Wednesday, January 27, 2010

"Intrinsically" evil

Sometimes words can hinder clear communication as much as they help it.

I've seen many commentators, on this blog and elsewhere, object to the phrase "intrinsically evil" with reference to torture. So I'd like to try to translate and/or clarify what this phrase really means.


From a philosophical point of view, evil is not a thing itself. Rather, evil is the twisting or destruction or denial of a good thing. Evil must have a good thing to distort; it cannot exist as a separate thing, any more than "big" can exist without some thing to be large.

Keeping that in mind, when we call something "evil" or "bad" or "wrong", what we really mean is that the thing is not what it ought to be. A "bad" apple is one that has rotted, or perhaps one that has not yet ripened. An "evil" deed is one that fails to enact the love or truth which it should.


It's understandable to me that some would consider the phrase "intrinsic evil" to be an oxymoron. After all, what's wrong with the apple is not that it exists; it's that it lacks the good that it ought to have.

This is also where we get the very sane requirement to love a sinner (because he or she is good, being a creature of God) and to hate the sin (because such actions distort or pervert the goodness of being human).

Now, some evils are accidental. If I step on my co-worker's toe because I wasn't watching where I was going, I harm the health of my co-worker and the comaraderie between us; but that is easily remedied by an apology and (if I was wearing my steel-toed boots) an ice pack.

But other evils are actions whose entire purpose is to distort the good. A deliberate lie, for example. Or, if I were to stomp on my co-worker's toe out of spite. Whatever good thing I might be seeking (safety or advantage or even a vengeful kind of justice) is itself ruined because my action is itself meant to harm. The intention is to attack what is good, such as truth or health, in another.

And this is what "intrinsically evil" conveys: an act with the direct purpose of attacking, distorting, twisting, breaking down, or altogether destroying some good thing. That is, the evil is intrinsic (rooted inside) the action.


Now, just as human life and human dignity is perhaps the greatest good we have in this life, attacks on human life and dignity are some of the greatest evils.

This is why torture, which directly attacks the dignity of another by physical and mental and spiritual torment, is considered an evil so great that it is absolutely prohibited. It is not an act that one can commit accidentally. It requires someone to twist and distort some part of his or her conscience in order to do it. It is literally inhuman.

Now, I'm happy to concede that there are limits to the usefulness of the phrase "intrinsically evil". But an objection to the phrase cannot be an excuse for a twisting of one's conscience to the point that torture becomes an acceptable practice, under any circumstances.

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