Sunday, August 05, 2007

The right call

I’ve been away for a while, posting on other blogs. Apparently I can get into trouble anywhere I go so I guess in order to keep the peace, I am staying at home.

Recently I was involved in a rather engaging struggle over at the What’s Wrong with the World site. The site is definitely worth a visit and the topics raised there are treated intelligently and with conviction.

The matter under contention was titled The Right Call? The thread can be found here:

The moral question in essence was: Is it morally permissible to shoot down an civilian aircraft, commandeered by terrorists in flight and intending to use the aircraft as a weapon? Essentially a moral judgment was to be made on Dick Cheney’s decision to shoot down Flight 89 during the September 11 attacks.

Yours truly, took up position as counsel for the defence; arguing that the act was morally permissible under the principle of double effect for the following reasons.

1) The intention was to defend the United States.
2) Shooting down the aircraft was a morally legitimate form of defence.
3) The shooting down of the aircraft would have a double effect:
a. Stopping the attack. (good)
b. Death of the innocent civilian passengers(Evil)
4) Death of the civilians was not wished/intended.
5) A proportionate analysis of the double effect weighed heavily on the side of good.

The action of the Vice President conformed to the principle of double effect and hence was morally licit.

The prosecution argued that the VP’s actions were morally illicit. It was agreed that:

1) The intention was to defend the United States
2) The Vice President did not wish the civilians any harm
3) A proportionate analysis favoured the action but;

4) The action of shooting down the aircraft was morally impermissible since innocent civilians were going to be killed. It was argued that as the death of the innocent civilians was foreseen, and hence must have been intended. As deliberately causing the death of innocent civilians is intrinsically evil, the action was morally forbidden.
5) The principle of double effect is negated if evil means are chosen for good ends.

The Prosecution argued that the defence were proportionalists, justifying any evil act provided good could come of it. The Prosecution argued that the killing of the innocent was always and everywhere a deliberate evil and any other such act in which a deliberate evil was chosen was always and everywhere wrong.

The Defence argued that firstly, the Prosecution's understanding of intention was deficient; just actions could have deliberately foreseen evil consequences which were unintended. What defined the goodness or badness of an act depended on its moral object. The Prosecution argued that a deliberately chosen behaviour which resulted in intrinsic evil was always a sign of an evil moral object, the Defence rejected this proposition. Furthermore the Defence argued that the Prosecution's understand of double effect was flawed, since apparently some intrinsic evils were permissible and others were not. Cutting the flesh is intrinsically evil, yet is permitted for surgery. The Prosecution agreed that surgery was permitted but because cutting the flesh was not intrinsically evil.

At stake for the Defence was more than the question under consideration: At stake was everything.

If the Prosecution’s line of reasoning was correct, then any action in which an intrinsic evil was deliberately bought about would be not permitted. Killing one’s self is an intrinsic evil. One can step in front of fast moving train and afterwards claim that the train killed him, but one cannot say that he did not foresee his death. The Prosecution's line of reasoning would lead to the conclusion that the death was suicide; their early argument illustrated this position. The Defence insisted that why a person did what they did was vitally important. If stepping in front of a train to push a young child off the tracks resulted in the foreseen death of the rescuer, then the act was self sacrifice; not suicide: the highest of motives, as our Master taught.

Indeed; the Defence feels that the line of reasoning pursued is a most evil attack on Christianity, veiled as a defence. It was mentioned in opening argument, that had the passengers of flight 89 deliberately crashed the aircraft to save other Americans on the ground, it would have been collective suicide. Yet; our master would have taught that no greater love man hath, and would have such men supp with him in paradise. Indeed in choosing to have himself killed, Christ would have, by the prosecutions reasoning: committed suicide: The Son of God becomes the Devil himself. It is this foreseen consequence of the Prosecution’s reasoning, that drove the Defence’s vigorous crusade, but as usual argument drew to a stalemate.

The Defence as such has deferred the matter to higher authority and will publish the findings of this authority when it becomes available.

It remains to be seen whether the Prosecution or the Defence made the right call.


Anonymous said...

I recently read this debate, and I can only say that I believe that the "prosecution" is guilty of a radical misreading of Christian doctrine, one that would go against almost 2,000 years of Church teaching. A reading of the "Catholic Encyclopedia" written in 1914, on the topic of "homicide", indicates that, traditionally, yours is the correctposition.The "prosecution's" position, on the other hand, seemed nearly insane to me. I think that they are trying so hard to be "non-Consequentialist" that they have gone off the deep end.

The Social Pathologist said...

Thanks for your comments. They really do mean a lot to me. I sometimes got the impression that I was out there alone. I hope to get some sort of semi official "determination" on the matter. I plan to post it when it becomes available.
I agree with you. I feel that they have gone off the deep end. That's why I said their their thinking is pathological; they took it as a personal insult, not a statement of faulty reasoning. Many of the evils of the Left are as a result of good intent coupled with bad thinking.
Best wishes.

Anonymous said...

As near as I can tell, the whole basis of the principle of double effect is the moral difference between foreseeing an evil, and intending it. If one says that to foresee an evil stemming from one's actions is to intend it, then I really do not see how anything resembling double effect could exist. Certainly there have been some philosophers who maintained this, but I do not believe that it has been the standard interpretation, inside Catholicism, or out of it.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if a Jesuit qualifies as "higher authority" but he's probably more likely to be right than a bunch of guys yakking on the web. One of the instances Father Hardon gives below is almost exactly analagous to the discussion at WWWtW...

"To quote Father Hardon, S.J., in his highly recommended, "Pocket Catholic Dictionary", double effect is the "principle that says it is morally allowable to perform an act that has at least two effects, one good and one bad."

Father Hardon goes on to detail the exact conditions necessary for "double effect" to apply:

the act to be done must be good in itself or at least morally indifferent; by the act to be done is meant the deed itself taken independently of its consequences;

the good effect must not be obtained by means of the evil effect; the evil must be only an incidental by-product and not an actual factor in the accomplishment of the good;

the evil effect must not be intended for itself but only permitted; all bad will must be excluded from the act;

there must be a proportionately grave reason for permitting the evil effect. At least the good and the evil effects should be nearly equivalent.
All four conditions must be fulfilled. If any one of them is not satisfied, the act is morally wrong.

Father Hardon gives this example:

...the commander of a submarine in wartime who torpedoes an armed merchant vessel of the enemy., although he foresees that several innocent children on board will be killed. All four conditions are fulfilled:

he intends to merely lessen the power of the enemy by destroying an armed merchant ship. He does not wish to kill the innocent children;

his action of torpedoing the ship is not evil in itself;

the evil effect (the death of the children) is not the cause of the good effect (the lessening of the enemy's strength);

there is sufficient reason for permitting the evil effect to follow, and this reason is administering a damaging blow to those who are unjustly attacking his country.
Another example of double effect is when an intruder comes into your house and threatens to kill you. You defend yourself and kill and intruder but you didn't intend to do that, you only wanted to stop him from hurting you and your family.

All four conditions are fulfilled:

your intention is to lessen the danger and harm to yourself and your family. You do not wish to kill the intruder, but merely to stop him from harming your family;

stopping an intruder from harming yourself and your family is not an evil in itself, in fact it can be a duty according to Church teaching;

the evil effect (the death of the intruder) is not the cause of the good effect (the lessening the danger from harm to your family);

there is sufficient reason for permitting the evil effect to follow when there is no other choice and the killing is not intended. This reason is to safeguard the life and wellbeing of your family."

You were right, at least according to Father Hardon, S.J...

The Social Pathologist said...

I agree, when an action causes a double effect what determines the morality of the action--all other things being licit--is the moral object, what the will is intending to grasp through the actuation of the act.
This was all bread and butter stuff in all the major branches of Christianity until recently. I think Luther would have backed me up on this one.

The Social Pathologist said...

Annonymous of 5.58 am, thank you.


I've just checked up on Father Hardon's CV. Very impressive and enough of an authority.

My authorities "higher up" have not responded as yet to my original queries but I think Father Hardon's thoughts justify the defence.

Thank you very much for your help. God Bless.