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Chapter 9: The Voluntary: What Moral Norms Bear Upon


Choices are morally good or bad acts of the will by which we settle what we shall do and so determine ourselves with respect to human goods. But choices are not the only forms of morally significant voluntariness. Consideration of the several varieties of voluntariness is important not only for the theoretical analysis of human acts but also for pastoral practice by counselors and confessors.

Two forms of voluntariness precede choice. The first, simple willing, is the constant, underlying disposition toward human goods; the second, spontaneous willing, occurs when, seeing some definite way to reach a fulfillment, one wills to proceed. Small children act by spontaneous willing without choice, and so without moral responsibility. While adults often do the same, their ability to anticipate and take control of spontaneous willing gives their spontaneous actions a moral significance lacking in those of a child.

As for choices, they deserve consideration in several respects. To begin with, if one makes and carries out a choice, what one does—one’s act in the strictest sense—is precisely one’s choice together with what one has chosen to do. An action is defined primarily by the proposal adopted by a choice. One does, not only what one chooses to do for its own sake as a good in itself, but also what one chooses to do as a means to some other good. Among the several kinds of omissions, too, there is one which corresponds to the action which carries out a proposal adopted by choice: that is, one chooses not to do something precisely in order to bring about a desired state of affairs.

Choices are related to human goods in two ways. First, in choosing one determines oneself in respect to human goods and so establishes one’s moral identity. Second, in choosing one sets oneself to bring about certain states of affairs in which goods are realized or infringed on. In the simplest kind of choice, the only good affected is that realized (or infringed on) in the state of affairs brought about in executing the choice. Slightly more complicated, but morally the same, is the case where one’s performance causes a desired effect, and only the latter bears upon a human good. More complicated still are cases where executing a proposal will have an effect upon one good but this choice is made for the sake of some other good realized in some other state of affairs. Here the means-end distinction has ethical significance; one has a responsibility for goods which are implicated in the means one uses to attain yet other goods one desires.

Although a commitment is a choice, at the time it is made it is impossible to foresee precisely what it will entail; only in living it out do its concrete implications become apparent. Nevertheless, the freedom of choice with which one makes a commitment pervades what one does in carrying it out. In acting spontaneously but willingly under a commitment, even without a further choice, one is acting freely with the freedom of the commitment itself, and one’s action is morally responsible.

Passing on from choice to other aspects of voluntariness, we turn next to freely accepted side effects. These must be distinguished from means to an end. In adopting a means which does harm to a good, one determines oneself against that good; this is not the case when one accepts a side effect harmful to a good. Still, people do have some responsibility for foreseen side effects. Since they are foreseen, they are voluntary. (Drunken drivers, for instance, are responsible for the unintended—but foreseen—harm they do.) Several of the modes of responsibility help answer the question whether one should or should not accept particular side effects.

Finally, there are some varieties of voluntariness which presuppose choice. One of these is executive willing—the willing acceptance at a time subsequent to choosing of effects of one’s action. (A person chooses to do something, discovers while doing it that it has unexpected aspects or is having unforeseen effects, and knowingly and willingly continues to do it.) One is responsible for one’s executive willing. Corresponding to this is a type of omission without choice. (Aware that one should choose and act, one deliberates about what to do, but either makes no choice or chooses to put off the decision.)

One also is responsible for consequences which could and should have been foreseen but were not; such consequences include behavior and omissions not now considered wrong due to some earlier sin. Readiness and unreadiness to choose can also be voluntary; for instance, one ought to be ready to accept martyrdom and unready to choose anything immoral.