Monday, November 17, 2008

On Intrinsic Evil

The buzz word that my friend Mark likes to throw around now is “intrinsic” as in “intrinsic evil”. In a previous thread where we were discussing his contention that voting for Obama was morally wrong because of his pro-choice stance on abortion, I asked why it was not also morally wrong to vote for a Republican who supports capital punishment.
Mark responded by saying that abortion is an “intrinsic evil” and thus a worse sin than capital punishment. But what does that mean? I decided to look it up and came across this wonderful article titled Intrinsic Evil and Political Responsibility in America | The National Catholic Weekly by M. Cathleen Kaveny, the John P. Murphy Foundation Professor of Law and Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. I highly recommend reading this article in its entirety, but here are some excerpts which help clarify this issue:

The term “intrinsic evil” does not have its roots in the expansive imagery of the church’s prophetic witness, but rather in the tightly focused analysis of its moral casuistry. It is not a rhetorical flourish, but rather a technical term of Catholic moral theology....

In a nutshell, the fact that an act is called an intrinsic evil tells us two and only two things.
First, it tells us why an action is wrong—because of the “object” of the acting agent’s will. To identify the object of an action, one has to put oneself in the shoes of the one acting, and to describe the action from her perspective. The object is the immediate goal for which that person is acting; it is “the proximate end of a deliberate decision” (VS, No. 78).

Second, the fact that an act is intrinsically evil tells us that it is always wrong to perform that type of act, no matter what the other circumstances are. A good motive cannot make an act with a bad object morally permissible. In other words, we may never do evil so that good may come of it. To echo an example used by both Pope John Paul II and St. Thomas, a modern-day Robin Hood should not hold up a convenience store at gunpoint in order to give the money to a nearby homeless center. Robin Hood’s good motive (altruistic giving) does not wash away the bad object or immediate purpose of his action (robbery).

But to say that an act is intrinsically evil does not by itself say anything about the comparative gravity of the act. Some acts that are not intrinsically evil (driving while intoxicated) can on occasion be worse both objectively and subjectively than acts that are intrinsically evil (telling a jocose lie). Some homicides that are not intrinsically evil are worse than intrinsically evil homicides. Furthermore, the fact that an act is intrinsically evil does not by itself tell third parties anything at all about their duty to prevent that act from occurring.

Kaveny notes that the church defines many acts besides abortion as intrinsic evils including euthanasia, homosexual acts, using birth control and even intentional lying. She then knocks down the notion that intrinsic evil automatically means that something is gravely evil and gives several examples of non-intrinsic evils that are much worse than intrinsic ones.
She then goes on to show the folly of trying to base one’s political judgments on the concept of intrinsic evil. much help does the category of “intrinsic evil” offer us in deciding whom to vote for in an important national election? In my view, not much help at all.
A defender of the category’s usefulness might say that the fact that a candidate does not disapprove of an intrinsic evil reveals an unworthy character. That may be the case. But so does callousness toward the foreseen (but unintended) consequences of an unjust war, particularly toward the children who are orphaned, maimed or killed. So does indifference toward starving children in this country and in the world as a whole, many of whom are done an injustice not by individual Americans, but by American policy as a whole. In this fallen world, moral character alone is not enough. Political competence and other practical skills are also required. The person with the best moral character may not be the best president.

Now, Kaveny is not “pro-choice” and makes that clear in her essay. But she is clearly not swayed by the people who, as she says, rely on “misuse of church teachings in the political realm.”

For many pro-life Catholics, the issue of voting and abortion comes down to this: what does one do if one thinks that the candidate more likely to reduce the actual incidence of abortion is also the one more committed to keeping it legal? The language of intrinsic evil does not help us here. Only the virtue of practical wisdom, enlightened by charity, can take us further.

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