Sunday, February 1, 2015

An Anatomy of Good and Evil

It is time for the Sunday Catechesis, that most popular of my columns, based on the stats. This week I would like to address something I have been aware of for quite a while, namely the very poor grasp many have of fundamental moral teaching – not just the different commandments and ‘shalt nots’ of the law, but an even more basic level – what is a moral act? What are we looking at when we are evaluating the morality of an action? The paragraphs in the Catechism of the Catholic Church where this material is found are pp. 1749-1756. I recommend reading them in full; here I will just give a prĂ©cis. 

Incidentally, this is a genuinely nuanced and complex element of moral thought in our tradition, so of course in a blog post I can only sketch the outline of it for you.

First, if an act is not done as a free and deliberate choice, it is not an act subject to moral evaluation. This is why emotions in themselves are neither morally good nor evil. They are not voluntary in themselves (the actions we take that arise from our emotions, on the other hand, are). Neither is a sneeze, a cough, a fall down a flight of stairs. Once freedom has left the building, there is absolutely no discussion of moral good or evil—it is the absolute presupposition for morality.

This is why morality is concerned with what is called the human act. Human beings do all kind of actions, all the various actions of a human. But it only becomes a human act, and hence a moral act, if the rational will has deliberated and chosen to do it.

What makes that human act good or evil? There are three ingredients that each contribute to the evaluation of the action. Think of a human act as a cake. There are the basic things that make a cake a cake—flour, liquid, eggs, leaven. Then there are the additional ingredients that make it the kind of cake it is—fruit, chocolate, etc. And there is the frosting that augments the goodness of the cake. If any one of these three is all wrong—if you substitute arsenic for flour, thumbtacks for raisins, or roofing tar for frosting—you are not going to have a good cake, no matter how good the other ingredients are, right? It is the same with any human act—all the parts of it have to be free from evil.

First there is the object of the act. This is the immediate ‘good’ that is chosen by the rational will. I choose to drink a cup of coffee in the morning. I choose to take some money lying on a table that is not mine. I choose to give alms to charity—the immediate chosen act, in other words, considered apart from any further goals or details. The moral judgment made in regard to the object is whether or not this good is in conformity with the true good, an evaluation made by considering everything we know about the moral law revealed to us by God and by our own rational reflection. We can see from the examples I give that an object can be itself morally good, evil, or neutral.

Second, there is the intention of the act. This is the further goal, the reason why we are choosing the immediate good of the object. What am I working towards here? What is the ultimate purpose of doing this? And is this ultimate purpose in accord with the true good of my person?

Third, the circumstances of the action affect its moral evaluation. These circumstances include the consequences of the act, and a host of other surrounding elements—the time and place it is done, the manner in which it is done, and many other things.

All three of these have to be consonant with the true good of the human person for an act to be a moral good. To perform an objective act that contradicts this good (taking money that does not belong to you, inflicting physical or mental pain on a prisoner) for a good end (to pay a bill, to get information from them) does not make the action good. On the other hand, to perform an act that is morally neutral or itself good (spending hours listening to a lonely person) with an evil intention (so as to seduce them into fornication!) makes that good object an evil act.

The circumstances cannot make that evil act a good act, and normally (since they are outside the act itself) do not suffice to make a good act evil, but they do affect the relative goodness or evil of the act. Whether one steals five dollars or five hundred is a relevant consideration. Duress or deep emotional distress and anguish may also be a circumstance that mitigates guilt considerably. Other circumstances, by contrast, can make the act more evil (I already have lots of money, say, and the person I am stealing from is a pauper).

In rare cases, circumstances may be such that an otherwise unobjectionable action is rendered evil (I am eating some food, with the good intention of sustaining life and health, but it happens to be the last bit of food in the house and one of my housemates, I know, has done heavy physical labor that day and needs the food more than I do).

Anyhow, there are tremendous nuances and fine distinctions that enter in with all of these matters—the Church’s moral doctrine is not only the simplistic list of rules people think it is, although there most certainly are rules—but that is sufficient for the day. Summary: for a free act to be a morally good action, it must not be objectively contrary to the good of humanity, there must be some good intention in performing it, and the circumstances must not be such as to maker that action bad. In short, to make a cake you need all the ingredients to be what they should be, and if one of them is rotten and foul, the cake is rotten and foul. So it is with every free human act.

1 comment:

  1. If for any human being, "moral evaluation" is as simple as following a will well informed by reason then there is no need for God , only a formula.
    Aristotle , however, tells us that evil is the absence of good. i.e. a thing that lacks the good proper to its natural function as an eye that lacks the function of sight is said to be evil - not in the moral sense of course. He also tells us that every human activity is directed at achieving it's own good - i.e. it's most fundamental good ( to be happy.) Desire he says is the natural tendency and inclination in a thing toward it's own good. Happiness which is not a state of being but rather an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue. Virtue implies an excellence reality experienced by human beings in a very wide range of varying degree. His ethics of desire and virtue are crucial to understanding that while their absence would imply an 'evil lurking' they are never totally absent but often hidden behind barriers created in a very natural response ( eg defense mechanisms) that each and everyone of us are subjected to in some ways and others. If we could stop the focus on the 'evil act', forget for awhile about 'morally evaluating' and judging one another's actions and help one another to reveal what's good and beautiful in us, then I believe ,like Jean Vanier does, that we can gradually grow together in love and unity as we find our deepest desire to be happy (blessed}. We will never stop sacrificing our deepest desire to our superficial ones unless we discover what our deepest desire is.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.