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May One Do Evil That Good May Come Of It?

December 7, 2017 Frontpage No Comments

By ARTHUR HIPPLER

(Editor’s Note: Dr. Hippler is chairman of the religion department and teaches religion in the Upper School at Providence Academy, Plymouth, Minn.)

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The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that a “good intention (for example, that of helping one’s neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny, good or just” (n. 1753).
In teaching this, the Catechism reaffirms the teaching of St. Paul, as St. Thomas explains: “Someone might steal to feed the poor; his intention is right, but he is lacking the requisite good will. So no evil can be excused because it is done with a good intention (Romans 3:8): ‘Those who [say we] say “Let us do evil so that good may come” are justly condemned’” (“On the Ten Commandments,” cited at CCC, n. 1759). Since many people seem to accept “necessary evils,” this is an important principle to understand.
First, one should distinguish the different components or “sources” of a moral act. First is the object; what is chosen, for example, giving to the poor or robbing a bank. The object is judged as it conforms to or conflicts with the basic commands of the natural law. Second, we have the intention — that is, why the action is chosen. Intentions, like object, may conform or conflict with the moral law. Third, we have the circumstances, which include the conditions surrounding the action, such as “when” it happens or “where” or “with whom” or “how much.” So, the issue is then — can one choose a bad object for the sake of a good intention?
Very often, people believe that they deny this principle when they really do not. The Catechism uses “lying” as an example of a bad “object” that cannot be justified by a good intention, and people then propose scenarios, for example, Nazis going door to door, asking for hidden Jews, that seem to demand lying to save the Jews.
But as further inquiry reveals, many people do not believe that lying is bad in itself. In other words, they are not considering an action that they believe evil, apart from intention and circumstances. When I ask high school sophomores if lying is intrinsically wrong or “bad in itself,” roughly a third will say yes, a third will say no, and a third are undecided. If lying is not “bad in itself” then one is not “doing evil that good may come of it” when one lies to save Jews.
To see the principle one really has to choose an action that one considers “bad in itself,” that is, rape or lynching or taking innocent life. If in fact there is nothing one considers intrinsically wrong — if one believes that no action is in itself wrong apart from intention and circumstances — then the problem of “evils” necessary for “good” never arises. Any evil is only apparent, because a good intention can make any action good. This position is often called “situation ethics,” and it denies any actions or “objects” that are evil in themselves.
Similarly, a consistent moral relativist does not deny the principle either, so much as he denies the realities behind the principle. “One may never do evil that good may come of it” presupposes that “good” and “evil” are objective realities, which the relativist denies. His view is that “there is nothing good or bad save that thinking makes it so.”
When someone really does try to deny the principle that “one may never do evil that good may come of it,” they grant that moral goods are real goods, but then put them as lower to physical goods such as survival and health. For example, one may commit fornication (a moral evil) if it is for the sake of preserving one’s life or the life of another (physical good).
In Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, for example, Angelo offers to save Isabelle’s brother from execution if she sleeps with him. Isabelle refuses. “Is it not a kind of incest to purchase a life from your sister’s shame?” The moral good of her purity is higher than even her brother’s life. On the contrary, if moral goods are lower than physical goods, then Isabelle is merely selfish. Moral goods should be sacrificed for physical goods when human life is at stake.
Part of the difficulty here is that we see a conflict of goods between two people. But the principle is easier to see where there are not two people but one. In the book of Daniel, two Israelite elders accuse Susannah of adultery in a failed attempt to extort to sleeping with them. Susannah reasons in the following way: “There is no escape for me, she said, either way. It is death if I consent, and if I refuse, I shall be at your mercy. Let me rather fall into your power through no act of mine, than commit sin in the Lord’s sight” (13:22-23).
Susannah does not have a clear idea of Heaven or Hell, but it is enough for her that adultery is a “sin in the Lord’s sight.” (In Measure for Measure, Isabelle also appeals to corruption of soul, but not eternal punishment.) The damage is not to the body, but to the soul, even if that soul were not immortal. If, however, physical goods were higher, then Susannah is a fool to prefer death before dishonor. Indeed all of those who prefer death to moral goods, whether for the good of family or country or God Himself, are simply deluded.
If goods of the soul and spirit are really higher than goods of the body, then Isabelle is not being “selfish.” The virtue of her soul is truly a better good than the life of her brother’s body. If man were only a tree or a beast, physical goods would be the only ones that mattered. But in a being that has mind and will, knowledge and choice, the body and its goods come second.
Hence, the principle “one may never do evil that good may come of it” is ultimately founded on human nature. Trees and beasts do not have a moral nature, a soul by which they are free to think and love. But this higher nature by which man is superior to trees and beasts brings into being goods that are higher than those of the body. To act for survival, whether one’s own or that of others, as the highest good is to deny man’s moral and spiritual nature.

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