Front Page Titles (by Subject) QUESTION XVIII.: OF THE GOOD OR EVIL OF HUMAN ACTS IN GENERAL. - Aquinas Ethicus: or, the Moral Teaching of St. Thomas, vol. 1 (Summa Theologica - Prima Secundae, Secunda Secundae Pt.1)
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QUESTION XVIII.: OF THE GOOD OR EVIL OF HUMAN ACTS IN GENERAL. - St. Thomas Aquinas, Aquinas Ethicus: or, the Moral Teaching of St. Thomas, vol. 1 (Summa Theologica - Prima Secundae, Secunda Secundae Pt.1) 
Aquinas Ethicus: or, the Moral Teaching of St. Thomas. A Translation of the Principal Portions of the Second part of the Summa Theologica, with Notes by Joseph Rickaby, S.J. (London: Burns and Oates, 1892).
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OF THE GOOD OR EVIL OF HUMAN ACTS IN GENERAL.
Article I.—Is every human action good, or is there such a thing as an evil action?
R. We must speak of good and evil in actions as of good and evil in things; because as everything is in itself, such is the action that it produces. In things each has so much good as it has of being, because being and goodness are convertible terms. God alone has the whole fulness of His Being in one single simple perfection; but to every creature various measures of fulness of being are due in various respects. Hence we find creatures that have being in one way, and yet something is wanting to the fulness of being due to them. For instance, to the fulness of human being it is requisite that it be a compound of soul and body, having all powers and instruments of knowledge and motion: hence if any of these be wanting to any man, there is wanting to him something of the fulness of his being. As much then as the man has of being, so much has he of goodness: but forasmuch as he is wanting in any portion of the fulness of being due to him, to that extent there is in him a falling short of goodness, which deficiency is called evil. Thus it is some goodness in a blind man that he lives, but it is evil in him that he lacks sight. A thing that had no being nor goodness in it, could be called neither evil nor good. But because this same fulness of being is of the essence of good, anything that has aught wanting to it of its due fulness of being, will not be called absolutely good, but good in a restricted sense, inasmuch as it is in being. So then we must say that every action has so much goodness as it has of being; and so far falls short of goodness, and is called evil accordingly, as it is wanting in any point of the fulness of being that is due to a human action: for instance, if it wants either quantity determined according to reason, or due place, or anything of that sort.
§ 1. The act that anything evil puts forth is due to the strength of goodness, but a deficient goodness. For if there were nothing of good there, neither would there be any being, nor any action: again, if the goodness were not deficient, neither would there be any evil. Hence also the action caused is a certain deficient good, because it is good in a restricted sense, but evil absolutely.
§ 2. A thing may be in order and ready to act in one way, and out of order and unready in another. Thus a blind man has his walking power in order and is able to walk: but wanting sight to guide his steps, his walking suffers defect in that he goes stumbling.1
§ 3. An evil action may have some effect of itself in that there is some quality of goodness and being in the thing evil. Thus adultery is a cause of human generation inasmuch as it involves the union of male and female, not inasmuch as it is a departure from the order of reason.
Article II.—Does the action of man receive the quality of good or evil from its object?
R. The good and evil of an action, as of any other thing, depends upon its fulness or lack of fulness of being. Now the first element of fulness of being seems to be what gives the thing its species. But as a physical thing has its species from its form, so an action has its species from its object, as motion has from its term.
§ 1. Though exterior things are good in themselves, still they have not always a due proportion to this or that action: and therefore, considered as objects of such actions, they bear not the character of goodness.
§ 4. It is said in Osee ix. 10: “They became abominable as those things were which they loved.” Therefore the evil of an action is according to the evil objects which a man loves; and in like manner the goodness of an action.
Article III.—Is man’s action good or bad according to its adaptation to circumstances?
R. In natural things the whole fulness of perfection due to them does not come from the substantial form alone, which gives the species, but much additional perfection is added by supervening accidents, as in man by figure, colour, and so of the rest: whereof if any point be wanting to the becoming condition of the subject, evil ensues. So is it also with action. The fulness of the perfection of an action lies not wholly in its species, but some additional perfection is conferred by what supervenes in the way of accidents, or due circumstances. Hence, if anything be wanting that is requisite in point of due circumstances, the action will be evil.
Article IV.—Is a human action good or evil according to the end in view?
R. There are some things, the being of which does not depend on another; and in these it is enough to consider their being absolutely. There are other things, the being of which does depend on something else, hence they must be considered with reference to the cause on which they depend. Human actions, and other things, the goodness of which depends on some other thing, have a character of goodness from the end on which they depend, besides the absolute goodness that is in them.
§ 3. An action may have one element of goodness, and be wanting in another. In this way an action that is good in its species, or in its circumstances, may be directed to an evil end, and conversely. Still it is not simply a good action, unless it combine all the elements of good, “for any single defect makes evil, but good supposes the soundness of the whole case,” as Dionysius says.
Article V.—Is the difference of good or evil in a human action a difference of species?
R. Every act takes its species from its object. Hence it must be that some difference of object makes a difference of species in acts. But we must observe that a difference of object makes a difference of species in acts when they are referred to one active principle, whereas if they were referred to another active principle, the same difference of object would make no difference of species. The reason is, because nothing that is accidental constitutes a species, but only what is essential: now a difference of object may be essential in relation to one active principle, and accidental in relation to another: as the perceptions of colour and of sound differ essentially in relation to sense, but not in relation to intellect.1 Now of acts, good and evil is predicated in relation to reason: because, as Dionysius says, “the good of man is being in accord with reason, and his evil is whatever is against reason.” For that is good for every being which suits it in regard of its form; and that is evil for every being which is in conflict with its form. It is clear, therefore, that the difference of good and evil in an object is founded upon an essential relation to reason, according as the object is in agreement or in conflict with reason. Evidently then good and evil make a difference of species in moral acts: for essential differences make a difference of species.
§ 3. The conjugal act and adultery, as compared with reason, do differ in species, and have specifically different effects; because one of them deserves praise and reward, the other blame and punishment. But as compared with the generative power, they do not differ in species, and have one specific effect.
Article VI.—Is an act good or bad in species according to the end in view?
R. In a voluntary act there is found a twofold act, namely, the interior act of the will and the exterior act; and each of these acts has its own object. The end in view is properly the object of the interior voluntary act: that about which the exterior act is conversant is the object of the exterior act. As then the exterior act receives its species from the object about which it is conversant, so the interior act of the will receives its species from the end in view as from its proper object. What comes of the will is the formal element as compared with what belongs to the exterior act: because the will uses the limbs to act as instruments: nor have exterior acts any character of morality except in so far as they are voluntary. And therefore the species of a human act is determined formally by the end in view, but materially by the object of the exterior act. Hence the Philosopher says that “he who steals to commit adultery, is more of an adulterer than a thief.”
§ 3. When many acts of different species are referred to one end, there is a difference of species in regard of the exterior acts, but a unity of species in regard of the interior act.
Article VIII.—Is any act indifferent in its species?
R. Every act takes its species from its object. The human act which is called moral takes its species from its object, as that object stands related to the principle of human acts, which is reason. Hence if the object of the act embraces something that enters into the order of reason, the act will be good according to its species, such an act for example as the giving of alms to the needy. If, on the other hand, the object includes anything that militates against the order of reason, the act will be evil in its species, as stealing. But it happens sometimes that the object of the act does not include anything belonging to the order of reason, as lifting a straw from the earth, going into the country, and the like; and such acts are indifferent in their species.
Article IX.—Is any act indifferent in the individual?
R. It happens sometimes that an act is indifferent according to its species, which nevertheless is good or evil as considered in the individual: and that, because a moral act has not only goodness from its object, from which it has its species, but also from its circumstances, which are a sort of accidents; in the same way that attributes attach to a man as individual accidents, which do not attach to him by virtue of his specific nature. And it needs must be that every individual act has some circumstance by which it is drawn to good or to evil, at least in respect of the intention of the end. For whereas it belongs to reason to direct, an act proceeding from deliberate reason, if it be not directed to a due end, is by that fact alone in contradiction with reason and bears the character of evil: while if it is directed to a due end, it agrees with the order of reason, and hence bears the character of good. But an action needs must be either directed or not directed to a due end. Hence it must be that every act of man, proceeding from deliberate reason, as considered in the individual, is good or evil. But if the act does not proceed from deliberate reason, but from some working of the imagination, as when one strokes his beard, or moves his hand or foot, such an act is not properly speaking moral or human, since an act gets that character from reason; and so the act will be indifferent, as being out of the category of moral acts.
§ 1. For an act to be indifferent in its species is conceivable in more ways than one. One way would be, if it were due to the act in virtue of its species that it should be indifferent, and at that rate the objection holds, that there is no species but what contains, or is capable of containing, under itself some individual: only no object is indifferent in virtue of its species in that way; for there is no object of human action but what may be directed either to evil or else to good through the end in view or some circumstance of the case. There is another way in which an act may be said to be indifferent in its species; that is, inasmuch as the species itself does not make the act good or evil: hence goodness or evil may accrue to it from some other source; in the same way that a man has it not of his species to be either white or black, yet neither has he it of his species not to be white or black; for whiteness or blackness can supervene upon a man otherwise than from specific principles.
§ 3. Every end intended by deliberate reason belongs to the good of some virtue or to the evil of some vice. The mere taking of orderly action towards the sustenance or repose of the body, is referred to the good of virtue in him who refers his body to the good of virtue.
Article X.—Does any circumstance place a moral act in the species of good or evil?
R. In physical things an accident cannot be taken as a specific difference. But the process of reason has no fixed term, but can proceed further beyond any given point; and therefore what in one act is taken as a circumstance superadded to the object that determines the species of the act, may be taken again, reason so referring it, for the principal condition of the object, and determinant of the species of the act. Thus the taking what belongs to another has its species from the fact of the object belonging to another: for thereby the act of taking is placed in the species of theft. Now, if we further consider the fact of place or time, that will stand in the rank of a circumstance. But because reason can give directions also about place and time, it may very well be that the condition of place, as it affects the object, carries with it something contrary to the order of reason. Thus reason directs that wrong must not be done in a holy place: wherefore to take what belongs to another in a holy place is an addition of special divergence from the order of reason; and in that way place, which was formerly considered as a circumstance, is now considered as a principal condition of the object, and one at variance with reason. Thus so often as a circumstance has regard to a special order of reason for or against, that circumstance must specify the moral act as good or evil.
§ 2. A circumstance remaining in the rank of an accident does not mark a species; but inasmuch as it passes into a principal condition of the object, in that position it marks a species.
§ 3. Not every circumstance constitutes a moral act in the species of good or evil: since it is not every circumstance that carries with it any accordance or discordance with reason.
Article XI.—Does every circumstance that makes an act better or worse, make in it a specific difference of good or evil?
R. A circumstance gives a species of good or evil to a moral act according as it regards a special order of reason. Now it happens sometimes that a circumstance does not regard any order of reason in point of good or evil except on the previous supposition of another circumstance, from whence the moral act has the species of good or evil. For example, the carrying away of anything in great or small quantity does not regard any order of reason in point of good or evil, except on the previous supposition of some other condition, whereby the act has the quality of malice or goodness, for instance, the fact of the thing being another’s, which sets the act at variance with reason. Hence the amount, great or small, of another’s property that one carries away, does not make a different species of sin: yet may it aggravate or diminish the sin. Hence not every circumstance that makes an addition in point of goodness or malice, alters the species of the act.
§ 3. It is not every circumstance that induces a distinct and separate defect of its own, or superadds a new perfection, otherwise than as bearing upon something else. Though a circumstance may augment goodness or malice to the extent of that bearing, still it does not always alter the species of good or evil.
§ 4.More or less does not make a difference of species.
[1 ]Stumbling, cespitando. Ducange’s Glossary gives from the Chronicon Mellicense the following illustration of this word of mediæval Latin: Equus super quem sedi fatigatus cespitavit in quodam ponte, et ego primo cecidi per caput equi ad pontem, postea de ponte ad aquam. (Trl.)
[1 ]The scientific concept of wave-motion has done much, since St. Thomas wrote, to put colour and sound in one category “in relation to the intellect.” (Trl.)