Planning for Evil

February 26, 2006 § 39 Comments


The Human Act

Many people find the traditional Catholic moral formulation of object, intent, and circumstances, taken together with the principle of double-effect, to be confusing. We can’t do evil in order that good may come of it, but we can do things that have evil effects if they pass the double-effect test. (When the Church tells us that an act is intrinsically evil, she is saying that the act is evil because of the nature of its object: that nothing in the circumstances or intentions surrounding the act can make the act licit, no matter how good the outcome).

An act is evil if any of the evil which occurs as a result of it is part of our plans: if any of the putatively good things we are trying to accomplish are caused by some evil effect of our act in the chain of cause and effect. Only if there is nothing evil in that chain of cause and effect are we in a position to ask whether or not we have a proportionate reason for choosing to act (that is, for actually performing the act’s object despite knowing that the bad effect will occur). And specifically, we cannot ever justify anything in the chain of cause-and-effect between our act itself (the object) and our desired good effect (the intent) by appealing to a proportionate reason. Everything in green above is intended, whether we want to admit that it is intended or not.

A scenario raised in a comment was as follows: a politician represents a district that is predominantly pro-abortion. He votes in favor of a law that funds abortions in order to garner support from this constituency. Clearly, his act of voting is an evil act: not necessarily because its object (the actual vote) is evil in itself, although I suppose it may be, but because the funding of actual abortions and the abortions themselves are part of his plans: the outcome he wants is constituent support, and the abortions which are part of his plans are a cause of that constituent support. He may claim that he doesn’t intend for the abortions to occur, but that is a specious claim: if something occuring as a result of your act is a part of your plans, and your plans would be thwarted if it did not occur, then you intend it to occur. And you can’t justify evil by appealing to a proportionate reason when you intend the evil to occur.

Dropping a bomb on a military target when it results in (or has a high probability of) collateral damage is not necessarily evil (though it may still be evil depending on circumstances, other intentions, etc). Our plan is to destroy the military target, and the collateral damage is not a part of those plans: in fact we would very much prefer that the collateral damage not occur at all. If the collateral damage does not occur, that does not mean that our plans have been thwarted: quite the contrary.

I swiped what I understand of this from various discussions at Disputations and from Proportionalism and the Natural Law Tradition by Christopher Kaczor (HT to Kevin Miller for telling me about the book some time ago.) Any errors, misunderstandings, or nonsequiters are my own.

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§ 39 Responses to Planning for Evil

  • William Luse says:

    With the caveat that I could be misreading you, this might also be confusing: <>if something occurring as a result of your act is a part of your plans, and your plans would be thwarted if it did not occur, then you intend it to occur.<> But even if no abortions occurred subsequent to his vote, his plans (to gain constituent support) might not be thwarted and yet his vote is still evil, for it lends moral approval to the law that tolerates the abortions. In other words, an act (in this case his vote) can be evil even if the result he claims not to intend is only hypothetical. Likewise in the case of civilian collateral damage when targeting military installations: unscrupulosity in assessing the possible extent of that damage can turn it into murder. <>..the collateral damage is not a part of those plans: in fact we would very much prefer that the collateral damage not occur at all.<> This is no different than the politician saying that the abortions weren’t part of his intention; in fact, he’d very much prefer that they didn’t occur at all. <>If the collateral damage does not occur, that does not mean that our plans have been thwarted.<> This strikes me as an inaccurate parallel, for if (as I have maintained) the abortions do not occur, that does not mean the politician’s plans have been thwarted. He has still given his consent to an evil result <>should it occur<>. And I understand the distinction you draw between abortion’s intrinsic evil and a bombing’s possible lack of it. There is a case to be made for line-drawing in the latter scenario to which the former is not amenable. I’m just not sure you’ve made that case.

  • zippy says:

    <>…this might also be confusing:<>No doubt that can be said of just about anything I say :^).<>But even if no abortions occurred subsequent to his vote, his plans (to gain constituent support) might not be thwarted …<>If his plans are thwarted and he gets lucky anyway that isn’t the same thing as his plans not being thwarted though. Whether or not it actually occurs that way, he <>intends<> the funding of and subsequent carrying out of actual abortions to be a cause of his constituent support. If post-funding he found a way to redirect the funds to feeding the hungry and he did so, all other things remaining constant, there would be constituent revolt and possibly lawsuits. If post bomb launch he found a way to shield the school from damage and did so, it would not thwart the plan to destroy the missile site and he would be rightly congratulated.Now it might be part of his <>plan<> to do his best to stop the actual abortions from taking place, but that would just make him a liar, whereas the military commander planning to do his best to avoid hitting the school does not turn him into a liar.<>This strikes me as an inaccurate parallel, for if (as I have maintained) the abortions do not occur, that does not mean the politician’s plans have been thwarted.<>I think it <>does<> mean that. I think it is false to say that the abortions are not an intended <>cause<> of the politician’s intended effect (constituent support). On the other hand, the destruction of the school is not an intended <>cause<> of the military commander’s intended effect (the destruction of the missile site).<>He has still given his consent to an evil result should it occur.<>I think that is always the case in double-effect though. In order for double-effect to make sense there has to be a distinction between a foreseen but not intended effect and an intended effect. The distinction gives people (including me sometimes) trouble in two ways: on the one hand, intended effects (and objects, for that matter) are disavowed as intended though wishful thinking. On the other hand, genuinely unintended but foreseen effects are imputed to the actor’s intentions. Figuring out what is intended and unintended is a matter for the internal forum, so perhaps poetry would be a better way to make the distinction than the way I am doing it here. But I write particularly odious poetry, so this is all I have.

  • c matt says:

    To put the voting for abortion funding up against a closer parallel, how would one treat the ectopic (sp?) pregnancy situation?IIRC, the object is to remove a portion of the fallopian tube in which the zygote is located, with the death of the zygote being a certain and forseeable, but not desired outcome. However, removal of the portion of the tube with the zygote is still part of the “plan”, and if the portion with the zygote is not removed, the plan is thwarted (eg, removed wrong portion by mistake).

  • zippy says:

    C Matt: yes, those are the hard cases where the rubber meets the road. (Though I don’t think they are comparable at all to the politician’s putative conundrum. At best the politician is intentionally living a lie.). Another more symmetrical one is where one siamese twin can be saved by killing the other. Moral theologians have argued that when the choice is between both dying accidentally or killing one to save the other that it is clearly morally licit to do so, usually by arguing that we aren’t really killing one to save the other. I remain unconvinced that those hard cases pass double-effect, though it is just as likely that I don’t understand the valid argument as that one doesn’t exist.

  • William Luse says:

    I think I see the problem: you thought I was separating the possible abortions from the politician’s plans, but I wasn’t. I said that even if the abortions do not occur, his vote is still evil, for he has given his consent to even hypothetical abortions as a means to an end. My only concern was that you were letting the bomb-dropper off too easily. If he knows that in hitting the missile battery he will kill large numbers of civilians, they become part of his plan in that he intends that effect. I think C matt’s ectopic example is closer to the bomb scenario than the other, and worth discussing, since both the doctor and the military commander would be acting in self-defense on behalf of another, but I have to go to work right now and will leave it to you.

  • zippy says:

    <>My only concern was that you were letting the bomb-dropper off too easily.<>Ah. I did misunderstand you. My only intention is to say that the bomb dropper’s act <>might be licit in principle<> and that the politician’s act <>cannot be licit<>, not that the bomb-dropper’s definitely is no matter what other factors obtain. And your point about the politician’s act being evil even if his plans fail is certainly worth making.

  • William Luse says:

    Cool. I want to return to this, but have other things to do right now. Maybe tomorrow.

  • Rob says:

    Zippy–The bomb dropper and the politician are equivalent. The only real difference between them is your slight preference for bombing over abortion as a means of accomplishing ends. Your illustrations are evidence only of your subjective/emotional preferences, which mask the objective realities implicit in your illustrations. If the bomber can say that his only objective is to destroy the target *knowing* that there will almost certainly be collateral damage, then this is no different from casting a vote *in order to win constituent support* knowing that abortions almost certainly will result. Either man might get lucky. I see your distinction, but I don’t recognize the difference. This is all just word games. It is a doctrine obviously concocted at some point in the past, so that some powerful person could do some thing with evil results, and when judged could plead guilty “with an explanation, Your Honor.” The devil is in the details.

  • Rob says:

    A better parallel might be that infernal mechanism by which Phillip Morris is allowed to keep marketing cigarettes on the provision that it run public service spots against its own product. Why can’t the politician vote to fund abortion services, while speaking out against abortion to groups opposing it, but never actually publicly supporting abortion? If pro-abortion types check his voting record, they will like what they see, and his goal will have been achieved without his actual promotion of abortion. Phillip Morris cannot promote the sale of cigarettes, but it can fund their production, and reap profits from their sale.

  • Rob says:

    Or, to give a real life example, there was a group of Vietnam-era radicals at, as I recall, the University of Wisconsin, who wanted to blow up a certain building on campus where government sponsored research to which they objected was being conducted. Although they took care to cause the explosion at night, when the building was closed, because they did not want to harm people, but only destroy the facility, they inadvertantly killed a graduate student who was pulling an all-nighter in the building. Were they guilty of murder, as well as of malicious destruction of property?Your war-time bomber is the same, except that the result of the deaths of innocents is more likely in the case of the military bomber, to the point of approaching certainty.

  • zippy says:

    <>The bomb dropper and the politician are equivalent.<>No, they are not.<>I see your distinction, but I don’t recognize the difference. This is all just word games.<>So do you see the distinction or is it all just word games?

  • Rob says:

    Zippy–The distinction is a trick of words, a debating gimmick, without a shred a relevance to the human blood pooled in the debris-strewn street.

  • Rob says:

    What I am saying, bottom line, is that I would not want to have to bring your “distinction” before the Throne of Judgement.

  • zippy says:

    <>What I am saying, bottom line, is that I would not want to have to bring your “distinction” before the Throne of Judgement.<>The you probably shouldn’t try to bring it there. One can certainly adopt the position that it is never licit to do anything that we expect to have evil effects of any kind. That position leads to complete moral paralysis, but one can adopt it.

  • zippy says:

    And by “moral paralysis” I mean “unable to avoid choosing evil”, not simply unable to act, since there are sins of omission too.Now if you want to argue against that the bomb-dropping is evil no matter what then you do have other options. You might reject the commutative-distributive justice distinction, for example, and claim that a country cannot kill enemy soldiers even in self-defense (you might correspondingly argue that it is wrong for an individual to injure an attacker in self-defense). I don’t think those arguments work very well, but they might get you to a moral paralysis lite wherein it is possible at least in principle to refrain from doing evil. I haven’t been able to make that argument work, but maybe you can.Personally I take the principle of double-effect as a fairly obvious (at least in retrospect) deduction from God’s Providence: a loving Creator does not ever put us in a position in which we literally cannot avoid choosing evil, which is another way of saying that a loving Creator does not ever put us in a position in which we literally cannot love Him.

  • Rob says:

    Zippy–It is certainly true that we never *have to* choose evil.

  • c matt says:

    <>Why can’t the politician vote to fund abortion services, while speaking out against abortion to groups opposing it, but never actually publicly supporting abortion?<>But isn’t a public official voting to fund abortion actually publicly supporting abortion? Not only is he doing evil by funding it, he’s compounding that evil by lying about his lack of supporting it.

  • Rob says:

    c matt–Sure he is. That’s why he’s no different than the bomber who doesn’t “intend” to kill civilians. My point is that if it’s going to result in evil, don’t do it. But if you are going to allow for “collateral” damage, don’t cherry pick your allowable instances of it.

  • zippy says:

    <>But if you are going to allow for “collateral” damage, don’t cherry pick your allowable instances of it.<>The collateral damage is not (necessarily: we are assuming the right intentions on the part of the bomber) chosen in the case of the bomb. Evacuating the school and preventing the collateral damage in terms of loss of life does not interfere with the bomber’s plans; stopping the funding of actual abortions <>does<> interfere with the politicians plans.

  • Rob says:

    Zippy–But they don’t evacuate the school, because that would tip off the terrorists to move out of range.My point, these long months, is that the methods of contemporary warfare, and the very design of contemporary weapons, makes their use, as designed, immoral from the git-go. We all know that more civilians than soldiers get killed in any war since the development of heavy artillary, airpower, and rocketry. We when you decide to make war, you decide to kill innocents. And, truth be known, the real method of warfare is to kill civilians until the military gives up (as in Hiroshima, as in Nagasaki, as in Dresden and Tokyo, as in Baghdad, as in Fallujah).We know that the other side is doing it, but we won’t acknowledge that we are doing it too. It is easy for us not to acknowledge it, because, unlike the insurgents, we do have other means available to us.

  • zippy says:

    <>But they don’t evacuate the school, because that would tip off the terrorists to move out of range.<>One may well be able to make the case that the bomber has a moral duty to evacuate the school or refrain from bombing, but this objection doesn’t address the fundamental difference between the two scenarios. If the school happens to get evacuated, that doesn’t interfere with the bomber’s plans. If the abortions aren’t funded, that <>does<> interfere with the politician’s plans. The bomber is not actually trying to kill the schoolchildren (though he may well be doing evil in not trying hard enough to miss them); the politician <>is<> actually trying to fund the abortions, even though he may genuinely <>wish<> that he did not have to in order to get constituent support.

  • zippy says:

    Note that my hard-case scenario is not “bombing a school with both children and terrorists in it”, but “bombing a military target adjacent to a school”. I agree that the former is indefensible.

  • Rob says:

    Zippy–The bombs they use take out whole neighborhoods. And, they either aren’t as accurate as they are supposed to be, or, they aren’t aimed as carefully as they could be.How many times have you heard “Oops. We hit a hospital.” “Oops. We hit your embassy.” “Oops. We hit your wedding party.” “Oops. We hit your commercial passenger bus.” ??

  • c matt says:

    I would think that the “oops, we hit [insert nonmilitary target here],” if indeed it is an honest “oops”, is a mistake, not an evil act, or an act with forseeable but unintended consequences. IIRC, the wedding party oops was not that they aimed at a legitimate target and hit it, also causing the wedding party to suffer, but by mistake they identified the wedding party as a legitimate target.

  • Rob says:

    c matt–There are errors for which men will excuse us, but which, once again, I would not want to bring before the Throne of Judgement.

  • Erin says:

    I stumbled across your blog while looking for a definition of ‘intrinsically evil’ for a Moral Theology essay I’m working on, and I wanted to comment on this. I personally see a lot of danger in being okay with politicians legislating according to their personal morals. The job of a politician is to be the voice of his constituency; that’s the point of HAVING constituents. If he goes against them to avoid ruffling his own moral feathers, he’s a bad politician. Going aginst his personal morals for the sake of the people who put him in power doesn’t make him a bad person, it makes him good at his job.I got into a debate about this with my lecturer yesterday, and he seemed very firm on the point that one must legislate according to their own morals. The problem I had with that argument was that he was assuming that the politician’s moral compass was GOOD. Some people believe strange things, and we can’t always separate. It’s not fair to say that a polotician can legislate according to his own morality only if those morals are good, because the very concept of ‘good’ is highly debatable. You may think abortion bans are good, I think they’re bad. We can’t condone someone’s acting according to his own morals only when they match our own; therefore, I think it’s dangerous to condone any politician (or person in any kind of power) acting according to his moral ideals when it affects a larger group of people.Sorry if that rambled or didn’t make sense, I’m kind of taking yesterday’s argument out on you ‘cuz the lecturer cut me off 🙂

  • zippy says:

    Erin: it seems to me that you have assumed ahead of time that there is no such thing as objective morality: that there is only the subjective morality of the politician on the one hand set in opposition to the subjective morality of his constituents on the other. That is, you have assumed (at least functionally) that when people “do” morality, unlike for example when they “do” physics, that the content of what they are “doing” is purely subjective. But once you have assumed that there is no point in talking about morality at all. It would be ridiculous to tell a physicist to ignore reality and respond only to what he is told by his various constituents, and it is just as ridiculous to insist upon that kind of authoritarian subjectivism for a politician.

  • Erin says:

    True, but I always saw morality as a subjective (personal) thing. I won’t try and tell you what your morals should be, because one’s moral code is, in my way of thinking, a key part of who they are. There is no One Moral Code, else there would be no point in things like laws or wars: we’d all be on the same page and our actions would all reflect that universal Code. Clearly, this is not the case, so I feel my assumption is a valid one – that doesn’t mean necessarily that morality doesn’t exist, simply that there are varying standards. The comparsion to a physicist isn’t necessarily fair, since science is far more concrete and universal than personality or morals.

  • zippy says:

    <>There is no One Moral Code, else there would be no point in things like laws or wars: we’d all be on the same page and our actions would all reflect that universal Code.<>From my perspective that is rather like claiming that because different people have different understandings of physics there is no one physics, else there would be no point in things like experiments or scientific disputes. If there were a one true physics then nobody would be ignorant about it. Everything that is true about physics would be manifest to everyone.I reject postmodernism – whether physical, moral, or social – on the basis of its prima facie ridiculousness.<>…science is far more concrete and universal than personality or morals.<>Simply asserting that this is the case does not make it the case though. If you intend to argue that there is no such thing as objective morality you have more work to do beyond just pointing out that people disagree about it.

  • erin says:

    Do you believe that you and I have the same moral code? I don’t. I was raised Catholic but since have decided to continue my quest for religious contentment on my own, without the dogma of the Church. My moral code dictates that abortion is the choice of the woman, that embryonic stem cell research is a valid form of research and should be continued despite papal and scriptural evidence against the morality of it. I’m taking a course right now about the Catholic Bioethic. I feel that the very title of that course implies that there are different bioethics, and therefore, different ethical codes. From there, the jump to the existance of differing moral codes is an easy one to make. I just don’t see how you can deny that people have different morals. You may see another’s moral code as wrong, but that’s subjective too.

  • zippy says:

    There are different physical theories too. It is a conflation of ontology with epistemology to infer that therefore moral and physical reality are not objective.

  • erin says:

    I don’t think that answered my question, although to be honest, I didn’t quite understand what you just said. My apologies, but it sounds like you’re saying that there IS one Morality, like there is one physics, and that everyone else is just wrong, or immoral. Am I correct in this assumuption, or have I missed a part of your arguement?

  • zippy says:

    There is a difference between saying that there are different theories of physical reality and that there are different physical realities. You are correct that there are different theories of moral reality; but it does not follow that because there are different theories there are different realities. There is only one physical reality, and there is only one moral reality, despite the fact that there are many different theories of both.

  • erin says:

    Right. So it follows then that you assume that the moral code you follow is the true moral reality, yes?Explain to me how that’s not subjective? I’m not saying that you’re wrong, simply that you’re different than I in terms of how you live your life. You’re saying I’m wrong because I differ. I feel that my way is more objective, because it doesn’t make a generalization based on my own beliefs.

  • zippy says:

    <>I feel that my way is more objective, because it doesn’t make a generalization based on my own beliefs.<>And I know that when I drop a rock it will fall, and that when someone commits adultery or murder he has done wrong, and that furthermore those are objective facts no matter what you or I or anyone else thinks or wants to think about them.And to answer your other question no, I don’t assume that I am always right about moral or physical reality. Quite the contrary. Reality is what it is, independent of what you or I think of it.

  • erin says:

    I still can’t agree with the comparison, because I can’t see morality – which, again, I see as a facet of personality, upbringing, etc – as being as rigid as the laws of physics. But we disagree here, and neither of us seems to be budging, which is fine. I enjoyed discussing this with you – I rarely find people willing to hash out points with me. If it’s alright with you, I’d like to repost our dialogue on my own blog for the benefit of my friends – I think a lot of them would appreciate it. (I’ll link, of course.)

  • zippy says:

    By all means post it, and thanks for the discussion. Be forewarned that I have given up posting new blog entries for lent, and commenting unless I am addressed directly (I haven’t constrained myself to be rude, which would be rather counter to the spirit of lent), and I may not be in a position to respond in any sort of comprehensive way.I think the point that moral reality and physical reality are <>different<> is a valid one. After all, we use different words for them so clearly there is a distinction! But the idea that moral reality is not objective cannot stand: if morality is a purely personal and subjective matter then even the worst moral monsters in the world (you can choose the ones you find most abhorrent) have <>objectively<> done no wrong. That is obviously absurd: therefore moral reality is objective. That doesn’t resolve all the the questions surrounding which moral theories are right, which are wrong, which better approximate the truth, what the relation is between reality and knowledge, how abstractions relate to particulars, etc. There is plenty left for reasonable people to argue about, to have self-doubt about, to fight for, etc. But the proposition that moral reality is not objective won’t fly.

  • erin says:

    ah-ha! I understand now – and I agree with you, to a degree. I think the distinction I’m trying (badly) to make is the ultimate authority on right and wrong. Someone with abhorrent morals has, by definition, abhorrent morals relative to you and I. Just because what this person does is okay by them doesn’t make it right in your eyes or mine, according to our individual moral codes. Lemme try an example to make it less vague.Bob likes to eat babies. According to Bob’s moral code, eating babies is fine. My moral code is that eating babies is terrible and shouldn’t be done. In Bob’s eyes, he’s right; in mine, he’s wrong. None of this is important until it comes to the level where Bob must be judged with consequence: common morality dictates that eating babies is wrong, therefore he will be punished. Individual morality – and how we interact with others based on that morality – is personal and unique; all that matters is the morality of the body to which Bob is answerable, be that his peers, the law, or his God. Now, going back to the politician issue, which started me off in the first place, what if Bob is a lawmaker? As I understand your position, making a law for eating babies is not moral because it is so cleary abhorrent, but to Bob, he’s morally right. As you say, this is ridiculous, but I don’t know that it makes a case for the objectivity or morality. A hundred and fifty years ago, slavery was morally acceptable to a large chunk of American population. In the book of Genesis, it was nor just acceptable, but morally expected of a man to make babies with his brother’s widow. Times change, and I think the fact that slavery is no longer considered acceptable makes a fair case for the fluidity of cultural morality, at least. Okay, I think I’ve got it now. Here’s my position, which much talking out has led me to: personal morality is just that: personal. How I live my life is up to me and my standards. Public/cultural morality is a higher standard, and one that we must be answerable to for society to work. So I agree with you on the level of public morality: there must be an objective standard. However, just because Bob chooses not to live by it doesn’t mean what he believes aren’t his ‘morals’ – they’re simply very counter to the common idea of what is moral.

  • zippy says:

    <>A hundred and fifty years ago, slavery was morally acceptable to a large chunk of American population.<>Yes, but again it is important to distinguish between what people believe and what is true in reality. To continue on my one-note tirade, many people used to think that the earth was flat and that it was morally acceptable to treat people like property. It doesn’t follow that the earth is flat or that it is morally acceptable to treat people like property. (If anything there has been more advance in our general understanding of the former than of the latter).<>So I agree with you on the level of public morality: there must be an objective standard.<>Well, I wouldn’t say that there <>must<> be one as much as that there objectively <>is<> one, whether our society embodies it and to what degree being beside the point of the objective standard’s existence as such. There are better societies and worse ones, and no perfect ones of which I am aware (this is one reason I brought up the relation between abstractions and particulars as one of the additional things about which people disagree).<>However, just because Bob chooses not to live by it doesn’t mean what he believes aren’t his ‘morals’ – they’re simply very counter to the common idea of what is moral.<>Bob no doubt lives according to his own personal moral and physical theories, as do we all; and the relation between our theories and reality is … well, is nontrivial and quite mysterious to any appropriately humble epistemologist.

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