The principal reason given to support the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima is that it saved many more lives than the several hundred thousand civilian casualties in the vicinity of the explosions. In other words, the overall loss of life in a direct invasion of Japan would have been much higher than the deaths due to the atomic bomb. By many accounts, that statement is probably true, but does that make the dropping of the atomic bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki justified?
Leaving aside the specifics of Hiroshima, let us go to the moral reasoning behind it. Having its history in the late 18th and early 19th century philosophy of Utilitarianism, the moral philosophy of Consequentialism holds that the consequences of a particular action form the basis for any valid moral judgment about that action. Thus, from a conse- quentialist standpoint, a morally right action is one that produces a good outcome, or consequence. A common simplifi- cation of this is “the ends justify the means”, provided that the “end” or outcome of our action is something “good”. Other versions of this, whether political “the greatest good for the greatest number” or personal “the maximum pleasure and the minimal pain”, are all based on the same principle. It is a simple, efficient, and relatively consistent moral phi- losophy, and thus very appealing. It has also become the de facto moral philosophy of the West. It is however, from a Christian perspective, quite defective for it places complete emphasis on only one part of the multiple factors that need to be taken into consideration when evaluating the morality of a human act.
Catholic moral philosophy takes into account consequences, but as a secondary consideration, along with inten- tion. The first priority is whether the “object”, the act that is done, is good or evil in itself. The Catechism of the Catho- lic Church puts it this way, “The morality of human acts depends on: the object chosen; the end in view or the intention; the circumstances of the action. The object, the intention, and the circumstances make up the s"ources,"or constitutive elements, of the morality of human acts.” (CCC #1750) All three parts of a human act: object, intention, and circum- stance must be good for the moral act to be good. Let’s look at these three distinct parts of a human act.
The object is that which is “done”, the action so to speak, must be something “good”. In itself, the action must be good in order for the total human act to be good. There are some actions, which in themselves are intrinsically disor- dered and can never be done, even if one has a good intention. For instance, in order to support a friend or to defend one’s position, a person may choose to harm another person’s good name. While the desire to help one’s friend or defend oneself is a good thing, one cannot resort to an action which in itself is always wrong (ie. slander and defamation which is calumny: making false and malicious statements designed to injure the reputation of someone).
The intention must also be good for a human act to be good. We must intend the good thing we do for a good reason as well. To see how this works we can look at a good thing done for the wrong reason. Think of a notorious crim- inal who gives money to a church out of vanity or to look good in the community but has no desire to really help people, nor change his or her evil behavior. Here we can see how an evil intention (vanity) can distort a good object (giving to a charity).
The final part of a human act are the circumstances. The Catechism explains it very well, “The circumstances, including the consequences, are secondary elements of a moral act. They contribute to increasing or diminishing the moral goodness or evil of human acts (for example, the amount of a theft). They can also diminish or increase the agent's responsibility (such as acting out of a fear of death). Circumstances of themselves cannot change the moral quality of acts themselves; they can make neither good nor right an action that is in itself evil.” (CCC #1754)
Although Catholic moral philosophy is a bit more complicated, on a philosophical level it is much more dynamic and applicable in all situations, even extreme ones. It is also a much more comprehensive and fair assessment of the many factors that go into a human act. Finally and most importantly, it is also the method that is inline with and faithful to the teachings of Christ and the truth found in Sacred Scripture.
We know that in the end it is God and God alone who can properly judge a person’s actions, for only God is aware of all the minute factors and details that go into a person’s actions. At the same time, we do have a tool that we can and should employ to the best of our ability to decide the course of action for ourselves that will conform to the will of God. And to a certain extent, we will also be able to assess the observable morality of the actions of others, again leav- ing the final judgment in God’s hands.
I encourage you to review and reflect on the very helpful and beautiful sections on morality in the Catechism (paragraphs 1691-1761). It is just a few pages or so and very instructive on the philosophical foundation of Catholic mo- rality.
God bless you,
Father Joseph Byerley