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Ethics / Psychology

Circumstances of Actions

In previous posts, I have discussed the content and intention of actions. But no actions take place in an isolated environment. Sometimes an act may be right in one circumstance but wrong in a different circumstance. This is hardly surprising, but it must be accounted for. But what are circumstances? The circumstances of an action are the accidental features of that action.

Circumstances and intentions determine whether or not conditionally good acts are good or evil. Moving furniture is a conditionally good act. But if you have promised not to move the furniture, or that furniture is not yours, then the act is wrong. Otherwise, the act is right. Circumstances can make acts with good intentions and good content evil. It is good to return what we borrow. Intending to return what we borrowed because the other person has need of it is a good intention. But if the other person intends to use the borrowed steak knives to murder, then the act is wrong.

Circumstances can include any information at all that is not covered by the intention and the content of the action. This includes what the results of the act will be, what alternatives are available, what various people intend to do and many other possibilities. There is no way to make a list or essence of what the circumstances are. They are always accidental to the content and intention of the act, but other than that, there is nothing to determine what they are.

Therefore, circumstances are simply that part of an act that is not essential to the act. This is why the same act may be right in one situation and wrong in another. It is the same act, but something else (the circumstances) have changed. All particular acts are either good or evil. If they are evil, then doing them is wrong. If they are good, then doing them is right. But each act has three parts: the intention, the content and the circumstances. If any of these three parts is evil, then the act is evil as well. The act is only good if the intention is good, the content is good and the circumstances are good.

Circumstances can only be evaluated insofar as the morality of actions are known. If we know that stealing and murder are wrong, and we know what stealing and murder are, then we know under which circumstances an act is stealing or murdering. If an act is not done under circumstances that would make it an act of stealing or murder, then it is not an act of stealing or murdering. If those were the only wrong actions, then the act would be right if it had a right content and right intention. So as our knowledge of what is not morally right increases, so does our knowledge of the circumstances under which an act is wrong.

Next, I will discuss the application of these distinction to cases of harm.

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