Monday, April 30, 2012

An Evil Killer's "Good Intention"

In a trial filled with theatrics and sensations, the Norway mass killer, Anders Behring Breivik, declared with firm conviction that his cold-blooded terrorist act “was a minor barbarity to prevent a larger one.” For Breivik, his country and Europe were on the verge of falling into the hands of the Muslim immigrants and their descendants. If left unchecked, the Muslim movement would soon take over the whole European continent, so he believed.

Forget about the insanity of Breivik’s horrific crime for a moment; forget about his bigotry. What do we make of his claim that his act, while barbaric, was a lesser evil needed for preventing a larger one? Doesn’t that sound familiar? Haven’t we seen the same argument being made in many different shapes or forms, on many different levels of our society, and in regard to many different issues? Like robbing the rich to feed the poor (Robin Hood); or administering a medically induced death in order to reduce a dying patient’s suffering (euthanasia); or implementing coerced abortions for the “good” of controlling a nation’s population growth (totalitarian regimes); or imposing a secular view of sex and marriage – the so-called “equity and inclusive sex education” - on young Catholic students whose moral values are still in need of nurturing, in the name of preventing bullying in schools (Bill-13 of the Ontario Liberal government)…The list goes on and on.

Regardless of their sources, what all of these freely chosen evil acts have in common is that the person or institution or government initiating the act begins with a good intention. Breivik, for example, sincerely and passionately believed that his barbaric act – the indiscriminate killing of 77 people – was necessary to stem the tide of Muslim immigration. He believed his "good intention" – the end or goal of “saving Norway and Europe” - justified the evil means – the massacre of 77 innocent young people. A doctor who administers euthanasia to his patient probably believes his evil deed – killing a person – is justified because his intention - allowing his patient to die comfortably – is good and noble.

It is important to understand that a good intention does not make behaviour that is intrinsically disordered good or just. The end does not justify the means (see Catechism of the Catholic Church #1753). St. Paul says just as much in his letter to the Romans: “And why not… do evil that good may come of it? Their penalty is what they deserve” (3:8). Interestingly, an act that is in and of itself good (such as almsgiving) can become evil if it’s associated with a bad intention (such as vainglory).

But what about self-defense? According to St. Thomas Aquinas since the intention in using violence against an unjust aggressor is self-defense, it is permissible even though injury or even the death of the aggressor might result (R. Hamel and K. Himes, Introduction to Christian Ethics, p.517).

We are venturing into the field of moral theology. I know the few points I made above are just the basics, enough perhaps to scratch the surface of a big barrel. If you have more insights to add, please feel free to comment!


  1. Dear Edmond,

    Your stuffs always led me into thoughts.

    I think the ‘civilized’ world we are living in today has so much advancement of science and technology. Homes are built with luxurious comfort; cars are equipped with all kinds of air bags to protect lives. The societies set up more define rules and by-laws aiming at the fairness and righteousness of the law and order but from time to time all these amendments only to show the shift and inclination favorable to the beneficial groups. The context of the text books bears only the efficiency of the knowledge leading to jobs employment symbolizing the status of wealth and self recognition. People are connected with fast communicating devices however the real meaning of ‘IN TOUCH’ is becoming more and more virtual. The lyrics of the new songs brain washing the new generations as significant as the arguable values implementing to the curriculum of education.

    Has men made the world better today than the previous time? The young ones most probably would say yes because they have never had that chance to share the riding of one bicycle among friends. Who would still fantasize the listening of the waves from the sea shell which might be found from the shore?

    The era is changing so does our knowledge and preference. One thing that has not been improved or maintained is the standard of morality which is also the core value of human race. A child could be born in a wealthy family where supply of material will never be short, but the morality of every new life could only be nourished with proper care.
    “Life at birth is pure and untainted.” (Trimetric Classic/三字經) denoted. But it doesn’t mean that this pure and untainted life is immune from contamination.
    “He who stays near vermillion gets stained red; he who stays near ink gets stained black.” (太子少傳箴)

    This world belongs to all of us. What will be best for our harvest depends on the soil we sod our seeds. The rock, the shrubs, the dry land or the fertile soil would be for our cultivation before we all run out of time and made this land become barren.


    1. Thanks for your comments, Stephen. I wonder what I said in this post that triggered your reflections. Maybe it was the issue of Bill-13. And I can't agree with you more: the young minds need our protection and cultivation in as far as moral values are concerned. The purpose of my post is to introduce the intricate relationship between the behaviour (or the "object") and the end of a moral act. One element not discussed is "circumstances". If all 3 elements of the human act - object, end, and circumstances - are in accord with man's rational nature, then the act is considered morally good.

  2. Edmond, perhaps you can follow this up with a discussion on the concept of "just wars"?

    1. Hi Felix: Good suggestion. It's a logical extension of the discussion. I'll be happy to give it a try as soon as I have a chance to do so. Thanks!