Friday, August 22, 2008

Obtectively evil acts and gravity

I want to briefly discuss something I've touched on before. To say an act is objectively evil is to say that an act is evil by its very nature. An objectively evil act cannot be changed to a good act by our intentions or the circumstances surrounding its being committed.

But to say an act is objectively evil is not to say anything about the seriousness or gravity of the act. An act can be objectively evil without being grave, or grave without being objectively evil. Allow me to demonstrate.

Stealing is objectively evil. It is never permissible to take property that does not belong to you and that you have no right to. It would be an objectively evil act to steal ten dollars a dollar from the petty cash at your place of employment. (EDIT: changed the example a little to more clearly illustrate the point.) Yet it might not be gravely evil to do so. This is because stealing this ten dollars dollar, especially if you work for a multi-million dollar, multi-national corporation, does not do very much harm to the business at all. It is the kind of thing that might even be overlooked or ignored as a minor bookkeeping error. So while you have done something objectively evil, you have not done something that is necessarily gravely evil. Some older catechisms and moral manuals might even have considered this example to be only a venial sin, since its gravity is greatly diminished. (I wish my few old moral theology manuals weren't packed away in a storage box somewhere in the house, so I could check on this to be sure.)

Going to war is not objectively evil. If the condition of just war theory are met, the war is an act of justice and is not evil to enter into. But if a country enters into an unjust war, this would be gravely evil. This is because wars, even small ones, cause great suffering, death and destruction. That is of course why the rulers of a nation must be especially careful in examining whether or not the criteria for a just war have been met before committing themselves to such a course of action.

I think the confusion that sometimes arises over the distinction between whether or not an act is objectively evil and whether or not an act is gravely evil arises because of the issue of abortion. Abortion is both objectively evil--it is an act that can never legitimately be done--and gravely evil--because it is the killing of an innocent human being. People understand both of these facts, but since they are so used to referring to abortion as objectively evil, they begin to associate the grave matter of a sin with the formal category of objectively evil actions.

It is important to remember the distinction between the formal nature of the act and the matter of the act. Abortion is an act that is both formally evil and materially grave, but acts can also be neither formally evil nor materially grave, formally evil but not materially grave, and not formally evil but materially grave. Drawing proper distinctions in this fashion does nothing to lesson the evils of abortion, but it does allow us to properly judge other actions based upon both formal and material considerations.


Anonymous said...

You may want to EDIT this subsequent statement as well:

"This is because stealing this ten dollars..."

As regards the matter of "Just Wars", how would you classify The Revolution?

brendon said...

Gah! Thank you for catching that.

Do you mean the American War for Independence? It's difficult, as I can see both sides, but I generally see it a a just war, since the Colonials were fighting for the traditional rights that they had inherited as Englishmen and as heirs to the American political tradition. The rights of Englishmen were, as far as I know, binding on the crown via Magna Carta and the common law. The American political tradition was explicitly approved by the crown via its accepting certain colonial charters and forms of government, or else implicitly approved by the crown via its allowing such charters and forms of government to develop into a living and rooted political tradition. Thus the crown's opposition to both was an usurpation of power and an action contrary to the common good.

That being said, my disposition, being what it is, might have saw me siding with the Loyalists if I lived back then, and I can certainly understand Loyalist sentiment and opposition to independence. Especially since radical "Enlightenment" individuals were some of the rabble-rousers for the cause of independence, even if they did not play that large a part in winning independence and framing the laws to govern the Republic.