Is Lying Always Wrong? — part 1: intrinsic evil

If lying is intrinsically evil, then it is always immoral.

The Three Fonts and Intrinsic Evil

There are three fonts of morality: (1) intention, (2) moral object, (3) circumstances. In order to be moral, all three fonts must be good. If any one font is bad, the act is immoral.

When the moral object of an act is evil, that act is intrinsically evil and always immoral. But the second font of morality is not solely the moral object. For moral objects do not exist apart from acts. The moral object is the end, in terms of morality, toward which the intentionally-chosen act is intrinsically ordered. When the moral object is evil, the act is intrinsically disordered. In other words, when an act is, by its very nature, directed toward an evil end, that act is inherently immoral. So the moral object determines the inherent moral meaning, i.e. the essential moral nature, of the intentionally-chosen act.

When the moral object is evil, the second font of morality is bad and the act is intrinsically evil and always immoral. Even if the other fonts (intention and circumstances) are good, one bad font always makes any act objectively sinful.

The same is true for the other fonts. As long as an act has a bad intention, the act is a sin. As long as the circumstances are bad — in that the bad consequences morally outweigh the good consequences, in so far as these can be determined at the time that the act is chosen — then the act is immoral. It is always wrong to choose to act with a bad intention, or to choose to act when you reasonably anticipate that your act will do more harm than good.

But if your act is sinful solely due to your bad intention, you can change your intention. Or if your act is sinful solely due to harm in the consequences, perhaps the circumstances will change after a while, or you might be able to choose some good act that will change the circumstances. Then you might be able to morally choose the act, once the circumstances have changed.

But if the moral object is evil, the act is immoral, in and of itself, that is to say, by its very nature. It is an immoral type (or ‘species’) of act. Such acts are intrinsically evil and always immoral. You cannot change the moral object by changing your intention; a change in intention only affects the font of intention (the intended end, i.e. the purpose for which the act is chosen), not the nature of the act. You cannot change the moral object by changing the circumstances; a change in circumstances only affects the consequences of the act, not its nature. The only moral choice is to choose a different type of act, one that is not intrinsically evil.

The Catechism on the Three Fonts

“Circumstances of themselves cannot change the moral quality of acts themselves; they can make neither good nor right an action that is in itself evil.” (CCC, n. 1754)

The Catechism plainly teaches that circumstances cannot cause an act that is in itself evil, i.e. an intrinsically evil act, to become good or justifiable. This teaching is clear in the CCC, and it is even clearer, being explained at greater length, in Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor. And yet many Catholics continue to try to find some clever explanation that will allow circumstances to justify certain intrinsically evil acts.

“A morally good act requires the goodness of the object, of the end, and of the circumstances together. An evil end corrupts the action, even if the object is good in itself (such as praying and fasting “in order to be seen by men”). The object of the choice can by itself vitiate an act in its entirety. There are some concrete acts – such as fornication – that it is always wrong to choose, because choosing them entails a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil.” (CCC, n. 1755)

All three fonts of morality: the moral object, the intended end, and the circumstances, must be good for any act to be moral. Therefore, no matter how good the intention or how dire the circumstances, an evil moral object makes an act always immoral. If the moral object is good, an evil intended end still makes the act immoral. If the intended end is good, an evil moral object still makes the act immoral. The moral object of the chosen act can ‘vitiate’ — morally corrupt — an act in its entirety. In other words, an evil moral object makes the chosen act evil by its very nature.

Such acts are always wrong to choose, because the will cannot separate the concrete act (e.g. an exterior action) from the moral nature of that act as determined by its moral object. Choosing the act necessarily includes a choice of the essential moral nature of that act with its moral object. The will is corrupted whenever it chooses an evil intended end, or an intrinsically evil act, or an act which is reasonably anticipated to do more harm than good.

“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.” (CCC, n. 1756)

The Catechism condemns the idea that an act can be determined to be moral, solely by knowing the intention and the circumstances, apart from a determination of the moral object. Intrinsically evil acts are inherently immoral due to their moral object, and this is independent of intention and circumstances. Even a good intention combined with duress or an emergency situation cannot justify an intrinsically evil act. No one may justify intentionally choosing an intrinsically evil act on the basis of the good intention or the good result of the act.

Pope John Paul II on the Three Fonts

“But on what does the moral assessment of man’s free acts depend? What is it that ensures this ordering of human acts to God? Is it the intention of the acting subject, the circumstances – and in particular the consequences – of his action, or the object itself of his act? This is what is traditionally called the problem of the ‘sources of morality’.” (Veritatis Splendor, n. 74). [The Latin text here has ‘fontibus’ (fonts) for sources]

The encyclical goes on to discuss these three fonts — intention, object, circumstances — at great length. But certain points are made that are important for our discussion of lying. Rejected is any approach to morality that would justify an act based on intention and circumstances, apart from the moral object.

“In order to offer rational criteria for a right moral decision, the theories mentioned above take account of the intention and consequences of human action. Certainly there is need to take into account both the intention – as Jesus forcefully insisted in clear disagreement with the scribes and Pharisees, who prescribed in great detail certain outward practices without paying attention to the heart (cf. Mk 7:20-21; Mt 15:19) – and the goods obtained and the evils avoided as a result of a particular act. Responsibility demands as much. But the consideration of these consequences, and also of intentions, is not sufficient for judging the moral quality of a concrete choice. The weighing of the goods and evils foreseeable as the consequence of an action is not an adequate method for determining whether the choice of that concrete kind of behavior is “according to its species”, or “in itself”, morally good or bad, licit or illicit. The foreseeable consequences are part of those circumstances of the act, which, while capable of lessening the gravity of an evil act, nonetheless cannot alter its moral species.” (Veritatis Splendor, n. 77).

Any moral theory that would justify an act solely based on intention and circumstances (or consequences) is contrary to Catholic teaching. A good intention and good consequences (the moral weighing of foreseeable good and evils in the results of the act) are necessary, but not sufficient, for any act to be moral. The chosen act must also be good in itself, by the very nature (or species) of the act. Any act that is inherently illicit is always immoral. And the circumstances (or consequences) of an act are not able to alter the moral nature of the act, which is determined by its moral object.

“If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain “irremediably” evil acts; per se and in themselves they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person. “As for acts which are themselves sins (cum iam opera ipsa peccata sunt), Saint Augustine writes, like theft, fornication, blasphemy, who would dare affirm that, by doing them for good motives (causis bonis), they would no longer be sins, or, what is even more absurd, that they would be sins that are justified?”. 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, n. 81).

Intrinsically evil acts (acts with an evil moral object) are irremediably evil; they cannot be transformed into a good or justifiable act in any way, neither by a good intended end (the purpose for which the act was chosen), nor by a dire circumstance.

“For this reason – we repeat – the opinion must be rejected as erroneous which maintains that it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behavior or specific acts, without taking into account the intention for which the choice was made or the totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned. Without the rational determination of the morality of human acting as stated above, it would be impossible to affirm the existence of an “objective moral order” and to establish any particular norm the content of which would be binding without exception. This would be to the detriment of human fraternity and the truth about the good, and would be injurious to ecclesial communion as well.” (Veritatis Splendor, n. 82).

It is false to say that we cannot know that an act is morally evil without knowing the intention and circumstances. In other words, it is true to say that an act can be known to be morally evil without any knowledge of the intention or circumstances. If we know that an act is immoral by the very nature (species) of the act, then we need not know the intention or circumstances in order to know that the act is a sin. (Of course, knowing the intention and circumstances will tell us how evil the act is. For example, a bad intention added to an intrinsically evil act makes the act more sinful.) So the above quoted passage also, in effect, condemns various theories claiming that the moral object is determined by the intention and circumstances. For this implies that we cannot know the moral object without knowing the intention and circumstances, a claim rejected as erroneous by Pope John Paul II.

In Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II offers the same teaching in somewhat different language:

“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, n. 62)

Every intrinsically evil act is morally illicit in and of itself, and so no circumstance and no purpose (the intended end for which the act is chosen) can cause that act to become morally licit. This truth is based on the Law of God written on every human heart (natural law). This truth (like all truths of the natural law) is knowable by reason, even without Divine Revelation. And this truth is taught by the Magisterium of the Church. Whoever says otherwise attacks the truths taught by Jesus Christ.

Is Lying an Intrinsically Evil Act?

Saint Augustine taught that lying is always immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances:

“It clearly appears then, all being discussed, that those testimonies of Scripture have none other meaning than that we must never at all tell a lie…. But whoso shall think there is any sort of lie that is not sin, will deceive himself foully, while he deems himself honest as a deceiver of other men.” (On Lying, n. 42).

Saint Aquinas taught that lying is intrinsically evil and always immoral.

“I answer that, An action that is naturally evil in respect of its genus can by no means be good and lawful, since in order for an action to be good it must be right in every respect: because good results from a complete cause, while evil results from any single defect, as Dionysius asserts (Div. Nom. iv). Now a lie is evil in respect of its genus, since it is an action bearing on undue matter. For as words are naturally signs of intellectual acts, it is unnatural and undue for anyone to signify by words something that is not in his mind. Hence the Philosopher says (Ethic. iv, 7) that “lying is in itself evil and to be shunned, while truthfulness is good and worthy of praise.” Therefore every lie is a sin, as also Augustine declares (Contra Mend. i).” (Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 110, A. 3).

Any act that is evil by its nature is intrinsically evil. The genus of an act refers to its moral species or moral nature; again, this is a way of referring to intrinsically evil acts. The moral object determines the species or genus or type of the act, in terms of morality. Aquinas’ assertion that an act must be “right in every respect” in order to be good and lawful (under the moral law) means that all three fonts of morality must be good for an act to be moral. So in stating that lying is “naturally evil” and “evil in respect of its genus” and “in itself evil”, St. Thomas implies that lying is intrinsically evil. (The terminology concerning the three fonts of morality in St. Thomas’ work differs somewhat from today, due to the development of doctrine since his time.)

Both St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine taught that “every lie is a sin”. But lying can only be always immoral, regardless of good intention or dire circumstances, if it is intrinsically evil. Therefore, lying is intrinsically evil, just as the Catechism of the Catholic Church also teaches.

“A good intention (for example, that of helping one’s neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny, good or just.” (CCC, n. 1753)

The term ‘intrinsically disordered’ is one of many way of describing an intrinsically evil act. Therefore, lying is intrinsically evil and is always immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances.

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