The Most Popular Moral Heresy in the World

Consequentialism and why we can’t do evil so that good may come of it.

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 means—also 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.

Everybody?  Even…Hitler?

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 are?

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 time—because 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 else—something good—and the death of innocents is just an unfortunate side effect. 

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 evil—murder the woman—in 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 the word 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.

The 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 crucified—and risen.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Mark P. Shea 0 Articles
Mark P. Shea is a popular apologist, author, speaker, and blogger. He is the author of several books, including The Da Vinci Deception, Making Senses Out of Scripture: Reading the Bible as the First Christians Did, By What Authority?: An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition and This is My Body: An Evangelical Discovers the Real Presence. Visit his blog Catholic and Enjoying It!

1 Trackback / Pingback

  1. "God does not need your lie." - St. Augustine - Stumbling Toward Heaven

Comments are closed.