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.

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§ 12 Responses to In which Zippy objects yet again…

  • William Luse says:

    I certainly agree with your disapproval of the commenter you quote. But when you say “conduct chosen by an acting subject – is not either of those things” (neither physical nor a rationale), well, I tend to think of the chosen behavior and it's real world effect (e.g., the intentional killing of an innocent) as physical things intimately bound as cause to effect (in that they exist in time and space), and the “choosing part” as intimately bound to the rationale as an effect follows its cause. In other words, when we say “chosen behavior”, my focus is on the 'behavior', because the fact that it was chosen seems obvious. Why it was chosen will help in assessing culpability, but won't change the physical nature of the act. Is this in line with whay you were saying, or no? Or irrelevant?

  • brandon field says:

    In which Zippy objects yet again…

    Zippy, I think you do moderation in 'blogging in moderation just as well as an alcoholic does moderation at Happy Hour. That said, it's great to be hearing from you again.

  • “…Zippy objects…”

    I see what you did there. 🙂

    In March, I have the honor of presenting the “Peace and Justice” section of instruction to the RCIA class. I'll venture that not many lessons named “Peace and Justice” begin with the “sources of morality” section of the Catechism as I intend to do. 🙂

    Scott W.

  • zippy says:

    Why it was chosen will help in assessing culpability, but won't change the physical nature of the act. Is this in line with whay you were saying, or no? Or irrelevant?

    Rather than “physical” I would say “objective”, since many of the objective facts about any given act are non-physical. But other than that terminological quibble I think we are on the same page: the object of the act can be described as “this objective behavior, as described by these objective facts without reference to the acting subject's intentions or other subjective factors, which was knowingly and voluntarily chosen by the acting subject”.

    The object of an act is itself objective (thus the name “object”, and its distinctness from the subjective aspect of the act). The only part that is “in the subject” is the fact that the subject knowingly chose that behavior, where that behavior is not at all subjective. That choice is what connects the subjective aspect of an act to its object, since a human act in its totality is necessarily a synthesis of what is real/objective with what is willed/subjective: a human act is an exercise of our inherent power as incarnate subjects to will certain things into objective reality.

    When the objective behavior chosen falls into a category of intrinsically evil acts, according to any of the pertinent objective facts about that behavior, the act is always and without exception morally evil.

  • zippy says:

    Scott,

    I'd love to be a fly on the wall in your “Peace and Justice” class.

    Brandon,

    This is just the conversation of the moment; but I really do intend for my blogging participation to be lighter than before, and in fact I am reading far less of the blogosphere than I did prior to my time off.

    Oh, and thanks 🙂

  • brandon field says:

    Z,

    I just don't want you to burn yourself out and go offline again. The Coalition for Clarity needs your input. 🙂

  • William Luse says:

    Rather than “physical” I would say “objective”, since many of the objective facts about any given act are non-physical.

    and…

    the object of the act can be described as “this objective behavior, as described by these objective facts without reference to the acting subject's intentions or other subjective factors, which was knowingly and voluntarily chosen by the acting subject”.

    Let's suppose a torturer enjoys what he's doing. Is this subjective enjoyment a part of his objective behavior? In other words, one of those “non-physical objective facts”?

  • zippy says:

    Is this subjective enjoyment a part of his objective behavior?

    No.

    Those kinds of subjective factors do of course affect the overall moral evaluation of the act. But what they are incapable of doing is changing an act evil in its object from an evil act into a good act.

  • William Luse says:

    Thus you see why I tend to think of the chosen behavior, the object of the act, as a thing exclusively physical in its manifestation, even as I know that all objective reality is not physical. Should I see a man stabbing a child, or a doctor strangling a born-alive infant, I don't need any non-physical information to morally evaluate his act.

  • zippy says:

    Should I see a man stabbing a child, or a doctor strangling a born-alive infant, I don't need any non-physical information to morally evaluate his act.

    Heh.

    That has to go down as a classic salvo in the war on BS excuse-mongering.

  • William Luse says:

    I second Brandon's sentiment, btw.

  • […] but recognizes that there is an irreducibly objective aspect at work too. (This is true in moral theology as well, where the morality of human action cannot be reduced to nothing but subjective […]

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