The Splendour of Self-Contradiction
January 13, 2009 § 36 Comments
I think it is intrinsically immoral to deliberately blow up an indiscriminately mixed group of innocents and combatants with a bomb. Note the term ‘deliberately’: an accident is an accident, and when things do not go according to plans sometimes innocent people are hurt accidentally. It is possible for an accidental death to be the result of culpable negligence, of course, but even then it is quite a different matter from deliberate murder.
Furthermore, it is possible to act morally even knowing that the deaths of innocents will result from your act. I’ve given the example of attacking a group of terrorists knowing with moral certainty that the terrorists are going to kill some hostages: it may nevertheless, under the principle of double effect, be morally licit to attack. (It also may not be morally licit: but the moral liciety of the act falls to a double-effect analysis when the chosen behavior is not evil in itself).
Many people do not agree with me that it is intrinsically wrong to blow up an indiscriminately mixed group of combatants and innocents with a bomb, apart from a consideration of the reason why the choice to do so is made. I summarize their objections, as I understand them, as follows:
“It is impossible to qualify as morally evil the deliberate choice to blow a mixed group of combatants and noncombatants to bits with a bomb apart from a consideration of the intention for which the choice is made.”
This objection is problemmatic. Veritatis Splendour tells us:
One must therefore reject the thesis … which holds that it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species — its “object” — the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behaviour or specific acts, apart from a consideration of the intention for which the choice is made … .
My interlocutors insist that we can only figure out what the object of the act is by making reference to the intended end for which the choice is made; in this example the removal of the threat posed by the combatants in the mixed group.
But that can’t be right, because it would turn Veritatis Splendour into a self-refuting hash of circular reasoning. (If the position of my interlocutors was “Veritatis Splendour is bunk” then the objection would at least be consistent, if still wrong; but that is not generally the claim). If we cannot determine the object of the act without considering the intention for which the choice was made, then Veritatis Splendour is self-contradictory, with all that that implies — basically the encyclical is a meaningless jumble of words with enough apparent meaning that people can make it appear to say whatever they want it to say.
None of this conclusively establishes that I am right about the specific kind of case in question. That it is possible in some cases to qualify the choice of a specific behavior as morally evil apart from a consideration of the intention for which the choice was made doesn’t mean that in this case I have proven beyond doubt that the act is an intrinsically immoral act of murder. But what is true is that none of the objections raised so far by any interlocutor, assuming I’ve understood them, is internally consistent.
I leave you with this thought from VS:
Once the moral species of an action prohibited by a universal rule is concretely recognized, the only morally good act is that of obeying the moral law and of refraining from the action which it forbids.