When ‘prudential judgment’ becomes moral relativism

When ‘prudential judgment’ becomes moral relativism
Everyday Philosophy

There’s a standard bit of ethical terminology that gets thrown around a lot in Catholic circles: the difference between moral questions that involve ‘intrinsic evils’ and moral questions that involve ‘matters of prudential judgment’.

This comes up a lot in politics: support for certain things like abortion and euthanasia are supposed to be deal-breakers for Catholics when considering what candidate to support, whereas war, immigration, and economic justice aren’t supposed to be as important. The reason given for this is that abortion and euthanasia are ‘instrinsic evils’, whereas issues like the other ones I’ve mentioned are merely matters of ‘prudential judgment’.

An action that is unambiguously condemned by the Church can be less bad than an action that the Church leaves up to individual conscience to decide”

I am not here to argue about the relative importance of different political issues: I am very sympathetic to the idea that abortion, for instance, has a near-unique moral gravity. But cashing this difference out as a matter of intrinsic evils vs matters of prudential judgment can’t be right. There are a variety of ways in which the intrinsic/prudential distinction is misleadingly deployed: today I will deal with just one of them.

In a fascinating long read in Church Life Journal which inspired this column, Prof. Therese Cory of the University of Notre Dame points out that there is a distinction in Catholic ethics between actions that the Church specifically condemns and matters that are left up to individual conscience. But as Cory points out, this is a juridical distinction. What this means is that it’s about what the Church will and won’t use its authority to give us the right answer to.
This doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with how bad an action is. An action that is unambiguously condemned by the Church can be less bad than an action that the Church leaves up to individual conscience to decide.

The Church, for example, tells us that stealing is always wrong. But any one act of theft may not be that bad. Forget for a moment about starving people taking food (which the Church doesn’t consider stealing at all) and consider a case of petty theft. While visiting my friend’s house to play some trading card games, I take a fancy to one of his rare Yu-Gi-Oh cards (this example may date me). I slip it out of his binder and head home.

Now this is a rotten thing to do. What’s more, as ‘stealing’ it’s specifically forbidden by the teachings of the Church – the Church leaves no room to discern whether an act of stealing is ever permissible. But compare it to a situation in which the President of the United States is contemplating whether to launch a war. The Church doesn’t entirely forbid war in the way it does stealing. It provides clear criteria for what does and does not count as a just war, but it generally doesn’t say whether individual wars meet those criteria, leaving that up to the consciences of politicians. But there is still a fact of the matter about whether any given war is just or unjust. It’s not a matter of opinion or a question of taste. The claims ‘this war would be just to launch’ and ‘this war would be unjust to launch’ cannot both be true. To say otherwise is plain moral relativism.

Now say that the president decides to launch a war that is, in fact, unjust. That war then claims tens of thousands of lives, leads to the collapse of whole states and societies, and obliterates hundreds of Christian churches and communities – all without achieving the aims which it was supposed to. The Church might not use its authority to say that this specific action of launching the war was forbidden. But the action would in fact be much, much more seriously evil than my theft of the Yu-Gi-Oh card would be, even though it is ‘theft’ and not ‘launching wars’ that is specifically forbidden by the Church. The distinction between things that the Church leaves up to individual conscience to decide and things that it uses its authority to forbid is emphatically not a distinction between more and less serious evils.

Catholicism has no room for moral relativism, even under the guise of prudential judgment”

The Church’s teaching about the role of conscience is that it is meant to track the truth. The Church leaving something up to individual conscience is not a licence for saying ‘well, reasonable people can disagree’ and diminishing the importance of the question. Catholics are meant to argue and deliberate about questions like the justness of a given war, the right number of refugees to admit, or the appropriate level of support for the poor. But if they disagree some will be right and others wrong (on the last two issues I’ve mentioned, the correct positions will of course be ranges rather than exact figures). The ones who are wrong may be supporting serious evils. Catholicism has no room for moral relativism, even under the guise of prudential judgment.