Friday, March 13, 2009

Question to readers: how to prove the teaching of Romans 3:8 from natural reason?

In Romans 3:8 one finds the well-know precept that one must not do evil in order that good may come of it. Obviously I, as should all who profess to be Christian, accept this precept by the authority with which it was promulgated, but I’m wondering how to prove it, by natural reason alone, to secularists, many of whom are infected with utilitarianism and would not hesitate to do evil if they thought that they would thereby procure a greater good or avert a greater evil. St. Thomas Aquinas does not, as far as I know, answer the utilitarian objection directly (please correct me if I’m wrong and let me know where he does), though he does invoke Romans 3:8 a couple of times in other contexts. Also, in St. Thomas’s treatment of the natural law he notes that

… the first principle of practical reason is one founded on the notion of good, viz. that "good is that which all things seek after." Hence this is the first precept of law, that "good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided." All other precepts of the natural law are based upon this …
(Ia IIæ, q. 94, a. 2,
So is it as simple, then, as asserting that the first precept of the natural law enjoins the avoidance of evil? If so, then how does one answer the more moderate utilarians who, while agreeing that one should never do grave evil (like what Catholics would call a mortal sin), would nevertheless argue that if the evil were small in some absolute sense (rather than just relative to the good that one expects to obtain), like what Catholics mean by venial sin, then one ought to do it if a greater good were expected to be obtained thereby? I would be interested in, and appreciate greatly, any arguments and/or references that you could provide for me, readers.

Reginaldvs Cantvar
13.III.2009 A.D.


Louise said...

What about "two wrongs don't make a right"?

Cardinal Pole said...

True, Louise, but that's just a re-phrasing of 'do not do evil in order that good may come of it'--secularists would still ask: why?

Louise said...

Indeed, I was just going back to kindergarten lessons for inspiration!

What I want to know is how do we understand this verse of scripture and the idea of something like self-defense? I can intuitively "feel" an answer, but I can't yet see one clearly.

Cardinal Pole said...


In answer to your question, I'll examine three different scenarios:

1. Self-defence against an unjust aggressor attacking with non-lethal force: in this situation the defender wills only to do what is necessary to neutralise the threat posed by the offender. This means that the defender wills no harm to the aggressor and hence there is not even an apparent violation of Romans 3:8 here.

2. Self-defence against an unjust aggressor attacking with potentially lethal force: now we know that in general, any defender can use proportionate force against an unjust aggressor, so in this scenario this means that the defender can use lethal force (or, perhaps more precisely, can use potentially lethal force, not willing the attacker's death but not opposing the eventuality of the attacker's death either). But one way or another, the attacker will be harmed, so it would seem to violate Romans 3:8. I think this difficulty is resolved by considering that it is not always evil to inflict harm--one can inflict on oneself the harm of having a limb amputated if the amputation is necessary for the protection of the body, and likewise someone can inflict harm on someone else in a scenario like this if it is necessary for the protection of one's body, and hence the guilt of evil is not incurred. (Keep in mind also that if the attacker does indeed die as a result, his death was not intended anyway.)

3: National self-defence: in this case harm may also be inflicted in line with the reasoning in 2., and indeed the soldier may directly intend the death of any given enemy soldier since he acts with the State's authority, which encompasses the authority to take people's lives.

(I'm not a theologian, though, so take all this with a grain of salt. Let me know if you can see any problems with it.)

Louise said...

I still have nothing worthwhile in response to your original post, but I thankyou kindly for taking the trouble to answer my own question, it was very helpful.