The three parts of a moral act: object, intention, and circumstances. I was instructed to explain them in terms of three scenarios. I had a little fun. Here was the assignment: “Albert kills Ernest. Describe three different imaginary situations based on intentions and circumstances (who, what, where, when, by what means, how) that make it (1) murder, (2) self-defense, (3) heroism. Explain how this sort of analysis differs from situation ethics.”

The goodness of a moral act is determined by three elements: object, intention, and circumstances. At least one of these must be good; others may be indifferent; and none may be evil. A defect in any of these renders the act morally evil.[i]

First scenario, murder: Albert Malefactor breaks into the home of Ernest Innocens in the middle of the night. He is armed with a stolen .45 caliber pistol and his intention is to steal the Innocens family jewels. While in the family den, trying to crack the safe, he is happened upon by Ernest, who was awaken by the noise of the forced entry and wanted to protect his household. Albert is surprised by Ernest and pulls his gun. When Ernest threatens to call the police and moves to the telephone, Albert shoots him.

In this scenario, the object, killing an innocent man, is bad. The intention was also bad, as the motive for the killing was not the protection of some good, but the preventing justice by covering another crime, robbery. Finally, the following circumstances are bad: (who) the man shot was an innocent individual seeking to protect his home; (what) Albert was killing to conceal a crime; (where) Albert was in the home of someone else, trespassing on his property; (how) his presence in the home was by an illegal (and immoral) forced entry; (by what means) a stolen firearm was used.

Second scenario, self defense: Albert Vigilantius is in his home asleep. He hears a noise downstairs. He knows this could be a dangerous situation for him and his family, as last week, there was a robbery / murder at the Innocens family home down the street. Albert takes the precaution of taking out his .357 magnum revolver, which he keeps concealed in the top of his closet. Quietly exiting his room, where Mrs. Vigilantius is still sleeping, he walks down the hall, past his children’s rooms and goes down the stairs to where he heard the noise. Ernest Latronus is in the process of stealing various articles of value from the family safe, which he has successfully opened. Albert commands Ernest to stand up and put his hands in the air. Ernest, not seeing that Albert has a gun, pulls out his .22 pistol and turns around to shoot him, but his reflexes are too slow. Before he can aim the weapon, Albert discharges three rounds from his .357 into the intruder’s solar plexus, killing him instantly.

In this scenario, the object is indifferent, as the taking of a human life is not necessarily predicated to good or evil. It is a morally neutral act which may be rendered good or evil by intention and circumstances. The intention is good, as it is the preservation of life, namely Albert’s life and that of his family (from the secondary precept of the natural law “preserve life” and the duty of the father to protect the life of his family). The circumstances are all indifferent or good: (who) a murderous robber with evil intent is killed; (where) Albert was protecting his own household; (how) he did it dispassionately (note: had Albert had a partial motive of revenge for the Innocens family which was murdered last week, this would not necessarily transform the act into an evil one, given what was said in the footnote); (by what means) he used a legally registered armament; (when) he shot the criminal after warning him and after the criminal made an attempt on his life.

Third scenario, heroism: Brother Albertus Heroicus is an twelfth-century member of the Knights Hospitallers, the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. He and the brothers in his Preceptory are assigned to guard a small Marian shrine on the outskirts of Jerusalem, where pious pilgrims come to pray and make votive offerings to Our Lady.

On a certain day, a band of fifteen Muslim intruders enter the shrine brandishing their scimitars. At their head is Ernesto Ibn Tariq, an Italian Crusader who apostatized to Islam. Brother Albertus is the only one of the Hospitallers in the shrine because most of his brethren have been dispatched to give relief to the victims of an epidemic near Aleppo. Those few remaining are chanting vespers in the Preceptory chapel and are quite unaware of what is happening in the shrine. Brother Albertus’ only fellow Christians in the sanctuary consist of a group of pilgrims who have arrived from Spain.

As the sinister Ernesto dismounts his charger to survey the situation, he has one of his men remove Brother Albertus’ sword from its scabbard. With savage cruelty, the apostate informs all present of their fate: the men are to be slowly killed and the women will be sold into Arabian harems. As for Brother Albertus, he will be released as long as he makes no resistance. One of the band seizes a male pilgrim and makes him lay his head on the altar, where he will be decapitated. Fervently praying to Our Lady to give relief to her faithful servants, Brother Albertus notices that one of the Muslims has carelessly leaned his scimitar against the credence table in the sanctuary. On a hook in the wall next to it is tied the rope that extends up to a pulley secured to the ceiling. From this pulley hangs the shrine’s 100-pound solid brass oil lamp, and Ibn-Tariq is standing right under it! Catching the eye of one of the male pilgrims, Brother Albertus signals to him that something daring is about to happen.

With a cry of “Deus vult!” the warrior monk grabs the scimitar and slices the rope, wheeling around and decapitating the two Muslims who motion to stop him. Within seconds, the male pilgrims have immobilized the three of the brigands, and the remaining seven ride off into the night. Ibn-Tariq lays dead at the altar rail, crushed by the sanctuary lamp and flanked by his two headless accomplices.

In this scenario, the object is indifferent, as the taking of a human life is not necessarily predicated to good or evil (same as above). The intention is good, as it is the preservation of life, namely the lives of the innocent pilgrims. The circumstances are all indifferent or good: (who) a murderous apostate and his formal accomplices – all of whom had the intention to sell women into harems – were killed; (where) Brother Albertus was protecting the house of God; (how) he risked his life, whereas he could have avoided any danger to himself and gone free; (by what means) yes, he damaged the shrine’s oil lamp, but the principle of double effect clearly justifies this, as the damage was not intended, the good effect did not depend on the evil effect, the intended object was the good effect, and the good effect outweighed the evil effect; (when) he acted on the spur of the moment and could not try to talk the malefactors out of their misdeed.

It is the circumstance of how that render the act positively heroic.

This kind of reasoning by which we analyze the moral goodness or evil of an act by object, intention, and circumstance differs greatly from situation ethics because situationism has no objective criteria. It applies only the very subjective concept of the “norm of love.” In Catholic moral theology, an evil object could never be rendered good (not even by a good intention), whereas situation ethics knows no evil object. Everything is reduced to intention (“the norm of love”). So, for instance, Catholic moral theology would never countenance adultery; whereas situation ethics would.

[i]Exceptions: if a slight impurity of intention (e.g., praying publicly to edify and to get a good reputation), or a minor evil of circumstance which is not sufficient to transform the act (being distracted while praying) enters into the act, it is still a good act, albeit only partly good, and not entirely good. Cf. J. McHugh, OP and C. Callan, OP, Moral Theology Vol. 1, New York 1958, pgs. 27-28.


8 Comments so far

  1. Don Flynn on September 7, 2007 11:06 pm

    At first glance, it seems that the object of the act in Scenario Two and Scenario Three is to kill a human person. This might be a species of the genus of “to kill”; however, if we recall the words of St Thomas (Q. 18 Art. 9, Art. 10 Pt. I-II) a circumstance can become a principle condition of the object and specify the action. This would seem to permit us to add more notes to the species of the object and say that the object of the act is to kill an unjust aggressor in self-defense in a life and death situation. We have a natural right to self defense and, if certain conditions are met, to use force as necessary; therefore, it would seem that the object of the act in question would not be morally indifferent but would have a clear moral dimension.

    An important question appears to be: Does not the moral act of self defense depicted in Scenario Two and Three pertain to the order of reason and, therefore, would not the words of St Thomas apply when he states that no individual action is indifferent? It is understood that St Thomas first recognizes acts of man and acts not pertaining to the order of reason (such as to pick up a straw from the ground) as being indifferent according to their species. Clearly, an act of self-defense does not fall into these categories. (Q. 18 Art. 8 and Art. 9 Pt. I-II) This appears to argue that the object in the two scenarios is not a morally neutral act.

    Finally, I may be reading the essay incorrectly and I may fail to properly understand the words of the Summa. If this is the case, a correction would be appreciated.

  2. Brother André Marie, M.I.C.M. on September 8, 2007 9:03 am

    Thank you, Don. You make a good point. I was treating the deed of killing a man prescinding from whether it is an act of reason. For St. Thomas, that’s a No No. The way St. Thomas explains object, unless it is an unthinking act (e.g., picking up a straw, etc.), it is an act which engages the reason and must therefore be either good or bad in its object.

    My thinking was this: Because killing a man can be either good or bad in its species, it is therefore a morally neutral object which must be predicated by the end (the intention in the mind) and the circumstances. That, however, is not St. Thomas’ explanation.

    So, to conform to the Angelic Doctor’s doctrine, I should restate it this way: The object in this case is actually a GOOD, as you correctly point out, namely, self defense, and not a morally indifferent or neutral object.

    Thank you for your posting. God bless you and may Our Lady watch over you.

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  4. lassi on March 12, 2010 12:35 pm

    i especially liked the bit where you said all muslims are evil …

    yeah i know you didn’t (explicitly), but you may as well have?

  5. Maria on November 29, 2010 7:53 pm

    well done…i am going to teach one helluva moral theology class for my grade 10′s armed with your insights!

  6. A on November 10, 2011 8:20 pm

    Situation 2 is not morally justified, please correct me if I am mistaken.

    Albert Vigilantius is only under the presumption that the thief that entered his house was going to harm his family upstairs. Under the conditions set, we can only deduce that Albert is protecting his valuables. A desire to keep his things led him to his action. Thus it follows that he is motivated by a want of something which led to the end of someones life.

    While it is very annoying to have your things taken, from your house or car or place of business. Would you will death to every thief in the world?

    I agree that the act is legally justified, but I do not see by the wording of the above scenario that his act of killing the thief is morally good.

  7. Brother André Marie, M.I.C.M. on November 11, 2011 4:21 pm


    You must have read the posting too fast. It specifically says that Ernest Latronus (the thief) “pulls out his .22 pistol and turns around to shoot him [Albert Vigilantius].” He’s not only protecting his valuables, but his life, and the lives of his family.

    Thanks for your question. God bless, Mary keep.

  8. Theophilus on December 23, 2011 2:56 am

    “…the taking of a human life is not necessarily predicated to good or evil. It is a morally neutral act which may be rendered good or evil by intention and circumstances.”

    Please could you shed more light on the above statement.

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