This is the first principle of ethical human action as articulated by Saint Thomas Aquinas, who relies on the classical wisdom of Aristotle and represents much of the Catholic tradition (Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 94, a. 2). In the contemporary field of bioethics, a similar principle is articulated using the terms “beneficence” and “non-maleficence,” which simply mean “doing good” and “not doing evil.” This most basic ethical principle finds expression also in the Hippocratic Oath, according to which a physician vows to act “for the benefit of the sick and to keep them from harm” (Ludwig Edelstein, The Hippocratic Oath: Text, Translation, and Interpretation, 1943).
That human beings in general, and health care professionals in particular, should act for the good – whether it be their own good, the good of their communities, their neighbors, or their patients – is rather obvious. And most of the time, whether in daily life or medical practice, doing good is a pretty straightforward affair. A mother does what is good when she feeds her children; a doctor does what is good when she prescribes appropriate medicines. Sometimes, however, doing good and avoiding evil is not so straightforward. In those cases, determining what good is to be done and what evil is to be avoided requires that we look more closely at what “doing good” (beneficence) and “avoiding evil” (non-maleficence) really mean.
To do good, as a human person, means choosing to do good. To do good accidentally or involuntarily would be to do good in the way that a thunderstorm might be said to do good. A thunderstorm might have good affects on crops in region afflicted by drought, but that kind of good is outside the bounds of ethics or morality, which consider actions brought about by human choice. Doing good in a human way, which is to say an ethical or moral way, means choosing to do good. And choosing to do good means choosing something that is good to do: what we might call a good moral object.
A moral object is what a person chooses to bring about in order to achieve his intended goal or end. The object that a person chooses must be clearly distinguished from the end that he intends. To illustrate that distinction, let us consider an example. A pitcher on a baseball team has the goal of winning the game. That is his end. However, when he is facing a batter in a full count with the bases loaded, his object is to throw a strike. That is what he chooses to bring about by his present action. Considered as a moral object, throwing a strike is neither good nor bad. It may be an action that makes one a good pitcher, but it is not the kind of action that makes one a good person. Considered in relation to that end of winning a baseball game, throwing a strike is a means. That pitcher aims to win the game and one of the ways he seeks to achieve his end is by means of throwing a strike to that batter.
There is an important ethical principle which dictates that the ends don’t justify the means. Saint Paul articulates this principle when, in his Letter to the Romans, he rejects the idea “that we should do evil that good may come of it” (Rom 3:8). Trying to achieve something good by doing something bad is never the right thing to do. To say that in another way, choosing a bad moral object is always bad, no matter what good purpose might motivate that choice.
We can see how this works by considering another example. A woman with severe credit card debt has the goal of repaying her debts. Her goal is morally good. She intends to perform an act of justice. In order to achieve that good goal, the woman chooses to steal money from her neighbor. That act of stealing is the object that she chooses as a means of repaying her debts. That object is morally bad. What is more – and more to our present point – the woman’s choice to steal from her neighbor is no less bad because she chooses it for the sake of a good purpose. Her good end doesn’t justify her bad means; it doesn’t make her bad choice good. In fact, the opposite is true. The woman’s choice of a morally bad object makes her otherwise good intention bad. She now intends to pay of her debts in a way that not just, with money that does not rightly belong to her.
We see that the ends don’t justify the means. We can also see that the means don’t justify the ends. If that woman were earning money through honest work in order to contribute to a terrorist organization, she would be choosing a morally good means for the sake of a morally bad end. The goodness of her honest wage earning would not, of course, justify the badness of supporting terrorism. Again, the opposite is true. Her bad purpose would corrupt her otherwise good choice. Her work is made dishonest due to the bad purpose she intends it to serve.
We can now make a conclusion about what it really means for human beings to do good and avoid evil: It means choosing a morally good object for the sake of a morally good end. In our next reflection, we will see how this understanding of moral objects and ends enables us to determine what is good to do in some not-so-straightforward situations.