Act and Intention
a. Subjective morality
The problems of conscience we have mentioned above, and the moral incoherence that results from a misunderstanding of its nature, tend toward what can be called “subjective morality.” Earlier we mentioned the danger of considering the physical world as secondary or “less real,” and imagining the “inner life” as what “really matters,” particularly when it comes to the determination of right and wrong. This tendency toward subjectivity finds little to check it in the modern mentality of abstraction, and it inevitably leads to the dangerous notion that, because a person intended good to come from his actions, then these actions are automatically rendered moral, or, at worst, pre-moral. Even if these actions have been judged by the Church as “intrinsically evil,” some would claim that, so long as there was a “good intention,” then the individual cannot be considered morally culpable. Such a way of thinking seems reasonable at first glance, but it amounts to the denial of any objective rule by which actions can be judged. It becomes entirely subjective, and this subjective morality ends by severing the connection between body and soul, conscience and concrete reality.
To remedy this problem, the Church continuously insists that the “morality of the human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the ‘object’ rationally chosen by the deliberate will,” meaning that it is the object (the concrete act) and not the subject (the person acting) by which the rightness of the act is to be judged. The object is the not the far-removed end that the person had in mind—their “motivation”—but is the concrete act itself. In other words, the end cannot justify the means. Thus, the goodness of an act is objectively determinable without reference to one’s intention.
b. Doing evil that good may come of it
The great danger of this sort of thinking was condemned long ago by St. Paul (Romans 3:8), and was long after summarized by Pope Paul IV:
“Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good, it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it (cf. Rom 3:8) — in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general.”
The principle is simple: it is never permissible to do evil so that good may come of it. “The greater good”—a common justification for acts such as abortion, torture, etc., is never a valid excuse for the choice of intrinsically evil acts, because the act in each case—the “object” rationally chosen by the will—is in itself evil. As noble and free as the human will might be, it cannot change an evil act into a righteous one simply by having good intentions, any more than a good intention can turn vinegar into wine. Each act must conform to the good.