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Chapter 8: The Modes of Responsibility Which Specify the First Principle

Question C: What is the third mode of responsibility?

1. The third mode is this: One should not choose to satisfy an emotional desire except as part of one’s pursuit and/or attainment of an intelligible good other than the satisfaction of the desire itself. Violations occur when a person deliberately chooses to act upon impulse, habit, or fixation on a particular goal. The proposal one adopts in making such a choice appeals by promising some sense of inner harmony through tension-reduction. Thus, one’s reason for acting is the very satisfaction of the emotional desire rather than some intelligible good whose instance has features which arouse the desire. A choice to act on this basis sets aside whatever reason there was for restraint, and the action at least wastes time and energy one might otherwise use for the pursuit of goods in line with upright commitments. In deliberately settling for mere emotional satisfaction, one’s choice is not that of a will toward integral human fulfillment.

2. A person sometimes is aware that his or her desire, instead of pointing to some reason to choose to satisfy it, offers only its own satisfaction as a reason for choosing. Yet one can be drawn—and perhaps almost driven—to choose, for example, by a quasi-compulsive desire, by habitual routine, or by a particular goal on which one’s heart is fixed. (It sometimes happens that goals which were reasonable at the outset lose their point with the passage of time yet retain their emotional appeal.) This is not the same as the situation in which one spontaneously does reasonable things without having reasoned about them. Nor is it the same as cases in which one acts for an intelligible good and gains emotional satisfaction in its concrete, sensibly pleasant aspects.

3. This mode is violated by the person who sees no point in having another drink, or smoking, or eating a rich dessert, or spending the evening in idle chatter, yet does so in response to an urge. Again: People spend much of their daily lives unreflectively following routines; sometimes doing so is pointless, yet they choose to continue to follow the routine merely for the sake of the feeling of security and accomplishment they gain from doing so. Again: Some people work hard to enjoy a constantly rising standard of living, yet they know that more wealth and material things will yield no more real satisfaction.

4. Some deny the truth of this mode. Their argument is based on the principle that the pleasure accompanying an act shares in the act’s own moral quality, good or bad. From this they conclude that if what one does is not otherwise wrong, choosing to do it for the sake of pleasure alone does not make it wrong. The principle is sound, but the conclusion does not follow. The principle applies to acts whose moral quality already is settled, whereas the conclusion concerns possible choices whose moral quality is in question.

5. Moreover, one violates this mode only by making a choice. One has no choice to make unless one hesitates and deliberates, and so one never has occasion to act for the mere satisfaction of an emotional desire unless there is some reason for restraint. Thus, whenever one violates this mode, one acts despite some reason or other. The reason might not be weighty, but any reason inherent in what one chooses for making the choice is better than none, for any such reason will have a basis in intelligible goods.

If a person chooses to engage in some sort of sexual behavior merely to experience pleasure and still desire, this mode is violated. But it is not violated when a married couple spontaneously take pleasure in marital intercourse. If they do not hesitate and deliberate, it is because there is no reason why they should not engage in intercourse. In their situation, it has an inherent intelligible significance, for it expresses and celebrates the larger, intelligible good to which they are committed—namely, their marriage itself as a special sort of friendship. Loving marital intercourse contributes to faithful communion in this relationship, which is structured in a way that integrates sexual behavior in the service of life and its transmission. This substantive good provides the vehicle for the reflexive good of marital friendship, and so it helps distinguish authentic marital friendship from its counterfeits, and love-giving marital intercourse from the use of the marital relationship for self-gratification.

6. The virtuous disposition corresponding to this mode is most appropriately called “self-control” (see S.t., 1–2, q. 61, aa. 2, 4; 2–2, q. 141, aa. 1–2). Violators are not in control of their own lives but are slaves to nonrational motives. Self-control includes at least some aspects of many traditionally recognized virtues, such as temperance, modesty, chastity, and simplicity of life. Also, if “discipline” is used to refer to a virtuous disposition rather than an imposed regimen, a person free from positive nonrational motivation can be called “disciplined.” The opposed vice includes at least certain aspects of lustfulness, gluttony, greed, jealousy, envy, shortsightedness, impetuosity, and so on.

7. The foundation for this mode, too, is deepened by divine revelation before Jesus. God makes human persons aware that, being made in his image, they should share in his excellence. Also, in clarifying the reality of free choice and moral responsibility, revelation sharply distinguishes what one does by reasonable choice from what one is moved to do by nonrational drives and habits. Moreover, the life proposed by the Jewish law requires self-discipline.

Scripture is filled with condemnations of vicious dispositions which more or less clearly pertain to this mode of responsibility, but in many cases one cannot be sure that the irrational lack of self-control is the precise evil in view.

However, certain chapters of the wisdom literature seem to be concerned with this mode, for they gather the criticism of many relevant vices and treat them as forms of foolishness. For example, one chapter in Proverbs criticizes striving to be rich, wasting time with foolish people, neglect of discipline of the young, drinking wine, consorting with prostitutes and adulterous women (see Prv 23). Ecclesiastes contains two passages (see Eccl 2.1–12; 5.9–6.9) in which the vanity of pleasure and riches is underlined; their precise point is that desire for such things leads to no true human good.

Sirach specifically commends self-control: “Whoever keeps the law controls his thoughts” (Sir 21.11), and advises: “Do not follow your base desires, but restrain your appetites” (Sir 18.30). He proceeds to condemn satisfaction of lustful desires, momentary pleasure, wine bibbing, gluttony, harlotry, and useless talk (see Sir 18.31–19.11). Other passages point out the uselessness of pursuing riches and the self-punishing character of miserliness (see Sir 31.1–11; 14.3–10). Again, the self-destructiveness of indulgence in goods is stressed (see Sir 37.26–30).

St. Paul takes up an important idea from the wisdom literature, that sin and idolatry are at the bottom of a foolishly dissolute life. The pagans were able to know God yet they did not glorify and thank him, so their pretense of wisdom ended in foolishness. They practiced idolatry: “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves” (Rom 1.24). He instructs Christians to be different: “The night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness . . .. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rom 13.12, 14).

That Christians must put aside fleshly desires is a standard element of New Testament instruction (see 2 Cor 7.1; 1 Thes 4.1–5; Jas 1.21; 1 Pt 2.11). What the world offers is not from the Father: “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world passes away, and the lust of it” (1 Jn 2.16–17).