Ectopic Airliners

August 24, 2007 § 5 Comments

(Note: Originally published at WWWtW)

Much ado has been made about my position on the morality of shooting down civilian airliners. Some commentators seem to think that because I am a priori wrong about shooting down airliners (they suppose), therefore the Hiroshima bombing was morally licit. Some others seem to think that because I am a priori wrong about airliners I am unpatriotic. In either case I think the nonsequitur is so obvious that commenting on it makes me embarrassed for my interlocutors.

I’ve already written a lot of comments on the matter in other peoples’ posts, but I thought it might be useful to relate more succinctly (he hopes, as he begins writing the post) my position on shooting down airliners, despite the rather obvious fact that neither my patriotism nor the moral status of the Hiroshima bombing depends upon it.

Consider an innocent child, ensconced in a tube. The child is headed for certain and imminent death; a death as certain as any prediction of the future of empirical reality can be. Furthermore, if we simply allow matters to continue as they are, at least one additional person, another innocent in addition to the innocent child, will die.

The child is clearly innocent: the child is not choosing to behave in a way which attacks others. (The child is at this point likely not choosing anything at all, just as a man who is asleep isn’t choosing anything, though at least the latter is capable of having chosen some attack which remains underway).

If our scenario is an ectopic pregnancy we have multiple options, not all of which are morally licit. If we simply crush the tube with the child in it, directly killing the child, then the child’s remains will wash free of the fallopian tube and the mother will be saved. An additional good result is that the fertility of the mother is fully preserved. But this would be a direct abortion – albiet one undertaken under severe duress to save the life of the mother – and would therefore be morally illicit. We are morally prohibited from taking this specific action, no matter that we foresee (though we do not choose) that an additional innocent will die if we do nothing.

But we are not stuck with doing nothing. Indeed, there is a different procedure involving removing the tube intact which does not attack the child directly. It is different as a particular chosen behavior from the other procedure. The child will still die – that is, at this point as a technological matter we have no way of rescuing the child. (Lets stipulate this point, since I am not entirely convinced that it is true. Our obligation to attempt rescue ceases only once the child actually dies.) The overall this-worldly consequences of the salpingectomy are worse than the salpingotomy: the child is dead, and the mother loses half her fertility. But the teleological consequences are the difference between Heaven and Hell.

If the tube in question happens to be a Boeing 757 hurtling toward a building with an innocent person in it, our moral obligations are the same. We cannot licitly directly attack and kill the child by crushing or destroying her in our immediately chosen behavior. It is always immoral to directly kill the innocent in one’s specific chosen behavior, independent of any other considerations.

However, again, it does not follow that because we may not directly kill the child that we may not do anything at all. We might attempt to disable the plane without directly killing the child. There are numerous ways to do so. It is arguable that shooting out the engines, even though it carries a risk of explosion, is one of them. The airplane will likely crash. (Though not necessarily: a pilot of a Bonanza was rendered unconscious by exhaust fumes in one accident of my acquaintance. His airplane eventually ran out of fuel and glided to a landing in a field of its own accord. Instead of waking up dead the pilot woke up with a big headache and quite a hangar story to tell). But whether we are deciding to kill the child or not in the actual behavior we choose makes all the moral difference in, well, eternity.

Some commentators, typically those who have never engaged with moral relativism seriously, seem to think that these distinctions – without which moral absolutism cannot be preserved, and without which every moral question becomes a question of situational ethics – are hairsplitting nonsense designed to make people feel good about themselves. Others recognize them as necessary in order to preserve moral absolutes; and some of those may further recognize moral absolutes as an indispensible attribute of Christendom.

But however you slice it, struggling with ectopic pregnancy as a moral conundrum doesn’t excuse simply adverting to the idea that abortion is sometimes morally acceptable as long as someone argues that the stakes are high enough. And struggling with passenger airliners as a moral condundrum doesn’t excuse simply adverting to the idea that incinerating cities of civilians is morally licit as long as someone argues that the stakes are high enough. No matter what one may claim to be at stake, one can (I say “can” here, not may, since I am invoking literal impossibility) never claim that it is licit to violate an absolute moral imperative and at the same claim to be other than a moral relativist.


§ 5 Responses to Ectopic Airliners

  • Paul says:

    Having read this post, and your various comments elsewhere, I am in general agreement with your position. The only minor puzzle for me is why you do not, if circumstances should necessitate it, consider (e.g.) blowing a wing off the plane. I agree that completely destroying the plane is not permissible, because it would be a direct killing. But blowing a wing off is not, and I cannot see why the permissibility of such an action is not very much along the same lines as why a salpingectomy is permitted.

  • zippy says:

    A commenter on the cross-post at W4 brought up the same point about the comparison between shooting off the wings and treating an ectopic pregnancy. My only answer to both of my astute questioners on this point at the moment is “I haven’t worked that out”.

  • Bob says:

    Suppose the hijackers of a plane had removed all the passengers and crew from the plane before attacking the building (e.g. landing, de-planing, and taking off again). Would it then be morally permissible to shoot down the plane?< HREF="" REL="nofollow">From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy<>, I get the New Catholic Encyclopedia’s conditions for the application of double effect.<>1. The act itself must be morally good or at least indifferent.<><>2. 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.<><>3. 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.<><>4. The good effect must be sufficiently desirable to compensate for the allowing of the bad effect<>It seems to me that there are two effects. Good – Stopping the attacking plane from reaching the target building. Bad – Killing of innocent passengers.It seems to me that the good effect is morally permissible (i.e. stopping of attacking planes sans passengers) because it is self defense. If this is true, then condition 1 is met.Condition 2 is met because the bad effect is not directly willed.Condition 3 is met because the bad effect is not the means for causing the good effect.Condition 4 is met assuming that the target building has innocent civilians inside (I am thinking of the Twin Towers attack).

  • zippy says:

    <>Suppose the hijackers of a plane had removed all the passengers and crew from the plane before attacking the building (e.g. landing, de-planing, and taking off again). Would it then be morally permissible to shoot down the plane?<>Sure.I agree that double-effect seems to apply, even with the passengers aboard, <>as long as condition one is met<>. (A better way of stating condition one is that the act must not be evil in its object: as a chosen behavior, independent of intentions and circumstances, it must not fall under a species of <>intrinsically evil<> acts.) That is what makes these cases interesting (in addition to their relevance to contemporary concrete decisions): they provide a vehicle for people to think about what it means for an act to be evil in its object (if an act is evil in its object then it fails step one).Often people just wave their hands with what appears to be a morally neutral description of the act itself (e.g. “destroying an airplane isn’t immoral in itself”). That perfunctory handwaving doesn’t do justice to the requirements of step one though. Any act can have literally an infinite number of verbal descriptions, and we can always make verbal descriptions seem morally neutral (e.g. “there is nothing immoral about firing a gun”). But like verbal descriptions of other things, a verbal description of the object is not the object (circumstance- and intention-independent chosen behavior) itself. So these scenarios are not only of contemporary relevance, they also allow people who take moral theology seriously to think about what step one <>means<>.

  • Cheers, Bob. I was thinking of putting up the same post but you beat me to it.

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