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Analysis of the moral act. A proposal

II.c.4. Circumstances

St. Thomas spoke, when analyzing an action’s goodness, of the necessity of considering the circumstances as well as the moral object. (55) The reason for this necessity is very simple: the moral object allows a description of the decision-action. Nevertheless this description could be insufficient in the case of certain actions. Thus, killing a person voluntarily and unjustly is called murder. And "murder" is a moral object. If the circumstance of the murderer having close family ties is added, the sin ceases to be murder and becomes parricide, a different moral species or object. But there are actions for which we have no new word to designate what is being done, and we have to add complements to the action’s principal definitions. Thus, following the classic example, hitting someone is a sin against the fifth commandment. And hitting someone in a sacred place, without changing the substance of what is being done, adds a certain gravity which is not included in the aggression and which is relevant when judging the badness of what has been done (56). This complement to the action’s definition is the circumstances. To give a similitude describing a being: we describe something by its species (a dog) and we specify it with accidents that do not change the species but which introduce modifications (hunting dog, lapdog). In the same way we describe what is done by its species (its "something" or moral object), and we complete the description with a series of accidents or circumstances (other "somethings" that allow us to understand exactly what is being done) (57).

Thus if we consider the decision-action instead of the moral object (a consideration which, as we have seen, is less disorienting), the circumstances become superfluous because they are then included in the decision-action: they comprise an (undoubtedly necessary) complement of definition, which is given to us by the moral object.

As can be inferred from the foregoing, there is absolutely no problem in continuing to speak of "moral object" and "circumstances". St. Thomas himself employed these expressions in order to be able to speak reasonably of decision and action. Nevertheless if we are to employ these terms, we have to bear in mind the precaution of clarifying that they do not refer to the physical actions but rather express what is the subject’s decision-action, the act of his will. "Moral object" and "circumstances" are terms that do not of themselves show what they wish to express: the act of the will, which is what receives the qualification of good or evil. The term that doubtlessly indicates this the most clearly is "decision"; and as the physical realization of the act also contributes something to the morality of the action, it seems appropriate to add "action". The word action refers here as in ordinary language to what has been decided. It thus seems suitable to employ other terms ("decision-action") which indeed refer directly to the voluntary and thus moral meaning of human action.

In conclusion, the expression "moral object" and "circumstances" are technical terms with precise philosophical meanings requiring a complementary explanation in order to clarify precisely their meaning. This problem does arise with the terms "decision" and "action" because the common and technical meanings of the terms coincide.

It thus becomes interesting to note that the word "circumstances" appears very few times in Veritatis Splendor (58). When it does appear, the term does employ the technical meaning we have seen St. Thomas give it (it has another meaning given by St. Thomas, which we will see later on). The reason for this virtual disappearance is very simple: since the encyclical focuses on the moral act by considering it directly as a deliberate act of the will (59), it is not necessary to employ circumstances in order to reach the act by indirect means, because the voluntary act is the direct reference. Although it could be necessary to employ these accidental complements of the definition, which are the circumstances, in order to describe a concrete action, it is not necessary to employ them in order to describe how the moral act develops and what is the root of its goodness or evil. In summary, the encyclical correctly inclines toward the consideration of morality’s nucleus —the act of the will— and it relegates the quidditative description —the circumstances. This the same approach is used by the Thomistic study of the moral act. Circumstances are necessary only, and not always, to describe completely a concrete act.


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