Intrinsic Evils and Inherent Goods

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the Weird Sisters, the witches who deceive and betray Macbeth, utter these fatal words at the beginning of the play: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” They blur the natural, logical distinctions between things as black and white blend into gray—the appearance of the weather when Macbeth returns home victorious from battle in the midst of thunder and lightning. The witches tempt Macbeth to judge on the basis of the appearance of things. As long as “foul” appears “fair”, then it is fair. The witches deceive Macbeth in similar ways later in the play when they prophesy that Macbeth is invincible: “for none of woman born/ Shall harm Macbeth.” From these words it appears that Macbeth is invulnerable, and he thinks, “I bear a charmed life, which must not yield/To one of woman born.”

But later Macbeth learns that “Macduff was from his mother’s womb/Untimely ripped” by way of Caesarean section. The witches again deceived Macbeth with another promise of special protection from death in battle: “Macbeth shall never vanquished be until/Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him.” To Macbeth it appears impossible for a forest to move and transplant itself, but an opposing army cuts branches and twigs from Birnam Wood as camouflage as they approach Macbeth’s castle. Macbeth imagines that he sees in Macduff a man born of woman and in Birnam Wood a fixed, immovable forest, but the witches blur the distinction between “born of woman” and “untimely ripped” and between a motionless and movable forest. The witches lure Macbeth into denying the nature of things and believing that appearance is reality and reality is appearance. If fair is foul and foul is fair, then it follows that good is evil and evil is good. As agents of temptation, the artful witches obstruct Macbeth’s thinking by destroying natural categories used by the mind to apprehend reality.

Alexandre-Marie Colin The Three Witches From MacbethTwo of the most fundamental of moral categories that illuminate the truth about good and evil are the classifications that divide human acts into “intrinsic evils” and “inherent goods”. Some human actions are always categorically wrong and immoral as the Church teaches. Contraceptive acts that prevent conception or act as abortifacients, the willful aborting of pre-born human life, extramarital or premarital conjugal relations, and acts of sodomy are always disordered, evil, unnatural, and contrary to reason. They are inherently or intrinsically evil by their very nature at all times and in every situation without exception. They are objectively evil, although the degree of guilt or culpability varies in each individual case depending on the age, circumstances and state of mind. Only the Church recognizes this moral category in contemporary culture. The world always seeks for exceptions and extenuating, special circumstances to justify its policies that make evil appear good and good evil by conflating foul and fair as if they do not signify contradictory opposites. If foul is fair and fair is foul, then, as William Butler Yeats writes in “The Second Coming,” “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.”

Foul is fair to protect the psychological or physical health of the mother. Foul is fair in the name of women’s reproductive freedom and the right to choose. Foul is fair to eliminate burgeoning populations in third world countries and maintain a quality of life environment. Foul is fair because it is legal, sanctioned by the learned professions of law, medicine, and political science. Foul is fair because a plurality of people surveyed in polls identify as pro-choice. Foul is fair because the baby in the womb is an unwanted child or burdened with Down’s syndrome. In other words, absolute evil is not absolute evil but great social good. Once the category of intrinsic evils, disordered acts, and unnatural sins loses its objective meaning, then sin multiplies as excuses of emergency, crisis, destitution and biological determinism justify more evils. “Emergency” contraception, abortion “to save the life of the mother” even when modern medicine acknowledges that the preservation of the mother’s life never demands the termination of pregnancy, and abortion to rescue the young unwed mother from the throes of poverty and a ruined life all plead that the end justifies the means and nothing is ever absolutely evil. There are always special cases, exceptions to the rule—no inviolable natural or divine laws that govern all people in all places at all times.

Classical philosophy and Christian tradition also teach that human acts fall into the category “intrinsic goods” and distinguish between servile acts and liberal ends. A servile act is a means to an end like driving to a destination where one works or earning money that one needs for basic necessities. The driving and the earning of wages are not ends in themselves, something done purely for its own sake such as the appreciation of beauty, the enjoyment of friendship, the sheer delight of recreation, the love of learning, or a child’s sense of play and fun. These liberal activities, then, are inherently good and desirable for their sake and have no ulterior motives of economic gain. Even though they serve no utilitarian, practical, or financial purpose and appear “useless” or idle pastimes for the worldly and ambitious, they ennoble and elevate human life and teach the art of living well rather than merely living in the sense of survival. Blessed Cardinal Newman illuminates this distinction between servile (useful) and liberal (good) in The Idea of the University: “Good is not only good, but reproductive of good; this is one of its attributes; nothing is excellent, beautiful, perfect, desirable for its own sake, but it overflows, and spreads the likeness of itself all around it. Good is prolific.”

However, just as the category of intrinsic evil has lost meaning and objectivity, the category of purely liberal ends or pursuits also has lost definition. In a culture of death that legalizes abortion and euthanasia, human life is not an intrinsic good to be valued for its own sake but measured in terms of productivity, social usefulness, quality of life, or cost effectiveness. To the utilitarian mind abortion decreases welfare costs and taxation, and euthanasia alleviates the burden of health care with its exorbitant end-of-life expenses to keep the terminally ill alive. To the utilitarian mind, no moral distinction separates cohabitation from marriage because both are merely arbitrary arrangements or “constructs,” and cohabitation offers trial marriages and economic advantages. Marriage as the union of one man and one woman also has no special importance or metaphysical value if fair is foul and foul is fair—if natural is unnatural and unnatural is natural. Children are not blessings or gifts but burdens and inconveniences, and fertility is not a God-given privilege but a curse that requires medical alteration. To paraphrase Newman, in a culture of legalized abortion nothing is inherently good, excellent, good, beautiful, or sacred for its own sake, but everything is a means to an end, even aborted fetuses as material for scientific experimentation.

As Newman explains, only the good, however, overflows, abounds, and is prolific of more good. Without the intrinsic good of the blessing of marriage, the gift of children, the sacredness of human life, and the truth about the real objective meanings of good and evil, natural and unnatural, the witches’ equivocal words about “Fair is foul and foul is fair” lead inevitably to tragedy, to a meaningless, nihilistic world that Macbeth in his disillusionment with the Weird Sisters calls “a tale/ Told by an idiot, /Full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.” Fair is fair and foul is foul.

Mitchell Kalpakgian, Ph.D. has completed fifty years of teaching beginning as a teaching assistant at the University of Kansas, continuing as a professor of English at Simpson College in Iowa for thirty-one years, and recently teaching part-time at various schools and college in New Hampshire. As well as contributing to a number of publications, he has published seven books: The Marvelous in Fielding’s Novels, The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature, The Lost Arts of Modern Civilization, An Armenian Family Reunion (a collection of short stories), Modern Manners: The Poetry of Conduct and The Virtue of Civility, and The Virtues We Need Again. He has designed homeschooling literature courses for Seton Home School, and he also teaches online courses for Queen of Heaven Academy and part-time for Northeast Catholic College.
Articles by Mitchell: