Monday, December 15, 2014

Making Excuses: What Part of Intrinsic Evil Don't You Understand?


The defenders of torture are still at it, offering all sorts of scenarios as to what sort of circumstances might justify it. "What if someone kidnapped your child? What if someone was going to target a nursery school? Don’t tell me you’d just let them get away with it?” Some of them are more elaborate than that, of course, but it’s making use of the appeal to fear fallacy—you’re invited to imagine the scenario that a loved one was in danger of death, to encourage you to change your mind. But just because we may suffer when we stick to what is right, that is not a sufficient reason for going against what we believe is right.

The problem with these arguments is that they ignore the main issue: That the Church is teaching that torture is intrinsically evil. Intrinsic evil basically means that a certain act is evil by its very nature and can’t be justified by any motivation or circumstance. Torture, Abortion, Contraception, Same sex sexual activity, rape, idolatry, abandoning the faith etc. are all intrinsically evil. The Catholic, properly educated in his or her faith, realizes that these things can never be justified for any reason whatsoever.

The justification of torture is similar to the justification of abortion. Proponents of both appeal to the motive of relieving suffering as if that was the only factor to be considered. But that’s not the only factor. There are actually three factors:

Catholic teaching holds that, to have a good act, we must have the following:

  1. The Act itself must be good.
  2. The motive for the act must be good.
  3. The circumstances surrounding the act must be good.
If one of these are lacking, we cannot call the act good. (Think of a tripod. Then imagine removing a leg. The remaining structure won’t stand up). For example. Donating money to the poor is good. But if my motive is bad (I want to impress a woman so she’ll sleep with me) or the circumstances are bad (the money will be used to buy drugs or alcohol instead of food), the act isn’t good, even if good comes from it.

The irony is that the Catholics seeking to justify torture with exceptions actually reject those exceptions on other issues. For example, they recognize that hardship is not a legitimate reason to justify abortion because it violates the humanity of the unborn child and the mother. They would recognize that an ancient Christian who chose to sacrifice before an idol to avoid being killed would not be justified. (The reverse is true too—some Catholics who recognize torture is wrong for these reasons seem to fail to make the connection when it comes to abortion).

That’s the ultimate problem here. People seem to either be unaware or unwilling to accept that in some things, there is no but what if?  “But isn’t torture justified if a terrorist is going to fly a 747 into a nursery school?” “But isn’t abortion justified if the unborn child was conceived of rape?” “But isn’t apostasy justified if I have ten children who will starve if I get executed for being a Christian?"

The answer is “No.” There are some things that are so important that we cannot sacrifice them at any cost to ourselves. We may never do evil so good may come of it (CCC #1789). We must love God with our whole heart and our neighbor as ourself (Matt 7:12) and love our enemies (Matt 5:43-48).

Now there may be times when a person gets into a terrible situation. It may be our own fault. It may not be our fault. But in such a situation, the choice will be that we either accept the suffering as the sacrifice we need to make to remain faithful to God or to sacrifice our faithfulness to God in order to avoid the harm. If we love God with our whole heart, we know that we must choose in such a way that puts Him first in our life.


Another attempt to defend intrinsic evil is the appeal to a misapplication of double effect. Double Effect, properly understood, recognizes that situations exist where an action has a good intention, but a bad effect that is not intended, and would be avoided if possible. Not Intended is the key provision. If the evil effect is impossible to avoid AND does not outweigh the good effect, then the guilt of doing evil is not considered deliberate and therefore not considered to be sin.

But, if the evil effect is deliberately intended (such as committing torture or abortion), or if the evil effect happens through negligence (for example killing a pedestrian while driving drunk) then we CANNOT claim double effect. The guilt remains for the act and it must be condemned. So, that’s why the removal of the fallopian tube in the case of an ectopic pregnancy is not considered an abortion. The removal of the fallopian tube will cause the death of the unborn child, because there is no medical procedure that can save the child. If it was possible to save the life of the child, that option would be taken. But if the woman and doctors deliberately chose to perform an abortion to save the mother’s life, that would not be double effect. It would be deliberately choosing evil. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says on responsibility and acts:

1734 Freedom makes man responsible for his acts to the extent that they are voluntary. Progress in virtue, knowledge of the good, and ascesis enhance the mastery of the will over its acts. (1036; 1804)

1735 Imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors. (597)

1736 Every act directly willed is imputable to its author: (2568)

Thus the Lord asked Eve after the sin in the garden: “What is this that you have done?”29 He asked Cain the same question.30 The prophet Nathan questioned David in the same way after he committed adultery with the wife of Uriah and had him murdered.31

An action can be indirectly voluntary when it results from negligence regarding something one should have known or done: for example, an accident arising from ignorance of traffic laws.

1737 An effect can be tolerated without being willed by its agent; for instance, a mother’s exhaustion from tending her sick child. A bad effect is not imputable if it was not willed either as an end or as a means of an action, e.g., a death a person incurs in aiding someone in danger. For a bad effect to be imputable it must be foreseeable and the agent must have the possibility of avoiding it, as in the case of manslaughter caused by a drunken driver. (2263)

This demonstrates the flaw in the defense of things like torture or abortion by appealing to double effect. If the act was willed, or if it was foreseen as a possibility we could avoid by taking the right steps, then we don’t get to claim double effect—we did wrong, either directly, or by being negligent.

Nobody can reasonably blame a person for an accident of course. But torture and abortion and other intrinsically evil acts don’t happen by accident. They happen by a person choosing to take part in it. Once again, we are forbidden to choose an act which the Church decrees is evil, and choosing to do that act is to choose something as higher in importance than God.

Our choice is this: Either we choose God in our actions or we reject God in our actions. When God directly, or through His Church says we must not do an action, then there is never any circumstance or motive that makes it permissible.


  1. Spot on! You know your moral theology! Great article.

    1. Thank you for the encouragement, and glad you liked the article.