Intrinsically Evil

Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, discusses actions which are always evil:

80. Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature “incapable of being ordered” to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church’s moral tradition, have been termed “intrinsically evil” (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances. Consequently, without in the least denying the influence on morality exercised by circumstances and especially by intentions, the Church teaches that “there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object”.131 The Second Vatican Council itself, in discussing the respect due to the human person, gives a number of examples of such acts: “Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat labourers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons: all these and the like are a disgrace, and so long as they infect human civilization they contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice, and they are a negation of the honour due to the Creator”.132

With regard to intrinsically evil acts, and in reference to contraceptive practices whereby the conjugal act is intentionally rendered infertile, Pope Paul VI teaches: “Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good, it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it (cf. Rom 3:8) — in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general”.133

81. In teaching the existence of intrinsically evil acts, the Church accepts the teaching of Sacred Scripture. The Apostle Paul emphatically states: “Do not be deceived: neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the Kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9-10).

If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain “irremediably” evil acts; per se and in themselves they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person. “As for acts which are themselves sins (cum iam opera ipsa peccata sunt), Saint Augustine writes, like theft, fornication, blasphemy, who would dare affirm that, by doing them for good motives (causis bonis), they would no longer be sins, or, what is even more absurd, that they would be sins that are justified?”.134

Consequently, circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act “subjectively” good or defensible as a choice.

82. Furthermore, an intention is good when it has as its aim the true good of the person in view of his ultimate end. But acts whose object is “not capable of being ordered” to God and “unworthy of the human person” are always and in every case in conflict with that good. Consequently, respect for norms which prohibit such acts and oblige semper et pro semper, that is, without any exception, not only does not inhibit a good intention, but actually represents its basic expression.

The doctrine of the object as a source of morality represents an authentic explicitation of the Biblical morality of the Covenant and of the commandments, of charity and of the virtues. The moral quality of human acting is dependent on this fidelity to the commandments, as an expression of obedience and of love. For this reason — we repeat — the opinion must be rejected as erroneous which maintains that it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behaviour or specific acts, without taking into account the intention for which the choice was made or the totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned. Without the rational determination of the morality of human acting as stated above, it would be impossible to affirm the existence of an “objective moral order”135 and to establish any particular norm the content of which would be binding without exception. This would be to the detriment of human fraternity and the truth about the good, and would be injurious to ecclesial communion as well.

The basic idea is that we can speak of certain actions, like murder, and say that they are always wrong. However, we need to carefully understand what it means to be an action of a certain kind such as murder. Several paragraphs earlier, the Pope states:

78. The morality of the human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the “object” rationally chosen by the deliberate will, as is borne out by the insightful analysis, still valid today, made by Saint Thomas.126 In order to be able to grasp the object of an act which specifies that act morally, it is therefore necessary to place oneself in the perspective of the acting person. The object of the act of willing is in fact a freely chosen kind of behaviour. To the extent that it is in conformity with the order of reason, it is the cause of the goodness of the will; it perfects us morally, and disposes us to recognize our ultimate end in the perfect good, primordial love. By the object of a given moral act, then, one cannot mean a process or an event of the merely physical order, to be assessed on the basis of its ability to bring about a given state of affairs in the outside world. Rather, that object is the proximate end of a deliberate decision which determines the act of willing on the part of the acting person. Consequently, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “there are certain specific kinds of behaviour that are always wrong to choose, because choosing them involves a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil”.127 And Saint Thomas observes that “it often happens that man acts with a good intention, but without spiritual gain, because he lacks a good will. Let us say that someone robs in order to feed the poor: in this case, even though the intention is good, the uprightness of the will is lacking. Consequently, no evil done with a good intention can be excused. ‘There are those who say: And why not do evil that good may come? Their condemnation is just’ (Rom 3:8)”.128

The moral object of an act is not “a process or an event of the merely physical order, to be assessed on the basis of its ability to bring about a given state of affairs in the outside world.” Instead, it is what a person is choosing to do, and this must be understood in relationship with reason and will.

We can say that killing an innocent person is always wrong, then, if we mean by “killing an innocent person,” making the choice to kill an innocent person. But we cannot say that it is always wrong, if we mean by killing an innocent person, any action which happens to have the effect of an innocent person’s death, when the person performing the action may be choosing to do something other than killing someone.

As a kind of example, we can look at St. Thomas’s explanation of self-defense:

I answer that, Nothing hinders one act from having two effects, only one of which is intended, while the other is beside the intention. Now moral acts take their species according to what is intended, and not according to what is beside the intention, since this is accidental as explained above (43, 3; I-II, 12, 1). Accordingly the act of self-defense may have two effects, one is the saving of one’s life, the other is the slaying of the aggressor. Therefore this act, since one’s intention is to save one’s own life, is not unlawful, seeing that it is natural to everything to keep itself in “being,” as far as possible. And yet, though proceeding from a good intention, an act may be rendered unlawful, if it be out of proportion to the end. Wherefore if a man, in self-defense, uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repel force with moderation his defense will be lawful, because according to the jurists [Cap. Significasti, De Homicid. volunt. vel casual.], “it is lawful to repel force by force, provided one does not exceed the limits of a blameless defense.” Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense in order to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s. But as it is unlawful to take a man’s life, except for the public authority acting for the common good, as stated above (Article 3), it is not lawful for a man to intend killing a man in self-defense, except for such as have public authority, who while intending to kill a man in self-defense, refer this to the public good, as in the case of a soldier fighting against the foe, and in the minister of the judge struggling with robbers, although even these sin if they be moved by private animosity.

In St. Thomas’s case, the attacker is presumably not innocent, but the situation would be the same if the attacker were insane or mistakenly believed that the person was engaged in a violent attack. In any case “one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s,” and consequently defense would be legitimate, even if the attacker is strictly speaking an innocent person.

Someone might object to St. Thomas’s account here. It seems that the man who defends himself is not merely seeking to defend himself and incidentally permitting the death of the attacker. Rather, he seems to be choosing to kill the attacker in order to preserve his own life. Thus, if the attacker were merely insane or mistaken, he would be choosing to kill an innocent in order to preserve his own life.

The problem here is resolved exactly by pointing to the distinction between the moral act and the physical act. The defender may be choosing to strike the attacker, but it is wrong to say that he is choosing to kill the attacker, since “killing the attacker” is not the act as perceived by his reason and will here. Rather, the fact that he is more bound to preserve his own life implies that the correct description of his action is something like, “striking an attacker in order to preserve my life.”

There is therefore something potentially misleading about Pope John Paul II’s affirmation that “circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice.” This would be true as long as the moral object remains the same. But as St. Thomas stated,

A circumstance is sometimes taken as the essential difference of the object, as compared to reason; and then it can specify a moral act. And it must needs be so whenever a circumstance transforms an action from good to evil; for a circumstance would not make an action evil, except through being repugnant to reason.

And in a similar way, a circumstance may transform an action from evil to good, when it changes the action from one kind of action to another kind of action. Thus striking the man with a lethal blow would be “killing an innocent,” when the man is simply standing there. But when the circumstances change, and the man is charging with a knife, a similar lethal blow constitutes a legitimate act of self-defense. This can happen due to the fact that the change in the circumstances, in this case, implies a change in the moral object as well; and this can happen without any change in the external physical act. The lethal blow may be physically the same.

The Pope’s statement can be understood to be consistent with this, since it can mean that an action always remains evil as long as the moral object is evil. Still, the repeated emphasis on the division between moral object and circumstances, in phrases such as “quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances,” and “independently of circumstances,” might suggest to someone that the moral object is complete in itself, due to the physical action or something similar, such that a change in circumstances cannot change the moral object. This seems even more strongly suggested by the claim in paragraph 77, “The foreseeable consequences are part of those circumstances of the act, which, while capable of lessening the gravity of an evil act, nonetheless cannot alter its moral species.” In other words, it sounds like he is saying that perhaps some circumstances can change a moral action from one kind to another, but that foreseeable consequences, at least, can never do this. Now it may be that the Pope is simply saying that given that an action is evil, changing the circumstances will never stop it from being evil without changing the moral object. And this would be true.

But if he is understood to be saying that an action that looked at locally would be a kind of action which is morally evil, cannot become a kind of action which is morally good, once certain foreseeable consequences are taken into account, this would be a mistake. Breaking into a person’s house and taking something, which looked at locally would be an example of theft, might cease to be a case of theft given certain foreseeable consequences of doing it and of failing to do it. The reader may doubtless find many other examples.

It is on account of these facts that I said earlier that the truth about ethics is more flexible than people suppose. This is not because people do not understand examples like the one about theft, or about self-defense, but because people generally fail to see the general principles involved, despite being able to see the truth about such particular cases when they are raised. There may even be an example of this failure to see the general principle in the text of St. Thomas, in objection 4 and its reply:

Objection 4. Further, murder is a more grievous sin than fornication or adultery. Now nobody may lawfully commit simple fornication or adultery or any other mortal sin in order to save his own life; since the spiritual life is to be preferred to the life of the body. Therefore no man may lawfully take another’s life in self-defense in order to save his own life.

Reply to Objection 4. The act of fornication or adultery is not necessarily directed to the preservation of one’s own life, as is the act whence sometimes results the taking of a man’s life.

It is not entirely clear what St. Thomas means by “necessarily directed.” If we are speaking of the physical actions involved, it could be true that “unless I do this, I will die,” just as much in the one case as in the other, even though such situations would be much rarer than cases in which self-defense is necessary in order to preserve one’s life. Such cases come up from time to time in hostage situations.

Because of the difficulty of seeing the kind of moral action involved in such cases, someone might be tempted to assert that the persons involved are morally obliged to become martyrs: they should refuse, even if this results in their deaths. But this is probably a mistake. Even fornication and adultery cannot be defined by the mere physical actions involved, and the relationships with reason and will that would typically identify such activities are not present in such cases.

It should also be considered that if one says that there is such an obligation, it would apply equally to the case of a woman attacked by a rapist. If she were to cooperate physically in the slightest degree, in order to avoid death, she would be doing evil. This seems unlikely. One should not say, “Well, she is objectively doing evil, but she is not fully responsible, due to force and fear.” Rather, she is not doing evil at all, but behaving prudently, even if it is possible for someone laudably to behave otherwise.

There are other, possibly even stronger, examples of the same point, but I will leave this issue as it stands, at least for the present.

Some Catholic traditionalists such as John Vennari say that Pope Francis, in Amoris Laetitia, contradicts the traditional teaching of the Church on morality. He says,

What is a key problem with the document?

Amidst great drifts of verbiage – some not bad, some remarkably tedious – Francis effectively canonizes situation ethics. He furtively opens the door for Communion to the divorced and remarried on a ‘case-by-case’ basis, which destroys key elements of Catholic Moral Theology. In particular, his approach undermines recognition of intrinsically disordered acts, and once this is undermined in one area, it is undermined in all areas. Progressivists immediately celebrated Amoris Laetitia as a “radical shift.”

Among other texts, Vennari cites paragraph 304 of Amoris Laetitia as an example. We can look at the text of Pope Francis:

304. It is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being. I earnestly ask that we always recall a teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas and learn to incorporate it in our pastoral discernment: “Although there is necessity in the general principles, the more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter defects… In matters of action, truth or practical rectitude is not the same for all, as to matters of detail, but only as to the general principles; and where there is the same rectitude in matters of detail, it is not equally known to all… The principle will be found to fail, according as we descend further into detail”. It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations. At the same time, it must be said that, precisely for that reason, what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be elevated to the level of a rule. That would not only lead to an intolerable casuistry, but would endanger the very values which must be preserved with special care.

It is true that one could interpret this to contradict Pope John Paul II’s claims about intrinsically evil actions. But this would mainly happen if one were to understand Pope John Paul II’s statements to be asserting something false, namely that a morally evil action is self-contained in such a way that the addition of circumstances cannot change it into a different kind of action by changing its moral object. I have no doubt that this is in fact exactly how John Vennari would understand Pope John Paul II.

Leaving aside Veritatis Splendor, Pope Francis’s claim here is true, understood in the sense that one cannot determine the moral truth about all particular cases by means of general rules which refer to physical activities and circumstances. Whenever we say that something is always wrong, we already include some reference which labels the action in a moral way. Thus for example, both “murder is always wrong,” and “adultery is always wrong,” refer to the idea of injustice, namely something which is undue, because murder is unjustified killing, and adultery is sexual intercourse which is unjust towards the spouse of the person. One cannot describe these in merely physical ways and get things which are always wrong. Neither “a physical action which results in the death of a person,” nor “a physical action which results in sexual union with the spouse of another person” are names of something intrinsically evil.

In this sense, it is possible to reconcile the opinions of Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis. Nonetheless, it may well be the case that Pope Francis does not understand the relationship of his teaching with the previous moral teaching of the Church.


11 thoughts on “Intrinsically Evil

  1. So I think I get what you’re saying about circumstances affecting the morality of an action, but it seems like you don’t want to end up saying that any action is okay to do as long as you’re threatened with death if you don’t do it. I’m sure you’re not saying that but I guess I need some more explanation on the level of principles and also examples.


    • Steve Long objects to this kind of position, and once he put the objection this way: “It does seem to me that by this logic, someone could plausibly light my cigarette with a flamethrower, and identify the object as that of lighting a cigarette, because the part of the flame that lights the cigarette is not the part of the flame that incinerates me.”

      Of course, I could give more realistic examples, but his own example illustrates the point well enough. “What you are doing” is the action as considered by reason. Under normal circumstances, for someone to say, “I am lighting a cigarette,” under those circumstances would be wrong, that is, it would be a false description of what is being done. And that is because the fact that someone will die is much more important in an ordinary context. But in other circumstances, where something more important than an individual’s life is at stake, it could be quite correct to describe that physical action as “lighting a cigarette,” namely in circumstances in which it is more important that the cigarette be lit than that a man live.

      “Any action is okay to do as long as you’re threatened with death if you don’t do it,” would not follow from my argument in any case, because “any action” could refer to a moral action. So for example, if a tyrant says, “you will be killed unless you agree to do evil,” agreeing to do evil is a moral action which cannot in any way fail to be evil. And it doesn’t follow even with respect to all physical actions (or not in every case), because there are results which are worse than dying.

      However, I’m pretty sure that the threat of death is sufficient to prevent a physical action which normally would be a sexual act from being any kind of sexual act at all, considered morally, and therefore to prevent it from being an act against the virtue of chastity. But if you don’t find this persuasive, consider another example:

      Suppose I am a married Greek Catholic priest. One day I am hearing confessions. A man comes into the confessional. My wife is across in the church and observes the man enter the confessional. Through his confession, it becomes clear that my marriage was not valid, because the woman whom I supposed to be my wife was already married.

      (There are lots of excuses that could be made here, but they are accidental to the scenario; e.g. perhaps I shouldn’t believe him, but he could also present documentation on the spot, but without turning it over. Again, as a priest I might say that he is required to clarify this matter in the external forum; but he could simply refuse.)

      That evening, my supposed wife asks for intercourse. Since if I refuse, the content of the man’s confession will become manifest to her, I am obliged to grant her request.

      The moral action here is not “adultery,” but “sexual intercourse with a woman who is my wife according to all the knowledge I am permitted to act on.” It is also sexual intercourse with someone else’s spouse, but this is merely a physical fact about the action, not the morally relevant factor, namely not a correct description of what I am choosing to do.


      • You may have explained sufficiently, but I’m not there yet.

        “So for example, if a tyrant says, ‘you will be killed unless you agree to do evil,’ agreeing to do evil is a moral action which cannot in any way fail to be evil.” Can you just give me a few examples of evil actions the tyrant might ask you to do which could never be acceptable? I am still just trying to figure out by what principle you determine whether an action is evil in an absolute sort of way or would ordinarily be evil, but could be rendered non-evil by the fact that you’re doing it to avoid death or breaking the seal of confession or something.

        In the case of the people on the bus–I guess to say the people did not commit evil, are we ruling out rape as being involved? I am assuming they were all adults on the bus and they all at least tacitly agreed to go through with it to save their lives…but now I suppose I am considering the act as potentially an act of violence against an innocent person rather than under the aspect of an act against chastity.


        • I think we might be at the point I described in the post, where it is possible for examples to make sense (more or less), but that doesn’t automatically mean that people understand the general principles. So rather than just trying to give more examples, let me back up a bit.

          Take something morally indifferent, or perhaps a little bit good, but nothing special, like drinking a cup of coffee (which I happen to be doing right now.)

          If I were to describe that action physically, there are many things I could say about it:

          1) I am repeatedly moving an object from the table in front of me to my mouth
          2) I am taking a stimulant
          3) I am moving a cup through the air and consequently pushing the air to the side
          4) I am partially filling my stomach

          Evidently, I could come up with any number of statements like that. All of them are true, taken as factual descriptions of the physical action.

          But those are not descriptions of an action considered morally. The moral action really is something like “drinking a cup of coffee.”

          Of course it is also true as a factual statement that I am drinking a cup of coffee, not merely as a moral statement. So what is the difference? Why is one of those the correct moral description, or why is one more correct than another? John Paul II’s description is a good one: “It is therefore necessary to place oneself in the perspective of the acting person.” “Drinking a cup of coffee” is the correct description because it is closest to what I would actually think about when I choose to act in this way. Pushing the air to the side, on the other hand, is irrelevant, precisely because it is irrelevant to my will and reason, to what I am thinking about and what I am choosing. I do not care about that one way or another.

          This doesn’t mean that every time someone attempts to offer a moral description, he is offering the correct one. The “correct one” does not mean the one that is factually true as a physical description; as I pointed out, all of the above physical descriptions are factually accurate. It is correct, in one sense, if it accurately describes the will and reason of the one who does it; and it is correct in another sense if it accurately describes what a reasonable person would think about the action. In other words, suppose an alcoholic says, “I am just moving this cup to my mouth. Getting drunk or even drinking alcohol has nothing to do with it. It is irrelevant to me, just like pushing the air to the side.” This would be an attempt to justify his action by making it into one which is morally indifferent. But he is mistaken simply because it is not a reasonable description of what he is doing, nor a reasonable description of what he cares about. Of course it remains factually accurate as a physical description, but it is not what he is actually thinking about and choosing. Or if it is, he has lost his sanity. Either way, it is unreasonable taken as a moral description.

          Now consider a case of the principle of double effect. Suppose you are the head of a nation at war, one that is fully justified — your nation is completely in the right, and the other one completely in the wrong. They also initiated it, so there is no question that the war is entirely defensive.

          Now you have to bomb a military target. It is extremely important; if the target is destroyed, you will win the war, and if it is not, you will lose the war. (Of course all these specifications are unrealistic, but we need to do this in order to understand clearly and avoid unnecessary distraction.)

          The enemy, knowing the importance of the target, and knowing that you are an ethical person, is keeping an innocent person on the grounds of the target. If you bomb the target, the innocent person will die.

          This is a clear case of the principle of double effect. The moral object is something like, “Bombing a military target,” just as in our original example, the moral object was something like, “Drinking a cup of coffee.”

          And just as in the coffee case, there are many statements that would be physically correct, but which are not moral descriptions, so also in the bombing case, “Dropping a bomb in a location where it will explode and kill an innocent person,” is a factually accurate description.

          But it is not the correct moral description, because it is not what you are considering and thinking about when you choose to act. You are thinking about the military target and the necessity of its destruction. And you are not like the alcoholic who gives a false description of his action. For the alcoholic is mistaken because drinking alcohol really is the important thing in his situation, whether he admits it or not. But in the military case, the destruction of the target really is the important thing. It really is what a reasonable person would be thinking about.

          Now consider one of the cases I mentioned, namely the woman being raped by a violent attacker who forces her to cooperate physically. Suppose he is threatening her with a gun, and says, “take your clothes off.” If she does what he says, and if everything goes according to the attacker’s plan, then physically this action was the first step in a physical process that leads to a sexual conjunction.

          But obviously, taking your clothes off is not intrinsically evil. And consider the woman’s intention when she does this. She is not doing it because it will lead to sexual intercourse, any more than the bomber is bombing in order to kill an innocent human being. She is doing it to avoid being killed. And the same thing applies at every step of the process. So the correct moral description is, “carrying out a set of physical motions in order to avoid being killed,” not “engaging in sexual intercourse.” The latter may be factually accurate as a physical description, but not as a moral description.

          And again, I would claim that the woman is not like the alcoholic, and is actually right about what is important in this situation. On the other hand, if someone feels, “I would rather die than go through the rest of my life remembering being forced to do this,” I see no reason to blame them either. There is no reason why this cannot be a situation where one than one response is valid, depending on what you care about.

          The situation with the hostages is a little bit more complicated, but I do not think it is essentially different. (I was in fact assuming that the people involved were all cooperating with each other to avoid being killed; there is no way to know for sure if this was true in reality, but it doesn’t matter, since we are using it as an example, not as history.) The reason it is more complicated is that presumably the attacker himself is describing the situation as though the moral act were a sexual one, i.e. saying something like “you two have sex or I’ll kill you.” But even the attacker’s intention is probably not primarily sexual (except perhaps like viewing pornography); his intention is to demean and humiliate. So there is no reason why the correct moral description cannot be, “carrying out a humiliating series of physical actions in order to avoid being killed.” On the other hand, the people involved may be thinking, in essence, “I have to do this unchaste act in order to avoid being killed,” and as long as they think this, it will be wrong to choose it. It would be the same if the bomber thought, “I have to kill an innocent person in order to save the country.” As long as he thinks this way, he cannot morally carry out the bombing. And in the same way, as long as the people concerned think of it in terms of doing evil for the sake of good, they cannot morally do it. But both in the case of the bombing and in the case of the hostages, there is no real need for them to think of it in terms of doing evil.

          Let me know if this is clear up to this point. Regarding the tyrant, I was speaking formally. Suppose the attacker in the hostage situation just wants to make them into bad people. So he says, “to be clear, I want you to engage in unchastity as such. I will kill you if you do not agree. So do you agree to be unchaste or not?” Of course there may be a question about whether you are bound to tell him the truth about your intention. But there is no need to complicate things unnecessarily; he is asking for a certain intention, namely “doing something unchaste to avoid being killed,” and if you have that intention, you are doing something evil, as I just said above.

          My concern in your question is “by what principle you determine whether an action is evil in an absolute sort of way or would ordinarily be evil, but could be rendered non-evil by the fact that you’re doing it to avoid death or breaking the seal of confession or something.” This is basically why I said I thought you weren’t understanding the general principle. Because it is not a question of some actions being absolutely evil and others being able to be rendered non-evil by certain results. It is simply that no moral action at all can be defined completely by a physical set of circumstances; it is not that undue sexual intercourse is justified by the threat of death, but that what the person is doing in that situation is not undue sexual intercourse at all, morally speaking, just as the bomber is not morally killing an innocent.


          • Thank you. I do understand what you are saying and so far, everything about what you have stated in terms of principles and examples makes sense. I think it is common sense that cooperating with a rapist is not a sexual act at all and the considerations there, whether and to what lengths to defend yourself, are going to run along the lines of the prudential, and you have stated why this is so very clearly. I think my difficulty is that when I come up with an example where, to my instincts, a person should be willing to die rather than do this certain thing, I am having a hard time lining up the specifics of the example with the principles as you have outlined them. All of your examples so far have been ones where the threat of death, or the primary aim and its importance, fundamentally affects the nature of the act, so it is a different act than it might be in other circumstances; that’s why I wanted you to give an example of something you’d have to die for. At this point, my instinct would tell me, for example, that if someone told me they would kill a hundred people unless I agreed to shoot a child, I’d have to decline. But how do I explain that in terms of principles? I feel like I’m missing something basic somewhere when I am grasping for articulating principles, because surely I wouldn’t say, “I can/should shoot the little girl, because what I’m doing there is not ‘killing an innocent’ but ‘avoiding the death of 100 people'”. Thank you for humoring me?


            • “I’ll kill a hundred people unless you shoot a child,” is a kind of blackmail, and that adds a lot of complexity to the situation.

              If it were simply an issue of a series of physical actions which would lead either to the death of a hundred people, or of one person, and there was no avoiding one consequence or the other, simply for physical reasons, it would be true that you should choose the series that leads to the death of the one rather than the hundred, even if that means that you would physically contribute to causing the death of the one. This is just a case of the Trolley Problem (, and the answer is clear. You pull the lever, and it is completely correct to describe your action as “diverting the train from the hundred,” rather than as killing the one, even though pulling the lever does physically contribute to causing the death of the one. But what you are thinking about, and what you should be thinking about, is diverting the train from the hundred.

              But the blackmail situation is more complicated.

              First of all, if you are thinking, “I am going to kill a child to save a hundred people,” then you are thinking of doing evil for the sake of good, and that of course is evil; “for the sake of good” does not take away the “doing evil.”

              So one question is whether it is possible at all to think of this action in any other way. In the case of the lever, there is a certain amount of physical removal which makes it easy to think of what you are doing as something other than killing. In the case of shooting the child, that isn’t so clear.

              I suppose you could say, “I am going to put the child in such a condition that the blackmailer will accept that I’ve killed her, and thus will refrain from his plan to kill the hundred,” and assert that the death of the child is not relevant to your intention, but only the appearances of the child and the blackmailer’s belief.

              But in the first place there is a question of whether a sane human being could actually think this. If not, it will be wrong to perform the action. Second, even if you can actually think this, it might simply be an unreasonable description of what you are doing, like the case of the alcoholic. I think this is probably true, namely that it is an unreasonable description. But you can still ask why that would be the case. Surely the lives of a hundred people are more important than a single life. And if you actually had a way to pretend to kill the child without actually killing it, that might very well be justified. So it seems like it could be reasonable to say you really are just concerned about appearances and belief; that it really is the important thing in your action, and that the death of the child is secondary and unintended.

              This is where I think the issue of blackmail is very relevant. If the blackmailer were simply a computer checking for a certain image on its camera, and killing people if a certain image wasn’t there, and still more, if the program were there accidentally and not by human intention (all of which is not a real possibility), then the situation might very well be equivalent to the trolley situation, and you might be justified in pulling the trigger in the same way that you would be justified in pulling the lever, assuming that you capable of thinking of your action in this way.

              In fact, however, the blackmailer situation is not just a question of physical circumstances. In the first place, he actually wants you to do something evil, namely choose to kill a child. That might not be enough to mean that your action really would be to kill a child, but it is certainly a difference from the computer case, where there are no moral intentions.

              Second, and perhaps more importantly, there is a question of incentives. If people are willing to give in to blackmailers, that gives blackmailers a reason to blackmail. For example, the USA has a policy (not always followed) of not paying ransoms, e.g. for people kidnapped by ISIS, even when they are saying, “Unless you pay this price, we will kill the captive.” It is hard for people to admit it, but refusing would be justified on the grounds of the price alone in some cases, e.g. if they are demanding 100 million. That is no different from saying that you would not pay 100 million to save the life of a cancer patient, which is an entirely reasonable decision. But if they are asking, say, $100,000, that would not be an unreasonable price to pay to save a life. Nonetheless, you can justify the policy of refusing even in cases like that, simply because paying will encourage them to kidnap more people in order to ask for more ransoms, to increase their requests to see what you will pay, and so on. Or as the poem says,

              “We never pay any-one Dane-geld,
              No matter how trifling the cost;
              For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
              And the nation that pays it is lost!”

              In the case of the alcoholic, the reason that it would be unreasonable for him to describe his action as “just moving the cup to my mouth,” is that this pays no attention to motivations and consequences. This does not mean that you are merely performing a utilitarian calculation. But it is true nonetheless that “the reasonable way to think about this action” is going to depend in some part on what will happen if you think about it that way. If the alcoholic considers his action to simply moving something to his mouth, he will have no incentive to overcome his addiction or avoid drunkenness and its consequences. In other words, not only his action, but even the way he considered his action, will be detrimental to the human good. That is why it is unreasonable, and why it is unreasonable for him to look at his action that way.

              In a similar way, because of the incentive issues, it would be detrimental to have a policy of considering your action in that way, namely as being about appearances and beliefs, rather than about the life of a child. So it is unreasonable to say that you are only concerned with those things, and reasonable to think of the situation exactly as it appears on the surface: that you are being asked to kill an innocent human being to prevent other evils. And this is an evil thing which should not be done.

              In any case, that is how I would currently think about that situation.


          • Oh and I did catch that you were giving an example with the tyrant saying you have to agree to do evil, or die. But to me that is kind of a cop-out example. Because if I were in that situation, my response would be, “for example…?” He could be a very religious tyrant from India, and perhaps the supreme evil thing would be to go out and tip cows and then kill and eat them. I would make him speak more concretely.


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