Voluntary Action

The Nature of Voluntary Action

  1. ST I-II, q. 6, a. 1 – Possible principles of action for things:
    • Outside the agent.  E.g. stone moves up (against its natural inclination to go down) because of a principle outside of the stone.
    • Within the agent.  E.g. the stone moves down because of a principle within the stone.
      • Some things move themselves, but properly speaking, the principle for this motion is not entirely within the thing.  Such a thing moves for an end, but the principle for this goal oriented motion is not in the thing itself since it has no knowledge of the end it seeks.  The principle of the motion as tending to an end is imprinted, so to speak, on the thing itself, in its nature.  Such motion is therefore called natural.
      • Other things move themselves, and the principle for the motion is more completely intrinsic to the agent.  Not only is the principle of the motion intrinsic, but the principle of the motion as tending toward an end is also within the agent.
        • This sort of self-motion toward an end as an end requires cognitive powers which give rise to acts of cognition or knowledge
        • The motion proceeds from the powers of the thing which are its natural inclinations, i.e. appetitive powers (appetites) or desires.  (These are different ways of referring to the same principles of motion.)
  2. Q. 6., a. 2 – The actions of animals are voluntary since they proceed through a knowledge of the end.  Since animals act for the sake of an end they know (either through the senses, imagination or intellect (in the case of humans)), their action are voluntary.  The differences in the kinds of voluntary actions depends on the kind of knowledge involved.
    • Imperfect knowledge of the end does not entail knowledge of it as an end.  Things moved by such knowledge are “moved at once,” i.e. immediately and necessarily.
    • Perfect knowledge of the end also includes knowledge of it as an end.
      • It is unique to rational creature.
      • It allows for deliberation about whether to move for the end or not.
      • In Reply to Obj. 3, Aquinas says that deliberating reason is indifferently disposed to opposite things.  (I.e., the inclination consequent on reason (the will) is free.)
    • On the freedom of the will, see also

Principles of Human Action

 AppetitePassion (Act)Object
SensitiveConcupiscibleDesire (general)Pleasant Good
et ceteraet cetera
 IrascibleFearThreatening evil
  AngerConquerable evil
IntellectualWillElicited ActsExercise: to act or not
   Specification: to do this or that
  Commanded Actsto speak, to walk

N.B. Emotions or passions as simple inclination are pre-moral, or simply acts of man.  Simply to have a desire for a pleasant good (KFC, sex) is neither morally good or bad, to be angry at a perceived injury in neither good nor bad.  It is only human acts (proceeding from reason and will) that follow the lead of these passion which are morally significant.

  1. Human act is one that proceeds from reason and will. As such, it is only human acts over which one has dominion, and which are completely free.  To the extent that an act is not free, one is not responsible for it.  To the extent that one does not have dominion over an act, one is rather made to act, and if one has no dominion or control over the action, such an action is called an “act of man.”  Acts of man, then, are involuntary and one is not morally responsible for such actions.  To the extent that the principles of a human act (reason and will) are frustrated or compromised, so the act loses its character as voluntary.  Such a loss of voluntary can be to varying degrees, from a small loss of freedom to complete.
  2. The principles of a human act and the factors by which it can be compromised, thereby limiting voluntariness.
    • Will
      1. Violence – being made to act against one’s will through the use of some external physical force, e.g. restraints, or some other external agent changing the condition of the body (drugs) – cf. Q. 6, a. 1, Reply Obj. 1.
      2. Fear
        • Actions done from fear are relatively involuntary.  That is, in the abstract, one acts against what is one’s ultimate goal.  E.g. throwing cargo off a sinking ship.
        • Actions done from fear are voluntary absolutely, i.e. considered in the here and now.
        • Actions done from fear (depending on the gravity of the fear and the threatening evil) generally are diminished in culpability.
    • Reason
      1. Passions (e.g. anger or concupiscence) to the extent that they color one’s judgment, making what is not truly good an apparent good, can diminish the voluntariness of an act.  In general, passions do not completely destroy one’s use of reason, and one should be more on guard against the coloring of reason by the passions as one grows in moral maturity.
      2. Ignorance, if it is not itself a morally significant act, generally destroys voluntariness.
        • Antecedent ignorance precedes a moral act (i.e. it is not the result of a choice).
          • It is invincible ignorance because it could not be overcome, and one could not know that things were other than as one believed.  In this case, one does not know, and one does not know that one does not know.  (If one did know, one would have acted differently.)
          • An act proceeding from antecedent ignorance is completely involuntary.
        • Consequent ignorance is the result of a moral choice not to know.
          • Deliberate ignorance results when one wishes not to know, and actively tries not to find out.
          • Negligent ignorance results when one fails to find out what one should have known.  One does not try not to know (as in the case of deliberate ignorance), but one simply does not try to know.

Stages in Specifying a Human Act

Elicited ActsConcerning Ends1. Apprehension of end. (Of good absolutely.)2. Desire for end. (Simple volition)
3. Judgment of the possibility or advisability of the end.  To think of the end as a result of some action.4. Intention – willing the end to result from one’s actions.
Concerning Means5. Deliberation about possible means.6. Consent – general decision to act while accepting various possible means.
7. Counsel – judging the goodness of the various means.8. Choice – desire for one means over others.
Commanded Acts9. Command – rational order given specifying the object of the action. (Imperative.)10. Use – execution of the command by the will directing other faculties into action.

11. This whole process issues in the whole person acting to achieve the intended goal.

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