Monday, November 15, 2021

Intrinsic evil

Consider this argument:

  1. An action is intrinsically evil if and only if it is wrong to do no matter what.

  2. In doing anything wrong, one does something (at least) prima facie bad with insufficient moral reason.

  3. No matter what, it is wrong to do something prima facie bad with insufficient moral reason.

  4. So in doing anything wrong, one performs an intrinsically evil action.

This conclusion seems mistaken. Lightly slapping a stranger on a bus in the face is wrong, but not intrinsically wrong, because if a malefactor was going to kill everyone on the bus who wasn’t slapped by you, then you should go and slap everybody. Yet the argument would imply that in lightly slapping a stranger on a bus you do something intrinsically wrong, namely slap a stranger with insufficient moral reason. But it seems mistaken to think that in slapping a stranger lightly you perform an intrinsically evil action.

The above argument threatens to eviscerate the traditional Christian distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic evil. What should we say?

Here is a suggestion. Perhaps we should abandon (1) and instead distinguish between reasons why an action is wrong. Intrinsically evil actions are wrong for reasons that do not depend on consideration of consequences and extrinsically evil actions are wrong but not for any reasons that do not depend on consideration of consequences.

Thus, lightly slapping a stranger with insufficient moral reason is extrinsically evil because any reason that makes it wrong is a reason that depends on consideration of consequences. On the other hand, one can completely explain what makes an act of murder wrong without adverting to consequences.

But isn’t the death of the victim a crucial part of the wrongness of murder, and yet a consequence? After all, if the cause of death is murder, then the death is a consequence of the murder. Fortunately we can solve this: the act is no less wrong if the victim does not die. It is the intention of death, not the actuality of death, that is a part of the reasons for wrongness.

So, when we distinguish between acts made wrong by consequences and and wrong acts not made wrong by consequences, by “consequences” we do not mean intended consequences, but only actual or foreseen or risked consequences.

But what if Alice slaps Bob with the intention of producing an on-balance bad outcome? That act is wrong for reasons that have nothing to do with actual, foreseen or risked consequences, but only with her intention. Here I think we can bite the bullet: to slap an innocent stranger with the intention of producing an on-balance bad outcome is intrinsically wrong, just as it is intrinsically wrong to slap an innocent stranger with the intention of causing death.

Note that this would show that an intrinsically evil action need not be very evil. A light slap with the intention of producing an on-balance slightly bad outcome is wrong, but not very wrong. (Similarly, the Christian tradition holds that every lie is intrinsically evil, but some lies are only slight wrongs.)

Here is another advantage of running the distinction in this way, given the Jewish and Christian tradition. If an intrinsically evil action is one that is evil independently of consequences, it could be that such an action could still be turned into a permissible one on the basis of circumstantial factors not based in consequences. And God’s commands can be such circumstantial factors. Thus, when God commands Abraham to kill Isaac, the killing of Isaac becomes right not because of any new consequences, but because of the circumstance of God commanding the killing.

Could we maybe narrow down the scope of intrinsically evil actions even more, by saying that not just consequences, but circumstances in general, aren’t supposed to be among the reasons for wrongness? But if we do that, then most paradigm cases of intrinsically evil actions will fail: for instance, that the victim of a murder is innocent is a circumstance (it is not a part of the agent’s intention).

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