Intrinsic Evil, Prudential Judgment and Sundry Matters
One of the things that has frustrated me this election season is the way that two concepts from Catholic moral theology have been thrown around in ways that distort the way they actually operate in the tradition. I checked my perceptions with a couple of theologians whose judgment I trust, but I will leave them nameless so they are not held responsible for my errors in interpretation.
The first is the concept of “intrinsic evil.” In their Faithful Citizenship statement, the USCCB defined “intrinsic evils” as actions that are “so deeply flawed that they are always opposed to the authentic good of persons.” Strictly speaking, the statement is correct. However, I am finding that the statement is sometimes being read to imply that “intrinsic” evils are of greater moral weight than those that are not. This is not always the case.
There is a strong tradition in Catholic moral theology that evaluates the morality of acts according to a threefold test that looks at 1) the act itself, 2) the intent of the actor; and 3) the circumstances surrounding the act. All three of these things must be good (or at least neutral) for the act to be morally licit.
Traditionally, to say that something is “intrinsically” evil is to say that it is evil at the level of the act. It is “objectively” wrong, regardless of the intent of the actor or the circumstances. Such acts can never be morally licit. This does not mean, however, that such acts are always greater evils than acts that are evil by dint of intent or circumstance.
Consider an example from sexual ethics. The act of masturbation has traditionally been considered “intrinsically” evil. It is a sexual act that can never be ordered toward the goods that human sexuality is ordered to support, i.e. marriage and children. Adultery, by contrast, is-at the level of the act-an act of coitus between a man and a woman. The act itself is good or at least neutral. It is the intent of the parties and the circumstance of their being married to other people that renders the act morally wrong. While there is a strand of the Catholic tradition that holds that “sins against nature” are of special moral gravity, I would be hard pressed to find a theologian–or a confessor–these days who would hold that masturbation is a worse sin than adultery. I certainly don’t plan to try the argument out with my wife.
The second concept that is getting a lot of use lately is the concept of “prudential judgment.” In their recent pastoral letter, Bishops Kevin Farrell of Dallas and Kevin Vann of Ft. Worth write that “issues of prudential judgment are not morally equivalent to issues involving intrinsic evils.” Similarly, George Weigel argues in the most recent issue of Newsweek that “pro-life, pro-Obama Catholics are thus putting the full weigh of their moral argument on contingent prudential judgments that, by definition, cannot bear that weight.”
I believe that these distinguished gentlemen are mistaken in their understanding of the concept of prudential judgment. They seem to imply that if one uses prudential judgment to discern that a given action (or inaction) is evil, that action should be given less moral weight than an act where such judgment is not required.
This is incorrect for two reasons. The first reason is-as we saw above-that the fact that an action is “intrinsically” evil does not mean that it is a worse evil than one that is not.
Secondly, once an individual moral agent–through the use of prudential judgment–comes to the conclusion that a given act is evil, then the agent must treat it as evil and act accordingly. If I conclude that the War in Iraq was an unjust war, then I need to treat it as such when I am making my moral decision-making. I do not get to say “Well, I believe that the War in Iraq is unjust, but its injustice is mitigated because I had to employ prudential judgment to determine this.” The fact that I needed to use prudential judgment may make me less sure about my conclusion, but if I am sure, then that conclusion is binding on my conscience.
None of this is to say that the evils outlined by the bishops-abortion, euthanasia, torture, etc.-are not very grave evils. But their gravity is more a function of their violation of justice than of the fact that they are intrinsic evils and therefore allegedly don’t require the use of prudential judgment. To be honest, I’m not sure the latter would ever be true because I almost always need to employ that judgment to determine whether my act is, in fact, an act of euthanasia or torture.
In retrospect, I think it would have been better had the U.S. bishops simply asserted that, with respect to our political choices, some evils are particularly grave because (pick one or all): 1) they attack fundamental principles of justice; 2) they are practiced or tolerated on a very wide scale; 3) they are practiced or protected by the state, and thus the question of who controls the apparatus of the state becomes particularly important.
That’s probably enough for now. For obvious reason, I’d be particularly interested in Cathy’s feedback, but everyone is of course welcome to comment.