Atomic mushroom cloud over Nagasaki, Japan, August 9, 1945
In the previous two pieces in this space, we have looked at two
fallacies: the ad
hominem and the genetic
fallacy. Both fallacies are, like
all fallacies, bad ways of trying to achieve good ends. For arriving at Truth is, of course, a very
good end, but fallacies are poor ways to get there. To be sure, sometimes even fallacious arguers
can occasionally arrive at truth despite their bad arguments. So, for instance, it may be that the guy I
claim is too ugly to understand science is also factually wrong about the earth
being 6,000 years old. It could be that
the member of the McCoy clan whose every utterance I and my fellow Hatfields
reflexively reject is, in fact, wrong about the infield fly rule. But the fact remains that I arrived at a true
conclusion despite, not because of,
my ad hominem or genetic fallacy. It was
a matter of dumb luck, like throwing my racket and scoring a point in
tennis. If I learn from this experience,
“Throw my racket more” and not, “Learn to play tennis better” I may get lucky
now and then, but the (pardon the pun) net result will be that I become a
terrible tennis player.
Likewise, if you stick with fallacious reasoning, you may now and
then reach a good end by accident, but the overall result will be that you will
not reach the end you seek, but something evil.
It may be an intellectual evil such as wilful stupidity or it may be a
moral evil such as talking yourself into knocking over a Qwiki Mart in the name
of economic justice. Very often, it will
be both. But it will not ultimately be
anything good because good ends do not justify evil means.
The notion that good ends do justify evil
meansalso known as “consequentialism”is probably the most popular moral
heresy in the world. We all believe it
to some degree or other. You could argue, in fact, that it’s practically the
definition of sin. It’s what Adam and
Eve attempted when they sought the good end of “wisdom” by the evil means of
disobeying God. It’s what everybody
tries every time we sin. And we do it
because we all want something good: we all want happiness.
Yeah. Everybody. Every sin is committed in pursuit of
something good. Power, money, health,
peace, security, comfort, sex, love, honor: all these things are good in themselves.
It’s only when we try to get them by disordered means that evil comes into the
picture. And in fact, the nobler the
goal you seek, the greater the temptation can be to do something monstrous to
get it. So in Hitler’s case, he thought
he could get happiness through a renewed and powerful Germany and he thought he
could get that via race war and mass murder. World War II and the Holocaust were caused,
as all evil is caused, by people looking for happiness in radically wrong ways.
At this point, the cry will often go up, “Stop humanizing
Hitler!” That cry against humanizing a
human is telling: Why on earth is it offensive to point out that Hitler was, in
fact, a member of the same species we are and subject to the same desires we
Answer: because we want to believe that Bad People are motivated
by pure evil while we are motivated by basic goodness.
So the interior narrative goes something like this:
That guy over there has chosen Evil for its
own sake. We, on the other, hand only
choose evil because there is no other way to achieve our noble goals.
That guy over there desires Evil itself
because he’s just plain bad right through. We, on the other hand, desire Good
but aren’t afraid to “get our hands dirty” in order to achieve it.
That guy over there is a monster who
blatantly ignores fundamental questions of right and wrong in his ruthless
pursuit of Evil. We, in contrast, are
angels with dirty faces. Why, in a way, we are actually courageous
because we are willing to risk hell itself for the sake of so noble an end as
the one we seek. We’re defending [true love/innocent human life/our home and
native land/freedom/Insert Extremely Good Thing Here] from [the enemies of true
love/hideous moral monsters/the Terrorists[TM]/IslamoNaziCommies/Insert
Unspeakable Evil Here]. We’re not like those Ivory Tower pantywaists with their
abstract pettifogging about “morality.” We
are gritty realists. Why, if it’s wrong
to [turn away this desperately unhappy married woman who needs me so
badly/refrain from torturing this thug when it could save untold lives/drop
that nuke on the cathedral when it could end the war/rescue this pregnant woman
from abandonment and abuse by terminating her pregnancy] we don’t want to be what those rule-worshipping Pharisees call “right”! Some things are higher
than mere Pharisaic rules about so-called “morality”! No loving God
would send somebody as noble as we are to hell when our intentions are so good
and the stakes are so high. And if He does then to hell with Him!
In short, we generally convince ourselves of the dichotomy between
Evil Them and Noble-But-Slightly-Flawed Us by the expedient of judging others
by their actions while demanding that we be judged by our good goals.
Now this notion that good ends justify evil means is a moral
theory condemned by the Church ever since St. Paul wrote Romans 3:7-8:
But if through my falsehood God's
truthfulness abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner?
And why not do evil that good may come?as some people slanderously charge us
with saying. Their condemnation is just.
But consequentialism remains a perennial favorite at this
hour. It undergirds both liberal
arguments for abortion and conservative arguments for torture. It’s why we steal from Peter to pay Paul and
from Paul to pay Peter. It’s how we
convince ourselves that our act of theft, or adultery, or false witness, or
whatnot, will be okay this one timebecause in our special case, just this
once, evil is okay.
If we are a little bit schooled in Catholic moral jargon, we will
generally invoke the words “double effect” to try to get around the charge that
we are trying to do evil that good may come of it. So we might say, as we
commit deliberate homicide, that we are not really intending to kill that baby
in the womb or that kid in bed in Hiroshima, but are simply trying to do
something elsesomething goodand the death of innocents is just an unfortunate
Ahem. Here’s an example of actual double effect.
Some goon grabs a woman at the bar, smashes a bottle and threatens to
cut her. You jump in, give him a
roundhouse punch and accidently kill him.
The goal was not to kill him, but to stop him from harming the innocent.
But suppose that in trying to stop the bad guy from harming the
innocent you choose to take careful aim and deliberately fire your pistol right
through the body of the woman he is threatening in order to kill her
assailant. Sorry, but that’s not “double
effect”. You deliberately chose to do
evilmurder the womanin order to achieve the good end of stopping the
kidnapper. In exactly the same way, when
you aim a nuke at a baby sleeping in Hiroshima, or snip its spine with a pair
of scissors, that is what you are intending to
do and your longer range goals of ending the war or freeing the mother from
abandonment or poverty do not justify that.
You did evil that good might come of it.
Or, to be brief, you did evil.
Now it will be noted that here, as with fallacious arguments, evil
means can sometimes “work.” You can
sometimes get the good end you sought by evil means. So, for instance, Judas actually did get the 30
pieces of silver he sought. Whoever
rubbed out Jimmy Hoffa did so without being caught. Hiroshima and Nagasaki did end the war. Abortionists are often prosperous and happy.
Moreover, those who refuse evil means often lose. Things sometimes come to pass according to
of the Prophet Durocher, and nice guys often finish last.
And therein lies the challenge: because evil means do sometimes work, it is tempting to use them, particularly
since the devil fights dirty. But we
cannot do so because (I repeat) we may not do evil that good may come of
it. Does that mean we will lose
sometimes? Well, look how the debate
between Jesus and the Sanhedrin or Peter and Nero turned out. The faith of the Church is not the same as the creed of The Shadow (“The weed of crime bears bitter fruit! Crime does not pay!”). In this world, sometimes crime does pay and the guy with the biggest mouth or guns, not the
best argument, wins. “In this world you
have tribulation,” says Jesus, “but be of good cheer, I have overcome the
world" (John 16:33).
That’s why this is a series on arguing well, not on arguing to win
by any means necessary. Our faith is not
that right will always win in this world, but that the justice of God will
eventually be manifest even if we don’t see it in this life. In the end, the
command against doing evil that good may come of it is a test of that faith, as
is the commitment to argue truthfully and not merely lie or use fallacies or
other evil means in order to gain some desired outcome. As it happens, we live in a universe where
virtue is, in fact, rewarded often enough in this life that, over time, virtuous
behavior tends to build up a happier world.
But we also live in a world where the choice to do evil wins often
enough that people will often live a life of moral shortcuts in the assumption
they will get away with it, or God will overlook it, or “it will all work out.” The promise (and warning) of the gospel is
that this will be, in the end, disastrous thinking for those who indulge it and
that, unrepented, it may well result in the everlasting fires of hell for Dives
just as a poor but honest life as a “loser” according to the standards of this
world will result in heaven for Lazarus.
point of arguing well rather than arguing to win is the point of doing anything
well instead of merely to win: union with God who is Truth. Consequentialism says, at the end of the day,
“What shall it profit a man to gain his own soul and lose the world?” The answer to that is Christ crucifiedand