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?