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On Intrinsic Evil and Prudential Judgment: Clarifying Our Terms

The comment thread on our recent post about the bishops’ plans to write an economic pastoral brings up a confusion that plagues current Catholic discourse. This post is meant to offer some clarification of terms, so as to improve the conversation. (It is NOT an extended scholarly treatise on the history and nuance of the terms. What I am looking to do is offer some clarification of the ways in which the terms work in contemporary discourse. Let me quickly state for the record that I know there are all sorts of technicalities I’m glossing over in what I say below. Commenters should feel free to point pout misleading errors!)

The problem: For some Catholics, there is a strong distinction between “authoritative moral teaching” and issues where there is room for “prudential judgment.” In the strongest version of this distinction, the set of authoritative moral teachings of the Church is limited to certain absolute negative norms having to do with “intrinsically evil acts.” All other matters are about “prudential judgments,” and any Catholics – but perhaps especially the Magisterium – should be wary of speaking too strongly about any particular stance. A weaker version of the distinction grants that the Church has moral teaching beyond negative norms, but that any application of this teaching to specific acts is “prudential” and outside the scope of authoritative teaching.

In making this distinction, there arise problems in how the terms “intrinsically evil acts” and “prudential judgment” are deployed, as well as a third problem of what “authoritative” means. Let me deal with these in sequence, leaving the authority question for a different post. First, “intrinsically evil acts” are NOT actions which are especially or “very” wrong. I say to my students, “intrinsically” does not mean “very,” but rather “always” – or more precisely, under any circumstances. A synonym might be “objectively evil acts.” (Here I will refrain from a discussion of the technical term “object.”) Why are certain acts singled out in this way? Any act that is evil is an act which is incorrectly aimed at an end or goal. An act that is intrinsically evil is one which always aims at a bad end. It always includes an end that is contrary to the proper ends of human life. One may have many ends for procuring an abortion (e.g. to finish schooling), but included in the means to these ends is killing another human. One many also desire the good end of planning a family, but contraception is always an evil means to this end, since it involves the separation of the procreative and unitive meanings of sexuality. One may quibble with these arguments – here I am simply interested in their structure. An intrinsically evil act is one which involves an immoral means. And what makes the means immoral is that it is incompatible with the ultimate ends of human life.

What is the ultimate end of human life? Let us, for simplicity’s sake, simply name it as love of God and neighbor. Everything we do should aim at that end. Intrinsically evil acts may try to aim at that end – but they always aim at something that is actually contrary to it. But all our other acts should aim at this end as well. And it is here where the virtue of prudence comes in.

Prudence (Thomists, please forgive the simplification) is the ability to match means to ends, to make judgments about seeing and acting that “fit together,” in order to move toward the ultimate end. This, it seems to me, is totally lost in the discussion of “prudential judgment.” In fact, what people who use the term above mean is something like “pragmatic judgment” – “whatever works best.” This is a slide directly into consequentialism. All actions which are not intrinsically evil are to be judged on their consequences. In the strong version above, that makes them “non-moral.” In the weaker version, it means that scientific experts in some field or another can tell you how to make the stuff happen.

But, properly speaking, “prudential judgment” is not merely pragmatic – not simply about the best results. It indicates “fittingness.” Certain means are intrinsically evil. But others are not. War is a classic example. War, in the just war tradition, can sometimes be an acceptable means to certain ends. BUT THIS DOES NOT MEAN ANYTHING GOES. Actually, two quite strong moral judgments come into play here. First, war can be a means to some ends, but not to others. War is ruled out for things like feeding your family or seizing another nation’s oil supply. It’s not that family and oil are bad. It’s that war is not a proper means to these ends (for numerous reasons, which have been elaborated in the just war tradition). Secondly, as a means, its use must still adhere to moral principles. All is not fair in war, says the just war tradition. Thus, to say that judgments about particular wars are “prudential” is not to say that they are merely pragmatic. It means that there is a range a situations (a limited one) in which a given act is morally acceptable. Intrinsically evil acts differ – there is no range.

Notice: the proper distinction here is “no range versus limited range” – not “no range versus unlimited range.” Thus, it is within the purview of the Catholic encyclical tradition to rule out policies and systems which reject private property, as well as libertarian ones which absolutize it. The Catholic tradition maintains that private property should be ordered (as it was by God) to the common good, which includes the individual good, and that doing so is the responsibility of both individuals and the governing authorities (Catechism #2406: “Political authority has the right and duty to regulate the legitimate exercise of the right to ownership for the sake of the common good”). The Catechism’s treatment of the seventh commandment lucidly outlines these responsibilities, which are quite obviously moral. Yet (as we know) they involve many prudential judgments – ones that most importantly differ from family to family and society to society. The US bishops, speaking for a particular society, can properly “narrow the range” of such judgments further. But even a narrow range still may include a set (but not an infinite set) of possibilities.

Even here, there are a whole range of actions that the Catechism (#2409) explicitly prohibits.

Even if it does not contradict the provisions of civil law, any form of unjustly taking and keeping the property of others is against the seventh commandment: thus, deliberate retention of goods lent or of objects lost; business fraud; paying unjust wages; forcing up prices by taking advantage of the ignorance or hardship of another. The following are also morally illicit: speculation in which one contrives to manipulate the price of goods artificially in order to gain an advantage to the detriment of others; corruption in which one influences the judgment of those who must make decisions according to law; appropriation and use for private purposes of the common goods of an enterprise; work poorly done; tax evasion; forgery of checks and invoices; excessive expenses and waste.

What a list for the confessional!! Of course, one will undoubtedly recognize that many of these descriptions involve further prudential judgments – what is an “unjust” wage or “poorly done” work? But don’t we all know obvious examples of these sorts of acts? Certainly! Moreover, one could use these descriptions to ask very critical questions about business lobbying and many forms of advertising, to name just two large targets in our own society. Can the bishops state how lobbying should be regulated? No. Can they state that it is clearly a problem that needs to be fixed, hopefully by the businesses themselves, but if not, by lawmakers? Yes.

The “intrinsic evil” versus “prudential judgment” confusion happens most especially when people take particular moral rules, and make conformity to those rules the ULTIMATE END of life. The Pharisees are an obvious foil for this problem in the Gospels. And Catholic moral theology (I thought) had reached a consensus that pre-Vatican-II moral theology was afflicted by this disease (called “legalism”). The cure is not to throw out rules. Jesus knew that. The cure is to put rules within the entire context of the real meaning of life – called “the Kingdom” or “love of God and neighbor” or “the reconciliation of all things” or “eternal life.” This does not necessarily relativize the rules – indeed, as Jesus often taught, it makes the rules even more stringent than the Old Testament commandments. But then, perfect love does not simply mean following the rules and being pragmatic. It means exercising a charity-infused prudence about all our choices, so that:

Man’s earthly activity, when inspired and sustained by charity, contributes to the building of the universal city of God, which is the goal of the history of the human family. In an increasingly globalized society, the common good and the effort to obtain it cannot fail to assume the dimensions of the whole human family, that is to say, the community of peoples and nations, in such a way as to shape the earthly city in unity and peace, rendering it to some degree an anticipation and a prefiguration of the undivided city of God (Caritas in Veritate, #7).



  1. David: Thank you for this analysis of prudential judgment. I think it is helpful but I don’t think it gets at the concern I have (ineffectually) raised. The Church provides guidelines – the ends – to which we are to direct our efforts but she does not specify the means we should employ to achieve those ends. This obviously does not mean that any and all means are valid – she provides guidance on that as well – but, within generally prescribed limits, we are free to do as we think best. This is in fact the proper responsibility of the laity.

    Let me put this as starkly as I can to see if an extreme example will hold up to scrutiny. I liken solving prudential political problems (those not involving intrinsically evil acts) to solving purely mechanical ones. That is, the problems of immigration, health care, and the budget are not morally different than coming out one morning and seeing that your neighbor is unable to start his car.

    We have a moral obligation to help our neighbor whether it be to start his car or to fix our budget. We are forbidden to use immoral or reckless means to solve our problems but once we have satisfied those criteria… where is the moral decision we face?

    That bishops have not just the right but the obligation to involve themselves in some prudential issues surely does not justify their involvement any and all of them. If we could redirect political debates from “your suggestion is immoral” to “your suggestion won’t work” I think we would make greater progress. The involvement of the bishops pretty much ensures that this won’t happen.

    I believe the bishops in general and the USCCB in particular have wandered off the reservation and regularly get involved in controversies that are outside of their competence and are the purview of the laity. I am really disinclined to listen to my bishop when he gives me his opinion of what stance I should take on specific bills before Congress.

  2. Good post. If something is wrong, then it’s wrong. It does not become acceptable just because it’s not immediately clear whether it’s wrong. If pastors were limited to speaking only about things that are always (“intrinsically”) wrong, then there would only be able to speak about sexual morality, since there are a few situations (according to most Christians) in which stealing, killing, and lying are justified. Actually, maybe that’s why pastors and other Christians have sometimes been preoccupied with sex!

  3. Ender, thank you for your very helpful response. I now understand much better what the issue is.

    I agree with you that bishops are not economists, businessmen, or legislators. In theory at least, each of these areas involves an expertise, as well as a day-to-day knowledge of processes, that bishops do not have.

    But the processes are social, not mechanical. Society – whether it be politics or economics – is not a mechanism. In that way, it differs from a car engine. It is not simply a matter of “your suggestion won’t work,” because social policies do not (directly) involve chemical or physical laws (like mechanical processes do). They involve choices by individual actors and by common authorities – which are by definition free, since they are human choices. This is of course why “experts” in the social sciences cannot come to the kind of agreement that car mechanics can.

    As I said, this is quite helpful in clarifying these questions. If I considered these questions along the analogy of a mechanical problem or a purely scientific problem, I would certainly draw the conclusions that you draw. But I think the Catholic social tradition is pretty committed to understanding social processes as human, and therefore involving free choices, which can be made well or badly, and therefore can be guided by epsicopal leadership. (Of course, I would just add that it is certainly possible for a bishops to say things about a business or a government process that would simply be implausible. Say they commanded the US government, by whatever means necessary, to employ all able-bodied citizens in the next six months. That would be out of bounds, and they should be called on it.)

  4. David, to be fair to Ender, I don’t think he was saying that society is mechanical, he was simply using that as an analogy. I think there is support in the Catholic tradition for the idea that there is a type of reason that focuses on values such as efficiency that is appropriate to use when we have agreed on the ends and ruled out any immoral means of achieving them. For example, there is something unreasonable, although not really immoral, about taking an unnecessarily long route to reach our destination when driving.

    I think Ender’s mistake is in assuming that for social issues such as immigration, health care, and the budget that that type of reason is all that is relevant. On all of those issues we disagree on what it is we want to accomplish (the ends), and not just the most efficient or practical way to accomplish them (the means), which makes them moral issues.

    I will focus on immigration as an example. One side of the debate tends to put the emphasis on goods such as cultural identity and cohesion, law and order, and fiscal responsibility. The other focuses on goods such as individual dignity, cultural diversity, and solidarity with the poor. Finding the right priorities among these values is more than just a practical question, it is an ethical question. Sometimes in the immigration debate this gets masked because so much of the focus turns to economic questions such as whether immigrants take American jobs or create new jobs. If our only goal was to create jobs, then immigration policy would be more of a technical question, but of course that is not the case at all. Why debates such as that over immigration tend toward lowest common denominator economic questions is a topic for another day…

    The U.S. bishops speak on immigration because it is an ethical, and not just a technical, question, and different immigration policies can be evaluated using ethical criteria. The U.S. bishops propose five moral criteria for evaluating immigration policy, which unsurprisingly span the concerns of both sides in our present debate: 1) People have the right to find opportunities in their homeland; 2) People have the right to migrate if #1 is not met in their homeland; 3) Nations have the right to regulate migration for the sake of the common good; 4) Refugees and asylum seekers have the right to protection; 5) The human dignity of illegal immigrants should be respected. They also provide an interpretive principle, that #3 must be interpreted in the light of #2 and not the other way around, or in their words, “the common good is not served when the basic human rights of the individual are violated.”

    So on this issue, there is plenty of room for disagreement on this issue even within the parameters of these five principles, but there are also proposals that would violate one or more of them. The bishops believe that current immigration policy is not consistent with these policies, and that, among other things, we should expand the number of visas issued each year and provide a path to legalization for illegal immigrants currently in the country. Catholics can disagree with these conclusions, but as I said in the other topic thread, this disagreement is still bound by the principles; in other words, you must disagree because you think your solution better meets the goals outlined in those principles.

    The disagreement has to be about means rather than ends, or about the technical side of things rather than the ethical side of things. I think the legitimate danger that Ender points to is confusing technical disagreements with ethical disagreements, which is certainly a possibility, even for the bishops. But the solution is not to dismiss the whole issue as a technical issue on which the bishops shouldn’t speak at all, but to patiently make the case that one’s own solution to the problem in fact better meets the ethical criteria that the bishops propose (and here I am speaking of any issue, not just immigration).

  5. Matt– Very helpful further elaboration here. I think your distinction between “ethical” and “technical” questions – with the recognition that many problems involve an intersection of both – is good, and I would agree with you (and Ender) that the two can be confused.

    I am still unsure how “technical” is meant here. You use the term “efficient” and “practical” synonymously above – does “efficiency” here have the meaning it has in economics literature? Even here, a moral dimension is not absent, nor is there always agreement among the mechanics/economists. I would initially say that this is because “efficient” necessarily requires the further “efficient in what way,” which then would also require answering “why that way.” The most direct route is more efficient – uh, or is it? Will you burn less time (but more fuel?) by taking the direct route, or will you stay on interstates? Even economic versions of efficiency seem to me to imply questions about ends, which are moral questions. But again, I think it is correct that economists are acute social observers who have something to teach about how things work!

  6. David, yes I agree that the means we choose are also shaped by the ends we value. I was just trying to envision a scenario simple enough that we’ve got all the ends squared away, and all we are left with are questions of practicality or efficiency. Maybe there is no such thing!

    I tackled this issue a little bit in my book when I am discussing the “national interest’ and its role in whether or not states go to war. I am critiquing the realist school of thought, which assumes a pretty narrow view of national interest and then basically uses economic models to predict state behavior. I use this great quote from the scholar Martha Finnemore: “It is all fine and well to assume that states want power, security, and wealth, but what kind of power? Power for what ends? What kind of security? What does security mean? How do you ensure or obtain it? Similarly, what kind of wealth? Wealth for whom? How do you obtain it?”

  7. Gentlemen: I appreciate your comments and think we may actually begin to understand one another.

    David: I don’t think there is (in this context) a distinction between social and mechanical processes. We approach problem solving pretty much the same way regardless of the problem: we start with a body of knowledge about how the subject works (the economy, a car, our pet cat…) and we interpret incomplete information to come up with a solution to the problems we perceive. To that extent, determining how to solve a problem does not involve moral choices.

    Nor do I think Catholic social teaching is committed to understanding social processes. I believe it is directed at identifying the ends we should choose and setting guidelines about the means and attitudes would should adopt to achieve those ends. Take the five criteria on immigration that Matthew listed: these are the overall guidelines within which an immigration policy must be defined but there is nothing there that furthers our understanding of the social pressures that cause people to immigrate.

    Here is where I disagree with Matthew: I do not believe that immigration is a moral issue. Actually, that is too vaguely stated: I do not believe that determining the best immigration policy involves moral choices (once we have agreed to the boundaries within which we must work). I believe that if I face a moral choice and choose wrongly then I have sinned but if I choose wrongly about an amoral choice then I have erred and I think we have gone way too far in labeling errors as sins.

    In Matthew’s list, item two says people have a right to migrate and item three says States have the right to control their borders. Those are competing rights and if your position is “A large number and no less” while mine is “A small number and no more”, are we making a moral choice? Not necessarily. We may simply be differently weighting perceived goods.

    The typical assumption, however, is that our opponent has taken his position not because he sincerely believes it is best but because he has some nefarious scheme to achieve another goal (“You want more because they’ll vote Democrat!” vs “You want fewer because you’re a bigot!”) What happens when the bishops give their opinions is that they imply that their position is the moral one, the contrary position is therefore immoral and voila – we have converted errors into sins.

    • Ender,
      Fascinating conception of “morality.” I think one reason for the disagreement between you and the interlocutors here is because of different conceptions of morality. You seem to think of morality mainly in terms of right/wrong (or sin/permitted action). But what if we reconceptualize morality as that which is concerned with human flourishing more generally. For example, my area of research is in eating and body image issues. One of the things I am interested in is the way in which body image is shaped by reading fashion magazines and the like. Now, it isn’t sinful to read Vogue necessarily, but it can be very contrary to human flourishing for young woman. So it is a moral choice. It is a choice that shapes a person. In his book Moral Wisdom, Jim Keenan (using Aquinas!) says morality pertains to every human choice we make, that is, every choice involving knowledge and freedom.

      So morality does pertain to immigration, to the economy, and to a whole host of other issues. Am I (and are we as a nation) becoming more compassionate, more just, more morally aware, more temperate, etc. by the economic choices we make, both big and large? Am I supporting political candidates who are forming virtuous economic policy, that is, economic policies that make us better as a nation. And I mean morally better. Now, there is a lot of room for disagreement in how we answer those questions. There may be lots of ways of answering the questions that are sinful (broadly considered as acting contrary to human flourishing). But there may also be multiple ways of answering the questions that are not quite sinful and not yet quite good. Maybe you and Matthew disagree on immigration. The goal is not just to find an immigration policy that isn’t sinful, but to find an immigration policy that best promotes human flourishing for all people. Maybe you and Meghan disagree on the economy. The goal isn’t just to find the policy that is best for the economy (though that is important!) but to find the economic policy that best promotes human flourishing. If we move away from an either/or approach to morality (either something is sinful or it isn’t) and start looking at morality more broadly considered, I think we get a much more interesting, and much better conversation. And we are still having a moral conversation–but one that is concerned with more than just sin. What do you think?

  8. Ender, it simply doesn’t make sense that immigration isn’t a moral issue (in the sense you’ve defined). It involves questions about justice, about human well-being, about love of neighbor, about the bonds that hold a human community together, about the rule of law. These are all moral issues, and they interact in complex ways. Any immigration policy whatever will affect these various moral concerns in all kinds of ways.

    So, for instance, many Americans are opposed to “amnesty.” They believe that “amnesty” is immoral. I believe their opposition is immoral. This is a moral issue.

    You can’t possibly _not_ have moral implications whenever you’re talking about how some human beings treat other human beings.

    By the way, I think you’re the same “Ender” with whom I’ve interacted at CAF. Good to see you here.

  9. Contarini: Immigration is a perfect topic to use in discussing what is or is not a moral issue because almost everyone (else) believes it is. First of all, it isn’t all that clear to me that any issue can be called moral. Maybe I’m trying to be over precise, but only actions are moral and there are three criteria to consider in making that determination: the nature of the act, the intent, and the circumstances.

    Take the question of amnesty. Is denying amnesty intrinsically evil? No. Do the circumstances demand that every illegal be given amnesty? No. That only leaves the intent and it is uncharitable and inappropriate to condemn the intent of those who oppose amnesty when you have no way of knowing why they have chosen that position.

    We have a tendency to take issues that have significant human impact and define them as moral because the effect of bad choices is so significant. Yes we must be just and compassionate but as you noted, issues interact in complex ways and it is the very complexity of the solution that supports the idea that many proposals can be moral – even those that are badly deficient.

    It is not nearly enough to claim that a policy would be harmful to also call it immoral; you have to demonstrate that those who proclaim it do so either with an evil intent or from culpable ignorance or a disregard for its effects. Why is it that people are so eager to condemn their opponents as immoral rather than think them uninformed, misinformed, or just plain stupid? By the way, I oppose a general amnesty not because I feel it is immoral but because I consider it unwise. In my opinion to allow it would be a mistake not a sin. Do I sin in believing as I do?

    (And hello to you too – Ender from CAF)

  10. Beth: I think you have misconstrued my perception of morality, which is nothing more than is defined by the Catechism (sections 1750-1756). You seem to perceive my position as doing the minimum possible to avoid acting immorally and that in fact my objectives are not like yours. You want the best for everyone while I want the best I can get for myself without getting my hand slapped. Why would you think my goals are less lofty than yours?

    Claiming that “morality does pertain to immigration” is too vague. In what way does it pertain? The Church does not define any of the actions proposed to address our immigration problems as intrinsically evil. You cannot judge the intent of the people making the proposals and the fact that our choices can have devastating effects does not change the moral calculus. The consequences of our choices do not change their moral quality.

    I do not understand what drives people to define debates over what will or will not work in moral terms. In most cases it is only by judging someone’s intentions that it is possible to state that his actions are immoral, yet that is precisely the type of judgment we are forbidden to make. Is it really so difficult to accept that others may share your goals of finding the best solution possible yet still come up with diametrically opposite proposals? How do you justify calling those people immoral (or ignoble) rather than simply mistaken?

    I still have not encountered a credible explanation of why solving immigration problems is any more of a moral question than determining how to help your neighbor get his car started, and this really is the basis of my position.

    • Ender,
      I am so grateful you are willing to dialogue so extensively on this. You know, the Catechism section you cite is only a snippet of the entire treatment of morality. Those paragraphs are concerned with the breakdown of the act into object, intention, circumstances. What this section is concerned with is establishing that good intentions and/or good consequences do not make a good act. Later, the Catechism will treat the passions and the virtues and then more particular issues like treatment of the poor. You should check out our in-progress commentary on the Catechism and the Compendium for more about what the Church teaches morality is.

      If we did stay at those paragraphs you cite, however, we are dealing with what I see as a perfectionist concept of morality. Morally good actions are those that have good objects, intentions, and circumstances (1755). So it isn’t just making sure you don’t commit an evil action (the object of the act). It is also making sure you do for the right reason (intention) and making sure that the action fits the circumstances and brings about good consequences, if possible. The last criterion demands prudence. Rules and principles may guide us, but prudence is always required when we are dealing with contingencies. And while you are right that circumstances don’t change the object of the act, they do increase its moral goodness or evil (1754).

      So, why is immigration more of a moral question than helping your neighbor start your car? First of all, morality pertains to the latter. Say you help your friend fix his car because you want the opportunity to flirt with his wife or you want to make your friend look like a mechanical idiot. Bad intentions make your actions bad. Say you decide to buy parts on the black market from a distributor you know is abusing his workers. Bad circumstances diminish the goodness of the act. And if you intentionally break the car rather than fixing it (bad object), it goes without saying that the act is bad.

      But immigration deals with graver objects—violence to individuals, actions against solidarity (a virtue in the Catechism), bodily harm. The intentions are graver too. So are the circumstances. They always are when dealing with humans created in the image of God. So both the car and immigration pertain to morality, but immigration in a more pressing way. Now, the “mechanical” issue, or how to “fix” immigration, is an important component of the moral evaluation of the immigration debate—we need a solution that is appropriate to the circumstances and as good as possible in its consequences (There are some on this blog who know this issue a lot better than I do and I hope they weigh in on the particulars; I just want to establish why it pertains to morality).

      So lets go back to why the bishops should weigh in on something like that. They aren’t the only experts, but they can call out immoral objects and imprudent solutions. They can remind us of the importance of certain virtues like solidarity, and certain intentions like fraternal love. They can remind us of the dignity of the immigrant and his or her rights as a person. This makes the debate humane and moral rather than simply political or mechanical.

      Please feel free to keep responding until we get this worked out. You are raising really seminal questions here and I know all of us at CMT are grateful to help resolve them.

  11. OK, fantastic discussion here – I thank everyone.

    Ender states: I believe it (Catholic morality) is directed at identifying the ends we should choose and setting guidelines about the means and attitudes would should adopt to achieve those ends. Take the five criteria on immigration that Matthew listed: these are the overall guidelines within which an immigration policy must be defined but there is nothing there that furthers our understanding of the social pressures that cause people to immigrate.

    So that seems to admit a certain scope for “the morality of immigration.” For example (to use extremes), it would rule out any conception of foreigners that classified them as somehow subhuman, and it would rule out means such as execution or a citizen mob. I assume Ender would agree. And I also agree that no one – at least no one in the mainstream – would actually advocate for any such policies.

    Perhaps Ender’s position could be stated thus: there is a morality of immigration (involving ends and limits on means), but there is not a “morality of immigration policy” by which we could morally claim to favor this or that policy so long as the policies did not stray outside the above limits on ends and means. Within those limits, the questions that arise in particular circumstances are “technical”, not moral – and the bishops (and moral theologians) should avoid taking hard and fast positions on them.

    Based on Ender’s further comments, I then would state three concerns: One is that in the last comment, it is claimed that consequences have no effect on the morality of decisions, and that we cannot judge intent. BOTH of these claims would suggest why Ender focuses on intriniscally evil acts only: because one need not make a judgment about subjective intent or about consequences. However, I would argue against the premises. In the case of, say, adultery, we do not need to calculate consequences or subjective intent – but this is because we can name the generally-deleterious consequences and we can name how one’s subjective intent must include objectively incorrect ends in every case. So it is NOT that IEA’s (and morality in general) simply omit consequences. As evidence, I would point to standard just war theory, which insists on judgments about “lasting, grave, and certain evil” and about “proportionality.” Thus, the justice of a given war involves these judgments – they are pruedntial judgments, and so (as in the original post) prudence is itself a moral virtue, not simply an intellectual/technical one.

    My second concern is that, by focusing ONLY on the morality of individual acts – via the object, intention, circumstances analysis – we lose MUCH that has been gained in moral theology by the recovery of Thomas and, in general, moving past what has been called “act-centered morality.” Both revisionist and conservative moral theologians (e.g. Pinckaers) have agreed that the manualist-confessional act-centered morality was too limited. Whether in the recovery of virtue ethics or in the movement toward fully integrating an analysis of “structures of sin” (that’s JP2’s concept!), Catholic moral theology has been moving beyond a purely act-centered analysis of the moral life.

    My third concern is, pertaining to the whole discussion, I understand the desire to segregate items into “moral” and “technical” (=non-moral) categories. This distinction is valuable and real. I would only say that in reality, this line is simply blurry. On social issues, I would maintain that it is blurry because “the laws of society” are to a significant extent of human making, and so are amenable to change (unlike a car engine). Catholic social teaching states both a right to migrate in search of work and a right of nations to regulate such migration for the common good. One of the many issues involved in the immigration debate is the extent to which our society has sufficient resources to receive a large migrant population. Is this question of sufficient resources a “moral” or a “technical” issue? Well, it is BOTH. Why? Because the question of “sufficient resources” requires reflection on ways in which we might distribute those resources, which involves both moral and technical aspects, and cannot be easily separated, because the way we distribute resources is to a large extent determined by social laws which don’t work like a car engine. At the same time, we can’t simply go out and say, we’re the richest country in the world, just deploy the resources – there are technical questions about the how of distributing resources and about various types of systems (with unintended effects) that economics and policy has developed at least some technical skill understanding. Put another way, the moral and technical questions of a just distirbution of resources are somewhat distinguishable, but they are chained together in a way that every piece of technical advice involves opening up moral questions, and every moralizing claim requires attention to technical questions.

  12. Beth: Surely the Catechism discusses our responsibilities to the poor and the suffering; this all part of defining the ends and putting boundaries on the means we may use to achieve those ends … but the Church does not provide specific directions and I question the advisability of the bishops doing what the Church will not. I accept that the bishops have not just the right but the responsibility to involve themselves prudentially in some issues but I think they have badly overstepped their proper bounds and regularly involve themselves in areas well outside their competence.

    Nor does the question of prudence extend the nature of morality: it is a general guideline with which we must comport ourselves. That would be included in the nature of the means we employ which has already been discussed. I also reject the idea that morality pertains to every choice we make; this clearly cannot be so (should I go for the green or lay up short?) I understand that we can act badly in any situation but that is very different than saying that every choice we make is a moral one.

    I recognize that immigration is a graver subject than starting a car but morality is not determined by the gravity of the problem we face and I do not agree that the question of what truly fixes a problem is any component of a moral evaluation of the subject. If, to the best of my limited automotive knowledge, I believe that the person has a dead battery then proposing that it be replaced is not an immoral suggestion even if the problem turns out to be elsewhere. The same is true for immigration proposals. Clearly I want my proposals to be correct but it is not immoral to be mistaken.

    Finally, given that the bishops are not experts in most fields (including automotive and immigration), I will bear in mind the importance of the virtues they stress and the importance of the ends they enumerate but I will not necessarily accept the means they propose and I reject the implication that following my own council on this (or any other prudential) subject is sinful.

  13. David: Your statement of my position is exactly correct; that at least clarifies my perspective. As to your three concerns: (1) the Catechism states that: “Circumstances of themselves cannot change the moral quality of acts”. We are not consequentialists; we can determine the morality of an act before we know its consequences. All actions are taken to achieve some goal but if we do not achieve the goal we intend that does not make our actions suspect. We are also taught that we must avoid rash judgment: “Thou shalt not judge. (Mt 7:1) In these words our Lord forbids rash judgment which is about the inward intention, or other uncertain things” (Aquinas). How then can we not acknowledge that we may not judge the intent behind a person’s choice of action?

    I don’t know what to say about your second concern. I am guessing that this goes to the distinction between meeting minimum requirements and doing one’s best but, if so, this goes back to one’s intent and whether we really are committed to solving problems with an eye to everyone’s best interest or are just looking for a moral fig leaf to cover our actions.

    Regarding your third concern I would agree that the distinction between moral judgments and technical ones is blurry at the margins but what I think has been done is to draw those margins so narrowly that what (to me) are clearly technical proposals are being defined as moral choices.

    I still think you are grasping for real differences between fixing a car and fixing immigration. There is surely greater complexity and greater consequences with immigration and, while it is true that cars present mechanical problems and immigration social ones, the fundamental approach to solving problems remains the same. Either we decide to help others or we don’t. Either we do our best to achieve the proper solution or we don’t. Either we use valid means to address the problem or we don’t. The significance, form, and complexity of the problem are irrelevant.

    To me the debate is about intent. If I was a friend and you knew for a fact that my intentions and objectives were the same as yours, yet I came up with what you felt were horrible proposals, would you not be inclined to consider me foolish rather than sinful?


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