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The Metaphysics of the Human Act

Aug 23, 2023

Dear Souls and Hearts Members,

I am very pleased to offer you a weekly reflection from Souls and Hearts’ philosopher-in-residence, Dr. Monty De La Torre, who is continuing our series on daydreaming by helping us distinguish among different types of acts, laying out the process of human acts, and introducing us to the ethics of acts in this weekly reflection.

The Metaphysics of the Human Act

By Monty De La Torre

The last few articles have been discussing the topic of daydreaming. Specifically, defining what daydreaming is (i.e., the nature or essence of daydreaming), and the morality of daydreaming (i.e., is it good or bad to daydream)?

In this article and a follow-up article, I want to focus on the morality of daydreaming by discussing two fundamental topics in the study of ethics or moral philosophy: The Human Act and Voluntariness.

Before determining whether an act of daydreaming is moral or not, I think it would be helpful for us to know what a human act is and what are the preconditions for judging the morality of anything we do. In short, what is the metaphysics of a human act?

Animals act, but no one blames Fido for causing an accident on the floor. However, when we human beings act, we are held responsible for what we do. So, what makes a human act human as opposed to merely animal? Once we know that, then, given the fluid nature of daydreaming, we can investigate the voluntariness of human acts in general and apply the principles gained from our discussion to the specific act of daydreaming.

A Human Act and An Act of Man

Given the metaphysics of the human person, we are directed toward knowing and loving God. He is our last end and the ultimate source of our happiness. Thus, we must choose the right means to gain that end. These choices are what Fr. Austin Fagothey calls conduct in his book Right And Reason: Ethics in Theory and Practice (2nd Ed.):

“Human life consists of the actions a man performs, and primarily of those which are under his control; it is by these that a man lives like a man. Such acts are called conduct. The purpose of this life, therefore, is so to conduct ourselves as to make ourselves worthy of the happiness that is offered us in the life to come.”

We want to conduct ourselves in such a way that will lead us toward our final end.

Following St. Thomas, Fr. Austin makes a distinction between a “human act” from “an act of man”. The former is an act that is “…consciously controlled and deliberately willed…” Whereas the latter is an act performed, “…but he is not master of it, for he has not consciously controlled it, has not deliberately willed it, and for it he is not held responsible. Such are acts done in infancy, sleep, delirium, insanity, or fits of abstraction…”

Thus, we are responsible for some of our acts, but not all our acts. Sometimes we go on autopilot. This seems to be the case with daydreaming. How much freedom and responsibility are there when we daydream? We’ll have more to say about freedom and responsibility when we discuss voluntariness.

Being master of our acts, that is, having knowledge and freedom of choice is what separates us from non-rational animals and is the source of our responsibilities and obligations. This is what differentiates a human act from an act of man. The latter we share with non-rational animals, but not the former.

The Blueprint of a Human Act

A human act, or the process of making a deliberately willed choice is more complex than you might think. Fr. Austin provides a helpful outline.

  1. We come across something that we perceive (i.e., understand) as good.
  2. After recognition of a good, we begin to desire or wish for that good (e.g., I wish I had that car).
  3. We then intend to pursue that good.
  4. After our intention is made, we begin to take “…counsel or deliberation…” and we arrive at a “…last practical judgement: ‘This is the thing to be done here and now…’”
  5. A means is chosen(choice) and consent is made.
  6. By an act of command, the intellect moves the will toward execution of the choice.
  7. The means are put into use and the good is enjoyed.

“In all there are six acts of the will. Three are about the end: wish, intention, and enjoyment. Three are about the means: choice, consent, and use. Each act of the will is preceded by an act of the intellect, the most important of which is deliberation.”

Fr. Austin makes an important point about intention prior to deliberation. At this stage, intention is akin to an act of man rather than a human act. After we recognize some good, the intention that we experience is more like an instinctual or spontaneous reaction. For example, when you smell something delicious and instinctively turn your attention toward the source of the smell.

Again, the important thing to remember is that only when we have knowledge of what we’re intending or deliberating and consent to it, does it count as a human act. As Fr. Austin notes: “The most important part of the process is consent, for it is this which makes the act ours in the sense that it is chargeable to us. Up to that point it was not a human act; afterwards it is.”

Nota bene: Fr. Austin admits that the blueprint of a human act is complex and doesn’t always fit so easily into the above framework. Needless to say, there is a complexity to the human act that cannot be exhaustively outlined.

Commanded Acts

Fr. Austin argues that we are responsible for both external and internal acts of the will. As noted above in step 6, the will is informed and moved by the intellect. To use an analogy, an army general commands his troops. In this case, the intellect commands the will. We can command “…both external bodily acts and internal mental acts.” Writing this reflection is an external bodily act. Thinking about what I’m going to write about and deciding to do it, is an internal mental act.

Daydreaming, then, is obviously an internal mental act. The question is, to what extent or degree is it being commanded?

The Ethics of the Human Act

Determining the morality of any human act presupposes three things:

  1. Knowledge
  2. Voluntariness
  3. Freedom

Any human act requires knowledge.

“So the intellect is needed, not only to propose the end to be attained, but also to pass judgment on the fitness of the means to the end and to devise a course of conduct that will efficiently lead to the end.”

Any human act requires voluntariness.

“A voluntary act is simply a willed act, one in which the agent knows what he is about to do and wills to do it.”

Any human act requires freedom.

“Freedom…is the ability, when all requisites for acting are present, of either acting or not acting, of doing this or doing that.”

So, we may ask, is daydreaming a human act or an act of man? Does daydreaming consist of any or all of the 7-point blueprint of the human act described above? Do we have knowledge, voluntariness, and freedom when daydreaming? We’ll attempt to answer these questions in the next article when we dive deeper into the topic of voluntariness.

Thank you, Dr. De La Torre, for introducing us to the metaphysics of human acts, and preparing the groundwork for a deeper understanding of the voluntariness and its impact on the morality of daydreaming in next week’s reflection.

Interior Integration for Catholics podcast episode 119

In this 89-minute episode, my guest and my friend, Catholic psychologist Dr. Peter Martin and I discuss narcissism with our live audience, covering the following questions (among others):

  • What are two primary clinical approaches to treating individuals with narcissism?
  • How do we distinguish between boldness and narcissism?
  • How does one relate with a narcissistic spouse?
  • How do we work with narcissistic family members who don’t believe in God?
  • How important is it to feel cherished and treasured by God?
  • What is the relationship between narcissism and spiritual abuse in religious communities and organizations?
  • What makes it difficult for a person with narcissism to receive the love of God?
  • What are the different attachment styles associated with overt and covert narcissism?
  • How do children’s experiences of narcissism in the family impact them in adulthood?
  • What are the effects of narcissistic parenting on children’s separation and individuation?
  • How does one manage a contentious co-parenting relationship with an ex-spouse who is narcissistic? 

Be With The Word for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Join Dr. Gerry and me for a 40-minute episode titled Being Lost and How To Be Found which described how in some ways, we are all lost and need to be found by Our Lord. We invite you to share in an experiential exercise that helps you imagine Jesus calling you personally – and invite you to see yourself a little more as He sees you. Dr. Gerry and I share the Mass readings out loud here.

Please pray for us with your hearts…

St. Alphonsus de Ligouri wrote that “It is not enough to pray only with the tongue: we must, according to the Apostle, pray also with the heart if we wish to receive God’s graces…”

Every tiny bit of good we do at Souls and Hearts is fueled by prayer. Please pray for us, that we conform ourselves completely to God’s will for your good. Please pray for us from your heart. We’re praying for you.

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

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