act) that the Pope was addressing.

The intention defines the ultimate “why” of a given human act.  It is sometimes referred to as a motive, (remote) end, purpose or goal of a given action.  

In contrast to the object, the intention resides in the acting subject. Because it lies at the voluntary source of an action and determines it by its end, intention is an element essential to the moral evaluation of an action. 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 toward the end: it is concerned with the goal of the activity. It aims at the good anticipated from the action undertaken. Intention is not limited to directing individual actions, but can guide several actions toward one and the same purpose; it can orient one's whole life toward its ultimate end. For example, a service done with the end of helping one's neighbor can at the same time be inspired by the love of God as the ultimate end of all our actions. One and the same action can also be inspired by several intentions, such as performing a service in order to obtain a favor or to boast about it. (CCC 1752)

A good intention, however, does not justify an intrinsically evil act.  Therefore, the end does not justify the means.

A good intention (for example, that of helping one's neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny, good or just. The end does not justify the means. Thus the condemnation of an innocent person cannot be justified as a legitimate means of saving the nation. On the other hand, an added bad intention (such as vainglory) makes an act evil that, in and of itself, can be good (such as almsgiving). (CCC 1753)

For example, in the recent controversy, the Pope recognizes the “good intention” behind an act that seeks to protect the health of another.7  At the same time, he does not imply that this “good intention” can be used to justify another intrinsically evil act (fornication).  Rather, he indicates that this “good intention” can be a first step towards a moralization of sexuality - the ultimate solution to HIV and related problems.    

Moral circumstances answer those relevant questions that give further context and meaning to the human act: who? where? when? how? how often? by what means?, etc.  The circumstances include all of the "accidentals" that further determine the morality of the act.

The circumstances, including the consequences, are secondary elements of a moral act. They contribute to increasing or diminishing the moral goodness or evil of human acts (for example, the amount of a theft). They can also diminish or increase the agent's responsibility (such as acting out of a fear of death). Circumstances of themselves cannot change the moral quality of acts themselves; they can make neither good nor right an action that is in itself evil. (CCC 1754)

The Pope’s recent comments presupposed a given context or set of circumstances.  The Pope did not address the question of condom usage - as a prophylactic - within the context of the conjugal or marital act.  On the contrary, the setting of the “act” falls within the wider context of an intrinsically evil act (fornication).  These circumstances make it clear that the “act” in question (however good and well intentioned) does not justify the act of fornication (an intrinsically evil act).  Suppose we consider the same “act” within the wider context of the conjugal act.  Certainly, this raises other problems - such as the resulting impediment to procreation (intended or unintended).  In this case, moral theologians will likely debate8 the application of the principle of double-effect: "The Church does not consider at all illicit the use of those therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result there from--provided such impediment is not directly intended for any motive whatsoever." (Humanae Vitae)    

Final Observations
These basic principles help us to better understand complex moral questions.  For example, we can apply some of the principles above in order to distinguish various types of “condom usage.”  In the first place, we know that a “condom” is a thing rather than an act or moral object.  Therefore, the intent (both the proximate end as well as the remote or ultimate end) and circumstances become decisive in order to determine the morality of condom usage in this or that case.  For example, condom usage as “contraception” is intrinsically evil since it “entails a disorder of the will.”  Alternatively, a condom may be used in a morally indifferent manner - such as to carry water on a camping trip.  Finally, a condom may be used as a prophylactic in order to prevent infection.  Now, the moral status of this last type of “act” appears to be a debated question among theologians.  The “object”, in itself, appears to be good, however, the question of morality must be determined by considering also the intention and the circumstances.  Even when coupled with a “good intention” (e.g., protecting the health of another) the circumstances will become the decisive factor.  Therefore, the act would appear to be evil (even if only a lesser evil) if carried out within the context of an intrinsically evil act (e.g., fornication).9  On the other hand, the act could be good if carried out within the context of another good act (e.g., conjugal act) - but only insofar as the principle of double-effect applies.  


1 On one hand, the Pope affirms the general rule that condoms are neither a practical nor a moral solution to the evil of HIV infection.  On the other hand, the Pope does not rule out the possibility of exceptions (exceptional cases) to the general rule.  In this sense, Pope Benedict XVI, affirms BOTH the general rule AND the possibility of exceptions to the general rule in extraordinary cases.  An official note of clarification, issued by the Holy See Press Office, indicated that the comments of the Pope should not be interpreted as a "revolutionary change" to Church teaching.  Rather, the comments should be understood as an informal and non-magisterial "contribution to help us clarify and more deeply understand a long-debated question."  

2 For example, many will instinctively either exaggerate or minimize the words of the Pope in accordance with their own particular ideology and what they are pre-disposed to hear from the mouth of the Pope. 

3 Fr. Finigan has noted the latin saying:  "Bonum ex integra causa malum ex quocumque  defecu."  http://the-hermeneutic-of-continuity.blogspot.com/2010/11/bonum-ex-integra-causa-malum-ex.html

4 In other words, the moral object entails "what" the acting person directly intends to do.  The "intent" in this respect shapes the moral character of the act itself, however, it remains distinct from "intention", "motive" or "end" in the remote sense (the ultimate "why" behind the act).  For example, the deliberate intent to directly kill an innocent person is a moral object distinct from the deliberate intent to kill in self defense.  The moral distinction between these (even if they appear outwardly to be the same "act" in the physical sense) is not circumstancial and accidental but essential to the moral character of the will-act in itself.  Furthermore, these moral objects are distinct from their ultimate "intention" or motive (e.g., to murder for purposes of revenge, etc.).    
"In order to be able to grasp the object of an act which specifies that act morally, it is therefore necessary to place oneself in the perspective of the acting person. The object of the act of willing is in fact a freely chosen kind of behaviour. To the extent that it is in conformity with the order of reason, it is the cause of the goodness of the will; it perfects us morally, and disposes us to recognize our ultimate end in the perfect good, primordial love. By the object of a given moral act, then, one cannot mean a process or an event of the merely physical order, to be assessed on the basis of its ability to bring about a given state of affairs in the outside world. Rather, that object is the proximate end of a deliberate decision which determines the act of willing on the part of the acting person." (VS, 78)

5 A disordered interior will-act is one that does not conform to the objective order of reason.  In this sense the moral object contains both a subjective and objective aspect.  The subjective aspect involves the interior will-act (including its proximate end) of the acting person: "The will act becomes good or bad inasmuch as it embraces an object, not as the object is in itself, but as the object is presented by the intellect as good or bad" (Cf. Higgins, Man as Man: The Science and Art of Ethics, TAN, p. 135).  The objective aspect relates to the objective norm of morality: the order of reason.  Good acts involve a proper alignment or conformity between the subjective and objective aspects.  The opposite is true for evil acts. 

6 "With regard to intrinsically evil acts, and in reference to contraceptive practices whereby the conjugal act is intentionally rendered infertile, Pope Paul VI teaches: 'Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good, it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it (cf. Rom 3:8) — in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general'". (Cf. Veritas Splendor, 80)

7 Some acts can have multiple intentions.  For example, one intention may be "proximate" and secondary while another is "remote" and primary.  Additionally, one of the intentions may be good while the other is bad.  Furthermore, the bad intention may be gravely evil (mortal sin) or only somewhat bad (venial sin).  All of these factors influence the morality of the act.  For example, the proximate intention may be good (protecting the health of another) while the remote intention is evil (protecting the health of another in order to sustain repeat business for prostitution).   

8 The recent comments by the Holy Father have re-ignited debates on analagous questions.  Sandro Magister has done a good job of presenting both sides of the debate within the Catholic Church: http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/1346021?eng=y

9 I am considering this specific act here together with the act of fornication as one complete act.  It is possible, however, to consider these as two distinct will-acts that can be evaluated each on their own merits (prophylaxis vs. fornication).  If considered in this manner - where the act of prophylaxis is considered abstractly and purely on its own merits - then one may conclude that this "will-act" has some basis (Cf. Fagothey, p. 152).  It seems probable that the Pope had this distinct will-act in mind (considering the act of fornication as a separate and distinct will-act) when suggesting that the "act" (an act of "responsibility" as a first step towards a humanization of sexuality) may have some moral basis or justification.  Considering the morality of the "act" apart from the evil of fornication seems to be suggested by the scenario given by the Pope.  The Holy Father is considering the extraordinary circumstances of a prostitute -- where human sexuality is likened to a self-admininstered drug (e.g., circumstances analogous to drug addicts sharing clean needles in order to prevent infection).  Under this set of circumstances the habitual nature of the sin can affect the voluntariness of an act (cf. ST i-ii, 10, 3).  Therefore, the Pope, under these extraordinary set of circumstances, seems to view the positive "act" (i.e., an act capable of being ordered to the good) as one that is morally distinct from the intrinsically evil act of fornication.  In this sense, intrinsically evil acts can never be acts of "responsibility" ordered to a greater humanization.  On the contrary, intrinsically evil acts are always ordered towards de-humanization.