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Analysis of the moral act. A proposal

I.d) Repercussions in ethical theory

We can now, having completed this historical excursion which has allowed us to understand the forma mentis of essentialist philosophy, go on to see the repercussions of this manner of considering matters related to ethical theory.

In analyzing the moral act, essentialism considers that the acts of the will are acts in the essentialist sense, that is, "something". When the human will desires an object, it produces an act, which can be described with a word. For example, in the case of wanting to go to the mountains, "go to the mountains" would be the description of the act of the will.

Now in analyzing only the act of the will we are in no condition to judge the morality of a person's performance. The reason lies in the fact that persons make decisions prompted by previous acts of the will, that is, intentions. Thus a person could go to the mountains to pick mushrooms (intention "pick mushrooms") or to hunt in a reserve which is not his property (intention "poach game"). As a consequence to this observation one will affirm that in order to evaluate a moral act, one must consider not only the decision taken but the intention behind the decision as well.

It seems that up until now we have said nothing to differentiate Thomism from the essentialist position. But we have indeed. Specifically, essentialism thinks that acts of the will have a form (its essence: "go to the mountains", "pick mushrooms", "poach game") that coincides with the description of the action being realized. "Go to the mountains" and "gather mushrooms" are simultaneously acts of the will and actions that the person realizes. In this way of viewing things, essentialist morality speaks little of intention and decision, and much about its projections which, in terms of the Thomistic tradition, denominate the end and moral object. In fixing our attention upon this change of accent we make no superfluous precision, because this manner of seeing things is impregnated with practical consequences for ethical theory.

A specific problem arises early on: complex human actions cannot be analyzed well by means of the procedure indicated (that is, by examination of the intention or end and the action or moral object), because there are actions possessed of relevant details inadequately explained by just the end and the moral object. Essentialism then discovers that in St. Thomas' analysis of action there exists another element, circumstances, which allow other factors outside of both the end and the moral object to be classified. St. Thomas's example is well-known: within the bad action of hitting a person, the fact of hitting the person within sacred precincts would be a circumstance (the sin would be greater given the dignity of the site where the offense occurred). Thus factors outside of the end and the object have most ample room for being included. A consistent essentialism will contribute no other elements for the analysis of a moral act.

But common reflection knows that if only the object, end and circumstances are considered, other relevant moral elements have been excluded. For example, there are actions executed because of ignorance. Thus the treatises and manuals will include a chapter dedicated to ignorance, its types and its repercussions on moral acts. Nevertheless this chapter is developed relatively independently of philosophical reflections: it generally is not a deduction of the role and importance of ignorance within the moral action based upon the nature of human action but rather a series of extremely relevant reflections about the moral evaluation each type of ignorance merits. This section is developed, to put it in these terms, on the margins of philosophy, finding its basis in the common sense and moral prudence of the authors of these manuals. They find in the Summa Theologiae a few articles supporting their undoubtedly relevant moral position dedicated to the question (10), but the entirety of this moral study remains somehow disconnected.

The moralists, moreover, also observe that there are complicated actions with both good and bad effects; is it permitted to carry out these actions? Their response ends up appearing similar to their position on ignorance: rely upon prudence and good moral sense to elaborate a series of rules that permit one to determine when actions with multiple effects are morally correct and when the negative effects make the action bad. These are the rules of the voluntary act in causa or the indirect voluntary act: the action in and of itself may be good or indifferent, the bad effect produced is not directly followed, the end is good and there is proportion between the good and bad effects.

These rules, with their diverse variants, despite the various criticisms they have received, seem correct to me. Their only defect is that paradoxically they lack foundation within essentialist philosophy, as do the circumstances and the connection between ignorance and morality. Their existence is due solely to tradition. No one knows for certain why they exist at all. Moralists' common sense must bear a great deal of responsibility for their existence; but moralists' common sense is not philosophical grounding. And as moral philosophy is not merely tradition, but something attainable by reason, it seems correct to try to provide a grounding for ethics instead of merely confiding in the virtue of prudence. Fortunately St. Thomas provided sufficient grounding and modern authors have contributed to recovering it (11), although essentialism, due to its forma mentis, at times gives rise to equivocal interpretations of its texts.


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