Sources of morality

Sources of morality

It’s an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them, writes Cathal Barry

Freedom, according to the Church, makes man a moral subject. “When he acts deliberately, man is, so to speak, the father of his acts,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church states.

“Human acts, that is, acts that are freely chosen in consequence of a judgment of conscience, can be morally evaluated. They are either good or evil,” the key teaching document says.

The morality of human acts, according to the Church, depends on:

  • the object chosen;
  • the end in view or the intention;
  • the circumstances of the action.

The Church teaches that the object, the intention and the circumstances make up the “sources” or constitutive elements, of the morality of human acts.

“The object chosen is a good toward which the will deliberately directs itself. It is the matter of a human act. The object chosen morally specifies the act of the will, insofar as reason recognises and judges it to be or not to be in conformity with the true good. Objective norms of morality express the rational order of good and evil, attested to by conscience.”

In contrast to the object, the Church teaches that intention resides in the acting subject.

“Because it lies at the voluntary source of an action and determines it by its end, intention is an element essential to the moral evaluation of an action. The end is the first goal of the intention and indicates the purpose pursued in the action. The intention is a movement of the will toward the end: it is concerned with the goal of the activity. It aims at the good anticipated from the action undertaken.


“Intention is not limited to directing individual actions, but can guide several actions toward one and the same purpose; it can orient one’s whole life toward its ultimate end. For example, a service done with the end of helping one’s neighbour can at the same time be inspired by the love of God as the ultimate end of all our actions. One and the same action can also be inspired by several intentions, such as performing a service in order to obtain a favour or to boast about it.”

The Church teaches that the circumstances, including the consequences, are secondary elements of a moral act.

They, according to the Catechism, contribute to increasing or diminishing the moral goodness or evil of human acts (for example, the amount of a theft). They can also diminish or increase the agent’s responsibility (such as acting out of a fear of death), the document says.

“Circumstances of themselves cannot change the moral quality of acts themselves; they can make neither good nor right an action that is in itself evil.”

A morally good act, according to the Church, requires the goodness of the object, of the end, and of the circumstances together.

The object of the choice can by itself vitiate an act in its entirety, the Catechism warns.

It is an error, according to Church teaching, to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context.