instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Unchaining the object

In response to this statement by Colin Donovan in the National Catholic Register:
What would be the object in voting for an imperfect candidate? It would be to limit the evil that a more extreme candidate would do.
Zippy comments:
He apparently thinks the object of the act is a remote intention, like the colloquial "the object of the game is to take your opponent's king."

A lot of 'credentialed' and 'respected' Catholics think that, in my experience.
What I think may be happening in such cases -- including, as it happens, many treatments of the morality of self-defense -- is this: An act is being seen as willed, not for its immediate effect as such, but to cause a whole chain of effects. The last effect in that chain is being called the object of the act, and the intention is taken to be the reason why the actor desires the final effect.

I cast my ballot -- I act -- on the first Tuesday of November, launching a chain of effects that spools out across the months and years without further action on my part. My ballot is put in a ballot box, and later my vote is counted, and that helps a not-worst candidate win, and later on he's sworn in, and then while he's in office he effects less harm than would have been effected if the worst candidate had won.

(The chain of effects is somewhat shorter, and much swifter, in an "act of self-defense." I hit my attacker in the head with the baseball bat, and he is too dazed to continue attacking me, and I survive.)

I think there might be an impression that this chain of effects can be collapsed, with the final effect called the object, because there's only one act.

That this sort of collapsing of chain of effects is not consistent with traditional Catholic moral theology (notwithstanding the regrettable example of St. Thomas on the question of self-defense), if not self-evident, can be proven by contradiction: In traditional Catholic moral theology, the object of an act determines whether the act is intrinsically good or evil. A good effect, however, may be arrived at through a chain of evil effects. If the final effect in the chain is willed, then (in traditional Catholic moral theology) all the links in the chain are willed. It is never morally lawful to will evil. If the final effect in a chain is the object of an act, then the act could be both intrinsically good (as it would be if the final effect is good) and intrinsically evil (as it would be if any of the willed effects is evil). But that's impossible, so the final effect in a chain is not the object of an act.

If someone wanted to argue that, in the assertion that the object in voting for an imperfect candidate would be to limit the evil that a more extreme candidate would do, all of the links in the chain of willed effects happen to be good, that might constitute a partial argument that the intention of the actor is good, but not that the final effect is the object of the act.

All this isn't to say you can't go too far in the other direction, by calling a process or an event of the merely physical order the object of an act ("I didn't shoot him, I just wiggled by index finger"). As Bl. John Paul II puts it in Veritatis Splendor, the object of an act "is the proximate end of a deliberate decision which determines the act of willing on the part of the acting person." That's not always trivial to determine, but it's clearly different from "the final effect in a chain of effects set into motion by the act."