Denmark’s A Prison

A friend recently shared with me a post from an online magazine and asked for my thoughts on the article. I’ll provide a quick summary and some passages from the article, but if you really want to understand the context of this post, you should probably head over and read the original article first.

The article, written by Brian Graebe, deals the implications of a court battle over murder case evidence which was obtained by recording a religious confession between a priest and a suspect in custody. The author is only cursorily interested in the legal ramifications of recording such a conversation, preferring to use the case as a segue into a discussion of ‘intrinsic evil’ and a general indictment of utilitarianism.

After a brief introduction, Graebe writes

Surely, the conventions of privacy privileges must cede to the pressing demand for justice. The legal battle that followed, ultimately vindicating the Catholic Church, shed a rare and welcome light upon the principle of intrinsic moral norms. In the objective order, there are certain actions which are wrong always and everywhere, without exceptions.

I think Graebe is a little muddled in his thinking here. The legal decision had nothing to do with ‘intrinsic moral norms’ and had everything to do with, well, legal issues. The opinion from the Appeals Court found that recording the conversation was illegal, not that it was immoral. The opinion primarily relies on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which essentially forbids the government to enact laws which ‘substantially burden’ the exercise of religion, absent any compelling state reason, and requires the least burdensome restrictions to meet any state reasons. In other words, the court found that the recording was legally wrong, not ‘objectively wrong.’

. . . while there is no upper limit on moral goodness, there is a bottom line. The seal of confession stands as a good example of this principle: A priest may never divulge anything heard in the sacrament of confession. Even knowledge that could prevent great harm (such as an imminent terrorist attack) must remain forever under that seal. Were the priest to act in any way upon that information (tipping off the FBI, telling his parents to flee the city), he would automatically incur the severest ecclesial penalties. In this way, the seal acts as a fitting touchstone against a pervasive practicality.

At this point, Graebe’s run headlong into one of the major problems with deontological thinking, which is that ‘universal’ truths are all too often subjective. Graebe considers the breaking of the confessional sacrament to be evil, but why should a non-Catholic consider it to be so? From the point of view of an outsider, the belief that there’s something intrinsically sacred about a conversation between two people when one is wearing a Roman collar is just so much superstition. Further, from a personal point of view, the idea that a priest would be prevented from attempting to prevent another Oklahoma City bombing or 9/11 because such prevention would not be justified by the ‘evil’ of breaking the confessional seal sounds like a philosophy in need of moral guidance.

. . . One can never do evil for the sake of good, or, to put it more commonly, the ends never justify the means. John Paul II reaffirmed this principle, writing in Veritatis Splendor: “These are the acts which, in the Church’s moral tradition, have been termed ‘intrinsically evil’; they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances.”

. . . In the end, the appellate court and the court of public opinion rendered their verdict against this utilitarian abuse of intrinsic evils.

Most people would agree that the ends do not justify the means, but draw distinctions between using the ends to rationalize a pre-chosen course of action, the taking of moral shortcuts brought on by a desire for expediency (as in the case of the recording during confession), and the rare necessity of a moral compromise to serve a much greater good (as in the case of breaking a confidence to save hundreds or thousands of lives). The case at hand falls into the second category, and would seem clearly wrong (even if much of American society is increasingly blasé about such moral transgressions) but it’s overly simplistic to simply categorize the prosecutor’s actions as ‘intrinsically evil’.

Furthermore, Graebe’s characterization of the situation as a product of utilitarian moralizing is also simplistic. Serious utilitarian moral caculus recognizes that all of the ends must be considered when evaluating a course of action, not just the intended outcome. In the case of the prosecutor’s actions, the outcome of a possible single conviction would be weighed not just against the single action of an illicit recording but against the damage that would occurr if such recordings would become the norm. The prosecutor’s actions are not the result of utilitarian reasoning, but are the result of lazy moral or even amoral reasoning (the distinction lies in the motives of the prosecutor; was he trying to catch a murderer, or win a case?).

In short, most vigorous utilitarian analysis leads to the conclusion that the prosecutor’s actions were wrong, but unlike Grabe’s analysis, the conclusion is reasoned and universally applicable. Grabe’s argument is rests on the arbitrary assertion that the violation of the sacrament of confession is an ‘intrinsic evil’, and would seem to lose all cohesion if neither of the parties were Catholic.

The very idea of ‘intrinsic evil’ is counter to a rational philosophy. To believe otherwise inevitably leads to (or arises from) a skewed perspective, one in which humankind is at the center of all creation. Relating to the title of this post, there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. Our needs and wants and the limitations imposed on us by the reality of our physical existence define what we consider to be either good or bad. There’s nothing intrinsic about it.


Note: I was working on responding to the article in its entirety, but while I disagreed with most of it, the only reason I could think of to continue was out of frustration so I’ve decided to let it go. Maybe I’ll finish it up in the future.

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