Common “Ends Justify the Means” Arguments

If you ask any well-informed Catholic, “Does the end justify the means?” they will usually answer correctly: No, it does not. And the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “the end does not justify the means” exactly twice (1753, 1759). In addition, the CCC explains the same point with different wording: “One may not do evil so that good may result from it (1761).

[Romans]
{3:8} And should we not do evil, so that good may result? For so we have been slandered, and so some have claimed we said; their condemnation is just.

Should we sometimes do evil, so that good may result? No, we must not. St. Paul considers the claim that he taught that false doctrine to be slander. We may never do evil, so that good may result.

In terms of the three fonts of morality, a good intended end, does not justify the choice of an intrinsically evil act as the means. Similarly, a good end result (consequence) of the act, does not justify the choice of an intrinsically evil act as the means to that end. All three fonts must be good, for any act to be moral: the intended end, the moral nature of the act (determined by its object), and the consequences.

Now to the main point of this post: many Catholics make “ends justify the means” arguments, without realizing it.

For example, they say that the use of contraception (even abortifacient contraception) would be justified in order to treat a medical disorder, even if the married couple are still having sex. The intended end is to treat the medical disorder, the means is to take abortifacient contraception while remaining sexually active. The end results include the benefits of the treatment, and the deaths of innocent prenatals. But the contraceptive and abortive ends of that pill make the act intrinsically evil. It is not justified to take abortifacient contraception for a medical purpose. The end of treating a disorder does not justify the use of an intrinsically evil means.

It is also the case, when we evaluate the font of circumstances, that the act is immoral under that font as well as under the font of the object. For the deaths of prenatals can be entirely avoided, while still obtaining the full medical benefits, by refraining from sex while taking the pill. If the benefit of a medical intervention can be obtained in either of two ways: (1) with the deaths of innocents, and (2) without any deaths, the only moral choice would be the second way. [edited to say “second” not first]

There are other ends justify means arguments. This argument is used in sexual ethics, unfortunately. And the answer, in every case, is that you cannot commit an intrinsically evil sexual act, no matter how good the intended end.

Now suppose the act in question is not intrinsically evil, but, in the particular case, the reasonably anticipated bad consequences morally outweigh the reasonably anticipated good consequences. Even if you have a good intended end in mind, as the purpose of the act, it would still be a sin. For the act has consequences that make the font of circumstances bad. In other words, it is always wrong to act when you reasonably anticipated that your act will do more harm than good. And a good intended end cannot justify that act, in those circumstances.

Sometimes a clever commentator will try to use the principle of double effect to justify an act, which ought to be considered immoral because the end does not justify the means. They go through all of the criteria for an at to be justified under the principle of double effect, and then conclude that the act is moral. But the act in question is intrinsically evil. So essentially they have omitted one of the criteria in the principle of double effect.

The first condition for an act to be justified by the principle of double effect is that it must not be an intrinsically evil act. You don’t determine that an act is not intrinsically evil by applying all the other criteria first. Even if all the criteria for an act to be moral under the principle of double effect are met, except that first criterion, the act is still immoral. The principle of double effect does not justify an intrinsically evil act. And it is not true that, if all the other criteria are met, the act is not intrinsically evil. That’s backwards. The principle of double effect does not determine if an act is intrinsically evil. Rather, if an act is first determined not to be intrinsically evil, it might be justified by the principle of double effect.

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

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12 Responses to Common “Ends Justify the Means” Arguments

  1. stefano says:

    Ron,
    it seems to me that when AL – or some authorised interpretations of it – allows adulterous marital acts to take place in order to prevent adverse consequences to the stability of a relationship, it negates in practice the moral principle that a good end does not justify an evil act.
    Besides, it defines as good what in fact is an evil end, that is to persevere in an adulterous relationship, under the assumption that a stable adulterous relation is good (or better than an unstable one) for the children (double effect).
    What is you opinion on that?

    • Ron Conte says:

      AL does not approve of adulterous acts. It acknowledges that many Catholics are in such a situation, and it proposes ways to reach out to those sinners, to bring them to Christ and eventually to repentance. If you want to take a consistent position on Communion, you would have to forbid Communion for everyone using contraception, committing any grave sexual sins, or holding any heresies — which is the vast majority of Catholics. Honestly, I don’t see any way to go forward other than those two options: AL or refuse Communion to most persons.

      Double effect does not apply to intrinsically evil acts.

    • Marco says:

      “If you want to take a consistent position on Communion, you would have to forbid Communion for everyone using contraception, committing any grave sexual sins, or holding any heresies — which is the vast majority of Catholics”

      Not to mention those who aren’t even catholics, since they belong to another Church, and yet they are currently admitted.

    • stefano says:

      Ron, I am not saying that AL approves adulterous acts. As a matter of fact, those intrinsecally evil acts would still be preventing access to communion, if it weren’t for the authorised interpretations of AL.

      What I’m saying is that these interpretations admit or seem to admit, that discontinuing adulterous marital acts may no longer be a good end to pursue, but rather a bad one, being detrimental to the stability of a relation; hence, access to communion may be granted legitimatly without requiring the couple to live in chastity.

      If that is the case, as it seems to me, it contradicts the basic moral principle that you should not chose to do intrinsecally evil acts in order to reach a good end. And that stays even if you conclude that, if not, no one should receive communion any longer (I don’t see why, as long as they can confess their sins, but anyway…)

      Unless we conventionally accept that stabilty is a superior value than a valid marriage; therefore marital acts in a stable adulterous relation become good, then we could even agree that the Church should bless the divorced and remarried couples.

      I would have just appreciated if such a novelty had been affirmed and theologically justified authoritatively by the magisterium, rather than implied and interpreted.

    • Ron Conte says:

      There is very little in AL that, as stated, is erroneous. And the errors are quite limited. As for the interpretation and application, it is the providence of God working to uncover an error that lay hidden for so long, these Cardinals and Bishops are are unfaithful. I don’t think that AL implies B which implies C, etc. as critics claim. We should rebuke those Bishops who interpret AL unfaithfully, and speak with only mild criticism of the Roman Pontiff — whom I am sure is lead by grace and providence in this matter.

    • stefano says:

      Thank you Ron, my mild criticism is not to the Roman Pontiff, but to his theology, and is limited to the speculative level. I also wish I could resolve my doubts so not to express any criticism at all.
      However, am I right o wrong when I say that some interpretations of AL, namely those concerning divorced and remarried not living in chastity, violate the principle that ends do not justify the means?

    • Ron Conte says:

      I don’t know. I’d have to see a specific example. What would be the means and the ends at issue?

    • stefano says:

      To my understanding, the means is allowing adulterous marital acts to continue (rather then requiring abstinence), in order to maintain a stable relationship (the good end).

      So, either the alleged intrinsecally evil acts are, as a matter of fact, good, or, it is no longer true that a good end cannot be pursued by means of an evil act.

      Alternatively, there must be a confusion on whether a stable adulterous relation is a good end to pursue.

    • Ron Conte says:

      That would be an end versus means argument. But I don’t think the Pope is saying that. Catholics in an invalid second marriage are called to repent. The Church is merely acknowledging the fact that many sinners do not immediately repent, but take time to be brought to repentance. Adulterous acts remain gravely immoral.

    • stefano says:

      This is what you and I say, but the interpretations don’t even pronounce the word “adulterous acts”. They simply admit that those acts may be accepted as the least evil, or even the right thing to do in certain cases (i.e.: all cases).
      I wonder how Catholics in an invalid second marriage can be convinced to repent and refrain from adulterous acts, if these are the premises.

  2. Tom Mazanec says:

    If the benefit of a medical intervention can be obtained in either of two ways: (1) with the deaths of innocents, and (2) without any deaths, the only moral choice would be the first way.

    Do you mean the second way?

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