How Does One Judge the Morality of Human Acts?

Created by God as rational and free creatures, human beings determine themselves and establish their identities as moral creatures through their free choices. We make ourselves the kinds of persons who we are in and through the actions we freely choose to do. As Pope John Paul II put it in his moral encyclical Veritatis Splendor: “ It is precisely through his acts that man attains perfection as man, as one who is called to seek his Creator on his own accord and freely arrive at full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him.” This is the reason why the Catholic moral tradition puts much emphasis on the morality of individual human acts.

The morality of human acts depends upon several factors. Most importantly, the acts have to be freely chosen. Acts that arise from either addiction or reflex — for example, the automatic scratching of an itch — because they are not deliberately and voluntarily chosen, are not subject to moral analysis. We are morally accountable only for those acts that we elect to do. Once freely chosen, however, a human act is either good or bad. Its goodness or badness depends upon three elements that the Catholic moral tradition calls the object, the intention, and the circumstances of the act.

The object of the act defines the act. It is the answer to the questions: What is being done? What good, real or apparent, is being desired? Note that here we are dealing with the moral order. Thus, when we speak about the object of an act, we are speaking about the moral object and not merely the physical object. Thus the object is the specific kind of action chosen by the individual described in moral terms. For instance, if someone chooses to shoot an unjust assailant, the object is not the shooting itself. The object is either the incapacitation of the assailant or the killing of the attacker. In the former case, the act would then be an act of self-defense while in the latter scenario, the act would be an act of murder. In fact, it would be murder even if the agent chose to kill his assailant in order to repel the attack. Other examples of objects include fornication, adultery, theft, almsgiving, and worship of God.

The intention is the reason for which the agent chooses to do something. It is the answer to the question: Why is it being done? For example, a benefactor could give money to a beggar either because he wishes to care for the individual’s needs or because he wishes to be seen and admired by his associates. In the former case, the intention behind the act of almsgiving – almsgiving is the object of the act – is charity while in the latter scenario, the intention of the act is vanity.

Finally, the circumstances of the act specify the manner in which the act is carried out. They are the conditions surrounding an action, which can contribute to increasing or diminishing its goodness or evil and the degree of our responsibility for it. For instance, stealing $10 from a panhandler is a more grievous sin than stealing the same amount from a millionaire. Note that sometimes circumstances might actually add a new moral object to an act. For example, if the stolen object is a consecrated chalice, we now have an additional moral object to the action. It is now both theft and sacrilege.

As the examples given above illustrate, for an act to be good, every element of that act, the object, the intention and the circumstances, have to be good. If even one of them is not in accord with right moral order, then the whole act is bad. In the scenario given above, for instance, it is not enough that the benefactor is giving money to the begger. If his intention was bad – he was giving alms to be admired by his associates – then his overall act is bad.

 (© 2011 Fr. Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austiaco, O.P.)

Fr. Austriaco currently serves as an Assistant Professor of Biology and an Instructor of Theology at Providence College in Providence, RI. He is also an Investigator of the Rhode Island-INBRE Program funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and a staff ethicist at the Dominican Friars Health Care Ministry of New York, NY.