This is the third installment of our roundtable on Cory D. Mitchell and M. Therese Lysaught’s “Equally Strange Fruit: Catholic Health Care and the Appropriation of Residential Segregation” (ESF). I am also pleased to be able to offer my own comments as a complement to Lorraine’s reflections, as well as those of Conor Kelly. In fact, I’d like to build my post specifically off of what I take to be Conor’s central argument: namely, that it is more helpful to think of the evil of racial segregation rightfully attacked in ESF as gravely evil rather than intrinsically evil.
While the category of intrinsically evil acts has come under assault in recent years—especially by many of those affiliated with and otherwise friendly to what might be described inartfully as Boston College’s current approach to theological ethics—Mitchell and Lysaught are nevertheless correct to (1) affirm that it remains an important category in Catholic moral theology and (2) use it to name the kind of evil present in racial segregation.
Suppose the practice of racial segregation is not named as intrinsically evil. This would be a mistake in two ways. It would be a mistake, first of all and most importantly, because it refuses to call something what it is. But it would also be a mistake because it opens up discussions about the practice that are inappropriate given the kind of evil in question.
Conor seems to lament the fact that calling things like abortion and contraception intrinsically evil “takes the oxygen out of the room” when it comes to moral analysis of these acts. But how much oxygen do we want to give moral analysis of the practice of racial segregation? For once we give the issue oxygen, we open ourselves up to all kinds of consequentialist considerations that could actually give life to the practice.
Consider the views of Anthony Bradly, chair of the Religious and Theological Studies program of King’s College in New York City, and author of Black Scholars in White Space: New Vistas in African American Studies from the Christian Academy. (Cascade, 2015) and Ending Overcriminalization and Mass Incarceration: Hope from Civil Society (Cambridge University Press, 2018). In a blog post, he calls out white progressives for major blind spots in discussion when it comes to discussion of racial segregation. They seem to believe, says Professor Bradly, that “the presence of white people is somehow a cosmic advantage for blacks.”
Instead of focusing on dismantling systems which would move racial minorities to live among whites, Bradly prefers a focus which would empower communities of African Americans to have better “overall health and wellbeing” regardless of what the race of their neighbors happen to be. And he cites data in support of how this was the case historically, implying that it could be this way again.
Also, having married into a family which has exposed me to the views of a good number of Asian-Americans and Pacific-Islanders (with whom I discussed this blog post and the arguments surrounding it at some length) has given me new insights into what drives the living preferences of at least some racial and ethnic minorities in certain areas. For instance, many Filipinos choose to live in concentrated areas of Jersey City, New Jersey to be in areas that can sustain Filipino restaurants, church communities, and other institutions. Korean friends of ours have also explained that many Koreans live in concentrated areas of Fort Lee, NJ for similar reasons—including the fact that they have access to Korean interpreters in the local courts and hospitals.
It is one thing, of course, for racial minorities to cite the reasons why that it is good they live in these communities. It is quite another for there to be intentional public polities that segregate based on race. But if we wrongly decide that segregation based on race is not intrinsically evil (and not something which is by its very nature offensive to human dignity and cannot be ordered to God), we open ourselves up to arguments about how much utility is or is not produced by this or that segregationist policy. Suppose pro-segregationist forces move in support of policies which either directly or indirectly support the segregation of peoples based on race and ethnicity. If we give up on intrinsically evil acts, they can use the new oxygen in the room to force us into a battle of competing consequentialist claims. The goods behind voluntary choices could (and almost certainly would) be turned into proportionalist policy arguments in favor of segregation.
Giving this kind of oxygen to at least the formal moral analysis of the practice of racial segregation (and, by extension, the cooperation of Catholic health care institutions with the practice of racial segregation) is a category mistake. Catholics have a moral tradition which rightly does not allow for a consequentialist analysis that might end up supporting policies which support things like direct abortion (or any intentional killing of the innocent), human trafficking, torture, usury, degrading work conditions, and racial segregation.
The bad and often terrible consequences of intrinsically evil acts are of central importance in Catholic moral theology, of course. And this central importance means that the insights of ESF are of profound interest. But Mitchell and Lysaught began their moral analysis in exactly the right place: naming racial segregation as intrinsically evil.
Charlie, thanks for continuing the conversation about intrinsic evil. I share your concerns about consequentialist reasoning–in fact, it is precisely for this reason that I believe intrinsic evil is a valuable category for moral reflection. My chief concern, however, is with precision in relation to the category, which leads me to three comments.
First, what I was really looking for in my post was more precision about what the notion of intrinsic evil does for Mitchell and Lysaught. You have offered a plausible explanation of how it can help the moral analysis (i.e., by preventing a conversation we don’t really want to entertain), and I would certainly agree with the value of that. I’m looking forward to Michell and Lysaught’s replies to the roundtable to see if that is indeed the kind of benefit they have in mind.
Second, I still think we need to be precise about what intrinsic evil means in the case of residential segregation, and this gets back to the comments in my post about intrinsic evil as properly a reference to acts. Here it sounds like you are saying that residential segregation policies based on race constitute intrinsically evil acts. I don’t disagree, but as I indicate in my post, I don’t think that is the focus of Mitchell and Lysaught’s moral critique. Instead, they seem intent on challenging residential segregation as a state of affairs, and this seems to me more akin to a structural sin than a discrete moral act. (For what it’s worth, I sense this is the reason they refer to “residential segregation” rather than “racial segregation” in their article.) Does it still work to describe a structure of sin as an intrinsically evil structure? Is that reasonable, given that most social structures have a complex mix of incentives, some of which are ostensibly able to be ordered to human dignity? Bradly’s criticism of the emphasis on integration, for example, suggests that residential segregation is not inherently problematic, but that under current circumstances it leads to unacceptable health outcomes for racial minorities and it is that state of affairs that must be reversed. You also note reasons that some people of color would choose to live in racially homogenous areas precisely because they have their wellbeing and dignity in mind. I have no problem defining racial segregation policies as intrinsically evil acts, but if the referent of intrinsic evil is supposed to be residential segregation itself (again, as I really think Mitchell and Lysaught are arguing), wouldn’t that entail the argument that this social structure can never be ordered to the good, and wouldn’t that undermine Bradly’s idea that there is a way to address the problems of racial segregation by empowering African American communities since this would leave the broader social structure unchanged? Would it deny the moral legitimacy of choosing to live in an ex-pat community in the United States? I think the application of intrinsic evil to a structure of sin is still a sort of uncharted territory, and so I would love to see Catholic moral theology wrestling with how the category applies and what it really means in that context.
Third, to be precise, I never wrote about lamenting the way that describing abortion and contraception as intrinsically evil takes the oxygen out of the room and forestalls moral analysis. In my post, I used the image of oxygen in the room to describe an interpretation of what Mitchell and Lysaught seem to intend with the application of intrinsic evil to residential segregation. In that context, what I actually said was that Mitchell and Lysaught seem concerned that because abortion and contraception are intrinsically evil acts, “they take most of the oxygen out of the room in Catholic health care debates” (and these debates are not the same thing as moral analysis). In other words, I took one of Mitchell and Lysaught’s concerns to be that so much of the discussion, and indeed moral analysis, in Catholic health care contexts focuses on these two intrinsic evils, leaving little oxygen left for the discussion of other grave evils (like residential segregation). Far from lamenting the fact that abortion and contraception are identified as intrinsic evils and clamoring for a more robust debate about their moral legitimacy, then, I was actually describing the opposite in my post: namely, that these two intrinsic evils seem to get more than their fair share of attention (and again, moral analysis) as a result of the “intrinsically evil” label, which is indeed ironic given all the reasons you suggest intrinsically evil acts helpfully rule out certain kinds of moral analysis and debate. I still wonder if the way to address that problem is by adding to the list of things that would be described as intrinsically evil, or if it would be more beneficial to prioritize our conversations based on moral gravity.