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Chapter 9: The Voluntary: What Moral Norms Bear Upon

Question C: How are choices related to what one chooses?

1. We turn now to choice. If one makes and carries out a choice, what one does—one’s human act in the strictest sense—is precisely the unified whole: one’s choice and what one has chosen to do. By choice one adopts a proposal to do something. Individuals deliberate about doing what they consider possible and interesting much as members of a deliberative body debate motions (see S.t., 1, q. 83, a. 3; 1–2, q. 13, aa. 3–5; q. 14, aa. 1–3). Adopting a proposal to do something is a choice, just as a motion which is adopted is a decision of the group. The doing carries out the choice, much as the executive carries out a legislative body’s enactments. The action of an individual is defined by the proposal adopted by a choice, just as the action of a group is defined by the motion adopted by a vote. In both cases, execution of what is decided completes the action (see S.t., 1–2, q. 16, a. 1; q. 17, aa. 3–4).2

2. Thus, a person who chooses to play golf is playing golf, while a person who chooses to take painful treatment for a disease is taking painful treatment. A man who considers the proposal to kill himself, adopts the proposal, and carries it out, kills himself. If Mary chooses to lay down her life rather than yield to a rapist, then she is resisting rape, not killing herself like Peter, who adopts a proposal to hang himself.

3. Since one’s action is defined by the proposal one adopts, one not only does what one chooses to do as good in itself (playing golf for its own sake) but also does what one chooses to do as a means (taking painful treatment for the sake of health) (see S.t., 1–2, q. 8, aa. 2–3). A person who chooses to kill a defective child so that the child will not have to endure a miserable life is perhaps a misery preventer but certainly a child killer. The fact that reluctance, regret, and so on accompany a choice does not substantially alter what one is doing (see S.t., 1–2, q. 6, a. 6; q. 78, a. 1, ad 2).

The expression, “the proposal adopted by choice,” has more or less the same meaning as St. Thomas’ expression, “the object of an action.” The point made here by saying, “The action is defined by a proposal adopted by choice,” often is expressed in his language, “The action is specified by its object” (cf. S.t., 1–2, q. 18, a. 2).3

However, the classical moralists sometimes used “object of the act” to refer to the outward deed without clearly including its relationship to deliberation and choice. Thus, when they said that the object of the act is a determinant of its morality, they seemed to be trying to ground morality directly in nature considered physically and metaphysically, rather than in human goods. (The sort of ethical theory which fostered this confusion was criticized in 4‑F.)

This confusion offered an opportunity for theologians who adopted proportionalism to denounce as “physicalism” or “biologism” the thesis that some kinds of acts are always wrong—wrong ex obiecto or intrinsically evil—regardless of the foreseen goods which might be intended in choosing to do them.4 The present analysis provides a way of understanding “object of the act” which is not physicalist, but which does allow certain kinds of acts to be always wrong, for example, when a choice would violate the eighth mode of responsibility. (In proposing this analysis, no question is begged against proportionalists, since their position has been examined in chapter six and found indefensible in virtue of its inherent unworkability.)

4. People are responsible not only for what they do but for what they fail to do, that is, their omissions. Not everything called “omission” is a moral failing, however. To say someone “ought” to do something may express the judgment that he or she is morally required to do it, but it may also indicate some other sort of requiredness (see S.t., 1–2, q. 6, a. 3; q. 71, a. 5). For instance, consistency requires people to do what they usually do, and the failure to do this can be called an “omission.” But it is a moral omission only if there was a moral requirement to do what was not done.

5. Analyzed from the point of view of voluntariness, omissions are seen to be of several kinds. One kind corresponds to the sort of actions which carry out proposals adopted by choice. In such omissions, one chooses not to engage in certain performances precisely in order to bring about a desired state of affairs.

6. Thus, parents or medical personnel sometimes choose to kill a defective infant by withholding food and water until it dies. The voluntariness of this omission is the same as the voluntariness of choosing to kill the child by giving it an overdose of narcotics. Only the technique and the outward state of affairs are different. The choice in both cases is to kill—in one case by not doing something, in the other by doing something. (Other kinds of omissions will be dealt with in questions F and G.)

Actions expected because people usually do them, because consistency requires them, or because they seem appropriate can be said to be “omitted” if they are not done; but they are omissions from a moral point of view only if there is some moral norm indicating that they should be done, despite which they in fact are not done. Thus, a person who skips lunch on a certain day has omitted it, but has done a moral omission only if there was some moral requirement to have lunch. A priest who leaves out appropriate but optional items in a liturgy omits in a certain sense, but not in a moral sense, since he uses the option; however, a priest who omits what is prescribed by the Church omits in a moral sense, since the faithful have a right to the Church’s liturgy.

2. Proportionalists typically deny the moral significance of the distinction between object, end, and circumstances of an act, and in doing so take advantage of confusions in the use of this terminology in classical moral theology. See, for example, Richard A. McCormick, S.J., “Current Theology: Notes on Moral Theology: 1981,” Theological Studies, 43 (1982), 83–86. In the criticism of proportionalism in chapter six, I did not use this denial as an argument against proportionalism, for such an argument would be question-begging. However, proportionalism having been shown inherently incoherent, the present analysis helps clarify its faulty and implausible attempt to merge the voluntariness of choice and free acceptance. Since the eighth mode of responsibility bears only on choices, the distinction between choice and other modes of voluntariness is vital for some moral questions, but not for all. For example, when only fairness is at issue, close analysis of actions is unnecessary, for the fifth mode of responsibility bears upon every mode of voluntariness.

3. In scholastic terminology, what one does by choice—one’s action as defined by the proposal it executes—was called the “object of one’s act” (see S.t., 1–2, q. 18, a. 2). Sometimes the same thing was called “finis operis” or “the end of the work.” However, many classical moralists took this terminology to mean that the natural teleology of behavior considered by itself is morally significant. Thus the language has become confusing, and probably is best avoided. From the point of view of moral analysis, the human act is not a chunk of outward behavior, with an inherent sense prior to deliberation and choice, which is merely projected into existence by one who chooses it. Rather, human behavior has a definite sense precisely because it executes a proposal excogitated by deliberation and adopted by choice. Theo G. Belmans, O.Praem., Le sens objectif de l’agir humain: Pour relire la morale conjugale de Saint Thomas (Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 1980), 175–88, provides many references to texts of St. Thomas and attempts a synthesis. I do not claim to reproduce Thomas’ thought precisely on “object of the act,” since I do not think his distinction between the exterior act and the act of the will is altogether clear or coherent. In general Thomas does think of the object of the act as a complex understood by practical reason and chosen or able to be chosen. Nevertheless, Thomas often includes in its object anything which makes an act definitely wrong, for this settles its moral species (cf. De malo, q. 2, a. 6, ad 2). On my account, the object only includes what one chooses even if the wrongness of the act arises elsewhere. For example, the object of an act of driving somewhere in an automobile is determined by the choice to travel to that place, and this remains so even if the auto belongs to another, is used without permission, and in using it one accepts the side effect of grave partiality toward oneself against the other.

4. See Belmans, op. cit., 327–411, for an examination of many different authors, some of whom clearly identify morality “ex obiecto” with moral “determination by physical nature,” and most of whom wish to derive the objective morality of the act from a good end (or ends) which one might uprightly pursue, while setting aside as morally irrelevant or outweighed the choice to destroy, damage, or impede a good by which the good end is pursued.