Moral Harm, the Death Penalty and Intrinsic Evil

This post brings out a significant modification of the concept of intrinsically evil act.

In recent posts I have been linking moral harm with retributive punishment. I have labelled moral theories which accept a notion of moral harm “authoritarian moral theories. In my next post I will explain why I change the label from “authoritarian moral theories” to “divine command moral theories.”

All divine command theories recognize a moral command condemning the intentional taking of a human life. All divine command theories accept that harm ought to occur upon a violation of a moral law, i.e., they all accept the notion of moral harm. Harm is inhibition of a basic human good. See Duty vs. Love for a discussion of basic human goods. Retributive punishment is infliction of some, or all, or the harm which ought to occur for violation of a moral law.

Retributive punishment can be proper or improper. The propriety of retributive punishment raises complex issues about how much harm, how, on whom and by whom. Careful investigation of these issues is far beyond my competence and experience. Here I will assume that execution is not always too much harm for murder. See Virtue of Retributive Punishment for some thoughts on the complexity of the concept of retributive punishment. Excuse, then, my writing without all sorts qualifications which should be made.

The focus of this post is primarily on how consideration of even the possible permissibility of the death penalty requires a reconsideration and restatement of the notion of intrinsically evil act or in principle wrong act.

A moral command categorically condemning the intentional taking of a human life tells us that the intention taking of a human life is intrinsically evil. That is to say that under no circumstances, regardless of the good aimed at by so doing, and the consequences for so doing is it morally permissible to take a human life.

Note that I have used “good aimed at by so doing” rather than “intention for so doing” as it is usually said. This re-wording emphasizes that the notion of “intrinsic evil” has to be linked with the inhibition of some basic human good for the sake of another good.

The intention to inhibit a basic human good for the sake of promoting some other good is always morally illicit. But an intention to inhibit a basic human good for the sake of inflicting the harm which ought to result for violation of a moral law may be morally permissible.

Consider a case of a man who has been found guilty of cold-blooded murder. To execute him simply for the sake of deterring others from such acts and preventing m from ever doing so again is not morally permissible. However, to execute him with the intention of inflicting the harm which ought to occur for murder is morally legitimate. The deterrence value of his execution and protection of society are then benefits of a morally legitimate action.

For me this need to modify the concept of intrinsic evil has been a surprise about a the implications of moral thinking.