instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Back to basics

Voting is a human act, which means a particular act of voting is -- like every particular human act -- either objectively good -- that is, "in conformity with the true good" -- or objectively evil.

How do we determine whether a particular act is objectively good? By using our prudential judgment, of course -- although that's almost tautological, since prudence is simply "the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance".

It happens that some determinations are more straightforward than others. A particular human act may be an instance belonging to a category of acts all of which the Church teaches are evil; such acts are "categorically evil." If we know that certain acts are categorically evil, and we know how to determine whether a particular act belongs to the set of those acts, then we can easily reach the prudential judgment that a particular act is objectively evil. (And we all remember that an objectively evil act is illicit regardless of intention or circumstances, right?)

Here let me make three points:
  1. Determining that a particular act would be objectively evil is always and necessarily a matter of prudence. Church doctrine does not and cannot treat particular acts that aren't mentioned in Revelation.
  2. If an act may be licitly chosen, it cannot be objectively evil, which means it cannot belong to a category of acts that are categorically evil.
  3. If a person judges two acts to be objectively evil, but only one of them to be an instance of a categorical evil, his judgment regarding the non-categorical evil may be just as certain as his judgment of the categorical evil. (I return to my example of the unjust immigration law. Immigration laws are not categorically evil, but that does not mean there is no such thing as an objectively unjust immigration law, nor that a person cannot be certain a particular immigration law is unjust.)
[I know this sort of spadework makes a lot of people impatient -- "Just say it's a sin to vote for Kerry already! Just say it's a sin to vote for anyone!" -- but I trust my plodding reason more than my leaping intuition, or it might be better to say my leaping intuition has failed me more often than my plodding reason.]

Now, I stuck point 2 in there because I think that's where it belongs, but the reason it belongs in this post at all may not be evident outside the specific context of voting for a pro-abortion candidate. So here's the context:

Elinor Dashwood speaks for many, I think, when she writes:
I'm going to keep on saying this whether anybody wants to hear it or not: to vote for a pro-abortion candidate is wrong, and can never be right.
Yet, as I noted below, the Pope has written that voting for "a more restrictive law, aimed at limiting the number of authorized abortions, in place of a more permissive law already passed or ready to be voted on" can represent "a legitimate and proper attempt to limit [an unjust law's] evil aspects." But if an act may be licitly chosen, it cannot be objectively evil, which means it cannot belong to a category of acts that are categorically evil. Thus, voting for a law that permits abortion is not categorically evil. From which I think the conclusion necessarily follows that voting for a candidate who supports abortion rights is not categorically evil.

However, the fact that a category of acts is not categorically evil does not imply that an act belonging to the category is not objectively evil. Prudential judgment of whether an act is in conformity with the true good is not completed once one category of evils is judged inapplicable. In particular, it needs to be judged whether voting for Kerry fits the extremely narrow sub-category of legitimate attempts to limit evil the Pope outlines.

(And I realize it looks like I'm taking Evangelium Vitae here as Gospel (ha!), which not even every Catholic will accept, but what I think I'm really doing is using the Pope's formulation of a principle derivable almost entirely from human reason, leavened with a dollop of the Incarnation, so properly explained the principle should be accepted by any reasonable Christian.)