A human act is moral in so far as it is subject to reason. That which specifies a human action as morally good or bad is whatever makes an action to be the kind of act that it is, and this is determined by the object of the act. The object of a moral act is that to which the action tends by its very nature. For example, the object of murder is the taking of the life of an innocent person. It is the object, so understood, that primarily specifies an action as morally good or bad. This moral object makes the action to be good or bad as such.
No action, however, is performed in the abstract. Every human act in the concrete order is done under particular circumstances. Circumstances may therefore affect the morality of an action and add something to the moral quality that it has by reason of its object. The latter concerns the abstract nature of the act, that is, what kind of action it is morally, while the circumstances concern the individuality of the action, that is, the act as it exists here and now. But since many individuating conditions or circumstances are involved in any human action, we must restrict circumstances to those that have a moral bearing on the action. For example, the action of murder is by its object morally evil; the circumstance of using a dagger is relevant whereas the circumstance of the murderer's wearing a necktie is not. A moral circumstance, therefore, is an individuating condition that, though it is something over and beyond the nature of the action itself, nevertheless modifies in some real way the moral quality of the act.
Aristotle first treated moral circumstances in an explicit manner, in the context of ignorance: an agent's ignorance of this or that circumstance could introduce an involuntary aspect into a given action and, to the extent that it does, it lessens responsibility (Eth. Nic. 111a 3–8). St. Thomas Aquinas, taking Cicero into account as well as Aristotle, treated moral circumstances in terms of seven questions that can be asked about a moral action, and noted which circumstances are the most important (Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 7.3–4).
Classification of Circumstances. Some circumstances affect the very doing of the action. When the action takes place refers to the relevance this or that period of time has in the performance of an act, e.g., whether it is done by day or night, during war or peace, and so on. Where the action takes place can affect its morality; murder in a cathedral adds an additional moral evil to murder itself. How the action occurs concerns the manner in which the action is carried out, e.g., a person saves the life of another by acting with courage.
Other circumstances relate to causes that bring about the action. Why the action takes place refers to the motive or purpose a person has in performing an action; it is the extrinsic end for which the action is done. Who is doing the action refers to the agent himself who performs the act, and this circumstance is significant when some quality of his person affects the moral character of what he does. By what means the action is carried out refers to the instrumental moral cause used to accomplish the action; it makes a difference, for example, whether a murderer chooses a painful means to commit his crime.
Another circumstance concerns the effect of the action with regard primarily to its quantitative aspect. Stealing is an action morally wrong by its object; stealing a large amount of money is a circumstance aggravating the malice of the act.
Moral Consequences of Circumstances. It is clear that circumstances add varying degrees of moral good and evil to a voluntary act to the extent that a person is aware of them. The primary and essential morality of a human action, however, is taken from the object and not from any of the circumstances. The moral kind of an act cannot be changed by any circumstance attending its performance. The taking of the life of an innocent person is murder and as such is morally evil; accompanying circumstances will not alter this primary specification. However, granted the primary moral worth of the action, circumstances may clearly contribute additional morality to it. Sometimes circumstances affect the morality of the action only in degree, that is, they increase or diminish its goodness or malice. Stealing is bad by object; stealing a rare object increases the malice of the action but it adds no additional kind of evil to the act. Giving money for a charitable cause is a good action in itself; giving a large amount that one can afford increases the goodness of the action.
Sometimes circumstances add a new kind of morality to an act. In the example of murder in a cathedral, the evil action of murder, through circumstance of place, involves the profanation of a consecrated place of worship and hence the additional evil of sacrilege. However, it is the circumstance of end, the purpose in doing the act, that matters most in this regard and, indeed, is the most important circumstance of all precisely because it can, more than any other circumstance, add a new moral quality to an action. The motive an agent has can change an act morally good by object into a morally evil act. Telling the truth is a morally good action by object, but to tell the truth about someone with the intention of injuring him turns an action still good by object into a bad one. However, the reverse effect does not occur, namely, that a good intention should turn an act evil by object into one that is morally good. The reason for this is that the morality of an act is based essentially on its specification by its object. No motive the agent has in mind, regardless of how noble it may be, can change what is essentially evil into something good. In a word, no end or motive, no matter how good, can morally justify an essentially evil means; for example, one cannot use murder, morally evil by object, as a means to any end, no matter how good.
Many contemporary Catholic theologians take the position that circumstances sometimes can make actions legitimate that are evil ex objecto. Such acts they term "prima facie evil," "physical evil," "ontic evil," "premoral evil," "nonmoral evil," but not necessarily "moral evil" (sin). Nonmoral evil does not become moral evil until it is taken up into the agent's intention; that is to say, it does not become moral evil if it is done for a proportionately good reason. The final moral evaluation of an act must take into consideration all the circumstances, especially the personally intended end. Accordingly, these theologians justify certain actions that are evil ex objecto in certain circumstances, for instance abortion to save the life of the mother, masturbation for fertility testing, therapeutic sterilization. This means that these Catholic theologians reject the concept of "intrinsically evil acts," i.e., actions which are judged morally evil or sinful prior to a consideration of the circumstances in which they are done. In his 1993 encyclical veritatis splendor (no. 79ff.), Pope John Paul II explicitly rejected such a position.
Bibliography: thomas aquinas, Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 18. d. m. prÜmmer, Manuale theologiae moralis, ed. e. m. mÜnch, 3 v. (10th ed. Barcelona 1945–46) 1:75–86. j. a. oesterle, Ethics: The Introduction to Moral Science (Englewood Cliffs, NJ 1957) 103–110. j. fuchs, "The Absoluteness of Moral Terms," Gregorianum 52 (1971) 415–458. r. mccormick, Ambiguity in Moral Choice (Milwaukee 1973).
[j. a. oesterle
j. f. dedek/eds.]