Human Act

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An act that is performed only by a human being and thus is proper to man. Not every act that a human being does is a distinctively human act. Some acts that human beings do are performed also by animals, e.g., vegetative acts and acts of perception and of emotion. When a human being does such acts, they are called acts of man but not human acts. Acts of man, therefore, are acts shared in common by man and other animals, whereas human acts are proper to human beings. What makes an act performed by a human being distinctively a human act is that it is voluntary in character, that is, an act in some way under the control or direction of the will, which is proper to man. One can therefore identify the human act with the voluntary act. A voluntary act proceeds either from the will itselffor example, an act of love or of choiceor from some other human power that can in some way be moved by the will, whether an act of the intellect, of sense cognition, or of emotion; even an act of some bodily member as commanded by the will can be a voluntary act.

A moral analysis of the human act analyzes the human act in relation to the good that is sought and insofar as all acts are moved to their ends by the will. A psychological consideration of the human act distinguishes the internal and external principles of the human act, treats the notion of human freedom, and analyzes the human act into its component parts. This article deals with the human act primarily in its psychological aspect, which a moral analysis must presuppose.


The internal principles of human acts include the intellect, the will, and the sense appetites, and the habits both virtues and viceswith which these powers, or faculties, are endowed (see faculties of the soul).

Intellect. As a power of the human soul, the intel lect is the principle of all intellectual acts of knowing. The human intellect is either speculative or practical, a difference deriving from the end to which knowledge is ordered (see cognition speculative-practical). If the end in view is the consideration of truth itself, the intellect is speculative in its mode of knowing. Thus through acts of understanding and reasoning man arrives at scientific knowledge, when possible, or at something less than truth and certaintyopinion, for example. If the end in view is operation or action of some kind, then the intellect is practical in its knowing, as in the making of works of art or in judgments of prudence in regard to actions one is to perform. And just as in speculative knowing ordered to arriving at truth where there are first principles grasped by the special habit of understanding, from which true and necessary conclusions follow, so in practical knowing there are the primary practical principles grasped by the special habit of synderesis, enabling man to know the common precepts in regard to good and evil action.

Will and Sense Appetites. The will, as intellectual appetite, is a power directed to some object under the aspect of universal good. Because the good so understood is the object of the will, it moves the will as an end, and in this sense the will presupposes the intellect, which thus moves the will to its appropriate end; the intellect, in other words, moves the will as specifying the act of the will. The will, on the other hand, moves the intellect in the manner in which one thing moves another as an agent. Since each power is directed to a good suitable to it and since the object of the will is the universal good, the good of the intellect, to know the true, falls within the scope of the will. Although the will tends to objects as universal, it tends also to singular things existing outside the mind by tending to them under a universal aspect. One person loves another, for example, because of the latter's virtuous character, which is a good realized in this person. The desiring of a good in this way, and in general the desiring of an immaterial or spiritual good, distinguishes the will as rational appetite from sense appetite.

The sense appetite is related to sense cognition as the will is related to intellectual knowing, each appetite tending to a good as apprehended. But since sense cognition cannot apprehend the good as universal, the sense appetite cannot be directed to the common notion of the good. Hence the will and the sense appetite can be basically contrasted as desire for a universal good and desire for a particular good. There are two fundamentally different aspects of the particular good that differentiate the sense appetite, or emotion, into two main parts: the concupiscible and the irascible. The concupiscible appetite is concerned with a particular good as pleasing and suitable; the irascible appetite is concerned with repelling and combating harmful aspects of objects that prevent the attaining of a particular good.

Habit. In addition to the various human powers, habits are also internal principles of human acts. A habit can be understood initially as a disposing of a power to act in a determinate way. In virtue of the intellectual and appetitive powers man has, he is able to do a variety of acts, but without the disposing influence of habit upon his powers of acting, most of his distinctively human acts would be done haphazardly. A habit therefore develops and strengthens a human power, enabling the power to operate more effectively and with more facility.

Accordingly, a habit can be defined as a firm disposition of a power to act regularly in a determinate way. So understood, a habit is then seen to be a perfection. Man's powers of themselves are largely indeterminate with regard to their objects. The engendering of habits, acquired by repeated acts of a certain kind, dispose and determine powers more readily and more determinately to their objects. Hence a habit, far from being merely mechanical in operation and somehow alien to good human action, actually enters into the performing of human acts so intrinsically that it may be regarded as a second nature; habit makes its distinctive act a kind of natural act just as a power is the first source of a natural act. For this reason, in addition to a habit's producing uniformity in operation and enabling an act to be done more quickly and effectively, a habit makes human action pleasurable in operation. The meaning of habit as developed here restricts habit to the intellectual and appetitive human powers.

Virtue and Vice. The notion of habit as bettering human action is not in conflict with the division of habit into good and bad, that is, into virtue and vice. Any habit permits man to operate better than he otherwise would, but whether a habit is good or bad is a moral consideration, distinct from the psychological point showing how any habit develops a power more fully. In general terms, the distinction between virtue as a good habit and vice as a bad habit turns on whether the habit produces acts conducive to promoting man's moral good or evil. Acts of virtue are those that are suitable to human nature; that is, they are acts habitually performed according to the rule of reason. Acts of vice are opposed to human nature inasmuch as they are habitually opposed to the direction of reason.

Virtue may then be defined somewhat as St. Augustine phrased it: virtue is a good habit of the mind, by which one lives righteously and of which no one can make bad use. In a somewhat more specific way, virtue can be defined also as a habit inclining one to choose the relative mean between the extremes of excess and defect. Vice, as the contrary habit, would incline one to choose either of the extremes, both morally evil.

These definitions apply primarily to moral virtue, the primary meaning of virtue. However, human virtue is divided analogously into moral and intellectual. This division follows upon the fact that there are two principles of human action, the intellect and the appetite. Any virtue perfects one of these two powers. Good habits of thinking perfect the human intellect either in its speculative dimension with the intellectual virtues of understanding, science, and wisdom, or in its practical dimension with the virtues of art and prudence, although the latter virtue is also moral to the extent that it requires right appetite for its good operation. Good habits of desiring perfect the appetite, either the will by means of the cardinal virtue of justice or the sense appetite by means of the cardinal virtue of fortitude for the irascible appetite and temperance for the concupiscible appetite. The fourth cardinal virtue, prudence, as has been noted, is both intellectual and moral. There will be corresponding vices for each of these virtues by way of contrary habits.

In addition to moral and intellectual virtues, theological virtues also are principles of human acts. The need of such virtues for man arises from the fact that man's happiness, the goal of all his actions, is twofold: a happiness proportionate to human nature and obtainable by means of natural principles including the moral and intellectual virtues; a happiness surpassing human nature and obtainable by and through God's power alone. Since the natural virtues cannot suffice to direct man to supernatural happiness, man has need for additional principles of action in order to be directed to attaining supernatural happiness. Such principles are the theological virtues, which are infused by God, in which respect they are not wholly intrinsic principles of human action. These theological virtues are faith, hope, and charity.


Among the internal principles of human acts, virtue is the primary means of directing man to the good of human happiness. Other means by which he is ordered to leading the good life are law and grace, both of which may be referred to as extrinsic principles of human action.

Law. As is evident from experience, the common good is the end or purpose of all law, and without an understanding of what the common good properly is, the nature and function of law in directing human acts cannot be appreciated. A common good is clearly distinct from a private good, the latter being the good of one person only, to the exclusion of its being possessed by any other. A common good is distinct also from a collective good, which, though possessed by all of a group, is not really participated in by the members of the group; as divided up, a collective good becomes respectively private goods of the members, as in the manner in which a man's estate is divided up among his inheritors.

A true common good is universal, not singular or collective, and is distributive in character, being communicable to many without becoming anyone's private good. Moreover, each person participates in the whole common good, not merely in a part of it, nor can any one person possess it wholly. The distinctive common good to which human law is ordered is the civil, or political, common good of peace and order. Such direction of human acts by law is clearly indispensable for human development and perfection.

Civil Law. The classic definition of law is based on the foregoing notion of the common good: law is a certain ordination of reason for the common good, promulgated by one who has care of the community. This common definition of law applies proportionately or analogously to the different kinds of law. According to man's mode of knowing, civil, or human positive, law primarily realizes the common definition of law. Hence law is first understood to be an ordinance of reason by one who has authority to direct the political society and its members to the common civil good, a happiness consisting primarily in peace and order. Civil law directly concerns the external acts of human beings, presupposing the interior principles and acts. Although civil law therefore does not directly aim to make men virtuous in their actions, it does command certain acts that dispose men to become virtuous and forbid other acts that lead to vice and tend to make life in society impossible.

Natural Law. Every civil law, insofar as it aims at the common good and is accordingly a just law, carries an obligation to be obeyed. Yet this obligation rests on more than civil law itself. It derives from a law more fundamental than civil law and its political sanction, viz, what is called natural law. This is the "unwritten law" that, in its most common precepts, is fundamentally the same for all. The natural law expresses, in universal form primarily, the fundamental inclinations of human nature formulated by reason in a judgment naturally made, that is, with little or no discursive reasoning. Such law, then, is natural on two scores: (1) it is not law made by reason so much as discovered by reason; and (2) all men thus naturally know the most universal precepts expressed in natural law. Natural law, so understood, is clearly a fundamental principle for directing human acts. (see natu ral law.)

Eternal Law. One other kind of law must still be mentioned: eternal law. It is even more fundamental than natural law, being the law in which even natural law participates. Eternal law refers to the idea of the government of things that exists in the mind of God; it is the plan of God's wisdom by which all action and motion of the universe is directed. It directs the universe as a whole to the common good of God Himself. This is not the law given through revelation (see law, divine positive). The knowledge about eternal law can be arrived at by reason alone, though usually indirectly. Eternal law is therefore the ultimate source of all law and the ultimate directive principle of all acts and motions of creatures to their proper ends.

Grace. As a principle of human action, grace differs from virtue not only as an external principle differs from an internal one, but also in that grace is infused directly into the human soul itself, whereas virtue is realized in some power of the soul. Grace differs from law in that, though both are external principles, law directs man by instruction and command, whereas grace supernaturally elevates him so that he can participate in the divine life, receive assistance in doing so, and attain the happiness that is eternal life. Hence sanctifying or habitual grace is a supernatural quality of the soul by which man participates in the divine nature and is thereby enabled to perform acts meriting supernatural happiness. It is clear that such a principle directing human action is absolutely necessary for all human beings if they are to obtain eternal life.


A discussion of the internal and external principles of the human act is logically followed by a consideration of the human act itself. Prior to an analysis of the human act into its component parts, however, it is convenient to treat how and in what way the human act is free. At the beginning of this article, the human act was identified with the voluntary act, an act proceeding either immediately from the will or from some power or act in some way under the control and direction of the will. (For a consideration of the voluntary act especially in its moral dimension, see voluntarity.)

It is now necessary to distinguish between a voluntary act and a free act; for although every free act is necessarily a voluntary act, not every voluntary act is strictly a free act. A free act, most properly speaking, is an act of choice. There are occasions, however, when it makes sense to say that man has no choice and that what he wills to do he must will to do. Such acts are voluntary in that they still proceed from the will as a principle, but they are not free, at least in the usual and proper sense of the term.

Freedom of Exercise. It must be recognized, however, that there are two types of free act, or two kinds of freedom. One type is freedom of exercise. This is the freedom of an agent to act or not to act in an absolute sense; freedom of exercise is thus said to be about contradictory alternatives. In any given situation, a man at all rational can will to act or not. This sort of freedom man as a voluntary agent always has; and as related to the interior act of willing or not willing, the voluntary act and the free act, for all practical purposes, are identifiable.

Freedom of Specification. The other type of freedom is freedom of specification. This is the sort of freedom one usually has in mind when he speaks of man as being a free agent and is what he means by the act of choice. This freedom arises not in terms of the agent as acting or not acting (which is freedom of exercise and is presupposed) but in terms of some object specifying the act to be done by the agent. Freedom of specification, in other words, is the choice of this alternative rather than that alternative or, to put it more precisely, the choice of this means in relation to a desired end. The free act as choice, therefore, is concerned with means properly, not with ends as ends. In this context, one can distinguish voluntary acts that are not free acts strictly. To will an end as an end is not a matter of choice but a matter of simple willing. An act of the will centering precisely on the means is the act of choice. This meaning of freedom, the freedom of specification exercised by choice, is the relevant meaning of human freedom in the discussion here. (see free will; freedom.)

Limitations of Freedom. Many contemporary authors point out that to be fully human in its exercise, the will must be free both philosophically and psychologically. Philosophical freedom is the power, given certain prerequisites of knowledge and motivation, of saying yes or no freely to a proposed action or of choosing freely between two alternative courses. It means that at the time the choice was made, the person could have made the opposite choice even though with difficulty or repugnance. Psychological freedom is a freedom from obstacles and pressures that make the exercise of philosophical freedom difficult. Philosophical freedom is freedom to determine its own choices; psychological freedom is freedom from the obstacles, pressures, and impediments which make choices difficult. In the minds of some contemporaries, the classical tradition in moral theology seemed to take for granted the human person's freedom as a perfectly autonomous power of decision hindered in the exercise of its sovereignty only accidentally by factors that are rather exceptional. Contemporary authors seem to be less reluctant to admit that freedom of the will can be influenced only in exceptional cases. They tend to see human freedom as "freedom in situation" and they insist that the dialectic between freedom and determinism is essential for every human action.

Many contemporary moralists indicate the presence in all of the human person's actions of a determinism traceable to three sourcesthe biological, the social, and the psychological. They point out that recent discoveries of neurosurgery, endocrinology, and the use of drugs have demonstrated the influence of biological factors on the freedom of moral action. The pressure of society can also exert great influence on free activity and pressure groups and pressure factors have enormous determining potential in contemporary society. Finally, studies in depth psychology reveal constant neuroticizing factors under which many people live within the course of their growth and development as human beings.


The full grasp of what the free human act is and the role it plays in human action cannot be appreciated without an analysis of the whole human act as it is exercised in the concrete order, involving both the intellect and the will.

Component Parts. Presupposing what has been said about the internal and external principles of human action, one may distinguish the component parts or specific acts that make up the complex human act, which is always concerned in some way with ends and means. The list below analyzes the human act in terms of its various steps.


Concerning the end
Apprehending an end
Judgment about an end
Concerning the means
Deliberating about means
Judgment about choice
Concerning execution
Command to execute choice
Judgment of end attained


Concerning the end
Willing an end
Intending an end
Concerning the means
Consent to means
Choice of means
Concerning execution
Use of powers to execute
Enjoyment of end attained

This list outlines a fully conscious human action in dealing with a more or less complex practical situation. Not every human act man performs involves all these individual steps, but every human act in the practical order does involve seeking some end, a judgment and choice of means, and a consequent decision to attain to a desired end by carrying out the chosen course of action. It is well to bear in mind also that man does not always proceed in his human action in so orderly a way as the diagram list suggests. Often, indeed, particularly in difficult situations, he vacillates between one act on the part of the practical intellect and a corresponding act on the part of the will. But a knowledge of these various steps within the complex human act is helpful for successfully carrying out human decisions and choices; such knowledge is helpful also when one cannot resolve a practical problem, for he can, with reflection, ascertain where he is in the process and which step is holding him up or preventing him from attaining a resolution.

Interplay of Intellect and Will. The numbering of the steps, evenly divided between the intellect and the will, manifests the intimate connection between the intellect and the will in human action. On the one hand, the intellectual acts specify the acts of the will, for what one wills does depend on what he knows; on the other hand, each act of the will subsequently moves the intellect to a further act of knowing until the will is brought to some rest in an enjoyment of what was initially desired or, if unsuccessful, to a sorrow in not attaining what was initially desired. It should be noted that the human act is outlined here in terms of its intrinsic parts; the role of the emotions and other influences have also to be taken into account. Primarily, however, the human act is constituted of individual acts on the part of the intellect and the will.

This analysis of the human act enables one to understand human freedom better and to see, more precisely, what constitutes the free human act, which is usually spoken of as free will. One can now comprehend that actually a man's free act is a joint product of intellect and will. It is exercised principally, though not exclusively, in steps seven and eight of the list, the judgment on the part of the intellect that is inseparably allied with the choice of means. The connection between intellect and will is most intimate here. The intellect, in its practical judgment with regard to a means, is a determining cause of the will's choosing one object rather than another. But this is a determination coming from knowledge; and hence the will, in exercising the act of choice, is still choosing freely what is proposed on the part of the intellect. In a concrete instance facing man in knowing what he should do, his judgment of the choice is made and the will accordingly freely exercises its act of choice. This is positive freedom of specification: freely choosing to do what one knows one should do. Negative freedom consists in one's being able to reject what he knows he should do. What is involved here also is the judgment of con science, which is still distinct from the practical judgment of the intellect in regard to choice. The latter judgment, as has been seen, is inseparably connected with appetitewith the will in its act of choice. The judgment of conscience, analytically prior to the practical judgment with reference to choice, is wholly an act of the intellect and thus apart from an actual choice to be made here and now; in an act of conscience one judges that an individual act is right to do as falling under a universal judgment or precept that acts of this kind should be done. It is a judgment of conscience, for example, that this debt should be paid, as falling under the universal judgment that debts should be paid. It is not yet the practical judgment with regard to choice and the ensuing act of choice, which takes place here and now, and where freedom of the human act is ultimately and principally located.

The foregoing discussion of the human act, starting with the internal and external principles and extending to the analysis of the human act into its component parts, is primarily psychological in character and treatment. A moral consideration of the human act, analyzing when and how acts are good or bad, presupposes this analysis (see morality).

See Also: sin.

Bibliography: aristotle, Eth. Nic. 1103a 121119b 19, 1138b 151145a 12. thomas aquinas 1a2ae, 621. j. a. oesterle, Ethics: The Introduction to Moral Science (Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 1957) 45100. m. v. murray, Problems in Ethics (New York 1960) 72106. v. j. bourke, Ethics (New York 1951) 57120. j. ford and g. kelly, Contemporary Moral Theology 1 (Paramus, N.J. 1958) 174312. j. fuchs, Human Values and Christian Morality, tr. m. h. heelan (Dublin 1970), esp. "Basic Freedom and Morality," 92111. e. mcdonagh, "Towards a Christian Theology of Morality: The Moral Subject," The Irish Theological Quarterly 39 (1972) 322. l. monden, Sin, Liberty and Law (New York 1965) 1972. g. regan, New Trends in Moral Theology (New York 1971) 187207.

[j. a. oesterle/

j. a. o'donohoe]

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Human Act

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