Rejecting the Physicalist/Causal Account of Intrinsic Evil
January 20, 2009 § 45 Comments
There is a particular approach to judging the morality of acts which is quite popular among contemporary moral theologians, including moral theologians who have studied Veritatis Splendour – an encyclical self-described as the only detailed Magisterial statement on these matters in the history of the Church – which simply cannot be right and must be rejected. That doesn’t imply that my own approach and understanding is right or even coherent; but, independent of what one thinks of my particular approach to and conclusions about particular matters, this alternate popular theory and approach is definitely, absolutely, and without question wrong.
The approach we must reject goes something like the following: We take the decision a person makes to act, figure out the intended end for which he makes it, and construct a physical account from what he does to the achievement of that end. Everything which is a physical cause leading up to his desired result, then, is considered to be intended; anything which is not causally prerequisite to achieving his end, on a physicalist account, is considered to be unintended[*]. His act is intrinsically evil if and only if any of the things he intends (on this account of intention) is evil.
Basically, this account of intrinsic evil takes the principle of double-effect to apply to all acts, and elevates the double-effect requirement “the bad effect must not cause the good effect” to the status of a rule which determines whether or not an act is intrinsically immoral.
Even without doing further work we can see that this approach is fundamentally question-begging. Rather than applying the principle of double-effect to an act which is not intrinsically immoral, this approach applies the “bad effect must not cause the good effect” rule – which in reality only applies to acts which are not intrinsically immoral – in order to conclude that the act is not intrinsically immoral.
Furthermore, this account of intrinsic evil renders the requirement “the act must not be evil in its object” nonsensical. If the rule “the bad effect must not cause the good effect” is the very thing which tells us whether the act is evil in its object, then the inclusion of the additional requirement that the act must not be evil in its object is superfluous nonsense.
But beyond that, Veritatis Splendour tells us that we must reject any moral theory which makes it impossible to qualify as morally evil the choice of certain concrete actions or kinds of behavior apart from any consideration of the intention for which the behavior was chosen. Because this popular physicalist/causal[**] account of intrinsic evil requires us to make reference to the intention for which the behavior was chosen in order to qualify any concrete choice of behavior as intrinsically immoral – we cannot construct a physicalist causal account from the behavior chosen to the intended end without making reference to the intended end – we know that it must be rejected.
Again, that doesn’t prove that any other particular approach, including my own, is right. But we know that the physicalist/causal account of intrinsic evil must be rejected, both because it is question-begging with respect to the application of the principle of double-effect and because it meets the criteria set out in Veritatis Splendour for moral theories which we must reject.
[*] Other language is sometimes used to label what I have labeled intended and unintended. One traditional way is to refer to the intended and the indirect voluntary; another is to say directly intended and indirectly intended. But these are merely semantic choices about how to label things, and do not as far as I can tell change the substance of what we are discussing.
[**] I don’t know if “physicalist/causal” is the best label for the approach I am criticizing, but it is what I have at the moment. Suggestions for a better descriptive name are welcome.