Sunday, September 23, 2007

Imperfect acting

Before a person performs an action, they must have something in mind--the objective--which they intend to perform. The purpose of acting is to realise the objective. When we perform an act, we set out to achieve what our will wanted us to do. Now this might sound like stating the obvious and in one way it is, the problem is that when we try to achieve our objective we may cause other effects to come into being incidental to the realisation of our immediate objective.

Example: A man is involved in a motor vehicle accident. He has been flung out of his car onto the road in the path of oncoming traffic. He has also broken quite a few bones in his body. We happen upon the accident scene and try to move the man out of the path of oncoming traffic. Now in moving the man we cause him suffering and distress as every movement jostles his broken bones.

Now our objective is to move the man out of the path of danger, however in trying to perform this act we manage to move him out of danger while at the same time causing him considerable amount of pain. In actuating our objective we have also actuated this man’s pain. Now if we are aware that the man has broken bones we clearly foresee that the action of moving the man is going to cause him pain. How do you evaluate the determine the morality of an act when clearly both good and evil is happening at the same time as a result of a specific action?

Now our capacity to actuate our objective is limited to our means and circumstances. A elderly man may want to help our injured motorist but not have the strength to do it. A young lady may drag our motorist across the road, causing more pain than if he was gently lifted by paramedics yet both people have tried to actuate a morally good objective with various degrees of evil resulting as a result of their circumstantial limitations.

The prevalent view amongst a group of quite a few Christians--who should know better--is that the act is evaluated on the consequences, if one of the consequences is a foreseen grave evil then the act’s nature must be intrinsically evil and hence prohibited. The act is judged by its effects. By their reasoning, if a man performs an action in which he foresees his own death he must have intended suicide. If a pilot of a plane bombs a building in which terrorists have used hostages as shields he must have intended to kill the hostages. It is the doctrine of immaculate actuation.

They will of course deny that this is their reasoning and this is because they cannot see their error. All of them can state the principles of double effect and list examples of how they support it; up to a certain point. Once a certain psychological threshold is crossed, double effect is negated. While it is never OK to deliberately actuate pain or maiming to an individual as in torture they will quite happily accept it as a side effect of medical treatment. However once the unintended evil effects of an otherwise morally permissible action include injury to children or death to innocents then the principle of double effect usually is switched off: Double effect is applicable up to a certain threshold of unintended evil after which it is not on.

Now this is basically a repudiation of Veritatis Splendor. The document states that the morality of an act is determined by a moral analysis of the actors corporeal objective, not the effects of the realisation of the objective. The question to be asked is what was the actor trying to achieve by the action which resulted in both good and evil effects? The fact that a good action may have a bad effect does not automatically disqualify the action. St Thomas will back me up on that one.

Veritatis Splendor did not deal with the doctrine of double effect explicitly but its principles are easily applicable to the doctrine. In order for an action to be licit under the principle of double effect:

The actor must have a good moral objective and
A proportional analysis of the effects of actualisation of the action must on balance be good in order for the action to be permitted: The doctrine of double effect is the doctrine of conditional proportionalism.

The doctrine of double effect does not permit an actions which have a morally good objective but which on balance has bad consequences. Likewise double effect does not justify a morally bad objective if the consequences are good. Double effect also implicitly demands that we chose actions which minimise the bad consequences where that choice is available.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Moral Object Solutions.

Apparently My Blog is being read in heaven; no seriously. I got two replies to the Double Effect post from John Paul II (check the comments on the post) I do get an impressive audience. I wonder if it is a wireless link?

I’d thought I’d have another go thinking about moral objects.

What is a moral object?

One of the big problems in understanding morality is an understanding of the concept of the “moral object“. I’ve gone looking around on the web and have been mulling over Veritatis Splendor and most explanations seem to go give a partial understanding of the subject. I also feel that Veritatis Splendor may confuse the terminology a bit. Thinking about the matter a bit more, I feel that the military may have some useful ideas in helping us understand the moral object a bit easier.

The target of a military endeavour is called the objective. The objective is the thing to which military activities are directed. Military endeavours are usually divided into two different types of objectives: The strategic and the tactical.

The strategic objective is the purpose to which all military operations are directed. Principally they are the defeat of the enemy or a lessening of its power. Broadly speaking it is why military operations are constituted in the first place. The tactical objectives and the targets which have to be achieved--either in the form of possession, neutralisation or destruction--that have to be achieved in order to achieve the strategic objective. Now the strategic objective can be thought of analogous to the idea of intent while the tactical objective can be thought of as the objective of an act.

Notice that there are two different types of objectives. Intended objectives and objectives of acts. Both acts and intents have objectives but they are fundamentally different in their natures. The intended objective is a state we wish to achieve, this state may come about passively without us doing anything while an the objective of an act is a state we wish to achieve by our active participation.

This objective can be considered from many different perspective but when considered against a moral standard the objective can be thought of as a moral objective. The moral object can therefore be thought of as the classification of an object with respect to its relation to God’s moral law. Example: Let’s say A wants to murder B. The object of A’s intent is the unjust death of B. As it is never licit to murder, the object of A’s intent can be thought of as contrary to God’s law and therefore is categorically evil. A’s intent has an evil moral object. Broadly speaking bad intentions and bad acts have are bad moral objects, while good intentions and acts have the opposite. Moral theologians have also made the distinction in the following terminology:

The finis operis: the end of the operation , similar to the concept of the tactical objective,
The finis operantis: the end of the agent similar in concept to the strategic objective.

Personally, I think that the terminology doesn’t emphasise the distinction enough, so I ‘m suggesting a different terminology be used. (I’m open to suggestions of a better terminology).

Finis operis: Corporeal object.
Finis operandis: Intended object.

I want to be clear that by corporeal object, I mean human acts including thoughts; for thinking is a human action even though it is not strictly corporeal.

Now human acts can be considered as being directed towards a specific corporeal object. Human action is the ontic realisation of the corporeal object: The thing willed is made real by the act.

Now why does all this matter?

At any given point or place the universe as we know it exists in a certain ontic state. By ontic state I mean the bits and pieces that make up our universe have a specific relation to one another. The universe as it was on June 22nd 3.05pm exactly was in a different ontic state to what it was on Feb 12 1987 at 11.37 am.

Now the intent concerns itself with the nature of the ontic state, or the type of state the particular individual would like to see exist. The object of intent is a particular ontic state; while the corporeal object realised, is an active alteration of the ontic state: the act generates a particular ontic state. The important point being is that the corporeal object and the intended object are not the same. Sometimes the corporeal object is congruent with the intended object sometimes it is not: the corporeal object--with the contingent assistance of circumstance--is a means of attaining the intended object.

I think a change in terminology is important because ill will in discussions on moral matters frequently hinge on definitions, the current definitions are not precise enough. More tomorrow.