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Chapter 9: The Voluntary: What Moral Norms Bear Upon

Question B: Which sorts of voluntariness are presupposed by choice?

1. Simple willing—a simple and basic caring about human goods—is presupposed by every volitional desire, choice, voluntary action, and volitional enjoyment. It is based on two things: first, one understands that the basic human goods are possible fulfillments; second, in a practical frame of mind, one grasps them in the primary principles of natural law as fulfillments to be promoted and protected. Given this practical insight, simple willing naturally follows. It is the constant, underlying disposition toward the goods. It is natural and necessary that one be interested in what makes a difference to human survival and health, to knowledge of truth, to living in harmony with others, and so on (see S.t., 1–2, q. 8, aa. 2–3; q. 10, a. 1; q. 94, a. 2; 3, q. 18, a. 3).

Someone might object that simple willing is not a natural and necessary disposition toward all of the basic human goods. For one can choose to act in ways destructive of these goods, knowing full well that one is doing so. For example, one can choose to kill another person or oneself, and so set oneself by choice against the supposedly basic good of life.

The answer to this objection is that one can indeed do this, for there are various other human goods, and in a choice situation one cannot act for all of them at once. By choice one determines oneself toward fulfillment in one aspect, setting aside possible fulfillment in another. By a choice to kill, one sets oneself toward whatever good one has in view which makes the killing seem desirable. One not only sets aside but sets oneself against the good of a particular human life. Yet the underlying simple volition of the good of life remains. There is then an inconsistency in one’s willing introduced by one’s own choosing. Notice that this is not logical inconsistency: the incompatibility of two propositions. It is existential: the incompatibility of a fundamental prolife disposition and a particular antilife self-determination.

2. Another sort of voluntariness presupposed by choice is spontaneous willing. Given the basic disposition of simple willing, when people think of some definite way of proceeding in order to realize a concrete possibility and reach a fulfillment, they spontaneously will to proceed. If no other factor prevents it, spontaneous willing leads into action (see S.t., 1–2, q. 14, a. 4).

3. Human voluntariness makes raising children very different from training animals. Even children younger than six understand goods, are interested in them (simple willing), spontaneously will to realize them in definite ways, and act on this intelligent desire. The process is clearest in cases where they overcome repugnance to something (for example, taking bitter medicine) for the sake of an understood good (getting better).

What the child does by spontaneous willing, whether as a means or an end, is done voluntarily—“on purpose.” In this sense, it is done intentionally. However, “intend” has at least two distinct meanings here, as is clear if one considers the case of taking medicine to get well. In this case, one intends to get well as an end, while one intends to take the medicine only as a means. Taking the medicine is intentional in the sense that it is done on purpose, but is not one’s intention in the sense that it is not wanted for itself and would not be done except for the sake of something else.

If a boy at play gets muddy, he does not intend to get muddy in either of the preceding senses. Mother might say: “You’re all muddy, again. Now, take your shoes off.” The boy replies: “I didn’t get muddy on purpose.” And mother says: “But you knew you were getting muddy, didn’t you?” The boy is reduced to silence. He did know, but simply was not concerned about it. In a third, weaker sense, one might say that the boy got muddy intentionally, not meaning “on purpose,” but rather that he did get muddy knowingly and carelessly.

Children can be blocked from spontaneously doing what they spontaneously will by emotions incompatible with the emotions aroused by the spontaneous willing. For example, on a family hike, a small girl begins to tire. The parents say: “Come on, it’s only a little farther, and then we’ll stop and eat lunch.” The child’s understanding of lunch leads to spontaneous willing; this focuses imagination, which in turn arouses desire and leads to continued behavior: trudging along. But as she tires still more, the emotions aroused by pain and fatigue distract the girl’s attention from lunch, and she stops walking. At some point, additional talk about lunch no longer is effective. Even at this point a new and effective motive sometimes can be supplied: “And where we are going to eat lunch there are swings and slides and a merry-go-round. We’ll play while lunch is cooking.” The little girl, spontaneously wishing to play, trudges on.

4. However, small children do not make choices. They act by spontaneous willing; but if there is to be a free choice, spontaneous action must be blocked—not merely by distraction and emotion but by the awareness that two or more incompatible alternatives are simultaneously real possibilities for the one who is to choose. Children under six, however, do not seem able to understand two possibilities at once and to compare them. Doing so requires not only understanding and judgment but reasoning. Small children can be responsible in a sense—their action is their own, and their naughtiness and good behavior express human capacities—but they are not morally responsible.

5. Adults also frequently act by spontaneous willing, but when they do, their action has moral significance. Capable of reflecting on every aspect of their lives, adults can notice what they spontaneously do and take control over it. If they can and should choose to do something to prevent themselves from doing what comes naturally and nevertheless fail to take control, adults have some responsibility for the omission.

It is worth noticing that certain aspects of willing and acting are present both in actions done by choice and in those done by spontaneous willing.

First, spontaneous willing includes a double relationship to the good. Underlying all spontaneous willing and still present in it as its spiritual energy is simple volition. Spontaneous willing thus is related to the understood good as to that in which one might share by action. But spontaneous willing also is directed to the specific, concrete realization understood as possible by one’s action. This understood good is a definite state of affairs which actually is (expected to be) fulfilling. This state of affairs either is realized in one’s very action or is subsequent to one’s action, which is a partial cause of it.

Thus, a child’s spontaneous willing to play is a willing to share in the good of play and also is a willing to do the very things which count as play. This latter willing can unfold into spontaneous acts of play. It also can unfold into a spontaneous act of trudging along, in order to arrive at the playground.

Second, what is done spontaneously is defined by what one understood and spontaneously willed to do. A child at play brings about many states of affairs other than its play activity. For example, children dirty their clothing, fall down occasionally, and so forth. A child of four or five can be well aware of some of these effects. But what it is doing is what it does “on purpose”—that is, what expresses its understanding and willing.1 That which is done on purpose includes not only activity which is directly fulfilling, but also activity done to bring about a fulfilling state of affairs. For example, the sick child purposely takes the bad-tasting medicine to get well.

Thus, what a child does spontaneously is done either for its own sake or for the sake of something ulterior. What is done for its own sake—for example, playing—is in itself a good; it can be called an “end” in the sense that it is in itself a purpose of human action. What is done for the sake of something ulterior—for example, taking bitter medicine—is not in itself an intelligible good; it can be called a “means” in the sense that it is done as a way of bringing about an end—in this case, getting well.

1. Thus the distinction between what one does and foreseen side effects is independent of a moral judgment of conscience and freedom of choice in acting. This fact becomes clear by analysis of ordinary language: see G. E. M. Anscombe, Intention, 2d ed. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1963), 72 and 89.