Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Doing Evil to Achieve a Good End? Reflection on Moral Dilemmas


Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world... but for Wales?

– St. Thomas More, A Man For All Seasons

One of the more difficult things in defending moral obligations is when people set up a moral dilemma in which it is proposed that unless we do a thing normally condemned as wrong, an evil result will happen.  It is argued that the evil suffered will be worse than the evil done to prevent it.  Therefore we are told we should do this evil to prevent a greater evil.

When the Christian makes a stand saying, “Even so, we may not do evil so good may come of it,” he or she is vilified and Christian morality is blamed as the cause of the suffering that is claimed will result from not doing evil.

Faced with this kind of argument, it can be easy for the Christian to falter and perhaps make a compromise – setting aside what one is obligated to do in favor of preventing a scenario where harm will happen.

Breakdown of the Dilemma

The dilemma generally works this way:

·         Either we do [X] or we suffer [Y].

·         We should not have to suffer [Y].

·         Therefore we are justified in doing [X].

This is how people who try to promote changing certain moral beliefs argue: We should not have to suffer [Y].  [X] is a reasonable means to avoid that suffering.  If you do not change your belief that [X] is wrong, then you are responsible for the suffering [Y] causes.

Such an argument is remarkably effective in its intimidation, playing on the fact that people who are good do not want people to suffer if it can be avoided.

The problem with this dilemma is the fact that it makes two assumptions that need to be proven, but instead of proving them tries to pass them off as proven:

1.       That doing [X] in response is mandatory regardless of whether it is evil or not.

2.       That suffering [Y] is so bad that avoiding it is an absolute obligation.

If either of these assumptions is false, then the dilemma collapses.

Four Aspects of Duty

In Pope Bl. John Paul II’s unfinished work, Man in the Field of Responsibility (pp 8-9), the future Pope describes four obligations in acting.  To paraphrase:

1.       I must act to achieve a good end

2.       I must not act to achieve a good end

3.       I must act to prevent a bad end

4.       I must not act to prevent a bad end

In other words, to do our duty, we must either act or not act to achieve a good result or we must act or not act to prevent a bad result.  If our action would assist in achieving a good effect or preventing a bad effect, we must act.  However, if our action would hinder the achievement of a good end or the prevention of a bad end, then we should not act.

Living Morally is a Duty

But we need to remember something.  Not every action is a legitimate response in achieving a good end or preventing a bad end.  For example, we cannot consider murder of political opponents as a legitimate means of making sure legislation we think is necessary becomes law.  The recognition of this fact shows there are limits to how far we can go to achieve a certain end.  These limits are limits of morality – the recognition that some behavior is good and some behavior is wrong.  That some actions are right and some actions are wrong.

If it is the duty of every person to live morally then we must consider whether action or inaction needed to achieve a good end or to prevent a bad end is a moral action.   If you disagree that every person has the duty to live morally, then you really can have no complaint if someone comes over one night and steals your car.

So in considering the topic of doing evil to achieve a certain end, we can extrapolate on the outline of the future pope’s work to say that our moral obligations require:

1.       I must act morally to achieve a good end

2.       I must not act immorally to achieve a good end

3.       I must act morally to prevent a bad end

4.       I must not act immorally to prevent a bad end

So, the whole concept of “the ends justify the means” is to be rejected.  A bad means or action may never be used.  If we reject morality in the name of expedience, then somebody can decide to use an evil act that harms us if they claim the end is important enough.

So Edmund Burke’s famous quote of “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” (this would actually be #3 in the first list) is therefore correct some of the time – those times when good action is required.  Good men cannot refrain from acting if the action to prevent the evil is good.  However, if the action is bad, good men must refrain from doing it (#4).  Otherwise you would have the self-contradiction of doing evil to prevent evil, to which a person may ask “So why should we do your evil (which benefits you) instead of my evil (which benefits me)?”

The Person is Good or Evil through the Acts Performed

The future Pope John Paul II also pointed out (Man in the Field of Responsibility p17) that a man becomes good or evil through the act he performs.  This is an important point to realize: The person who chooses to do something that is evil, despite the result he or she wishes to accomplish, is an evil person.  We should be wary of such people.  If the result is so important that I am willing to do whatever it takes, I will tend to treat any obstacles in the way as “unimportant” and probably view people harmed as “unimportant” in light of the goal.  It essentially says, “What I want is important.  If it harms somebody else, that harm is unimportant.”

The 20th century testifies by filled graveyards as to the damage that thinking causes.  Indeed, the history of dictatorships shows what happens when we treat the end as all important and consider the evil done to achieve that end as “less important.”  Most people, regardless of political outlook, recognize that what these dictators did was terribly wrong.  Except for extreme ideologues, names like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and others are names of revulsion.  They all claimed to have beneficial goals in bettering the life of their people, but what they did to carry out their goals was evil – millions were killed on account of those goals – and as a result we tend to call the dictators evil.

Now the mentioning of the dictators is of course an extreme example, but it makes the point that people do recognize the fact that some things are always to be condemned.  When one considers these facts, statements like “there are no moral absolutes,” and “don’t push your morality on me,” to be pretty stupid statements.  We recognize that a person who would utter such statements on behalf of Hitler or Stalin to be fools.

In other words, we recognize that moral absolutes do exist.  Once we do realize this fact, we are obligated to always consider what morality requires of us and not try to explain it away when it is inconvenient

Intrinsic Evil: Some Things can NEVER be done

Some things can never be justified.  For example, no matter what a woman does, it can never justify rape as a response to what she did.  NEVER.  We would all be horrified and disgusted with anyone who would say it was justified.

Catholicism calls those acts “intrinsically evil.”  That is to say, those acts are evil by their very nature and can never, under any circumstances, be justified nor be deliberately chosen as an act despite the suffering we want to avoid.  Among other things, it can never be permissible to permit abortion, commit murder, commit genocide, commit torture or commit rape as a means of avoiding suffering regardless of the situation.

If someone disagrees with this and wants to deny the existence of intrinsically evil acts, it means he or she has to accept the idea that there are circumstances when things like rape can be justified.  But that is absurd… and offensive.

But once we recognize that certain acts are never justified, we have to recognize that our behavior does have restrictions put on it.  If killing an innocent person is always wrong, then abortion can never be a legitimate action for example.

The Catholic Church, in teaching moral obligations, is affirming that we cannot do certain things no matter how insignificant they seem to the world.

Even Non-Christians Recognize the Golden Rule

Morality is not something that only Christianity imposes and the rest of the world resents.

Even somebody who rejects Christian and especially Catholic morality can understand the concept of the Golden Rule: Do to others whatever you would have them do to you (Matthew 7:12).  If you want people to treat you morally, treat them morally.  If you reject acting morally towards others when it hampers you, then someone else can refuse to act morally towards you if it hampers them.  It becomes hypocritical for someone who rejects moral absolutes to appeal to morality when others do evil to us.

What follows from this is that everybody has an obligation to act morally towards another person.  Not just people who treat you well (see Matthew 5:43-48), but every person.  Otherwise we become evil when we act immorally towards those who do not treat us well.

In Plato’s Republic (Book 1, beginning with 332a), there is a dialogue in which the participant, Polemarchus asserts that it is just to harm the unjust and to benefit the just.  Socrates responds with questioning that demonstrates that such actions make the man unjust, concluding:

“If, then, anyone affirms that it is just to render to each his due and he means by this, that injury and harm is what is due to his enemies from the just man and benefits to his friends, he was no truly wise man who said it. For what he meant was not true. For it has been made clear to us that in no case is it just to harm anyone.” [335e]

Socrates is an example of the fact that even non-Christians recognize this fact.  He saw the view that doing good to friends and evil to enemies was not acting rightly.  It demonstrates that insisting that men act justly to others, regardless of their wickedness or virtue is not a case of Christians “forcing their values on others.”

Double Effect vs. Willing an Evil Act

One thing to be aware of is sometimes people confuse doing an evil act to avoid a bad result with the Catholic teaching on Double Effect.  They might argue that the Church permits an act that seems similar to the dilemma proposed and therefore the Church should not object to the act in the dilemma either.

The reason this is not a valid comparison is because the principle of double effect involves the existence of an undesired consequence which would be avoided if possible and does not directly result from the action

I find the following a useful distinction to avoid confusion between deliberately doing evil and an unintended evil effect happening as a result of an action:

Distinguishing the object from the effects is pivotal for understanding the principle, since the principle serves one object with two effects. Two particular examples demonstrate well the function of the principle. The first is the case of the dying patient in intractable pain, with no hope of recovery. An intrinsically wrong object of activity is direct killing of the innocent, and therefore to give the patient an injection of a lethal drug is always prohibited. But can one give the patient a painkiller, even if the patient could suffer heart failure as a result? The principle permits this because the object, administering a pain reliever, is distinct from one of its effects, possible death; the administration of such drugs is ordinarily for pain relief and not for killing. Conversely, the object of injecting a lethal drug can not be distinguished from its effect: the very meaning of the object is to kill.

(Dwyer, J. A. (2000). The new Dictionary of Catholic Social Thought (electronic ed.) (301). Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.)

One can see the difference: Administering a drug with intent to kill and administering a drug with the intent to alleviate pain are two entirely different things.  In the second case, the possibility of death is not intended, and if it was possible it would be avoided.  But in the first case, the death of the patient is the intention.

Even though in both cases relieving suffering is the intended goal and a good goal, the means used makes one act evil and the other act good.  Since the action makes the person good or evil, it means that even when the person intends a good result, he or she can be judged evil by the means used.

That surprises some people who tend to think evil acts are done by evil people and don’t consider that people do have motives which seem good in their own minds.  Very few people are like the character Aaron the Moor from the Shakespeare play Titus Andronicus (made into a 1999 movie, Titus) who dies regretting he had not done more evil, saying:

O, why should wrath be mute, and fury dumb?
I am no baby, I, that with base prayers
I should repent the evils I have done:
Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did
Would I perform, if I might have my will;
If one good deed in all my life I did,
I do repent it from my very soul.

Most people who want to justify an evil act have in mind a result to bring about or avoid which they believe outweighs the harm inflicted, and become hurt and offended when it is pointed out that the acts done to achieve this end are evil.

It Is Undeniably a Painful Fact but We Cannot Set Aside Morality When it Suits Us

That is important to remember.  The emotions are real.  Nobody wants to suffer.  In these dilemmas, there is a result people want to avoid.  It is understandable that the person who has to face those consequences may feel betrayed by the person who says, “No.  This may not be done.” 

But it must be understood that the person who stands up for doing what is right is not responsible for the suffering that may come from doing right.  This person merely states the reality, that we cannot do evil so good may come of it, and requires us to rethink our perspective.

Knowing Right from Wrong Obligates Us to Apply Our Standards to All – Even Those Who Disagree

In the novel A Canticle for Leibowitz (page 296 in my EOS edition) by Walter Miller Jr., we have a situation where there has been a nuclear war, and people are suffering from radiation sickness.  The government wants to establish facilities to decide who has received enough radiation to be fatal to recommend euthanizing.  The abbot of the monastery where they want to establish the facility tells them he will refuse cooperation unless the doctor promises not to advise people to euthanize themselves.  The doctor says it is not right to do this with non-Catholic patients and accuses the abbot of imposing his views on others and the abbot has no right to make this condition, and demands the abbot explain why he insists on this stance for non-Catholics as well as Catholics.  The abbot responds (emphasis in original):

Because if a man is ignorant of the fact something is wrong and acts in ignorance, he incurs no guilt, provided natural reason was not enough to show him that it was wrong.  But while ignorance may excuse the man, it does not excuse the act, which is wrong in itself.  If I permitted the act simply because the man is ignorant that it is wrong, then I would incur guilt, because I do know it to be wrong.  It is really that painfully simple.

The doctor responds by accuse the abbot of being merciless and out of touch, which is no refutation of the facts stated by the abbot.

It is Unjust to Blame the Church for Refusing to Sanction Evil Means to Avoid a Bad Result

Miller’s 1959 novel is extremely relevant (and prophetic) when it comes to people who argue the Church is merciless in refusing to change her moral teachings to prevent some evil from happening.  They say that Catholic institutions and businesses run by Catholics who hire and serve non-Catholics are “forcing their view on others” by refusing to provide contraceptive coverage to non-Catholics.  They blame the Church for being the aggressor when she is in fact the victim of the law.

But, like the abbot in A Canticle for Leibowitz, the Church knows her duty to God.  The Church knows that permitting an evil act for people who do not know it is evil is to incur guilt for that evil.

To use the criteria of the future Pope John Paul II earlier, The Church needs to act to avoid the bad end, but we can’t do the bad act of doing something intrinsically evil (complying with the mandate) to avoid the bad end (ruinous fines).  So we must either find a good means to oppose the bad end or suffer the bad end.

This is also why the Church must speak out and warn people of the evils being done and why they must not be done.  Yes, it is possible in some cases that a person might not realize that the act proposed is evil.  But being silent about this ignorance is not permissible, just as having knowledge of a bridge being unsafe to travel across and being silent about it is not permissible.  We must speak up to prevent people from doing wrong just as we must speak up to prevent people from being killed when driving across an unsafe bridge.  Otherwise we are responsible for the resulting tragedies.

Looking at Examples with These Considerations

With these considerations in mind, we should look at some incidents where the Church has felt morally obligated to take a stand against the dilemma.  In some of them, the Church has been labeled “out of touch.”  In others, she has been blamed for suffering for not changing her teaching in the face of the dilemma.  She’s been called cruel or bureaucratic or legalistic in refusing to permit what she considers evil as a means to prevent suffering.

Atomic Weapons

One historical case which can offend Americans was the case that happened in 1945.  The Catholic Church spoke against the use of atomic weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Many people thought them to be out of touch or to favor the Japanese over the Americans: After all, didn’t dropping the bombs mean shortening the war and preventing the projected one million casualties expected from an invasion of the Japanese home islands?

We have the dilemma again:

1.       Either we [Use Atomic Weapons] or we [Suffer Horrendous casualties]. 

2.       We don’t want to [Suffer Horrendous Casualties]. 

3.       Therefore [Use of Atomic Weapons] is justified. 

That is an “Ends justify the means” argument which was essentially what the US Government argued, and was something I once (to my sorrow) believed to be valid myself.

The reason the use of the weapon was not justified is it was an indiscriminate weapon in which an entire city was a target, not merely military targets in a city.  The intent was to terrorize the Japanese people and government into surrender.  Now the desire to save the lives of Allied soldiers is in itself a good end.  But the means used (deliberately employing indiscriminate death and destruction on a massive scale) was an evil means.  Since we may not employ an evil means to achieve a good end or avoid a bad end, it follows reasonably that the dropping of the Atomic Bomb was not a moral response.  That’s not to say there were no moral ways to try to end the war with fewer casualties of course, but the dilemma used tried to justify an evil means to achieve a good end.

AIDS and Condoms in Africa

One particularly reprehensible attack on Pope Benedict XVI and the Church was over the AIDS epidemic in Africa in 2009.  It was essentially argued that either the Church accepts condoms as a valid means of protection or be responsible for the continuing spread of AIDS.  The problem is, this was not at all the only means of preventing the spread of AIDS.

What the attack on the Church presumed was it was not possible to ask people infected with HIV to refrain from sexual activity and that therefore the use of condoms was necessary to protect innocent people from infection.

But the Catholic Church pointed out that one could prevent the spread of AIDS without using an evil means by insisting that people with AIDS had the responsibility to refrain from activity which put their spouses at risk of infection.

The Church was blamed for the suffering when in fact she pointed out the real cause of the suffering and called for behavior to be changed to truly prevent the spread of infection.  I mean really… what the hell kind of husband would risk infecting his wife just to gratify his sexual urges?   It’s that kind of person, not the Pope, who is reprehensible.

Besides, if he didn’t listen to the Church telling him not to have sex with a person he is not married to when he got AIDS, why should he listen to the Church if the Church should tell him to wear a condom with his uninfected wife?

The HHS Mandate Dilemma

At this time, there are many Catholic institutions as well as businesses run by Catholics which are threatened by the dilemma on whether to do what is sinful: Either the Catholics allow the contraceptive coverage or face ruinous fines. 

Since providing support for something the Church believes to be intrinsically evil, Catholics cannot go along with the mandate.  But the fines are flagrantly unjust.  So Catholics are justified in finding a non-sinful way of avoiding the evil effect of paying those fines.

The response of the Catholics is to sue the government to protect their rights under the Constitution.  It is not an immoral act to seek a redress for grievances – that is in fact one of the First Amendment Rights after all.

Now those who want to force the Church into accepting these mandates try to argue that the Church is to blame for being in this position.  It is claimed that the Church is seeking to push their values on others and are willing to let people be denied “health care” because of a legalistic attitude.

But since contraceptives and abortifacients are things which Catholics believe are intrinsically evil, we can never make use of them and cannot make them available to others who do not share our values.  As the abbot in A Canticle to Leibowitz pointed out, even if others do not know an act is wrong, we do and if we say nothing, we bear responsibility.

So now the Catholics appeal to the courts to defend their rights.  If the Courts fail in their duties and rule against us, then we will have to face ruinous fines that will eventually force Catholic institutions (like hospitals and schools) and Catholic owned businesses into bankruptcy, because we may not disobey our Lord and do that which we know is evil.


I’ve left the dilemma of martyrdom for last because it is a consistent example of the Church practicing what she preaches above.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes martyrdom as follows:

2473 Martyrdom is the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith: it means bearing witness even unto death. The martyr bears witness to Christ who died and rose, to whom he is united by charity. He bears witness to the truth of the faith and of Christian doctrine. He endures death through an act of fortitude. “Let me become the food of the beasts, through whom it will be given me to reach God.”

When one is given the choice of denying what God commands and living and standing up for God and being killed for it, the world expects the Christian to fold.  It believes no belief is so important as to be worth dying for.  Think about how much good one could do if the martyr had just “compromised” a little and lived to continue doing good.  But for the person who believes in God, denying Him is always wrong.  Since we may never do evil so good (in this case, living) can come from it, we are to stand up for our belief even if someone does us evil and kills us for doing what we believe to be right.

While we are not obligated to seek martyrdom (there’s that option to find a non-evil means to avoid suffering), we are called to accept it rather than deny the God we profess belief in.

Martyrdom is not something which only happens to a subset of the population.  Young children and old men have been martyred.  Men and women have been martyred.  Laity and clergy have been martyred.  Even Popes have been martyred for the faith, so it is not limited to the lowly while the powerful order them to suffer. 

The motivations of the persecutors vary but it all tends to revolve around the Christian recognizing that the demands of God are more binding than the demands of the state if there is a conflict.

Because any member of the Church can be called to martyrdom if he or she would be faithful to Christ over the world, we can say that the Church practices what she preaches in saying we may not do evil to avoid an evil result.  We recognize it is better to suffer for doing right than to do evil to avoid that suffering.

Once this fact is grasped, then all the other scenarios where the Church says in response to the other moral dilemmas that we may not do evil to avoid suffering become clear as well.

Christ has told us:

“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.  For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.  What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself? Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.  Truly I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.”  (Luke 9:23-27)

That applies to every moral dilemma we face in life. 

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