Imagine an instance in which Doctor John, the local surgeon, refused to perform an emergency operation because he wanted to spend the afternoon playing a round of golf. Because of his decision, the patient died.
Doctor John might defend himself by saying that playing golf achieves something good -- his own relaxation and socializing with friends. He might further argue that he did not want or intend that the patient die. It was just one of those things that happened.
Likely, most of us would (rightly) conclude that Doctor John had acted immorally. Further, we might also conclude that, as irresponsible as his decision was, it was not as grave as if he had gone to the patient's hospital room, given her a lethal injection and then headed off to play golf.
Why? How would we reach those conclusions?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church briefly lays out the traditional scholastic schema of what are called the determinants of morality. To be morally good, any action must be good in view of the object chosen, the end in view or the intention, and the circumstances of the action. If one of the determinants of the act is bad then the action itself is bad.
In the event of Doctor John giving the patient a lethal injection, the object chosen is clearly evil, even if he does this so that he can enjoy an uninterrupted game of golf. A good end never justifies an evil means. One can commit grave moral wrong while having a good intention.
But even in the instance where he fails to perform the operation and where his game of golf is not, in itself, reprehensible, we find moral fault. We find that fault in the circumstances of his decision -- as a surgeon he has a responsibility to perform emergency life-saving operations when it is at all possible. Doctor John appears to have a fanatical devotion to golf to which all other human goods are made relative.
The "circumstances" of an action, we should emphasize, are not merely the physical conditions in which the action is performed. "Circumstances" refers mainly to the moral situation which results from the convergence of physical facts with the prior moral commitments and preconceptions of the person acting.
Still, there are some who would argue that there is no moral difference between Doctor John's negligent failure to operate on his patient and his action of directly taking her life. In both cases, after all, the patient ends up dead. This view might even regard the lethal injection as more humane because it spares the patient needless suffering during her futile wait for Doctor John to return from the 18th hole.
It is the strongly held belief of the Catholic tradition, however, that good ends never justify the use of evil means. Underlying this contention is a radically different understanding of morality than that held by those who would attempt to determine the moral rightness and wrongness of actions by "weighing" their foreseeable consequences. This latter view is known as consequentialism and it can be decisively criticized on rational, not religious, grounds.
While notions such as the "greater good" and "weighing" consequences may at first sight have some plausibility, they are ultimately incoherent. There is, for example, no objective way of measuring benefits and harms so that a greater good can be determined. Nor is there any objective way of putting boundaries around moral "cases" so that one can adequately determine which consequences of one's action ought to be included in the calculations.
The traditional scholastic schema of objects, intentions and consequences at least escapes these deficiencies. It doesn't try to measure consequences; it says, rather, that there are some actions which should never be performed. It can account for the web of responsibilities and personal perspectives which help create the moral situations in which we act. It maintains that no person should ever do something bad in order to achieve good results. And it even maintains that one can incur moral guilt or credit for proposals which are never implemented in action.
It does this because Catholic moral teaching maintains that what is most important in moral analysis is not so-called objective states of affairs which are caused by action but rather the acting subject who frames moral situations and makes decisions. What really counts is the state of a person's soul.
Actions or failures to act have a moral quality because it is through them that a person determines his or her moral being. Commitments or actions can be good even if we have no idea what they will bring about.
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
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