A Mini-Course in Ethics
The Ethical Question is the question of the morality of free and responsible human conduct. It is the question of right, of wrong, and of duty, in man's conscious and deliberate activity. The department of philosophy which answers this question is called Moral Philosophy or Ethics.
This science grows out of the rest of philosophy. For when we have a philosophical grasp of the possibility of achieving certitude and of right formulas for reasoning out truth, then we are necessarily aware of the need of the true program for right human living.
a. Human Acts;
b. Ends of Human Acts;
c. Norms of Human Acts;
d. Morality of Human Acts;
e. Properties and Consequences of Human Acts.
a) Human Acts
The term human act has a fixed technical meaning. It means an act (thought, word, deed, desire, omission) performed by a human being when he is responsible; when he knows what he is doing and wills to do it. An act is perfectly human when it is done with full knowledge and full consent of the will, and with full and unhampered freedom of choice. If the act is hampered in any way, it is less perfectly human; if it is done without knowledge or consent it is not a human act at all. An act done by a human being but without knowledge and consent is called an act of a person but not a human act. In the terminology of classical realistic philosophy, a human act is actus humanus; an act of a person is actus hominis.
The essential elements of a human act are three: knowledge, freedom, actual choice.
(1) Knowledge: A person is not responsible for an act done in ignorance, unless the ignorance is the person's own fault, and is therefore willed (vincible ignorance), in which case he has knowledge that he is in ignorance and ought to dispel it. Thus, in one way or another, knowledge is necessary for responsible human activity.
(2) Freedom: A person is not responsible for an act over which he has no control, unless he deliberately surrenders such control by running into conditions and circumstances which rob him of liberty. Thus, in one way or another, freedom is necessary for every human act.
(3) Actual choice or voluntariness: A person is not responsible for an act which he does not will, unless he wills to give up his self-control (as a man does, for instance, in allowing himself to be hypnotized, or by deliberately becoming intoxicated). Thus, in one way or another, voluntariness or actual choice enters into every human act.
Now, a human act is a willed act. It proceeds from the will, following the knowledge and judgment of the mind or intellect. Since what refers to the freewill is usually described as moral, a human act is a moral act. Since the will is free, a human act is a free act.
A human act comes from the will directly or indirectly. When the act itself is the choice of the will, it comes directly from the will and is said to be willed in se or in itself. When the act comes indirectly from the will, inasmuch as the will chooses rather what causes or occasions the act than the act itself, it is said to be willed in its cause or in causa. Thus a man who wills to become intoxicated, wills it directly or in se; a man who does not wish to become intoxicated, but who seeks entertainment where, as experience tells him, he is almost sure to become intoxicated, wills the intoxication indirectly or in causa. This distinction of direct and indirect willing (or direct and indirect voluntariness) raises a notable issue, and we have here two of the most important principles (that is, fundamental guiding truths) in all ethics.
(1) The Principle of Indirect Voluntariness: A person is responsible for the evil effect of a cause directly willed when three conditions are met:
when he can readily foresee the evil effect, at least in a general way;
when he is free to refrain from doing what causes the evil effect; and
when he is bound to refrain from doing what causes the evil effect.
But is the agent (that is, the doer of an act) not always bound to avoid what causes an evil effect? Is not the fact that the effect is evil a sufficient reason for rendering the act which leads to it unlawful? Not always, for sometimes the act has two effects, one good and one evil. In this case, the following principle applies:
(2) The Principle of Twofold Effect: A person may lawfully perform an act which has two effects, one good and one evil, when the following conditions are met:
when the act which has two effects is not in itself an evil act;
when the evil effect does not come before the good effect so as to be a means to it;
when there exists a reason, proportionately weighty, which calls for the good effect;
when the agent B (that is, the doer or performer of the act) intends the good effect exclusively, and merely permits the evil effect as a regrettable side-issue.
Sound human reason vindicates the value and trustworthiness of these two leading ethical principles. The basic law of morals, -- called the natural law, -- is summed up in this plain mandate of reason:
We must do good; we must avoid evil.
And, developing the second point, -- that is, the avoidance of evil, -- we have this basic rational principle:
We must never do what is evil, even though good may be looked for and intended as a result of it.
Human acts are modified, that is, affected, and made less perfectly human, by anything that hampers or hinders any of the three essentials of human action: knowledge, freedom, voluntariness. Chief of the modifiers of human acts are these:
(1) Ignorance. Ignorance that may be overcome by due diligence is called vincible ignorance or culpable ignorance; ignorance that cannot be expelled by due diligence is called invincible ignorance or inculpable ignorance. The reasoned ethical principle on this point is: Invincible ignorance destroys voluntariness and relieves the agent of responsibility; vincible ignorance lessens but does not remove voluntariness and responsibility.
(2) Concupiscence. By concupiscence we mean any of the g human impulses or tendencies technically called the passions. These are: love, hatred, grief, desire, aversion, hope, despair, courage, fear, anger. When concupiscence sweeps upon a person without his intending it, it is called antecedent concupiscence; when a person wills it (as in the case of a man who nurses his injuries, or stirs himself to revenge, or who allows a suddenly envisioned obscene image to remain in his mind or before his eyes) it is called consequent concupiscence. The ethical principle here is: Antecedent concupiscence lessens voluntariness and responsibility but does not take them away; consequent concupiscence does not lessen voluntariness and responsibility.
Of all the types of concupiscence which influence human acts, fear has a peculiar significance, and we have a special reasoned principle for it: An act done from a motive of fear is simply voluntary; the agent is responsible for it, even though he would not do it were he not under the sway of fear. Of course, if the fear is so great that it renders the agent insane at the moment of his act, he is incapable of a human act and is not responsible. Civil law make provisions for the nullifying of contracts made under the stress of fear (that is, of threat, or duress), for the common good requires that people be protected from the malice of unscrupulous persons who would not hesitate to enforce harmful bargains by fearsome means.
(3) Violence. Coaction or violence is external force applied by a free cause (that is, by human beings) to compel a person to do something contrary to his will. The ethical principle with respect to violence is: An act owing to violence to which due resistance is made, is not voluntary, and the agent is not responsible for it.
(4) Habit. Habit is a readiness, born of repeated acts, for doing a certain thing. The ethical principle is: Habit does not take away voluntariness; acts done from habit are voluntary, at least in cause, as long as the habit is permitted to continue.
b) Ends of Human Acts
An end is a purpose or goal. It is that for which an act is performed. It is the final cause of an act.
An end intended for itself is an ultimate end; an end intended as a measure or means of gaining a further end is an intermediate end. The first end (in order of attainment) is proximate; other ends are remote. An ultimate end is ultimate in a certain series of ends, or it is the crowning end of all human activity. The ultimate end of a series is called relatively ultimate; the crowning end of all human activity is called absolutely ultimate.
A young man entering medical school has, as proximate and intermediate ends, the passing of his exams, and the advance from the first to the second class; more remote ends are the exams and classes further on; the ultimate end of the whole series of his studies and efforts is the status of a physician. But this end is relatively ultimate, not absolutely so. Why does he wish to be a physician? Perhaps to do good and to have an honorable means of livelihood. But why does he want this? For a full life, a rounded satisfaction in his earthly existence? But why does he want these things? Inevitably, in view of a still further end. For all human ends are directed, in last analysis, to an all-sufficing absolutely ultimate end. This is the completely satisfying end or good; it is the Supreme and Infinite Good; it is the Summum Bonum; and, for theists, it is God.
An end as a thing desired or intended is called objective. The satisfaction looked for in the attainment and possession of the objective end, is the subjective end.
Man, in every human act, strives for the possession of good (for end and good are synonymous), and for infinite good or God. This is the absolutely ultimate objective end of all human activity. And man strives for the infinite good as that which will boundlessly satisfy; he looks for complete beatitude or complete happiness in the attainment and possession of God. This is the absolutely ultimate subjective end of all human activity.
Saint and sinner alike are striving towards God. The Saint is striving in the right direction, and the sinner in the wrong direction. But it is the one Goal they are after, that is, the full, everlasting, satisfaction of all desire. The good man in his good human acts and the evil man in his evil human acts are like two men digging for diamonds; the one digs in a diamond mine, the other perversely digs in a filthy heap of rubbish; the one works where diamonds are to be found, the other's work is hopeless of success. But it is to find diamonds that both are working.
Man necessarily (and not freely) intends or wills the supreme and absolute end of all human acts. Man freely (and not necessarily) chooses the means (that is, intermediate ends) by which he expects, wisely or perversely, to attain that end.
c) Norms of Human Acts
A norm is a rule; it is the measure of a thing. The norm of human acts is the rule which shows whether they measure up to what they should be, and indicates the duty of bringing them up to full standard of what they ought to be. The norms of human acts are law and conscience. More precisely, the one norm of human acts is law applied by conscience.
Law is an ordinance of reason promulgated for the common good by one who has charge of society.
Fundamentally, law is an ordinance of Infinite Reason for all mankind and for every creature. In this sense, law means the Eternal Law which is God's plan and providence for the universe. Inasmuch as this law is knowable by a normal mind which reasons to it from the facts of experience, the Eternal Law is called the natural law. For when a person ceases to be a baby and becomes responsible, this is owing to the fact that he recognizes the following truth: "There is such a thing as good; there is such a thing as evil; I have a duty to avoid evil and to do good."
A child of ten that knew no distinction between lies and truth, theft and honesty, obedience and disobedience, would rightly be classed as an imbecile. Indeed, we say that a person "comes to the use of reason" when he begins to have a practical grasp of three things: good, evil, duty. In other words, reason makes evident the basic prescriptions of the natural law.
The natural law is general. But man needs, in addition to general prescriptions for conduct, special determinations of the law such as, for instance, the enactments of the State in civil and criminal laws.
Law is for the common good. Special regulations for individuals or groups are called precepts. A precept is like a law inasmuch as it is a regulation or an ordering unto good. A precept is unlike a law inasmuch as it is rather for private than for common good. In human laws and precepts, a further distinction is made. A law is territorial; it binds in a certain place and not in other places; a precept is personal, and it binds the person subject to it wherever he may be. Again, a law endures even though the actual persons who formulated and promulgated it are dead and gone; a precept ends with the death (or removal from office) of the preceptor.
True law is a liberating force, not an enslaving one. A true law may be compared to a true map. The map does not enslave the traveler, but enables him to make his journey without hindrance or mishap. The man who says he will not be enslaved by maps, is a prey to ignorance, and is thus truly enslaved; the man who uses the map is liberated from the enslavement of ignorance and is freed to make the journey. For liberty does not include in its essence the ability to do wrong. This ability is a sad condition of earthly human existence; it is not a part of liberty itself. God can do no wrong, yet God is infinitely free. The souls in heaven can no longer sin, and yet they have not lost freedom, but have used freedom and brought it to its crowning perfection. Man's freedom is freedom of the choice of means to his ultimate end; when the end is attained, means are no longer needed, and the freedom which won to success is forever crowned in full perfection.
Law that is set down in recorded enactments is called positive law. The moral law as knowable to sound human reason (that is, the Eternal Law as so knowable) is called, as we have seen, the natural law. A law is called moral if it binds under guilt. It is called penal if it binds under penalty (such as a fine). It is called mixed if it binds under both guilt and penalty. It is a debated question among ethicians whether there can be a law that is entirely and exclusively penal.
All true laws have sanctions, that is, inducements (of reward or punishment prescribed) sufficient to make those bound by them obedient to their prescriptions. Human positive law usually has the sanction of penalty, not of special reward.
In individual human acts, law is applied by conscience.
Conscience is the practical judgment of human reason upon an act as good, and hence permissible or obligatory, or as evil, and hence to be avoided.
Conscience is the reasoned judgment of the mind. It is no instinct, no sentiment, no prejudice born of custom or what moderns call mores; it is no "still small voice"; it is no "little spark of celestial fire." It is the pronouncement of reason, the reason with which we work out a problem in mathematics, -- only, to be called conscience it must be the working out of a judgment or pronouncement in the domain of morals, of duty.
When the judgment of conscience squares with facts, conscience is called correct or true. When the conscience-judgment is out of line with facts, conscience is called false. When the conscience-judgment is wholly assured and unhesitant, conscience is called certain. When the conscience judgment is hesitant, and amounts to no more than opinion, conscience is called doubtful.
Doubt is speculative when it is a lack of certainty about what is true; it is practical when it is a lack of certainty about what is to be done. A doubt is positive when the mind hesitates between two opposites because there seems good reason for each; it is negative when the mind hesitates because there seems no good reason on either side. A most important reasoned principle is the following: It is never lawful to act while in a state of positive practical doubt. The doubt must be dispelled and replaced by at least moral certitude.
To dispel positive practical doubt, a person must use the direct method of study, inquiry, finding all the facts. If this method prove unsuccessful, or if it cannot be applied, then the indirect method (called the appeal to the reflex principle) must be employed. This means that the person in doubt about the licitness or illicitness of an act can make sure that he is not bound by applying the reflex principle: A law that is of doubtful application cannot beget a certain obligation. In this case, certitude is attained, not of the case itself, but of the person's freedom from obligation: thus, it is an indirect certitude.
Out of the use of the reflex principle just mentioned, emerges the theory called Probabilism. It amounts to this : If there exists a solidly probable opinion against the applicability of a law in a given case, that law is of doubtful applicability. In other words, it is a doubtful law. But a doubtful law cannot beget a certain obligation. Therefore, if there exists a solidly probable opinion against the applicability of a law in a given case, there is no obligation.
The moral system of Probabilism is of value only when there is question of the lawfulness or unlawfulness of an act; it has no place when the question is one of the validity or invalidity of contract. Further, the phrase "a solidly probable opinion" does not mean a strong inclination or liking on the part of the agent; it means a reasoned opinion, especially such as is defended by men of known learning and prudence.
Probabilism, or the application of the reflex principle, a doubtful law does not bind, cannot be employed except in the failure or the inapplicability of the direct method of solving a doubt. Nor can it be used when there is question of a clear and definite end to be achieved.
d) Morality of Human Acts
Morality is the relation of human acts to the norm or rule of what they ought to be. As we have seen, the norm of human acts is law applied by conscience. And the basic law is the Eternal Law, especially as this is knowable by sound human reason (it is then called the natural law). The squaring up of free and responsible human conduct with law as applied by conscience is the morality of human acts; the lack of such agreement of human acts with their norm is immorality. But, as we have indicated, morality is generally used to signify the relation (whether of agreement or disagreement) of human acts to their norm or rule. Thus we speak of morally good acts and of morally bad acts.
A human act considered as such, as an act, as a deed performed, stands in agreement or out of agreement with the norm of what it ought to be. Thus it has objective morality. Many mistaken people of our day, especially those of university training, are fond of talking as though a human act took all its morality from the intention of the agent, or from his viewpoint. They are full of expressions such as, "As I see it ... ," "To my mind . . . ," "I don't look at it in that way . . . ," "It's all in the point of view . . ." etc. Now, there is an immense field for human opinion. Where certitude cannot be had, opinion is the best man can achieve. But in matters of essential morals, certitude can be had (as we have seen, by direct method, or, this failing, by the reflex method). Hence the lawfulness or unlawfulness of an act, -- its morality, in short, -- is never a matter of opinion, viewpoint, prejudice, or preference. It is a matter of fact. It is an objective thing. Human acts have objective morality.
A person blamelessly mistaken about the objective morality of an act is exempt (by reason of invincible ignorance) from responsibility for such act. Thus, a person who is invincibly ignorant of the fact that a lie is always unlawful, and who is convinced with full certitude that in certain circumstances a lie is permissible, is not guilty of formal falsehood for telling such a lie. But this does not mean that the objective morality of a lie is a fiction or an illusion; it does not mean that the morality of an act depends on the agent's convictions. The lie is objectively evil and remains so. Only, in the case mentioned, invincible ignorance excuses the agent from responsibility for it. And so much the worse for the agent, for ignorance is always a blight and a burden.
Some acts have their objective morality in themselves by reason of their nature. Murder, lying, calumny, injustice, are examples of acts intrinsically evil. Respect for life, truthfulness, charity, justice, are examples of acts intrinsically good. Other human acts have their objective morality by reason of positive law, which is an extrinsic determinant. Thus, hunting out of season, violating the speed laws, are acts objectively but extrinsically evil. Obeying civil ordinances, performing the duty of true citizens as expressed by law, are, in the main, acts objectively but extrinsically good. The basic virtue of being a good citizen, however, is intrinsically good.
In the concrete, as a deed done, every human act has true objective morality. But when a human act is considered in the abstract, in general, and not as a concrete deed performed, it is sometimes found to be indifferent, and neither good nor bad. In other words, some human acts are not intrinsically good or intrinsically evil in themselves as abstractly considered. But in their actual performing, they take on morality (and truly objective morality) from the circumstances.
For the determinants of morality are the act performed and the circumstances of the act performed.
The act performed is technically known as the object. Human acts that have intrinsic morality are good or evil by reason of the object, that is the act itself. Such acts, if evil, are never permissible. If good, and if circumstances do not vitiate them, they are lawful. Some of them are not capable of being vitiated by circumstances, and these are always lawful, and also of obligation. Such, for example, is the duty of professing the truth, of working justice to all men.
The circumstances of an act performed determine its morality when the object does not do so. Circumstances are various, but the most important are those of person, of the intensity of the act, of place, of time, of helping influences in the act, of manner, and of intention. The last named (that is intention of the agent or doer) is the most notable circumstance.
Of circumstances in general, the ethical principles are these:
an indifferent act is made good or evil by circumstances;
a good act may be made evil by circumstances but an evil act cannot be made good by circumstances;
an act is made better or worse by circumstances;
a circumstance gravely evil ruins the morality of the whole act and makes it evil;
a circumstance slightly evil, which is not the entire motive of a good act, does not utterly destroy its goodness.
Of intention in special, the ethical principles are these:
a good act done for a good intention has an added goodness from the intention, and a bad act for a bad intention has an added evil from the intention;
a good act for a bad intention is wholly evil if the intention is gravely evil or if it is the whole motive of the act;
a good intention cannot make a bad act good, but a bad intention vitiates a good act;
an indifferent act may be made good or evil by its intention.
For an act to be lawful, that is, morally right and good, it must square with all the requirements of object, circumstances, intention. For an act to be evil, it must fail to square with any one of the requirements. The axiom is:
An act to he good must be entirely good; it is vitiated (wholly or partially) by any defect.
e) Properties and Consequences of Human Acts
A property of an act is anything that belongs by natural necessity to the act. Now, a human act is a free and deliberate act of a responsible being who is its author. It follows, that such an act is imputable to its author, to his credit or discredit, that is, as a merit or a demerit. Thus, properties of human acts are imputability, merit, demerit.
A human act once performed sets a precedent for the agent. It marks a path which he has traversed. It cuts a groove, so to speak, for his action. And therefore he tends to act in the same way again. In a word, human acts tend to follow patterns called habits. By habit in the present instance we mean an operative habit, a habit of acting. Such a habit is an inclination, born of frequently repeated action, for acting in a certain way.
An operative habit that is morally good is called a virtue. An operative habit that is morally bad is called a vice. Virtues and vices are the consequences of human acts.
The chief-virtues are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. These are called the cardinal virtues (from the Latin cardo, -- stem cardin-, "a hinge") because all other virtues depend on them as a door depends on its hinges.
Vice, or habit of evil doing, is a habitual defect, a habitual failure to measure up to the norm of right conduct and of the virtues. A single bad act is a sin, but not a vice. Vice is the habit of sin. It stands opposed to virtue either by defect or by excess, but in either case it is a habitual failure (a negative thing) to measure up to the standard of what a human act ought to be.