Doing and Not Doing

February 19, 2009 § 27 Comments

We will remain forever confused about the morality of acts as long as we fail to acknowledge the difference between doing this particular thing, and not doing some thing. Something done is a concrete behavior chosen, a potentiality actualized: a real part of the world. Something not done is an abstraction, a potentiality not realized: it is not something real. “I did X” stated by a corporal human being expresses a fundamentally different kind of (de)ontological truth than “I did not do X”. The latter can be evil in the presence of a positive duty to act; but it is always a mistake to confuse a positive concrete act with refraining to act. It is for this reason that the negative moral precepts prohibiting certain concrete behaviors or specific acts apply always and everywhere, whereas positive duties to act always fall under a prudential judgment. As Pope John Paul II tells us in Veritatis Splendour:

The negative precepts of the natural law are universally valid. They oblige each and every individual, always and in every circumstance. It is a matter of prohibitions which forbid a given action semper et pro semper, without exception, because the choice of this kind of behaviour is in no case compatible with the goodness of the will of the acting person, with his vocation to life with God and to communion with his neighbour. It is prohibited — to everyone and in every case — to violate these precepts. They oblige everyone, regardless of the cost, never to offend in anyone, beginning with oneself, the personal dignity common to all.

On the other hand, the fact that only the negative commandments oblige always and under all circumstances does not mean that in the moral life prohibitions are more important than the obligation to do good indicated by the positive commandments. The reason is this: the commandment of love of God and neighbour does not have in its dynamic any higher limit, but it does have a lower limit, beneath which the commandment is broken. Furthermore, what must be done in any given situation depends on the circumstances, not all of which can be foreseen; on the other hand there are kinds of behaviour which can never, in any situation, be a proper response — a response which is in conformity with the dignity of the person. Finally, it is always possible that man, as the result of coercion or other circumstances, can be hindered from doing certain good actions; but he can never be hindered from not doing certain actions, especially if he is prepared to die rather than to do evil.

Now, anyone who has followed my writing for long enough knows that I have my doubts about the rather loose attitude many Catholics seem to take with respect to NFP; at the same time, I acknowledge that the Magisterium affirms some reasonable moral latitude for its licit use.

The question of why NFP can in some circumstances be morally licit, while contracepted sexual acts can never be morally licit, can be understood by apprehending the difference between the negative prohibitions against certain concrete behaviors, on the one hand, and positive obligations to act, on the other. I don’t think it can be understood without reference to this key distinction, which JPII emphasizes in the encyclical. Once this key distinction is understood and embraced, however, the difference becomes clear.

A contracepted sexual act combines in one and the same behavior the pursuit of physical sexual satisfaction and a rejection of children. As an actual chosen behavior this is not merely an intention or disposition; this is an actual concrete real act in the world, an act which cannot be chosen without expressing hatred of children. Thus it violates a negative prohibition of the moral law: it is simply not possible for human beings with human nature to choose this kind of behavior with a good will, no matter what protests are made to the contrary. If that behavior is knowingly chosen it is done with an evil will, because that is the nature of the behavior and of the human being who knowingly chooses it.

Abstinence, though, is not a concrete real act or chosen behavior: it is the absence of a behavior, a potentiality which the acting subject chooses not to realize. In order for abstinence to be evil, therefore, there must be a particular positive duty to act at a particular place and time. But when it comes to the marital act, there is no positive duty for a couple to engage in it at particular places and times, where if they choose not to engage in it that choice not to do so is evil. If the couple decides not to get it on on the kitchen floor right here and now, that decision does not inherently by its very nature express hatred of children; else every moment the couple was not engaged in the marital act would be an expression of hatred of children. So while it is indeed possible, because of circumstances or intentions, for abstinence to be morally wrong, there is significant moral latitude in deciding not to act; whereas a contractepted sexual act, choosing to act in a particular way which by its nature expresses a hatred of children, is always morally wrong.

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§ 27 Responses to Doing and Not Doing

  • RUs says:

    Only in our contraception-happy world can a child be called a “mistake.” It’s manifestly hateful toward children.

  • e. says:

    “Abstinence, though, is not a concrete real act or chosen behavior:”I’m uncertain as to whether “chosen behaviour” here is a particular term of the art which may very well mean something entirely different (and concerning something more specific other) than that which is expressed by its usual meaning; however, it would seem to me that abstinence is, indeed, a chosen behaviour; i.e., one chooses to behave both responsibly and with due respect for the very essence of life itself by specifically not engaging in acts that are manifestly antagonistic (hostile, even) to human life and would have it deliberately extinguished in order merely to indulge one’s own lustful sexual appetites and partake all the menagerie of its sensual pleasures without so much as having to realize the nuisance of that new life which just might possibly spring forth from such act.

  • zippy says:

    <>it would seem to me that abstinence is, indeed, a chosen behaviour;<>Definitely not, at least in the pertinent sense here. A nonexistent thing is not a thing, and as JPII tells us, the distinction – between a concrete behavior chosen by a person as an incarnate unity of body and soul, versus simply the fact of not doing or having done something – is morally crucial.If abstinence is a concrete behavior in the pertinent sense, we ought to be able to say in what particular moment and place a person abstained, where at all other moments and places he did not abstain. When I hit a baseball that is a positive act or concrete chosen behavior: I did it <>there<> and <>then<>, and it involved <>these specific motions<>; “not hitting a baseball” (in the sense of not doing it, not in the sense of swinging and missing) is an abstraction, it isn’t a positive act or concrete chosen behavior.In any case, it is simply wrong to treat acting and not-acting as the same kind of thing. They aren’t the same kind of thing, at all, and moral confusion reigns when they are conflated.

  • e. says:

    Zippy,“Definitely not, at least in the pertinent sense here.”…which is the very reason why I prefaced my comments accordingly.“…it isn’t a positive act or concrete chosen behavior.”If you would kindly forgive my own level of ignorance as regarding the previously cited materials that you seem very well-versed, if not, possessing a distinctly favored interpretation thereof, whichever else may very well be the case; however, I don’t see how the act of “not doing” cannot be similarly classed as a “chosen behaviour” any more than those specific instances of “not doing” are so classed (and commonly referred to) in our Church as those pesky “sins of omission”.That is, if choosing not to do something is not, in fact, a chosen behaviour, then such sins would practically be impossible to commit in the first place.For example, not feeding a starving person right in front of you and allowing him to suffer imminent death without so much as to provide some manner of assistance can be considered a “sin of omission”; however, not indulging the appetite of an apparent drug-user by providing him with monetary means by which to finance his vice is certainly not and, in fact, is an act of good.The act of abstinence is much like the latter case except that it is more highly valorous since it involves acts of the will concerning the individuals themselves and their choosing not to indulge their carnal appetite for lust.

  • zippy says:

    <>That is, if choosing not to do something is not, in fact, a chosen behaviour, then such sins would practically be impossible to commit in the first place.<>Omissions can definitely be evil in the presence of a positive duty. They cannot be evil as a chosen behavior, but they can be evil in intention or because of circumstances. That is why the liciety of abstinence in turn depends on whether or not there is a positive duty at some particular time and place to engage in conjugal relations, on the further understanding that positive duties always fall under a rubric of prudential judgment. In general there is not; so unlike a contracepted sexual act, abstinence – a non-act – can only be morally wrong under a wrong intention or because of circumstances.In the particular case of murder by dehydration, for example Terri Schaivo, there were positive acts involved. She was murdered most directly by the police, who by positive action prevented those who would giver her water from doing so, expressly to dehydrate her to death. Furthermore, someone with the duty and capacity to give her water who did not do so would be guilty of murder <>by intention<>, not by act. But if omissions were acts then <>every person who did not give Terri water<> is guilty of murdering her; this is not the case because omissions are not acts.

  • JohnMcG says:

    What about e indulging his appetite for issuing sweeping condemnations for behaviors for which he is apparently not particularly tempted?

  • Rodak says:

    <>this is not the case because omissions are not acts.<>Yet the non-pregnancies of contracepted sex acts are “babies”…Hmmm.

  • zippy says:

    <>Yet the non-pregnancies of contracepted sex acts are “babies”.<>I suppose that might be an interesting barb if it were a premise of anyone’s argument.

  • Rodak says:

    <>I suppose that might be an interesting barb if it were a premise of anyone’s argument.<>Those are the “babies” belonging to the category of babies hated by contraceptives users.

  • zippy says:

    Nope. You can make things up and pretend that the thing you made up is the position I am articulating, but doing so is pointless, except I suppose as rhetorical comfort food.Contracepted sexual acts express hatred of children -qua- children, just as a sign which says “I hate kikes” exhibits hatred of Jews -qua- Jews, whether or not it is directed at some particular Jews; in addition, in the case of contraceptive failure contracepted sexual acts express hatred of the actual children born; in the case of contraceptive ‘success’ they express the proposition “if any child were to come from my act, I hate that child”, which is itself an immoral expression of hatred even if only directed at a possible person; and beyond even that they express hatred of the spouse. This is built into human nature and the nature of human sexuality. You can stamp your feet and deny it, but it is true independent of your protestations.Hatred of possible persons is immoral, just as much as hatred of actual persons. It is morally wrong to say or think “if my enemy ever has a baby, I will hate that child”; or “I hate the future children of my enemy” or “I hate the next generation of those breeding third worlders”. It isn’t a moral escape hatch to say “I don’t hate any of the Jews alive now, but I hate all future Jews who are born”. That contracepted sexual acts express hatred of children in that particular manner (as well as in other manners) does not mean that they don’t express hatred at all. Contracepted sexual acts in fact, always and in the very nature of the behavior chosen, express hatred of children.

  • Dean says:

    I would be very happy indeed to see a clear explanation of the moral difference between artificial contraception and NFP, but I don’t think this distinction between doing and not-doing can do the work you want it to.If my bank makes a $1,000 error in my favor and I elect not to report it to them (to <>abstain<> from reporting it), I’m still stealing, aren’t I?I don’t see how the ontological distinction between doing and not-doing gets you a moral distinction between contracepting and “strategic abstinence”.The reality is that we are talking about definite decisions made at certain times to refrain from engaging in sexual intercourse when we would (presumably) otherwise like to do so. And we are making that decision to refrain specifically in order to avoid conceiving.How does the doing/not-doing distinction help differentiate this case from using a condom?

  • zippy says:

    <>I’m still stealing, aren’t I?<>No. If you were, then you would be stealing before you even became aware of the mistake. You aren’t stealing it until you spend it or transfer it away. It is true that you have a positive duty within reason to report misplaced property to its owner, particularly when he misplaces it onto your property; but even failing to do so is in itself clearly a very different matter from a positive act of stealing.

  • Dean says:

    <>No. If you were, then you would be stealing before you even became aware of the mistake.<>Surely my decision to keep it makes it stealing? Or we can stipulate some other name for it if you want to differentiate it from active thievery. Whatever we call it, though, isn’t my decision to keep it morally wrong?I will absolutely grant that a decision not to act is a very different kind of thing from, say, hacking into the bank’s computer and generating the error in my favor, but how are the two <>morally<> different?It may be that I do not share a key intuition with you here. It may also be that I am just being dense.

  • zippy says:

    Well, maybe it would help to think in terms less abstract than a bank account. Suppose a car shows up on your property one day. Are you stealing that car if you don’t find the owner and report it to him <>right now<>? Clearly not. You aren’t stealing it until you engage in a positive act – driving it away somewhere where he won’t find it or something.You may have a positive duty to report it stolen in a timely manner, even if you don’t plan to steal it. Or maybe not. In a pioneer society if someone left a wagon on your property, you would not have a positive obligation to take undue hardship upon yourself to find him. Failing to do so could be morally wrong in the absence of serious reasons not to, depending on the particulars, but even then it is not stealing. In fact even eventually appropriating the wagon for your own use, after a suitable waiting period and while remaining open to the owner coming back to look for it, would not necessarily be stealing.In a similar manner Catholic spouses do have a positive duty to bring children into the world; failing to do so in a timely manner may well be a moral wrong without serious reasons, depending on the particulars. But refraining from doing so, even when that is wrong under the circumstances, is not contracepting.Acting and not acting are fundamentally different kinds of things, as the Magisterium tells us; and we will make errors in moral judgment if we treat them as the same kind of thing.

  • Tim J. says:

    “How does the doing/not-doing distinction help differentiate this case from using a condom?”I don’t see how anyone could describe “sitting on the couch and watching a movie” or “reading a book” as contraceptive acts.These does nothing to frustrate the procreative aspect of any sexual act, which is precisely what condoms do.

  • Tim J. says:

    That should be;“These DO nothing…”

  • zippy says:

    Part of what may be confusing is that we <>think about things<>, then we <>resolve to do them<>, and then we <>actually do them<>. It is indeed wrong to <>resolve to do something wrong<>, even if circumstances outside of our control prevent us from actually doing it. So it is morally wrong to <>resolve to steal something<> even if circumstances outside our control end up preventing us from carrying out the act itself. It is morally wrong to <>resolve to commit adultery with her<> even if the circumstances never allow me to actually carry out the act.But just as doing something is fundamentally different from not doing it, resolving to do something is fundamentally different from resolving not to do it. Both can be morally wrong, to be sure; but evaluating the morality of failing to do something we have a positive obligation to do is, as JPII makes clear, a completely different matter from evaluating the morality of doing things we ought not do.

  • zippy says:

    And here is < HREF="http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_06081993_veritatis-splendor_en.html" REL="nofollow">JPII again<>:<>A doctrine which dissociates the moral act from the bodily dimensions of its exercise is contrary to the teaching of Scripture and Tradition. Such a doctrine revives, in new forms, certain ancient errors which have always been opposed by the Church, inasmuch as they reduce the human person to a “spiritual” and purely formal freedom. This reduction misunderstands the moral meaning of the body and of kinds of behaviour involving it.<>

  • JohnMcG says:

    To maybe make this a but more concrete, I’ll quote another theologian, Bill Parcells — “You are what your record says you are.”It doesn’t matter if your team has tremendous talent, brilliant offensive and defensive schemes, and outstainding morale, if you’re 6-10, then you’re a 6-10 team, and you’re not going to the playoffs just beacuase, darn it, in your heart you know you’re a better team than that.I guess the same applies here. If you act in a way that is hateful to children, then that is who you are, regardless of what warm feelings you may cultivate for them.

  • Rodak says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • Rodak says:

    It isn’t necessary–or even sane–to feel either one way, or another, about “children” who were never conceived. Contraception is a different issue than abortion.I like beer. But I know that it is possible to drink too many bottles of it. This doesn’t mean that I need to develop a hatred of beer to stop at a certain point. And it doesn’t mean that I have to quit drinking beer altogether to avoid passing from enjoyment into drunkeness. It only means that I have to use my head for something other than a hat rack (as my third grade teacher was wont to advise me), and exercise prudence in my drinking.

  • zippy says:

    I think that is the point John. Well summarized for sports fans. 🙂

  • e. says:

    “What about e indulging his appetite for issuing sweeping condemnations for behaviors for which he is apparently not particularly tempted?”“Sweeping condemnations”?What exactly were those?“…for behaviours which he is apparently not particularly tempted”?Would you kindly explain or is this merely the rabies of one’s wanton disregard of Church Teaching that’s foaming at the mouth here?Apologies that I would rather do the difficult than to descend into depravity by doing the deed; i.e., taking pleasures in the wife while, on the other hand, murdering my own child in the process all due to a love for lust and license.Bravo!May you murder many still!

  • zippy says:

    <>…is this merely the rabies of one’s wanton disregard of Church Teaching that’s foaming at the mouth here?<>It certainly isn’t that. John is a very serious Catholic who takes Church teaching (and the natural law) on the life issues very seriously.<>May you murder many still!<>You are about as far off base on that one as you could possibly be. John is no more wobbly on abortion or contraception than I am, though we don’t always agree on everything and I get the impression that my writing style isn’t always his cup of tea.

  • JohnMcG says:

    Thank you, zippy.I will also acknowledge that that little barb was not my finest moment, and I apologize for it.

  • […] depending on the facts on the ground, other priorities, etc.  It is another thing entirely to actively prevent attempts at rescue by other parties.  The latter is murder, pure and […]

  • […] NFP (that is, sexual abstinence) is a fundamentally different kind of thing from contraception.  Sitting on the couch reading a book is a fundamentally different kind of act from donning a condom and engaging in sterile sex.  This arises from the more general fact that doing something is fundamentally different from not doing something. […]

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