Intrinsic Evil

Too often during election season(s) in America, Catholics are assaulted with the concept of intrinsic evil, and oftentimes more than encouraged to vote for one party over another by the American Catholic Hierarchy.  Part of the problem I feel is that most Catholics do not understand what intrinsic evil is, and oftentimes confuse it with the concept of serious or mortal sin.  In other words, if the American Catholic Hierarchy states that a particular political party platform supports an intrinsic evil, that anyone who votes for that party participates in that intrinsic evil.  Many Catholics then make the assumption that by voting for that political party or one of its politicians, he or she commits a mortal sin and might just place his or her salvation in jeopardy.

However, the question right now is just what is intrinsic evil.

From the Thomistic perspective, evil can generally be understood as the absence or lacking of a good, i.e., the absence of some trait that perfects or completes a thing’s being.

  • For example, blindness is a physical evil because it entails the absence of sight and prevents the completion of a person’s physical constitution. To say that blindness is a physical evil, however, does not imply that individuals who are blind are morally bad or lead less valuable lives; only that they lack a physical capability that normally accompanies a complete human life.
  • Moral evil, on the other hand, concerns the disordered nature or defect of a voluntary action (also known as a human act) that in some way fails to correspond to the will of God or proper human fulfillment. For St. Thomas Aquinas, every morally evil act is good in a certain respect, but is a deficient good and so is evil simply (See Note 1 below: Summa Theologica I-II Question 18, Article 1, reply to 1).
  • The greater the absence of perfection or completion, the greater the evil. In other words, the more the act fails to correspond to the will of God or proper human fulfillment, the more evil it is. It follows that some evil acts are worse than others.

For an appropriate understanding of the concept of intrinsic evil, one must appreciate first the Catholic understanding of goodness. From the perspective of the Catholic moral tradition, in order for a human act to be morally good, it must be good in all three of its aspects: in its deliberately chosen object, in the agent’s circumstantial intention and in the circumstances of the act. In order for a human act to be considered morally evil it need be defective in only one of these three aspects.

Intrinsic evil refers to actions that are morally evil in such a way that is essentially opposed to the will of God or proper human fulfillment. The key consideration here is that intrinsically evil actions are judged to be so solely by their object, independently of the intention that inspires them or the circumstances that surround them (See Note 2 below: The Catechism, Part Three, Section One, Chapter One, Article 4, n. 1756).

In this sense, “intrinsic” does not convey the notion of a particularly heinous act (although all heinous acts are intrinsically evil), but that the act is wrong no matter what its circumstances. Aquinas says that the goodness of the will is derived from the fact that a person wills that which is good (See Note 3 below: Summa Theologica I-II, Question 19, Article 1).

In other words, the object of the act must be good in itself (essentially ordered to the will of God or proper human fulfillment) in order for the will that intends that object to be good. Although Aquinas never used the actual term intrinsic evil (intrinsece malum), he does in a way define the term, by saying that “the goodness of the will’s act depends on that one thing alone, which of itself causes goodness in the act; and that one thing is the object, and not the circumstances, which are accidents, as it were, of the act” (See Note 4 below: Summa Theologica I-II, Question 19, Article 2).

  • According to this understanding, while a morally good action may be made more or less good by the circumstances in which it occurs, the circumstances of an act or the good intentions of the agent may never make an intrinsically evil action good.
  • However, actions that are intrinsically evil, then, may never licitly be performed. Indeed, the term itself is commonly used in a more general way to refer to actions that are never morally permissible.

For examples of some common intrinsic evils, please click on this link: Examples of Intrinsic Evil

NOTES

1. Summa Theologica I-II Question 18, Article 1, reply to 1): Whether every human action is good, or are there evil actions?

Objection 1: It would seem that every human action is good, and that none is evil. For Dionysius says (Div. Nom. iv) that evil acts not, save in virtue of the good. But no evil is done in virtue of the good. Therefore no action is evil.

Reply to Objection 1: Evil acts in virtue of deficient goodness. For it there were nothing of good there, there would be neither being nor possibility of action. On the other hand if good were not deficient, there would be no evil. Consequently the action done is a deficient good, which is good in a certain respect, but simply evil.

2. Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition, Part Three Life In Christ, Section One Man’s Vocation Life In The Spirit, Chapter One The Dignity Of The Human Person, Article 4 The Morality Of Human Acts, II. Good Acts And Evil Acts

1755 A morally good act requires the goodness of the object, of the end, and of the circumstances together. An evil end corrupts the action, even if the object is good in itself (such as praying and fasting “in order to be seen by men”).  The object of the choice can by itself vitiate an act in its entirety. There are some concrete acts – such as fornication – that it is always wrong to choose, because choosing them entails a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil.

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.

3. Summa TheologicaI-II, Question 19, Article 1).Whether the goodness of the will depends on the object?

Objection 1: It would seem that the goodness of the will does not depend on the object. For the will cannot be directed otherwise than to what is good: since “evil is outside the scope of the will,” as Dionysius says (Div. Nom. iv). If therefore the goodness of the will depended on the object, it would follow that every act of the will is good, and none bad.

I answer that, Good and evil are essential differences of the act of the will. Because good and evil of themselves regard the will; just as truth and falsehood regard reason; the act of which is divided essentially by the difference of truth and falsehood, for as much as an opinion is said to be true or false. Consequently good and evil will are acts differing in species. Now the specific difference in acts is according to objects, as stated above (Q[18], A[5]). Therefore good and evil in the acts of the will is derived properly from the objects.

Reply to Objection 1: The will is not always directed to what is truly good, but sometimes to the apparent good; which has indeed some measure of good, but not of a good that is simply suitable to be desired. Hence it is that the act of the will is not always good, but sometimes evil.

4. Summa Theologica I-II, Question 19, Article 2).Whether the goodness of the will depends on the object alone?

I answer that, In every genus, the more a thing is first, the more simple it is, and the fewer the principles of which it consists: thus primary bodies are simple. Hence it is to be observed that the first things in every genus, are, in some way, simple and consist of one principle. Now the principle of the goodness and malice of human actions is taken from the act of the will. Consequently the goodness and malice of the act of the will depend on some one thing; while the goodness and malice of other acts may depend on several things.

Now that one thing which is the principle in each genus, is not something accidental to that genus, but something essential thereto: because whatever is accidental is reduced to something essential, as to its principle. Therefore the goodness of the will’s act depends on that one thing alone, which of itself causes goodness in the act; and that one thing is the object, and not the circumstances, which are accidents, as it were, of the act.

Reply to Objection 1: The end is the object of the will, but not of the other powers. Hence, in regard to the act of the will, the goodness derived from the object, does not differ from that which is derived from the end, as they differ in the acts of the other powers; except perhaps accidentally, in so far as one end depends on another, and one act of the will on another.

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