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18. Moral Good and Evil in Human Acts

1. Human acts that measure up to what sound reason sees they ought to be, are good acts. Human acts that fall short of what they ought to be are, to the extent of their failure to measure up, evil acts.

2. The object, when we speak of human acts, is the human act itself and whatever it necessarily involves. Now, the object is the primary determinant of the moral good or evil of a human act.

3. If the object, the act itself considered as a deed done, does not manifest the good or evil of the act, then we look to the secondary determinants of morality, that is, to the circumstances of the human act as performed. To be morally good, a human act must be what it ought to be in itself and in its circumstances. Hence object and circumstances are determinants of the morality of a human act.

4. In determining the moral character of a human act by circumstances, the circumstance of end of the agent is most important. This circumstance most often ceases to be merely a circumstance, and enters into the object itself. The end intended by the author of a human act is so important a determinant of the morality of his act that we give it special mention; therefore we usually list the determinants of the morality of human acts in this way: object, end, circumstances.

5. Good acts are specifically different from evil acts. Acts are specified by their objects, that is, by what they are in themselves, and there is an essential difference between an act in accord with right reason and an act not in such accord. Hence, by their objects, good acts and evil acts are specifically different.

6. Acts are also specified by their ends. On this score also good acts are specifically different from evil acts.

7. The specific difference between a good act and an evil act on the basis of end or intention is a more general or diffuse difference than that which is based on the objects of the acts. For an act which is one in itself may be done for several nonconflicting purposes; that is, it may have several ends.

8. Some human acts, considered in themselves abstractly, as in their definitions, are neither morally good nor morally bad; they are indifferent acts. Thus talking, singing, reading, pondering a subject, are (not as humanly done, but as defined in a dictionary) indifferent acts. Such acts have in themselves no necessary agreement, and no necessary disagreement with right reason.

9. But every individual human act as performed, as humanly done, is necessarily either in accord with right reason or out of line with it. Individual human acts are not acts in abstract definition, but acts in concrete performance. And such acts must be considered, not in themselves only or as objects; they must be considered in the purpose for which they are done, and in the circumstances in which they are performed. And they will thus be seen to be either morally good or morally evil, but never indifferent. To illustrate: Talking is, in itself, an indifferent act. But talking which is done in moderation to make oneself agreeable, to console, to give good advice, to impart truth prudently, to encourage virtue, to divert people from unfriendly argument, or for other good purpose, is a morally good act. And talking which is done immoderately, or to irritate, to deceive, to prod people into a quarrel, in the wrong place or at the wrong time, in the wrong fashion, or to the wrong persons, is a morally evil act. Hence we have a true saying: Human acts are sometimes morally indifferent in their kind, but they are never morally indifferent as individual acts performed. If human acts do not have definite moral character in their objects, they have it in their end or their circumstances.

10. Thus it appears that circumstances sometimes specify an act in its moral character. Now, circumstances as such are accidentals of a human act, and accidentals cannot specify an essence. Only when a circumstance is taken into the essence of an act as a principal condition can it specify the act. Circumstances are really more than circumstances when they are absorbed, so to speak, into the act itself to give it moral character.

11. A circumstance may affect a human act in two ways. For (a) either it leaves the act unchanged in its kind, and merely intensifies it, that is, makes it better or worse; or (b) it changes the nature of the act, or, more precisely, it introduces a new element into the act. A man who is deliberately angry for an hour does something worse than if he were deliberately angry for five minutes; here the circumstance of manner makes the more enduring act worse than the less enduring, but does not make it different. But a man who steals money from a church is guilty of theft and also of sacrilege; the circumstance of place changes the nature of simple theft into sacrilegious theft. The two types of circumstances which affect the moral character of human acts are called, respectively, (a) aggravating circumstances, and (b) circumstances which change the nature of the act.

"Before a man chooses his confessor, he ought to think well about it, and pray about it also; but when he has once chosen, he ought not to change, except for most urgent reasons, but put the utmost confidence in his director."
St Philip Neri

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"Does our conduct correspond with our Faith?"
The Cure D'Ars

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"Lord, take from me everything that hinders me from going to You. give me all that will lead me to You. Take me from myself and give me to Yourself."
St Nicholas Flue

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