Definitions Can Be Murder

February 1, 2008 § 20 Comments

Inspired by this discussion, I propose the following understanding of a category of acts which are always murder. This understanding is not intended to encompass all possible kinds of murder, but merely to define a category of acts which are definitely always murder. (This is just a proposal for the sake of discussion, though I wouldn’t propose it if I didn’t think it had legs).

If it is the case that:

(1) I am choosing a particular behavior B, an act I carry out myself with my body[*], which

(2) Knowingly kills a particular person P whom I can specifically identify, where

(3) P is not engaged in or preparing to engage in some kind of willful attacking or harmful behavior, and

(4) P has not ever in his entire existence engaged in or prepared to engage in some kind of willful attacking behavior, and

(5) I am morally certain that in the ordinary course of events P will not die if I do not do B, that is, P is not in the process of dying unless I do B,

THEN my act is definitely an act of murder.

[*] Note that if someone else performs the act and I formally cooperate with that act – that is, I will that it be done and perhaps charter another person to do it – then I am still formally guilty of murder, much as if I had hired a hit man.

Tagged:

§ 20 Responses to Definitions Can Be Murder

  • brandon field says:

    I don’t really have anything important to say, but it seems like you should be able to fit in a backwards “E” or an upside down “A” to make such a definition more impressive.

  • Scott says:

    Discussions on double-effect I think are the hardest. Leaving aside the useless contributors; that is, Church-bashers who scoff at the very idea of PDE, and Catholics (usually on condoms) who argue like, “I swung my baseball bat which is morally neutral, the bad effect of which was smashing grandma’s head, the good effect was the inheritance”, it’s even difficult when the parties have a decent grasp of it.

  • William Luse says:

    I’m sure it’s (ahem) intentional on your part, but I notice the word “intention” has no place in the definition.

  • zippy says:

    Any “intention” in this understanding is built into the word “choosing”. I am indeed purposely avoiding discussion of intentions of the sort found in the term “purpose”, since it matters not for what purpose one murders if one is choosing to murder.

  • zippy says:

    <>…(usually on condoms) who argue like, “I swung my baseball bat which is morally neutral, the bad effect of which was smashing grandma’s head, the good effect was the inheritance”, it’s even difficult when the parties have a decent grasp of it.<>The “condomistic sex can’t possibly be wrong in itself” mantra is out in full force < HREF="http://mliccione.blogspot.com/2008/01/condomania.html" REL="nofollow">here<>. Some of the arguments are ones I haven’t seen before, probably because they are just so obviously awful that few people are willing to embrace the embarrassment of supporting them. I especially like the one where if anyone disagrees, and especially if anyone we respect disagrees, that must mean it can’t be immoral under the natural law.

  • William Luse says:

    Wish I’d known that conversation was taking place. You did great, btw. I was surprised at a couple of the names giving support to the practice under discussion.

  • Scott says:

    <>The “condomistic sex can’t possibly be wrong in itself” mantra is out in full force here.<>Brauuuugh! (Or however you spell it when Homer Simpson registers disgust).I like how you point out that when one insists on framing the issue at the most extreme and complicated limit turns around and complains about how complicated the answer is.

  • Tony M says:

    Zippy, I do not agree with your supposed definition, in that you have failed to exclude a death which results from my chosen act which brings a double-effect death. Suppose: I have planted a bomb within range of the office of the general of the army unjustly attacking my country. He is having a meeting to discuss another attack. The meeting is to start right after the departure of his daughter and his 1-year old granddaughter. I am morally certain that I will not avoid detection if I wait until the daughter leaves, and if I do not initiate the bomb now, I will be caught. I choose to signal the bomb to go off. All of the requirements for me to engage licitly in killing the officers have been met. I do not intend the death of the daughter or child, their deaths do not in any way increase the effectiveness of my bomb, and I would arrange to wait for them to get to safety if I had greater freedom over circumstances. I can be morally certain that the deaths of the officers will disrupt the planned attack, and the resulting savings in lives and other destruction is vastly outweighed by the deaths of the 2 females. The principle of double effect clearly gives the green light to press the button. The problem is that your description includes <> knowledge <> of the impending death from my act, but does not discuss whether that death is in any way related to the true objective of my act – since you want a definition free from “intention.” But in principle mere knowledge that a death will occur precisely as a result of my act is not enough to preclude the act being moral, given PDE. You have to use the OTHER elements, the restrictions that are part of PDE, to delimit a case that PDE does not apply to: that the good intended by the act does not come about precisely through the bad effect; and that you don’t desire the bad effect. And these necessarily involve intention. Also, you could have avoided a certain amount of complexity just by having the recipient of the “chosen action” be a 1-year old baby. Since a baby never “deserves” death in the typical sense.

  • zippy says:

    Tony:I don’t agree that you aren’t killing the daughter on purpose. You <>are<> killing her on purpose in the act itself. Just because you wish you weren’t that doesn’t mean that you aren’t in fact.<>…since you want a definition free from “intention.”<>It isn’t what <>I want<>, it is what <>Veritatis Splendour<> and Catholic doctrine explicitly require. It has the further benefit of making sense to reason. Double effect is not, and never has been, an all-purpose ‘out’ for moral questions where the objective or goal (intention) is good, despite the fact that doing evil is intrinsic to the chosen behavior itself.Finnis in particular seems highly confused on the point. In the chapter or section title of one of his books (<>Moral Absolutes<> IIRC) he has a brief section on the moral object of the act, which he parenthetically refers to as the intention. <>Veritatis Splendour<> on the other hand is quite clear that the moral object or chosen behavior is quite distinct from intentions. This has the benefit of corresponding well to what reason attests: that when you deliberately blow up an innocent little girl with a bomb, what you are doing as a moral matter is deliberately blowing up a little girl with a bomb; yes, even if blowing her up doesn’t in itself as a causal matter advance you closer to your ulterior goal.Double-effect of course does apply in many practical situations. It just isn’t an all-purpose excuse as long as the goal or end of an act is good.

  • zippy says:

    The problem, by the way, is precisely here:<>But in principle mere knowledge that a death will occur precisely as a result of my act is not enough to preclude the act being moral, <>given PDE.<><>I agree with that, but you can’t simply assume the conclusion that way. By assuming that the PDE applies to the particular act you’ve assumed that you can disclaim ‘intention’ with respect to any foreseen evil ‘effect’ in the known causal chains which does not in itself advance you closer to your goal. But in doing all of that assuming, you have assumed that your act is not intrinsically immoral; which is to say, you have assumed the conclusion. Finnis does this all the time, and a lot of people take their direction from him. But he is wrong. Double-effect only applies at all <>once it has been established that the act is not intrinsically immoral<>, that is, immoral simply as a chosen behavior. If the chosen behavior is evil in itself then double effect doesn’t even apply.

  • Tony M says:

    It was my belief that at least the principle of double effect was accepted as standard moral teaching by the Church in these quarters. Unless you say otherwise, I will continue to include that as part of a working agreed starting point. If PDE is accepted, then you have to be able to describe it in terms that enable it to be used. I think that your attempt to preclude my use of it in the example is such that in practice it would never be possible to be used. Let’s take a much easier example to show what I mean: I have gangrene in my hand. The surgeon cuts off my hand to save my life. If I understand your argument properly, this is immoral, because the surgeon has permanently maimed me. Maiming someone is intrinsically evil. Or, to be even more clear: take the ectopic pregnancy case. The surgeon removes the fallopian tube which if left untouched kill the mother. He knows full well that his act will result in killing the baby. Yet this is the THE classic case the Church uses to explain when the PDE can be used. If PDE can be used here, we have to be able to explain WHY here and not in your example. The obvious difference in both examples I used above (knowingly) is that in both cases either the evil that I don’t really want even though I know it will be there (the second effect) or the evil that I am acting to prevent (the primary effect) is the death of the an individual whose death will occur relatively soon in the ordinary course of events if I do nothing (contrary to your condition 5). But the explanations of the principle of double effect NOWHERE include this as a fundamental condition for the PDE to hold. The only requirement given (in this regard) is for the intended result be proportionate to the evil of the side effect. They don’t have to be of the same type, and the side effect does not have to regard an evil which will “in the ordinary course” either happen soon, or never happen, if I don’t act. That just is not part of the stated condition for PDE. Choosing an act which will cause the death of a person is NOT intrinsically evil. We know this. You have to give more specificity to the act chosen to get to intrinsically evil. Choosing an act which will cause the death of an innocent person still is not enough. All choices to go to war in the past 5000 years have included this. Of course, this gets into your condition (2), where the person is identifiable. But this, again, is NOT part of the conditions which determine the application of PDE. You cannot make a moral act (bombing a military building which you are confident also has a few civilians – or slave laborers) into an immoral act merely because someone hands you a list of the civilians present. Can you connect your conditions to the usual or accepted criteria for PDE? I doubt it.

  • zippy says:

    <>It was my belief that at least the principle of double effect was accepted as standard moral teaching by the Church in these quarters. Unless you say otherwise, I will continue to include that as part of a working agreed starting point.<>Right. And the very first criteria in the PDE is that it doesn’t apply to intrinsically immoral acts. If an act is intrinsically immoral, then just stop right there: no appeal to the PDE can possibly be morally dispositive.<>If PDE is accepted, then you have to be able to describe it in terms that enable it to be used.<>Of course. We would both doubtless agree that, for example, an officer might order his troops to charge up a hill knowing with certainty that some of them will be killed by the enemy, and that despite this certain knowledge that their deaths will directly result from his act his act is not <>intrinsically<> immoral, and <>might<> be justified under double-effect, as long as it meets the criteria for double-effect.But if you directly and knowingly blow up an innocent little girl with a bomb in your chosen behavior, you’ve killed an innocent little girl, and the PDE doesn’t apply.I discussed the ectopic pregnancy case in the linked discussion (which prompted this post) already. Feel free to read what I wrote there and ask questions here, if you like, but I’ve been over ectopic pregnancy a great many times.

  • Tony M says:

    Well, I could not find those earlier posts. Did you in those posts connect up the standard definitions of PDE with your 5 conditions for a murder? My point is that the usual definitions of PDE talk about proportionality of the effects, not the exact correspondence of species. Would my example all of a sudden turn moral, in your eyes, if I did NOT know the identities of the civilians, only that there almost certainly were some civilians present because there generally are in such conditions? As to whether the root act is intrinsically evil to begin with: If you are correct, then virtually ALL bombs in all instances of actual use are immoral. Is that your understanding? So far as I know it is not the understanding given to us by the Church.

  • zippy says:

    <>Would my example all of a sudden turn moral, in your eyes, if I did NOT know the identities of the civilians, only that there almost certainly were some civilians present because there generally are in such conditions?<>If you aren’t knowingly killing a particular person or persons then you aren’t knowingly killing a particular person or persons. You might well be guilty of imprudence, of course.<>So far as I know it is not the understanding given to us by the Church.<>It never ceases to amaze me how confident some Catholics are that intentionally bombing innocent people is sometimes morally licit (or, equivocally, that one can directly blow the living body of a little girl to smithereens with a bomb and then with a straight face pretend that one did not intend to kill her), without any Magisterial warrant whatsoever and despite any number of Magisterial warnings about modern means of warfare.

  • Tony M says:

    OH come off of it Zippy. The Church by no means has condemned “modern methods of warfare” in the sense that there is simply NO WAY such methods can or will ever be used morally: She opposes the free, easy, a-moral use of them that indiscriminately says if they more successfully kill the enemy, then I can use them – and, not entirely co-incidentally, that such attitude becomes easier with such methods available. Zippy, in your calculus, if I see it right, there is a wide gulf between these cases: (1) I drop a bomb being morally certain that there are a few civilians in the soldiers’ barracks, but I don’t know if for a fact because I have no direct knowledge of who is there – maybe nobody at all; and (2) I drop a bomb on the barracks after having seen 2 civilians go in and not come out. By your methods, (1) may be moral (depending on what prudence says) and (2) is always wrong. What if in (2) you think the civilians are at the back of the barracks where the store-room is, and you bomb the front of the barracks with a smaller bomb that may, possibly, not kill the civilians? But what if it is likely to injure them even though it does not kill them? What if the injuries are relatively light? What if you have no clue where the civilians are, but you are relatively sure that the bomb will only destroy part of the barracks and that there is a good chance some will survive? In all of these cases, you are not knowingly killing a particular person. In fact, you do not really know that the bomb will kill anyone, and you don’t mind if it fails to kill them so much as puts them out of commission for prosecuting war. Is this now potentially moral, because you are not knowingly killing a particular person? If you say yes, your concept of prudential morality is going to be totally useless for discernment. If you say no, your distinctions become incoherent.

  • zippy says:

    <>OH come off of it Zippy. The Church by no means has condemned “modern methods of warfare” in the sense that there is simply NO WAY such methods can or will ever be used morally<>I never said or implied that the Church had done so. What I said is that the Church hasn’t granted a moral license to directly blow up little girls’ living bodies while claiming that killing them is unintentional.<>If you say yes, your concept of prudential morality is going to be totally useless for discernment. If you say no, your distinctions become incoherent.<>Yes, because either it must be morally licit to choose to directly blow up an innocent little girl with a bomb in some circumstances or Zippy is just incoherent.Thanks for playing.

  • Tony M says:

    No. Because: if yes, then there is no way to use prudence to ever discern with any morally cogent analysis on the potential levels of knowing who is there in the barracks: (a) I guess there might be some civilians; (b) there often are civilians (c) I was told there are there are always civilians there – though I don’t know if that is accurate; (d) I saw some civilians go in there a few hours ago, but I don’t know if they are still there; (e) I don’t know where the civilians are in there, but the barracks is too big to blow up all with my one bomb, and even (f) there are some guys in there in civilian clothes, but they might be soldiers coming off leave, or reservists coming on duty; and on, and on, and on forever with infinite variations. Under your understanding of morality, warfare with anything as advanced as arrows, javelins, or cannons could not possibly be moral. The point is, there is too many variations on “knowing” for your calculus to work rooted in “knowing” a specific innocent will be killed, or maimed, or temporarily injured, or scratched, or scared into defecating and embarrassing herself (none of which is just in her regards). If no: It is incoherent to say (initially) that it matters because you know precisely who is going to be the bystander innocent victim, and then to effectively reverse by saying that even when you don’t know that any one specific innocent bystander will be harmed, it is still the same evil act. I notice you don’t answer the question.

  • zippy says:

    <>No. Because: if yes, then there is no way to use prudence to ever discern with any morally cogent analysis on the potential levels of knowing who is there in the barracks<>The conditions in the definition – I suggest you re-read the post a bit more carefully – render all of these epistemic considerations moot, if your scenario actually corresponds to the proposed definition.Basically, you are changing the subject.<>I notice you don’t answer the question.<>I’m not sure what question you are referring to. I get asked many questions every day, and I don’t answer every single one of them in comprehensive detail. Perhaps if there is a question of yours I haven’t addressed it is because your question isn’t pertinent to the conditions I carefully laid out when I wrote the post.

  • djz242013 says:

    You should have linked to this in the A-bomb discussion. It’s pretty hard to disagree with this definition of murder, and at the same time it’s pretty obvious that dropping the A-bomb matches this definition. (due to the children which would knowingly be killed)

  • Zippy says:

    I forgot all about this one. Thanks for reminding me of it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading Definitions Can Be Murder at Zippy Catholic.

meta