Phil Lawler’s error on torture and intrinsic evil

Over at, Phil Lawler has several posts condemning torture as intrinsically evil. Yes, under Roman Catholic teaching, torture is intrinsically evil. We can debate which acts fall under the proper moral definition of torture, but if an act is torture, it is intrinsically evil and therefore always immoral.

But there’s a problem with Lawler’s approach to torture, and apparently with his understanding of intrinsically evil acts as well. Here’s the Catechism of the Catholic Church on intrinsically evil acts:

1756 It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.

There are three fonts (sources) of morality: intention, moral object, circumstances. All three fonts must be good for an act to be moral. If one or more fonts is bad, the act is always a sin to choose.

What does Lawler say about torture and intrinsically evil acts?

“If torture is intrinsically wrong, then it is wrong under all circumstances.”

And he does assert, across several posts on the subject, that torture is intrinsically evil. But what about intention? Every intrinsically evil act is wrong by reason of its moral object, and so every intrinsically evil act is wrong regardless of circumstances or intention. But Lawler does not seem to understand that intrinsically evil acts are wrong regardless of intention (the purpose or reason for choosing the act).

He goes back and forth on whether torture is still torture under various intentions. He seems to think that intention is inherent to the definition of torture. But intention and moral object are two different fonts. Sometimes, in magisterial documents, an intrinsically evil act is described by its object along with the most common intention or common circumstances. But this does not imply that different circumstances or a different intention would make the act no longer intrinsically evil.

Consider the clear case of euthanasia. The intrinsically evil act of euthanasia is essentially murder with the intention of relieving all suffering. If the intention were different, such as to gain an inheritance, the act would still be intrinsically evil because it retains the same intrinsically disordered moral object: to kill the innocent.

The fact that some magisterial sources mention the most common purpose for torture does not imply that some other purpose makes the same concrete act moral, or not intrinsically evil, or not torture. The essential moral nature of every intrinsically evil act is determined by its moral object, that is to say, by the inherent ordering of the act toward an evil proximate end. The intentional choice of an intrinsically evil act is always immoral, regardless of the purpose (intended end, motivation) for making that choice.

What Lawler should have said is: “If torture is intrinsically wrong, then it is wrong under all circumstances and for any purpose.” For every intrinsically evil act is wrong regardless of intention and regardless of circumstances. A bad intended end makes the choice of an intrinsically evil act more sinful. But every intrinsically evil act is immoral, even when the intention is good and the circumstances are dire.

“No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church.” [Evangelium Vitae 62]

“Consequently, circumstances or intentions can never transform an act, intrinsically evil by virtue of its object, into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice.” [Veritatis Splendor 81]

It is disconcerting for me to read so many tracts online from persons purporting to present Church teaching on ethics, who have such a poor understanding of the basic principles of moral theology, especially the three fonts of morality and the moral object.

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

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