Insomniac's corner: Catholic handbooks of moral theology - a discussion of their technical terms
Next I need to give some more systematic attention to the terminological issues raised by the manualists. To help me explain their applications, I shall refer to some imaginary examples.
Alfred the bandit steals money, preferring a life of crime to an honest job as a way of supporting his family.
Belinda the doctor gives dying patients high doses of pain-killer, in the knowledge that this will shorten their lives, but with the chosen purpose only of controlling their pain.
Cuthbert the doctor gives dying patients high doses of pain-killer, in the knowledge that this will shorten their lives, but with the chosen purpose to finish them off, because he is fed up with them.
The word ‘intention’ (and its Latin root) is used in a number of different ways. The 1939 edition of Gury and the Dictionary of Moral Theology use it in connection with the first condition of the PDE: one intends the positing of the cause, or whatever one immediately does. This suggests, to use a term to be explained in a moment, that ‘intention’ should be limited to the object of an act.[i] (Alfred’s intention, in this sense, would be theft.) However, Prümmer uses it in a way distinguished from the first condition, to refer to the motive of the action (Alfred’s desire to support his family); Prümmer’s interest is in good or indifferent actions done with bad motives.
Again, Prümmer and Davis use ‘intending’ and ‘willing’ in their discussion of the voluntary, where they adopt Jeremy Bentham’s distinction between directly intended (or ‘willed’) and ‘indirectly intended (or ‘willed’)’ to separate things really intended, and those which are merely foreseen (see below). (Belinda, on this terminology, intends or wills her patients’ deaths indirectly, and their comfort directly. Cuthbert intends his patients’ deaths directly.) Finally, in his discussion of suicide Davis uses the word in the ordinary sense and with admirable clarity. A man jumps out of an over-laden boat to lighten it:
We defend his action, because the first effect, viz., the lightening of the boat, was a good effect, intended by him as such, and the other effect, his drowning, was not at all intended in itself, neither as an end or as a means. It was foreseen and permitted.[ii]
(On this usage, Belinda does not intend the deaths at all.) To avoid confusion I shall continue to use the word in this, my own sense, except where I make it clear that I am doing otherwise.
The ‘object’ of an act is (Davis tells us) ‘that to which the will immediately and primarily directs itself and its activity’.[iii] This is the action itself under an appropriate description, ascribable to the agent as what he is doing. The description is one in the ‘moral order’, and it is generally fixed by reference to the intention of the act, although it may still be natural to distinguish object and intention. This requires a different illustration. ‘Getting appointed as x’ is the intention with which Daphne goes to a job interview. However, while ‘going to a job interview’ is obviously the description of an action which Daphne is doing, ‘getting appointed’ is not; rather, it is something which she hopes to achieve by means of the action. On the other hand, the intention of getting appointed rules out a description of Daphne’s object as merely ‘going to room y in building z’, or ‘walking around’. When we say that she is going to a job interview, this description relies on and implies (at least in the normal case) her intention to get a job. The practice of distinguishing objects from ultimate intentions explains the manualists’ tendency to separate the action in itself from what it does, its purpose (in Prümmer), or its causal role (in Gury and Davis), despite the fact that for all of these writers the act is understood (implicitly) in terms of its intention. Again, Alfred’s thieving might be separated from his supporting his family, as object and purpose. I return to the concept of ‘object’ at the end of the section.
The ‘act’ itself, by distinction from the object of the act, is the act of will which is the origin of the action. It is objects which are good or bad in the first place, but there is also a goodness or badness of the will in doing them, as will become clear in dealing with the next two terms. The difference between act and object is sometimes referred to as the distinction between the external act and the internal act, since usually the internal act of will is accompanied by an external act of the body. However, a mental action like imagining or calculating is an object of an act of the will, and not just an act of the will.
The distinction between ‘formal’ and ‘material’ sin is between sin which is against one’s conscience and sin which is ‘in dissacord with unsuspected moral obligation’.[iv] The manualists have at their disposal an elaborate classification of different kinds of ignorance, and an account of how much, if at all, they excuse. The distinction between formal and material goodness and badness corresponds to the objective goodness or badness of the object of the act, and the subjective goodness or badness of the act itself.[v] What this means is that Alfred’s theft is objectively wrong, as an object of the will, but if Alfred has non-culpable ignorance of the immorality of theft (if this is possible) it may be subjectively excused. On the other hand, because theft is objectively wrong, if Alfred knows it is wrong, then his will must be malicious, regardless of any further intention in the action, and it is a morally wrong act. Again, an indifferent object (giving a pain-killer) may be done with a good will (as by Belinda) or a bad will (as by Cuthbert). The good or bad will determines the moral quality of otherwise indifferent actions.
Prümmer adds that causing a bad result (such as deaths) is a materially bad act, a ‘material sin’, but there is no formal sin if it does not fall under any of the first three conditions of the PDE, and if, further, there is a justification in terms of a compensatory good (the fourth condition: in Belinda’s case, the easing of pain). The concept of material badness of acts is also important for dealing with what the contemporary philosophical literature calls ‘innocent threats’. A child playing innocently with a hand-grenade, or an enemy soldier sincere, but mistaken, in his belief of the justness of his cause, are ‘materially’ in the wrong, or are ‘material aggressors’, and force can be used against them. A person who takes your goods thinking they are his is a material thief, and can be apprehended.
An act ‘which is itself a morally wrong act’ (as Davis puts it), is distinguished, by implication, from actions which are themselves innocent, but are made wrong by the will or by circumstances. There are two ways in which an act may be wrong ‘in itself’: it may be intrinsically wrong, like ‘hatred of God’, or it may be wrong because of a ‘positive precept’, that is, an authoritative command[vi] (such as a contract of employment, or the law of the land). Acts wrong in themselves cannot be willed rightly, unless there is non-culpable ignorance: someone willing them is willing wrongly. Other objects are indifferent in themselves, but are made right or wrong by circumstance or motive. (Belinda’s use of an illegal painkiller is wrong in itself. Cuthbert’s giving a legal painkiller to the patient he wants to finish off is wrong because of his motive. Belinda’s giving a lethal dose of legal painkiller to dull the pain of another patient is right because of the circumstances - for example, because it will not shorten his life by a significant amount.)
The distinction between acts wrong in themselves and those wrong only because of motive or circumstance reinforces the tendency to separate the ‘object’ from circumstances, motives and consequences, but the separation is not carried out systematically because the description of the object often specifies the motive (‘hatred of God’), the circumstances (‘theft’, taking what is another’s) or anticipated consequences (‘saving a life’).
The ‘voluntary’ is a category the manualists have adopted, via Aquinas, from Aristotle. The way they use it, however, is their own. Davis seems to have it that it is the consequences of action, and not exactly actions themselves, which are voluntary or not. (Thus the focus is on losses of property, not on acts of thieving.) Intended results are voluntary (the loss of property Alfred causes). If I know that an effect will occur if I act, but act without intending it, the effect is voluntary in its cause, but not in itself[vii] (the deaths of Belinda’s patients). If I refrain from preventing an effect when I should prevent it, it is indirectly voluntary (if Alfred leaves a victim injured, who dies without assistance).
Prümmer calls acts, not consequences, voluntary or not. (Thus the focus is on acts of thieving, not losses of property.) Acts willed in their cause, but not in themselves, he calls indirectly voluntary. An obligatory act which is omitted is called negatively voluntary.[viii] (So what Davis calls ‘indirect’ Prümmer calls ‘negative’; Prümmer calls ‘indirect’ what Davis calls ‘voluntary in its cause’.)
Although it is more natural to say that it is acts which are voluntary or not, and not the results of acts, the focus on acts causes Prümmer problems. First, although the result of an omission might be attributable to an agent as what Davis calls ‘indirectly voluntary’, the omission cannot itself be called an ‘act’, even (as Prümmer has it) a ‘negatively voluntary’ one, because omitting to act is not a kind of act. Second, Prümmer’s example of an indirectly voluntary act is Aristotle’s case of throwing cargo overboard in a storm. Prümmer says that the loss of the cargo is ‘detested’, but in fact, while the loss of the cargo’s value is not desired or intended, the loss of its weight emphatically is intended, as the chosen means to saving the ship. The case is exactly parallel to Davis’ suicide example quoted above. The distinction between value and weight cannot, however, be made when talking in terms of ‘acts’ rather than outcomes.
Prümmer later says that effects which ‘could and ought to have been foreseen’ (the victim left to die, perhaps when Alfred eased his conscience with the thought that he might be saved by a passer-by) are ‘indirectly intended’.[ix] Overall, his terminology explains why Prümmer refers, instead of to foreseen but non-intended upshots, to indirectly voluntary acts.
‘Direct’ and ‘indirect killing’ is not used in my sources’ formulation and initial discussion of the PDE, since that is a general principle, not limited to killing. Davis has a later section on ‘indirect killing’ which does not use that phrase in the text;[x] however, his discussion indicates that it refers to killing which is a ‘secondary effect’ in accordance with the PDE, which he then calls ‘indirectly intended’ or ‘indirectly willed’ (Belinda causing deaths). Prümmer links it explicitly to the voluntary, and says that indirect killing is an action in which killing is indirectly voluntary.[xi] On his terminology this means that it is not intended.
However, in another passage Davis writes ‘It is never allowed directly, i.e., by direct means, nor intentionally, i.e., with deliberate intent, to kill the human product in utero…’[xii] This attributes to the notion of directness a reference not only to intention but to certain kinds of causation, which is then put on a level with intention as coming under the prohibition. Indeed, it is natural to think of ‘directness’ in this area as causal directness.[xiii] This is not in line with Davis’ own official definition, and it suggests that Belinda’s giving of pain-killers, which is causally responsible for the deaths of her patients, is ‘direct’ regardless of her intentions; I return to Davis’ treatment of this issue in the next chapter. It cannot really be the case that causal directness should be put on a level with intention; as well as misclassifying Belinda’s actions, causal directness does not imply that one knows what one is doing. Charles Fried gives the example of a person running to catch a train who knocks a bystander off the platform to his death: this is causally direct, but not only unintended but unwitting.[xiv]
‘Co-operation’, Davis tells us, ‘is concurrence with another in a sinful act’.[xv] It may be ‘formal’ or ‘material’, depending on whether the sin is itself willed, or not. The category of material co-operation is further subdivided and can be excused for strong reasons in certain kinds of case. It is important, however, as an example of a wrongdoing associated with one or other good or virtue which does not involve an attack by intention on the good or virtue. The PDE explicitly recognises the wrongness of actions which fail the test of proportionality, as wrongs against (say) life, which do not include an intention to kill; material co-operation with a killer, as by supplying the murder weapon out of a desire for profit but in the knowledge of the bad use to which it would be put, is in the same position, and is certainly not ignored by the manualists. It cannot be subsumed under proportionality, because the moral significance of, say, handing the killer a gun is not reducible to its impact on the value of outcomes: it would be wrong even if someone else was standing by ready to lend another gun if necessary, in which case whether one co-operated or not would make no difference to what ultimately happened.
A pithy expression of the moral importance of co-operation is given by the ‘Nine ways of being accessory to another’s sin’ which is a traditional part of the ‘Examination of Conscience’ printed in Catholic prayer books: ‘1. By counsel. 2. By command. 3. By consent. 4. By provocation. 5. By praise or flattery. 6. By concealment. 7. By partaking. 8. By silence. 9. By defence of the ill done.’
While on the subject, a related way discussed by the manualists to do wrong without necessarily intending harm to any good is connected with scandal. Like co-operation it comes in two varieties, ‘direct’ scandal, where bad example is intended to cause another’s wrongdoing, and ‘indirect’ scandal, where it is not.[xvi] At least arguably indirect scandal, like material co-operation, is not reducible to proportionality. As with proportionality, in both these cases the prohibition is against doing something knowingly, and not just by intention: if we know that we are acting in such a way as to cause harm, or that we are co-operating in evil, or that we are giving scandal, then this is wrong unless there is some justification, either in terms of compensating goods, or the high cost of avoiding it, or something else.
Finally, twin concepts not used by Davis and Prümmer, but which are closely related to the above listed concepts: finis operantis and finis operis. The finis operantis is the ‘end of the agent’; the finis operis, literally, is the ‘end of the action’. In its ethical use this distinction corresponds to that between ultimate motive (finis operantis) and object (finis operis). Calling them ‘ends’ is simply a way of emphasising that they are both intentions (in my sense) of the agent: the agent has as an end, intends, not only his ultimate goal, but also the action he does in order to achieve that goal.
I mention these concepts and distinctions not in order to recommend them to a wider audience, but in order to facilitate an understanding of the issues surrounding intention, as discussed in the Catholic tradition. By way of explanation for the complexity exhibited here it is important to understand that the manualists, like legal theorists, aspired to a complete coverage of morality, in such a way that the principles necessary to decide any moral question would be available to their readers. In addition, and again like legal theorists, the manualists were obliged to build upon an existing foundation of precedents, partially articulated principles and established terminological usages. Someone going through the material with a blank sheet of paper might be able to work out a more parsimonious set of concepts, but such a project would make it difficult to incorporate the insights of previous thinkers or authoritative decisions as originally expressed.
I need to say a little more about the concept of the voluntary, and the notion of the object of an act. On the voluntary, as I noted the concept comes from Aristotle, who did not seem to have an articulated concept of the will or of intention. By contrast, the concepts of will and intention come from the Augustinian tradition. The synthesis of these two traditions by Aquinas has left his successors with two sets of concepts for doing what is essentially the same job: separating the paradigmatic wicked action from actions where an agent is not to be blamed for a bad outcome he nevertheless caused. Defining the voluntary in terms of intention is the way the manualists have adopted of unifying their set of concepts, but this makes the notion of voluntariness even more obviously redundant. The concept continues to influence the way the discussion is framed, however, most importantly is drawing attention to acts, rather than intentions or outcomes. The search for acts which are supposed to be right or wrong ‘themselves’, and attributable or not attributable to the agent, brings in the concept of ‘object’.
This is the most important of the concepts just explained. It is worth pausing to consider what would result if Germain Grisez were correct to complain, as he does, that the manualists categorised actions merely as ‘chunks of behaviour’.[xvii] This presumably means that ‘objects’ are actions described in morally neutral terms, such as ‘crossing the road’ or ‘killing’. This seems to be presupposed by Elizabeth Anscombe when talking about ethics, when she say that intentions have reference to actions, not to outcomes, and so an action is intended itself, even on a description which includes reference to unintended consequences.[xviii] She tends to say, further, that the main morally important outcome of an action is, somehow, to be seen as an intention of the agent, for the purposes of the PDE, even if it is not intended; a similar move has been made by other writers who suggest that an action of ‘killing’ has a ‘finis operis’ of death ‘in itself’ which is attributable to the agent, regardless of what the agent intended as an end or a means. This interpretation is ruled out, of course, by the definitions of ‘object’ I have already referred to, but it should also be noticed that it has the result that the question of the PDE would simply not arise. Since unintended consequences can always be fitted into a description of the object, every action which produced an evil effect would be an evil object: every action causing a death could be described as a killing. It is obvious that not every action which predictably causes death, such as Belinda’s giving of lethal pain-killers to dying patients, is categorised as having ‘killing’ as its object or finis operis by the manualists: that is why they can distinguish between results of an action which are means and ends, on the one hand, and results which are mere side-effects, on the other. In fact, as I noted above, the manualists understand the object by reference to the end of the action: it is not just any description of what someone did, but a description in terms of something which is definitely intended by the agent.
This allows them to do what they clearly do do, which is consider actions which kill on descriptions other than ‘killing’, and so on. Anscombe and her followers are concerned by the possibility that self-serving descriptions of wrong actions will allow people to get away with murder, but this fear is unfounded because of the way the manualists’ PDE works. The description ‘All I did was move my arm’ is ruled out, because it is as a ‘moral’ action, and not a physical movement, that an action must be considered: there should be some implicit reference to the end of the action. So it would have to be ‘All I did was knife Edgar for money’, which is a psychologically (‘morally’) comprehensible description because it captures the reason the thing was done: the intention. As Gury indicates, the object is associated with the end, and this is just a way of using the scholastic principle of categorising actions by intentions. Again, when Anscombe talks more accurately about intention, outside an ethical context, she puts it like this:
an object is not what is aimed at is; the description under which it is aimed is that under which it is called the object.[xix]
It may seem absurd to allow a villain to say ‘All I did was knife Edgar for money’, when he killed him, but the truth of matter will be dragged out by the PDE. For the next question is: was Edgar’s death a means to an end? If it was, the original under-description makes no difference: the act is murder. Before we get carried away by the idea that killing is just killing, we should notice the moral differences between Belinda and Cuthbert, and an unlucky surgeon, a panicky mugger, and a hired assassin.
Here is another example. Suppose someone were to say ‘All I did was relay to them a truth, which I thought they should know’. Without taking issue with the description, we can mark this down as an indifferent ‘object’, and move on to the question: what was the motive? - to give offence, perhaps? Then it has an evil motive, and is a wrong action. Or did the agent act in the hope of gaining (for example, amusement) from something which was anticipated to follow from an evil result (the offence)? Then the agent is using an evil means (offence), and the action is wrong.
The dialogues I have sketched, as I say, drag the truth out from the most inadequate description. (In fact, they would drag it out even from a description in terms of physical movements.) They are the kinds of dialogues the manualists’ intended readers might have had in the confessional. We might call this the method of the ‘penitent’s description’.
The best way of appreciating the role of the concept of ‘object’ might be to see it as a way of dealing with ordinary moral language, since ordinary language distinguishes inconsistently between the action ‘itself’, the motive, the circumstances and the net results. The manualist categories are not, exactly, a conceptual analysis of what is necessary for an expression of moral rules. Rather, once we have heard the ordinary language description of what has happened, the different categories serve to emphasise that any intended evil is wrong. The intention principle makes the same substantive judgement with much greater philosophical elegance, but the ordinary descriptions have to be completely rethought, and we need to ask a question expressed in non-ordinary terms: was there any evil in the things which you intended, which is to say, which, of the things you made more likely by your action or omission, gave you a motivating reason to act?
[i] Cf. David S. Oderberg Moral Theory: a Non-Consequentialist Approach (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000) p87
[ii] Henry Davis Moral and Pastoral Theology, Volume II: Precepts, 3rd ed (London: Sheed and Ward, 1938) p145
[iii] Davis Moral and Pastoral Theologu Vol. I p55
[iv] Davis Vol. I p204
[v] Davis Vol. I pp41-43
[vii] Davis Vol. I pp12-14
[viii] Prümmer pp12f
[ix] Prümmer p26
[x] Davis Vol. II pp152-154
[xi] Prümmer p129
[xii] Davis Vol II p168
[xiii] See Costa in Fisher and Ravizza (1987) p297
[xiv] Fried p39, footnote.
[xv] Davis Vol. I p341
[xvi] See Davis Vol. I p334; Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica IIa IIae q.43 a.7
[xvii] Germain Gabriel Grisez The Way of the Lord Jesus Vol. I: Christian Moral Principles (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1983) Ch12 App3, p308
[xviii] G. E. M. Anscombe 'Medallist's address: Action, intention, and double effect', in P.A. Woodward (ed) The Doctrine of Double Effect (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001) pp57f; cf. John Lamont 'Finnis and Aquinas on the good of life' New Blackfriars 83, no. 977/978 (2002): 365-380; p373; see also Anscombe
[xix] G. E. M. Anscombe Intention, 2nd ed (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1963) §35, p66