Indifferent Acts

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The acts of a human being extend from hidden choices of the will to manifest physical operations. Of these acts some are completely involuntary since they are beyond the rational control of man. Acts such as digestion and respiration, for example, are not within the domain of choice, and accordingly they are morally indifferent. Many actions, however, are performed with conscious advertence and choice, and as a result man is responsible for them; the individual has it within his power to do them or omit them. Acts of the first kind are called acts of man; the latter, those with knowledge and from a deliberate will, are properly called human acts. With regard to the latter category, the question arises whether there can be a voluntary act that is morally indifferent, namely, an act that is neither morally good nor bad, an act that is therefore amoral.

Determinants of Morality. The morality of a human act is determined by three aspects of the action. First, there is the object about which the choice is concerned. This object, even when the choice remains purely internal, can be considered the substance of the act. Second, the circumstances of time, place, status of the person, means, and manner qualify the object of the act and are concomitant determinants of the morality of the act. Third, the circumstance of purpose or reason for the act deserves special attention because the end colors the entire choice as qualified by the other circumstances. For a human act to be morally good, all three of these moral determinants must be good; that is, they must conform to objective norms of morality. Subjectively, the individual must follow his certain conscience dictating that all three elements are moral. If any of the three moral determinants is evil, then the entire act is morally evil. To choose something good, but for an evil purpose, vitiates the entire act. To choose something good for a good purpose but at a wrong time can make the whole act evil.

Positions. The possibility of a morally indifferent act was sharply disputed by the theologians of the Middle Ages. Abelard proposed the extreme position that every human act is objectively indifferent, and only receives its goodness or sinfulness from the intention or purpose of the agent. This position, condemned by the Council of Sens, was strongly attacked by Peter Lombard, whose Sentences were a standard theological text for three centuries (see 2 Sentences 40). The notion that at least some acts possess an intrinsic goodness or badness was generally accepted by Catholic thinkers, who could reflect on the centuries-old aphorism of St. Jerome: "Continence is good, lust is evil; between the two, to walk is indifferent" (Epist. 112.16; Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum 55.2:386). In succeeding centuries, however, many nominalists, and to some extent Scotus, tended toward extrinsicism. For them, all or nearly all human acts are good or evil because of the positive will of God commanding or forbidding them rather than because of the nature of the acts themselves. This position, although it enjoyed favor at the end of the medieval period, attracts few today.

In the early Franciscan school the question of the moral quality of acts was not clearly distinguished from the problem of supernatural merit. Despite minor differences within the school, it held that some individual human acts are morally indifferent. St. Bonaventure, for example, held that some acts are positively ordered to God; others are not. The first are good; but not all of the second are evil. He insisted that there can be acts that are not made meritorious by charity, nor are they sinful, since they are not of obligation. With regard to these acts, God does not reward men, nor does He judge men to be sinners.

St. Thomas Aquinas commenting on Lombard (In 2 sent. 40) and even more explicitly in the Summa theologiae (1a2ae, 18.89) proposed the doctrine now commonly accepted by Catholic theologians. He distinguished between an act in its general naturethis kind of human activity, as praying, cursing, walkingand an act in the concrete conditions of its existence. In the first way, he remarks, an act can be indifferent, for some acts according to their nature neither imply something pertaining to the order of reason nor something contrary to this order. In the second sense, however, every human act is morally good or bad. Every individual deliberate act takes its goodness not only from the object, but also from the end or purpose of the agent and from the other circumstances. These individuating elements stand in the same relation to the object of the act as the individuating accidents to the essence of a thing. Thus even though the act considered in itself (i.e., from its object) is indifferent, it is either good or evil from the end and circumstances; for no act is performed except for some end or reason, and this is either good or evil. Hence no individual human act is indifferent. Note also that this morality belongs to the act precisely as human or ethical and does not, as such, express a relation to the supernatural order or to supernatural merit.

Two additional points should be noted. Does moral indifference constitute a distinct species of morality so that human acts are divided into three species: good, bad, and indifferent? Theologians are not in agreement. Many deny this and argue that moral indifference is not a true species of morality. This is the position of the Salmanticenses and J. Gonet among classic authors, A. Tanquerey and T. Bouquillon among more modern authors. Other theologians (e.g., John of St. Thomas, D. Prümmer, R. Garrigou-Lagrange) insist that moral indifference is a true, but incomplete, species of morality.

The second difficulty concerns the relation of moral acts to man's supernatural destiny. Although every individual human act is good or evil ethically, some may be, as it were, supernaturally indifferent. Some human actions can be ethically good but not supernaturally meritorious, nor even ordered to salvation; for they are the acts of one estranged from God by serious sin, and may even be done without actual grace. Aquinas reflects a common theological position when he teaches that these acts are not sinful, for man's nature is not so corrupted by sin that he is incapable of all good actions (cf. Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 85.2; 109.2). This same truth, that every act of the sinner is not a sin, has received confirmation from the teaching authority of the Church [H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer, (32d ed. Freiburg 1963) 148182, 1539, 1557, 1575].

See Also: good works; morality; salutary acts.

Bibliography: thomas aquinas, De malo 2.5. salmanticenses, Cursus theologicus, tr. 11, disp. 1, dub. 1, 2; tr. 11, disp. 7 (v. 6:5362, 16581). o. lottin, Psychologie et morale aux XIIeet XIIIe siècles, 6 v. in 8 (Louvain 194260) 2:46989. p. palazzini, ed., Dictionarium morale et canonicum, v.2 (Vatican City 1965) 67679.

[j. a. burroughs;

j. hennessey]