Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Arithmetic of Lesser Evils

The Pope's condom comments recently should remind us to be on guard against a common potential misinterpretation in Catholic moral theology. We must remember: choosing a lesser evil is not equivalent to choosing a good. This is morality, not mathematics; choosing the lesser evil is still evil. Choosing to make an act less negative does not amount, even virtually, to doing a moral positive.

For example, a married couple that refuses to abstain from sex when one of the partners is HIV+...will be committing a sin either way. They'll either be committing the sin of exposing their partner to the risk of HIV, or the sin of contraception.

Deciding to have the protected sex (the lesser evil) rather than the potentially fatal recklessness...doesn't change the fact that contraception is still evil. It's not as if one can say that since being safe brings the act "up" from a -7 to a -3 that this choosing of the lesser evil is the equivalent a +4, and thus cancels out the -3 making the whole act worth +1. That's just not how it works. Going from -7 to -3 may be a +4 in math, but such calculus doesn't work in morality where the potential to do worse does not constitute a reference point or baseline for judging acts less bad than that.

Because we can always do worse. If it worked that way, then any time I committed any sin, I could say I was choosing to do it instead of murder and thus making a positively good choice. I could claim that by bumping it up from a -1000 to a "mere" -3, this is a "gain" of +997, and so a net (with the remaining -3) of +994. But that would clearly be absurd. Lesser evils are still evils. They're "better" than alternatives, but the comparison to hypothetical alternatives does not make them good.

Note that the lesser evil question is different from, though related to, the other question I've discussed as to whether condoms actually add anything to the moral equation in acts which are usually already contraceptive in intent anyway. Obviously in non-vaginal sex acts, condoms can be a positive good (even though the act as a whole is still evil) inasmuch as they do not then constitute contraception (since those acts are already contraceptive in nature) and so merely add safety (a good).

My contention has been that, additionally, even in heterosexual fornication the mindset is usually already contraceptive. Even were they to risk the externally "natural" act, it is still already invalid by intent. So at that point choosing to use a method that actually prevents disease rather than something like withdrawal or mere chance may, in fact, constitute a good, albeit the foregone sin of contraception (in their intent) is still evil. At that point, contraception has already been committed (in the heart) so all that the condom adds is the safety, which is a positive good.

No comments: