Is Torture intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral? Part 2

Most Catholic teachers have a poor understanding of the basic principles of ethics taught by the Roman Catholic Magisterium. And the faithful in general have been poorly catechized on moral theology. As a result, much confusion prevails in discussions on any moral issue. Intrinsically evil acts are a common source of confusion in moral theology.

An act is intrinsically evil if it has a bad moral object. Period. End of Sentence. Absolutely ALL acts with a bad moral object are intrinsically evil. Absolutely NO acts with only good in the moral object are intrinsically evil. Intention and circumstances do not determine the moral object. EVERY intrinsically evil act is immoral regardless of intention or circumstances. (An act can have multiple moral objects; if so, all moral objects must be good for the act to be moral.)

There are three fonts of morality:
1. intention
2. moral object
3. circumstances

All three fonts must be good for an act to be moral. If any one or more fonts are bad, the act is immoral. It is always wrong to choose an act with one or more bad fonts of morality: a bad intention, or a bad moral object, or bad circumstances (a circumstance in which you reasonably anticipate that your act will do more harm than good).

Now when you are writing moral theology about an intrinsically evil act, it is helpful to define the act in terms of its moral object. Such an act will be more sinful with a bad intention and/or bad circumstances, but the intrinsically evil act is always immoral even with a good intention and a dire circumstance. The moral object determines the immorality of the intrinsically evil act.

But most teachers of Catholicism do not understand the moral object.

The second font of morality is the knowingly chosen act, with its inherent moral meaning (essential moral nature), as determined by the moral object (or simply “object”). The moral object is the end, in terms of morality, toward which the knowingly chosen act is inherently ordered. This end is proximate, meaning morally direct or morally immediate. The intrinsic ordering of an act toward an evil proximate end (a bad moral object) is what makes an act intrinsically evil. Every intrinsically evil act must be knowingly chosen (intentionally chosen, deliberately chosen) in order to be a sin. But the basis for the magisterial teaching that some acts are wrong, in and of themselves, by the very nature of the act, is this inherent ordering toward an evil moral object.

However, the condemnation of any intrinsically evil act does not depend on the attainment of that evil end, the bad moral object. What makes the choice of an intrinsically evil act a sin is precisely this: the knowing choice of an act that is inherently disordered. Any act that is intrinsically directed (inherently ordered) toward a bad moral object is always wrong to choose. No purpose or intention, no circumstance however dire, can justify the knowing (intentional, deliberate) choice of an inherently immoral act.

The moral object is an end. But all three fonts are types of ends. The first font is the intended end, chosen by the subject (the person who acts). The third font is the circumstances (past, present, future) of the act. But the act can only affect the future, so the morality of the third font is determined by the reasonably anticipated consequences (a type of end) of the act.

The act is ordered, by its very nature, toward its moral object. By choosing an act with a particular moral nature (the type of act in terms of morality), the subject necessarily chooses the concrete act, its moral nature (inherent ordering), and its moral object. It is not possible to transform the moral object from bad to good by choosing a disordered act for a good intended end. It is not possible to choose a disordered act and somehow give it a good moral object.

The will is involved in all three fonts of morality. The will chooses an intended end. The will chooses an act with a particular moral nature, as determined by its moral object. The will makes these choices with the reasonable anticipation of certain good and/or bad consequences.

So intention is involved in the first font, when the subject chooses a purpose or reason: the intended end. But the intention is also involved in the second font, when the subject chooses a concrete act, with its essential moral nature as determined by the moral object. The intended end does not make the moral object good or bad. And the intentional choice of an intrinsically evil act is always immoral. (Much more in my book: The Catechism of Catholic Ethics.)

But as I said, most persons who teach Catholicism and even those teaching moral theology, have a poor understanding of the above concepts. Now let’s apply these basic principles of morality to the subject at hand.

Torture is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. But to understand why, we must consider the three fonts of morality, especially the moral object.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity.” (CCC 2297).

The quote above states some usual intentions. Every intrinsically evil act is immoral regardless of intention. So why state an intention or a circumstance when defining an intrinsically evil act? because every knowingly chosen act includes all three fonts. Every intrinsically evil act is immoral due to the second font. But the other fonts may be relevant to the definition of the whole act.

For example, suicide is murder in the circumstance where the victim is one’s self. Direct abortion is murder in the circumstance where the victim is prenatal. Euthanasia is murder with the intention of relieving all suffering. If murder were committed in a different circumstance or with a different intention, it would still be wrong. And that is true of all intrinsically evil acts.

So when the CCC states several common intentions, these are not essential to the definition of torture. If you torture someone for a purpose other than those listed above, it is still intrinsically evil.

The phrase “punish the guilty” requires some interpretation and explanation. Any punishment of a guilty person, determined to be guilty by a fair process, is moral if it is proportionate to the crime. A parking violation deserves a fine. A severe crime of mass murder deserves the death penalty. The intention to “punish the guilty” is relevant to torture when the punishment severely exceeds the crime.

Every guilty person is innocent beyond the measure of his guilt. Even in the case of a severe crime, torture exceeds the measure of the person’s guilt. Human persons must be treated with respect and dignity, even when they are guilty of a crime, because we are each made in the image of God. Human nature is a good gift from God. So there are limits to the punishments that can be justly dispensed to a guilty person.

When defining an intrinsically evil act, it can be helpful to state a common intention. But never in any case does the intention determine the morality of the act, such that a good intention would make the act no longer intrinsically evil. Euthanasia, by definition, has the good intention to relieve all suffering, yet it is an intrinsically evil act. Direct abortion to save the life of the mother has the good intention (purpose, reason) of saving an innocent life, yet it is an intrinsically evil act.

Torture for any reason is intrinsically evil. No intention justifies torture, not even the purpose of saving many lives. No intention defines torture, even though the CCC mentions the most common reasons that people choose this intrinsically evil act.

What is the moral object of torture? The second font is the deliberate choice of an act that is inherently ordered toward the evil proximate end (the bad moral object) of inflicting physical or moral violence on the innocent. But even a guilty person is innocent beyond the measure of his guilt. Life in prison may be a just punishment for multiple counts of first degree murder, but it would be torture and intrinsically evil as a punishment for an ordinary case of theft.

What if the violence inflicted on the innocent is not severe, but some lesser degree? The degree of violence is in the circumstances. So the infliction of unjust violence is still intrinsically evil, but it would not be called torture. Torture has a bad moral object, the infliction of violence on the innocent, as well as a circumstance which includes the severity of the violence. Torture is the infliction of physical or moral violence on the innocent to a severe degree.

How can torture be intrinsically evil, if its definition includes a circumstance? Every act includes all three fonts of morality. It is not unusual for a definition to include more than one font. So euthanasia is murder (second font) with the intention of relieving suffering (first font). If the murder were committed for a different reason, such as to obtain an inheritance, the act would not be defined as euthanasia, but it would still be intrinsically evil as a different type of murder. If torture were committed such that it inflicts only moderate violence on the innocent, you might argue as to whether it should still be called torture, but it would nevertheless be intrinsically evil. Thus, redefining certain acts as “pressure techniques”, rather than “torture”, does not justify those acts. Any violence against the innocent, and any violence in excess of the degree of guilt, is intrinsically evil.

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.

Gallery | This entry was posted in ethics. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Is Torture intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral? Part 2

  1. Francisco says:

    Insulting the criminal would be a type of violence as well, not physical but verbal violence, is that correct?

    Let’s say a criminal is not physically tortured, but verbally abused only – would that be intrinsically evil as well? – and another case where the criminal is insulted but to a lesser degree, still be bad?

    • Ron Conte says:

      I don’t think a mere insult is moral violence. Psychological abuse is moral violence and intrinsically evil. Verbal abuse is intrinsically evil, but it still does not seem to rise to the severity of torture. Torture is intrinsically evil and gravely immoral. Some much lesser degrees of violence might be so limited as to be intrinsically evil but not grave.

      With my definition of torture, violence to a lesser degree might not be torture, but it would still be immoral. Moral or physical violence against the innocent is intrinsically evil.

Comments are closed.