The "lesser evil" argument


I am in college studying “Community Service and Substance Abuse Councillor.” There is a Catholic organization for the homeless, here where I live in Canada, where clean drug supplies, condoms etc are given to the most desperate drug and alcohol abusers. The argument is that they are at their wits end, many of whom are dying, and in order stop the spread of HIV, AIDS and Hepatits, this “safe drug” program is needed. The Archbishop supports this program. What are your thoughts? Feedback would be helpful. Shalom!


Drugs, alcohol, sex stuff are things to destroy one’s soul.
My first thought was that this program and the Archbishop are doing more harm then good. They are against what the Catholic is teaching.

It is better to deal with the pain physically then spiritually. The program and this Archbishop are supposed to bring these poor souls to the Lord, not to Satan!

We better pray for all of them.


The error in this is it is based in faulty logic and false charity.

Take for instance the stance that the Church has when it comes to fighting AIDS in Africa. John Paul II stated often that the solution is not found in the use of condoms. Rather a deeper work must be done to change the heart of the individual in order to solve the root problem and not just treat the symptom.

Practically speaking such “cures” have never proved out statistically to solve these problems. This is well documented by many studies.

Morally it is never permissible to willfully enable sin. Some would argue that in line with the words of Pope Leo XIII “error may be tolerated for the sake of the good” that such actions would fall into the category of doing less harm. However, this is to take Pope Leo XIII out of context. When it turns from toleration of error to enabling error it then in turn becomes error itself. As Benedict XVI stated in his Encyclical workers of charity must strive to present true love to those under their care. In this case true love cannot enable further vice because of the grave repercussions of these disorders. While this method of work is much more difficult it is in fact much more effective than the utilitarian method that they are currently employing.


Well may first thought is “Shalom”???
My second thought is what is missing is the understanding of 1) “eminent danger”, 2) “promoting” and 3)“Lesser Evil”. First if we watch these people die of these issues, even if we preach at them through out that process an opportunity is lost. So as they approach “eminent danger” or achieve eminent danger the rules began to change in their order (or priority). The rules never go away* in or near eminent danger we can provide these items only as a means to open the door of salvation to the individual. The doctor may provide equal drugs legally as a drug reduction plan for the person. The doctor may not provide the same drug for me as I am in no danger. See the sin is not in the drug but in the method of use or intent. I hope this explains the promoting issue. Giving me free drugs would/could be promoting drug use. The doctor treating the addict is actual discouraging drug use while simultaneously supplying some (ever smaller) drugs. I do not see the Lesser evil clearly in your post. See when a person becomes a doctor; they first should understand their moral compass and the patient moral compass will not always match. This creates daily ethical dilemmas in which the doctor controls the medicine cabinet and disagrees with the patient. See disagreeing is one issue preventing the access of the medicine is another issue. Many doctors prescribe drugs or perform procedures only after telling the patient you should not do this. The separation of this and the earlier issue is these procedures do clearly violate the law, cause death, or have direct negative medical consequences. This is a very slippery slope, euthanasia, vasectomies, tubule legations, extended prescriptions, or increases dosages all fall in here. Notice there is considerable difference between doctors in these issues.

Hope that helps

  • this a common misunderstanding



Hello and welcome out of the shadows. I see you’ve been a member for quite some time but only have two posts so far. I hope you have a blessed and fruitful time here.

While the goal of assisting drug and alcohol abusers is noble, handing out syringes and drug supplies is a false charity. The idea that dying is the worst thing that can happen to a person is a modern heresy. It would be far better to get them in a place–perhaps a monastery could set aside a wing for this–where they will be away from alcohol and drugs entirely. It would be what my brother calls “soft incarceration.”

  • Liberian


The lesser of two evils argument is only valid when the choices are limited and clear. For example, you have one candidate who favors abortion on demand, and another who favors abortion on demand and euthanasia.

In the case of drugs, the choices are neither clear nor limited – the fact that one approach didn’t work may be due to poor execution, for example, and not to a basic flaw in concept. With more work, what failed before may work. Or with a slightly different approach.

Frankly, when you give “clean drug supplies, condoms etc to the most desperate drug and alcohol abusers” you will not see an appreciable drop in drug abuse, HIV, AIDS and Hepatits. It’s been tried before and it fails.


The ends never justify the means.


Hehehe…I was just goin over my posts etc. I know this is kinda late, but thanks for your hoping I have a “blessed and fruitful time here.” I am have and continue to do so. This Easter Vigil, it will be one year since I entered the Holy Catholic Church! Catholic Answers had a major impact on decision to convert, and still plays a role in my continued conversion. Anyways, the reason I barely post anything is because I am a real introvert, even on the web it seems:eek: I am very comfortable discussing issues with close friends, and less so with people I don’t know very well, no matter what means of communication I am using. It’s tough being among the minority of introverts! I am getting alot out of reading people’s responses, and learning from the main website the solid basics of Catholic belief and practice, which is a real blessing. God Bless and I pray you are having a fruitful Lenten season. Pax Christi, Pax Caritas.


The program is sadly misguided and is not compatible with Church teaching.

And, the Archbishop and whatever clergy support this program are assisting people in committing grave sin. They are certainly not assisting those individuals who are close to death in repenting and preparing to meet God.

I am sorry your Archbishop is such a poor witness and is failing to uphold the Catholic Church’s doctrine.

You could always write to the Vatican.


I disagree with the Archbishop and say the program described will only facilitate the sinful behavior sense it does absolutely nothing to diminish it. In fact, it makes the items involved in the sinful behavior readily available! :mad:


The “Lesser of Two Evils” principle, as I understand it, has two basic applications:

  1. When faced with a clear and mandatory choice of two or more evils, it is legitimate to choose the lesser of the evils. For example, as a previous poster suggested, when faced with a clear choice of two politicians who support abortion, one of whom also supports concentration camps for Jews, it is legitimate (perhaps even mandatory?) to vote for the pro-abortion candidate who opposes concentration camps.

  2. When attempting to dissuade a person who is DETERMINED to do evil, it is legitimate to propose a lesser evil instead. For example, if someone is determined to kill another person in retaliation for an offense, and cannot be dissuaded from doing so, as a last resort it would be legitimate to suggest that they just give the victim a good beating instead, even though giving someone a good beating would itself be immoral.

This is a long-standing, orthodox principle of moral theology. It does not imply that the lesser evil act is legitimate, nor does it imply consent to the lesser evil. Rather, it simply says that when faced with no other choice, it is OK to at least try to get someone to do something less evil than the evil they intend to do.

This is the argument that is often made for distributing clean needles and condoms.

With regard to drugs, I believe it does make sense to tell people, “It is wrong to take drugs. You’re killing yourself. But if you’re determined to do so, at least use a clean needle.” Certainly it is less evil to take drugs using a clean needle than it is to take drugs with a needle you know may give you AIDS.

Giving illicit drugs to a person as part of a treatment program whose purpose is to work toward eventual elimination of the drug is morally permissible if there is good reason to believe it has a reasonable chance of success. In this circumstance the illicit drug becomes a therapeutic agent.

Whether or not the program mentioned by the OP operates under these guidelines, or instead gives actual consent to the immoral behavior they’re facing, can’t be determined from the details provided.


I can see number 1 but I do not agree with its application there as there is a third choice, to vote for neither candidate.

As for number 2, I disagree with it. One should never give in to evil which is what this one is doing.


Many of these arguments are based on the Fallacy of Limited Alternatives. If I know someone is determined to kill someone else, I am not limited to persuading him just to give the person a beating. I have other options – I can warn the victim, hide or defend him, call the police, and so on.


You’re right. The third choice is not to vote. So you have 2 legitimate choices: To vote for the lesser of two evils or not to vote at all.

All I’m saying is that the Principle of the Lesser of Two Evils applies here and makes voting for the lesser of two evils a legitimate option.

Whether or not you should take that option is not defined by the Church, so we are free to decide for ourselves and we should not condemn those who decide differently than we do.

I understand what you’re saying, but it’s not me you’re disagreeing with. It’s the Church. This is a principle that the Church has taught its confessors for centuries to guide them in the confessional.


The Church doesn’t subscribe to the Fallacy of Limited Alternatives. If we have unsatisfactory candidates all around, whose fault is that? It’s our fault!

This is our country, and if we’re so lazy we let other people run it for us, shame on us.


Suppose you’re a confessor and during confession someone tells you of his intent to kill someone? Obviously you couldn’t give absolution, but your choices really ARE limited.

You could argue that the confessor should simply tell the person not to kill his intended victim. Certainly the priest would not be guilty if he’s ignored, but the Church has said that proposing a lesser evil in such a situation is a moral alternative FOR THE CONFESSOR, not for the person contemplating murder.

It is a fallacy to deny that there are situations in which you really do have limited alternatives. And even if your options are not limited, you may not have time to think of all the alternatives before you must choose what to do. This principle has been articulated by the Church to guide us in such a situation.

I have given an example of such a situation because it is well-defined and clear, and therefore can serve as a basis for discussion.

There are other examples that are more likely to occur in our daily lives but are, perhaps, not as clear and therefore are more likely to degenerate into a useless argument in a forum such as this.


Less limited than you think. As a confessor, you cannot break the seal of the confessional. But you can tell the penetent to go to the police, file a lawsuit, and so on.

You don’t have to tell him to beat his intended victim!

Put this question to your Bishop and see what he says.:wink:

What principle? Wherein are we told it’s okay to advise someone to beat his victim, rather than file a lawsuit or go to the police?

No, it’s a false dilemma. There are many alternatives to the situation.

Situations where there are only two possible choices are rare – and usually constructed to prove a point.


I think the so called lesser evil argument is in regard to the principle of double effect. Those principles do not allow for choosing any evil action.

Choosing a so called lesser evil is valid only if there is no formal cooperation with evil. Telling someone it is ok to beat another or passing out needles so folks can get high would seem to be formal cooperation with evil, not some type of material cooperation.


The “lesser evil” argument derives from St. Thomas Aquinas’ assertion that “the lesser evil or the greater good is always to be chosen” (Summa Theologica,suppl, 41, 2).

Thus, to use the lesser evil argument, one must first determine if there is a “good” among the potential choices. With respect to transmission of HIV through sexual activity, there is indeed a greater good, which is: don’t have sex.

See more here:
Cardinal: Condoms “Lesser Evil” than AIDS


You’re absolutely correct – it is moral to do something like give painkillers to a dying person, even if the dosage needed to control pain is so high as to hasten death (which is an example straight from the Catechism.) In this example, the purpose is to alleviate suffering, not to cause death. Death is inevitable and imminent, and we cannot change that – but we can allow the person to die with some dignity.

In the example given in a previous post, the aim is revenge. Changing the mode from murder to a beating does not change the character of the act, nor the motive of the actor. It remains evil, and therefore persuading the actor to beat, rather than kill his enemy is not moral and not a true example of the principle of double effect.

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