Why an understanding of “human acts” is crucial for moral judgments – Driscoll, 1920

“He that could have transgressed, and hath not transgressed, and could do evil things, and hath not done them.”

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Editor’s Notes

In a previous essay about the kind of heresy that separates a man from the Church, I wrote:

Discussions about heresy and membership become confused due to a lack of unanimity of terms. For example, should it be treated as a sin, or a crime?

For these reasons, let’s be specific here and consider heresy solely as a human act.

“Being a human act” is logically prior to an act’s goodness or sinfulness. Sagües defines an act in the broad sense, as “any activity of man either elicited or commanded by the will whether interior, such as a thought or desire, or exterior, such as a word or deed.” In a negative sense, an omission can also be an act.

In other words, a human act is one for which the agent is responsible, as it proceeds from his intellect and will. It excludes absent-minded, non-voluntary acts; and includes omissions in so far as these are also voluntary.

The following text is an extract from an essay, included in the appendix to the 1948 edition of St Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, which explains this in more detail. The summary at the end also provides an overview of the points covered in the first half of the essay. It is not easy to find online, so we have transcribed part of it for readers’ interest. We have added a few line breaks added for ease of reading.

The Human Act and Morality
Rev. J.A. Driscoll

Physical Goodness and Evil

Now it is a fundamental metaphysical truth that “being” and “good” are convertible terms. Hence, a thing has goodness in so far as it has the being it should possess, and it lacks goodness in so far as it does not have something that is due to its fullness of being. A wingless mallard is not a very good duck; neither is a one-legged dobbin a very good horse. On the other hand, we do not turn a cold, disapproving eye upon our horse when he fails to speak a polite “thank you” as we offer him his evening meal of oats. Talking horses may have a legitimate place in the realm of mythology but we would do well to rush off to a psychiatrist the minute we are convinced that one has spoken to us in the world of hard reality. And so, to the extent to which a thing has the completeness of being required by its nature, to that same degree it is good; and in the measure in which it lacks the fullness of being due to its nature, to the same extent it is bad or suffers evil.

What is the source of this fullness of being and goodness? Essentially it is that element which makes a thing what it is, places it in a definite species, gives it a nature different from all other natures – in a word, its form. We expect a duck to have two wings and a horse to have four legs because their forms give them natures which, at least as far as forms themselves are concerned, result in these perfections. And we do not expect a horse to be going about exchanging pleasantries with other horses or with ourselves precisely because it is a horse; and a horse is a horse because of its form, its soul, the principle which makes it a horse and not a man.

What is true of things is also true of actions. If an action has the fullness of being required by its nature, it is good; but if it is deficient in something it should possess then it is a bad action. When we somehow manage to shoot down a duck and our canine companion promptly and proudly places it at our feet we rightly consider this a good act of retrieving. But when Rex stops on the way and devours half of the catch before bringing back the shattered remains – this may be a good act of eating but it is a very poor act of retrieving.

And what is the source of the fulness of being and goodness of an action? It is the object of the act. In other words, the relationship of an act to its object is the same as that of a thing to its form. The object determines the species of an action; makes it what it is; renders it this kind of an action rather than another. When a man lashes out with his good right arm, it is only when this action reaches its object that it becomes an act of hitting a punching-bag – or of striking a man in the face. The motion of the arm is the same in both instances. It is the object, punching-bag or face, which makes the difference. And since it is the object that makes an act what it is in the first place, it follows that we must judge the perfection or deficiency of an action in relation to this same object.

Thus when a street urchin threatens to give his enemy a “good punch in the nose,” he is promising, first of all to bring his grimy fist into contact with his enemy’s nose – and this will constitute an act of nose-punching as opposed, for example, to an act of portrait painting. Moreover, the urchin pledges himself to carry on his pugilistic efforts in a perfect manner. His will not be a slight blow, nor a glancing blow; he will hit his adversary straight and hard and squarely. He will do all that even the severest critic could demand in the way of perfection in the act of nose-punching. It is clear that the fulness of being, the goodness of the act, depends upon its relation to its object – the nose.

Moral Goodness and Evil

The Moral Object

Up to the present point we have considered the nature and norm of physical goodness in things and actions. The concept of moral goodness and evil is merely a more specific determination of these same truths. Briefly, the morality of a human act is essentially determined by its moral object, just as the character of a physical action is essentially determined by its physical object. The object itself, however takes on a moral aspect because of its relationship to the norm of morality. For example, the moral object of an act of theft is not the fur coat that is considered merely as a fur coat, but insofar as it belongs to someone else who is reasonably unwilling that the coat be taken, that is, insofar as it is brought into relationship with the norm of morality. When the object conforms to this norm it is morally good; when it fails to do so, it is morally evil. And since a moral action is specified by its moral object, the action is good or evil according as its object conforms or fails to conform to the moral norm.

Morality then consists essentially in the relation of a human action, through the medium of its moral object, to the norm of morality. What is the norm of morality? The immediate rule is human reason. An action is moral because it is human, because it is subject to the control and guidance of reason. We neither approve nor condemn an idiot for what he does precisely because he is incapable of intelligent action. His acts are not human, they are not moral because they are not controlled by reason. And so it is clear that the norm of moral goodness or badness is reason dictating what must be done, what moral object must be sought, to reach the ultimate goal of man’s nature, to arrive at the true end of human existence, to attain happiness. Hence, an action is morally good because it is reasonable; and an action is morally bad because it is unreasonable – because it is not in conformity with the dictates of reason. As Dionysius says, the good of man is to be in accordance with reason, and evil is to be against reason.[1]

But human reason is merely the proximate rule and measure of morality. It can know and point out what is good or evil, what will lead us to or away from our final goal, only because it is a participation of Divine Reason. When a man of ordinary intelligence wishes to construct a garage he does not begin the project by haphazardly pounding boards together. He first formulates an idea, an exemplar of the garage. And before a sane man initiates a charity drive, he thinks out a method of procedure, a plan which will direct the activities of those who are to engage in the work, so that the whole operation may be carried on in an orderly and efficient manner and the purpose of the drive attained.

If we demand this much of any intelligent man, we must look for nothing less perfect in the operations of God, the Supreme Intelligence. Before God created the world He had a Divine Idea, an exemplar of all the creatures He would bring into existence. He also had a divine plan of action according to which these creatures, in a manner conformable with their natures, would perfect themselves, fulfil their destines, tend to the end He had set for them. This is the eternal law of God which is the plan of Divine Wisdom as directing all acts and movements, the plan of Divine Wisdom moving all things to their end. All creatures inferior to man in the scale of being are moved to their goals by their natural tendencies or by their instincts. But man, through his intelligence, knows his nature, and the end for which he was created, and what will lead him to that end. By this knowledge, he participates in the Divine Wisdom; he knows the eternal law of God. And so we say that the eternal law is the ultimate norm of morality, and reason, as a participation of Divine Reason or the eternal law, is the proximate norm of morality.

The Circumstances

And so an action is morally good or evil according as it agrees or fails to agree with the norm of morality, that is, with human reason insofar as it is a participation of Divine Reason or the eternal law. And the primary, essential source of this relationship of agreement or disagreement is the moral object of the action. Homicide is evil because it is contrary to the norm of morality, and the essential reason why it runs counter to this norm is because the moral object involved, the life of another unjustly taken, is opposed to the norm of morality.

But in every human act we must look for determinants of morality other than the object. Fulness of being and goodness implies more than the possession of the species derived from the moral object. When a man performs an action, it is not just an action – in the sense that there is no more involved in a human act than its substance. When money is stolen, that is the substance of the moral act. But if we were to limit our description to this fact we would impart relatively little information about the morality of the action. To give a complete story of what took place we would have to tell who took the money, what the amount was and the effect it had upon the one robbed, where he stole it, what means he employed, why, how and when the money was taken. All of these elements are called the circumstances of an action – those conditions which are outside of the substance of a human act but in some way touch upon and affect its morality.

It is important that we know the circumstances of an act. The countless things we do each day are good or bad, better or worse, worthy of reward or deserving of punishment, not only because of the actions themselves, but also because of the conditions surrounding them. If we are to reach our final goal we must do so by means of human actions, and circumstances form an integral part of these acts. And so far as the attainment of heaven is concerned the circumstances are no less important than the substance of our actions.

Some of these accidental conditions surrounding an act merely increase or diminish its degree of goodness or evil. The difference between the filching of a few apples and the stealing of thousands of dollars is a consideration of no small moment, but the actions, because of their moral objects (apples and dollars unjustly taken) are essentially the same – they are both acts of theft.

But circumstances may even add a new moral species to an action. For example, to take the life of another man unjustly is an act of murder, but to do so in a church constitutes an entirely new moral relation – that of sacrilege. Or, again, sleeping is a good, even necessary action, but any moralist would frown upon a sentry doing this good deed at his post. In such cases, however, the circumstances really become new moral objects because they are responsible for an added moral species in the act.

Not all circumstances are always important. For example, the circumstance of time, the “when” of an action, may or may not affect the morality of an act. Whether a person becomes angry on Monday morning or on Thursday afternoon will not have any bearing on the morality of the action. But the eating of meat on Friday does have its moral implications. The accidents of “what” and “why,” however, are not only always present, but they are the most important of all. As is evident, the circumstance of “what” is linked to the very substance of the act. And the “why” of an action is not only a circumstance but also the proper object of the will; it is the end which moves the agent to act in the first place; without it there would be no action to worry our heads about.

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The end of a human action

In fact, the “why” of our actions, the purpose of end of the one acting, has such a fundamental effect upon the moral goodness of what we do, that it constitutes a special source of morality. The importance of our intentions is seen in this warning of Christ: “Take heed that you do not your justice before men, to be seen by them; otherwise you shall not have a reward of your Father who is in heaven.”[2]

As we have pointed out, a human act is specified by its moral object. But we must keep in mind that there is a twofold human act – the interior action of the will, and the exterior action. The object of the exterior act is that to which it primarily and naturally tends; it is the person or thing with which the act is by its nature concerned – for example, in the act of stealing money the moral object is the money, not indeed, considered as a physical thing, but viewed from the moral aspect of its belonging to someone else who is reasonably unwilling that the money be taken from him. The object of the interior act of the will, on the other hand, is the end or good intended. And hence it is from this object or end that the goodness or malice of the interior act is derived.

Now, the interior act and the exterior act go to make up one moral action. It could not be otherwise because the exterior action would not be human, it would not be a controlled, moral act unless it depended upon and proceeded from the will freely moving the various powers and organs to perform the action. And so, in one and the same moral action, the exterior act takes on the essential morality of its object, but it also partakes of the morality of the end intended; and the interior act is specified by the end intended, but also partakes of the morality of the external object. But because the very humanity of the act depends upon the will, the morality of a complete act depends formally on the object of the interior act, that is, on the end intended, and only materially on the object of the exterior act.

At times the end or object of the one placing the act coincides with the object of the exterior act – as when a man contributes to the March of Dimes to exercise charity. The March of Dimes is by its nature ordained to charity, and this is the end intended. But the complete act will have more than one species of morality if the object and end or specifically different – as when murder is committed for the purpose of vengeance. In this case two specifically different sins are committed, but the moral action is formally an act of vengeance because this is the end of the agent performing the action.

The sources of morality, then, are the object, the circumstances and the purpose of our human actions. These are the elements which bring an individual act into agreement or disagreement with reason, the norm of morality, and hence render the act good or evil.

Actions, however, may be not only good or bad; they may be indifferent. But morally indifferent acts are possible only when considered in the abstract. Since the object determines the specific morality of an action, the act will be morally indifferent inf the object itself has no special relation to the reason, the norm of morality. Even in the abstract, we judge murder as essentially, specifically evil and almsgiving as essentially, specifically good because of the relation of the objects of these actions to the norm of reason. But we cannot reasonably judge the abstract notion of walking as either good or bad. In any individual, concrete, human action, however, walking must be good or bad because, being a human act, at least the intention of the one walking is present, and his motive will make the action either good or evil.

The norm of morality of an elicited or purely interior act of the will is the same as that of all human action – reason, which proposes the object or end to the will as something good because ordained to the goal of life, or as something evil because it will turn man aside from his true, final end.

Now because the will receives its object from the reason and reason is the norm of morality, the will must follow the guidance of even an erroneous conscience. It is a good action for a soldier to kill an enemy in a just war; but when a man is convinced that it is evil, he is morally bound to become a conscientious objector. Since the object is presented to the will by the reason as something evil, if the will embraces the object, it itself becomes evil. And so the will is bound to follow the dictates of an erroneous conscience.

When a man follows an erring conscience he is free of guilt if the error is involuntary, if it results from inculpable ignorance, if the person is guilty of no negligence in knowing the true morality of the action. But if the ignorance which results in the error is in any way culpable, the evil action is voluntary and one is not excused from sin. Hence these words of Christ:

“And some of the Pharisees […] said unto him: Are we also blind? Jesus said to them: If you were blind, you should not have sin, but now you say: We see. Your sin remaineth.”[3]

When the will follows the direction of right human reason (and hence of Divine Reason), it by that very fact conforms itself to the Divine Will. It tends not only to a particular end or a particular good but to the Ultimate End or Highest Good – to God Himself. And thus in so far as is possible the human will imitates the action of the Divine Will embracing its proper object, namely, the Perfect Good; and in so doing the will of man is brought into conformity with the will of God.

It is true that at times our desire for some particular good may be, unknown to us, contrary to the Will of God who in His Wisdom sees reasons that are not evident to us – just as the will of  a well meaning child wishing the great good of candy may be, unknown to the child, contrary to the will of his parents who see many reasons why the sweets should not be eaten at this particular time. And so, whenever one and the same thing can be good or evil under different aspects, we are not guilty of any formal wrong when our wills fail to agree materially with the Divine Will. But we can and must always, implicitly or explicitly, do all things for the glory of God, our Last End; we can and must always strive to be sure that what we will is a true and not merely an apparent good; and in this way we can be confident that we are doing our part to conform our wills to the Will of God.

Since an exterior act is human and moral only in so far as it depends upon and proceeds from the interior act of our free will, the mere performance of the external act does not add any formal goodness r malice to the act of the will. However, the external act does, for good or will, bring the interior act to its natural conclusion and perfection. Moreover it can increase the accidental goodness or malice of the internal act by reason of the effect it has upon the will itself. Thus, it is at times responsible for a numerical increase of internal actions – as when a man intends to commit mayhem, changes his mind, and later again wills to maim his fellowman and does so. Again, more time is required to perform the exterior act and so it prolongs the goodness or malice of the interior act. It takes longer to maliciously burn down a man’s house than it does to merely will to do so. And since the exterior act is pleasurable or painful, it can also increase or decrease the intensity of the internal act and so increase or diminish the goodness or malice of the will. Moreover, the exterior act involve restitution whereas the internal act does not. When a man intends to rob a bank and actually carries out his nefarious plan, he not only sins but he is also obliged to return the money.

If the good or evil consequences of an external act are foreseen it is evident that they increase the goodness or malice of the act; they are known and willed. And even though these consequences are not foreseen they nevertheless affect the goodness or badness of the act if they are ordinary and natural effects – not, however, if they seldom and by mere accident result from the action. When a plumber through sheer indifference fails to connect the drain-pipe of a kitchen sink he should not grumble and feel that a grave injustice is being perpetrated when he is presented with a bill for damages done. But when father goes down to a darkened basement to replace a burnt-out fuse and stumbles over mother’s clothes-basket at the foot of the stairs, even a bruised and battered body does not justify the accusation that the whole unhappy business was planned with malice aforethought.

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And so to summarize: A navigator’s interest in his compass and sextant is not merely academic. He views these instruments as essential tools of his trade; he considers a knowledge of their workings as indispensable if he is to guide his ship to port in safety. Our concern with the intricacies of human acts is also of a very practical nature. These acts are the means by which we are to reach the port of happiness and so an understanding of their make-up is for us a matter of no little interest.

From a psychological aspect as well as from a moral viewpoint, the externals of human activity are relatively unimportant. If an exterior act is human and moral it is only because it depends upon the internal powers of the intellect and will. A human act is that “of which a man is master,” and we are masters of our actions, we control our actions (an essential requisite for morality) by means of intellect and will. Hence, any study of the humanity and morality of man’s actions must center around the nature of these two faculties of the soul.

When any act of ours is the product of the joint activity of intellect and will, it is said to be voluntary. It proceeds from an internal principle, the will, with an intellectual knowledge of the end of the action. Because of his gifts of reason and will, man alone, of all the creatures of this world, is capable of performing a perfectly voluntary act.

There are many elements which affect the voluntariness of our acts – violence, fear, concupiscence and ignorance. And because voluntariness depends upon intellect and will, the extent to which these four elements influence the activity of the intellect and will determines the effect they have upon the voluntariness of what we do.

A human action has two fundamental aspects – motion, which has its proximate source in the will; and the direction of this motion to a good or end, which falls within the province of the intellect.

In all of our actions the will must seek its proper object – the good, or at least what is proposed to it as good. In the concrete, this good may be a means to an end or an end itself; but all goods, whether means or proximate ends, must be ordained to some ultimate end. The true Ultimate End of man is the Perfect Good, God. In this Good alone can compete happiness be found and hence the value of any created good must be judged in the light of this Increated Good [sic]. If it leads to complete happiness it is a true, moral good. I it turns us away from perfect enjoyment, it is false and counterfeit.

Since the will is the proximate source of all motion in a human act, the role of the intellect and the sensitive appetite is limited to formal and final causality, i.e., the intellect (and the sensitive appetite through the intellect) presents goods to the will which specify and terminate the action of the will.

The will cannot move itself from a state of non-willing to an act of willing a good because it would be in act and not in act, willing and not willing, at the same time and under the same aspect. Hence, it must be moved to its initial acts, acts of simple volition of the universal good or the good in general, by an exterior efficient cause, and this cause can be God alone, the Author of the will’s nature. Once it is in act relative to the good in general, the will can move itself to particular goods and ends. Thus the will is moved by the intellect, and directly by the sensitive appetite, as by a formal and final cause. It is moved in a special way in its first acts by God as by an Efficient Cause. It moves itself (and indeed all other powers) relative to particular goods as a proximate efficient cause – the remote cause of its movements as of all movements being the First Cause and First Mover.

As to the manner in which the rational appetitive is moved, i.e., whether of necessity or freely, we have seen that the will is neither indetermined nor determined in all of its actions. At times it acts of necessity; at other times it is free to act or not to act. In any initial movement, the will necessarily reaches out for its proper, formal object – the universal good, or happiness in general, proposed to it under the aspect of something which contributes to man’s general well-being. It must be moved to this act by some exterior principle – it cannot move itself. It can be moved to this act only by the Author of its nature. In all other actions the will freely moves itself as a proximate cause to the particular goods presented to it by the intellect. Only the perfect good perfectly known is the adequate, all-satisfying, necessitating object of the will, and in the present life the intellect can find no such particular object. Hence, the judgment of the reason remains free. It can judge a thing good because it contains some good, but at the same time it can judge anything as a non-good because everything in the present life falls short of perfection. And because the intellect is not determined in its judgments, because it can detect non-good in any particular good, the will is left free to embrace any object because it possesses some good or to reject it because it is not perfect.

The fact of human liberty as evidence by the nature of the intellect and the will is confirmed by man’s personal experience, by the testimony of his own conscience, the by the fact that our moral, civil and social life would collapse if all men should become so abnormal as to accept the doctrine of determinism.

Now, while the source of all activity, of all efficient causality in the human act is the will (in the sense just explained), the knowledge of goods and the direction of movement to these goods pertains to the intellect. It is axiomatic that “nothing is will unless it is known” and so human action must begin with a movement of the intellect. Analysis shows that in one human act there may be twelve distinct, fundamental movements – five cognitive, six volitional and one of the executive powers. Two acts of the intellect, namely, simple apprehension and judgment, have to do with ends; and three acts, counsel, discretive judgment and command, are exercised with reference to means. The will has three acts relative to ends, simple volition, intention and enjoyment, and also three acts relative to means – consent, choice and active use. The act of passive use pertains to all of the powers external to the will in that they execute the action by means of which the end is attained.

And so, a human action begins with the intellect’s act of simple apprehension and after alternate movements of will and intellect it terminates in the volitional act of enjoyment, in the delight taken by the will in the possession of the good intended.

Just as the physical goodness of a thing is determined by its form, and the physical goodness of an action is determined by its physical object, so is the moral goodness of an action determined by its moral object – and an object is moral because of its relation to the norm of morality. In other words, an action is morally good or evil according as it corresponds or does not correspond to the requirements of its moral object; and the moral object is itself good or evil in the measure in which it conforms or fails to conform to the norm of morality. The proximate rule of morality is human reason, which is itself a reflection of Divine Reason or the Eternal Law, directing human action to the goal of life.

The sources of morality, the elements that bring an action into relationship with the norm of morality, are the moral object and the circumstances of the act and the end or purpose of the one performing the action. Precisely because they are the sources of the morality of the things we do, all of these elements are important for the gaining, or the loss, of heaven.

Since reason is the proximate norm of morality, we are bound to follow the dictates of conscience even when it is in error. In doing so, our moral guilt will depend upon the culpability of the ignorance. Which results in the errors. If our conscience is “right,” if it truly mirrors Divine Reason, our wills are by that very fact conformed to the Divine Will. We can be sure that we are doing all that is demanded of us if we do our level best to seek what is truly good, and not merely what is apparently so, and refer, at least implicitly, all of our actions to God.

Finally, exterior actions are relatively unimportant from a moral viewpoint, but they can increase the accidental goodness or malice of the interior act of the will; and we are morally responsible for the consequences of these exterior acts if they are foreseen or should be foreseen by us.

Rare treasures indeed, then, are our spiritual powers of intellect and will, and grateful we should be for these gifts of God. Because we are rational beings we are free. We shall not abuse our liberty, but rather shall strive to be like that man whom Sacred Scripture calls blessed:

“Who is he and we shall praise him – he shall have glory everlasting. He that could have transgressed, and hath not transgressed, and could do evil things, and hath not done them.”[4]

It is within our power, divinely aided, to win the supreme, perfect happiness for which we were created, and the human means by which we shall either succeed or fail eternally are our human, moral acts – the acts of the intellect and will.

Taken from ‘On Human Acts’ by Rev. John A. Driscoll OP, in St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, First Complete American Edition in Three Volumes, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Vol. III, Benziger Brothers, Inc., New York, 1948 pp 3201-3220.

Further Reading

True Law – According to the Teaching of St Thomas Aquinas

St Thomas Aquinas and the Church – His Intrinsic Authority

St Thomas Aquinas and the Church – His Extrinsic Authority

What sort of heresy separates someone from the Church?


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[1] De Div. No., 4, 22 (M.G., 3, 732)

[2] Matt. 6.1.

[3] John 9.40-41

[4] Eccli. 31.9-10

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