Good Will Shunting

February 2, 2010 § 8 Comments

We want to believe — I want to believe — that it is possible for men of good will to disagree over whether a given act is intrinsically immoral. But unfortunately — frighteningly, even — it seems that at least strictly speaking, this is not possible.

“The negative precepts of the natural law are universally valid. They oblige each and every individual, always and in every circumstance. It is a matter of prohibitions which forbid a given action semper et pro semper, without exception, because the choice of this kind of behaviour is in no case compatible with the goodness of the will of the acting person, with his vocation to life with God and to communion with his neighbour.” – Veritatis Splendour (emphasis mine)

It seems that intrinsically immoral acts are the kinds of behavior or conduct which it is literally impossible to choose with a good will. So in the strictest sense, one cannot — literally cannot, meaning it is impossible — assent to an intrinsically immoral act with a good will.

Perhaps at bottom this is where the acrimony comes from in so much Internet discussion. We know (we can’t help but know) that no matter what social nicieties accompany our discussion, so much of what we discuss is incompatible with a good will on the part of all discussion participants.

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§ 8 Responses to Good Will Shunting

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    Do you think there is a difference between assenting to it in the sense of defending it and assenting to it in the sense of doing it?

    I myself think that people talk about doing horrible things that they would balk at actually doing. How many women say, “I would never have an abortion, but I think it should be legal”? Obviously, something very wrong there, very messed-up in the person's moral compass. But not as messed up as if she did it, pushed through the remains of conscience to assent to it in the fullest sense.

  • Do you think there is a difference between assenting to it in the sense of defending it and assenting to it in the sense of doing it?

    I myself think that people talk about doing horrible things that they would balk at actually doing.

    Reminds me of the Alfred Hitchcock film, Rope, where a professor espousing various superman theories has to confront in horror his students who went out and lived up to his lessons.

    Scott W.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    I'm not sure to what extent that addresses Zippy's question, though: In what sense can we attribute “good will” to people who even advocate things we consider intrinsically immoral?

    I guess in Catholic terms you would have to hope they are invincibly ignorant, to reduce culpability? Or do you _not_ want to hope that, because then you cannot hope that they will change their minds?

  • George R. says:

    Zippy,
    I was hoping you would have read other encyclicals during your hiatus. But I guess it's still just going to be Veritatis Splendor 24/7.

    I'm just messing with you.

    Welcome back.

  • Zippy says:

    One of my other all-time faves is Immortale Dei, George, so maybe there is a beer or a single-malt scotch in that one.

  • William Luse says:

    “I would never have an abortion, but I think it should be legal”

    I have to listen to this on almost a daily basis. And I used to think there might be a sort of innocence involved, in their desire not to give offense to those who think differently. But I'm not so inclined anymore. Being adults, they are not invincibly ignorant but willfully so. And the good will is being extended not to an innocent babe, but to other adults in whose good opinion they wish to remain. They want to keep to their convictions without appearing inflexible. Seems another form of cowardice to me.

  • Tommy says:

    We want to believe — I want to believe — that it is possible for men of good will to disagree over whether a given act is intrinsically immoral.

    But Zippy, your argument could only hold water if the “men of good will” all agreed on exactly what “the act” at hand is. If you mean men of good will reflecting on an act that they observe someone else doing, a historical event, there is a fundamental problem there: “The ACT” does not consist solely of the external physical act, it also consists of internal components as well, including the knowledge the actor had about what the situation is in which he chooses to act X way. Since we cannot see the internal structure of the act, men of good will can only make estimates of it, and these estimates can easily vary.

    I am not, btw, talking about different intentions, I am limiting the above strictly to the chosen act. That choice, which stands as means to the end, regards the actor's knowledge of what is before him, so we cannot be certain exactly what the choice was, though we can draw reasonable conclusions when multiple forms of evidence come forward. But we DON'T see the choice itself, so we DON'T know with certainty what the chosen act really is.

    If, instead, we are talking about a hypothetical act, where we are GIVEN the facts as posited, then yes, men of good will ought not disagree over whether the act is evil. But (a) even men of good will can make mistakes about hypotheticals that they don't and wouldn't make in real life – as Lydia said – and (b) men of good will can all agree the act is evil without being certain as to whether to place the evil in the circumstances, the end, or the object. Therefore it is possible for men of good will to disagree as to whether “a given act” is intrinsically immoral.

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