Intrinsic Confusion

February 23, 2006 § 8 Comments

There is a lot of confusion out there about what is meant by an “intrinsic evil”. More specifically, the claim is in the air that an act may ordinarily be torture but not actually be torture if the intended end of the act is to save innocent lives.

We know that this cannot be the case. In Veritatis Splendour, Pope John Paul II teaches authoritatively that torture is in the class of acts that the Church calls intrinsically evil acts. Now, as a general thing, the moral status of an act depends on its object, intent, and circumstances. If the object of the act is not evil in itself, then the act may be licit depending upon an evaluation of the intent and circumstances which, together with the object, make the act a human act subject to moral evaluation. Not so with intrinsically evil acts. An intrinsically evil act is evil because of the nature of its object. Intent and circumstances are completely irrelevant to the conclusion that the act is morally evil.

So suppose someone says “I know the Church says that act X is an intrinsically evil act, but I don’t have a good definition of act X. Therefore it is possible that act X might be morally licit under circumstance A, but not morally licit under circumstance B.” Does this make any sense when we are talking about acts which the Church has authoritatively taught to be intrinsically evil?

The short answer is that no, it does not make any sense. If we know that act X is intrinsically evil, then we know it is evil because of the nature of its object, and we know that no circumstance or intent can make it morally licit. We know that act X cannot be made licit by a change of circumstances or intent. We know this even if we don’t have a precise definition of act X: in fact, we know it even if we have no idea what act X is at all.

The notion of an intrinsically evil act that is defined as the kind of act it is by its intent or circumstances is self-contradictory. So if your operative definition of torture includes qualifiers based on intent or circumstances, qualifiers which make the act torture or not-torture based on intent or circumstances, you know for a fact that your operative definition of torture is wrong. So why not try mine on for size?


§ 8 Responses to Intrinsic Confusion

  • decker2003 says:

    What is Zippy’s definition of the “object” of the act? I’ve been trying to get a handle on this concept for some time and have found precious few attempts to define the object. They usually amount to “what one wills to do.” But how do I distinguish between what I have chosen to do, and what I simply accept will occur, without actually choosing it? If I choose to execute a man for a crime, do I also choose to cause his fear of dying, or do I simply accept that this will occur without actually choosing it? Or, to give a more difficult example, if I choose to make funding available for an activity, am I also choosing that the activity will occur, or is that merely a foreseen but unintended consequence of funding it?Your thoughts?

  • zippy says:

    I recommend reading <>Proportionalism and the Natural Law Tradition<> by Kaczor. Kevin Miller turned me on to it, and it makes things a great deal clearer, at least for someone who thinks like I do, which is to say in a prejudicially modern way as opposed to a medieval way.One needn’t necessarily have a crystal clear understanding of the moral object of the act in order to follow my argument in the post. If the object is what is directly chosen, the intent is why it is chosen, and the circumstances are, well, the circumstances, then the object necessarily precedes intent. An intrinsically evil act is immoral because of its object. So taking act X with object O and intent A, and altering nothing in the act except to change to intent B, cannot possibly render an intrinsically evil act licit.On your specific questions:<>But how do I distinguish between what I have chosen to do, and what I simply accept will occur, without actually choosing it?<>One intuitive heuristic is to say that if you have chosen X, rather than having simply allowed X, then if X by happenstance does not occur you will consider your act to have been thwarted. So if we (as the rightful authority representing the community) have chosen to execute a criminal, and we would consider our act to have been (partially) thwarted even though he dies if he does not suffer intensely in death, then we have chosen to torture him to death.<>Or, to give a more difficult example, if I choose to make funding available for an activity, am I also choosing that the activity will occur, or is that merely a foreseen but unintended consequence of funding it?<>In double-effect reasoning (unlike in the case of intrinsic evils e.g. torture), the act can be licit even though it has an unintended bad effect. You can determine whether the bad effect is <>intended<> based on whether you would consider the act more or less successful if the bad effect did or did not occur. If you would consider the act less successful without the bad effect, it is intended. If you would consider the act more successful without the bad effect (even though it may be impossible in practice for the bad effect not to occur) then the bad effect is unintended.The bad effect is also intended if it is a means to your end: that is, if the bad effect is causally necessary in order to achieve the outcome that you intend.So if you fund the activity with the expectation that it will occur, and the activity failing to occur would thwart your plans, then you intend (and indeed formally, not just materially, support) the activity.These heuristics don’t necessarily resolve all possible questions that can be raised about moral acts, of course, but they may be helpful.

  • zippy says:

    Another potential way of distinguishing object from intent heuristically is as follows: When I choose to perform an act, I am trying to accomplish something by that act. The thing I am trying to accomplish is my <>intent<>, and there may be any number of different ways to fulfill my intent. When I choose to accomplish it by <>doing this thing<>, the means that I choose designated by <>this thing<> is the object of the act.And when we are dealing with intrinsically evil acts, we know that they are evil because of their <>object<> and cannot be made licit under any variation in circumstances or intent.

  • decker2003 says:

    Thanks for the thoughts, Zippy. Kaczor himself gave me a different article he had written about Aquinas’ theory of action that is the most helpful thing I have seen for distinguishing intention from foresight. I can get you the title and source if you’re interested.Grisez has a piece in America from several years ago about public funding of abortion in which he says that funding abortion has a “built-in” intention. He imagines a lawmaker who votes for funding but genuinely doesn’t want anyone to use the funding to get an abortion. His motives are purely political — to appease some constituency. Grisez says that, even if the politician would consider his act more successful if no one used the funding to have an abortion, the politician still intends the abortions that do occur. They are not foreseen but unintended. Rather, the intent to encourage abortions is “built-in.” What do you make of that?

  • zippy says:

    <>Kaczor himself gave me a different article he had written about Aquinas’ theory of action…<>Ah, so you are just playing with me >:-)<>Rather, the intent to encourage abortions is “built-in.” What do you make of that?<>Definitely this is a matter of intention not object (he says as he observes that water is wet). I think the defense that the abortions are not his <>intent<> makes sense, because the bad effect is not (we have assumed is not**) part of his plans even though it is foreseen. So now it becomes a matter of cooperation with evil rather than choosing evil, and the question is whether it is formal versus material and proximate versus remote, and if remote material cooperation then is the reason proportionate. I think the case for remote cooperation is marginally better than the case for material cooperation: explicitly voting for a (non pork-barrel) bill that funds abortions looks a lot like formal cooperation to me. Finally, even if under some horribly contrived argument we concluded that it was remote material cooperation, the proportionality test would be a steep one to overcome.** The problem here is that the <>cause<> of his constituent support (his desired outcome) may not be just his vote for the bill but the actual funding of actual abortions which actually occur. If the actual abortions occurring, funded by the bill, are a <>cause<> of his constituent support then double-effect fails right there. If his constituent support would be reasonably expected to falter if they understood it to be a bait-and-switch wherein no abortions occur, it could be argued that the actual abortions are a <>cause<> of the good end he desires, constituent support. So perhaps the “built in intent” argument makes sense after all.

  • decker2003 says:

    If you don’t mind, read Grisez’s article and tell me what you think. It seems to me he is taking the position that funding abortion is evil by virtue of its object, not simply as an instance of impermissible cooperation in evil., I agree with your observation that double effect reasoning fails if the consitituents are pleased because abortions are funded. But saying that the act is evil because it doesn’t pass the double effect test is different from saying that it is evil because of its object and it is the latter that I am struggling with.

  • Zippy says:

    OK, I read the article. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.I don’t think he is saying that the abortions are the moral object of the act of voting for the appropriation. I think he is saying that the abortions are an <>intended<> effect of the act of voting, not an <>unintended<> effect. If that is just another way of saying that the abortions are part of his plans, that if the abortions don’t happen he won’t get his constituent support (and likely will get lawsuits and voter revolt), then that is really the same thing as saying that under double-effect analysis the bad effect is intended (despite protests to the contrary).I’ve tried to make the point in < HREF="" REL="nofollow">other posts<> that the thing we intend is the thing we actually choose, not the thing we wish we could choose but for circumstantial (or whatever) reasons cannot.Double-effect raises the issue of intermediate intentions, and addresses them with the requirement that the bad effect cannot be the cause of the good effect. The abortions are not the object of the act: the politician does not actually choose for a particular abortion to occur. But they are an intermediate <>intention<> of the act because they are a <>cause<> of the final intended end. In Kaczor-style language if the abortions do not occur, as he has chosen for them to occur, then his plans will not have been carried out. This is in contrast to a truly unintended effect like the collateral damage from a bomb, wherein we really do not want the collateral damage to occur, wherin our plans are not advanced by the collateral damage, and indeed our plans are better served if the collateral damage in fact (even if by miracle) does not occur.

  • Zippy says:

    Oh and BTW, by all means please pass on the info on the other Kaczor article.

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