instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, December 01, 2006

A disproportionate response

The claim has been made (never mind the context) that, from the teaching of Veritatis Splendor, it follows that the following two statements cannot both be true of the same act:
  1. The act is intrinsically evil.
  2. The act is specified as a "disproportionate" instance of a more general act.
Very briefly, the argument goes something like this:

VS 80 says intrinsically evil acts "are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances."

But whether an act is "disproportionate" necessarily depends on the circumstances, and possibly on the intentions also.

Therefore, no act specified by being a disproportionate type of a more general act can be intrinsically evil.

Or, even more briefly: The object of an act cannot be specified by it being disproportionate.

I don't buy this argument.

First, I will admit that I can't see that Veritatis Splendor adds much to the Catholic moral tradition, to which the encyclical often refers. Well, there's a certain level of additional Magisterial authority being placed behind the Church's moral tradition, and the specific condemnation of teleological and proportionalist theories contrary to the tradition, but I think the blessed John Paul II was simply restating and applying the tradition, not developing it.

In VS 78, for example, he refers to "the insightful analysis, still valid today, made by Saint Thomas" about what makes a human act good or evil. So I think I can get away with using St. Thomas to refute the non-VS-related version of the argument -- viz, that the object of an act cannot be specified by it being disproportionate.

To that end, here are couple of quotations from ST I-II 18, "The good and evil of human acts, in general," the question containing the article referred to in the footnote on that statement from VS 78:
Although external things are good in themselves, nevertheless they have not always a due proportion to this or that action. And so, inasmuch as they are considered as objects of such actions, they have not the quality of goodness. [a. 2, ad 1.]
External things lacking a due proportion can be considered as objects of actions. More directly against the idea that being "disproportionate" cannot specify the object of an act:
A circumstance is sometimes taken as the essential difference of the object, as compared to reason; and then it can specify a moral act. And it must needs be so whenever a circumstance transforms an action from good to evil; for a circumstance would not make an action evil, except through being repugnant to reason. [a. 5, ad 4]
Since, then, St. Thomas allows that a circumstance can specify an act's object, and Pope John Paul II allows that St. Thomas's analysis is still valid today, an intrinsically evil act can, in fact, be defined as a more general act performed in a disproportionate manner.