The Proper Definition of the Moral Object


One of the most fundamental teachings in Catholic Ethics is that some human acts are immoral by the very nature of the act. An act is a knowing choice; it is an exercise of free will and intellect. Each knowing choice has a moral nature, which is its inherent moral meaning before God. The moral nature of an act is its type (or “species”) in terms of morality: the moral type of the act.

What gives an act its nature? Each concrete act (the act in a particular case) is inherently ordered toward a proximate end (or ends) in terms of morality, called its moral object. Whenever one or more of these objects is evil, the act is inherently morally disordered; it is intrinsically evil. Some human acts are wrong, in and of themselves, regardless of the intention and circumstances. The deliberate knowing choice of an intrinsically evil act is always objectively sinful.

The knowing choice of each concrete act is a choice of three indivisible things: the concrete act itself, its moral nature, and its moral object. Even if the person denies intending the moral object of the act, by choosing the act, he is choosing, at least implicitly, its nature and object.

Revisionist Ethics

A certain type of clever dissent from the teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium on intrinsically evil acts has arisen in recent years. These dissenters claim to adhere to Church teaching on ethics, but they have radically revised that teaching. They teach a set of grave errors and outright heresies, along with the claim that this revisionist version of ethics is nothing but a proper understanding of Catholic teaching. These teachers of grave moral error present themselves as angels of light, as teachers of orthodoxy, and so do they lead souls into committing grave sins (and into using abortifacient contraception, thereby killing the body as well as the soul).

Sometimes they simply claim that intrinsically evil acts admit of exceptions, a claim which is abject heresy. Other times, they cleverly redefine the act, sculpting a description of the intrinsically evil act which excludes anything they wish were moral. For example, they claim that direct abortion to save the life of the mother is moral. Some others say that abortion to save the life of the mother is never direct. They claim, contrary to Church teaching, that contraception for a good purpose becomes transformed into another type of act, one that should not really be called “contraception”, one which is not really intrinsically evil. They have many ways to pervert Church teaching, so as to approve of any intrinsically evil act, which they wish were not always wrong.

One particularly wicked approach to ethics was proposed by Peter Kreeft, in his article on lying. Kreeft suggests that we decide if an assertion is moral or immoral based on our moral intuition, and next, whatever we decide, we alter the moral teachings of the Church to fit that decision. So if you decide that an assertion is moral (even though you are asserting a falsehood), then you reconcile that decision with Church teaching by either saying that false assertions are not lies, or that lying is not always wrong.

Kreeft’s article justifying lying was later used by Deacon Toner to justify the mass murders at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Once you take away the basic ethical principle that some acts are always wrong, any act becomes justifiable. Some authors have claimed that nearly the whole population of Japan were enemy combatants — a false and evil suggestion that is a half-step away from justifying genocide. And the genocide that is abortion (including abortifacient contraception) has been claimed to be justified by various schemes that first dismantle magisterial teaching on intrinsically evil acts.

Essentially, the Kreeft proposal sweeps away the Ten Commandments and all moral teachings of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium. You decide the morality of any act by “moral intuition”, and then you make the teachings of Christ fit that decision by whatever changes to that teaching you wish to make. You become your own tablet of stone, and you become your own god, knowing good and evil. For the Kreeft proposal places the decision on the morality of any act prior to the application of Church teaching.

So you would think that there would be an outcry among the faithful against this perversion of Catholic moral teachings. But instead, the radical revision of Catholic morality is being embraced by many Catholics. This is particularly true when it comes to popular sins, like contraception.

Redefining the Object

A more subtle revision of ethics occurs when an assessment of the morality of the object occurs outside of the font itself. For example, the definition of lying is changed from the assertion of a falsehood (or denial of a truth) to the unjust assertion of a falsehood. Lies are therefore only defined as lies, in this scheme, when the person first judges the assertion to be unjust. And any “just assertion of a falsehood” is deemed not a lie. But just as in the Kreeft proposal, the assessment of the morality of the act occurs apart from any teaching of the Faith. You decide, all on your own, if the assertion is just or unjust, and if you think it is just, you don’t define it as a lie. But of course, this approach nullified the teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium that some acts are intrinsically evil and therefore always wrong to knowingly choose.

Another example is when theft is defined as the unjust taking of another person’s goods. If you first decide if the taking is unjust, and only then call the act theft, then the act is not really intrinsically evil. You have divided thefts into those you claim are good and those you recognize as evil. The proper definition of theft is the deprivation of goods from their owner. Given the proper understanding of goods and ownership, the act is understood to be evil. Then, too, the indirect deprivation of goods, in the case of expropriation, is correctly understood to be moral. God is the first owner of all goods, and he ordains that, in cases of dire need, certain kinds of goods have a common ownership.

Finding the Object

So, then, how do we determine the object(s) of an act, and, next, how do we just objects to be good or evil?

First, determine the concrete act, which is knowingly chosen by the subject (the person who acts). What choice is the person making? Often, the controversies in ethics surround exterior actions, but interior acts can also be intrinsically evil. An exterior act, knowingly chosen by a human person, is never just a valueless meaningless motion. Human persons are made in the image of God. And when we exercise the divine gifts of free will and intellect, our choices have an inherent moral meaning before the eyes of God.

Now there are a million ways to commit theft, and each theft, in the particular case, is the concrete act. But what makes some acts theft and other acts not theft? The ordering of the act towards a proximate end, an end in terms of morality. The ordering is its nature and the end is its object.

Second, determine the ordering of the act. As an arrow is designed to fly towards its target, so is an act ordered to fly towards its object. Now sometimes an act fails to attain the good or evil object, toward which that act is inherently ordered. But it is not the attainment of the moral object that makes the act good or evil, but rather the knowing choice of the concrete act, with its nature and object. So if the arrow misses its target, it was nevertheless ordered toward that target as its end. An incompetent bank robbery is still intrinsically evil, even if the plan has no real chance of success. The person knowingly chose an intrinsically disordered act, even though the object of taking the money was not attained.

Third, determine the object or objects, toward which the concrete act is inherently ordered. Then each object is judged to be good or evil based on the love of God above all else, and the love of neighbor as self, with the teachings of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium as our guide.

Once the object is recognized to be evil, the act must be intrinsically evil and must not be knowingly chosen.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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4 Responses to The Proper Definition of the Moral Object

  1. Tom Mazanec says:

    is never jut a valueless meaningless motion.

    What if a person commits a moral act but believes it to be sinful…is that a sin?
    Did Huckleberry Finn commit a sin helping Jim escape?

  2. Tom Mazanec says:

    From Wikipedia:
    Throughout the story, Huck is in moral conflict with the received values of the society in which he lives, and while he is unable to consciously refute those values even in his thoughts, he makes a moral choice based on his own valuation of Jim’s friendship and Jim’s human worth, a decision in direct opposition to the things he has been taught. Mark Twain, in his lecture notes, proposes that “a sound heart is a surer guide than an ill-trained conscience” and goes on to describe the novel as “…a book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat”.[8][not in citation given]

    To highlight the hypocrisy required to condone slavery within an ostensibly moral system, Twain has Huck’s father enslave his son, isolate him, and beat him. When Huck escapes – which anyone would agree was the right thing to do – he then immediately encounters Jim “illegally” doing the same thing. The treatment both of them receive are radically different especially with an encounter with Mrs. Judith Loftus who takes pity on who she presumes to be a runaway apprentice, Huck, yet boasts about her husband sending the hounds after a runaway slave, Jim.[9]

    • Ron Conte says:

      So Twain proposes a conflict between heart and conscience. But in Catholic theology, the “sound heart” is actually conscience, and what Twain calls “conscience” is the instilled ideas of sinful society, which Huck finally rejects based on his sound heart (his actual conscience). Beware of terminology.

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