Jesus said, "If you love me, keep my commandments." It is easy to establish the general principle of doing good and avoiding evil; it is not so easy in every circumstance, here and now, to know what is good and what is evil.
But there are some basic principles of Christian morality that all Catholics should be familiar with. One of the very first is that any act of a human person must be a conscious, human act before it can have any moral quality whatsoever. A human act is one that proceeds from knowledge and free will. If either adequate knowledge or freedom is lacking in the act of a person, then that act is not fully human and therefore not fully moral. Thus, digestion, growth, the movement of blood in the veins, etc., since they are not under the control of our will, are not spoken of as moral acts at all. They are acts of a human person, but they are not called "human acts".
A fully human act, that is, one proceeding from knowledge and free will, is either morally good or morally evil. How do we know whether a given human act is good or evil? Over the centuries moral theologians have agreed that there are three determinants of the moral quality of our actions. The three are: the object, the circumstances and the intention.
The object is the thing with which the action is essentially concerned, for example, lying, praying the rosary, stealing, helping a blind person cross the street. For a morally good act, the object of it must be good, that is, the thing with which the action is concerned must confirm to the law of God.
The circumstances of the act are the second determinant of the morality of any action. The circumstances are such things as the person involved, the time, the place, the occasion, which are distinct from the object, but can change or completely alter its moral tone. Circumstances can make an otherwise good action evil, as when a soldier deliberately goes to sleep. They can increase the guilt, as when a girl lies to her mother; or minimize the guilt, as an unpremeditated lie in order to get out of an embarrassing situation. Since all human actions occur at a certain time and at a certain place, the circumstances must always be considered in evaluating the moral quality of any human act.
As well instructed Catholics we should know that the morality of every human act is determined by the object, the circumstances and the intention. If any one of the three is evil, then the human act in question is evil and should be avoided.
The third determinant of the moral quality of any human act is the intention or end or purpose. Every human act, no matter how trivial, is done for some purpose. The Sunday driver who blocks traffic and seems to be driving aimlessly has a purpose: he may not be going anywhere definite but he does seek the joy of just driving around and looking. For a human act to be morally good the agent or doer must have a good intention -- he must want to accomplish something that is good in one way or another. Some actions, like blasphemy and stealing, are always wrong and no purpose, no matter how noble, can make them good. Other actions may be either good or bad, depending on why we do them. Taking a drink is not sinful; drinking in order to get drunk is. The morality of many things that we do is determined by the intention -- such as walking, talking, reading, and so forth. Many such activities are said to be indifferent morally in themselves, but they receive their moral quality from the intention behind them.
For our actions to be good our intention must be good. It is good to help the poor, but if I donate to the poor out of vanity or from revenge, then it is not a good act even though, incidentally, the poor are helped. On the other hand, we must avoid the common contemporary error of thinking that the whole morality of any action is determined by the intention. The most noble intention cannot make an intrinsically evil action a good action. Thus, the bombings and killings perpetrated by terrorists in order to change some form of government are still murder. Stealing from the rich in order to help the poor a la Robin Hood is still stealing. The idea that "the end justifies the means" is very common today. Good by ill-advised people who are concerned about over-population or the proper raising of children resort to abortion in order to cut down on the number of births and to avoid unwanted children. But a good intention, no matter what it is, does not make something essentially evil, such as abortion, into something morally good.
We have reason to be alarmed at the increased use of the principle that "the end justifies the means." As well instructed Catholics we should know that the morality of every human act is determined by the object, the circumstances and the intention. If any one of the three is evil, then the human act in question is evil and should be avoided.
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Father Kenneth Baker, S.J. "What Makes Human Acts Good or Bad?" In Fundamentals of Catholicism Vol. 1 Part II, Chapter 2 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1983), 123-126.
Reprinted with permission from Father Kenneth Baker, S.J.
Rev. Kenneth Baker, S.J., has served for the past thirty years as editor of the Homiletic & Pastoral Review. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1947. In 1970 he served as president of Seattle University and in 1971 became editor of the Homiletic & Pastoral Review. In 1973 he published his translation of the Philosophical Dictionary and adapted it to American usage. In 1975 he became president of Catholic Views Broadcasts, Inc., which produces a weekly 15-minute radio program that airs on 50 stations across the United States. He has built and run three community television stations. In 1983 he published a three-volume explation of the faith called Fundamentals of Catholicism Vol. 1, Creed and Commandments; Vol. 2, God, Trinity, Creation, Christ, Mary; and Vol. 3, Grace, the Church, the Sacraments, Eschatology.
Copyright © 1995 Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J.