The Lesser of One Evil
December 7, 2006 § 23 Comments
Part of what my previous post was getting to is that there is a difference between choosing for there to be less of a particular evil and choosing one evil (considered to be the smaller one) over a distinct evil considered to be larger. It is never licit to choose evil, period**. It can however be licit to choose for there to be less of a particular evil; and indeed we should always be choosing to decrease the gravity of those particular evils we cannot eliminate entirely.
In a nutshell, it is licit to choose for there to be less of a particular evil, but it is not licit to choose the “lesser” of two or more evils.
** It can of course be licit to engage in remote material cooperation with evil. But it is never licit to choose evil.
The question this seems to beg is whether, for example, abortion and torture are distinct evils, or subgroups under the general evil of “affronts to human dignity.”>>If the latter, then when confronted with a choice between candidates who favor one but not the other (which we should have been working to prevent long before we got to this point), our task is to determine which is greater level of affront to human dignity.>>Also of note is that same-sex marriage, which is part of CA’s non-negotiable club, would not fit into this classification so easily.
It’s not licit to be in *knowing* remote material cooperation with evil, I assume?>If not, where does one’s responsibility to know what one is contributing to begin and end? >If I am in remote material cooperation with an evil to which it is not possible for me to uncover all of the links connecting me, I obviously can’t be held culpable.>But if I just don’t bother looking into things deeply enough to discover what I’m contributing to, or if I willfully keep myself ignorant, is not my ignorance itself an evil choice, if not a choosing of evil? And is there a difference there?
<>If the latter, then when confronted with a choice between candidates who favor one but not the other (which we should have been working to prevent long before we got to this point), our task is to determine which is greater level of affront to human dignity.<>>>That’s what I’m getting at. I maintain that Evangelium Vitae draws a distinction with respect to <>laws permitting<> these evils, and it does so with respect to how fundamental the respective rights are to the state’s responsibility to the common good as a whole.>><>Also of note is that same-sex marriage, which is part of CA’s non-negotiable club, would not fit into this classification so easily.<>>>Not obviously, that’s true. But the CDF statement on same-sex marriage explicitly places same-sex marriage in the same class as abortion and euthanasia based on it being an attack on the very idea of marriage, something the state has a fundamental obligation to defend.>><>It’s not licit to be in *knowing* remote material cooperation with evil, I assume?<>>>No, you can remotely materially cooperate with evil for proportionate reasons (i.e., your action accomplishes a more significant good than would be gained by avoiding cooperation with the evil), assuming that you intend something good by your action and the evil is only an unintended consequence. You’re only obliged to know the effects of your action within reason. It isn’t negligent to fail to be omniscient; ordinary means of knowing the consequences of your actions suffice.
<>>Not obviously, that’s true. But the CDF statement on same-sex marriage explicitly places same-sex marriage in the same class as abortion and euthanasia based on it being an attack on the very idea of marriage, something the state has a fundamental obligation to defend.><>>>My point was that torture, abortion, euthanasia, and eryonic research can be grouped as attacks on human dignity.>>Same sex marriage does not fit into that group. That is not to say it is not evil, or even a lesser evil, but a distinctly different evil.
Well, strictly speaking you cannot morally “choose less of one evil.” You choose to lessen the evil. The object of your act, your proximate end, is the <>lessening<> of an evil, not the <>evil<> in some relatively small quantity.>>Which is what you meant.
Thank you Tom, I tweaked the post. (The problem with speaking strictly is that it doesn’t always roll easily off the tongue, or keyboard as the case may be).
<>That is not to say it is not evil, or even a lesser evil, but a distinctly different evil.<>>>Yes, you’re right. I should have been clear that we are dealing with two non-overlapping classes: the conduct itself, and laws pertaining to that conduct. Not all laws pertaining to “affronts to human dignity” have the same degree of moral weight vis-a-vis the state’s duty to protect the common good. As a voter, the choice between candidates is based on which best serves the state’s obligation to protect the common good, not necessarily which type of conduct is the greatest affront to human dignity.
<>The question this seems to [raise] is whether, for example, abortion and torture are distinct evils, or subgroups under the general evil of “affronts to human dignity.”<>>>We tend to talk about these things rather sloppily. But strictly speaking, <>abortion<> isn’t an act. <>An<> abortion is an act. Formal cooperation with an evil act is itself an evil act. Proximate meterial cooperation with an evil act is itself an evil act. Remote material cooperation with an evil act without proportionate reason is itself an evil act.>>Clearly though at the level of <>acts<> a specific abortion is a different act than a specific act of torture. So formal cooperation (etc) with specific acts of abortion are different from formal cooperation with specific acts of torture. >>The fundamental issue is whether it is morally problemmatic to <>choose with the will in an act of voting<> that a certain ensemble of specific acts of abortion is acceptable as long as, by trade-off, we can stop a certain ensemble of specific acts of torture. The answer “no, it isn’t morally problemmatic to horse-trade different evils in this way” is widely assumed, but far from obviously true.
<>The fundamental issue is whether it is morally problemmatic to choose with the will in an act of voting that a certain ensemble of specific acts of abortion is acceptable as long as, by trade-off, we can stop a certain ensemble of specific acts of torture. The answer “no, it isn’t morally problemmatic to horse-trade different evils in this way” is widely assumed, but far from obviously true.<>>>But that’s not the object of the choice to vote. The object of the choice to vote is <>solely<> (in that case) to stop the certain ensemble of specific acts of torture (or perhaps to stop public officials from publicly endorsing protection of torture). The unintended consequence is that the same person who prevents the acts (or endorsement) of torture will permit (or publicly endorse protection of) acts of abortion. You need not intend as object of your vote that ANY acts of abortion take place. You never need say that acts of abortion are an acceptable cost, only that they are an inevitable one.
<>The object of the choice to vote is solely (in that case) to stop the certain ensemble of specific acts of torture …<>>>That may be an intention, but it isn’t the choice of behavior. The moral object is your choice of behavior.>>Example: I order a platoon to slaughter a bunch of civilians. The object of my act isn’t “slaughter a bunch of civilians” it is “order a platoon to slaughter a bunch of civilians”.>>I am not saying that the act in question is <>intrinsically<> evil. In fact I am not saying that it is definitely evil at all: just that the prevalent assumption that it isn’t seems to rest on, well, nothing in particular.
<>The object of my act isn’t “slaughter a bunch of civilians” it is “order a platoon to slaughter a bunch of civilians”.<>>>Now I’m even more confused. I didn’t think the object was strictly the physical act, but also included the purpose or use of that act. Why wouldn’t the object be “voting to prevent Candidate X from working great evil?” That act is inherently suitable for the purpose (since the physical act of voting is suited precisely to putting someone in office or keeping someone else out), so that phrase strikes me as being legitimately considered the moral object of the act.
Study <>Veritatis Splendour<> carefully. The object of an act is the acting subject’s specific choice of behavior. It isn’t a third-party physical description of his behavior: it is his <>choice<> of behavior. It is <>what he chooses to do with his corporeal self in a unity of mind and body<>. It is as JPII says inseparable from its bodily aspect, and yet it can only be grasped from the perspective of the acting subject. It is <>what you are choosing to make your corporeal self do<>. It specifically isn’t everything that you want or expect to follow from what you do in a chain of cause-and effect.
You may be assuming that the only kind of evil acts are intrinsically evil acts. But we know that can’t be right either: we know that there are many acts which are not intrinsically evil in their object, but which are evil because of intentions or circumstances. The “intent” bundled into the object isn’t the same thing as the <>reasons why you choose a behavior<>. The intent in the object is just the specific choice of behavior, and in my opinion ought not be referred to with the label “intent”. In fact, in VS – self-described as literally the only Magisterial statement ever to describe these issues in detail – I don’t believe JPII ever uses the word “intent” to refer to the choice of behavior that is the object of the act.
<>It specifically isn’t everything that you want or expect to follow from what you do in a chain of cause-and effect.<>>>I agree with that, in terms of accidental effects, but some effects are integral parts of the act, and some reasons are integral to choosing them. I’m finding it hard to understand how the physical nature of voting can have any other effect but tending to put one candidate in office or tending to prevent one or more candidates from being in office. And of the real reasons one might make that choice, I can’t see how it could be anything else but what that candidate is going to do in office. So it seems to me that the acting of choosing to vote inherently involves (1) a choice or putting someone in office or preventing someone from taking office, and (2) a reason pertaining to what that person will do in office to justify the choice. That’s not looking at causally remote effects; it’s simply the only sort of reason on which one could possibly make a rational choice to vote.
But, as the voter, I get to pick the reason that constitues (2). I can vote for the candidate because I like his position on a certain issue, because he belongs to the political party that I trust, because he and I belong to the same ethnic group, or went to the same elementary school. This has two implications: (a) the reason for the vote is not intrinsic to the act, since any number of people may perform the same act (voting for that candidate for that office in that election), and (b) the things he does in office that were not part of my reason for voting for him are unintended consequences of my vote.>>So, a vote for a candidate will never be evil by virtue of its object (or by its nature). Instead it will be evil by virtue of the voter’s intent or the effects of the vote. If the voter’s intent is good, then the moral quality of the vote is going to be determined under the principle of double effect.
I think Crimson Catholic is correct in stating that advocacy of abortion is not evil in the sense that it allows a given abortion to occur so much as it is evil by the harm it causes the public good. The former sense is certainly objectively true, but the latter sense is intrinsic. It seems to follow the moral logic of detraction more closely, that being the problem with detraction is not the veracity of the underlying claim so much as the common good is corrupted by scurrilous allegations.>>It would seem that actions done upon the common good could either be intrinsically evil or objectively evil. This would require recogzing that the common good has a moral character with corresponding duties owed it. This seems cognizant with traditional moral theology. When faced with a dichotomy at the polling booth, I would have difficulty objectively determining if a given vote was intrinsically evil. If we had multiple candidates and say one was of a fictional “Abortion is the only issue, keep it legal” Party, then I believe an objective judgement could be made that any person who voted for that party’s candidate had done an intrinsically evil act. Referendum would seem to lend themselves to intrinsically evil acts.
<>I’m finding it hard to understand how the physical nature of voting can have any other effect but tending to put one candidate in office or tending to prevent one or more candidates from being in office.<>>>Well, the immediate act of voting is to add one to the tally of a particular number ranking a particular candidate with a particular omnibus platform. That is as far as the <>object<> can possibly go, it seems to me, because any effects which occur subsequently are not exclusively the result of that specific voter’s will carried out as a corporeal being on reality. If there is such a thing as a non-negotiable it can only be because certain acts of adding one to the tally for a specific candidate with a particular omnibus platform is, because of intentions or circumstances, always immoral. Decker2003 is quite right, in my understanding, that such an act literally cannot be <>intrinsically<> evil.>>However, that doesn’t mean that a certain category of such acts cannot be evil as a category. So the issue of non-negotiables hasn’t been put to rest. >>In fact I think it is crystal clear that there are definitely non-negotiables, at least in the abstract. We all realize, I hope, that if we restrict ourselves to certain <>circumstances<> that voting for a particular candidate would be always morally wrong irrespective of the <>intentions<> of the voter.>>The truly penetrating question, then, isn’t <>whether<> there is such a thing as a non-negotiable. There most certainly are non-negotiables – not because certain acts of voting are intrinsically evil but because it is possible to define categories of voting which are always evil due to circumstances, irrespective of intentions.>>So the interesting questions to me are (1) what happens to the morality of voting in circumstances where there are a significant number of non-negotiables, and (2) are we or are we not in fact in that kind of circumstances right now.
Zippy,>>We seem to be in almost complete agreement. In theory, there could be certain circumstances that render the effects of the vote so disastrous that the vote is always evil, regardless of the voter’s good intentions. In that case, we would have a “non-negotiable” by virtue of effects, as oppossed to a non-negotiable by virtue of the object (which, we both agree, doesn’t exist).>>However, for such a concept to be useful, we are going to have to find circumstances that render the effects so disastrous that they will always outweigh any good that could possibly be obtained by the vote, regardless of what other circumstances exist. The rule will have to be “If circumstance A exists, then the vote is always illicit, regardless of whether circumstances B, C, D exist.” But, for any A, I can think of a B that changes the moral equation. So, I am skeptical that we can generate such bright-line rules.>>In the end, I think we have to say that it’s a matter of evaluating all the circumstances and applying the virtue of prudence. Perhaps there are certain circumstances that call for a greater level of prudence, because they generate a presumption that the vote is too dangerous. (e.g. “be especially careful before voting in such and such a manner when circumstance A exists”) But I don’t see that we’ll ever be able to formulate rules broader than that. Each case will have to analyzed on its own facts.
OK, I can see the difference now, and the difference is over the metaphysical nature of voting. I disagree for precisely the reason that your view does not take the act of voting from the perspective of the acting subject. Particularly, you have not examined what is relevant to rationally <>choosing<> to vote.>>Decker says:><>But, as the voter, I get to pick the reason that constitues (2). I can vote for the candidate because I like his position on a certain issue, because he belongs to the political party that I trust, because he and I belong to the same ethnic group, or went to the same elementary school. This has two implications: (a) the reason for the vote is not intrinsic to the act, since any number of people may perform the same act (voting for that candidate for that office in that election), and (b) the things he does in office that were not part of my reason for voting for him are unintended consequences of my vote.<>>>Yes, you can pick the “reason” that you choose to vote for someone, but most of those “reasons” are irrational. In that case, you haven’t made what could qualify as a moral choice at all; you haven’t even reached the level of consideration objectively required for your action to qualify as a “choice.” What you have done is to fail to make a moral choice, effectively choosing to vote arbitrarily (assuming that the reason is not acting as a proxy for some legitimate consideration). Indeed, ISTM that choosing to vote arbitrarily, for no objectively pertinent reason at all, would be a violation of one’s duty to the common good as a citizen, and <>intrinsically<> evil as such. Morality requires that one do purposive acts for reasons.>>Voting is inherently a purposive act, objectively requiring reasons, and the objective nature of the act of voting restricts what reasons are pertinent to the purpose in voting. As to what reasons are pertinent, note Cardinal Ratzinger’s observation: “A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia.” Formal cooperation with evil is <>intrinsically<> evil, not extrinsically. So your conclusion that voting cannot be intrinsically evil based on the purpose for which it is done appears to contradict Ratzinger’s statement.>>Viewed <>from the perspective of the acting subject<>, many of the facts you describe are reasons, not mere circumstantial effects, of voting. It isn’t a requirement that reasons pertain only to effects that are “exclusively the result of that specific voter’s will carried out as a corporeal being on reality.” That would be a causal analysis of voting, not one from the perspective of the acting subject. The acting subject making a rational choice would view the candidate’s behavior in office as a REASON to vote for the candidate. Only the <>effects<> of said behavior would be circumstantial.>>Let’s first straighten out the confusion between reasons and circumstances, a confusion that must be resolved for any purposive action like voting, and then I think the moral parameters will become clearer.
All of the facts I gave are reasons, and if you want to limit it to those pertaining to what the candidate will do in office, that is fine with me. Everything I said will still hold if you limit the reasons to “because if elected he will do A, will do B, will do C, will do A & B & C, etc.” You then eliminate any reasons that would consitute formal cooperation in evil because “doing A” is evil by virtue of its object. You are left with a large number of licit reasons to vote for the candidate and an act that is not evil by virtue of its object or its intent. The evil you are searching for will have to lie in the effects and/or circumstances. For the reasons I gave, I don’t think you can establish any bright-line rules based on those effects/circumstances.>>And BTW, I understand “intrinsically evil” to mean “evil by virtue of its object.” Formal cooperation in evil is not evil by virtue of its object. In fact, what makes the cooperation formal rather than material is precisely that the person cooperating INTENDS that the principal perform the evil act. Since the evil depends on the intent of the agent, it is not intrinsic to the act. In the end, however, I’m not sure that this distinction is terribly important, but perhaps it clarifies the terminology.
<>Zippy, We seem to be in almost complete agreement.<>>>I believe so, on the principles involved at any rate.>>One additional thing I am doing that may not be clear is that I am treating circumstances and intentions as orthogonal. (I <>have<> to: “non-negotiable” means evil independent of intentions, so if the act isn’t evil in its object we are necessarily defining a category by circumstances, if “non-negotiable” is a categorical claim). A non-negotiable is an element of a particular candidate’s platform which renders a specific act of casting a vote for him <>in this race<> evil, independent of <>intentions<>.>>So it isn’t quite this:><>However, for such a concept to be useful, we are going to have to find circumstances that render the effects so disastrous that they will always outweigh any good that could possibly be obtained by the vote, regardless of what other circumstances exist.<>>>For my purposes in understanding a voting non-negotiable, circumstances are held constant. We are, after all, trying to analyze the morality of voting in <>our<> circumstances, not in hypothetical circumstances. Hypotheticals are helpful for understanding the principles, but our application of the principles once understood is restricted to our actual circumstances.>>In a way this is a very similar discussion to many of the discussions I’ve had on the Iraq war. It is true that a decision to wage war, made by the competent authority, is not <>intrinsically<> evil. Catholic sympathizers with the war have done a stellar job spreading confusion about what that means, though. It doesn’t mean that no judgement <>independent of anyone’s intentions<> can be rendered about that actual decision to wage war.>>Now, though, I need to say that everything I’ve said before is completely irrelevant in a sense. Most people, including most Catholics, have not studied moral theology. So to the extent most people see themselves as choosing the lesser of two evils, it doesn’t matter if their choice <>could in theory<> be justified by appeal to this rather complex casuistry, because this casuistry is describing a theoretically justifiable choice, not their actual choice. If in their actual choice they see themselves as making an inevitable choice of one lesser evil in order to prevent a different greater evil, then they are making a proportionalist (and thus evil) choice; full stop. And as an empirical matter I expect that most people do in fact see their choices this way.>>And <>that<> has moral implications in terms of <>scandal<> in the act of voting <>even in the case of those who <>do<> understand the moral theology and make their decisions accordingly<>. It may be possible to work around “lighting the incense”, if you will, as an interior act; but the actual effects of casting one’s vote had better be good enough to justify as a proportionate matter the damage done by this scandal. And the actual effect of one person casting one vote is quantitatively negligible.>>It is this latter understanding of mine, rather than the moral theology involved in voting per se, which is not exactly lighting the world on fire with its compelling insight.
Zippy and CrimsonCatholic,>>This has all been very interesting and stimulating, but I’m going to have to turn to other things now. I think we have moved the conversation regarding the moral theology of voting forward and while there is plenty left to discuss, I’m not able to do so right now. I imagine there will be other opportunities in the future. Thank you for your civil and spirited exchange of ideas in our common search for moral truth.
Thanks for the discussion, guys. I think I’ve said my piece between here and my own blog, and I think that the issues on which we differ at this point would probably need a discussion devoted to them to do them justice.