There is an old saying that we judge others by what they do, but we want them to judge us by our intentions. That more or less sums up one of the central confusions engendered by our embrace of modernity’s Absolute No. 1 Favorite Moral Heresy: consequentialism.
Consequentialism, for anyone not fully up to speed on basic principles of Catholic moral teaching, is the belief that good ends justify evil means. Despite the fact that this notion has been condemned ever since Paul wrote Romans 3:8, most moderns and postmoderns, including Catholics, deeply believe it anyway.
Consequentialism is not a left or right heresy but a perennial favorite across the spectrum of political allegiances. It undergirds both leftwing commitment to abortion and rightwing commitment to torture. It’s why Planned Parenthood lies for the Greater Good of Protecting Women and why Live Action lies for the Greater Good of Exposing Planned Parenthood. The Axis used consequentialist arguments for bombing London, Rotterdam, Pearl Harbor, and Nanking. The Allies used consequentialist arguments for incinerating children in their beds in Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki.
As a general rule, the way we assuage our consciences when we do evil for a good end is to pretend that the good end cancels out the sin that we do. If the good end we are seeking to achieve actually occurs, then we tell ourselves it was all for the best. So, as kids, we sneak into the piggy bank and steal the money to get Mom a birthday present, and she, being none the wiser, likes the present while never noticing the money is gone. Mission accomplished! Mom is happy, so what’s the problem? Indeed, wouldn’t it be petty and pharisaic, when Mom is so touched by her lovely present, to bring up the minor matter of some money that nobody will even miss? Of course it would! We meant well, and that’s all that matters! The good we did cancelled out the little matter of the theft. God, our God, has blessed us!
Of course, if our sin winds up not working and we get caught with our hand in the piggy bank, then we often tell ourselves a different story. So, for instance, if the piggy bank caper is discovered, we tell ourselves that what we intended to do was get a present for Mom. Sure, we got a little off base with the whole stealing thing, but what we intended to do was good. This makes our sin (we tell ourselves) okay. We’re not stealing the way bad people steal. Because bad people steal in order to do bad (like buying drugs or something). We were stealing in order to do good.
Because of this deep-seated need to compare ourselves with others (especially when we feel guilty), this notion that good ends taketh away the sins of the world is very deeply rooted, not only in how we think about our own sins but in how we think about the sins of others. We develop a stock set of characters in our minds who are easily defined Bad People — Nazis, child molesters, beheading terrorists, disgusting perverts, wife beaters, etc. — and we tell ourselves that Evil People like them are what real sin and evil looks like.
That may be true enough, as far as it goes. But we often make a cardinal mistake in misunderstanding why these people are so evil: namely, we tell ourselves that, unlike us, they do evil things for evil ends. When they commit some sin (we tell ourselves), they don’t have some good end in mind like us. So our sins are (perhaps, in some technical sense) “sins,” but they are easily excused because we meant well. Meanwhile, the sins of Truly Evil People are sins because they had no good end in view.
Because of this, we can easily tend to make Manichaean divisions between Truly Evil People (those whom we assume pursue evil ends by evil means) and charming rogues like ourselves (who pursue good ends by evil means).
Indeed, many of us seem to be pretty sure that the definition of “venial sin” is “to pursue a good end by sinful means,” while the definition of “mortal sin” is “to pursue an evil end by evil means.” Accordingly, we measure our sins by this criterion and come up smelling like roses — since, of course, our sins are always done in pursuit of some good ends while Truly Evil People . . . well, just look at them!
Truly Evil People like Them have no love whatsoever left in their hearts. They desire Evil itself and only mitigate their evil actions just so much as it might deceive people from seeing their obvious Evil goals. Charming rogues like us are diamonds in the rough, saints with dirty faces. Sure, we cut corners, but our goal is always a noble one.
Truly Evil People get up in the morning thinking, “How can I further the cause of Evil today?” Charming rogues like us may, sure enough, look out for number one a bit, but we mean well and, gosh darn it, you can’t help admiring that, even when we may have to get a bit rough with Truly Evil People by torturing them or dropping A-bombs on them.
Truly Evil People are monsters, and it is blasphemous to even speak of their desiring something good, because to do so humanizes them instead of righteously condemning them as the monsters they are. We charming rogues, on the other hand, should we find ourselves having to “go to the Dark Side” to fight the Truly Evil, always do so out of a noble fundamental commitment to goodness and are, in a way, self-sacrificing martyrs bravely willing to face even damnation by God Almighty Himself if necessary, if only that the greater good may be done by defeating Truly Evil people.
In fact, however, this notion that Truly Evil people are distinguished from us because they desire evil ends is false. That’s because every sin, whether venial or mortal, is committed in the disordered attempt to achieve some good end. Everything from the Holocaust to your hand in the cookie jar is the disordered attempt to obtain some good. And indeed, the more exalted the good end, the more the sinner can feel justified in doing something monstrous to achieve it. For this reason, sins do not become “not sins” merely because we intend some good end. For the simple fact is that everybody, from the kid fibbing about the piggy bank to Adolf Hitler, is seeking some good end. What makes a sin a sin is not that the end sought is not good, but that a good end is sought by evil means. The severity of a sin is measured not by the nobility of the end we seek — Hitler, after all, sought a glorious renewed Germany risen from the ashes of World War I — but by how radically disordered are the means we use to achieve that end (e.g., the death of millions innocent people).
So then: Here is a brief tutorial on the Catholic conception of sin. Nothing, not even Satan, is purely evil. That’s because evil is fundamentally parasitic on good. Satan is not God’s evil twin. He is a creature, infinitely inferior to God the Creator and who depends upon God for such meager possessions — existence, intellect, will, and power — as he still possesses after having radically perverted himself in total rebellion against God and assertion of himself. Insofar as he retains these goods from God, these goods remain good (albeit radically perverted), and he cannot undo them. If he could, he would cease to exist, since existence is a good.
In the same way with the even more inferior creature called Man — even the man we call Hitler — we find that all human sin is a radically disordered form of love, as Augustine tells us. Sin consists — always — in the pursuit of a good object by disordered means: putting what should be second in first place. In short, it’s not that the sinner doesn’t love; it’s that he loves things in the wrong order and puts, say, wealth or power (both good things) before persons or human beings before God.
This frightens us, and we love to trot out the rhetoric of outrage at this point. “Oh, so poor Hitler meant well because he loved his dog!” we shout. “So I’m supposed to feel sorry for Ted Bundy who was only looking for love, eh?” Note the Manichaean thinking: Truly Evil People can’t possibly be motivated by love. Nor can they possibly be seeking happiness or a good end. They do what they do because they are bad right through. If we entertain the possibility that Charles Manson or Heinrich Himmler sought some good end just as we do, then we (gasp!) humanize the grave sinner — which is as good as saying that they “mean well,” which is as good as saying that what they are doing isn’t even a sin! Why? Because that’s what we tell ourselves to exonerate ourselves of our own sins.
Except, of course, that this is all rubbish, because (to repeat) all sin — all of it — consists of the attempt to pursue a good end by evil means, mass murder as much as stealing from the piggy bank.
All sin, great and small, is an attempt to gain some Good (power, happiness, release from pain, etc.) by some disordered means, either colossally so or trivially so. That’s because the desire for happiness is not optional for us. It is built into our nature by God Himself. And so, as St. Thomas points out, we can’t not desire our happiness, which is to say, we can’t not desire some good end. The implications of this are startling — but only to people unfamiliar with the Catholic conception of sin. Hitler and Stalin both sought happiness. Charles Manson has spent his whole life in pursuit of some good end. So did Anton LaVey or any random sadistic fiend in one of Saddam Hussein’s torture chambers.
But here’s the thing: That’s not to their credit, nor does it baptize their crimes in the maudlin tears of “they meant well.” It’s simply a fact about how they, like all humans, are made and sent from the factory: We can’t not want our happiness. All we can do is choose to pursue our happiness in ways that obey God or in ways that range from venially to radically disordered (i.e., gravely evil) ways.
To say, “But I meant well” if we merely mean, “There was some good thing I was pursuing because I loved it and thought it would bring me happiness” is no sign at all that we are a saint. After all, Judas Iscariot could say as much. He wanted something good (i.e., money, peace from his tormented conscience, etc.). Hitler wanted happiness and various good ends (power, a greater Germany, etc.) He was motivated by love for something (his own glory, the glory of the Fatherland, a perverted and swollen love of country that vaunted itself again the love of his non-German neighbor and even against the love of God, as nationalism tends to do).
Every freakish monster in history, from John Wayne Gacy to Jeffrey Dahmer to Ted Bundy, was, in some way or other, seeking a good end (sexual pleasure, power, etc.) So does every sinner, great and small, who says, “Let us do evil that good may come of it.” Any idiot can want happiness, because it’s impossible for any idiot to not want happiness. The trick — always — is to pursue happiness without cutting moral corners — like, say, “You shall not murder.”
It is only when we pursue the good end without using sinful means — not robbing the piggy bank to buy Mom the present, not destroying the baby to ward off poverty, not incinerating children in their beds to win the war, not torturing the prisoner to save your skin — that we can truly say we meant well. Desiring happiness is a defining characteristic of what it means to be human. It is a great inbuilt faculty from God. But it is not the defining characteristic of a saint. For a saint seeks happiness by God’s means only and refuses the enticement of the devil to take shortcuts to Wisdom as he whispers, “You shall not surely die. Go ahead and disobey. In fact, it will make you like God if you do!”
The answer and model of resistance to all this is what Lent is all about. For Jesus too was tempted and, as with all temptation, He was offered not evil things but good things, and urged to embrace them in a disordered way: above the love of God.
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Begone, Satan! for it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” (Mt 4:8-10)
His answer must be ours, and His grace stands ready to make it so. That is the promise of Lent.