Is it okay to cut the heart out of a newborn baby with severe brain damage, so that the baby’s heart can be transplanted into a baby who has a bad heart? Is it okay to perform an abortion on a pregnant teenager, or on a pregnant woman with a serious health problem? Is it okay to lie to make other people feel better?
There are things that people do, and many smart people approve, but these things do not seem to be right. I would like to put in my two cents about what exactly is wrong.
When people do bad things, it is almost always because they convince themselves that they are doing something good. They convince themselves of this by attempting to measure the effects of what they propose to do. In the case of the two babies, the doctors involved convince themselves that they are doing good because they are saving the life of the baby with a bad heart, and the one with brain damage would die soon anyway. If the good effects outweigh the bad effects of an action, it must be a good thing to do.
(The question of how to know precisely when someone dies, including a baby with severe brain damage, is a tricky one–let’s acknowledge that. It is okay to transplant organs from a corpse, provided they will benefit someone else. Good people disagree about the criteria for establishing when someone is dead. There are doctors these days, though, who are not concerned with establishing death definitively; they regard it as an unnecessary question.)
Measuring potential outcomes is a good way of making decisions, given one very important proviso: All the options have to be good. If I have the choice between giving extra money to charity, or saving it for a rainy day, or giving it to a family member, the best thing for me to do is to weigh the effects of all these options, because they are all perfectly good things to do.
But there is one effect of my acting that outweighs all others, so much so that it makes an option impossible to choose. That effect is this: I become someone who has knowingly and deliberately done something evil. No other effect can make this effect worthwhile, even if the potential effect appears to be very good to me right now. (Fr. Martin Rhonheimer taught me everything in this paragraph.)
The greatest thing that a person can be by their own devices is a moral person. Everything else is a matter of fortune or Divine Providence. I cannot control anything completely—except my own actions. If my actions are good, then I am moral. If they are not, then I am immoral.
So it is wise to weigh the potential outcomes of my actions (understanding, of course, that I cannot really know them definitively). But first and foremost I must consider the act itself. Is the act itself okay? Or am I in danger of doing evil with the idea that good may come of it? If I try to do evil that good may come of it, the following consequences will ensue: Good things may happen outside of me, or they may not—there are a lot of variables, and I should have the humility to admit that I do not know them all, even if I am very knowledgeable about the matter at hand. On the other hand, if I do evil, I will have made myself a bad person, an immoral person.
To this argument, some people will say: How selfish! How can you worry about something like your own soul when the life and death, or the health and well-being of others is at stake? Keep your moral scruples to yourself! At least let us do what we think we ought to do, without trying to force your religion on us!
The problem with this objection is that it is ultimately self-contradictory. Obviously, it is not a case of crass disingenuousness: If those who objected to moral scruples were only interested in robbing banks or seducing women, then we would not be in danger of being persuaded by them. But they claim to be on the side of the angels, on the side of fostering human life and well-being.
This is where the self-contradiction comes in: You say that you are on the side of human life and well-being. You say you want to do the things you propose to do to save lives, or make lives more healthy or pleasant. Why? What is the point of saving a life, or improving someone’s health, if not for the sake of that person becoming good and not evil? Isn’t moral success the ultimate goal of life? What does it mean to thrive as a human being? To laze around in the basest pleasures? To pile up the biggest stash of stuff? To breathe, eat, and sleep? To thrive as a human being is: To do good and avoid evil, to be moral, to fulfill the potential we have to make good choices, and to work for the good of those we love.
So it makes no sense to kill the one baby to save the other, so that someday the other can grow up to have the moral insight and self-control to see that this was a bad thing to do. Instead, just do every good and reasonable thing that can be done now to save them both. That’s all we can do; we are not the masters of life and death. We are not here on earth to control everything; we are here to do good and avoid evil.
In order to approach decision-making this way with confidence, we need to trust God. I will undertake to consider the relationship between faith and morals at some other time. Stay tuned!