Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Do Intentions Matter?

SOME PEOPLE ARE STUPID. THAT'S ALL THERE IS TO IT. If you give them a gift in a box, they will think that the box is the only reality, and what's inside is of no moment. That more or less is what we may liken moralists who say that intentions, that is, motive or ends in performing an act, make no difference in assessing the morality of that act. Put a diamond broach in a 2 inch by 2 inch box, and it is every bit as good a gift as a lump of coal in a 2 inch by 2 inch box. "What's inside don't matter," these folks insist.

What's inside doesn't matter?

It is in this manner that some critics of the principle of double effect attack it. Since the proponents of the principle of double effect rely on the intention of the moral actor as one of the components of moral thinking, by attacking the importance of intention, these critics hope to undermine the principle of double effect. So these folks will suggest that if someone gives alms with the intention of self-aggrandizement, the act is every bit the same as one who gives alms out of desire to help those less fortunate. Bull hockey, I say.

The foolish arguments of those who would deny the role of intention in moral calculus seem to stem from their confusion of object and motive, and so this issue merits some discussion. Traditionally, a moral act is viewed from three dimensions or vantage points, as it were: object, circumstances, and end or motive. These are the "determinants of the morality of an action."* All three of these determinants must be good for an act to be considered good. A defect in any one or more of these renders the whole act bad. As Oderberg succinctly puts it: they are "individually necessary and jointly sufficient" to make an act morally good. Oderberg, 106. Later he also says: "A defect in any of the three elements of object, circumstances and end makes an act morally wrong." Oderberg, 109-110. This is nothing but an expression of the traditional maxim: bonum ex integra causa, malum ex quocumque defectu.

What is the object of a moral act? "To speak of the object of an act is really to speak of the act itself, stripped of its end and its circumstances." Oderberg, 107. This seems an unhelpful definition. The object is different from "the outcome or consequences of an act." Oderberg, 107. Still not very helpful.

The object . . . is that which the will primarily has in view when an action is performed, which corresponds, in an agent who is not deluded, immature, or otherwise incapable of appreciating what he is doing, to what kind of action is performed. . . . Without this primary object of the will, human action becomes inexplicable: we could never distinguish one act from another, an agent could never tell you just what he is doing.

Oderberg, 107. Now we're getting somewhere. The object of an act is important, as human acts obtain their essential moral nature from the object. It is, as it were, the most basic description of what we are doing. It is the what of an act, not the how, when, where, or why. If Bill takes a small sum money from his employer so as to give it to those in need in Haiti, the what is the taking of the money of another without permission or consent, i.e., theft.

There are some acts whose objects, regardless of the circumstances or the motive or end, are bad. In other words, some acts, by their intrinsic nature, are evil; their object is always bad--no matter the who, when, where, how, or why. These acts are intrinsece malum in se or intrinsice inhonestum, intrinsically evil or morally dishonest by their very nature; nothing can be done to save them. Although circumstances and motive may mitigate or aggravate their evil, they remain always evil. The mitigation is never total. Stealing one dollar or stealing a million dollars is stealing. Stealing to feed the poor or to buy a fur coat is still stealing. No circumstance or motive or end can make these acts clean. They are irreformable, unwashable, permanently sullied. "They are direct attacks upon human goods such as truth, life, and property, and cannot be justified by appeal to other factors." Oderberg, 107-08.

The object of an act ought not to be confused with the motive or end of the act, though these latter are frequently confused with the former. The reason for this is that sometimes the object or the act and the actor's end or motive overlap, they coincide. But frequently there is not this coincidence, and we have an intention beyond the object, a "further intention." If I eat a chicken breast because I am hungry, the object and motive coincide. If I eat a chicken breast because I want to ingest low-fat protein as part of a weight-lifting regimen in preparation for football season, the object and the motive or end do not coincide.
The motive is best understood as the good, freely chosen by the agent, that he wants to achieve by his act. Psychologically, the motive is, as the term implies, what moves a person to do what he does. The object is still the primary element that defines the act, that gives it its essential metaphysical and moral character, but the motive is what prompts the agent to do one thing rather than another.
Oderberg, 108-09. The motive or end the actor has in view--his intention--is an expression of his will, and the act is a concretization of it. As a consequence, the motive or end stains or colors the act. If the motive is good, then it can give a good or better character to the act (assuming the other determinations are good). If the motive is bad, then it will give a bad or worse character to the act. Naturally, motives and ends can be multifarious, complex, layered like an onion. And each of these various motives and ends are counted as part of the evaluation of the moral character of the act.

There are several rules that arise from the fact that the determinants are "individually necessary and jointly sufficient" to make an act morally good.
  • A morally indifferent act (that is an act that is morally neutral or good, but not an act whose object is bad) becomes good through a good motive, and becomes evil through evil motive.
  • E.g., G goes to the store with the purpose of buying a six-pack of beer to share with a friend: the morally indifferent act of going to the store is rendered good. On the other hand, if B goes to the store with the intention of shoplifting a six-pack of beer for sharing with a friend: the morally indifferent act of going to the store is rendered bad as a result of B's bad intent.
  • An act whose object is good (an objectively good act) is made better through a good motive.
  • E.g., For G to study mathematics so as to learn it is good; for G to study it also for the purpose of pleasing his parents and being obedient to them is even better.
  • An objectively good act may become totally or partially evil, if it is done for evil motive or end. Whether the good act becomes totally vitiated, or only partially will depend upon whether the evil motive is total, or mixed with good motives, and the composition of the mixed motives.
  • E.g., If B gives alms to a poor person to both help the poor person and also to impress his friends, the objectively good act of almsgiving is partially vitiated, its goodness reduced by his mixed motives. If B gives alms to a poor man not only to relieve his distress, but also to persuade him to be his accomplice in a crime, the act becomes entirely wicked because the bad motive is particularly dastardly.
  • An act whose object is evil can never be made good, regardless of motive, end, or intent. The end never justifies the means. Non faciamus mala ut veniant bona! Let us not do evil so that good may come! (cf. Rom. 3:8). While a good motive may partially mitigate the evil act, it only partially mitigates it relative to the act with an evil motive. A good motive, regardless of how good a motive, can never fully justify the objectively evil act; it can never made the objectively evil act good.
  • E.g., B1 commits perjury to help a friend whom he believes is innocent. B2 commits perjury to help a friend whom he knows is guilty. Both B1 and B2's acts are objectively evil. B2's act is worse than B1's, but B1's act of perjury is not made good by his good motive.
*In the Catholic tradition, the term "sources" or "fonts" of morality is used for what Oderberg calls "determinants." See, e.g., Catechism of the Catholic Church § 1750 "The object, the intention, and the circumstances make up the 'sources,' [fonts] or constitutive elements, of the morality of human acts." (Obiectum, intentio et circumstantiae «fontes» constituunt, seu elementa constitutiva, moralitatis actuum humanorum.) All three of the sources must be good; any one or more of the three gone awry infects the act to make it bad. "A morally good act requires the goodness of the object, of the end, and of the circumstances together. An evil end corrupts the action, even if the object is good in itself (such as praying fasting 'in order to be seen by men.'" (Actus moraliter bonus simul bonitatem praesupponit obiecti, finis et circumstantiarum. Finis malus actionem corrumpit, etiamsi eius obiectum in se bonum sit (sicut orare et ieiunare ut quis ab hominibus videatur)). Catechism § 1755.

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