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Chapter 9: The Voluntary: What Moral Norms Bear Upon

Question F: What is the difference between voluntariness in choosing and in accepting foreseen consequences distinct from what is chosen?

1. We are responsible for more than just what we aim at and choose. In making a choice, one usually foresees many effects of carrying out the proposal. Some, although not included in the proposal, can have an important bearing on human goods. A person has some responsibility for such side effects. For instance, one who chooses to drink and drive foresees possible harm to the lives and property of others. Though drunken drivers do not aim at this harm or include it in the proposal they adopt, they nevertheless bear some responsibility for this foreseen side effect. An accident which is due to their condition is their fault.

That one can bear responsibility for foreseen consequences which are no part of one’s proposal is clearly indicated by examples. A person who enjoys very loud music might decide in the late night hours to play his or her favorite records, realizing that the sound will disturb others. The proposal simply is to listen to music; the disturbance to others might even be regretted. Still, one who thus disturbs others is responsible, and others are justified in complaining that such a person is selfish.

Many injustices are like this one. People often are not interested in harming others, but they foresee harm to others occurring along with benefit to themselves and proceed to act selfishly. In a case of this sort, the moral responsibility is not in self-determination against some good—for example, the health of others damaged by their lack of sleep. Rather, the responsibility is in lack of commitment to community with others, since such commitment would incline one to treat their interests on a par with one’s own.

2. Although one bears responsibility for foreseen side effects, one does not have the same sort of responsibility for them as for what one chooses (see S.t., 2–2, q. 43, a. 3; q. 64, a. 7). Moral responsibility is to be found first and foremost in one’s choosing. For example, a man, such as Jesus, who freely accepts certain death as a side effect of continuing to carry out his upright commitments does not choose to kill himself; thus he is not guilty of the destruction of his life. But a man who chooses to kill himself is guilty of the destruction of his life, even if he is killing himself for the sake of some human good which he rightly desires to serve.

Still, in many cases the effects one foresees and accepts have a great sigificance for human goods. Although in some cases one may accept effects which significantly inhibit or damage some human good, this possibility is not unlimited. If one really is as committed to community as one ought to be, one will not accept effects selfishly. Nor will one bring about effects which it is one’s duty to avoid.

Firefighters, for example, will try to fight fires, not always in the easiest way, but in ways which minimize loss of life, since it is their duty to save lives. The law also reflects this sort of responsibility by prohibiting various cases of homicide which involve no premeditation. For instance, the responsible drunken driver might be convicted of manslaughter. Hence, although one is not responsible for side effects one accepts in the same way one is responsible for what one does by choice, responsibility for the former can be just as grave as responsibility for the latter.

3. What one does in the strict sense is what one chooses to do—that is, what is sought for its own sake and/or included as a means in the proposal one adopts (see S.t., 1–2, q. 1, a. 3; q. 6, a. 1; q. 19, a. 5). What one brings about, including all foreseen side effects, is far more extensive than what one chooses to do and “does” in this strict sense. One determines oneself primarily in choosing. In choosing one establishes one’s existential identity by settling one’s personal priorities among the goods on which the choice bears. One does not determine oneself in the same way with respect to foreseen side effects, which are neither sought for their own sake nor included in the proposal one adopts.12

The goods in which one is interested and on which one’s choice directly bears are much more limited than the whole state of affairs one actually brings about by executing the proposal one adopts. For instance, if two boys play catch, they are interested in the good of playing the game. Perhaps the boys have been told to do chores instead of playing catch, and they know they might be caught and punished for their delinquency. This foreseen consequence, though understood as part of the state of affairs their action will bring about, is not precisely what they choose. Their self-determination is to play, not to being punished. Punishment, if it comes, will be an unwanted side effect of having done as they pleased.

It might be assumed that the foreseen consequence in this example lies outside the precise boundaries of the boys’ choice only because the consequence occurs by parental fiat. But this assumption is false. The boys might also realize that they are wearing out their gloves. Even if they consider this natural and inevitable consequence of using their gloves, it is no part of the proposal they adopt in choosing to play. They are interested in play; they accept wear on their gloves as an unwanted consequence of using them.

4. At the same time, one bears responsibility for foreseen side effects. Since they are foreseen, these effects are voluntary. One could avoid them by not choosing what one chooses. One might not want them, but one does accept them. Thus, while primarily responsible for choices, which directly determine oneself and shape one’s character, one is secondarily responsible for the foreseen consequences of carrying out one’s choices. Since side effects are freely accepted, it makes sense to ask whether one ought to accept them. Several of the modes of responsibility help to answer this question.

5. Freely accepted side effects must be distinguished from chosen means to one’s ends. Means are adopted as at least useful goods; they are included in one’s proposals. Thus one determines oneself in regard to the goods upon which they bear.13 As has already been explained, in adopting a proposal to destroy, damage, or impede any instance of any of the goods intrinsic to persons, one determines oneself against that good, in violation of the seventh or eighth mode of responsibility. By contrast, to accept side effects contrary to a human good is not to determine oneself against it.

Many documents of the magisterium distinguish between direct and indirect action—for example, direct sterilization and indirect sterilization. This distinction is the same as that clarified here between what one chooses and what one accepts as a foreseen side effect. For example, direct sterilization is an action in which one chooses to sterilize, while indirect sterilization is an action in which one chooses something else and accepts sterility as a foreseen side effect.

In cases where this distinction is invoked, the direct action usually is rejected as always wrong, whereas the indirect action might sometimes be upright. The so-called principle of double effect is an attempt to formulate the conditions under which an indirect action would be upright if the corresponding direct action would be wrong. (For this problem and a discussion of the classical handling of it, see 12‑F.)

6. Among the foreseen consequences of one’s choices, those conducive to one’s own or another’s subsequent immoral acts are especially important for moral theology. Having some responsibility for the foreseen side effects one accepts, often obliges one to refrain from otherwise innocent choices, precisely because one foresees that they will create occasions of sin for oneself or someone else (see S.t., 2–2. q. 43, aa. 6–7). (In creating an occasion of sin for another when one could and should avoid doing so, one is said to give scandal.)

7. Many omissions are voluntary in the following way: Rather than simply choosing to omit what one should do, one instead chooses something else, with the omission accepted as a side effect. For example, a student chooses to watch television when he or she should be studying. The neglect of study is not regarded as a good or included in the proposal of amusement which the student adopts; but it is a foreseen side effect, freely though perhaps reluctantly accepted. Responsibility for such omissions is the same as responsibility for positive foreseen consequences, which are accepted even though they could and should be avoided.

12. Even God foresees and permits evils which he does not directly will. See St. Thomas, S.t., 1, q. 49, a. 2; 1–2, q. 79, aa. 2–4; S.c.g., 1, 96; 3, 71. To deny this would be to deny either that there really is any evil or that God’s will is holy or that his providence and causality are all-embracing. The point is reflected in the Church’s solemn teaching (e.g., DS 1556/816) and essential for making sense of Scripture, e.g., on predestination: see Ceslaus Spicq, “Predestination,” Encyclopedia of Biblical Theology, 694–700. Hence it is an error to suppose that the distinction between choosing to bring about evils and accepting them as side effects becomes necessary only in virtue of the limitations of human causality or the brokenness of the fallen human condition.

13. This is a key position rejected by many proportionalists. Since proportionalism has been refuted (6‑F) independent of the analysis of responsibility, the presupposition of proportionalism in arguments against this point can provide a premise for criticizing such arguments without begging any question. By contrast, proportionalists’ efforts to analyze action to fit their theory generally are question-begging and often lead to bizarre positions. See, for example, Selling, op. cit., who tried throughout to settle substantive issues by mere stipulation, argued (51) circularly that a chosen act is unintended inasmuch as it is not done for its own sake, attributed (53, n. 17) to me an absurd position I nowhere take, and made (56) the bizarre claim that an act which executes a proposal adopted by choice, if not done for itself, is permitted—e.g., that giving alms in order to do penance involves permitting, not intending, the giving of alms (n. 24). On this basis, murderers whose reason or purpose in acting is not the death of their victims but some ulterior end permit rather than intend killing them!