On Assumed Transitivity and Proof By Counterexample
January 22, 2009 § 125 Comments
There is a whole way of thinking about the morality of human acts which, while very popular, and certainly seductive to the modern mind, is in my view fundamentally flawed. I alluded to it, citing the Magisterium, in this post; but I hope in the present post to make my objection to this way of thinking at least somewhat more explicit.
Suppose I claim that blowing up an infant-and-terrorist with a bomb is an instance of intrinsically immoral murder, that is, deliberate killing of the innocent. I claim this because of two properties pertaining to the particular chosen behavior: first, that an infant is unquestionably innocent in the morally pertinent sense; second, that deliberately choosing to blow that infant to bits with a bomb is intrinsically a killing behavior. So choosing that kind of behavior always is, in its species, an instance of intentionally killing the innocent. Therefore it is always and without exception morally wrong to choose that specific kind of behavior: to deliberately blow up an innocent with a bomb. It is always immoral independent of who else we are also choosing to blow up with our bomb.
The response I very typically get, in addition to question-begging application of the principle of double-effect, is for folks to start peppering me with different scenarios, where different concrete facts obtain. The view seems to be that if different scenarios are more difficult or puzzling that that somehow casts doubt on the moral species of this scenario; that doubt or confusion about other scenarios, or even a definite conclusion that some other act is licit, constitutes a proof by counterexample against the particular case I am discussing.
But I think this entire method is flawed, because it assumes that human acts are a kind of abstraction to which we can apply the property of transitivity, and in particular it assumes that transitivity applies in precisely the manner in which the critic is attempting to apply it. But there is no reason to think that. Shooting that hostage in that leg when precisely those facts obtain may or may not be intrinsically a killing or maiming behavior; but that in no sense casts any doubt whatsoever upon the fact that blowing an infant to bits with a bomb is intrinsically an innocent-killing behavior, and thus always impermissible. If the behavior is intrinsically an innocent-killing behavior, then choosing it is to choose an act which is intrinsically immoral:
[T]he negative moral precepts, those prohibiting certain concrete actions or kinds of behaviour as intrinsically evil, do not allow for any legitimate exception. They do not leave room, in any morally acceptable way, for the “creativity” of any contrary determination whatsoever. 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.
The shuffling around of scenarios under an assumed abstract transitivity applied to acts where the concrete facts are fundamentally different may have some rhetorical appeal to the modern scientific mindset — after all, the scientific approach is all about making very general abstract laws and repeating experiments consistent with those laws. But I don’t think abstract transitivity applies to moral questions, at least not in the way so many people attempt to apply it. And while I can’t claim that the Magisterium has condemned this particular approach explicitly, there are many strong hints that it misses the point: that a correct understanding of morality involves grasping what is intrinsic to choosing particular concrete actions or behaviors, not applying transitivity to verbal abstractions.