In which Zippy objects yet again…
February 4, 2010 § 12 Comments
Tom quotes the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults:
Another important foundation of Christian morality is the understanding of moral acts. Every moral act consists of three parts: the objective act (what we do), the subjective goal or intention (why we do the act), and the concrete situation or circumstances in which we perform the act (where, when, how, with whom, the consequences, etc.)
For an individual act to be morally good, the object, or what we are doing, must be objectively good. Some acts, apart from the intention or reason for doing them, are always wrong because they go against a fundamental or basic human good that ought never to be compromised. Direct killing of the innocent, torture, and rape are examples of acts that are always wrong. Such acts are referred to as intrinsically evil acts, meaning that they are wrong in themselves, apart from the reason they are done or the circumstances surrounding them.
All three aspects must be good — the objective act, the subjective intention, and the circumstances — in order to have a morally good act.
Notice that the object of the act is objective. When a moral theologian correctly uses the term “object” in reference to a human act, the thing he is referring to is the objective part of the act. Intentions – whether proximate, remote, or otherwise – are not objective. Intentions are subjective, and are not part of the object of a human act. Any “story” one tells about the principle of double effect or the object of an act, if that story attempts to sneak any kind of subjective intention into the act’s object, is a false and misleading story.
An issue which seems to arise again and again is that when someone says “objective”, we often hear “physical”. But objective and physical do not mean the same thing, at all.
A commenter in the Disputations thread writes:
I think we are generally agreed that the objectum (Thomas’ word) of the moral act is not merely a physical thing but the rationale (objective) of the actor.
I don’t agree with that characterization at all. I don’t think the object of the act can be accurately described as either “a physical thing” or a “rationale”. It isn’t either of those things: it is the conduct or behavior (following JPII) that the acting subject chooses. The choosing part means that it isn’t merely physical, that in order to “see” what behavior was chosen we have to “see” through the eyes and with the knowledge of the acting subject; and in any event many of the pertinent facts are non-physical facts (e.g. “she is my wife”, “that is not my gold”, etc). On the other hand, it has nothing to do with whatever subjective rationale the acting subject might give for it: paraphrasing Anscombe, it has nothing to do with little speeches we tell ourselves about what we are trying to accomplish and why.
Part of the problem may be in thinking that “physical thing” and “rationale” exhaustively describe the possibilities. The object of a human act is not either one of those things though: it isn’t a physical thing and it isn’t a rationale. It is the conduct or behavior that the acting subject chose.
Of course another possibility is that there is substantive agreement over these things but we disagree on terminology because we are all trying to head off various errors at the pass, if you will. But that is precisely why I object to the false dichotomy of “physical thing” versus “rationale”, since conduct – conduct chosen by an acting subject – is not either of those things. And the object of a human act is the conduct chosen.