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Human Acts

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Acts are termed human when they are proper to man as man; when, on the contrary, they are elicited by man, but not proper to him as a rational agent, they are called acts of man .


St. Thomas and the scholastics in general regard only the free and deliberate acts of the will as human. Their view is grounded on psychological analysis. A free act is voluntary, that is, it proceeds from the will with the apprehension of the end sought, or, in other words, is put forth by the will solicited by the goodness of the object as presented to it by the understanding. Free acts, moreover, proceed from the will's own determination, without necessitation, intrinsic or extrinsic. For they are those acts which the will can elicit or abstain from eliciting, even though all the requisites of volition are present. They, consequently, are acts to which the will is determined neither by the object nor by its own natural dispositions and habits, but to which it determines itself. The will alone is capable of self-determination or freedom; the other faculties, as the understanding, the senses, the power of motion, are not free; but some of their acts are controlled by the will and so far share its freedom indirectly. The active indeterminateness of the will, its mastery over its own actions, is consequent upon the deliberation of reason. For the intellect discerns in a given object both perfection and imperfection, both good and evil, and therefore presents it to the will as desirable in one respect and undesirable in another. But when an object is thus proposed, the will, on account of its unlimited scope, may love or hate, embrace or reject it. The resultant state of the will is indifference, in which it has the power to determine itself to either alternative. Hence, whenever there is deliberation in the understanding, there is freedom in the will, and the consequent act is free; vice versa, whenever an act proceeds from the will without deliberation, it is not free, but necessary. Wherefore, as deliberate and free actions, so indeliberate and necessary actions are identical. The free act of the will thus analysed is evidently the act proper to man as a rational agent. For it is man who is its determining cause; whereas his necessary actions are unavoidably determined by his nature and environment. He is the master of the former, while the latter are not under his dominion and cannot be withheld by him. These, therefore, are properly styled acts of man, because elicited, but not determined, by him. The human act admits of increment and decrement. Its voluntariness can be diminished or increased. Ignorance, as far as it goes, renders an act involuntary, since what is unknown cannot be willed; passions intensify the inclination of the will, and thus increase voluntariness, but lessen deliberation and consequently also freedom.


Human acts are imputable to man so as to involve his responsibility, for the very reason that he puts them forth deliberatively and with self-determination. They are, moreover, not subject to physical laws which necessitate the agent, but to a law which lays the will under obligation without interfering with his freedom of choice. Besides, they are moral. For a moral act is one that is freely elicited with the knowledge of its conformity with or difformity from, the law of practical reason proximately and the law of God ultimately. But whenever an act is elicited with full deliberation, its relationship to the law of reason is adverted to. Hence human acts are either morally good or morally bad, and their goodness or badness is imputed to man. And as, in consequence, they are worthy of praise or blame, so man, who elicits them, is regarded as virtuous or wicked, innocent or guilty, deserving of reward or punishment. Upon the freedom of the human act, therefore, rest imputability and morality, man's moral character, his ability to pursue his ultimate end not of necessity and compulsion, but of his own will and choice; in a word, his entire dignity and preeminence in this visible universe.


Recent philosophic speculation discards free will conceived as capability of self-determination. The main reason advanced against it is its apparent incompatibility with the law of causation. Instead of indeterminism, determinism is now most widely accepted. According to the latter, every act of the will is of necessity determined by the character of the agent and the motives which render the action desirable. Character, consisting of individual dispositions and habits, is either inherited from ancestors or acquired by past activity; motives arise from the pleasurableness or unpleasurableness of the action and its object, or from the external environment. Many determinists drop freedom, imputability, and responsibility, as inconsistent with their theory. To them, therefore, the human act cannot be anything else than the voluntary act. But there are other determinists who still admit the freedom of will. In their opinion a free action is that which "flows from the universe of the character of the agent." And as "character is the constitution of Self as a whole", they define freedom as "the control proceeding from the Self as a whole, and determining the Self as a whole." We find freedom also defined as a state in which man wills only in conformity with his true, unchanged, and untrammelled personality. In like manner Kant, though in his "Critique of Pure Reason" he advocates determinism, nevertheless in his "Fundamental Metaphysics of Morals " admits the freedom of the will, conceiving it as independence of external causes. The will, he maintains, is a causality proper to rational beings, and freedom is its endowment enabling it to act without being determined from without, just as natural necessity is the need proper to irrational creatures of being determined to action by external influence. He adds, however, in explanation, that the will must act according to unchangeable laws as else it would be an absurdity. Free acts thus characterised are termed human by these determinists, because they proceed from man's reason and personality. But plainly they are not human in the scholastic acceptation, nor in the full and proper sense. They are not such, because they are not under the dominion of man. True freedom, which makes man master of his actions, must be conceived as immunity from all necessitation to act. So it was understood by the scholastics. They defined it as immunity from both intrinsic and extrinsic necessitation. Not so the determinists. According to them it involves immunity from extrinsic, but not from intrinsic, necessitation. Human acts, therefore, as also imputability and responsibility, are not the same thing in the old and in the new schools.

So it comes to pass, that, while nowadays in ethics and law the very same scientific terms are employed as in former ages, they no longer have the same meaning as in the past nor the same in Catholic as in non-Catholic literature.

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