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Chapter 9: The Voluntary: What Moral Norms Bear Upon

Question G: What varieties of voluntariness presuppose choice but are distinct from any act of choice?

1. One such variety of voluntariness is executive willing—the willing acceptance at a time subsequent to choosing of effects of one’s action. A person chooses and begins to do something; while carrying out the choice, he or she discovers that its execution is having certain effects; the person makes no additional choice, but knowingly and willingly proceeds to bring about these significant effects. For example, a woman takes a job outside the home, finds that her absence is having serious effects on her children, makes no additional choice, but knowingly continues with her career and willingly accepts these side effects.

Executive willing can occur not only where one executing a choice accepts a previously unforeseen side effect, but also in cases in which one executing a choice willingly does an act other in kind from that which one had chosen to do. For example, a gangster, Ma Fia, decides to get revenge on a rival by burning down her rival’s warehouse. As she executes this plan, she perhaps notices that a strong wind is blowing in the direction of other nearby buildings, and foresees that the fire will spread, but proceeds nevertheless without any further choice. Here the executive willing is of something which would have been a foreseen side effect had it been taken into account during deliberation. But in executing the plan, Ma might also discover, to her delight, that her rival unexpectedly is in the warehouse, and is likely to die in the fire. Had this effect been foreseen, it would have been part of the proposal adopted, since it serves the purpose even better than the original proposal. Thus, Ma Fia kills her rival, does it voluntarily, and is responsible for doing it, but never chose to do it.

Executive willing is not the same as the voluntary in cause, since the voluntary in cause involves willing acceptance of foreseen results of one’s chosen actions. Executive willing concerns unforeseen aspects or results of one’s actions, which come to light as one executes one’s proposals. Without further deliberation and choice, one willingly continues to carry out the action despite its unforeseen aspects or willingly accepts the unforeseen results.

2. Plainly, one is responsible for what one does by executive willing. If the significant consequences fall within the scope of the original purpose or proposal, their subsequent acceptance seems to be a development or extension of the choice and to be voluntary as it is. If the significant consequences are such that they would only have been side effects if they had been foreseen, accepting them by executive willing is an extension of the free acceptance of foreseen consequences involved in the choice and is voluntary in that way.

3. Corresponding to the executive willing of unforeseen consequences of choices is a type of omission without choice. Aware that one should choose and act, one deliberates about what to do and about doing it—but fails to make a choice to do anything. In some cases, there is another choice—to put off (but not omit) decision and action. In other cases, there is no choice at all, but deliberation is broken off by something which distracts attention from the problem.

Here is an example. Parents notice that one of their children seems to have a health problem. They begin to discuss the situation, knowing they ought to do something about it. Ideally, they investigate and seek advice until they formulate a reasonable plan of action, and then adopt the plan and carry it out. But often parents fail to take the action they should for a child’s well-being. Perhaps they think they should make an appointment with their physician, but put off making it. Perhaps they are not sure what to do and put off looking into the matter. Perhaps at times they worry over the problem rather aimlessly, but always are interrupted by work, sleep, or something else before coming to a conclusion.

Although very different from the voluntariness and responsibility involved either in choosing to do something or in accepting foreseen consequences of one’s acts, the moral responsibility in cases of omissions without choices also is real. The responsibility is for failure to use one’s freedom when one could and should use it. By such omissions, one certainly can be morally responsible. If the child dies of the condition, the parents will realize the death is their fault: “We knew Mary was not well; we ought to have taken her to the doctor. We did talk about it, but we just never got around to doing anything until it was too late.” This sad story is very different from that of parents who decide to kill their defective infant by starving it, and also different from that of parents who abandon a child, accepting the possibility of its death but hoping someone might care for it.

4. There are still other varieties of voluntariness. Sometimes one’s choices have unforeseen consequences which could and should have been foreseen and avoided. Such consequences can include behavior which would be recognized as immoral if it proceeded from choice or willing acceptance at the time it is done. They also can include inaction which would be omission if one were aware of one’s responsibilities. For example, a person who wrongly neglects studies while preparing for a profession is likely sooner or later to do and omit many things which could and should have been foreseen and avoided by diligence in studying. This responsibility clearly is derivative from what one has previously done and failed to do. It is less than the previous varieties of voluntariness.

A priest fails to do adequate preparation of his homilies, although he could and ought to prepare them carefully. Let us imagine the priest never even thinks about how he is preparing his homilies and is not in the least worried about obligations in this area. Where is the responsibility here? It lies in other actions and omissions which have not been as they should. In the seminary, perhaps he did not study much, because he did not enjoy it. Entering upon the pastoral ministry, he realized he should allocate his time with some care in order to be able to do the job well, but he never got around to making and following a regular schedule. The result is that he divides his time between doing things he finds enjoyable and responding to urgent pastoral demands, and so never has time to prepare the Sunday homily carefully. If he had fulfilled his other responsibilities, he would be able to do this, would see that he ought to do it, and probably would do it. Thus there is some responsibility for the ill-prepared homilies this priest gives, and for the fact that the faithful—most of whom never receive instruction otherwise—receive little solid teaching from him.

5. Readiness and unreadiness to choose can also be voluntary. One should, for example, be ready for martyrdom and unready to do anything immoral. The voluntariness of readiness and unreadiness follows from one’s responsibility to make and live out commitments which will generate these dispositions.

6. The preceding distinctions among varieties of voluntariness help render intelligible certain scriptural notions, such as unconscious faults, the inevitable sinfulness of the upright, and so on. They also help in understanding problems of pastoral practice and spiritual development. For example, a person whose omissions without choices lead to very serious consequences—say, someone’s death—will be helped if the confessor or counselor clarifies both the reality and the limits of the responsibility. Similarly, someone whose conscious conversion and commitment are vitiated by the continuing effects of past sins can be helped to understand and persevere in the task of growth in holiness.