What the Object Isn’t
December 10, 2006 § 53 Comments
A little rule of thumb may be helpful.
If the thing we are talking about is actually done by someone else, it isn’t the object of your act.
Recent discussions have led me to conclude that the difference between the moral object of an act and formal cooperation with the acts of others has become confused in the minds of many.
Suppose I order Lieutenant Shaeffer to slaughter those civilians lined up over there. The object of my act is not to slaughter the civilians, and my act is not intrinsically evil: that is, my act is not evil because of the inherent nature of its object.
This is, I think, fairly straightforward to demonstrate.
Suppose for example that the Lieutenant and I have prearranged a code. When I tell him to slaughter civilians, what I am really preparing him to do is take down the wicked colonal who is telling me to give the order. Because of intentions and circumstances it is not evil for me to use my body to utter “Go slaughter those civilians”.
Demonstrably, then, there isn’t anything intrinsically evil in my act.
Now, if I intend for Lt. Shaeffer to actually slaughter those civilians and he does so, I have still done something terribly evil: evil because of my intentions, which include formal cooperation in Lt. Shaeffer’s intrinsically evil act. My act isn’t any less evil for not being intrinsically evil. But my specific choice to utter that specific order is not intrinsically evil.
Well, OK smart guy, but what about certain acts where it takes two to tango? What about adultery, for example?
The answer seems to me to be equally straightforward. I can’t commit adultery without choosing to perform the act of adultery – my necessary part in it – myself. If I order Lieutenant Shaeffer to commit adultery, intend for him to actually do so, and he does, my own act is not intrinsically evil. It is still evil – formal cooperation with evil, in fact – and may even be more gravely so than the Lieutentant’s act. But it isn’t intrinsically evil, and if the circumstances or my intentions were different it might not be evil at all.
If the thing being specified is not something you actually did, then the thing being specified is not the object of your act. It is probably the object of someone else’s act, and it may well be that your act is an act of formal cooperation with that other person’s act. But somebody else’s act isn’t your act, and the object of somebody else’s act isn’t the object of your act.