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!