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Chapter 9: The Voluntary: What Moral Norms Bear Upon

Question A: Why is it necessary to study various sorts of voluntariness?

1. Moral theology is concerned with how we constitute ourselves. Choices evidently play a large part in this, for they are actuations of the will, guided by moral norms, by which we determine ourselves with respect to human goods. Chapter two treated free choice at length; questions C through F below will clarify our responsibilities in choosing. (Questions C and D deal with choice in general; question E treats commitment, which is an especially important kind of choice; question F treats the accepting of side effects of a choice.)

2. However, choices are not the only acts of the will. Choice presupposes intelligent interest in a good; such interest is itself a form of willing. There are also other actuations of will allied with or consequent on choices; and, by bearing on choices, moral norms bear also on these other forms of voluntariness. Moral theology must consider these, too, insofar as they dispose persons well or badly with regard to human fulfillment. (Question B treats the modes of voluntariness which precede choice, while question G treats those which are consequent upon it.)

3. If the modes of responsibility are followed, they shape life as a whole by their bearing on choices and other sorts of voluntariness. Acts of the will do not exist in isolation, somewhere deep inside us. They energize both one’s inner activities and one’s outward behavior, and so determine the existential quality—the moral goodness or badness—of one’s whole life.

4. Classical moral theology spoke simply of the bearing of moral norms on “human acts,” which were distinguished from nonvoluntary behavior—“acts of man” (cf. S.t., 1–2, q. 1, a. 1). Although human acts were analyzed by reference to choice, the analysis began with those things accepted by common sense as human acts of various sorts—for example, killing a person. While this focus—on conventionally defined human acts—seems appealingly simple at first, the present analysis proceeds differently. Beginning with the sorts of voluntariness, the analysis of this chapter and the next considers the bearing of the modes of responsibility upon choices and other sorts of voluntariness.

5. This approach has the advantage of beginning with what is morally relevant about human acts: their voluntariness. By contrast, the older approach tended to obscure what is morally relevant by focusing on features which are significant for common sense or legal or metaphysical reasons. Such considerations call attention to many distinctions which have nothing to do with morality, while failing to point out others which make a difference to one’s responsibility. For example, right and wrong tend to be obscured if one begins by considering killing in a common sense way, homicide in a legal way, or the various metaphysically distinct causes of death. The work of moral analysis proceeds more easily if one first distinguishes between choosing to kill and freely accepting death, and then examines the morality of each.

As will become clear in the analysis, “morally significant human acts” is not a general class-name (a genus) univocally predicated of specifically different instances of kinds of human acts. Rather, “morally significant human acts” refers to an ordered set (a grouping of analogy) of diverse sorts of things, which are human acts and morally significant in diverse but related ways.

Chapter two explained that free choice, because it is self-determining, is central for morality. The primary sort of things (the prime analogate) called “moral acts” consists of executions of free choices. In other words, the basic and most obvious morally significant action is a choice to do something and its execution. The whole—choice and performance together—is the human act. Since doing by choice is central, the analysis in this chapter focuses on this kind of human acts.

One might suppose that the only morally significant acts are those which carry out choices. In fact, while the execution of a choice always is morally significant, there are other morally significant aspects of human action. Moral selfhood and the responsibility which goes with it belong to persons just insofar as they have the power to make choices. Thus, moral responsibility extends beyond acts done by choice—for instance, to omissions and foreseen side effects. It follows that even in its full moral sense, “responsibility” does not refer to a single existential reality. For example, responsibility for what one does by choice is not the same as responsibility for side effects one accepts. Yet both are real and the latter can be as serious as the former.