This chapter is divided into three sections : i. nature and kinds of morality ; ii. the principles or sources of morality ; iii. the extent of morality.


Art.1. Nature and Kinds of Morality

43. The nature of morality consists in the real relationship existing between human acts and a standard of morality. But there is a wide divergence of opinion regarding the character of this standard.

Several non-Catholic writers have identified the standard of morality with utility, a theory which has appeared under two forms : individual utilitarianism (Epicurus, Diderot, Feuerbach), and social utilitarianism (Francis Bacon, A. Comte, Stuart Mill). Others have identified it with right reason so that a man must live in accord with right reason without any regard for personal happiness (Stoics, Kant). A third group maintains that there is no such thing as an objective or fixed standard of morality ; each man must use his own private judgement (subjectivism, scepticism, moral nihilism).

Some Catholics used to regard as the standard of morality the free will of God who was and still is able to establish a moral code different from that which we now possess (Occam, Gerson) ; others regarded morality as a purely extrinsic title, or as something identical with freedom or with the intellect’s advertence to the goodness of the act.

Rejecting these different views we maintain that the morality of an act consists in its relationship to a standard of morality, the ultimate objective standard being the eternal law, and the proximate objective standard human reason. The subjective standard is the conscience of the individual.

44. Kinds of morality. There exist three types of morality : goodness, evil, and moral indifference. Goodness consists in agreement with the eternal law, evil in divergence from it. Moral indifference is to be found in those acts which considered in themselves and in the abstract neither possess nor lack conformity with the eternal law, such as the act of walking. In the concrete, however, such indifferent acts do not exist since the circumstances and purpose of a human act will always make it either good or evil, as we shall see more fully in No. S 5 –

Art.2. Principles or Sources of Morality

45. Introductory. After discussing in the previous section the general character of morality we must now consider the morality of acts in the concrete ; that is to say, we must determine the elements which in any human act are responsible for one type of morality in preference to another. These elements are known as the principles or sources of morality, since in practice they determine the specific moral character of a human act. St. Thomas lists the following as principles or sources of morality : 1. the object; 2. the circumstances of the act ; 3. its purpose.

§ 1. The Object

46. Definition. The object under consideration here is not the physical but the moral object and is defined as : that to which the action tends of its very nature primarily and necessarily. For example, a thief steals five pounds from a church in order to indulge his passion of lust. The moral object of this act is the property of another that is unjustly taken ; the circumstances of the act are the commission of theft in a sacred place ; its purpose is the satisfaction of the thief’s evil passion. The moral object considered in itself is good if it is in accord with reason and the eternal law ; it is evil if it diverges from these standards ; it is indifferent if it is neither in agreement with nor divergent from these standards, v.g., putting on a white or black garment.

The moral object may be considered in one of two ways : materially , when its own relationship to the eternal law is considered ; formally, in so far as its morality is recognised by the conscience of the agent. An object that is materially evil constitutes material sin ; an object that is formally evil constitutes formal sin.

47. Principle. The primary and essential morality of a human act is derived from the object considered in its moral aspect. The primary and essential morality of a human act is that which acts as the invariable basis of any additional morality. Now it is the moral object which provides such a foundation. This will be clear from an example. The moral object of adultery is the transgression of another’s marriage rights. This moral object remains the invariable basis of the moral character of the act, no matter what further circumstances or motives accompany the act. It cannot be objected that in human acts the first consideration should be given to the motive rather than to the object of the act. For this motive is either the objective purpose of the act itself which is identical with the moral object, or the subjective purpose (the end of the agent) which presupposes moral goodness or evil in the object.

§ 2. The Circumstances

48. Definition. Moral circumstances are those moral conditions which are added to and modify the already existing moral substance of the act, such as the added circumstance of consanguinity in fornication. From the earliest times it has been customary to list seven circumstances contained in the following verse: Quis, quid, ubi, quibus auxiliis, cur, quomodo, quando.

49. First Principle. Human acts define some morality from their circumstances. This is admitted by everyone. For just as the value of a physical object is diminished or increased by its attendant circumstances, so the morality of a human act is affected by its circumstances. Furthermore the Council of Trent in commanding that those circumstances which change the specific character of a sin must be confessed in the Sacrament of Penance clearly presupposes that circumstances do affect the morality of an act.

In order that these circumstances influence the moral character of an act it is necessary : a) that they themselves be morally good or bad, that is to say that they be in conformity with or lack conformity with human reason ; b) that their moral character be recognised and intended at least to some extent by the agent.

50. Second Principle. Some circumstances alter the morality of an act completely, others affect merely the degree of morality. The first part of this principle rests on the fact that some circumstances have a distinctive and specific morality of their own. Thus, the circumstance of the sacred character of stolen goods has in the act of theft its own species of evil, since it is a grievous violation of the virtue of religion, whereas the act of theft, itself is a sin against justice.

The reason for the second part of the principle is that some circumstances do not possess a moral character different from that of the object ; for example, taking away something belonging to another is an act of theft which possesses its own evil character, and the amount stolen is a circumstance which aggravates the evil but does not offend against any other virtue apart from justice.

51. Kinds of moral circumstances.

1. Circumstances are distinguished into those which alter the morality of an act and those which do not.

2. Circumstances which alter the morality of an act are further subdivided into those which change the moral species of the act by offending against different virtues, and those which change the theological species of the act by converting what was venially sinful into something grievously sinful ; v.g. a light theft is a venial sin, a great theft is a mortal sin.

3. Circumstances which do not alter the (moral) species of an act either aggravate or diminish the degree of morality, in so far as they increase or diminish the moral evil of an act. Aggravating circumstances are further divided into those which a) slightly, b ) notably, or c) indefinitely aggravate the morality of an act. The latter are those which change venial sin into mortal sin, and thus are identical with those which change the theological species of an act.

§ 3. The End or Motive

Our discussion is confined to the subjective end or end intended by the agent ; we shall not consider the end of the act itself since this is identical with the moral object already discussed in §1.

52. First Principle. The moral character of an act depends also on the motive of the agent ( the subjective end). The reason for this is that the end or motive of the agent may have its own moral character in reference to the eternal law and right reason, by being opposed or conformed to them.

53. Second Principle. The motive of the agent a) may change an indifferent act in the abstract into a good or evil act ; b) may increase or diminish the goodness of an act, and even make it evil ; c) may increase or diminish the evil of an act ; d) but it is never able to make an evil act good.

With regard to a) : walking if viewed in the abstract is morally indifferent, but if performed for a good motive, v.g. from obedience, it is morally good, whereas if it is done from an evil motive, e.g., from a desire to satisfy a blameworthy curiosity, it becomes morally evil.

With regard to b) : the object of the act of almsgiving is good and its goodness is increased if the act is done in fulfilment of a vow. If vanity enters as a partial motive, the act loses some of its goodness, whereas if vanity becomes the chief motive, the act is evil. Some theologians used to teach that an evil motive always vitiated the entire goodness of an act, but today it is generally admitted that if the evil motive is a partial and incomplete motive, it is certainly evil in itself but nevertheless there remains some goodness in an act whose object is good. For if a slight evil in the motive were sufficient to destroy completely the goodness of an act which was good in other respects, could we ever perform a good act? Therefore it must be admitted that one and the same act may be good under one aspect, bad under another — that is to say, good by reason of its object, bad by reason of its circumstances or motive, provided however that the evil motive is not the adequate cause of the act.

With regard to c) : the man who steals to obtain sufficient money to get drunk sins more grievously than if he were only to steal, whereas the man who steals in order to be able to give alms sins less grievously, although the sin remains because of the evil in the act arising from the evil nature of the moral object.

With regard to d) : a good motive can never justify the use of evil means. And thus St. Paul gives the warning : “ Let us not do evil that there may come good ” (Rom. iii, 8). The intrinsic reason for this is that the evil character of the act arising from the object is so opposed to right reason that it cannot be altered by any external motive.

54. Third Principle. In all his actions man must put before himself some good motive which is related to God at least implicitly ; under no circumstances may he act for pleasure alone.

la this principle lies the answer to the question : what sort of intention does the agent require in order that his acts may be good ? The doctrine proposed steers a middle course between two extremes, one of which demands from man an actual or at least virtual reference of his acts to God (du Bay, Jansen), the other maintaining that for an act to be good all that is necessary is that nothing be done contrary to right reason, without any other intention being necessary. That at least an implicit reference of human acts to God is necessary follows from those condemned propositions in which it is asserted that it is perfectly lawful to act for pleasure alone : “ There is no sin in eating and drinking to excess merely for the sake of pleasure, provided that there is no injury to health, since it is lawful for the natural appetite to take enjoyment in its own acts ” (Innocent XI, prop. 8 ; cf. prop. 9). St. Thomas had already taught (Contra Gent, iii, 26) : “ Pleasure exists for the sake of action and not vice-versa.” There is certainly nothing wrong in experiencing pleasure while acting but it is never good to act for pleasure alone. An actual or virtual reference of human acts to God cannot be required since nowhere is there to be found such a rigid precept.

In practice men should be advised to refer their acts to God as frequently as possible, but those who follow right reason in all their acts must be considered to possess a right intention.

Art. 3. The Extent of Morality

After considering the indifference of human acts we shall turn to the morality of external acts and their effects.

§ 1. Indifferent Acts

Introductory. We intend to consider human acts and not those acts which, although performed by men, arc not human, in order to determine their morality but not their supernatural merit.

55. Principle. Some human acts when viewed in the abstract are indifferent, but in the concrete such acts are never indifferent.

Human acts viewed in the abstract derive their moral character from the object alone. But many of those objects are completely indifferent, such as walking, painting, eating.

The second part of the principle derives its truth from the fact that human acts in the concrete are always done for a motive. If this motive is good (presupposing that the object of the act is good) then the act is good ; if the motive is bad, so also is the act.

56. Scholium. The effect of this teaching on the ascetical life. The principle that every deliberate act is either good or bad should prove a comfort and a spur to men of good will. For if no act is morally indifferent, then a man who follows right reason even in the smallest matters is performing good acts, which are also meritorious if he is in the state of sanctifying grace — a most consoling doctrine. And thus are excluded those so-called imperfections ” which are neither good nor bad. In this matter special attention is usually given to voluntary omissions of a good act, such as neglecting to hear Mass on weekdays. If such omissions have a sufficient reason, they are good acts ; otherwise they are bad. In itself, therefore, non-attendance at such Masses without sufficient reason would constitute sufficient matter for confession, but since in practice it is difficult to decide whether there was sufficient reason or not, modern theologians rightly and commonly teach that so-called . imperfections are not sufficient matter for absolution. However, it would act as a spur to the performance of good acts if these imperfections were frequently thought of as being truly sinful, even though of a venial character.

§ 2. The Morality of External Acts and their Effects

57. Principle. An external act increases the goodness or evil of the internal act in an accidental manner.

An external act of itself does not add to the moral goodness or evil of the internal act, since it does not possess its own distinct freedom but derives all the freedom it possesses from the internal act of the will of which it is the completion. Therefore the external act considered by itself does not have any moral character of its own and consequently cannot of itself increase or diminish the morality of the internal act. Thus in Scripture a perfect act of willing is praised or condemned just as much as if it had been completed externally, so that Abraham received the same reward for being ready to sacrifice his son as he would have done if he had completed the sacrifice.

But an external act increases the goodness or evil of the internal act accidentally, because of the many circumstances winch are added to the internal act. Thus for instance, due to the influence of the external act the will may desire the object with greater intensity and over a longer period of time. The external act may give rise to scandal, encouragement to sin, excommunication, the obligation to restitution, etc. Since this is so, the external act of sinning must be made known in confession, for even though of itself it does not increase the malice of the sin the confessor is unable to pass a balanced judgement on the state and obligations of the penitent unless he knows whether the sin was only internal or also external.

58. Any effect of a voluntary act that is foreseen and to some extent intended increases the goodness or evil of the act (whether the effect follows necessarily or accidentally). For the greater the goodness or evil of the will from which the act proceeds, so much the greater is the goodness or evil of the act itself. Now the will of a man who performs an act foreseeing and intending the good or evil effects of that acts better or worse than if he had not foreseen and intended such effects. For this added degree of morality it is not necessary that the effects be directly intended ; it is sufficient if they are indirectly intended, that is to say, if they could and ought to be foreseen. In this connection one should recall what has been said already in n. 23 concerning acts that arc indirectly voluntary.