On lying, intrinsic evil, and moral intuition (reply to Peter Kreeft)

In a recent article, Dr. Peter Kreeft discusses lying and moral intuition. He suggests using the method of moral intuition to determine if an act, such as lying, is moral or immoral. The first problem with his argument is that he completely abandons the teachings of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium on morality in general and on lying specifically. His argument mentions many different philosophers and various situations. But his argument is not based at all on the teachings of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium, nor on natural law.

The article is here:
Why Live Action did right and why we all should know that

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that lying is intrinsically evil, and that intrinsically evil acts are always immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances. Veritatis Splendor teaches in greater depth about the three fonts of morality and intrinsically evil acts. Kreeft completely ignores these and all other magisterial sources. Neither does he base his argument on Tradition or Scripture.

The second problem is that he suggests, in effect, a reversal of the approach taught by the Church on ethics. Veritatis Splendor teaches that we cannot know if an act is moral without first knowing its moral species (its essential moral nature) as determined by its moral object. Kreeft suggests that we judge if an act is moral based on intention and circumstances (as is implied by the various examples he gives) and moral intuition. If all three are good, then he concludes that the act cannot be always immoral (intrinsically evil). Although he does not use the terms ‘moral object’ or ‘intrinsic evil’ or ‘fonts of morality’ or other terminology used by the Magisterium and by traditional moral theology, he implies that the doctrine of the object be replaced by the new doctrine of moral intuition. In effect, the three fonts of morality changes from what the Church teaches: (1) intention, (2) moral object, (3) circumstances — into what Kreeft and others are teaching, which is essentially: (1) intention, (2) moral intuition, (3) circumstances. And what is the basis for moral intuition? In the examples that he cites, it is based solely on intention and circumstances. So the second font of morality becomes entirely dependent on the other two fonts. In effect, the three fonts are reduced to two.

This type of error has been explicitly rejected by the Magisterium:

Pope John Paul II: “The doctrine of the object as a source of morality represents an authentic explicitation of the Biblical morality of the Covenant and of the commandments, of charity and of the virtues. The moral quality of human acting is dependent on this fidelity to the commandments, as an expression of obedience and of love. For this reason — we repeat — the opinion must be rejected as erroneous which maintains that it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behavior or specific acts, without taking into account the intention for which the choice was made or the totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned. Without the rational determination of the morality of human acting as stated above, it would be impossible to affirm the existence of an “objective moral order” and to establish any particular norm the content of which would be binding without exception. This would be to the detriment of human fraternity and the truth about the good, and would be injurious to ecclesial communion as well.” (Veritatis Splendor, n. 82).

Kreeft is saying that it is impossible for an act, in particular a venial sin of lying, to be morally evil according to its species if the intention is good and the circumstances are dire. This opinion has been explicitly rejected by the Magisterium. Although Kreeft implies, from the examples he gives, the addition provision that the act be only a venial sin, the error is essentially the same one rejected by Veritatis Splendor. How does Kreeft explain this discrepancy between his approach to ethics and the definitive teaching of the Magisterium? He uses the usual approach of moral theologians today, he completely ignores it.

The third problem is that Kreeft’s approach of moral intuition is essentially a replacement of absolute moral truth with the moral intuition of the majority. Democracy replaces Magisterium. What seems to be moral to most persons, must be moral. The majority opinion concerning what seems to be moral to intuition — completely apart from the teachings of Jesus Christ and of His Church — is held to be moral.

This does not seem to be a grave error on ethics when it is only applied to a venial lie. However, the exact same approach of moral intuition is used by some moral theologians (e.g. Lysaught, Rhonheimer, and Grisez) to justify direct abortion, including a type of partial birth abortion where the physician directly crushes the skull of the child, during birth, to save the life of the mother. It seems (they claim) that we should kill one innocent in order to save the life of another innocent, when the only other option is to allow both persons to die. The dire circumstance and the good intention to save an innocent life is used to determine the morality of the act, apart from the moral nature of that act as determined by its moral object. In effect, just as Kreeft is suggesting, moral object is replaced by moral intuition. For if the act seems moral, the act is claimed to be of a type that is not intrinsically evil and does not have an evil moral object. But this conclusion is not based on the nature of the act or on the agreement or conflict between the moral object and the eternal moral law.

At one point in his argument, he suggests that a person might decide if an act is moral without knowing if the act is lying or not: “They do not know whether this is an example of lying or not. But they know that if it is, than lying is not always wrong, and if lying is always wrong, then this is not lying.” In other words, you decide if the act is moral without knowing the moral species (the moral nature) of the act as determined by its moral object. If you decide it is moral, then you conclude that the nature of the act is good and somehow it must have a good moral object. This approach pays lip service to the doctrine of the moral object, but it ignores the usual basis for determining if the moral object is good or evil: the eternal moral law based on the love of God and neighbor.

The fourth problem with Kreeft’s approach is that he uses examples of lying in dire circumstances to justify the lies of ‘Live Action’, which was not a dire circumstance. And this is a common problem in discussions on this topic. It seems moral to lie to Nazis to save innocent Jews from torture and murder. It seems moral to lie to save your child from rape and murder. It seems moral to lie in order to save a city from a terrorist with a nuclear bomb. Why does it seem moral? It is because the circumstances cited are extreme. But the result of this approach is not to justify lying only in extremely dire circumstances, but rather to conclude that lying is not always wrong and therefore to imply that lying is often moral, even when circumstances are not extremely dire. For example, after Kreeft concludes that lying is not always wrong (because we must lie to save Jews from terrorist Nazi rapists with nuclear weapons), he justifies lying in the case of ‘Live Action’.

What was the dire circumstance that two members of Live Action faced that caused them to lie? There wasn’t one. Their lies did not save any prenatals from death by abortion. They did not find themselves in a dire circumstance where the only way out was to lie. They chose to lie; they chose to put themselves in a situation where lying was the only way to accomplish their goal. But their goal was not to save lives. It was to show that their opponents in the abortion controversy include persons who are immoral, who are willing to commit grave sins or grave crimes. They succeeded in their goals, but no lives were saved. They could have accomplished the same goal by a verbal argument: abortion is murder, therefore an organization dedicated to making abortion widely available is committing grave sins. The same goal could have been achieved without lying. There was no dire necessity. So the conclusion does not follow from the premise that lying becomes moral (or becomes not-lying) in very dire circumstances.

The fifth problem is that Kreeft’s approach has no objective criteria apart from intention and circumstances. His morality is based on the intuition of the individual human person alone, as if conscience were a reason unto itself. Instead of conscience seeking moral truth from natural law and Divine Revelation, conscience uses intuitions and experiences. It is as if Kreeft were saying:

“there are in the final analysis no objective criteria. The ultimate instance that can decide here is therefore the subject alone, and precisely this is what the word ‘conscience’ expresses: in this realm only the individual, with his intuitions and experiences, can decide.”

But Pope Benedict XVI teaches that this opinion is an error.

Without objective criteria to judge the moral nature of the act (its inherent moral meaning as determined by the moral object), any act that seems to be moral becomes moral, and all acts are in effect justifiable. Nothing is able to be classified as intrinsically evil and always immoral, because moral intuition might decide that it is moral.

The sixth problem with Kreeft’s analysis is that he in effect concludes that an act can only be intrinsically evil and always immoral if it is a mortal sin, but never when it is a venial sin. He gives examples to the effect that one should not commit murder or blasphemy or rape, even in dire circumstances, because your child would understand your refusal to commit those grave sins. But he states that one should commit lying (or that it cannot possibly be lying) and by inference any other venial sin, in order to avoid dire consequences, because your child would not understand your refusal to commit a venial sin. So now moral intuition is reduced to what an adult thinks that a child would think. I find the teachings of Veritatis Splendor and the Catechism of the Catholic Church much more convincing that this type of argument.

The result of his analysis is that either no venial sins are intrinsically evil, or intrinsically evil acts become justified, if they are venial sins, in the face of dire circumstances. This error is essentially the same as the error of proportionalism (also condemned in Veritatis Splendor). If the circumstances have grave weight, and the moral object has a lesser weight, then the act is said to be justified because the dire circumstances are proportionally of greater moral weight. But if the moral object has grave weight (murder, rape, blasphemy, etc.), then the act is not justified — not because intrinsically evil acts are always immoral — but only because the grave immorality of the act outweighs the circumstances. There are no new doctrinal errors, just old errors in new disguises.

The seventh problem with Kreeft’s position is that the examples of dire circumstances, which he uses to justify some lies, have already been considered and rejected by Saint Augustine. If morality is based on moral intuition, who has the better moral intuition, Peter Kreeft or Augustine? In his work ‘On Lying’, Saint Augustine concludes that every type of lie is a sin, including lying to save an innocent person from death, lying to save someone from rape, and various other circumstances. And since the time of Augustine, the other Saints and Doctors, and the Magisterium, have only continued to agree that lying, even when it is a venial sin, is always immoral.

The assertions of Dr. Peter Kreeft in the above discussed article constitute a complete rejection of the doctrine of the moral object, intrinsic evil, and the three fonts of morality. He shows no regard for the teachings of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium on morality. He argues in favor of ideas that have previously been condemned as doctrinal errors by the Magisterium.

See my more recent article on this subject: Is Peter Kreeft lying to you about religion?

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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