I’m trying out a new format for a few posts. These are real letters, though slightly edited.
There seems to be a certain predictability in the way evil deeds play out -- tyrants create the men who will overthrow them, true peace cannot be gotten through despotism, justice cannot be attained through unjust means, and so forth.
Yet there are surprises too. Secondary causes can alter the outcome of an evil event, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. How do you view these surprises?
Your intuition is that even though people try to justify intrinsically evil acts by their consequences, in the final analysis the consequences of intrinsically evil acts are always bad. Yet because of the “surprises” you mention, you wonder whether you’re wrong.
I’d say that in certain deep senses your intuition is profoundly correct, but in another sense mistaken.
(1) Essentially – that is, of itself -- an intrinsically evil act cannot bring about any good results. The tendency of an act with a wrong object is to bring about wrong. Sam aims at beating Cynthia, and Cynthia is harmed.
(2) Accidentally – that is, because of circumstances -- an intrinsically evil act may bring about certain good results. Just because Sam does beat Cynthia, his murderer may spare Cynthia pain.
(3) Providentially – that is, because of the design of the system of natural consequences –the accidentally good results of an intrinsically evil act tend, at least, to unravel. So far as we know, this unraveling doesn’t always take place, but when it does, the chain of causation can often be traced back to the intrinsic evil of the original act. Perhaps Fred divorces his wife because he fancies himself more deeply in love with the neighbor lady. The problem is that love, being a gift of self, is intrinsically connected with faithfulness, so the very thing Fred does for the sake of love renders him unfit for love. I wouldn’t say that the system of natural consequences works with 100% efficiency; in this life, bad things do happen to good people, and good things do happen to bad. Even so, the efficiency of the system is amazingly high. The very things we do to prevent natural consequences themselves have natural consequences.
(4) Ultimately – that is, in view of our final end – an intrinsically evil act always harms the person who commits it more than he could be compensated by any accidental good result. This is because it cannot be directed to our final end, which is God; by its very nature it separates us from Him. As John Paul II put it, acts of this sort “contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice, and they are a negation of the honor due to the Creator.”
So I’d say that your intuition is incorrect in the accidental sense, mostly correct in the providential sense, and altogether correct in the essential and the ultimate senses. Does this help?
Is there anything to be said for the idea that punishing wrongdoers is justified at least partly by the worth of the persons wronged? Suppose we let abusers off the hook. Failure to punish them wrongs their victims; it is out of keeping with their worth as persons. I haven’t seen much about this in what I’ve read about the retributive purpose of punishment.
The intrinsic worth of the victims is certainly important; only beings with intrinsic worth can suffer harm in the sense which would warrant retribution. We find this view expressed in Old Testament law, for example in Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.” You see the point, I’m sure. A murderer may be executed not despite the fact that man is made in God’s image, but because man is made in God’s image. The murderer destroyed something of inestimable worth.
However, punishment should be proportional not to the degree of worth of the injured persons, which is beyond counting, but according to the degree of harm which was done to them, or done to the common good.