Knowledge Requisite for a Human Act

An act is human, or voluntary, when it is deliberately desired; and, since nothing can be deliberately desired unless it is known, an act done without knowledge is not human or voluntary. Thus, a delirious patient does not will the language he uses, for his mind is confused and he does not understand what he is saying.

The condition of a person without knowledge is ignorance, which is defined as the absence of knowledge in one who is capable of knowing. Ignorance is of various kinds. From the viewpoint of that which is not known (i.e., of the object of the ignorance), there is ignorance of the substance of an act and ignorance of the quality of an act.

  • For example, Titus driving rapidly in the dark runs over and kills a pet animal of his neighbor, but knows nothing of this happening (ignorance of the substance of the act).
  • Balbus, a child, fires a pistol at his playmate, not knowing that this causes death (ignorance of the physical quality of an act), and that it is the sin of murder (ignorance of the moral quality of an act).

With reference to the will of the person who is ignorant, three kinds of ignorance may be distinguished.

  • Ignorance is concomitant (simultaneous with the act of the will), when it is not voluntary, and yet is not therefore the reason of the act that follows it, since that act would have been done, even had there been knowledge. This may be illustrated by the example of a hunter who intended to kill an enemy, and killed him only accidentally while shooting at an animal.
  • Ignorance is consequent (after the act of the will), when it is voluntary, which may happen in different ways: first, when ignorance is affected, as when a person expressly desires to remain ignorant about his duties, so that he may have an excuse for his sins, or that he may not be disturbed in his evil life; secondly, when he neglects to acquire the knowledge he ought to possess, as when a hunter kills a man, thinking him an animal, because he took no pains to be sure before firing.
  • Ignorance is antecedent (before the act of the will), when it is not voluntary, and is the cause of the act that follows since the act would not have been done, if there had been knowledge. For example, a hunter who has used reasonable diligence to avoid accidents, kills a man whom he mistook for a deer.

With reference to the responsibility of the person who is ignorant, there are two kinds of ignorance.

  • Ignorance is invincible when it cannot be removed, even by the use of all the care that ordinarily prudent and conscientious persons would use in the circumstances. Thus, a person who has no suspicions of his ignorance, or who has tried in vain to acquire instruction about his duties, is invincibly ignorant.
  • Ignorance is vincible when it can be removed by the exercise of ordinary care. There are various degrees of this species of ignorance: first, it is merely vincible, when some diligence has been exercised, but not enough; secondly, it is crass or supine, when hardly any diligence has been used; thirdly, it is affected, when a person deliberately aims to continue in ignorance.

Influence of the Various Kinds of Ignorance on the Voluntariness of Acts

  • Ignorance of an act, whether as to its substance or quality, makes an act involuntary, when the ignorance itself is involuntary, as will be explained. Hence, if we refer to ignorance that is not blameworthy and to the guilt of violating the law of God, we may say: “Ignorance excuses.”
  • Ignorance does not make an act involuntary before human law, unless the law itself presumes the ignorance or the ignorance is proved, as will be explained in the Question on Law. For, when law is sufficiently promulgated or a fact pertains to one’s own self, the presumption is that ignorance does not exist, or that it is culpable. Hence, the general rule of law common to all forms of jurisprudence: “Ignorance does not excuse” (cfr. Canon 16 of the Code of Canon Law).

Effects of Concomitant, Consequent, and Antecedent Ignorance

  • Concomitant ignorance does not make an act involuntary, because it does not cause anything that is contrary to the will; but it does make the act that is performed non-voluntary, since what is unknown cannot be actually desired.
  • Consequent ignorance cannot make an act entirely involuntary, since such ignorance is itself voluntary; but it does in a certain respect make an act involuntary, i.e., inasmuch as the act would not have been done save for the ignorance.
  • Antecedent ignorance makes an act entirely involuntary.

Effects of Ignorance

  • Invincible ignorance, makes an act involuntary, since nothing is willed except what is understood.
  • Vincible ignorance does not make an act involuntary, since the ignorance itself is voluntary; hence, it does not excuse from sin. It does not even make an act less voluntary and less sinful, if the ignorance is affected in order that one may have an excuse; for such a state of mind shows that the person would act the same way, even though he had knowledge.

Vincible ignorance makes an act less voluntary and less sinful

  • When the ignorance is not affected, for the voluntariness is measured by the knowledge, and knowledge here is lacking;
  • When the ignorance, though affected, was fostered only through fear that knowledge might compel a stricter way of life; for such a state of mind seems to show that one would not act the same way if one had knowledge.

Like to ignorance are the following

  • Error, which is a judgment not in agreement with the facts (e.g., Balbus, a young child, thinks stealing is lawful, because older persons are represented as stealing in the moving pictures).
  • Forgetfulness, which is ignorance of what was once known (e.g., Titus made a study of his duties as a Catholic when he was young, but at present what he does not know about those duties is not inconsiderable)
  • Inadvertence, which is a lack of attention to what is being done (e.g., Caius, who is absent-minded, sometimes gets his hair cut and goes away without paying, or takes money that does not belong to him).

The principles and conclusions given above with regard to ignorance will apply also to error, forgetfulness and inadvertence; for in all these cases the lack of actual knowledge at the moment an act is done, is either willed or not willed, and accordingly the act itself is either voluntary or not voluntary. In the examples mentioned above, Balbus does not will the guilt of theft, since he does not know it; but his elders do will that guilt, because they should know it. Titus is responsible for neglecting his duties, if he has forgotten them through his own neglect of them or other fault; otherwise, he is not responsible. Caius’ inattention is involuntary, if due to mental concentration or distraction, and if it is not desired by him; it is voluntary, if he is aware of it and cultivates it, or if he does not try to be more attentive to his duties.

Consent Requisite for a Human Act

To be human, an act must proceed not only from knowledge, but also from inclination; that is, it must be voluntary. Three things are necessary in order that an act be voluntary:

  • It must be agreeable to an internal principle, i.e., in most moral matters to the will. Hence, an act that is done against one’s will on account of external violence is not voluntary.
  • It must be caused by the will. Hence, a shower of rain is said to be agreeable to the gardener, but not voluntary since his will is not its cause;
  • It must be performed with a conscious purpose. Hence, natural acts (such as sleeping) and spontaneous acts (such as stroking one’s beard absent-mindedly) are not voluntary acts.

To advance in your spiritual reform, kindly consider the profound meditations and pious lessons from the book:

TITLE: The Four Last Things: Death. Judgment. Hell. Heaven. “Remember thy last end, and thou shalt never sin.” a Traditional Catholic Classic for Spiritual Reform.
AUTHOR: Father Martin Von Cochem
EDITOR: Pablo Claret

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