We have a very lengthy and somewhat frustrating discussion dealing in part with the nature of evil acts, especially with regard to intrinsically evil acts and acts that constitute choosing the lesser of 2 evils, here. One of the things that made the discussion more difficult was that we ran into a lack of agreement about 2 items: what does it mean to call an act evil as opposed to intrinsically evil, and what do we mean by “intention” when we talk about intending the consequence of an act. This becomes particularly significant in the context of determining whether an act falls into the analysis of the principle of double effect, or PDE.
Just to refresh memories, the PDE standard stands on 3 more fundamental principles: (1) there are things that are morally evil, and things that are evil without being morally evil; (2) there are moral evils that are intrinsically wrong and moral evils that are not intrinsically wrong, and (3) It is wrong to do a morally evil act no matter what else applies, including (but not limited to) the consequences. What I want is to pick apart the first 2 in order to shed some light on how the PDE can be applied successfully.
First, apparently we had some disagreement about how we want to refer to things that are evil, or about what the language that people generally use actually means. I am not going to engage in a great national-wide survey of how we speak of these to prove a specific usage is THE right one, all I want to do is establish a reasonable set of distinctions about these, which people may agree fit with the way people talk a fair amount of the time – close even if not perfect. Do we use “evil” and “bad” and “wrong” interchangeably? There is a lot of overlap, but they are not full, perfect synonyms. When we say “that tree falling on your house was bad luck”, we are pointing to some bad happening that is not something that anyone is at fault for. We probably wouldn’t refer to it as “evil”, (though philosophers might), and we certainly wouldn’t call it a “wrong” of the tree, the house, or you. It isn’t wrong of the tree to fall on your house, and it isn’t wrong of you that your house was in the way, and it wasn’t wrong of the house to be built where the tree landed. “Bad” and “evil” perhaps are closer to synonyms – they both refer to what we would consider the opposite of “good.”
Philosophically, the good is considered under the notion of “the desirable”. That which is desirable for its own sake is good. (That which is desired ONLY on account of something else is properly “useful”, and is “good” derivatively by reason of its usefulness – it is a “good” tool or means.) Bad, then, is that which is undesirable for its own sake – if it weren’t for the sake of something else that is good, you would not sit still for the bad. We might say bad is the negation of good.
But there are two kinds of opposition: contrary, and contradictory. Or in the sphere of the good, there are the opposites of negation and privation. To have a watermelon on a hot day is a good, to not have one is a negation (there isn’t a good there). To have two arms is a good, to have no arms is not merely a negation, it is a privation. “Evil,” then, is the opposite of good in the sense of privation: not only a negation (there isn’t a good present) but more, it is the lack of a good that belongs there. We don’t say “that’s evil fortune”, because there is no naturally belonging good there when you have good fortune. So, bad is a more general term, as it encompasses the undesirable both in the mere non-presence of good things where there isn’t any proper orderly rightness about them, and the non-presence of good things that are part of a proper order.
“Wrong” is a lot like evil, it only belongs to the sorts of situations where there could be a right, proper order - to privations. But it seems to have a special connotation in regards to actions. We do say “his actions are wrong”, or even “he hit the ball wrong, and it went off sideways”, meaning he failed to connect with it the proper way to hit it straight. We also say of a person who is ill: “He has something wrong with him.” Clearly indicates a privation of health. In terms of privation, wrongness and evil seem the same. In terms of properly human actions, i.e. actions that are properly voluntary, though, “wrong” takes on a slightly different notion than “evil”, I think. This comes out in our speech in that we never say (at least, not speaking well) that an action that is wrong is the one that we ought to do, but we do say that an action that causes certain kinds of evil is sometimes the one we ought to do – as when a doctor prescribes an ill-tasting medicine. The taste is an evil - a physical evil, something of itself undesirable – though it has nothing to do with the moral order, because its repugnance is only a physical undesirability, not morally disordered. And when the doctor prescribes this thing that presents a physical evil, he is not acting wrongly but RIGHTLY. So in the moral sphere “wrong” is also the opposite of “right”, and in this sense of moral human actions it is different from “evil.” We always want the person to do the right thing not the wrong act, even when the right thing is to act so as to cause the lesser of two evils.
This also comes out in our saying “two wrongs don’t make a right.” Two morally wrong actions simply add to the undesirableness of the total, their wrongness cannot offset each other to make a morally satisfying whole. If two siblings each stole $5.00 from each other at the same time, as a parent you don’t say “well, the world has been righted by their offsetting wrongs”. No, you punish BOTH of them. Sure, the condition of the property has been righted, the disorders in ownership have been offset, but the moral conditions have not, they are both “in the wrong” and remain in the wrong until they receive just retribution and repent. Similarly, you can justify acting for a lesser evil by saying you avoid a greater evil, but you cannot justify acting wrongly by saying you avoid a greater wrong act – it merely means that you are guilty of a lesser sin, not that you erase the guilt because you are not guilty of the greater sin. So: it is conceivable to characterize an action as causing an evil even when it is a morally good act, but we do not call an action a good act when it is wrong: in the sphere of voluntary acts there are evils that are not moral evils, whereas all wrong acts are morally disordered. The confusion comes in when we say “do an evil” meaning not an act whose moral character is disordered, but to “do an act which has an evil effect.” This confuses the issue because the “doing” is what has the moral character (right or wrong), whereas the effect itself does not wholly determine the moral character. It would be better, for this discussion, to always be clear on whether by “evil” you mean the character of the doing or the character of the effect. And since in the sphere of moral acts “wrong” is normally applied only to the character of the act and not the effect, I would prefer if we separated “evil effect” from “wrong action” by those expressions.
These points obviously are important for carrying out any PDE determination. For clarity, the requisite conditions of a morally good act under PDE are as follows:
1 The act of its own inherent nature must be morally good or at least indifferent. The rest of the conditions are conditions on the EFFECTS of the act.
2 The agent may not positively will the bad effect but may permit it. If he could attain the good effect without the bad effect he should do so. The bad effect is sometimes said to be indirectly voluntary – he “wills” it only to the extent of intending the good effect which is inseparable from the bad.
3 The good effect must be produced by the action independently of the bad effect, not BY the bad effect.
4 The good effect must be sufficiently desirable to compensate for the allowing of the evil effect (proportionality between the good and evil effects foreseen.)
It is necessary for there to be the possibility of foreseeable evil effects of morally good acts in order for PDE to even begin to be an acceptable standard of moral actions. These evil effects must, then, be evils without being _morally_ wrong - they are evils not as disorders in the will that voluntarily consents to the act, but evils of another order (like the physical evil of the bitter medicine that makes you nauseous – the doctor’s will is rightly ordered, good, even though one part of the sum total of effects is evil.) So when we use the expression “evil effects” we are indicating a separation between the will and the evil, indicating that the will may be not intending those effects.
So, the distinction between evils that can be foreseen without being intended and disorders in the willing of the act is essential. Therefore, when we present scenarios like “blockaded even though he knows that thousands of women and children will die of starvation”, we must accept that saying a consequence is foreseen simply and accepted does not speak to whether it is an effect that is intended. If it did determine that, we would have to ditch PDE altogether, and we could never do _any_ acts that we foresee having bad effects – no spanking children who do wrong things, no taking evil-tasting medicine, no foregoing treats now so you can save up for later, no allowing someone to sin when you can forcibly stop them. The world would be a morally incomprehensible place.
Next stop: distinction between the object of the act and intention.