Skip to comments.The concept of the "intrinsically evil"
Posted on 12/28/2007 9:19:39 AM PST by Huber
In both of my careers as a Catholic thinkermy former one as a professor, and my current one as a bloggerI have found it a real challenge to get across to people what is meant by saying that some acts are "intrinsically evil." The phrase from traditional moral theology so translated is intrinsece malum, which is often used in magisterial documents. As we contemplate the Holy Family this Christmas season, it occurs to me that misunderstanding about the concept of the intrinsically evil (IE) is especially rampant in the area of sexual morality. Today I want to contribute to a correct understanding by excluding two equal and opposite misapplications of the concept to the specific question of contraception.
But first, the concept itself. In his landmark encyclical Veritatis Splendor, Pope John Paul the Great explicated IE thus:
Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature "incapable of being ordered" to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church's moral tradition, have been termed "intrinsically evil" (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances.
Now, VS was the first document of its level of authority to actually give a magisterial explication, as distinct from application, of the concept of IE. A short time before that, CCC §1761 had made a start: "...there are certain specific kinds of behaviour that are always wrong to choose, because choosing them involves a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil." That was important because it made clearer to people that intrinsically evil acts are those of kinds that it's "always wrong to choose," irrespective of any further feature of the particular act or of any further consideration about the act. In that respect, VS was an advance. Yet perforce, its explication of intrinsice malum comes after a quite interesting explication of various associated concepts that must be understood if that of IE itself is to be understood. I highly recommend them to the reader. But further interpretation and clarification is obviously needed and ongoing.
One important clarification must begin with stressing that distinctively "moral evil" is a "disorder" precisely of "the will." Hence, to will something that is intrinsically evil is a moral evil because so willing disorders precisely the will of the agent itself. But given as much, one cannot specify what, if anything, is intrinsically evil about a physical act merely by describing its physical features. And that's because one cannot say what makes the act distinctively human, an actus humanus, merely by describing what happens when somebody initiates a chain of physical events. Rather, the "object of the human act" that makes the act intrinsically evil has to be something done intentionally by the agent, in such a way that the physical feature of the act that makes the act morally significant is precisely that which "embodies the agent's intention"a phrase first coined by Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe in her now-classic book Intention. That is the sense in which JP2 speaks of "objects of the human act" as subject to moral evaluation. Such an object is not so much what occurs in virtue of a freely chosen act; if it were, then there could be no morally significant distinction between the foreseen and the intended consequences of acts. That in turn would rule out any principle of double effect (PDE); but PDE is regularly invoked and applied in orthodox moral theology, as it should be, even though it's not yet fully clear how to formulate PDE in such a way as to minimize its misapplication. No, the "object of the human act" is what embodies the intention of the agent, even if some of what the agent foresees as flowing from what he does is not what he intends. If and when such an object is intrinsically evil, that is because what is willed and intended is an act of a kind that disorders the will of the agent. Why is that so important?
Consider the Church's teaching that contraception is "intrinsically evil." What does that mean? Citing Humanae Vitae §14, CCC §2370 says: "every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible" is intrinsically evil. The Vademecum for Confessors even says that "[t]his teaching is to be held as definitive and irreformable," which leaves confessors with no excuse for excusing contraception. Now the phrase 'whether as an end or as a means' tips us off that what's subject to moral evaluation here is what one "proposes" and thus intends to do regarding something very specific. If one has sexual intercourse that one has intentionally acted so to make sterile, then whether or not the act of intercourse (a) is or would have been sterile in fact and regardless, or (b) is wrong for some other reason, the act embodying the intention to make it sterile it is itself intrinsically evil. In that sense, contraception is the "object" of that sort of "human act," and it is that object the willing of which is a disorder of the will, regardless of what otherwise ends up happening. On the other hand, periodic continence for the purpose of avoiding conception, although can sometimes be wrong for a number of reasons, is not said to be intrinsically wrong, because it is not the sort of act which, just in itself, embodies an intention to do something which it is a disorder of the will to do intentionally. Hence, under certain conditions discussed in magisterial documents, "natural family planning" (NFP) for purposes of avoiding conception can be morally acceptable. Since one is not doing anything to make procreation impossible when it might otherwise be possible, there is no "object of the human act" that is intrinsically evil as contraception is said to be.
Nonetheless, there are two equal and opposite errors about this teaching among Catholics. The more common one, which is common for all-too-obvious reasons, is an objection to the teaching itself: it is held that given the ultimate intention involved, there is no morally significant difference between contraception and NFP. That objection is registered by progs and trads for very different reasons; if it were sound, then the Church's developed teaching would be incoherent and thus not a fit object for assent.
But the objection simply misses what is meant by saying that contraception, or indeed any other sort of act, is "intrinsically evil." To call a given sort of act intrinsically evil is not to say that the further intention with which one does it, beyond the intention it actually embodies, is unacceptable. There can be all sorts of laudable further intentions with which one does something intrinsically evil. One can, for instance, intentionally kill innocent human beings with the purpose of preventing even more deaths; that, indeed, was the precise rationale for the atom-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But that didn't make the tactic morally acceptable according to Church teaching; quite the contrary. In Evangelium Vitae §57, the same pope who wrote VS condemned any and all "direct, voluntary killing of an innocent human being" as "gravely immoral" regardless of any further intention one might have for doing such a thing. Similarly, what's intrinsically evil about contraception is not the further intention to avoid conceptionwhich can, according to the 20th-century popes, be morally responsiblebut rather the intention actually embodied in the act of contraception itself, i.e., to "render procreation impossible." Now, just why that is supposed to be intrinsically evil, apart from any further intention-with-which it is done, is unclear to a great many Catholics; and that lacuna in understanding is what accounts for the inability of some to see the moral difference between contraception and NFP. I've addressed that issue before, citing mostly JP2's "theology of the body," and shall not dilate on it here; the immediate point is that the issue is separate from that of just what sort of intentional act is said to be intrinsically evil in the first place. Only when one is clear on just what is being so condemned can one then go on to learn why it is condemned, and also why a different pattern of action with the same further intention as contraception is not intrinsically evil, even though it can sometimes be evil all the same.
The opposite error is not an objection to the teaching itself, but rather an over-rigorous interpretation of one of its premises. On this showing, the relevant "object" of the human act can be characterized as intrinsically evil not only apart from the agent's further intention in doing what he does, but apart from his immediate intention as well. For instance, if a married couple one of whose members is HIV-positive use a condom purely for prophylactic purposes, their sexual act is of a sort that is known to anti-procreative in effect even if not by intent. That's because what condoms do, when they are non-defective and used as directed, is prevent semen from being deposited in the vagina. From that, it is thought to follow that the object of the couple's sexual act, for purposes of moral evaluation, is morally unacceptable for the same sort of reason that, say, anal intercourse is unacceptable. The pattern of action is thought to be such that the sexual act in question cannot be said to have procreative significance, because it cannot bear the intrinsic relationship to procreation that HV says the conjugal act must bear. Accordingly, condomistic sex even for purely prophylactic purposes cannot qualify as a conjugal act at all, and is intrinsically evil for the same reason that sodomy is: it's an inherently non-procreative sort of act. That is held to be so even supposing that the couple would be happy to conceive if they could block HIV transmission without blocking sperm too, and even supposing that the blocking of sperm is not a means to the blocking of HIV transmission. A good example of such reasoning is this paper from Luke Gormally, a man I know personally, and one with whom I've debated this very question before on this blog.
The difficulty with that view is rather similar to one that prog theologians have often raised against what they considered the standard neo-scholastic explanation for the wrongfulness of both contraception and sodomy. That standard explanation, according to some prog apologists and theologians, was that contraception and sodomy are immoral because "unnatural," meaning that they run counter to the "natural" purpose of sexual activity: procreation. Sex that is unnatural in that sort of way was held, or thought to have been held, to be an evil object of action, irrespective of any subjective disposition of the agent, and hence irrespective of intention. Unnatural acts were thus accounted intrinsically evil. Now if that really had been the explanation, I would agree with the prog critique. What's wrong with the explanation, such as it is, is that it doesn't tell us why it is unacceptable to interrupt or depart from the course of nature in this sort of case but perfectly acceptable to do so in many others, such medicine, animal husbandry, or even cosmetology. In order to tell us that, it would have to specify how interrupting or departing from the course of nature in the case of sex embodies an intention that makes the act an intrinsically evil sort of act, i.e. an act of a sort that disorders the will when intended.
Of course I'm not at all convinced that the ancient and medieval understanding about the wrongfulness of contraception and sodomy was as ill-informed as the prog critique often makes out. It was understood better among them than among us that lust, with all its attendant disorders, increases in direct proportion to the deliberate unmooring of sex from procreation. And that should tell us something. For my immediate purpose, it tells us something that both Paul VI and John Paul II were keen to stress. What makes contraception and sodomy wrong is that they sunder a connection which is essential to our inner spiritual health, to the proper "order" of the will, thus causing us to a greater or lesser extent to treat our sexual partners as objects with which to satisfy ourselves. I've had enough experience with both licit and illicit sex to verify that for myself. But if the VS account of the objects of the "human act," is correct, then there is an intrinsically evil act here only if and when one actually intends the sundering, such that the sexual act in question embodies one's intention to break the intrinsic relationship between sex and procreation. I am not in the least convinced that condom use by married couples for the purpose of preventing infection by a lethal virus, and only for that purpose, embodies such an intention. Such activity might be wrong for other reasons, and I believe it is wrong for at least one other reason. But it is not wrong just because it is foreseeably non-procreative in effect, just as a given war is not wrong because, like all wars, it foreseeably results in the death of innocents.
To say that an action of a certain sort, such as contraception, is "intrinsically evil" is to say that it embodies an intention which it is a disorder of the will to have. Just how to identify embodied intentions and disorders of the will is the subject-matter of moral psychology. We have more than enough psychologists and moralists, but we don't have enough moral psychologists. That's because we don't have enough saints, enough lovers of God and neighbor, in the here and now. John Paul the Great was one of them. Let us learn from him.
It`s interesting, indeed.
it seems to me that the concept of a “disorder of will” and the concept of “unnatural acts” look very similar. Both postulate a deviation from a “normality” which looks quite ordered randomly. If one says that an (sexual) act is “unnatural” he must be able to explain why driving a car should not be unnatural - after all there grow no cars in nature... and so the clean “unnaturalness” of an act can not be a premise of evilness.
So what could be such a premise? Causing damage, I suggest. If one voluntary causes damage and has not the intention to avoid a bigger damage while doing (for example: to hustle someone on the street so he gets injured seems to be an act of causing damage, but what if should save the “victim” from being knocked down by a truck?) I might call this “intrinsically evil”. But from this point of view even the abdication of contraception could be evil: imagine a really poor family with a lot of kids. Every added kid would make the situation worse. So, if the parents want to give their kids at least a half way lucky life, they renounce yet another baby. Trads would say “oh, no problem, you must simply renounce sex too”, but we all know this is not realistic, isn`t it? So in this situation contraception will be good and no contraception will be bad, for the latter causes damage...
One word to your Hiroshima-example: some people say that the bomb was good because without it there would have been many more victims. I dunno if this is right (and just as well how such results are generated), but: most of the Hirsohsima victims were civilians - in a conventional war could be less civilians and mostly soldiers, and thats a disparity I think soldiers must assume to be killed in a war rather than civilians.
thx for the food for thought!
my attention span is poor today, and this is lengthy.
What is this person saying of cases where a couple have tried to follow church teaching (ie...following nfp guidelines)- have found it ineffective and unreliable.
The couple cannot keep having a baby every year, and abstinence/celibacy is not an option.
Both of your responses reflect a humanistic and to some degree materialistic viewpoint on what the author sees as an issue of faith. It is materialistic in the sense that the good that is being considered is the material wellbeing and comfort of the couple and more broadly, the family, rather than its spiritual well-being and God’s will. First of all, abstinence/celibacy is always an option if we believe that we have free will and are not simply hapless victims of biology. Secondly, who is to say what value there is in a human life? Even (and often especially) a life in poverty and suffering can bear fruit that we cannot preconceive. Lastly, we usually only grow when faced with adversity, and as we know, a larger than “convenient” family certainly provides its fair share of adversity!
It’s not adversity, it’s opportunity!
(On a related point, if it doesn’t hurt, it isn’t penance :-).
I was just reading an article about Ecuador in the Human Life International newsletter, and it mentioned a seminarian there who has 21 siblings. (And they don’t practice polygamy in Ecuador!)
Objections to the points the author of this article makes tend to suggest that the teaching is wrong because it is difficult. I sympathize - there are points of morality where I’m a total failure! - but it’s not a rational objection; truth doesn’t become falsehood because the truth makes difficult demands of us.
FWIW, I think this article is a prime example of why Christianity, at least traditional Apostolic Christianity, is dying in the West.
I think you might be conflating two different definitions of "unnatural" here.
There is no moral judgment whatsoever against things that are man-made or man-designed or artificial or synthetic as opposed to naturally-occurring, organic, etc. Everything human beings do is unnatural to the extent that is rises above the instinctual behavior of the ape.
In moral reasoning, "unnatural" has a different meaning: it would mean going against that which perfects human nature. Of course,that would kick off a huge discussion about "OK, what does perfect human nature?" but in broad terms, human perfection holds to a certain order: spiritual, moral, intellectual, affective, physical. You're going for wholeness, but if that is not perfectly possible, then you go for the higher stuff at the expense of the lower.
As far as the Hiroshima example goes:
1. The Japanese had dispersed a significant proportion of their military production through the use of small, home-scale factories and workshops. Other, non-production activities in support of the military were also conducted in the homes of non-military Japanese citizens. The end result of this was the serious blurring of the distinction between military and civilian persons in the population of Hiroshima and other Japanese cities by the final months of the war. As a practical matter, it was not possible to distinguish a “civilian” from a “soldier” in Japan by 1945; the entire Japanese population was directly or indirectly engaged in supporting the war.
2. Hiroshima as a target is notable only for the novel nature of the weapon used to destroy it. The people killed during the spring 1945 non-nuclear firebombing campaign against Tokyo and other Japanese cities were no less dead than those killed by the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
3. It is probably always wrong to kill innocent people, even by accident, and even in time of war. However, the alternative surrender in the face of aggression is likely equally evil. I have therefore always held it as a matter of faith that the Just Judge will forgive those soldiers, sailors, and other fighting men who have (without ill intent) taken innocent lives in their effort to defens the innocent from an aggressor.
I agree. (You seem to have read "The Making of the Atomic Bomb.")
bump for later
I don't accept his premise of the rationale for bombing the Japanese cities. Sounds like he is regurgitating what he learned from a liberal professor, and has never developed the ability to research and reason for himself.
The rationale for placing cities on the list included selecting cities that had little prior bomb damage so that an assessment of the effects of the various types of bombs could be made.
As far as casualties from the blast and resulting fires went, the numbers were not appreciably different than from conventional fire bomb raids.
Nagasaki was a significant military target (much more so, than Dresden, for example). And Kokura was also a significant naval and armaments making center.
“It is materialistic in the sense that the good that is being considered is the material wellbeing and comfort of the couple and more broadly, the family, rather than its spiritual well-being and Gods will.”
That is one way to look at it I suppose.
But even scripture says husbands and wives are not to deny each other for long periods of time.
If the claim is that a celibate/mostly abstinent marriage is good for the spirituality of the couple -then I remain skeptical.
I remember reading a question posed to a priest by a homosexual man struggling with following church teaching but still wanting companionship.
He asked the priest if it would be sinful if he lived with another man “as a brother”.
The priest answered that it was not sinful to do this but also it was not wise to tempt each other like that.
I remember reading that answer and thinking -ok so God wants married couples to live together in celibacy? “tempting” each other? Or should my husband and I separate for 3 weeks out of every month?
“First of all, abstinence/celibacy is always an option if we believe that we have free will and are not simply hapless victims of biology.”
I simply do not believe abstinence/celibacy in a marriage is something that can realistically managed by most couples without severe trouble resulting from it.
That is not to say there are not some strong saintly souls who may be able to handle it...but most of us don’t fit into that category.
” Secondly, who is to say what value there is in a human life?”
I never suggested I could or could’t say what value there is in a human life.
“Lastly, we usually only grow when faced with adversity, and as we know, a larger than convenient family certainly provides its fair share of adversity!”
yes...and too many pregnancies can also result in dangers to physical health - and cause a person to become so overwhelmed they find they aren’t being as good a parent as their children deserve.
Expand on that thought, please?