There are three fonts (sources) of morality:
2. moral object
Catechism of the Catholic Church: "The morality of human acts depends on: the object chosen; the end in view or the intention; the circumstances of the action. The object, the intention, and the circumstances make up the 'sources,' or constitutive elements, of the morality of human acts." (CCC, n. 1750.)
1. Intention (or intended end)
The first font of morality is the intention, in other words the reason or purpose, for which the act was chosen. This intention is a type of end; it can be called the end in view, or the goal, or the intended end. The intended end resides in the person (the agent of the act). It is the end freely chosen by the human person (finis agentis).
If the intention is good, that is, if the intention is entirely in accord with the love of God, and the love of neighbor as self, then the first font of morality is good.
2. Moral object (or simply, object)
The moral object is the end, in terms of morality, toward which the knowingly chosen act is inherently ordered. The object is the end inherent to the chosen act. That end is the object of the act (finis actus), and it determines the morality of this font. However, the entire font is more than the object.
The second font is the choice of an objective act (what we freely choose to do). But each and every knowingly chosen act has a moral nature, which is the type of act in terms of morality (its genus or species).
For example, there are a myriad of different concrete (particular) ways to commit theft, and a myriad of different goods that might be stolen. And yet all of these acts are the same kind (type, genus, species) of act. The type of behavior being chosen is the moral nature of the act.
The choice of any concrete act by the free will is intentional (deliberate, voluntary, knowing). Every human act, subject to the eternal moral law, is a knowing choice; it is an exercise of intellect (mind) and free will.
Each font of morality proceeds from the will to a different type of end. But there is a distinction between the intended end and the moral object. The intention is the end chosen by the will. The object is the end inherent to the act chosen by the will. The intentional choice of any concrete act (such as one particular way to commit theft) is always necessarily a choice of the particular act, and its moral nature, and its object.
The moral object determines the moral nature of the act (its kind in terms of morality, e.g. theft). Every knowingly chosen act has an intrinsic ordering toward a proximate end (a morally-immediately end). If the end, called the moral object, is evil, then the act is intrinsically ordered toward evil and is termed intrinsically evil. Every knowingly chosen act with an evil object is an intrinsically evil act. It is always a sin, at least objectively, to knowingly choose to commit an intrinsically evil act. If instead the end is good, then the act is intrinsically ordered toward good, and can be called intrinsically good (a less common term).
An act may have more than one moral object, in which case every object of the act must be good for the act to be inherently good. If one or more objects of the act are evil, the act is intrinsically evil. If an act has three moral objects, two good and one evil, the act is intrinsically evil and always immoral to knowingly choose.
For example, an act of natural marital relations open to life has three moral objects, the marital, unitive, and procreative meanings. But in the case of a husband and wife who use contraception, their sexual act is marital and unitive, but non-procreative. As a result, their contracepted sexual acts are intrinsically evil.
Only when an act is intrinsically ordered toward only good is the act moral, by its nature. Only then is the second font good. If anything in the object of the act is morally evil, then the act is ordered toward evil; it is then an intrinsically evil act. It is never moral to intentionally choose any intrinsically evil act, regardless of the intended end (the purpose or reason for choosing the act) and regardless of the circumstances (the reasonably anticipated consequences).
Each and every knowingly chosen act has a moral meaning before the eyes of God. There are no acts that are neutral in morality, or that are exempt from the eternal moral law. Every knowingly chosen act is either morally licit (i.e. at least permissible) or morally illicit (sinful).
The moral meaning found in any knowingly chosen act is inherent to the very nature of the act. This inherent moral meaning of an act is its essential moral nature. Just as God has a Nature, and human persons have a nature, and all created things have a nature, so also acts are said (by way of analogy) to have a nature. The moral nature of an act is also called its 'species' or 'genus', which is the type of act in terms of morality.
The moral species of an act is determined by the moral object. The moral object (or simply the object) is the end, in terms of morality, toward which the chosen act is inherently directed. This intrinsic ordering of an act toward its moral object (a good or evil end) constitutes the essential moral nature of the act. An act that is inherently ordered toward an evil end is, by the very nature of the act, immoral. An act that is inherently ordered toward only good in its object is good by its very nature. But all three fonts must be good for the overall act to be moral.
When the moral object is evil, the act is an intrinsic evil. Every intrinsically evil act is inherently directed toward an evil moral object. Intrinsically evil acts are inherently immoral; therefore, nothing can cause an intrinsically evil act to become moral. Such an act is, in and of itself, evil. Intrinsically evil acts are always immoral. In order to avoid sin, a person must choose a different type of act, an act with a good moral object rather than an evil moral object.
The moral object is the end, in terms of morality, toward which a knowingly chosen act is inherently directed. This intrinsic ordering of the act itself toward the moral object constitutes the moral nature, also called the moral species, of the act. An act with an evil moral object is intrinsically directed toward an immoral end. Any act with an evil moral object is inherently immoral, because the act, by its very nature, is ordered toward moral evil; it is an intrinsically disordered act. Every act with an evil moral object is intrinsically evil, and therefore always immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances. Nothing can cause an intrinsically evil act to become moral because the act is evil by its very nature.
The moral object is also called the proximate end. The moral object is a type of end, but it is not the intended end, nor the end result (consequences), which are, in a sense, distant from the moral nature of the chosen act. The moral object's relationship to the nature of the act itself is immediate and direct. The act, by its very nature, is ordered toward the moral object. In a sense, the moral object is inherent to the chosen act itself.
3. Circumstances (or consequences)
The third font of morality is the circumstances pertaining to the morality of the act. The totality of the reasonably anticipated consequences of the act, for all persons affected by the act, determines the morality of this font.
The good and bad consequences of an act can be reasonably anticipated based on our knowledge of past and present circumstances. If the moral weight of the good consequences is greater than (or equal to) the moral weight of the bad consequences, then the third font is good, despite some bad consequences. If the moral weight of the bad consequences is greater than the moral weight of the good consequences, then the third font is bad, despite some good consequences. The good and bad consequences must be evaluated according to their weight under the moral law. This evaluation considers the moral weight of the consequences for all persons affected by the chosen act, in terms of morality, that is, in terms of the love of God, the love of neighbor, and an ordered love of self.
Any consequence that could not have been reasonably anticipated is not in the third font and does not affect the morality of the chosen act.
The Relationship of the Fonts
Every knowingly chosen act has three fonts of morality. Three good fonts are required for any act to be moral. If any one or more of the three fonts is bad, the act is immoral. There are no exceptions to this basic principle of morality.
Whether any font of morality is good or evil depends on the love of God, and the love of your neighbor as yourself. Whatever is contrary to an ordered love of God, neighbor, and self is morally evil; whatever is in accord with the same threefold love is morally good. Love determines what is good and what is evil. Love separates good from evil. God is Love, by His very Nature; therefore, good and evil are determined by the Nature of God, who is Love and Justice and Truth.
The three fonts of morality are independent of one another. The intention cannot change the moral object of the act itself. The circumstances cannot change the moral object of the act itself. The inherent moral nature of the chosen act is determined solely by the moral object, not by intention or circumstances. No intention or circumstance can justify the intentional choice of an act inherently ordered toward an evil object. Intrinsic evil is irremediably evil; it is always wrong to knowingly choose.
Intended End versus Moral Object
Many people confuse these two fonts, the intention and the object.
Often, the intended end and the moral object are the same. A physician intends to heal his patient, and so he chooses an act (a particular treatment) that is inherently directed at the moral object of healing the patient. The intention and the object are in this case the same. But if the physician has a different intention, such as to make money, or to impress a colleague, the moral object of the chosen act (giving a patient a particular treatment) remains unchanged.
A physician intends to relieve the suffering of his patient, and so he chooses an act (giving a medication) that is inherently directed at the same end (its moral object), which is the relief of suffering. But suppose that the physician intends to relieve the suffering of his patient, by choosing an act of euthanasia (e.g. by an overdose of a medication). He is deliberately choosing an act which is inherently ordered toward the deprivation of life of an innocent person. The intended end and the moral object now differ; the intended end is good, but the moral object is evil.
In cases of euthanasia, it is not correct to claim that the moral object is the relief of suffering. The intentionally chosen act is not ordered toward the relief of suffering as a proximate end; instead, it is ordered toward the deprivation of life from an innocent person. In euthanasia, the intended end to relieve suffering is obtained by means of the end proximate to the chosen act, which is the killing of the innocent person.
An act of euthanasia is essentially the same as any act of murder, despite the intended end (the purpose or reason for choosing the act) to relieve suffering. Therefore, the moral species of the act remains gravely disordered, despite a good intended end. Euthanasia is always gravely immoral because it is inherently directed toward an evil moral object, the death of an innocent person. Intention cannot change the moral object of the intentionally chosen act.
Every intrinsically evil act is intentionally chosen, in other words, such acts are deliberate or voluntary. However, the intentional choice of an act with a certain moral nature, as determined by its moral object, is different from the intention for which the act was chosen. A person who intentionally chooses an intrinsically evil act, for a good intention, is choosing an act that is objectively morally disordered. The essential moral nature of an act is not determined by the purpose (the intended end) for which the act was chosen, but by the moral object. A good intention cannot change a moral object from evil to good. And so the choice of an intrinsically evil act is always objectively immoral, regardless of the intention for which the act was chosen. Even if the person choosing to commit an intrinsically evil act does not intend the moral object as his subjective goal (intended end), the intentional choice of any intrinsically evil act is an objective sin.
by Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian
May 13, 2010
updated January 11, 2015
For an in-depth explanation of the basic principles of Catholic moral theology
and their application, see my book: The Catechism of Catholic Ethics