July 21, 2015

The Three Criteria of Moral Acts


Human beings are moral actors because, as persons, we have the capacity to make choices.  A person has an intellect with which to know and a will with which to choose.  As a result, a person is always a "someone," never a "something." Animals are incapable of sin. Their intellects are governed by instinct and they do not have free will. Only persons can freely choose and act out their choices.

We must weigh three criteria when judging a moral act good or bad:
  1. The act itself
  2. The person’s subjective motive
  3. The circumstances under which the act occurs
Every moral act consists of three criteria: the objective act (what we do), the subjective intention (why we act), and the situation or circumstances in which we act (where, when, how, etc.).

For an act to be morally good, what we do (the act itself), must be objectively good. Some acts are always wrong because they are intrinsically evil (i.e. the killing of innocents, torture, and rape).

The goal or intention is the subjective criterion of the moral act. For an action to be morally good, one's intention must be good. If our motivation is to do something for a bad intention— even something that is good, our action is immoral. The end does not justify the means.

Finally, the conditions under which an act occurs is a factor in considering whether an action is moral. For a husband to make love to his wife at a time when it is medically dangers to do so — and thus threaten her life — would be an example of a morally illicit act. Sexual congress between husband and wife, while normally a good thing, is rendered morally bad by virtue of the circumstances.

In weighing the three criteria, the act, the intention, and the situation must all be good in order for the act to be moral. Two out of three isn't good enough. You can't do the right thing for the wrong reasons. You can't do the wrong thing for the right reasons.  

Variously throughout history have existed alternate moral systems. Popular at the time of Christ, Legalism was a strict adherence to rules. You were good if you obeyed them. You were bad if you didn't.

More common in our time, subjectivism is the notion that as long as you are sincere, as long as you are loving, than your actions are noble. The only thing that matters is feelings.

Most common, Relativism is the idea that there are no moral absolutes. Everything is relative. Consequently, no idea is superior to any other. Morality is simply a matter of weighing factors.

The Christian vision of human morality is diametrically opposed to the legalism of the Pharisees, the subjectivism of hippies and the relativism of secular humanists. Jesus speaks of good and evil, vice and virtue, compassion and conversion. He tells us in no uncertain terms that we will be judged according to our actions. We must love selflessly and live honorably, "even unto death". Love enables courage and self-donation without asking the cost. In the process, faith replaces fallacy, sinners become saints, and what's fallen is redeemed.

Values clarification — that is too say, deciding who to throw overboard in a hypothetical survival situation where you are strained at sea in a boat with dwindling resources — is a poor substitute for knowing the mind of Christ and living his call to love.    

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