The Metaphysics of Voluntariness

Aug 30, 2023

Dear Souls and Hearts Members,

Our Souls and Hearts philosopher-in-residence continues his exploration of the moral aspects of daydreaming, focusing on voluntariness of internal acts. This weekly reflection provides initial guidance on how to evaluate the moral qualities of your daydreams, grounded in Catholic understanding of the human person.


The Metaphysics of Voluntariness

Monty De La Torre, Ph.D.

In last week’s reflection, we gave a general metaphysical deconstruction of the human act. In today’s reflection, I want to dive deeper into the topic of voluntariness and its application to the act of daydreaming.

As noted previously by Fr. Austin, voluntariness or a voluntary act is an act “…which proceeds from the will with a knowledge of the end.” I intend and choose to do something because I know what I want (the end) and how to get it (the means), and I have the freedom to engage.

Fr. Austin notes that our intention to do something can vary in degree. He distinguishes between four different levels of intention.

Levels of intention

  1. “An actual intention is one that a person is conscious of at the moment he performs the intended action.” I have full knowledge and consent in what I’m doing.
  2. “A virtual intention is one that was once made and continues to influence the act now being done, but is not present to the person’s consciousness at the moment of performing the act.” This happens every morning when we commute to work and “space out” while driving. Our intention of getting to work doesn’t change even though we are not consciously aware of it at every moment of our commute.
  3. “A habitual intention is one that was once made and not retracted, but does not influence the performance of the intended act.” In other words, you fulfilled the intention despite forgetting about the intention. You owe Peter $20, you forget that you owe the money, but a month later you give Peter $20 without knowing exactly why, but you sense that he deserves the $20.
  4. An interpretative intention is one that has not been made but presumably would have been made if the person were aware of the circumstances.” For example, “If a repentant thief cannot return stolen goods because he cannot discover the owner, he may give them to the poor on the presumption that this would be the will of the owner in the present circumstances.”

According to Fr. Austin, someone with an actual and virtual intention is acting voluntarily because in both cases there is knowledge and consent/choice at play. In habitual or interpretative intentions, knowledge is missing, so the act is not voluntary in the fullest sense. (Fr. Austin does believe that habitual intentions do fulfill certain obligations, as noted in the example above).

When we apply these principles to daydreaming, unless we intend actually or virtually to daydream, then the daydreaming is not a voluntary act in the strict sense as defined above. There must be knowledge and consent (which presupposes choice, counsel, and intention). So, if I know that I’m daydreaming and I consent to it, then I’m responsible for that act of daydreaming.

Admittedly, it’s not always clear whether we have full knowledge and consent. Sometimes it seems that we just happen to be daydreaming. Sometimes we become aware of the fact that we’re daydreaming in the middle of a daydream.

I’ll have some thoughts to share on the issue of knowledge and consent below, but for now, let’s take a closer look at the issue of responsibility and its connection to consent/voluntariness. Fr. Austin provides some helpful insights.

Modifiers of voluntariness

If we have full knowledge and consent, then voluntariness is perfect. If there is a lack in either or both, the voluntariness is imperfect. If knowledge and consent are entirely missing, then there is no voluntariness.

A reduction in voluntariness (imperfect voluntariness) means a reduction in responsibility. So, Fr. Austin asks: “What renders voluntariness imperfect, reducing the specifically human character of the act and making the agent less responsible?” Below are five factors that can lessen personal responsibility.

  1. Ignorance. A lack of knowledge lessens responsibility. A distinction is typically made between invincible and vincible ignorance. Invincible ignorance is a complete lack of knowledge that cannot be overcome. Thus, we cannot be held accountable for a particular act in this state of ignorance. Vincible ignorance is when we are aware of our ignorance but fail to remedy it, thus, we are held responsible for not knowing what we could have known.
  2. Passion. Powerful bursts of emotion can undermine our freedom (and thus our responsibility) because they can arise and commit us to action before the intellect and will become aware of them.
  3. Fear. “… the apprehension of impending evil.” This falls under passion, as do duress and intimidation. Unless reason is completely lost due to fear, then fear only lessens voluntariness and does not eliminate it.
  4. Force. “Force, violence, or compulsion is external physical power making one do something against their will… force must be understood in its strictest sense as no mere threat but the actual use of physical might.” Force does take away our voluntariness so long as we resist exteriorly and interiorly.
  5. Habit. “…a constant way of acting obtained by repetition of the same act.” There are good habits and bad habits. The real difficulty is with bad habits; “…we are now the victim of two opposite pulls, the voluntary decision of our will to suppress the habit and the involuntary persistence of the habit itself.” Even when we gain knowledge of a bad habit and decide to remedy it, the bad habit maintains a grip on our will.

Going further, “the voluntariness of such acts depends on the amount of advertence at the moment when the act is performed, and also on the amount of effort we put in to get rid of the habit.” This is easier said than done. For example, how much responsibility is mitigated because of an addiction is very difficult to determine. Fr. Austin allows for voluntariness to be destroyed due to some “deeper psychosis.” He continues,

“The mentally ill may have complete self-control at times or along certain lines, and none or little at other times or in other forms of behavior. A kleptomaniac may be a very rational person except when under the spell of this particular compulsion; these acts are involuntary, but not the other acts the person performs. Each case is different and must be judged by itself.”

Our capacity, knowledge, and freedom to gain knowledge and to choose in light of that knowledge can become impaired or weakened. Responsibility can be diminished or non-existent. This, I believe, can be helpful when addressing the influence that our parts play in our moral life.

If we observe the times when we become blended, then perhaps we can identify one of these modifiers at work within our internal family. We can experience these modifiers through our parts. If that is the case, then to what extent are we responsible for the acts we commit due to the reactions and impulses of that fearful part within us?

Since parts aren’t actual people, each person responsible for his or her own actions. However, a grasp or general awareness of what can modify our voluntariness can help us to have more compassion toward ourselves. You can empathize with a fearful part of you because fear has a vice grip on you and fear can lessen your responsibility.

Daydreaming, knowledge, and voluntariness

In addressing the issue of knowledge and consent in a daydream, it seems that there could be something like the 7 parts of a human act mentioned in the previous reflection. We often daydream or fantasize about some good and its pursuit. If there is an end and a means, and knowledge and consent, then this entails the various parts of a human act. A daydream would be an internal act. An act that stays within our mind without any necessary extrinsic manifestation.

However, as noted above, it’s not certain that we are always aware of what is taking place at the inception or in the middle of a daydream. We may start off engaging in a human act, i.e., an act of reflection where knowledge and consent are present with either an actual or virtual intention, but at some point, we can slip into an act of man where voluntariness is missing.

(Also, it seems that we can lose control over the contents of our daydreams. Again, we may choose to daydream about A but soon slip into daydreaming about B without realizing it.).

So, do we have full knowledge and consent of our daydreams? It doesn’t seem like we always do.

Should we make a big fuss about it? As a matter of counsel, I don’t think so. However, we should take into consideration the content and frequency of the daydreaming (e.g., someone who daydreams multiple times a day or whose daydreams are becoming maladaptive, as described in Dr. Peter’s July 19, 2023 weekly reflection titled Daydreams: The Secular Experts Speak as opposed to someone who daydreams once a week, etc.).

Is engaging in daydreaming bad? It depends on why we are daydreaming and on the contents of the daydream. The act of daydreaming itself is not intrinsically evil. The evil would enter in through the intention and/or circumstances.


Once again, thank you, Dr. De La Torre, for helping us better understand the concept of voluntariness as it relates to daydreams, and the ways our parts may be at play. Next week’s reflection will offer guidance on how to daydream well, in a way that leads us closer to God, relying on the writings of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Remember, you can see our entire library of weekly reflections in our archive.

Be With the Word for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Dr. Gerry and I invite you to broaden your vision in this week’s 41-minute episode, See in 3D By Renewing Your Mind. We discuss how we need to overcome psychological obstacles in order to see more clearly with eyes of faith.

This week’s readings illustrate the transformation from seeing in the two-dimensional human perspective to the three-dimension that includes God’s grace and you can listen to us read them aloud here.

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In Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

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