August 19, 2012 § 39 Comments
And Jesus calling unto him a little child, set him in the midst of them, And said: Amen I say to you, unless you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 18:2-3
I’ve talked before about the difference between an acting person knowing what he is doing and that same acting person wishing he didn’t have to do what he is doing in order to accomplish his goal. As with the difference between accident and on purpose, this is something that a small child understands very well: it takes an adult with an agenda and a fear of foreseen implications to really grind it into obscurity.
A little review:
Every human act consists of object, intentions, and circumstances. All three must be good for a human act to be good. Any one of object, intentions, or circumstances can render an act evil:
But on what does the moral assessment of man’s free acts depend? What is it that ensures this ordering of human acts to God? Is it the intention of the acting subject, the circumstances — and in particular the consequences — of his action, or the object itself of his act? …
… Certainly there is need to take into account both the intention — as Jesus forcefully insisted in clear disagreement with the scribes and Pharisees, who prescribed in great detail certain outward practices without paying attention to the heart (cf. Mk 7:20-21; Mt 15:19) — and the goods obtained and the evils avoided as a result of a particular act. Responsibility demands as much. But the consideration of these consequences, and also of intentions, is not sufficient for judging the moral quality of a concrete choice. The weighing of the goods and evils foreseeable as the consequence of an action is not an adequate method for determining whether the choice of that concrete kind of behaviour is “according to its species”, or “in itself”, morally good or bad, licit or illicit. The foreseeable consequences are part of those circumstances of the act, which, while capable of lessening the gravity of an evil act, nonetheless cannot alter its moral species.
Of course, in order for any of that to make sense we have to know what the words mean; and the most notoriously tricky of those words is the word object. The Church tells us that a lot of bad moral theory stems from “an inadequate understanding of the object of moral action”; so if we want to make sense of things, we’ve got to get that part right:
The morality of the human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the “object” rationally chosen by the deliberate will, as is borne out by the insightful analysis, still valid today, made by Saint Thomas. 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.
The reason we use the term “object” to refer to an aspect of human acts distinct from intentions is that (at least according to the Magisterium of the Church) intentions refer to a subjective aspect of the act – what desirable consequences one wants, subjectively, to flow from one’s act – while the object refers to an objective aspect of the act: the chosen action or behaviour of the acting subject.
All three aspects must be good — the objective act, the subjective intention, and the circumstances — in order to have a morally good act.
Now, because the acting person is a person, a unity of body and soul, the ‘subjective’ or personal aspect cannot be abstracted away without abstracting away from the action as a human act. This is where the distinction between knowledge and intentions comes into play. We cannot be morally responsible for choosing an objective behaviour unless we are, in our own will, actually choosing it. In order to choose a behaviour, we have to actually know what we are doing.
So the classic “accidentally sleeping with your wife’s identical twin” pose doesn’t apply, and charges of physicalism miss the mark. A man who accidentally sleeps with his wife’s twin, by the definition of the problem (and setting aside practical matters for the sake of gedankenexperiment), does not know that he is sleeping with his wife’s identical twin. You have to place yourself into the perspective of the acting subject in order to know what behaviour he is actually choosing, and the behaviour he is actually choosing is not adultery.
Rather, that object is the proximate end of a deliberate decision which determines the act of willing on the part of the acting person. Consequently, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “there are certain specific kinds of behaviour that are always wrong to choose, because choosing them involves a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil”.
And that is just what behaviour is: the proximate end of a deliberate decision. It is the actual object of choice, the thing we actually choose to do, regardless of the reasons why we do it (our intentions) or the circumstances surrounding our act (circumstances which include the totality of consequences we expect to flow from the act). If any of those three – object, intentions, or circumstances – are contrary to the moral law, the act is evil.
So a lot of things that pose as moral dilemmas in Internet discussions and elsewhere really aren’t. There isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with cutting into a human being’s body with a knife, such that all behaviours which fall under that description are immoral. The behaviour chosen by a surgeon with a scalpel is radically different from the behaviour chosen by a murderer with a knife. If a surgeon’s patient accidentally dies while under the knife, there is still no ambiguity in the behaviours he is choosing versus the behaviours chosen by a knife-wielding murderer. Even a clever murderer posing as a surgeon is choosing a very different behaviour from a real surgeon: what is literally an accident for the real surgeon is on purpose for the murderer, and the actual behaviours being chosen from one moment to the next are radically different despite any superficial similarity to a third party observer.
One reason children understand morality and adults don’t is that by the time we’ve reached adulthood, we’ve come up with all sorts of ways of rationalizing doing what we want to do – and possibly are terrified of not doing – rather than doing what is right and trusting that God will sort it out. “Don’t kill them all, and let God sort it out” is a leap of faith we aren’t willing to take. We understand consequences a lot better than children, and those consequences are often dire. We feel helpless when the moral law does not allow us to take evil actions, to engage in evil behaviours, even when the evil strikes us as quite inconsequential and the consequences of failing to choose the evil action are quite large.
That, finally, is why we see “rationalization hamsters” on steroids conflating the term “object” with an acting subject’s intentions, completely tone-deaf to the fact that “object” – certainly according to Magisterial texts cited in this post – refers to objective concrete behaviors or actions, not subjective intentions. That is why we see widespread question-begging overuse of the principle of double-effect in situations where it has not even been established that it applies. That is why we are subjected to endless peppering with “what if” scenarios that are supposed to make us give up our “childlike” rejection of evil behaviours.
We just can’t accept it that the moral requirement never to kill the innocent means, yes, that we must not bomb civilians, period, and we must not abort the unborn, period, no matter what is at stake in terms of consequences.