There is a certain erroneous approach to ethics that might be called ‘ethics by example’. In this approach, an intrinsically evil act is said to be sometimes moral, if anyone can cite an example of that type of act that would seem to be moral. Similarly, an act is said to be not intrinsically evil — regardless of its moral object — if anyone can cite an example of that type of act that would seem to be moral. This approach to ethics is not based on the doctrine of the three fonts of morality. Instead, ethics by example is based on what seems to be moral, and especially on what seems to be moral to most persons.
It is a democratic approach to ethics. A certain act seems to be moral to most persons, therefore they conclude it must be moral. And next they attempt to invent a theological or philosophical basis to support that conclusion. The conclusion is arrived at first, on the basis of how things seem to most persons. The theological explanation comes later, thus proving that this approach to ethics has no theological basis.
Ethics by example requires the rejection of the definitive teaching of the Magisterium that a moral act must have three good fonts, and that intrinsically evil acts are always immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances. In order to accept ethics by example, one must reject the doctrine of the moral object as the sole determinant of the moral nature of each and every intentionally-chosen act. For most Catholics, including many theologians, rejecting the teaching of the Magisterium on ethics is not a problem; it is their daily wicked companion.
There are three common ways that the teaching of the Magisterium on the basic principles of ethics is rejected:
(1) open rejection: they claim that Church is simply wrong and needs to change Her teaching;
(2) re-interpretation: they explain the traditional teaching of the Church in such a way that it has an entirely new meaning;
(3) ignore it: they either entirely disregard the teachings of the Magisterium on the subject, or they claim that the Magisterium has no teaching on the subject at all.
Ethics by example proceeds in the following way. When discussing an act that the Magisterium teaches is intrinsically evil, a series of examples is presented in order to find some version of the act that would seem to be moral to most persons. Even if each example fails to prove that the act may sometimes be moral, the series of examples never ends, and so the person never accepts that the intrinsically evil act is always immoral. Or if one example is found that seems to be moral, even though the act is intrinsically evil, the matter is considered to be settled contrary to the teaching of the Church. Various excuses are used to explain the divergence between magisterial teaching and this conclusions of ethics by example: intrinsically evil acts are said not to be always immoral, or the act is said to be not intrinsically evil, or the act is said to be transformed from intrinsically evil to moral in some cases, or the conclusion is said to be a development of doctrine, or some other excuse is given.
Is lying intrinsically evil? Is lying always immoral? The traditional approach to this question is to determine the moral object of the act. Lying has an evil moral object. This truth was taught by St. Thomas Aquinas, and was the traditional teaching of moral theologians until recent times. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that lying is intrinsically disordered, which implies that lying is intrinsically evil and has an evil moral object. Lying is intrinsically evil. And the Magisterium (in Veritatis Splendor and the CCC) teaches that intrinsically evil acts are always immoral.
But the approach of ethics by example is to consider examples where lying seems to be moral. Does it not seem moral to lie in order to save innocent persons from murder? Does it not seem moral to lie in order to protect someone from rape? Does it not seem moral to lie with a good intention, in dire circumstances? If it does seem moral to most persons, then the conclusion is reached that either lying is not intrinsically evil, or that somehow it ceases to be intrinsically evil in certain cases. This conclusion contradicts the teaching of the CCC that lying is intrinsically evil, and the teaching of the CCC and Veritatis Splendor that intrinsically evil acts are always immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances.
How can this contradiction be explained? It is often explained by saying that we must wait for the Magisterium to explain to us why an intrinsically evil act can be moral in certain cases. This explanation is absurd, because the Magisterium has already definitively taught that intrinsically evil acts are always immoral, regardless of the intention or circumstances, and regardless of the suffering that might result from refusing to commit an intrinsically evil act. Persons who adhere to ethics by example assume that their conclusion must be correct, and therefore they also assume that the teaching of the Magisterium has been misunderstood or is in need of further development.
Why is ethics by example the wrong approach? First, it ignores the doctrine that intrinsically evil acts are always immoral. Second, it ignores the doctrine of the three fonts of morality. Third, it is based on nothing more than what seems to be moral to most fallen human persons raised and living in a sinful world. Fourth, ethics by example has no real theological or philosophical basis. Fifth, its methodology ignores the doctrine of the three fonts of morality. Sixth, its conclusions are contrary to the teachings of the Faith.
When the Magisterium teaches that a particular type of act is intrinsically evil, it is a matter of faith that the act is always immoral. But if instead we look at innumerable examples of that type of act, then, because we are fallible, we will sometimes find examples where it seems — to our sinful fallen minds — that the intrinsically evil act should be considered moral.
If you consider a thousand examples of lies, what percentage of the time will you err and mistakenly think that the lie is moral? If 1% of the time, that is 10 examples of lies that you will think are moral. But you cannot thereby conclude that the type of act is not always immoral. For you are fallible.
When the Church teaches that an act is intrinsically evil, it is a matter of faith to believe that the act is always immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances, and regardless of what seems moral to most persons.
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator
If you are interested in reading a book that explains Roman Catholic ethics using many specific examples, see my book: The Catechism of Catholic Ethics