Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The innocence of evil.

Several months ago there was a case over here which raised profoundly disturbing questions.

A local convenience store attendant was attacked by a knife wielding schizophrenic. The attacker was in a psychotic state and proceeded to grab the man in a headlock, soon a hostage type of situation ensued. Local bystanders called the police who arrived quickly. Upon their arrival the attacker became more agitated and started to stab the attendant in the neck, the police yelled at him to stop, which he did not do. At risk to themselves from the knife and under pressure to act immediately, the police shot the schizophrenic man who died at the scene. The attendant survived.

How does one morally evaluate the actions of the policemen and the schizophrenic man?

The schizophrenic man was clearly causing evil, He was actuating it. If innocence or guilt refers to responsibility of causation, then the man was guilty. But clearly the man's mind was diseased, so doesn't it offend reason to say that this poor fellow was as guilty of evil in the same sense that a murderer is? Many people would say that the schizophrenic man was an innocent victim. I would disagree.

Traditional morality would have separated guilt from desert. That is, it recognised that a person may not have been totally free to choose the action taken. Traditional moralists would have argued that while the person was guilty of evil he was inculpable. While he did cause harm, he did not know what he was doing, and therefore this person did not deserve to be shot. Causing death to an undeserving man is evil.

The police on the the other hand had an obligation to protect the life of the service station attendant and their own with the practical means available. They were trying to stop the schizophrenic man from stabbing the attendant, their intent was good. Furthermore one is morally justified in using deadly force if the circumstances permit. This was such a circumstance so the actions the police took were morally justifiable. The police performed a good moral action which had a double effect. It saved the life of an innocent service station attendant while it caused the death of an inculpable schizophrenic.

The bottom line is that situations can arise in which we are forced to do good, but that good may result in evil effects to undeserving people. More on this in the next post.