Mothers, Embryos, and Hostages (Oh My)

January 12, 2009 § 21 Comments

Proposition: If further efforts to save the child are possible in principle after successfully completing procedure X, procedure X is not a direct abortion. Procedure X still may not be used with the intention of killing the child, but it may be possible to licitly use procedure X, under double-effect, to save the life of the mother.

I don’t know if I buy this myself yet, but it seems at least plausible. It has the merit of distinguishing between salpingotomy and salpingectomy in the treatment of ectopic pregnancies: it is in principle possible to save the embryo when a salpingectomy is complete and successful, and indeed some day we may have the technology to do so. It is not possible even in principle to save the embryo when a salpingotomy is complete and successful.

Thus in wartime it could possibly (though not necessarily) be licit under double-effect to choose behavior X when it remains in principle possible to save the lives of any innocents affected after X has been completed and successful. It would not be morally licit to choose behavior X when there is no such in principle possibility.

So a sniper shot at the terrorist-holding-a-hostage, where the sniper attempts to avoid hitting the hostage, would be morally licit. A bomb dropped on the terrorist-and-hostage would not be morally licit, since it is not even in principle possible to try to save the hostage after we have successfully blown her to bits with the terrorist. Obviously we can devise an infinite number of trickier cases in between (ahem). But when the successful completion of the chosen behavior in itself kills the hostage, it is not morally licit.

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§ 21 Responses to Mothers, Embryos, and Hostages (Oh My)

  • Anonymous says:

    “So a sniper shot at the terrorist-holding-a-hostage, where the sniper attempts to avoid hitting the terrorist, would be morally licit.”You mean avoid hitting the hostage.

  • Rodak says:

    “So a sniper shot at the terrorist-holding-a-hostage, where the sniper attempts to avoid hitting the hostage, would be morally licit.”Perhaps. I don’t think, however, that it would be prudent, unless it was absolutely certain that the terrorist was about to kill the hostage. It might not even be morally licit.

  • zippy says:

    Anon: Ooops, I fixed it, thx.Rodak: That is where other considerations come into play: whether the terrorist is holding a detonator about to blow up the whole world or whatever, and the reasonable expectations the sniper may have that he can hit the terrorist without hitting the hostage, etc. I certainly agree that in some hostage circumstances just killing the hostage-taker could be immoral. But in general I’ve been trying to focus on what is <>intrinsically<> immoral, not because choosing intrinsically immoral behaviors is the only way to do moral wrong, but because I am focusing on one thing at a time, in the perhaps vain hope that I can keep distinct issues from clouding the discussion of these particular issues.

  • Rodak says:

    I would say that it would be intrinsically immoral to kill a hostage-taker, except to prevent the hostage-taker killing his hostage (or somebody else), given that this killing was both imminent and quite certain. Hostage-taking, in and of itself, is not necessarily even a capital crime.

  • <>So a sniper shot at the terrorist-holding-a-hostage, where the sniper attempts to avoid hitting the hostage, would be morally licit.<>I don’t know how you can get that past Christ’s clear command “do not kill” to which he appended no allowable exceptions whatsoever.We are not allowed to do evil that good may come of it.Killing anyone is evil.God Bless

  • Rodak says:

    <>I don’t know how you can get that past Christ’s clear command “do not kill”<>Here we come up against a distinction between “murder,” which is never licit, and “homicide,” which sometimes (arguably) is.

  • Paul says:

    Zippy, it’s not clear to me what “are possible in principle” might mean in your Proposition. If it means something like “could exist, though we don’t currently have such a thing”, then someone might argue that pulling the child to pieces doesn’t count as a direct abortion, since in principle there could exist tiny little nano-robots that put the child back together quickly, before brain death sets in. That interpretation would seem an obviously bad argument.But if it means “are possible in current technology”, then one would conclude from the Proposition that salpingectomies couldn’t be right, since the child has no current practical possibility of survival. But that would contradict current teaching, and that also would be wrong.So I think the Proposition needs some clarification.(On a related note, it’s not clear to me that <><>choice<><>, has been properly factored in to various of your discussions. Both acting and failing to act are choices, and we always have to consider every failure to act as a choice that must obey the moral code in the same way that a choice to act must.)

  • zippy says:

    Briefly, I think the nano-robot conjecture is equivalent to the suggestion that if we could raise the dead then no chosen behavior could in itself, as a behavior, be murder. That might even be true, from which it would follow that no matter who or how God kills it is never murder.On the parenthetical, see the discussion of positive and negative precepts of the moral law in Veritatis Splendour. Although neither is more important than the other, they are of a fundamentally different nature.

  • e. says:

    <>Briefly, I think the nano-robot conjecture is equivalent to the suggestion that if we could raise the dead then no chosen behavior could in itself, as a behavior, be murder.<>This is flat-out wrong, Zippy, and I cannot believe that you, most of all, would draw such a conclusion.The chosen behaviour regardless would be that of murder and, therefore, wrong and evil.The person chose to kill an innocent purpose.It makes no difference that the victim could be helped by modern medical technology.I remain completely aghast at your comments here.

  • e. says:

    corrigendum:“The person chose to kill an innocent [person] on purpose.”

  • zippy says:

    e: The point (which I made – or perhaps failed to make – tersely, because I was posting from my iPhone) was that the nano-robot thing is making a metaphysical claim, or really a whole host of metaphysical claims, which amount to the claim that if we could literally raise the dead at will, no behavior has the ‘finality’ necessary to be able to establish that as a moral matter, under the rule I proposed, it is intrinsically a killing behavior. In order for the nano-robot thing to work (in the argument) we would have to be able to kill a person by ripping her body to pieces and then re-constitute that person by putting the pieces back together again, re-animating the body, and re-uniting it with the person’s immortal soul. There are vast swaths of nontrivial metpahysical claims in here – kind of like the kind which go unstated in the use of transporter beams in shows/movies like Star Trek.The purpose of my efforts here is (as I mentioned to Lydia in the above thread) to establish by example merely that <>there exist<> chosen killing-the-innocent behaviors which are always evil completely independent of the reason why those behaviors were chosen. No physicalist account of cause and effect carefully layered over just what we want to say we “intend” can justify deliberately tearing the living body of an innocent person into a million pieces, because doing so in itself, independent of any evaluation of the reasons why one chooses to do it, is intrinsically a killing behavior. I’m trying to look at a particular class of behaviors which is inside the space of all intrinsically killing behaviors; there may well be others which we can define, to be sure, and in any case to <>intend<> to kill the innocent is always wrong no matter how that intention is embodied in a human act. But if we can establish the existence of this class of always wrong killing-the-innocent behaviors – and I think we can – then we’ve demonstrated that just as with sexual ethics there are certain behaviors -qua- behaviors, entirely independent of the reasons why they are chosen, which are always wrong to choose. And that is the pinprick in the balloon that Bill Luse colorfully calls the ‘dictatorship of intention’.

  • Paul says:

    Zippy, As to “intention”, it is not clear to me how you interpret the difference between direct intention and indirect intention. There would indeed be a “dictatorship of intention” if there was no way of distinguishing between the two. But, for example, both Humanae Vitae and Veritatis Splendor indicate that there <><>is<><> such a thing as direct intention. And it is easy to fit the idea of indirect intention into the principle of double effect — in the way that it has been used over the centuries — because that’s exactly where the idea of “indirect intention” came from. Nothing in those encyclicals, or anything subsequent, gives the slightest clue that double effect has been contradicted.

  • William Luse says:

    What’s an “indirect intention”? Something you intended but not directly? Obliquely? Something you intended but your heart wasn’t in it? Help me out.

  • zippy says:

    Bill:As far as I can tell, some folks use the term “indirect intention” to refer to “indirect voluntary” effects, like my men being killed by the enemy after I order them into the breach. I am not aware of the Magisterium ever using the term – the Magisterium does say “directly intended” in a number of places to distinguish the intended from the indirect voluntary – but in any event there are only the two categories, the intended and the indirect voluntary. By claiming that anything evil which is intrinsic to the behavior is “indirectly intended” we can beg the question of double-effect, so it seems like a pretty useful polemical tool.

  • Rodak says:

    Here you go, Bill:“In some cases, it is necessary to distinguish between what one directly intends and what is indirectly intended in the performance of a particular action. Such cases arise when a particular action has two inseparable consequences. A direct intention is that which the agent would choose as the desired object of the action, which also constitutes the essential or proximate intention of the act. An <>indirect intention<> is a circumstantial intention that the agent would not consider as the immediately desired result of an action, but as an inevitable and unavoidable consequence of choosing the means to the desired result. Thus, an indirectly intended bad consequence would be a foreseen and merely tolerated effect of the action but not the ultimate reason for performing the action. The undesirable effect is in a certain sense intended, since one still chooses the means, i.e., performs the action, but it is only indirectly intended since it would have been avoided if possible. This understanding of direct and indirect intent is an essential element of the principle of double effect.” [emphasis added]http://www.ascensionhealth.org/ethics/public/issues/intention.asp

  • William Luse says:

    <>An indirect intention is a circumstantial intention that the agent would not consider as the immediately desired result of an action<>Sounds like more wishful thinking to me. Now let me go see if I’ve accused the Magisterium of wishful thinking.

  • William Luse says:

    First of all, the link didn’t work. Here is the correct one: http://www.ascensionhealth.org/ethics/public/issues/intention.aspSecondly, ‘indirectly intended’ is being used in the same sense as ‘circumstantial intention’, which makes this paragraph important: <>Circumstantial intentions are those further ends that are chosen in addition to the essential or proximate end of the action. Because such ends are not essential to the act, circumstantial intentions can only increase or decrease the moral goodness of an <>already morally good act<>, but <>they cannot determine the moral species (i.e., essential moral character) of the act<>.<>In other words, the concept doesn’t apply to intrinsically immoral acts (such as blowing up a mixed crowd of combatants and innocents). The linked document is not magisterial, just somebody’s elucidation, though offhand I see nothing to quarrel with. It’s simply not relevant.Okay, Rodak, this is hard for me but thanks for looking it up.

  • Rodak says:

    Bill–The whole (working) link is there if you click on the title of the thread and view the comments there.

  • Rodak says:

    And, Bill–you’re welcome. (I hope that it will be easier, next time.)

  • William Luse says:

    I just noticed that the link I copied isn’t the one I copied. It came out looking like yours. It should have a .asp on the end. It’s beyond me.

  • William Luse says:

    Ok, I’ve got it now.

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