There have always been debates between expediency and ethics. Generally, in America, doing what is expedient is considered the opposite of doing what is ethical. Many, if most times, that is true. But, is it always true? Or, at least, is it ever the lesser of two evils?
In the hit TV show “MASH,” whose last broadcast was on 28 February 1983, there was a character nicknamed “Radar.” He was, at times, famous for being able to come up with supplies that were needed, provided you did not ask how he got them. I suspect that some of the things he did would be considered misappropriation of government property. Yet, the reason that he misappropriated supplies was in order to keep the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital going. Army logistics procedures were so complex and unhandy that when something was needed in an emergency, it was easier to appropriate the supplies than to try to get what was needed. In his case, was his misappropriation the lesser of two evils–so that people could be saved–or was it the first slippery slope that would lead to who-knows-what?
When I was an overseas missionary, there were debates among missionaries as to whether the typical “propina” (tip) should be paid to government authorities when submitting various pieces of required paperwork. In more than one country in the world, government workers are paid very low wages. The government semi expects them to make up needed wages by “charging” extra to the people who need government paperwork. Legally, they are considered bribes, even in those countries where the “propina” is commonly found. But yet, the very low wages paid by the government certainly seem to say that they know that the lack will be made up by the propina.
Here is the problem. If you refused to pay the propina, your paperwork could easily be misplaced, lost, or simply placed in a drawer and forgotten, either for a while or forever. But, if you paid the propina, the paperwork would go through at an appropriate speed. Since that paperwork could be a needed visa, or a needed shipment of supplies, or even donated medical or other material, the delays caused by not paying the propina could have serious consequences. But, this led to a debate among the missionaries.
Some missionaries took the “Radar” attitude. That is, the lesser of two evils is to pay the propina and get the missionary visa or get the needed supplies. The other missionaries would say that a Christian must obey every rule, even when the end result would be worse than if one paid the propina. So, what should a Christian do?
Well, it should not surprise you that this has been thought about centuries ago. And, the Roman Catholic Church has a moral theology called the principle of double effect:
The principle of double effect can be outlined briefly as follows. Sometimes the same act causes both a good result and an evil result at the same time. Can such an act be performed? The answer is that it can be, provided that all the following four conditions are met : First, the act itself must be good or indifferent. Second, the good effect must not be caused by the evil effect. Third, the good effect and not the evil effect must be directly intended by the agent. Fourth, there must be a proportionality between the good and evil result (i.e., the good must outweigh the evil). [Ed. Note. — see for example: 65 St. Thomas Aquinas, STh II-II, 64, 7, corp. art.]
But, the principle of double effect is found even before the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. To simply say that you choose the lesser of two evils is a bit simplistic in that it implies that a Christian may deliberately choose to do evil. But, those who then say that a Christian may do no evil run afoul of reality and how life is really lived. Many times our choices are more complex than simply good and evil. The Bible states that we should not kill; but the Bible also gives permission to kill in appropriate defense situations. At the same time, King David is called a man of blood by God and refused permission to build the Temple. We should not deliberately cause pain and harm people, yet a surgeon must deliberately cause some pain and do some harm in order that a person might live a better life. The principle of double effect would say that the act is good; the effect is not caused by any evil intent; the good effect is directly intended by the agent; and the good result (of better health) outweighs dying or some other bad effect.
The principle of double effect is helpful in that it allows you to look at situations with a certain set of principles that enable you to make a choice. In my case, I felt that having a missionary sent away because of a lack of a visa, or not receiving needed supplies was a greater evil than the lesser evil of paying the propina. My intended effect was to get the visa, to get the supplies. My clear intention was the good effect. And the good effect strongly outweighed the bad effect. The one section that might trip up my argument is whether the good effect is caused by the evil effect. I would argue that it was not, in that the good effect might have happened without the evil effect. That is, the visa might have come or the supplies might possibly have been released anyway. There is not a cause and effect relationship between the two.
I am not asking that you pass judgment on my moral reasoning in the particular act of paying the propina. But, I am pointing out that there are moral principles that can help guide our decision making. Some Christians are absolutists; one must never ever participate in any evil. But, many Christians in history have instead had a framework that allows for an evaluation of a situation that allows for a difficult choice to be made knowing that some evil effects will result. As you make moral choices, consider your principles. Which principle are you following? Are you an absolutist or are you a lesser-of-two-evils person (that is, a double effect person)? But, either way, understand your choice and what it means for your life. Study the different moral principles for making a decision and have them in your heart well enough that when the time comes for difficult decision making, you know how to process your decision and feel morally comfortable with it.