Monday, May 08, 2006

The Condom Debate

I posted over on Greg Krehbiel's blog on the recent debate and news on Condom use and AIDS prevention.

Here's what I wrote:

Seems to me that the principle of double effect only applies when no good option is available. You can choose the lesser of two evils when those are the only two options. In this case, abstinence is an option that the parties could choose. Abstinence for the sake of preserving life is undeniably good, and it demonstrates greater love for both parties than the demand for physical intimacy.

The only case in which abstinence is NOT an option is when the female party has no choice, in which case, the unitive effect of the marital act is undeniably thwarted. So use of condoms in such a case would actually be a greater evil because it would seem to justify rape.


Now, I'm not saying that the Church couldn't come out and approve condom use in a very narrowly defined case such as this. However, I think that proponents will have a hard time applying the principle of double-effect (which some people misunderstand as a "lesser-evil" argument) in support of such a move. I should also note what option I offered: abstinence for the sake of preserving life.

Greg responded:

It’s not so clear to me that abstinence is a “good” option when Paul specifically tells married couples to “come together.”

From my perspective, if I have to weigh the extraordinarily clear words of Scripture (”come together again lest Satan tempt you”) against the muddy philosophical arguments against condoms, the “clearer” route would be to allow condom use in this case.


Doogie points out the context of the passage in 1 Corinthians:

You’re omitting part of St. Paul’s direction to the Corinithians here though. I Cor 7:5-7 reads:

“Do not deprive each other, except perhaps by mutual consent for a time, to be free for prayer, but then return to one another, so that Satan may not tempt you through your lack of self-control. This I say by way of concession, however, not as a command. Indeed, I wish everyone to be as I am, but each has a particular gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.”


Dawn, Doogie's wife, also posts on the effectiveness of condoms (or lack thereof) for protecting against HIV infection, as well as comments on the unitive aspect. She expands upon the idea I mentioned that "Abstinence for the sake of preserving life is undeniably good, and it demonstrates greater love for both parties than the demand for physical intimacy."

I don't like to go on at length in other people's comboxes, which is what a correct description of the principle of double-effect with its application to Catholic moral teaching would require. I also don't think a combox is where an extended presentation belongs. Greg is gracious enough to allow comments, and I think it's rude to leave a 500-word essay on my side of the argument (which it really isn't since we're simply discussing different perspectives). However, I do want to respond to the muddiness quotient of the argument against condom use.

The basis of my belief is this paragraph from the Catechism

1756 It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.


But I think also relevant to the case is this:

1766 "To love is to will the good of another."41 All other affections have their source in this first movement of the human heart toward the good....


There is nothing muddy about the requirements of the principle of double-effect. However, such arguments can be complex. What may be muddy is an individual's understanding or application of the principle. In a nutshell, this was what my terse presentation meant. The end is to prevent HIV infection. If that's the aim, there are multiple means to that end, one of which involves a good effect (prevent infection through sexual intimacy) that does not include the bad effect (thwarting the procreative aspect of sexual intimacy) and one that involves a probability of the good effect and does involve the bad effect. When a path to an end does not include the bad effect, we're supposed to take it.

One formulation of principle of double-effect is described in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

The New Catholic Encyclopedia provides four conditions for the application of the principle of double effect:

The act itself must be morally good or at least indifferent.

The agent may not positively will the bad effect but may permit it. If he could attain the good effect without the bad effect he should do so. The bad effect is sometimes said to be indirectly voluntary.

The good effect must flow from the action at least as immediately (in the order of causality, though not necessarily in the order of time) as the bad effect. In other words the good effect must be produced directly by the action, not by the bad effect. Otherwise the agent would be using a bad means to a good end, which is never allowed.

The good effect must be sufficiently desirable to compensate for the allowing of the bad effect” (p. 1021).


So let's see how each of these applies to the question of whether condom use should be permitted to prevent HIV infection.

The act itself must be morally good or at least indifferent.


The condom itself is morally indifferent. It's a thing. The act involved can be good or bad. I don't think you could see sexual activity as morally indifferent. If there's muddiness anywhere in the debate, it's here. So the question is, then, is the act itself moral under the conditions presented, whether a condom is involved or not?

Is it moral for someone infected with HIV to expect (or demand) sexual intimacy with a spouse who is not infected?

Is it moral for someone who is not infected to risk infection (and eventual death) by engaging in sexual intimacy with a spouse who is infected with HIV?

These are complex questions, and it would require more space than I want to take up on the topic. People with big brains at the Vatican are discussing it, and I trust their judgement on the matter. However, I think it bears repeating that the risks are merely lessened, not eliminated.

However, I did note one case in which the licitness of the act itself would be in question.

The only case in which abstinence is NOT an option is when the female party has no choice, in which case, the unitive effect of the marital is undeniably thwarted. So use of condoms in such a case would actually be a greater evil because it would seem to justify rape.


I should have said that allowing the use of condoms would be a greater evil.

UPDATE: Jimmy Akins has just blogged on a related question that goes into more detail on this point.

And I guess I should amend what I've written here. The justification that a man infected with HIV can just use a condom would seem to encourage rape in this particular instance.

Next requirement:

The agent may not positively will the bad effect but may permit it. If he could attain the good effect without the bad effect he should do so. The bad effect is sometimes said to be indirectly voluntary.


Here's the point where I think the debate in support flounders.

The good effect is not the successfuly unitive activity. It is the prevention of infection and possible death by HIV through sexual intercourse. There are three options:

- Abstention
- Sex with condom
- Sex without condom

Good effect: prevent HIV infection
Bad effect: thwart the procreative aspect of the sexual act

Clearly, the last option isn't in the running as it doesn't have any preventative aspect but luck. So we have the first and second options from which to choose.

If the second option were the only means to get the good effect, then there would be a case for condom use. Because abstinence is a means of gaining the good effect without simultaneously enacting the bad effect, this requirement would stand. There is no thwarting of the procreative aspect if the act itself doesn't occur. It also provides a greater degree of prevention against HIV.

Now, if we recast this debate in terms of "maintaining marital happiness," well, we're changing the end and muddying the waters. However, that's not what the debate is about, or at least not as it's being cast by the pro-condom side of the debate. If this new end is what the debate is about, then it's back to condition 1. Is the act in itself moral? That's why this debate gets muddy. People keep bypassing this second condition.

One could claim that abstinence also has a bad effect (namely undermining marital happiness). However, that's a separate argument, and I think that it's resolvable by requirement three below. Dissolution of marriage does not result immediately as a result of abstinence. It may result over time, but that would arguably be due to factors in addition to abstinence.

The good effect must flow from the action at least as immediately (in the order of causality, though not necessarily in the order of time) as the bad effect. In other words the good effect must be produced directly by the action, not by the bad effect. Otherwise the agent would be using a bad means to a good end, which is never allowed.


I think this could be reasonably argued to be true in some cases (the act incurs both bad and good effects immediately). However, you have the bad effect regardless, while the good effect has a one-in-ten chance of not occurring.

The good effect must be sufficiently desirable to compensate for the allowing of the bad effect.


I think this point could be reasonably argued (that prevention from infection is desirable). However, the second requirement would make it a moot point, and the third would undermine it.

All of this said, I trust the Church to make this determination. I know what my decision would be. I would want the best for the person I love. Risking exposure wouldn't be the best thing.
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