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"It is through conscience that human beings see and recognize the demands of the divine law. They are bound to follow their conscience faithfully in everything they do."
Religious Liberty, no 2.

Looking Toward the End: Revisiting Aquinas' Teleological Ethics

By Joseph A Selling

Katholieke Universiteit, Leuven

(Published on our website with the necessary permissions)


Fr Columba Ryan OP Ever since Veritatis Splendor laid claim to the idea that the principle factor in determining the morality of human activity was the choice of the object of a human act,[1] I have been intrigued by the challenge that this presents to anyone who is persuaded by the idea that human activity can only be morally evaluated after all the relevant factors have been taken into account.[2] To follow the argument of the encyclical one step further, the claim that the goodness or malice of the human will is determined by the choice of the object of human action [3] appears to be both a plausible interpretation of the Catholic moral tradition and also a somewhat narrow view of moral discernment.

It is plausible because the entire tradition of the manuals of moral theology maintained that it is primarily the object of human activity, that behavior which a person performs, that can be sufficient for determining whether or not a sin has been committed. Other considerations about circumstances and intentions serve only to mitigate or accentuate accountability (guilt) on the part of the agent (acting person). The presence or absence of an ‘objective sin’ can be determined by the consideration of the object alone.

It is a narrow view of moral discernment because, expressed in this manner, it focuses exclusively upon behavior without any consideration of the human person ascommitted to a life project. It is not difficult to imagine persons acting on impulse, giving in to certain weaknesses, or making mistakes. It is also possible that some human decisions can be simply and spontaneously malicious. However, one could validly ask whether this is an adequate image for outlining a ‘Christian anthropology’ or of describing how we would prefer to envision moral life.

The classical explanation for this approach lies in the neo-scholastic interpretations of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae. In this opinion, the moral evaluation of the human act depends first upon the object (ST, I-II,18,2), followed by an evaluation of the circumstances (18,3) and then confirmed by a consideration of the end of the agent (18,4). Countless interpreters of the Summa have agreed upon this analysis, not the least of whom was the Belgian Dominican, Servais Pinckaers. In one of his commentaries he wrote,

After the lengthy structural analysis of a human act in questions 11–17 in the prima secundae, dominated by the will to attain the end, and by the intention which is centered in choice and ends with fruition, St. Thomas explains the essential structure of a moral action in a remarkable article that contains the totality of his study of morality, an article which gives the Thomistic model of action [I-II,18,6].[4]

How Pinckaers came up with this conclusion is difficult to understand.[5] To write that the intention ‘is centered in choice’ goes directly contrary to what Aquinas writes in his article on intention as the primary activity of the will in I-II,12, ‘intention is an act of the will in regard to the end’. [6]

I suspect that what clouded the vision of Aquinas’ (neo)scholastic interpreters is a concept that he himself does not use, namely the idea of an ‘act evil-in-itself’, or an ‘intrinsically evil act’. Aquinas does not use this kind of terminology because this is not the way he thinks about human, voluntary acts. This is not to say that he does not have a somewhat similar notion about external activities which should never be chosen to realize even admirable ends. In his view, we should never knowingly choose an act that is against divine law, contrary to nature or incompatible with reason. However, this is not the same thing as saying that we should only choose acts that are completely free from any kind of evil whatsoever. [7]

For instance, Aquinas believed that inflicting punishment for crimes was not only an important part of justice but that the manner of doing this correctly was the stuff of virtue, namely vindicatio. [8] The punishments that he considered were all forms of external activity that he referred to as evil (mala): death, stripes, retaliation, slavery, imprisonment, exile, fines, and disgrace (II-II,108,3). These evils are chosen by legitimate authority and carried out by those appointed to do so in order to bring about the end of justice.[9] The fact that these physical acts include some sort of evil – clearly not a moral evil, otherwise the action as a whole would have to be rejected – does not prevent them from being chosen to realize a good, admirable, and virtuous end, as in the case of safeguarding justice. That is, of course, as long as the punishment inflicted is proportionate to the crime.

Thus, Aquinas does presume that even external actions can be evaluated in some, not yet moral, manner. He also makes it clear that we should reject certain kinds of external actions when they are inappropriate for realizing a good end, and that we should not allow certain kinds of circumstances for the same reason. This, however, does not constitute a method of moral evaluation that begins with the evaluation of external actions on their own. The reason for this is because Aquinas’ very conception of the voluntary act does not admit of such a schema. For him, the voluntary act is a single, though composite, event that is always driven by the pursuit of an end.[10]

Intention and choice

Many years ago, Louis Janssens drew attention to the fact that Aquinas makes a clear distinction between intention (intentio) and choice (electio) in the process of ethical decision- making.[11] That seminal article generated a good deal of reaction. The issue appeared to settle down but then reverberated in the aftermath of Veritatis Splendor. Janssens had suggested that Aquinas’ primary criterion for determining the moral species of a voluntary, human act was the end of the act of the will. Those who opposed this idea claimed, very much in keeping with the handbook tradition, that it was primarily the object that was crucial.[12] After the encyclical there followed an entire series of articles on the subject in the pages of The Thomist,[13] and one of the most recent contributions can be found in a reaction to the work of Todd Salzman and Michael Lawler in the Heythrop Journal.[14]

Having followed this debate for over thirty years,[15] I must admit that there seems to be no easy and straightforward answer to the question, what did Aquinas mean when he used the word ‘object’ in reference to the moral evaluation of human acts, especially in reference to the famous statement of 18,2 that ‘an action takes its species from its object’ (actio habet speciem ex obiecto)?[16] Exactly what is that ‘object’?[17] Although I strongly sympathize with Janssens’ position, I could also see why those who disagree with it are thoroughly convinced of their interpretation of Aquinas as well. The touchstone of that alternative interpretationseems to coalesce in the position representedmost strongly by Pinckaers and Rhonheimer and reflected in Veritatis Splendor, namely that Aquinas concentrated his judgment on something referred to as the ‘intentional choice (of an object) by a deliberate act of the will’.[18]

There are texts and phrases in Aquinas’ treatment of human acts (1–21) that can be used to support either position. All of those texts and phrases must be seen as being out of context, however, if one does not sufficiently understand what Aquinas is trying to say in his treatise. The only way forward, then, is to abandon all the interpretations and return to the text itself.

Returning to the Text

Reading a thirteenth century text on human acts is a challenging endeavour. It demands a concentrated effort to avoid reading anachronistic ideas back into the text that do not belong there. To cite just oneexample, the English Dominicans routinely (about 130 times) use the word ‘means’ in their translation of the first 21 questions of the I-II to refer to what one could call the object of choice. But Aquinas has no specific word for ‘means’ and each time uses the phrase ea quae sunt ad finem. If we literally translate his text, therefore, we would be encountering expressions such as ‘in order to bring about an end intended by the will, one deliberates about and chooses those things in service to that end’. Aquinas does not think that, ‘one chooses this in order to bring about that’. Rather, he thinks that, ‘one chooses that which realizes the purpose (goal, aim) which one intends as an end’. The difference may be subtle, but it is important. There is no ‘this’ and ‘that’. There is only the goal or purpose (end) for which one does anything.

Reading and analyzing the text of I-II,1–21 is in some ways easier in ourtime than it was thirty years ago, for there are readily available, and to a varying extent handy copies to be found on the internet. The Latin text at includes search and sort machines that greatly facilitate the comparative study of all the texts of Aquinas. The English text at basically contains the English Dominican translation but only presents the text question by question and contains no search facilities. It has also for some reason omitted the prologues that Aquinas provides to help orient the reader.

Recalling that the Summa Theologiae was written as a textbook for beginning theologians,[19] the prologues Aquinas included provide an insight into the structure he uses in presenting his ideas. While I will get to these shortly, it is worth pausing to re-read the prologue that he gives to the entire second part of the Summa (which is provided at the new advent website).

Since, as Damascene states (De Fide Orthod. ii. 12), man is said to be made to God’s image, in so far as the image implies an intelligent being endowed with free-will and self-movement: now that we have treated of the exemplar, i.e., God, and of those things which came forth from the power of God in accordance with His will; it remains for us to treat of His image, i.e., man, in as much as he too is the principle of his actions, as having free-will and control of his actions.

I find this text helpful in understanding how and why Aquinas was one of the first to integrate what we today call moral theology into his work on the systematic presentation of sacred doctrine. The manual tradition, and especially its critics, make Aquinas out to be a rational ethicist, relying primarily if not exclusively, upon the power of reason for moral decision-making. Reading this prologue, however, gives a somewhat different impression. The characteristics that represent humans as the image of God are freedom and self- movement. Using Aristotle’s ideas, Aquinas describes God as the unmoved mover. God alone moves God’s self. Although humans are moved by things external to themselves, namely by God’s law (I-II,90–108) and grace (I-II,109–114), they also move themselves by acts of the will. The internal principles of human action are not simply reason but also habits, good ones (virtues, I-II,49–70) and bad ones (vices, I-II,71–89). The freedom of which he writes, ‘free will’ (I,83), is nothing more than the ability to engage or not engage in self-movement (action) as well as to choose between behavioral options when these are available. Because we have the benefit of this freedom, it is necessary for Aquinas to address this in his theological appreciation of the human person.

If we read through the prologues that are provided throughout this part, the following structure is revealed in schematic form.


The first five questions are addressed to the final end of human persons and the meaning and attainment of happiness (beatitude). The rest is dedicated to those things that aid in the attainment of happiness. From this we see that the first principles of human action that are treated by Aquinas are the ‘internal’ ones: those activities that emanate from the person. This is borne out in the examination of the second part of his treatise on moral theology (II-II), namely that which spells out the specifics of moral and immoral human activity. The substance of this text is entirely about virtues and vices, so that the principle (i.e. not the only) thrust of outlining the structure of morality is taken from the internal principles and not the external ones.

More closely examining our principle focus on human actions, we find that in line with Aquinas’ style, every question is preceded by a prologue. In the majority of cases the prologue serves merely to outline the different aspects of a question that will be treated in the individual articles. As example we take the prologue to question 7:

We must now consider the circumstances of human acts: under which head there are four points of inquiry: (1)What is a circumstance? (2)Whether a theologian should take note of the circumstances of human acts? (3) How many circumstances are there? (4)Which are the most important of them?

As we can see, all this does is tell is what will be dealt with in the whole question. Other prologues, however, tell us much more. They sketch what is taking place in multiple questions and provide an indication as to how and why Aquinas chose to proceed in the manner he did. They also mark out transitions in the text from one section to another, much like chapter headings in a book.

In the treatise on human acts (I-II,6–21) there are four, more detailed prologues that unveil the structure of the text; they occur at questions 6, 8, 13, and 18. This text, therefore, consists of four sections: 6–7, 8–12, 13–17, and 18–21. The first of these prologues is the longest, but it provides an important overview of what Aquinas is planning to do.

Since therefore Happiness is to be gained by means of certain acts, we must in due sequence consider human acts, in order to know by what acts we may obtain Happiness, and by what acts we are prevented from obtaining it. But because operations [20] and acts are concerned with things singular, consequently all practical knowledge is incomplete unless it take account of things in detail. The study of morals, therefore, since it treats of human acts, should consider first the general principles; and secondly matters of detail. In treating of the general principles, the points that offer themselves for our consideration are – (1) human acts themselves; (2) their principles.[21] Now of human acts some are proper to man; others are common to man and animals. And since Happiness is man’s proper good, those acts which are proper to man have a closer connection with Happiness than have those which are common to man and the other animals. First, then, we must consider those acts which are proper to man; secondly, those acts which are common to man and the other animals, and are called Passions. The first of these points offers a twofold consideration: (1) What makes a human act? (2) What distinguishes human acts? And since those acts are properly called human, which are voluntary, because the will is the rational appetite, which is proper to man, we must consider acts in so far as they are voluntary. First, then, we must consider the voluntary and involuntary in general; secondly those acts which are voluntary as being elicited by the will, and as issuing from the will immediately; thirdly those acts which are voluntary, as being commanded by the will, which issue from the will through the medium of the other powers. And because voluntary acts have certain circumstances, according to which we form our judgment concerning them, we must first consider the voluntary and the involuntary, and afterwards, the circumstances of those acts which are found to be voluntary or involuntary.

The last paragraph unveils what will be dealt with in the two immediate questions, the voluntary (6) and circumstances (7). The larger discussion outlined here tells us what is to come.What makes an act human is precisely the determination that it is voluntary (6–17); what distinguishes human acts, namely an evaluation of their goodness or badness (18–21), will be dealt with only subsequently.

The Meaning of the Voluntary

With respect to the voluntary, Aquinas makes a clear distinction between voluntary acts that are ‘elicited by the will’ and those that are ‘voluntary as beingcommanded by the will’. He does not (yet) tell us which acts belong to which category, although we already know that the first are elicited ‘immediately’, and that commanded acts involve powers other than the will alone.

meaning of the voluntary

We also know that there are introductory prologues (presenting material that goes beyond the immediately following question) presented at questions 8, 13 and 18. Our suspicion is

therefore that there is a break between questions 12 and 13. To bear this out, of course, demands consulting the text, so we will present the prologues to these sections.

Question 8 address acts immediately elicited by the will. That is to say, external factors do not play a significant role in these acts of the will. They are not about behaviours.

We must now consider the different acts of the will; and in the first place, those acts which belong to the will itself immediately, as being elicited by the will; secondly, those acts which are commanded by the will.
Now the will is moved to the end, and to those things in service to the end; we must therefore consider – (1) Those acts of the will whereby it is moved to the end; and (2) those whereby it is moved to those things in service to the end. And since it seems that there are three acts of the will in reference to the end; viz., volition, enjoyment, and intention; we must consider – (1) volition; (2) enjoyment; (3) intention.
Concerning the first, three things must be considered: (1) Of what things is the will? (2) By what is the will moved? (3) How it is moved?

When we read the text of the I-II what we find is that the topics stipulated here are directly represented in the questions that follow. As Aquinas states, the first aspect, volition, entails three considerations, each of which will receive a separate question. In schematic form, what we find when we read the text is the following.


I-II,8 is one of the most important sections in the second part of the S.T. because it explains how Aquinas understands the working of the will. The text, a thirteenth century scholastic form of argumentation, is not easy for the contemporary reader; it needs to be studied and it needs to be interpreted with material provided elsewhere in Aquinas’ writings, primarily from the first part of his work on the human person as created by God (I, 75–89). Perhaps the most difficult aspect of his theory is what he refers to as a ‘faculty’. Basically, a faculty is synonymous with a ‘power’; it can also be understood as a ‘potential’, or what we might refer to as an ability. Powers or potentials need to be activated (operation) as well as focused (specification).

Aquinas also distinguishes between active and passive powers (I,77,3). Active powers emanate from within the agent and result in an activity that will cease when a specific end or goal (also referred to as a term or terminus) is reached. Hence these powers are said to be ‘specified’ by their proper object which is an end.[22] Examples of active powers, in his thinking, would be the biological or vegetative powers of growth and generation and the appetitive powers, including the will. Hence, the frequently used phrase: ‘the object of the will is the end’. [23]

Passive powers, on the other hand, are specified by that to which the (ability or potential of the) person responds. Those powers by which we gain information are each specific with respect to the manner in which the information is detected. Sight and hearing are specifically different abilities, responding respectively to something visible or something that can be heard. The objects of these powers, therefore, are something outside the person.

The intellectual power(s), which are at the basis of the will, are both passive and active. The intellect is passive in the sense that it comes to know an object that is not the intellect itself. However, the intellect operates in a different manner than the sensitive powers. For, the object of the intellect is not properly something outside of the person but an idea of something. Thus, the intellect operates in an active manner as well as a passive one. Aquinas speaks of the ‘active intellect’ as a kind of light that illuminates the idea of a thing (I,79). We would probably use words like abstraction or thought to describe this activity. In any case, the proper object of the intellect is therefore ‘what is’, or ‘what is real’. Aquinas says that it is the ‘true’ and the ‘good’. It cannot be what is false or evil because these represent privations in his manner of thinking. We can reason to what is false and evil, but we do not actually know it as an object.

The will is the ‘intellectual appetite’, meaning that it is the power that inclines the person to what the intellect perceives as true and good. As far as the will is concerned, the true and the good are abstractions, not material objects. This is why Aquinas can say that the proper object of the will is an end or goal. Human persons are corporeal beings who must function in a material world; yet, the ends or goals that are the objects of the will remain abstractions or ideas. They do not exist as things or beings but are better described as ‘states of being’. A truly human act is a voluntary act, which in turn means that it is an act that has as its object a particular (whichsimplymeans ‘describable’) state of being[24]

Aquinas often uses the example of health: most (normal, conscious) human persons ‘will to be healthy’, which does not necessarily mean that they do anything physical or material about it. This aspect or act of the will is what he refers to as ‘volition’, the simple function of the will. On the other hand, a person may indeed move toward doing something to achieve, promote or protect health (the end or goal), in which case we would understand the beginnings of an actual movement toward that end. This constitutes the operation of the will which Aquinas calls ‘intention’. The intention is focused upon an end to be achieved and exemplifies the practical meaning and function of the will. However, intending something still does not mean that anything material gets done: the faculty is in operation, but there is not yet any external act. The object of the operation is the end to be achieved; no decision has yet been made about ‘act-ually’ doing something. Nevertheless, Aquinas does ‘jump ahead’ here and tell us that if the contemplated end is indeed achieved, the will then engages in what he calls ‘enjoyment’ or fruition. Here the will comes to rest because the end has been achieved.

This is what Aquinas means when he speaks of acts which ‘belong to the will immediately’ and which are ‘elicited by the will’ (I-II,8): volition, intention and enjoyment. The ‘object’ of these acts is and remains an end, a state of being. Now, some people have tried to say that such an end is merely ‘proximate’ and as such does not really constitute a cessation of human action, because there are still more remote ends to be achieved.[25] Therefore, they speculate, the proximate end of one act becomes the object (means) to a subsequent act. The specific thing the intention is focused on, then, is really an object – for which one can substitute the word ‘means’ – and it is this object that determines the morality of human activity.

However, the text of I-II,1–21 does not support this claim. In fact, an important piece of contrary evidence can be found in Aquinas’ position that to speak about the formulation of an intention (to achieve an end) does not necessarily entail that any suitable way will be found to achieve that end. To say that I intend my own health when I do not do anything about it, seems almost hypocritical. But Aquinas makes the observation for a good reason; not only does the end give the moral species to the entire action, but it is commitment to the end that guides the choice of those things that will make realization of the end possible. This brings us to the next ‘chapter’ of the text.

Things in Service to the End

The prologue to question 13 provides us once again with an overview of what is to come.

Following (what has been said), we must now consider the acts of the will with regard to those things that are in service to the end. There are three of them: to choose, to consent, and to use. And choice is preceded by counsel. First of all, then, we must consider choice; secondly, counsel; thirdly, consent; fourthly use.Concerning choice, there are six points of inquiry. . . .

A strange thing about this introduction, as well as the text that follows, is that the order of things is not chronological. There are indeed three acts of the will described with respect to external activity, and the act of the will with respect to what are now external things is focused upon choice (I-II,13). However, as Aquinas points out, the will cannot make a choice without first considering exactly what the choices might be. Thus, counsel is taken with regard to what the options are (I-II, 14). This, however, is not an act of the will but an act of reason, determining what external activities may in fact be capable of bringing about the intended end, and what good or lack (privation) of good might be associated with each choice.

Surveying possible options, one may see that some are acceptable while others are not. Wanting to have a party for a friend’s birthday, I need to find some money. Although the staging of the party is a remote end and thus functions as a circumstance ‘why’, my immediate task involves the proximate end of getting a certain amount of cash.[26] Considering the possible options, it becomes evident that I could work to earn the money, I could borrow the money from a person or institution, or I could simply take the money from someone else who has a right to possess it. Being basically an ‘honest’ person, I would probably consent to the first two options but not to the third one. Thus, there is another ‘movement’ of the will that may precede the act of choice. Aquinas refers to it as ‘consent’ (I-II,15); although this is at least in part influenced by the deliberative process, it is in fact an act of the will in the sense that the agent actually ‘takes a stand’ on what is acceptable or not.

In the event that consent is given to one and only one option, consent and choice coincide, and there is only one act of the will (15,3,ad 3). If I do not consent to stealing and I already know that no one is in a position to lend me money, there may be only one option open, namely working to earn the amount that I need to stage the party. Making this choice, however, does not put any money in my pocket; I have to engage in some work. It may be immediately ‘evident’ to me what work I will do, because I ‘know’ that I already have an opportunity to take on work that will pay me enough to finance the party. An act of reason has taken place, however quickly, and I set about actually going to work. Aquinas refers to the first, an act of reason, as ‘command’ (I-II,17), and the second, movement of the will, as ‘use’ (I-I,16).

We have here the full description of the activity of the will with respect to those things that are in service to the end. One could make this simple and say that once one engages (elicits an act by) the will with the intention to realize an end, one still needs to make a choice about how that end might be brought about. Aquinas makes it ‘complicated’ because he wishes to look at every aspect of those things that lead up tomovement through concrete action or omission (commanded by the will). There are, then, two distinct aspects to what we usually refer to as a voluntary, unified human act: intention and choice. One of these aspects, however, clearly takes priority, and that is the intention to the end; for, without an end to be realized, no choice would have to be made; nor would the making of choices have any meaning without an end to be achieved.

The Complex Unity of the Human Act

The composite nature of the human act is brought out clearly in two important articles that describe the relationship between an intended end and the choice of an external act for the purpose of bringing about that end. This is alternatively described as a unified act of the will (8,3) or a continuous movement to the intended end by way of doing those things that achieve the end (12,4). Both these articles stress the unity of the human act, but neither suggests that the focus of this act of the will is what Aquinas refers to as ‘choice’. In fact, the second stresses the fact that it is entirely possible that an end is never reached, because no acceptable or suitable manner of achieving it has been found. In this sense, those things in service to achieving the end can be thought of as accidental to the primary act of the will, namely volition and intention, for it is these that give the human person a direction.

When it comes to the ‘last chapter’ of this treatise, on the evaluation of human acts, we find a scheme that is by now predictable.

We must now consider the good and evil of human acts. First, how a human act is good or evil; secondly, what results from the good or evil of a human act, as merit or demerit, sin and guilt. Under the first head there will be a threefold consideration: the first will be of the good and evil of human acts, in general; the second, of the good and evil of internal acts; the third, of the good and evil of external acts.

Sketching this as a diagram, we see that the priority is once again given to the interior act of the will.

meaning of the voluntary

The first question Aquinas takes on is whether it is meaningful to speak of the good or evil of human acts. He gives the obvious answer to this question, but not without making it more complicated than most of us are used to. First he writes about the goodness or evil of an act of the will (18,1–4), then he discusses whether an act of the will is good or evil in its moral species (18,5–7), whether it is possible to speak of an indifferent (i.e., neither good nor evil) act of the will (18,8–9), and finally whether circumstances play any role in an act of the will being good or evil (18,10–11).

Most commentators confuse the first and second sections, taking insufficient notice of the fact that in the first four articles Aquinas is writing about the whole human act in general and in the next three articles he is addressing the specifically moral character of a human action. In the first, he felt that he needed to establish that it is meaningful to speak of good and evil human acts, primarily affirming the source of their goodness. As we read at the end of his development in the last of these articles, 18,4:

A fourfold goodness may be considered in a human action. First, that which, as an action, it derives from its genus; because as much as it has of action and being so much has it of goodness, as stated above. Secondly, it has goodness according to its species; which is derived from its suitable object. Thirdly, it has goodness from its circumstances, in respect, as it were, of its accidents. Fourthly, it has goodness from its end, to which it is compared as to the cause of its goodness.

The purpose of this development is not to determine or establish the specifically moral good or evil of a human action; that will take place in 18,5–7. It is rather merely to make explicit what Aquinas believes merits attention. Note that in the second instance he affirms that the goodness associated with its species is said to come not from an ‘object’, but rather from a ‘suitable object’. It is the suitability of the object of human action that contributes to its goodness, not the object in itself. Commentators inspired by handbook theology tend to concentrate on this article and the single observation that ‘an action has its species from its object’. They usually fail to mention that the species spoken of here is the natural species and not the moral one.

It is in 18,5–7 that Aquinas addresses the question of the moral species of human action, and the entire development revolves around the importance of the end. It is the end that gives moral species to an act, and it is the end that forms the genus of the moral species, under which falls the more particular role of the ‘object’ as external action, a role that demands suitability, not simply ‘goodness’. For, as he observes in the sed contra of 18,7, ‘for instance, theft can be ordained to an infinite number of good and bad ends.’

Question 18 is followed by separate reflections on the role of the interior act of the will and of external actions. The two are very distinct in Aquinas’ mind and function differently in the moral assessment of human acts. The object of the interior act of the will is the end. Thus, In the first two articles of question 19, ‘Whether the goodness of the will depends upon the object,’ and‘ Whether the goodness of the will depends upon the object alone’, the ‘object’ being addressed is not the external object (act or omission), what is chosen, but rather the internal object of the will, the state of affairs that the person is attempting to achieve.

There is no denying that the external act, that which is ‘commanded by the will’, is also important in the overall moral evaluation. One chooses an external vehicle for realizing one’s end or goal. The movement of the will toward the end is not, however, the same thing as the chosen external activity. The person intends ends (I-II,12), but chooses a way to realize these ends (I-II,13). One can intend an end without ever accomplishing it; however, in Aquinas’ way of thinking, one does not ‘choose’ without a purpose or goal to be reached. What else could be the criterion by which such a choice is made?

It should be evident that the word ‘object’ has a number of different functions within this text. The ‘object of the will’ is clearly an end or goal, while the ‘object of an act’ is the external, material action through which human persons ‘move’ themselves in order to achieve their ends, the desired state of affairs. We should also remember that ‘external actions do not have an inherent measure of morality, except insofar as they are voluntary,’ (18,6), that is, insofar as they are ‘suitable’ for the realization of the end (18,2&4). A remaining question, then, would be whether there are any external actions that can never function as suitable ways for realizing an acceptable goal.

It seems that Aquinas would agree that there are some things that may never be ‘chosen’, let alone function as an end for human activity. Following Augustine, in 20,2,sc he states that ‘there are some actions which neither a good end nor a good will can make good,’ and the example referred to here is the case of lying. At first sight, this almost looks like a Kantian imperative. However, if we read the entire thing in context, the question Aquinas is dealing with is whether it is the will or some external, physical activity that is the primary cause of sin (moral evil). In the first article he already established that ‘moral good and evil are first in the will.’ He then points out that this can occur in two ways. Either the will tends towards an end or goal that is not fitting, or the thing chosen to bring about the end does not consist of ‘due matter attended by due circumstances’. In either case, it is first and foremost the will that is responsible for moral impropriety. Whether or not there are things that one should never choose to bring about a good end, is secondary to the need for an upright will that looks first to the ends to be accomplished.


1 John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor (Vatican: Polyglot, 1993, 179 pp.) was released to the world on 5 October 1993. The text itself carries the date 6 August 1993. Copies of the English text can be found in L’Osservatore Romano (English) 6 October 1993 and in Origins 23 (14 October 1993) 297, 299–334. My initial reaction to the encyclical was concerned with how it had relied so heavily upon the manualistic concept of the ‘sources of morality’. See J.A. Selling, ‘Veritatis Splendor and the Sources of Morality’, in Louvain Studies 19 (1994) 3–17.

2 The feeling that there was something not quite right about the position defended in the encyclical is reflected in my commentary on the text, ‘The Context and the Arguments of Veritatis Splendor’. This article was published along with several other pieces on the encyclical in a book that I edited with Jan Jans, The Splendor of Accuracy: An Examination of the Assertions made by Veritatis Splendor (Kampen: Kok/Pharos, 1994; Grand Rapids,MI: Eerdmans, 1995, 11–70). I must admit to a moment of weakness in deciding upon the title for this collection of essays, something for which I hope my fellow contributors have not suffered. After studying the encyclical for some time, however, I textually established what Richard McCormick had previously suggested in his own commentary, namely that the arguments of the papal letter did not do justice to the moral theological opinions with which it disagreed. This is the meaning of the reference to ‘accuracy’ in the title of the book.

3 VS, 71: ‘Human acts are moral acts because they express and determine the goodness or evil of the individual who performs them. They do not produce a change merely in the state of affairs outside of man but, to the extent that they are deliberate choices, they give moral definition to the very person who performs them, determining his profound spiritual traits.’ VS, 72, ‘If the object of the concrete action is not in harmony with the true good of the person, the choice of that action makes our will and ourselves morally evil, thus putting us in conflict with our ultimate end, the supreme good, God himself.’ VS, 78, ‘The morality of the human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the ‘object’ rationally chosen by the deliberate will, as is borne out by the insightful analysis, still valid today, made by Saint Thomas. [Cf. ‘Summa Theologiae,’ I–II, q. 18, a. 6.] . . . The object of the act of willing is in fact a freely chosen kind of behaviour. To the extent that it is in conformity with the order of reason, it is the cause of the goodness of the will; it perfects us morally, and disposes us to recognize our ultimate end in the perfect good, primordial love.’

4 Servais Pinckaers, ‘Historical Perspective on Intrinsically Evil Acts’, The Pinckaers Reader: Renewing Thomistic Moral Theology(Washington: CUA, 2005) 185–235, p.204; originally published in Ce qu’on ne peut jamais faire (Paris: Cerf, 1986) 20–66. Interesting is the fact that at this point Pinckaers makes reference to the exact same text of Thomas that one finds in Veritatis Splendor, 78, namely I–II,18, 6. However, this text is not about the ‘object’ of the human act but rather about the end. The specific question with which Thomas is dealing here is: ‘Whether an action has its moral species from its end.’ The clearly positive response that Aquinas gives to this question makes one wonder what Pinckaers, or the author of Veritatis Splendor (idem?), was thinking when they provided this reference.

5 In the texts cited above, Pinckaers refers to his earlier work, namely a commentary he wrote on questions 6–21 in ‘Les actes humains’, Somme de La Revue Jeunes (Paris: 1966) vol. 2, 413–437. Reading through that commentary, it is remarkable how little reference is made to Aquinas’ actual text. Hardly any mention is made of what I am going to suggest are the key texts to understanding Aquinas’ exposition of the act of the will, namely 8,3 and 12,4 (see below).

6 I-II,12,1,ad 1: intentio est actus voluntatis respectu finis. English translations of the ST are taken primarily from that of the English Dominicans published by Benzinger in 3 vols, 1947–48. Latin texts are taken from the compilation of Roberto Busa found on

7 This observation begs the question of how one might determine which acts would qualify as being against the divine law (commandments), nature or reason. That, however, is a different question than the one that will be treated here. LOOKING TOWARD THE END 399

8 The English Dominicans translate vindicatio with the word ‘vengeance’ in II-II,108,1–4. That word, in our day, clearly carries rather negative connotations and perhaps should be translated as retribution or punishment. However, we should remember that as a virtue it describes an attitude or tendency and not simply an activity

. 9 See also, I-II,1,3,ad 3, where Aquinas discusses how killing aman (occidere hominem) merely has a natural species which clearly constitutes an evil, whereas the same external act may be performed for very different purposes, viz. to safeguard justice or to satisfy anger, either of which determine the moral species of the action as good or bad respectively.

10 One could establish the presence of this position simply by quoting I-II,20,1, on whether goodness or malice is first in the action of the will or in the external action. Aquinas even quotes Augustine here to affirm that ‘moral good and evil are first in the will’ (bonum et malum morale per prius consistit in voluntate).

11 Louis Janssens, ‘Ontic Evil and Moral Evil’, Louvain Studies 4 (1972-3), 115–156, pp. 119–20; reprinted in C.E. Curran and R.A. McCormick, Readings in Moral Theology 1: Moral Norms and Catholic Tradition (N.Y., Paulist, 1979) 40–93.

12 William E.May, ‘Aquinas and Janssens on theMoralMeaning of Human Acts’, The Thomist 48 (1984), 566–606 and John Finnis, ‘Object and Intention in Moral Judgments According to Aquinas’, The Thomist 55 (1991), 1–27.

13 In chronological order in The Thomist: Chad Ripperger, ‘The Species and Unity of theMoral Act,’ 59 (1995) 69– 90; Martin Rhonheimer, ‘Intentional Actions and theMeaning of Object: A Reply to Richard McCormick,’ 29 (1995) 279–311; William H. Marshner, ‘Aquinas on the Evaluation of Human Actions,’ 59 (1995) 347–370; Steven A. Long, ‘A Brief Disquisition Regarding the Nature of the Object of the Moral Act According to St. Thomas Aquinas’, 67 (2003) 45–71; Steven Jensen, ‘A Long Discussion regarding Steven A. Long’s Interpretation of the Moral Species,’ 67 (2003) 623–643; Kevin L. Flannery, ‘The Multifarious Moral Object of Thomas Aquinas,’ 67 (2003) 95–118 and ‘The Field ofMoral Action According to Thomas Aquinas,’ 69 (2005) 1–30; GregoryM. Reichberg, ‘Aquinas on Defensive Killing: A Case of Double Effect?’, 69 (2005) 341–370.

14 Francis Michael Walsh, ‘The Return of the Naturalistic Fallacy: A Dialogue on Human Flourishing’, Heythrop Journal 49 (2008), 370–387, is a response to Todd A. Salzman andMichael G. Lawler, ‘New Natural Law Theory and Foundational Sexual Ethical Principles: A Critique and a Proposal’, Heythrop Journal 47 (2006), 182–205 (see his section on ‘Foundational Principles’ on 377–384). Walsh appears to rely quite heavily upon Martin Rhonheimer, ‘Intrinsically Evil Acts’ and theMoral Viewpoint: Clarifying a Central Teaching of Veritatis Splendor’, The Thomist 58 (1994), 1–39, as well as Rhonheimer’s article cited above.

15 Louis Janssens was my mentor in moral theology at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, where I am still teaching. See, Joseph A. Selling, ‘Proportionate Reasoning and the Concept of Ontic Evil: The Moral Theological Legacy of Louis Janssens’, Louvain Studies 27 (2002), 3–28.

16 An important thing to remember here is that in the first four questions of art.18 Aquinas ismerely trying to establish that it is meaningful to speak about human acts as being good or evil. His emphasis is on the manner in which the goodness of a human act can be established (see the body of 18,4): its genus (the very fact that it exists), its species (by the presence of a suitable object, ex obiecto convenienti), its circumstances, and its end. A human act’s goodness is thus linked with its object (external action), but only insofar as that object is suitable. As the question is begged, ‘suitable to what?’, the response, that is spelled out in 18,6&7, seems perfectly clear: suitable to the achievement of its end.

17 Joseph A. Selling, ‘Object, End and Moral Species in S.T. I-II, 1–21’, Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 84 (2008), 363–407.

18 The expression ‘intentional choice’ appears nowhere in Aquinas’ work. That would be impossible, for Aquinas considered intention and choice to be two, distinct functions of the will.

19 Leonard E. Boyle, ‘The Setting of the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas – Revisisted,’ in Stephen J. Pope (ed.), The Ethics of Aquinas (Washington: Georgetown, 2002) 1–16.

20 Whereas an ‘operation’ refers to the generalengagement of a ‘power’ (e.g. the exterior, sensing power of sight has its operation in ‘seeing’), an act refers to a specific, practical incident, (e.g., ‘to look at’ something)

21 See the schema provided above. The first of these covers voluntary acts (6–21) and the passions (22–48); the second is divided into internal principles (habits, 49–70 and sins, 71–89) and external principles (law, 90–108 and grace, 109–114).

22 S.T., 1,3; 1,3,ad 3; 1,5; 7,3,ad 3; 7,4,ad 2; 8,3,sc; 18,6,sc; 18,6; 18,7,sc; 18,7.

23 S.T., 1,1; 1,1,ad 1; 1,2,ad 3; 1,3; 1,3,ad 3; 1,4,ad 3; 1,5; 2,5; 2,7; 2,8; 3,4; 3,4,ad 3; 4,3; 4,4; 6,6,ad 1; 7,4; 8,2; 8,3; 8,3,ad 1; 8,3,ad 2; 9,1; 9,3; 10,2,ad 3; 11,1,ad 1; 11,4; 12,1; 12,1,ad 1; 12,1,ad 3; 12,1,ad 4; 12,2; 12,4; 13,1; 15,3; 16,3,ad 2; 17,9,ad 2; 18,6; 18,6,ad 2; 18,7; 19,2,ad 1; 19,7; 19,8; 19,9; 19,10; 20,1; 20,2; 20,3; 20,4; 21,1,ad 2.

24 This may help to explain how and why the virtues that motivate moral activity do not aim at specific things but rather describe ‘states of being’. We can be motivated to be just, to seek justice or to do the just thing, even before we know or decide upon precisely what activity will bring about justice.

25 See John Finnis, ‘Object and Intention inMoral Judgments According to Aquinas’, The Thomist 55 (1991), 1–27,

26 Walsh, ‘The Return of the Naturalistic Fallacy,’ 379, refers to ‘the neo-scholastic account that [Salzman] has received from Thomas Gilby’.With this he refers to Thomas Gilby, ‘Structure of a Human Act (8–17)’, Appendix I, in Summa Theologiae, v. 17: Psychology of Human Acts (1a2ae. 6–17) Latin text, English translation, Introduction, Notes, Appendices & Glossary (Cambridge: Blackfriers, 1970) 211–217. Although Gilby’s diagram is not completely inaccurate, the example he gives is, I believe, misleading because it addresses several acts in succession. In Aquinas’ approach, the proximate end of a human activity is equivalent to the answer to the question ‘for what reason is this done’, which he refers to as one of the two most important circumstances, the other being ‘in what an act consists’ (I- 400 JOSEPH A. SELLING II,7,4). Of course an action can be performed as part of a sequence, the later ‘ends’ of which can be classified as ‘remote’. But in such a case, the earlier act may not be classified merely as an object used for the purpose of realizing an ‘end which is remote’. The earlier act has an end of its own, one which gives it its moral species. As Aquinas states, ‘the motive and the object of the will is the end’.
It is possible to misunderstand Aquinas on this point, for at the end of his response to the question about ‘whether an act has its species of good or evil from its end’ (I-II,18,6) he quotes Aristotle (Ethics,v,2) writing ‘he who steals that he may commit adultery, is, strictly speaking, more adulterer than thief.’ However, he clarifies his own position in the following article (18,7) where he writes that when what is done and the motive for which it is done are not effectively connected with each other, as in stealing and committing adultery, there are in fact two actions taking place. Each of these has its own (proximate) end. This is to be distinguished from the case in which what is done and the motive for doing it are inextricably connected, as in his other famous example of giving alms in order to achieve vainglory (19,7,ad 2).