I wrote this post on purpose

August 7, 2012 § 20 Comments

It is always immoral to deliberately kill the innocent, even in prosecuting a just war. Shorthand for “innocent” is “anyone not choosing to engage in combat or combat support actions”. At a minimum, the unborn and small children actually killed deliberately by Little Boy and Fat Man were innocent in the pertinent sense.

The fact that it is possible to enter and conduct a war justly does not imply that it is morally ok to do evil during a war. It is never ok to do evil. That is what “evil” means.

The difference between anticipating that innocents will be killed by accident in a just war and a supposed moral license to kill them deliberately is the same as the difference between anticipating that innocents will be killed by accident on the freeway and a supposed moral license to go run them over on purpose. It isn’t a difficult distinction: it is one every child knows intuitively. When weapons fire kills innocents by going astray from its target, or because it was not known that innocents were at the target, that is an accident. When weapons fire hits it’s target, a target known to include innocents in the morally pertinent sense, that is on purpose.

Only when the work of attempting to justify slaughtering civilians on purpose in war comes up does the distinction between foreseen-but-accidental and on purpose become so befuddling.

(This post brought to you by the committee to enable Zippy to link to a post rather than rewriting the same bloody thing over and over again to endlessly befuddled commenters in comboxes around the web).


§ 20 Responses to I wrote this post on purpose

  • William Luse says:

    If you’re responding to what I think you are, your commenter’s essential position was probably revealed when he said this: “Bringing the US war in the Pacific to a successful close is not an intrinsically immoral act in my opinion. Certain ways to do so may be intrinsically immoral but that does not taint the enterprise. There’s always an intrinsically moral option to any significant enterprise that big. Your limit does not apply unless you disagree and categorically think that the US winning WW II was intrinsically immoral. Do you hold that position?”

    In other words, the intrinsic immorality of an act gets swallowed up by the overall goodness of the enterprise. To what degree that goodness vitiates the immorality I don’t know. I’d have to be willing to subject myself to more lengthy sophistry (of the bad kind) about “rigorous consideration” to even begin to get a clue. What I do know is that if it is correct to any degree whatsoever, there is no point to evaluating individual acts. As in, it may be wrong to rape my wife now and then, but on the whole it’s not so bad since I never have sex with anyone else and will be faithful to her unto death.

  • I wrote this post after saying more or less the same thing several times to several commenters at Shea’s. It wasn’t a response to anything here in particular.

    I do think that quote is interesting as an expression of a very modern American cultural attitude: “There’s always an intrinsically moral option to any significant enterprise that big.”

    In other words, it is simply impossible – because of the scale of the situation, of all things – to be left with no morally licit option to achieve “success”, however “success” is defined. In the age of Star Trek and the Kobayashi Maru, there is never any such thing as a no-win scenario.

    Kind of contrasts with a line Brad Pitt delivered in some other movie, where he played an Irish terrorist: something to the effect that you can’t expect a happy ending because it was an Irish story, not an American one.

  • Mark P. Shea says:

    Wait! Slow down! I’m sooooo confused! Are you saying that you can’t fire your bullet through the babe in arms to kill the kidnapper who is holding him? But doesn’t that mean that all kidnappers everywhere are empowered by your cowardice? And if the kidnapper has Asian features, aren’t you thereby saying that they are more important than potential future American babies who may someday die if you don’t fire your bullet through the (regrettably real) baby who, really, *you* aren’t shooting because you are really shooting the guy holding the baby? What are you really saying? What do you mean? You are so baffling and confusing! Please repeat what you are saying in a hundred different ways until I can find some infelicitious phrasing that will allow me to feel comfortable with shooting through babies in order to kill bad guys.

  • William Luse says:

    In other words, it is simply impossible – because of the scale of the situation, of all things – to be left with no morally licit option to achieve “success”

    Lydia mentioned that to me once. I asked her why people insisted on constructing such painfully tortured rationalizations for doing evil – but which seem to them exemplars of self-evident moral worth – and it was her opinion that people simply can’t accept the possibility that sometimes there’s nothing you can do. Even if doing nothing does not mean losing, the idea that, on this particular occasion, my hands are tied, is intolerable. And apparently the worse the consequences of doing nothing are, the more intolerable it becomes.

  • Tom K. says:

    In defense of the quotation, I read it as saying that: 1) an intention like winning a war has a myriad of possible means; 2) that some of those means may be evil does not make the intention evil; 3) there will be means that are not evil.

    My one objection to the above is that there’s no guarantee good means (e.g., praying for the enemy’s general staff to turn Franciscan) will have more than a negligible chance of success.

    I haven’t seen TMLutas argue for evil means. I’ve seen him argue against evil means. I’ve also seen him argue for dealing with the fact that evil means exist, because people who want to choose means irrespective of morality exist.

  • Scott W. says:

    Well there are times when I almost get where he is coming from. It’s gonna require plenty of patience however to clear the dead wood such as his characterization of anti-nukers as wanting more dead people. This is little different than the “Vote GOP or the babies get it!” or that if I refuse to torture the terrorist, then I am morally culpable for all the deaths from his ticking time-bomb; which inevitably leads to the characterization that the non-torturer is egotisically more concerned with his own purity than other humans. It’s gratuitously inflammatory and doesn’t help if you are trying to get people to listen to you.

    Another thing is the “you smell a rotten egg, so lay a good one!” objection which is manifested in the characterization of anti-nukers as afraid to look squarely at the consequences of being the Ethical Party of “No” so to speak. I believe Zippy even had a specific post about this. That because he defines the boundaries of morally acceptable acts, that doesn’t put a burden on him to provide working modles of acceptable alternatives within those boundaries. Now I think I understand his consternation that a deontologist in a leader’s cabinet that doesn’t lay out all alternatives be they good or evil will be regarded as unprofessional and shown the door, leaving the consequentialists to advocate nuking them till they glow. I understand it, but I think it is a foggy rabbit trail.

    Finally, although I dont’ want to come off as a know-it-all as I’m not formally trained in ethics, breaking down moral questions into Act, Intention, and Consequences is Ethics 101, so when I hear, “Bringing the US war in the Pacific to a successful close is not an intrinsically immoral act in my opinion” it tells me we’ve got alot of preliminary work to do.

  • Article in Crisis today about the topic. Seems like the usual “this needs to be considered by double effect because the Church hasn’t explicitly said that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were intrinsically immoral.”


  • Zippy says:


    The one thing you can count on when it comes to rationalizing mass murder is the endless zombie invasion of embarrassingly bad arguments.

  • Zippy:

    Yes; just caught me off guard that the bad arguments were coming from Deacon Jim Russel, who is usually very good.

  • His argument is a bit more nuanced than I let on in my first comment, but its clear that he doesn’t think the bombings were directly killing innocent lives, which to me seems obviously wrong.

  • Zippy says:


    The “reverse double effect” argument is a favorite among moral rationalizers: as long as the good guys are doing it for good reasons, and show long faced regret that it was necessary, it can’t be intrinsically immoral.

    The author of that piece at Crisis used that approach here on the subject of lying and scandal. I’m virtually certain that I’ve argued with him about Hiroshima / Nagasaki at Mark Shea’s old blog. He repeats the same old canards in that article which have been endlessly refuted.

    The important thing is that the door remains open: that we cannot definitely conclude that mass murder which takes this particular form is always and unambiguously wrong.

    Weaponized ambiguity.

  • TomD says:

    It’s often bad logic – it was good for the West to win the war, the war was won by dropping nukes, therefore nuke dropping must be moral.

    Also the left is against nuke dropping so it must be a great good somehow. Or something.

  • Zippy:

    It seems that Deacon Russell has more difficulty than I realized with some issues. Criticizing the methods of the good guys fighting evil in a world which celebrates evil is indeed a thankless job.

    I know that he does a lot of work with theology of the body, and while I think the personality approach to morality is helpful with figuring out how we ought to treat others in the mundane and daily actions of our lives, it seems to be an inhibition when discussing moral matters such as the bombings or pro-life sting operations. In those issues it seems that the issues get too personalized to evaluate objectively.

  • Upon reflection on the article and the comments, it seems that (at least part of) his argument is that the bombing isn’t a direct killing of the innocent because the target of the bomb was some key military structure; he compared it to the removal of the Fallopian tube during an ectopic pregnancy.

    Saying that only part of what we know the bomb is going to destroy is the direct target, and the rest (which we know will be destroyed by dropping g this particular bomb on that particular place) is not directly targeted by the bomb. I remember a discussion at W4 that compared shooting down a plane to an ectopic pregnancy, but I don’t think the comparison is apt with respect to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bomb.

  • Zippy says:


    In my view that is just the sort of rationalizing that gives casuistry a bad name. Deliberately exploding a bomb when innocent people are known to be in the blast radius is just murder, plain and simple.

    The discussion you are remembering is here:


  • Zippy says:

    The target of the Nagasaki bomb was the Cathedral spire. It might as well have been the Blessed Sacrament itself.

  • Scott W. says:

    Might could use a catalog of failed arguments for The Bomb like the one for waterboarding:

    1. The Bomb ended the war. — consequentialism
    2. The Bomb saved many more lives than killed. — Begging the question and even if true, proportionalism.
    3. There have been no major world wars since — post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, consequentialism.
    4. Soldiers and Marines who would of been part of the mainland invasion are grateful for The Bomb — irrelevant non sequitur.
    4a. “I might not have even been born if my father/grandfather had died in the invasion.” — same as 4, consequentialism.
    5. It was Total War: there are no civilians/non-combatants/innocents. — false moral equivalence, omitting needed premise, (See Brandon’s refutation here), special pleading (see the “TheOFloinn” comment in same combox).
    6. The church was a landmark, not the target — make believe.

  • Scott W. says:

    P.S. I can’t believe I forgot the one that turns up in just about every discussion:

    7. Opponents of dropping The Bomb are pacifists/bleeding hearts/liberals/moral preening/etc. — ad hominem, raving non sequitur, and rash judgement.

  • Zippy says:

    Scott W:

    In general there is just a lot of resistance to morally evaluating means in their own right, independent of ends — not in the strawman sense that good ends never justify any means at all, but in the not-kindergarten-logic sense that good ends don’t justify evil means.

    If we accept the premise that good ends don’t justify evil means it follows that we must be able to morally evaluate means in themselves, independent of ends, and reject those means which are morally evil. It further follows that we can’t start with the principle of double effect and reason our way backward from the good end to conclude that the chosen means is not evil. Means must always, first, and foremost be evaluated morally in themselves, independent of ends.

    And this is a logic-bullet that most people just aren’t willing to bite.

  • King Richard says:

    My instructor of moral theology said the same thing (largely) in reverse. his statement was that the concept of separating ends from means and from motives is impossible: shooting a man out of malice is ontologically one thing. Trying to say that the act of squeezing the trigger is somehow truly distinct from the fact of the bullet entering the man’s body is incoherent.
    He specifically mentioned the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo and the use of nuclear weapons on Japan and stated his belief that people actually ‘hid from the logic’ with scale. He would ask this way [paraphrase],
    “There is a one room community hall; it has old men, women, children, a nun, and a man who works in a factory that manufactures bullets for the green army. A purple army sends a soldier with a grenade and orders him to sneak through enemy lines and toss the grenade into the bunker. Since the nun is sitting in the center of the room, he is told to throw the grenade at her to maximize the power of the grenade.
    This is, essentially, what happened in Japan. When you explain it on the scale of, oh, 20 people in a room and describe how the grenade was thrown at the nun to maximize the death people seem to grasp it more clearly than when you speak of tens of thousands of people and a church.”

    I have used this description and it does seem to be able to show people the moral issues.

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