Good Distinctions
Good Distinctions
Ep. 2 - The Nature of the Moral Act
Ep. 2 - The Nature of the Moral Act
Do Good, Avoid Evil - How can we judge actions?

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In today’s episode, Teresa Morris explains the nature of the Moral Act. How can we know what is right and wrong? We know that we should do good and avoid evil? But how do we actually go about this? We cannot judge people, but we can and should judge actions. You are certain to find this episode incredibly informative and worth perhaps more than one listen through!

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What is Ethics?

  • Every science, study of knowledge, or discipline has first principles which speak to what that particular area of study is oriented towards

    • EX: We need to know what we are doing and why when we are studying Chemistry, Medicine, Art, etc. 

  • Philosophy has many different branches: Metaphysics, Epistemology, Logic, Phenomenology, etc. 

  • Ethics is a particular branch of Philosophy, whose first principle is “Do Good, Avoid Evil”. Everything Ethics seeks to do and evaluate rests on this fundamental, self-evident principle. We say this is a self-evident principle because we do not need someone else to explain this to us or provide clarity, we naturally understand it as true. If we think purely in a physical sense and think about if a baby places their hand on a hot stove, they will immediately remove it. Noone has to explain this to the child or those observing them that the action of removing a hand from something harmful makes sense. Similarly, we have this truth written into our beings for things regarding morality. Noone has to explain to us that violence or murder done to another is wrong. We naturally recognize life as a good and avoid actions that could cause harm to it both in ourselves and others. So human actions are naturally ordered and inclined towards the choosing of the good and thus the avoidance of evil. Is there a gray area in there somewhere? Sure. We will talk about that in a later episode, but it is good to at least acknowledge right off the bat that not everything in morality is black and white. Some things are cut and dry, but not everything is so simple

  • Quickly define a few terms right off the bat: 

    • Disordered: not saying the person is disordered or has a disorder. Just that an action is not ordered towards what it is made for. 

    • Evil/Good: A good thing is the kind of thing it is meant to be. An apple tree grows apples. A teacher teaches. A If my water bottle is leaking water everywhere, it is not a good water bottle. I am not saying anything about the morality or character of the water bottle, simply that it is not fulfilling its end 

    • Evil: can exist in multiple senses, but there can be grave evil or natural evils, which is referencing the lack of a due good or something that ought to be there. EX: someone born without a limb. When we say an action is evil we tend to mean in the moral sense but again, we are not saying the person doing it is evil, but rather that the action itself is not oriented towards what human beings are ultimately made for or what the purpose of that particular action itself is. 

  • It is worth noting that while we desire to do good and avoid evil, that can often play out incorrectly either through a misunderstanding of what the good is in a particular scenario, an evil being wrongly perceived as a good (EX: abortion as a good for women) or simply ones will failing to choose the right thing. Which happens to all of us all of the time.  There is an argument to be made that everything we do is because we think in some sense it is good or will make us happy. Those actions we take to achieve said happiness may well be gravely disordered. 

Why does understanding the nature of an action matter? 

  • In being able to identify particular aspects of an action and determine whether they are good, bad or neutral, it helps us understand our own actions, inform and examine our consciences, and make better choices overall. Do Good and Avoid Evil

  • Pushback: this will make me walk through the world judging everyone. If studying ethics does that, it is being done incorrectly. Clear principles actually free us to make clear judgements about actions and not the characters of others. I cannot know another's soul the moment they act, therefore I cannot judge them. 

  • Aquinas: Freedom to choose the good // ultimate flourishing and happiness

Evaluation of a human act

  • Moral act vs. human act

    • Acts of man : things humans do 

      • Not deliberately willed

      • EX: digestion, habits, etc. 

    • Moral act

      • Freely chosen by the agent 

        • Person doing the action 

        • FREE: one with at least two options 

        • “No action can be good unless it is freely chosen” St. Augustine

      • Agent has control, free will, and knowledge of what he is doing 

Components of an Act: Formula for understanding 

  • The moral act is made up of three parts. I tend to think of this as a bullseye with the core of the action being most significant and then each outward layer or ring beyond progressively becoming less significant. All three are necessary aspects to make up the action and inform its morality, but the single most important aspect of any moral act is the object.


  • What the action is: concrete action taken

  • Most watered-down “verb” of the act. What did the agent choose to do? 

    • EX: stealing a Gatoraidfrom walmart before a game

  • Morally good/bad/neutral

    • Most actions are good or neutral in their object, but there are a few intrinsically/inherently evil acts, which means they are always wrong

    • EX: murder, abuse, chattel slavery, torture etc. 

  • This is incredibly helpful in medicine when we are attempting to be very clear on what is actually happening, or when certain actions become convoluted. For example, in recent months there has been a lot of misunderstanding between abortions and miscarriages, and referencing them both as the same thing. But if we can name the object of both those actions, we can see that, before we even look at intention or circumstance, they are different. The object of an abortion is the intentional ending of an innocent human life. The object of a miscarriage actually isn’t a moral act at all because there is no free choice; something happened in the woman’s body that caused the preborn baby to die. Even though the effects of the two are the same, a baby’s life has ended, but the actions that caused the death are radically different. 


  • Why is the agent doing the action?

  • What is the intended outcome?

  • Can the change good or neutral acts to bad actions?

    • EX: doing volunteer work in order to be praised for it 

  • Good intentions cannot justify evil actions

    • We can never do evil to obtain a good

    • Killing someone to avenge family member (Godfather) 

  • For an action to be considered “praiseworthy”, both object and intention must be good. Cannot have discretion between the two 


  • To whom, how often, W’s, age, effects, outcome, etc.

  • Can only change gravity and level of moral responsibility or culpability: Sliding scale 

    • EX: cheating on a spelling test in 2nd grade vs. the SAT in 11th grade 

    • EX: 30 year old knows more than a 6 year old 

    • EX 2: First/Second degree murder. Some actions are more serious than others. This is one of the reasons we can place a greater importance on some issues in regards to voting than others, even if all of them involve the good intentions of the care of human beings. 

  • Cannot make a good action bad or a bad action good. So the circumstance in which someone cheats on their spouse because they were super tempted or had fallen in love doesn’t make it ok. 

  • All circumstance changes is responsibility of the agent, not the action itself. For example, there is is never going to be a circumstance (age, where in the world, time of day, etc.) that is going to make chattel slavery ok

Evaluating the Act

  • All 3 (object, intention, and circumstance) must be morally good or neutral

  • Limitations to voluntariness do exist (later pod) 

    • If an agent is not acting in full freedom for some reason

    • Ignorance, Passion, Fear, Force Habit 

  • All we can judge is the action, not the person doing the action 


  • Everything in the universe is ordered towards something, and our actions are no different. Countless factors contribute to why or how or where or when someone chooses to do a thing. In disciplines like Law or Medicine, an objective claim is needed in evaluating human action, but the same is true in our own lives. Our daily decisions need to be well ordered for human flourishing and fulfillment. We need to be aware of what we are seeking on a daily basis.

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