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Why We Can’t Do Evil Even If Good May Come

The prevalence of moral consequentialism in our society is supremely dangerous.

(Image: Pawel Janiak | Unsplash.com)

There is a curious and intriguing passage in the third chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, which in the context of the missive seems almost tossed-off, but which has proven to be a cornerstone of Catholic moral theology for the past two thousand years. Responding to some of his critics, Paul says, “And why not say (as some people slander us by saying that we say), ‘Let us do evil that good may come?’ Their condemnation is deserved” (Rom. 3:8)! One might formulate Paul’s somewhat convoluted statement as follows: we should never do evil that good might come of it.

There are indeed truly wicked people who seem to take delight in doing evil for its own sake. Aristotle called them vicious, or in extreme cases, “beast-like.” But most of us who do bad things typically can find a justification for our behavior through appealing to a good end that we were hoping through our action to achieve. “I’m not really proud of what I did,” I might say to myself, “but at least it brought about some positive consequences.” But the Church, following the prompt of St. Paul, has consistently frowned on this manner of thinking, precisely because it opens the door to moral chaos. Concomitantly, it has recognized certain acts—slavery, adultery, the sexual abuse of children, the direct killing of the innocent, etc.—as “intrinsically evil”—which is to say, incapable of being justified through appeal to motivation, extenuating circumstances, or consequences. So far, so obvious.

But this principle has come to my mind recently, not so much in regard to the moral acts of individuals, but to the moral assumptions that seem to be guiding much of our society. I might suggest that a sea-change occurred in 1995 with the trial of O.J. Simpson. I think it’s fair to say that the overwhelming majority of reasonable people would concur that Simpson committed the terrible crimes of which he was accused, and yet he was exonerated by a jury of his peers and vehemently supported by large segments in our society. How can we explain this anomaly?
The exculpation of O.J. Simpson was justified, in the minds of many, because it was seen as contributing to the solution of the great social ill of the racial profiling and persecution of African Americans by the Los Angeles police department in particular and police officers across the country in general. Allowing a guilty man to go free and allowing a gross injustice to remain unaddressed were, at the very least, tolerated, because it appeared they conduced to some greater good.

The O.J. Simpsonization of our legal thinking was on gross display much more recently in the sad case of Cardinal George Pell. Once again, given the wild implausibility of the charges and the complete lack of any corroborating evidence, reasonable people were bound to conclude that Cardinal Pell should never have been brought to trial much less convicted. And yet Pell was found guilty and sentenced to imprisonment, and a later appeal confirmed the original conviction. How could we possibly explain this disconnect? Many in Australian society, legitimately outraged at the abuse of children by priests and the subsequent cover-up by some in ecclesial authority, felt that the imprisonment of Cardinal Pell would somehow address this overarching issue. So once again, in violation of Paul’s principle, evil was done that good might come of it.

The same problem is evident in regard to sexual aggression against women. In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein situation and the subsequent #MeToo movement, no serious person doubts that numerous women have been unconscionably mistreated by powerful men and that this abuse is a cancer on the body politic.

Therefore, in order to achieve the good of solving this problem, men are sometimes accused, harassed, effectively condemned without investigation or trial. To show that I have no partisan axe to grind here, I will draw attention to the treatment of both Justice Brett Kavanaugh and, in recent days, former Vice President Joe Biden. The thinking seems, again, to be that the righting of a general wrong justifies morally irresponsible behavior in particular cases.

The prevalence of this moral consequentialism in our society is supremely dangerous, for the moment we say that evil can be done for the sake of the good, we have effectively denied that there are any intrinsically evil acts, and the moment we do that, the intellectual support for our moral system gives way automatically. And then the furies come. A very instructive example of the principle is the Terror that followed the French Revolution. Since there had been (undoubtedly) tremendous injustices done to the poor by the aristocratic class in eighteenth-century France, anyone perceived to be an enemy of the revolution was, without distinction or discrimination, swept to the guillotine. If innocents died alongside the guilty, so be it—for it served the building of the new society. I believe that it is no exaggeration to say that Western society has yet fully to recover from the moral chaos visited upon us by the lethal consequentialism of that time.

Therefore, even as we legitimately fight the great social evils of our time, we must remember Paul’s simple but trenchant principle: never do evil that good might come of it.


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About Bishop Robert Barron 180 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.

9 Comments

  1. Bishop Barron closes with thoughts about the French Revolution and the guillotine: “I believe that it is no exaggeration to say that Western society has yet fully to recover from the moral chaos visited upon us by the lethal consequentialism of that time.”

    Masterful understatement! It’s no exaggeration to say that the 20th-century convulsions of Fascism, Socialism, Communism and now (in)tolerant Secularism are all descendant, in part, from the dark side of the French Revolution once it hit the streets.

    Our systematic self-deception includes the falsification of history itself—in the signature storming of the Bastille only seven prisoners were actually found: four forgers, two who were insane (and held for observation), and a rabble-rouser sexual pervert by the name Marquis de Sade. He too is still with us.

    As for our selective amnesia, in 1989 and the two-hundredth anniversary of Bastille Day, public celebration recalled only the Declaration of Human Rights, and not the dark side or even the Bastille itself. Eric von Kuehnelt-Leddhin is one who documents and reports in nauseating detail the little-known grisly side and long second shadow of the Revolution (Leftism, 1974; and Leftism Revisited, 1990). The guillotine was the least of it. No exaggeration is needed.

  2. What a false comparison with Reade who has yet to have her Congressional investigations as Ford did with no corroborations.

    Barron generalizes too much in a bid to be ‘fair’.

  3. The idea that “it is not licit to do evil so that good may result from it” is stated in the compendium of the Catholic Catechism in number 368. Normally a compendium, for the sake of brevity, doesn’t go on repeating the same thing, but this point is repeated in various ways in both numbers 368-369. When Pope John Paul II insisted on this in his “The Splendor of Truth,” he met with criticism from many Catholic writers which shows how much damage had been done already, especially in seminaries, prior to his intervention. These errors were spread widely, which is why the Pope intervened so strongly back in those days.

  4. I think the idea that it is expedient that one innocent person should suffer to protect the status quo is far more common than His Excellency seems to believe, especially among the Catholic hierarchy, members of which tend to look to their own interests a little too quickly and too often for their own credibility.

  5. A good review of the standard moral premise, the end does not justify the means. Except. There are those annoying [for moral theologians] grey areas. True accounts of Titanic survivors in lifeboats filled to capacity refuse the pleading drowning for fear of capsizing. Others sparsely filled having rowed afar from Titanic could hear the cries of passengers freezing drowning refuse to approach for similar fear. We could spend days evaluating morality for or against never ending with an absolute. True accounts of reality frequently disarm. Similarly in med care grey areas abound. When to cease care, is it prolonging suffering, is there a reasonable possibility for recovery? While Bishop Barron is of course correct in black and white instances, and in less than such experience teaches occasionally we simply make a reasonable, imperfect judgment when means and end blur and leave the rest in God’s hands.

  6. Wasn’t this principle jettisoned by Amoris Laetitia? I mean, it sure reads that way: one may continue to commit adultery for good reasons, e.g., for “the good of the children.” At a minimum, a great deal of cognitive dissonance was introduced into the Church’s moral doctrine. I’ve been struggling with it ever since and cannot reconcile the two. It’s also notable that the main supporters of Amoris Laetitia vehemently opposed Veritatis Splendor and the concept of intrinsically evil acts.

  7. Hello Father Barron, doing evil when you were on the Rubin show a man who is gay married that means Every Act he does is intrinsically evil and disordered and you chose not to correct him and you agreed with him that you did not want to battle it legislatively as a bishop did you comply with evil for a higher good your popularity and video shows hopefully Catholic World Report will print this

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