One Body, Many Parts

April 30, 2005 § 4 Comments

Those wacky Thomists tell us there is a difference between commutative and distributive justice. What they mean by that is that the moral world does not consist merely of individuals who act on their own behalf. Communities are also moral actors, and we can discuss the justice of the acts of communities in addition to the acts of individuals.

Examining the justice of community acts is parallel to examining the justice of individual acts. If an individual treats a part of his body as property, say by engaging in an act of self-mutiliation, this is an unjust act against his body. If a community treats an individual member as property through an institution of slavery, it is an unjust act against the community. If an individual is attacked he may defend himself, but he cannot intend the death of his attacker. If a community is attacked it can defend itself, but it cannot intend the complete extermination of the attacking community.

So communal acts – acts performed by legitimate authorities on behalf of a community – are subject to moral analysis that parallels the moral analysis (at least at the level of justice) which we perform on individual acts.

In a comment below Tom asked me if I would inquire as to whether President Bush personally acted justly, if mistakenly, in choosing to attack Iraq. Tom didn’t beat me up about my answer**, but I was unsatisfied with it myself because it was essentially a pragmatic answer rather than a rational answer. There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with a pragmatic answer but I have been struggling to find a better one. And I think the better one is that the thing of interest to me, as a member of the community, is not the private personal justice of one man’s choices. The thing of concern to me is the justice of our action as a community. And I think in general when we discuss “just war” we must talk about it in terms of the just actions of the community, since it is never licit for an individual to wage war on his own behalf.

When we ask whether we, as a community, acted justly in attacking Iraq we have to satisfy the Just War criteria as a community. Rightful authority was covered because our legitimate government acted on our behalf. Whether the threat was lasting and grave is subject to reasonable argument (personally I think that anyone who is not terrified at the prospect of Osama with the Bomb is a lunatic: the grave criteria is unquestionably covered). But the certainty criteria was certainly not covered, and no amount of gravity can act as a substitute for certainty: certainty understood in its ordinary everyday meaning, not held so strictly that it can never be satisfied and not held so liberally that suspician equals certainty.

**(By the way, it is worth reading Tom’s comments for the additional reason that he corrects my exposition of the distinction between different kinds of evil).

Across the Moral Spectrum

April 29, 2005 § 8 Comments


Can something be evil if it was an accident?

The controversy at present is over whether we can call an occurrence just if a bad thing happens by accident. In a comment below c matt observes:

If I kill someone on the good faith mistaken belief that the banana in his hand is a gun and he is going to use it on me, that may reduce (or eliminate) my culpability for murder. But that does not mean killing someone who is holding a banana is justified.

I’m not necessarily the most well-read lightbulb in the pack, but as I understand it moral philosophers distinguish between different kinds of evil. An act is a human act if it is chosen. So there are two kinds of evil human acts: the culpable kind, where we know that we are choosing a bad thing, and the not-culpable kind, where we really don’t know. But in both of those cases the bad thing is something we choose. There is a third kind of evil that is often called natural evil: earthquakes, possibly (it has been suggested) throwing a baseball through a window by accident, possibly (it has been suggested) arresting the wrong guy. I’m not interested, at the moment, in the controversy over what is and is not chosen and therefore a human act: we can be as liberal about that as we like without changing the fundamental point. And it is true that we can still be responsible for natural evil, even though we didn’t choose it, when the thing we did choose was imprudent or reckless. But even if an evil is a natural evil, and we were not reckless in causing it to occur, it would nevertheless, it seems to me, be a form of laxism to assert that the natural (that is, accidental) evil occurrence was good.

Of course I don’t think many people are suggesting at this point that the decision to attack Iraq was an accident, an honest mistake. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t one, of course. But when we make an honest mistake and do something unjust it is incorrect, it seems to me, to claim that it actually was morally just simply because it was an accident. It isn’t objectively correct to insist that red is green.

Some Rigor about Rigorism

April 28, 2005 § 76 Comments

Rigorism, as I understand it, is a form of moral relativism. The moral character of an act is objective (even though culpability for an act does depend upon our knowledge of its moral character). But rigorism asserts that an act is immoral unless it is known to be morally good. The morality of an act is not an objective quality to the rigorist, but is relative to the knowledge of the person carrying out the act.

Laxism is the same sort of moral relativism applied in the reverse direction. Laxism asserts that an act is moral unless it is known to be morally bad.

So the problem with rigorism and laxism is not that one is too strict and the other too indulgent. The problem with rigorism and laxism is that they are both brownshirts in the dictatorship of relativism.

Just Garment

April 27, 2005 § 18 Comments

Doctrinally, it should be noted, the Just War tradition and the Church’s understanding of sexual morality are in roughly the same position. Both are supported by venerated traditions stretching to antiquity. Both are supported by magisterial proclamations old and new. Both are supported by and defined in the new Catechism. Neither is supported by an explicit infallible declaration/definition from any Pope. There may be nuanced differences, of course, but for practical purposes one would be skating on thin ice indeed to claim that either one is not the established, authoritative moral doctrine of the Catholic Church. And one would nevertheless be technically correct to say that neither one is established infallible dogma, articulated in a fixed form which can never be altered.

In the comments to a post below the eminently reasonable question “which demonstrably unjust war?” was posed. The answer is straighforward: the Iraq war. The Iraq war’s justification was that we needed to attack Iraq to prevent the construction of a weapon that Iraq might, if the weapon were built, transfer to someone else who, upon acquiring it, might use it to attack us. Whether all of these concerns were reasonable or not is beside the point: the Iraq war was a preemptive war, and preemptive wars are manifestly in violation of the Just War tradition. The argument that the Just War tradition needs to be updated based on technological and social factors is quite parallel to the argument that Catholic sexual morality needs to be updated based on technological and social factors.

The particular fallacy that the post below deals with is the fallacy of turning room for argument within a category into a moral license to commit a specific act. Decisions to go to war cannot be categorically condemned, is the first (quite valid) premise. It does not follow, though, that this particular decision to go to war cannot be categorically condemned. And if the Just War tradition is left as it stands – if we refuse to bend to having it “nuanced” and “updated” to reflect technological and social change – then it clearly condemns this decision to go to war.

It remains possible in principle that bending and nuancing is the right way to go, of course. But the claim has been made – relentlessly made – that abortion is intrinsically (that is, categorically) evil while war is not intrinsically evil. That is true, but it is beside the point: because abortion is indeed categorically evil, but so is preemptive war.

UPDATE: At the risk of over-nuancing, I intend my above commentary to apply to the justification of the decision to go to war with Iraq as it occurred. The present conception of why we are there seems to have evolved from “lets attack to keep him from building that and giving it to them who will use it against us” to “lets force democracy on them, which will make them into nice people like us, because nice people like us don’t preemptively attack other countries”. Or something like that.

Seamless Artillery

April 26, 2005 § 4 Comments

From the always quotable Tom of Disputations:

I do happen to think that, in a way similar to how some “liberal” Catholics use a seamless garment type argument to cover their own support for legal abortion, many “conservative” Catholics use a legitimate diversity of opinion argument to cover their own support for demonstrably immoral wars.

This was in a comment box and just needed to be elevated to a main post somewhere.

Hiding from the Light of Day

April 26, 2005 § Leave a comment

Our see no evil files are constantly updated via Dawn Eden.

Disappearing Intentions

April 26, 2005 § 2 Comments

“OK, wise guy,” she wrote, “what about the principle of double-effect?”

Often the principle of double-effect is invoked – incorrectly – as an incantation for making the evil in an intentional evil means disappear.

St. Thomas tells us that there is nothing which prevents an act from having both a foreseen good effect and a foreseen bad effect. It is possible, St. Thomas tells us, to intend the good effect as the outcome we are trying to achieve while not intending the bad effect. If I shoot an attacker in the leg and he bleeds to death I may be saved from culpability by the principle of double-effect: I don’t intend his death even though I foresee it as a possible or even likely outcome of my act. The end I intend is the cessation of his attack; the means I intend is my counterattack or defensive blow. The end I intend is the outcome that I am trying to achieve; the means I intend is the act I choose to perform.

If, however, his death is a means to my intended end – if his death is a necessary cause of my end coming to pass – then the double-effect escape hatch no longer applies. I am no longer dealing strictly with self-defense, since an attacker’s death is not necessary for the cessation of an attack, even if his death is a foreseen effect of the means I have chosen. It is never objectively moral to intend an evil means, and if I choose an evil means then it necessarily follows that I intend that evil means. We can’t choose to perform an act and then legitimately claim that we did not intend to perform the act.

Suppose there were a mutation of AIDS, hypothetical AIDS or H-AIDS, that could only be transmitted by ordinary coitus: a strain of the virus that was never transmitted in any other way. Furthermore, suppose H-AIDS was always fatal with ordinary coitus and never harmful otherwise. Would it then become objectively moral for a couple to engage in alternative forms of sexual gratification, forms which would otherwise be objectively immoral? Certainly not. Sodomy does not become objectively moral simply because ordinary coitus is deemed too dangerous. Wishing that ordinary coitus were possible does not transform morally evil sex acts into morally good sex acts. Wishing you could perform a morally good act does not remake reality so that when a morally evil act is performed it is transubstantiated into a good act.

The notion that contracepted sex is not objectively immoral in the case of the AIDS couple hinges on the idea that the intent is not to contracept but to prevent the transmission of disease. But that is not really the intent. It may be a wish, but a wish is not an intention. The intent in this case is to contracept, justified by the notion that it is for a good end: to prevent the transmission of disease. Furthermore, prevention of the transmission of disease is not even the primary end of the act, it is merely a secondary end. If the primary intended end were to prevent the transmission of disease then there would be no sex act in the first place.

So the condom-to-prevent-AIDS scenario fails double-effect, it seems to me, for at least two reasons. Double-effect does not grant a license to choose evil means, and contraception is an evil means. The assertion that contraception is not intended rests on a confusion of intent with wishful thinking: it denies that there is any such thing as a contracepted sex act that is independent of the wishful thinking of those engaged in the act. Furthermore the putative end, the prevention of disease, can be achieved by another obvious means which is not evil: abstinence from sex. The fact that abstinence is not chosen demonstrates that prevention of disease is not really the intended end. It is at best a secondary hope, not an end: a hope that sexual gratification may be had without the transmission of disease. But the primary end is sexual gratification. If sexual gratification were not the primary end then the means would not be adjusted, in a way that does not decrease but actually increases the likelihood of the transmission of disease, in order to achieve it. If the intent is truly self-defense and walking away is a legitimate option, then killing the attacker is not self-defense.

Sexual gratification is a good end in itself, when properly subordinate to other ends and not taken to excess. But the contention that prevention of disease is the intended end in this case, a necessary (but not sufficient) condition in order for condom use to be objectively moral, is manifestly false. And the means chosen toward that putative end are evil means. Condom use to prevent the spread of AIDS is not objectively moral.

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