QUESTION 21: OF THE CONSEQUENCES OF HUMAN ACTIONS BY REASON OF THEIR GOODNESS AND MALICE
We have now to consider the consequences of human actions by reason of
their goodness and malice: and under this head there are four points of
(1) Whether a human action is right or sinful by reason of its being
good or evil?
(2) Whether it thereby deserves praise or blame?
(3) Whether accordingly, it is meritorious or demeritorious?
(4) Whether it is accordingly meritorious or demeritorious before God?
Article 1: Whether a human action is right or sinful, in so far as it is good or evil?
Objection 1: It seems that a human action is not right or sinful, in so far as it is good or evil. For "monsters are the sins of nature" (Phys. ii, 8). But monsters are not actions, but things engendered outside the order of nature. Now things that are produced according to art and reason imitate those that are produced according to nature (Phys. ii, 8). Therefore an action is not sinful by reason of its being inordinate and evil.
Objection 2: Further, sin, as stated in Phys. ii, 8 occurs in nature and art,
when the end intended by nature or art is not attained. But the goodness
or malice of a human action depends, before all, on the intention of the
end, and on its achievement. Therefore it seems that the malice of an
action does not make it sinful.
Objection 3: Further, if the malice of an action makes it sinful, it follows
that wherever there is evil, there is sin. But this is false: since
punishment is not a sin, although it is an evil. Therefore an action is
not sinful by reason of its being evil.
On the contrary, As shown above (Question , Article ), the goodness of a human
action depends principally on the Eternal Law: and consequently its
malice consists in its being in disaccord with the Eternal Law. But this
is the very nature of sin; for Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii, 27)
that "sin is a word, deed, or desire, in opposition to the Eternal Law."
Therefore a human action is sinful by reason of its being evil.
I answer that, Evil is more comprehensive than sin, as also is good than
right. For every privation of good, in whatever subject, is an evil:
whereas sin consists properly in an action done for a certain end, and
lacking due order to that end. Now the due order to an end is measured by
some rule. In things that act according to nature, this rule is the
natural force that inclines them to that end. When therefore an action
proceeds from a natural force, in accord with the natural inclination to
an end, then the action is said to be right: since the mean does not
exceed its limits, viz. the action does not swerve from the order of its
active principle to the end. But when an action strays from this
rectitude, it comes under the notion of sin.
Now in those things that are done by the will, the proximate rule is the
human reason, while the supreme rule is the Eternal Law. When, therefore,
a human action tends to the end, according to the order of reason and of
the Eternal Law, then that action is right: but when it turns aside from
that rectitude, then it is said to be a sin. Now it is evident from what
has been said (Question , Articles ,4) that every voluntary action that turns
aside from the order of reason and of the Eternal Law, is evil, and that
every good action is in accord with reason and the Eternal Law. Hence it
follows that a human action is right or sinful by reason of its being
good or evil.
Reply to Objection 1: Monsters are called sins, inasmuch as they result from a
sin in nature's action.
Reply to Objection 2: The end is twofold; the last end, and the proximate end. In
the sin of nature, the action does indeed fail in respect of the last
end, which is the perfection of the thing generated; but it does not fail
in respect of any proximate end whatever; since when nature works it
forms something. In like manner, the sin of the will always fails as
regards the last end intended, because no voluntary evil action can be
ordained to happiness, which is the last end: and yet it does not fail in
respect of some proximate end: intended and achieved by the will.
Wherefore also, since the very intention of this end is ordained to the
last end, this same intention may be right or sinful.
Reply to Objection 3: Each thing is ordained to its end by its action: and
therefore sin, which consists in straying from the order to the end,
consists properly in an action. On the other hand, punishment regards the
person of the sinner, as was stated in the FP, Question , Article , ad 4; Article ,
Article 2: Whether a human action deserves praise or blame, by reason of its being good or evil?
Objection 1: It would seem that a human action does not deserve praise or
blame by reason of its being good or evil. For "sin happens even in
things done by nature" (Phys. ii, 8). And yet natural things are not
deserving of praise or blame (Ethic. iii, 5). Therefore a human action
does not deserve blame, by reason of its being evil or sinful; and,
consequently, neither does it deserve praise, by reason of its being good.
Objection 2: Further, just as sin occurs in moral actions, so does it happen
in the productions of art: because as stated in Phys. ii, 8 "it is a sin
in a grammarian to write badly, and in a doctor to give the wrong
medicine." But the artist is not blamed for making something bad: because
the artist's work is such, that he can produce a good or a bad thing,
just as he lists. Therefore it seems that neither is there any reason for
blaming a moral action, in the fact that it is evil.
Objection 3: Further, Dionysius says (Div. Nom. iv) that evil is "weak and
incapable." But weakness or inability either takes away or diminishes
guilt. Therefore a human action does not incur guilt from being evil.
On the contrary, The Philosopher says (De Virt. et Vit. i) that
"virtuous deeds deserve praise, while deeds that are opposed to virtue
deserve censure and blame." But good actions are virtuous; because
"virtue makes that which has it, good, and makes its action good" (Ethic.
ii, 6): wherefore actions opposed to virtue are evil. Therefore a human
action deserves praise or blame, through being good or evil.
I answer that, Just as evil is more comprehensive than sin, so is sin
more comprehensive than blame. For an action is said to deserve praise or
blame, from its being imputed to the agent: since to praise or to blame
means nothing else than to impute to someone the malice or goodness of
his action. Now an action is imputed to an agent, when it is in his
power, so that he has dominion over it: because it is through his will
that man has dominion over his actions, as was made clear above (Question , Articles ,2). Hence it follows that good or evil, in voluntary actions
alone, renders them worthy of praise or blame: and in such like actions,
evil, sin and guilt are one and the same thing.
Reply to Objection 1: Natural actions are not in the power of the natural agent:
since the action of nature is determinate. And, therefore, although there
be sin in natural actions, there is no blame.
Reply to Objection 2: Reason stands in different relations to the productions of
art, and to moral actions. In matters of art, reason is directed to a
particular end, which is something devised by reason: whereas in moral
matters, it is directed to the general end of all human life. Now a
particular end is subordinate to the general end. Since therefore sin is
a departure from the order to the end, as stated above (Article ), sin may
occur in two ways, in a production of art. First, by a departure from the
particular end intended by the artist: and this sin will be proper to the
art; for instance, if an artist produce a bad thing, while intending to
produce something good; or produce something good, while intending to
produce something bad. Secondly, by a departure from the general end of
human life: and then he will be said to sin, if he intend to produce a
bad work, and does so in effect, so that another is taken in thereby. But
this sin is not proper to the artist as such, but as man. Consequently
for the former sin the artist is blamed as an artist; while for the
latter he is blamed as a man. On the other hand, in moral matters, where
we take into consideration the order of reason to the general end of
human life, sin and evil are always due to a departure from the order of
reason to the general end of human life. Wherefore man is blamed for such
a sin, both as man and as a moral being. Hence the Philosopher says
(Ethic. vi, 5) that "in art, he who sins voluntarily is preferable; but
in prudence, as in the moral virtues," which prudence directs, "he is the
Reply to Objection 3: Weakness that occurs in voluntary evils, is subject to
man's power: wherefore it neither takes away nor diminishes guilt.
Article 3: Whether a human action is meritorious or demeritorious in so far as it is good or evil?
Objection 1: It would seem that a human action is not meritorious or
demeritorious on account of its goodness or malice. For we speak of merit
or demerit in relation to retribution, which has no place save in matters
relating to another person. But good or evil actions are not all related
to another person, for some are related to the person of the agent.
Therefore not every good or evil human action is meritorious or
Objection 2: Further, no one deserves punishment or reward for doing as he
chooses with that of which he is master: thus if a man destroys what
belongs to him, he is not punished, as if he had destroyed what belongs
to another. But man is master of his own actions. Therefore a man does
not merit punishment or reward, through putting his action to a good or
Objection 3: Further, if a man acquire some good for himself, he does not on
that account deserve to be benefited by another man: and the same applies
to evil. Now a good action is itself a kind of good and perfection of the
agent: while an inordinate action is his evil. Therefore a man does not
merit or demerit, from the fact that he does a good or an evil deed.
On the contrary, It is written (Is. 3:10,11): "Say to the just man that
it is well; for he shall eat the fruit of his doings. Woe to the wicked
unto evil; for the reward of his hands shall be given him."
I answer that, We speak of merit and demerit, in relation to
retribution, rendered according to justice. Now, retribution according to
justice is rendered to a man, by reason of his having done something to
another's advantage or hurt. It must, moreover, be observed that every
individual member of a society is, in a fashion, a part and member of the
whole society. Wherefore, any good or evil, done to the member of a
society, redounds on the whole society: thus, who hurts the hand, hurts
the man. When, therefore, anyone does good or evil to another individual,
there is a twofold measure of merit or demerit in his action: first, in
respect of the retribution owed to him by the individual to whom he has
done good or harm; secondly, in respect of the retribution owed to him by
the whole of society. Now when a man ordains his action directly for the
good or evil of the whole society, retribution is owed to him, before and
above all, by the whole society; secondarily, by all the parts of
society. Whereas when a man does that which conduces to his own benefit
or disadvantage, then again is retribution owed to him, in so far as this
too affects the community, forasmuch as he is a part of society: although
retribution is not due to him, in so far as it conduces to the good or
harm of an individual, who is identical with the agent: unless,
perchance, he owe retribution to himself, by a sort of resemblance, in so
far as man is said to be just to himself.
It is therefore evident that a good or evil action deserves praise or
blame, in so far as it is in the power of the will: that it is right or
sinful, according as it is ordained to the end; and that its merit or
demerit depends on the recompense for justice or injustice towards
Reply to Objection 1: A man's good or evil actions, although not ordained to the
good or evil of another individual, are nevertheless ordained to the good
or evil of another, i.e. the community.
Reply to Objection 2: Man is master of his actions; and yet, in so far as he
belongs to another, i.e. the community, of which he forms part, he merits
or demerits, inasmuch as he disposes his actions well or ill: just as if
he were to dispense well or ill other belongings of his, in respect of
which he is bound to serve the community.
Reply to Objection 3: This very good or evil, which a man does to himself by his
action, redounds to the community, as stated above.
Article 4: Whether a human action is meritorious or demeritorious before God, according as it is good or evil?
Objection 1: It would seem that man's actions, good or evil, are not
meritorious or demeritorious in the sight of God. Because, as stated
above (Article ), merit and demerit imply relation to retribution for good or
harm done to another. But a man's action, good or evil, does no good or
harm to God; for it is written (Job 35:6,7): "If thou sin, what shalt
thou hurt Him? . . . And if thou do justly, what shalt thou give Him?"
Therefore a human action, good or evil, is not meritorious or
demeritorious in the sight of God.
Objection 2: Further, an instrument acquires no merit or demerit in the sight
of him that uses it; because the entire action of the instrument belongs
to the user. Now when man acts he is the instrument of the Divine power
which is the principal cause of his action; hence it is written (Is. 10:15): "Shall the axe boast itself against him that cutteth with it? Or
shall the saw exalt itself against him by whom it is drawn?" where man
while acting is evidently compared to an instrument. Therefore man merits
or demerits nothing in God's sight, by good or evil deeds.
Objection 3: Further, a human action acquires merit or demerit through being
ordained to someone else. But not all human actions are ordained to God.
Therefore not every good or evil action acquires merit or demerit in
On the contrary, It is written (Eccles. 12:14): "All things that are
done, God will bring into judgment . . . whether it be good or evil." Now
judgment implies retribution, in respect of which we speak of merit and
demerit. Therefore every human action, both good and evil, acquires merit
or demerit in God's sight.
I answer that, A human action, as stated above (Article ), acquires merit or
demerit, through being ordained to someone else, either by reason of
himself, or by reason of the community: and in each way, our actions,
good and evil, acquire merit or demerit, in the sight of God. On the part
of God Himself, inasmuch as He is man's last end; and it is our duty to
refer all our actions to the last end, as stated above (Question , Article ).
Consequently, whoever does an evil deed, not referable to God, does not
give God the honor due to Him as our last end. On the part of the whole
community of the universe, because in every community, he who governs the
community, cares, first of all, for the common good; wherefore it is his
business to award retribution for such things as are done well or ill in
the community. Now God is the governor and ruler of the whole universe,
as stated in the FP, Question , Article : and especially of rational creatures.
Consequently it is evident that human actions acquire merit or demerit in
reference to Him: else it would follow that human actions are no business
Reply to Objection 1: God in Himself neither gains nor losses anything by the
action of man: but man, for his part, takes something from God, or offers
something to Him, when he observes or does not observe the order
instituted by God.
Reply to Objection 2: Man is so moved, as an instrument, by God, that, at the
same time, he moves himself by his free-will, as was explained above
(Question , Article , ad 3). Consequently, by his action, he acquires merit or
demerit in God's sight.
Reply to Objection 3: Man is not ordained to the body politic, according to all
that he is and has; and so it does not follow that every action of his
acquires merit or demerit in relation to the body politic. But all that
man is, and can, and has, must be referred to God: and therefore every
action of man, whether good or bad, acquires merit or demerit in the
sight of God, as far as the action itself is concerned.