Q. What actually makes an action morally good or morally evil? How does one assess the ethical character of human behavior? Is it majority rule or merely consensus?
A. Human acts are manifestations of human choices, choices made in freedom. Unfortunately, this norm is not universally acknowledged. But it should be honored by anyone who accepts Sacred Scripture as read by and within the Church, or reason illumined by Scripture. As Dostoevsky expressed it in The Brothers Karamazov, if there is no God, then anything is permissible.
The answers to the above questions were offered to the contemporary world by St. John Paul II, the Ethician of Lublin, in his compelling encyclical, Veritatis Splendor (1993). Three factors need to be assessed: (1) The object of the act (“also the proximate end of a deliberative decision which determines the act of willing on the part of the acting person” – to borrow Pope John Paul’s words); (2) the ulterior end of a human decision; and (3) the circumstances in which an act is performed.
A human act is considered morally good only if all three factors outlined above are verified as good. If one of these factors cannot be verified, then a human act is not morally good. There is an ageless axiom in Latin expressing this calculus: bonum ex integra causa; malum ex quacumque defectu (good in every aspect; evil from any defect). The late moral theologian Dr. William E. May carefully explains all this in his Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life (OSV, 2000).
Note that assessing the morality of an act begins with assessing the proximate object of the act. Direct abortion, to cite a common example, is immediately recognizable as evil in itself, since it entails the direct taking of innocent human life, which is an evil act by virtue of Revelation and reason. Hence there is no need to proceed further.
On the other hand, an act moral in itself can be distorted by an agent for ulterior motives. Dr. May gives the example of helping a disabled person into her apartment in order to steal some of her artifacts. Whereas the proximate act here is morally sound (assisting a person in need), the ulterior motive of theft renders the action unethical.
As for circumstances surrounding an action, they do matter. For one thing, they can mitigate culpability, as when someone slightly inebriated uses language insulting to another. But circumstances cannot of themselves defend culpability for actions whose objects are evil. Isn’t this where so called “situation ethics” (or “context ethics”) can be misleading?
Dr. May provided a helpful summary in this sentence: “An act morally bad by reason of the object freely chosen can never be made good by reason of any end, no matter how noble, or any circumstances, whatever they may be.” (Ibid.)
For anyone who really wants to understand the precise analysis of human acts, there is no better source than Pope John Paul II’s great encyclical on moral theology, Veritatis Splendor (literally, “The Splendor of Truth”). I have even used it as a textbook for courses in contemporary moral issues. It is not only authoritative, but readable and readily applicable – a masterpiece.