What makes an act intrinsically evil?


#1

What makes an act intrinsically evil? The Church certainly teaches that if the moral object is evil, the act is intrinsically evil and therefore always wrong to choose. But there is a controversy today in moral theology between two views:

A. The object is willed directly, regardless of the chosen physical action. Physical actions have no inherent moral meaning, apart from the end willed by the person who acts. This end is the moral object; when it is evil, the act is intrinsically evil. But if the person wills only good, then the act is not intrinsically evil. This willed end is independent of the physical action.

B. Actions can be sins in and of themselves; the moral object is inherent to the act, because the act is ordered to that end, by its very nature. The human will, by choosing any concrete act, necessarily also chooses its moral nature (its ordering) and its object, at least implicitly. The object is of the act; the person wills the object by willing the act.

Is there a third view that anyone would propose?

The traditional view in Catholic moral theology is B above, while A is a fairly recent proposal by some moralists.


#2

C: both A & B ?

Anything that can be reducible to a conscious rebellion against God is inherently evil - that probably takes care of the order of the will.

Also, any deliberate act that can be reducible by the actor on the intellectual level to harm against the natural laws, even if that harm was not intended, sounds like fair game for the characterization of being intrinsic sinful, since it can probably be reduced to the effects of sins, however much previous in the actual life. The test is whether that act would have occurred in an Edenic state that allowed for natural death.

I’m not sure my answer is any good, Ron. It’s a great question. I await other replies as well.


#3

Stupid question: what is an act?

Someone who holds position A might say that the act of a man cutting open another man’s stomach is neither moral or immoral, since the cutter might be a doctor or a murderer, and we can’t tell without more information.

Someone who holds position B might say that it doesn’t make sense to consider an act without that context, that such a vague description actually describe an act.


#4

Your answer is focusing on sin in general. Any bad intended end makes the act sinful. Any act reasonably anticipated to do more harm than good makes the act sinful. But the question is which acts are intrinsically evil, due to the moral object.

Three fonts of morality:

  1. intention
  2. moral object
  3. circumstances

an act is sinful if any single font is bad; an act is intrinsically evil only if the object is bad.


#5

I would say that an act is an exercise of will and intellect, it is a knowing and deliberate choice. An act can be interior, confined to the heart and mind. Or an act can be exterior. In the latter case, the person knowingly and deliberately chooses some physical action, some type of performative behavior.

The question at issue is whether an act has inherent moral meaning, in and of itself, or whether the person imbues the act with moral meaning by the purpose for which he chooses the act. In other words, is the object (which makes the act intrinsically evil when that object is evil) of the concrete act, or is it directly willed by the person, regardless of the chosen action?


#6

I would limit “act” to what takes place outside someone’s head.

And by this stipulation, every act has a context.

So rightness or wrongness cannot be determined without that context.

ICXC NIKA


#7

Intention.


#8

This is a great question. Surely, in response, we should say that there are two components to an action:

  1. EVERY possible accurate description of the action.
  2. The motive of the actor.

In order for an action to be licit, all possible descriptions must be licit objectively, and the subjective motive of the actor must also be licit.


#9

The Gospel of course condemns interior sins, such as lust or greed or unjust anger. So some acts are limited to the heart and mind. But the controversies in ethics tend to focus on the exterior actions.

The teaching of Veritatis Splendor and the CCC is that some acts are intrinsically evil (due to an evil object) and they are therefore immoral regardless of circumstances, intention, or context.

CCC 1756 “It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.”


#10

the traditional explanation of morality divides into three parts:

  1. the subjective intention (the motive or reason for acting)
  2. the objective act (what we do)
  3. the circumstances, including the consequences.

Acts are intrinsically evil if the objective act is ordered toward an evil end (the moral object of the act).


#11

But this does not take into account Binary’s comment, which was why I wanted to gloss it with my #1 above. The same objective action, after all, might be described as “lying” or “saving a life”.


#12

Right, so that is the question posted in this thread, what precisely defines the objective action as moral or immoral. In Aquinas, the act is defined by its end, the moral object.

Aquinas: “every action takes its species from its object; while human action, which is called moral, takes its species from the object, in relation to the principle of human actions, which is the reason. Wherefore if the object of an action includes something in accord with the order of reason, it will be a good action according to its species; for instance, to give alms to a person in want. On the other hand, if it includes something repugnant to the order of reason, it will be an evil act according to its species; for instance, to steal, which is to appropriate what belongs to another.” [Summa, I-II, 18, 8.]

The species of an action is its moral nature, its type in terms of morality. The object is the end toward which the action is ordered. But right reason is needed to perceive, in what would otherwise seem to be a mere physical process, an inherent moral meaning before the eyes of God.

Some acts are intrinsically immoral, in and of themselves, by their very nature. And Scripture certain presents certain sins in this way, by condemning murder, adultery, theft, etc.


#13

(you beat me to it! :D)
:thumbsup: As usual… the CCC has the answer !


#14

Right so if the moral object is the taking of a human life (murder), that has to acknowledge as present, the willed desire for that end… to take that life. A human action that does not contain that specific willingness to end a life does not make the moral object murder. The moral object of taking a life unwillingly or as an unwilled consequence of willing some other end, would be called an accident or an unintended consequence of the true object ie. defending my own life or trying to surgically heal someone.

The moral object must takes its moral quality from what is being willed,


#15

The view you are expressing is “A” above (original post). That is the view of Fr. Rhonheimer, that an intrinsically evil act has an evil object, but the object takes its morality from the intention of the will.

The traditional view is “B” above, which is based on the teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas: an object takes its moral species from whether or not it is in accord with right reason. Veritatis Splendor and the CCC do not take position “A”, but rather “B”. Intrinsically evil acts take their morality from the object, and the morality of the object is evaluated based on whether that object is capable or not of being ordered to God.

The person knowingly and intentionally chooses an act, and by doing so, he chooses the concrete act, its nature, and its object. But in the traditional view, intrinsically evil acts are immoral due to their object, apart from intention. The acts are immoral, in and of themselves, by their very nature. VS and the CCC takes this view.

In “B”, the intrinsically evil act is not a sin unless the act is knowingly chosen, but the object need not be directly willed, or desired, or sought. In willing the concrete act, one necessarily at least implicitly wills its nature and object.

Some acts of murder contain the specific willed desire for that end, as when abortion is an end. In other acts of murder, some good end is willed and desired, and the death of the innocent is repugnant to the will; it is not desired; it is not the intended end. And yet these other acts of murder are still intrinsically evil. Euthanasia is murder with the intention of relieving all suffering. Direct abortion to save the life of the mother is murder with that good intention. There is no “specific willingness” to end a life in those examples, yet they are types of murder. So the approach you propose fails.

In the traditional approach, certain acts are wrong by their very nature, due to an evil object, regardless of intention. So direct abortion has the object of the death of the innocent prenatal. If the person intentionally chooses direct abortion, they choose an intrinsically evil act. But the act is immoral due to its object, regardless of a “specific willingness” to attain that object.

LongingSoul, the approach you suggest is not the traditional view of moral theology, and it is not the view taken by Saint Thomas, or Veritatis Splendor or the CCC. And your view becomes particularly problematic when there is more than one moral object, one good object and one bad object. The person can then say that he wills only the good object, and therefore the act is moral. But in the traditional view, if the act is ordered toward more than one object, and any one object is bad, the act is intrinsically evil.

In the traditional view, if you knowingly and intentionally (deliberately) choose a concrete act, you have chosen its moral species (moral nature) and its object, often implicitly. The person does not intend the object directly, but only by way of choosing a certain type of act.


#16

Most murders are motivated by more than “death as an end”.

Euthanasia is murder because, first and foremost, it wills death. Death is the very means, and the sole means, to the intention of “ending suffering”. No logical person speaks of Euthanasia as an act to end suffering with the unfortunate side-effect of death. No - death was the means from which flowed the desired end of relieving suffering.

Direct abortion is invariably murder directed at achieving an intention beyond mere death. We don’t imagine an irrational hatred of an unborn. So even as a means to a broader end (eg. “aid a female astronaut in being fit for an upcoming space mission”) the act is murder, and from death flows the benefit sought. Methotrexate injection in case of ectopic pregnancy is no different. Both these acts surely do will death, they are ordered to nothing but death, and the evidence for that is that from that death, and only from that death, comes the sought after benefit.


#17

You are mostly arguing in favor of my position. The intended end is to end suffering. The choice of the act implies a choice of its moral nature (murder) and its end (death of the innocent). No one can choose a disordered act without also, at least implicitly, choosing its nature and object. But the point of this discussion is that the object takes its morality from its agreement or conflict with right reason, which is ultimately based on the love of God and neighbor.

Human acts have an inherent moral meaning, independent of intention. The only role of intention in the second font is to decide which act to choose.

Suppose that a couple use abortifacient contraception, while sexually active. They intend to contracept, but they don’t intend to abort. Even so, the act is inherently ordered toward both of those ends. And so their chosen act is not only the intrinsically evil act of contraception, but also that of abortion. This proves that an unintended object of an act still makes the act good or evil, as long as the act was intentionally chosen.

If the act is ordered to an evil end, then it is called “intrinsically evil” because the object gives the concrete act its moral meaning. Choose the act, and you choose the evil, regardless of whether you intend its object or not. An act ordered toward evil is morally disordered, and by choosing the act, you choose the disorder, like it or not.

If an act has three moral objects, two good and one bad, and you only intend or will or desire the two good objects, you still commit an intrinsically evil act if you choose that act. For the chosen act is ordered toward at least one evil end, making it intrinsically evil. Intend the act, and you implicitly intend all its objects.


#18

You keep confusing moral objects and consequences. The moral object does not include all foreseeable consequences. Let’s rephrase what you wrote:

If an act has three consequences, two good and one bad, and you only intend or will or desire the two good consequences, you do not commit an intrinsically evil act if you choose that act.

But - the bad consequences must still be weighed. If the good effects are not proportionally greater than the bad effect, it is still immoral.

This is how double effect works, and it is recognised as a cornerstone of Catholic morality. Without it, we would be frozen in making everyday life decisions, since almost everything we do has real or potential unintended bad effects.


#19

Sorry, you can’t claim what I wrote as your own! You tried to suggest that the “contrary” view on moral object would deem Euthanasia not to be murder. I demonstrated that your understanding of the view you oppose was simply wrong, and why.

Suppose that a couple use abortifacient contraception, while sexually active. They intend to contracept, but they don’t intend to abort. Even so, the act is inherently ordered toward both of those ends. And so their chosen act is not only the intrinsically evil act of contraception, but also that of abortion. This proves that an unintended object of an act still makes the act good or evil, as long as the act was intentionally chosen.

If they choose to ‘contracept’ in that way, they choose conception avoidance and they choose its backup mechanism of creating an environment unable to sustain life.

An act ordered toward evil is morally disordered, and by choosing the act, you choose the disorder, like it or not.

The ordering is not captured solely in the exterior, observable events. There are innumerable examples of this: Surgeries, hysterectomies, killings, etc.

If an act has three moral objects, two good and one bad, and you only intend or will or desire the two good objects, you still commit an intrinsically evil act if you choose that act. For the chosen act is ordered toward at least one evil end, making it intrinsically evil. Intend the act, and you implicitly intend all its objects.

The moral object needs to be distinguished from consequences.


#20

The moral object is the end toward which the act is inherently ordered. Sometimes that end is also in the reasonably anticipated consequences; sometimes it is also an intended end. If an end is in the consequences, it may or may not be in the object. And if an end is unintended, it may or may not be in the object. An end which is an “unintended bad consequence” can still be in the object. Therefore, the assertion that an end is an unintended bad effect does not prove that the act is moral; it could still have that bad effect also in its object, making the act intrinsically evil.

The principle of double effect always has, as its first condition, that we determine if the act is intrinsically evil (any evil in the object of the act). What many persons are attempting to do is to claim that an act can’t be intrinsically evil, because it is justified by the principle of double effect. And that is no cornerstone.

In direct abortion to save the life of the mother, the intended end is to save her life (good), the death of the prenatal is not in the intended end. The death of the prenatal is a bad unintended consequence. However, that death is also in the object of the act, making the act intrinsically evil, despite having an unintended bad consequence.

In natural marital relations open to life, there are three good moral objects: the marital, unitive, and procreative meanings. If the sexual act is deprived of the procreative meaning by the deliberate choice to contracept, then there are two good objects (marital, unitive) and one bad object (deprivation of the procreative meaning). But in that case, the act is intrinsically evil.

An act can have more than one object. If any one object is evil, the act is intrinsically evil. Even if the evil object is in some sense unintended or not willed, if the person chooses an act ordered toward that object, he chooses the object.


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