BITE-SIZE THEOLOGY (179): Do good intentions suffice to make an action morally good?

Rev. José Mario O Mandía 

The intention or end is the motive for doing the action. Aside from asking, “What did I do?” (finis operis), we also have to ask “Why did I do it?” (finis operantis). The finis operis is objective, while the finis operantis is subjective. The CCC (No. 1752) teaches:

“In contrast to the object, the 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 neighbor 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 favor or to boast about it.”

How does the intention affect the goodness or evil of an action? The CCC (No. 1753) explains:

“A good intention (for example, that of helping one’s neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny, good or just. The end does not justify the means. Thus the condemnation of an innocent person cannot be justified as a legitimate means of saving the nation.

“On the other hand, an added bad intention (such as vainglory) makes an act evil that, in and of itself, can be good (such as almsgiving) (cf Mt 6:24).”

Summarizing what has been said until now, we can enunciate the following principles.


(1.1) When the action or object is in itself seemingly indifferent, a good intention makes the action good.

(1.2) When the action or object is in itself seemingly indifferent, a bad intention makes the action bad.

Therefore, we can say from these two principles that although abstractly considered the action may be indifferent, when a deliberate (i.e., with knowledge and consent) action is done, then it is either good or bad, not indifferent.


(2.1) When the action or object is good, a good intention makes it better.

(2.2) When the action or object is good, a bad intention makes it less good or even bad.


(3.1) If the action or object is bad, a good intention makes it less bad, but never completely good. Thus, it is never licit to do something bad even if the intention is good.

(3.2) If the action or object is bad, a bad intention makes it worse.

The CCC (No. 1756) reiterates: “It is therefore an error 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. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.”

(RobinHiggins at