Surgical Strikes

August 19, 2012 § 39 Comments

And Jesus calling unto him a little child, set him in the midst of them, And said: Amen I say to you, unless you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 18:2-3

I’ve talked before about the difference between an acting person knowing what he is doing and that same acting person wishing he didn’t have to do what he is doing in order to accomplish his goal.  As with the difference between accident and on purpose, this is something that a small child understands very well: it takes an adult with an agenda and a fear of foreseen implications to really grind it into obscurity.

A little review:

Every human act consists of object, intentions, and circumstances.   All three must be good for a human act to be good.  Any one of object, intentions, or circumstances can render an act evil:

But on what does the moral assessment of man’s free acts depend? What is it that ensures this ordering of human acts to God? Is it the intention of the acting subject, the circumstances — and in particular the consequences — of his action, or the object itself of his act? …

… Certainly there is need to take into account both the intention — as Jesus forcefully insisted in clear disagreement with the scribes and Pharisees, who prescribed in great detail certain outward practices without paying attention to the heart (cf. Mk 7:20-21; Mt 15:19) — and the goods obtained and the evils avoided as a result of a particular act. Responsibility demands as much. But the consideration of these consequences, and also of intentions, is not sufficient for judging the moral quality of a concrete choice. The weighing of the goods and evils foreseeable as the consequence of an action is not an adequate method for determining whether the choice of that concrete kind of behaviour is “according to its species”, or “in itself”, morally good or bad, licit or illicit. The foreseeable consequences are part of those circumstances of the act, which, while capable of lessening the gravity of an evil act, nonetheless cannot alter its moral species.

Of course, in order for any of that to make sense we have to know what the words mean; and the most notoriously tricky of those words is the word object.  The Church tells us that a lot of bad moral theory stems from “an inadequate understanding of the object of moral action”; so if we want to make sense of things, we’ve got to get that part right:

The morality of the human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the “object” rationally chosen by the deliberate will, as is borne out by the insightful analysis, still valid today, made by Saint Thomas. In order to be able to grasp the object of an act which specifies that act morally, it is therefore necessary to place oneself in the perspective of the acting person. The object of the act of willing is in fact a freely chosen kind of behaviour.

The reason we use the term “object” to refer to an aspect of human acts distinct from intentions is that (at least according to the Magisterium of the Church) intentions refer to a subjective aspect of the act – what desirable consequences one wants, subjectively, to flow from one’s act – while  the object refers to an objective aspect of the act: the chosen action or behaviour of the acting subject.

All three aspects must be good — the objective act, the subjective intention, and the circumstances — in order to have a morally good act.

Now, because the acting person is a person, a unity of body and soul, the ‘subjective’ or personal aspect cannot be abstracted away without abstracting away from the action as a human act.  This is where the distinction between knowledge and intentions comes into play.   We cannot be morally responsible for choosing an objective behaviour unless we are, in our own will, actually choosing it.  In order to choose a behaviour, we have to actually know what we are doing.

So the classic “accidentally sleeping with your wife’s identical twin” pose doesn’t apply, and charges of physicalism miss the mark.  A man who accidentally sleeps with his wife’s twin, by the definition of the problem (and setting aside practical matters for the sake of gedankenexperiment), does not know that he is sleeping with his wife’s identical twin.  You have to place yourself into the perspective of the acting subject in order to know what behaviour he is actually choosing, and the behaviour he is actually choosing is not adultery.

Rather, that object is the proximate end of a deliberate decision which determines the act of willing on the part of the acting person. Consequently, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “there are certain specific kinds of behaviour that are always wrong to choose, because choosing them involves a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil”.

And that is just what behaviour is: the proximate end of a deliberate decision.  It is the actual object of choice, the thing we actually choose to do, regardless of the reasons why we do it (our intentions) or the circumstances surrounding our act (circumstances which include the totality of consequences we expect to flow from the act).  If any of those three – object, intentions, or circumstances – are contrary to the moral law, the act is evil.

So a lot of things that pose as moral dilemmas in Internet discussions and elsewhere really aren’t.  There isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with cutting into a human being’s body with a knife, such that all behaviours which fall under that description are immoral.  The behaviour chosen by a surgeon with a scalpel is radically different from the behaviour chosen by a murderer with a knife.  If a surgeon’s patient accidentally dies while under the knife, there is still no ambiguity in the behaviours he is choosing versus the behaviours chosen by a knife-wielding murderer.  Even a clever murderer posing as a surgeon is choosing a very different behaviour from a real surgeon: what is literally an accident for the real surgeon is on purpose for the murderer, and the actual behaviours being chosen from one moment to the next are radically different despite any superficial similarity to a third party observer.

One reason children understand morality and adults don’t is that by the time we’ve reached adulthood, we’ve come up with all sorts of ways of rationalizing doing what we want to do – and possibly are terrified of not doing – rather than doing what is right and trusting that God will sort it out.  “Don’t kill them all, and let God sort it out” is a leap of faith we aren’t willing to take. We understand consequences a lot better than children, and those consequences are often dire. We feel helpless when the moral law does not allow us to take evil actions, to engage in evil behaviours, even when the evil strikes us as quite inconsequential and the consequences of failing to choose the evil action are quite large.

That, finally, is why we see “rationalization hamsters” on steroids conflating the term “object” with an acting subject’s intentions, completely tone-deaf to the fact that “object” – certainly according to Magisterial texts cited in this post – refers to objective concrete behaviors or actions, not subjective intentions.  That is why we see widespread question-begging overuse of the principle of double-effect in situations where it has not even been established that it applies.  That is why we are subjected to endless peppering with “what if” scenarios that are supposed to make us give up our “childlike” rejection of evil behaviours.

We just can’t accept it that the moral requirement never to kill the innocent means, yes, that we must not bomb civilians, period, and we must not abort the unborn, period, no matter what is at stake in terms of consequences.

§ 39 Responses to Surgical Strikes

  • William Luse says:

    I don’t know if this is the clearest you’ve ever made it, but it’s so damn clear I’m adding it my little library of expositions on the subject.

  • johnmcg says:

    I guess you were at Mass on Saturday morning? (:-)

    I think that passage should be at the top of every combox discussion of how Catholics act in the world.

  • Cane Caldo says:

    There isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with cutting into a human being’s body with a knife, such that all behaviours which fall under that description are immoral.

    They do leave scars, though, don’t they?

  • Scott W. says:

    They do leave scars, though, don’t they?

    Yes. This would be an example of a bad effect, but not a bad act.

  • Some scars are living trophies of battles won.

  • slumlord says:

    Ok. I’ve taken the bait.

    I’m only here because I don’t want you to lead other people astray.

    You know you’re wrong on this one.

    I’d think it would be safe to say that Farther Hardon would disagree with you.

  • Someone disagrees with me?

    There’s a shock.

    But I’m right on this one, and I’ve supported it not with private opinion pieces but with Magisterial documents.

  • William Luse says:

    SP, I was actually honored to share a brief acquaintance with Father Hardon, and he was also the very close friend of the Jesuit who brought me into the church. At first meeting his goodness, perhaps holiness, shone forth, and I’ve kept his catechism close by for over 30 years. But holiness is no guarantor that a man will be correct about everything, and I’m sorry to say that the examples he uses in the The Catholic Catechism to illustrate the PDE are wrong. I didn’t understand this until many years after first reading it, but better late than never.

  • Scott W. says:

    What is it with people wanting a license to kill children?

  • Scott W. says:

    P.S. If I recall correctly, you have already had a post discussing when people try to move a governing feature of a chosen act into the category of circumstances. That is, a captain pretending that he is only choosing to torpedo a vessel is like someone is choosing the morally neutral act of stepping on the gas pedal with the intention of making his meeting on time and achieving the good effect of making it on time and the bad effect of running over grandma.

  • Mike T says:


    But I’m right on this one, and I’ve supported it not with private opinion pieces but with Magisterial documents.

    Well, perhaps you ought to write a blog post or two using 4G warfare and these teachings to show how a country like Israel can morally defend itself from an enemy that exploits civilians as human shields. As it currently stands, I’ve never seen you do that. Your argument seemed to be along the lines of it somehow being different when IDF troops engage Hamas fighters in civilian-rich urban zones where civilian deaths are so obviously going to happen as a result of IDF troops engaging Hamas where Hamas is willing to fight that one cannot even possibly claim they were avoidable from the armed engagement.

    [Please use “i” rather than “blockquote” – Z]

  • William Luse says:

    We had a long discussion about that at W4, Mike, dealing with Israel in particular. I just can’t remember which post it was or whose.

  • William Luse says:

    I think I found it, except that I haven’t. It’s called “Mars and Venus sitting in a tree,” with 345 comments. Neither the post nor the comments are available. All you get is a 404 error, even thought the post shows up on its archive page. But if you try to “continue reading” or click the comments – nothing. This is also true of many other posts at W4, including Feser’s “Happy Consequentialism Day.” I’ve written Todd about it, who said the posts are there but don’t display because “of a bug in Movable Type.” I’m hoping there’s something that can be done about it. Waiting to hear back. Meanwhile, Mars and Venus is available here at Zippy’s, but with only 9 comments. The real conversation took place at W4, during the time of the Israeli incursion into Lebanon in response (as I recall) to rocket attacks by Hezbollah and the killing of an Israeli border guard.

  • William Luse says:

    What is it with people wanting a license to kill children?

    Scott, can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked myself that. Don’t have an answer.

  • Paul J Cella says:

    Bill — unfortunately we’ve had lots of database and archive problems at W4 recently. Mostly invisible to the casual reader, these become readily apparent when you try to search older stuff. It’s a known issue, but as you know, Todd actually works for a living and the fix will have to wait until that work settles down some.

  • Mike T says:

    [Again, please don’t use the “blockquote” tag. It doesn’t work here. Thanks. – Z]

    I’ve written Todd about it, who said the posts are there but don’t display because “of a bug in Movable Type.”

    It appears that W4 uses dynamic publishing within Movable Type. Movable Type’s dynamic publishing system was widely reviled by its developer community until version 5.X when the Japanese team really got a chance to put their mark on Movable Type. Even now, with its history of being barely a red-headed step child, it’s oft considered with suspicion and distrust by long time users. Switching back to static publishing (MT’s core strength) would likely resolve all of that. It would be slower on some of the bigger posts, but slow and “actually works” typically trumps “fast and unreliable.”


    We had a long discussion about that at W4, Mike, dealing with Israel in particular. I just can’t remember which post it was or whose.

    I do recall that. What I didn’t recall (and don’t have the time to validate) is that Zippy actually laid out a realistic framework in which a nation state can morally defend itself against a non-state actor committed to victory at all costs and who uses methods like using civilians for cover as a core strategy. I seem to recall him saying it was simply not realistic to think that an enemy would use civilian targets and shields to such an extent in their war planning that one could not effectively target them without knowing in advance they would be directly murdering civilians as a consequence of engaging the militants using those civilians and their property as shields. [I don’t recall saying anything like that. – Z]

    Personally, I’d laugh if the Russians filled their long-range nuclear bombers with orphans so that “nonconsequentialists” could not morally target them without intending the deaths of the civilians inside. But then, I have a dark sense of humor.

  • The thread comes up fine for me at this link.

  • Mike T says:

    I think you said that in you original argument:

    The moral reality is more difficult than either would like to concede. If I use a modern weapon to indiscriminately blow up a whole group of people, some of whom I know are innocent and some of whom are terrorists, the deaths of the innocents are not an accident. I killed them on purpose, precisely because they got in the way, and the technical capabilities of my weapon did not allow me to kill the terrorists without killing the civilians. On the other hand it is not merely permissible but noble and valiant for me to risk death and kill the terrorist himself, to defend the innocent from him. If I drop a smart bomb on his safe house, to the best of my knowledge clear of innocents, that is, clear of individuals who are not engaged in attacking behaviors, then I have done a good and noble deed. If my smart bomb misfires and kills some civilians, it is indeed an accident: the attack did not go according to my plans, and innocents were killed. There is such a thing as morally licit collateral damage.

    If my plans for this specific attack entail killing some specific identifiable civilians, even if I wish I could make different plans which did not entail killing those particular civilians, then what I am planning is murder.

    Correct me, then, on my musing about the Russian Air Force putting orphans in their nuclear bombers and using them as human shields during a first strike on the US. By my reading of your argument, if the Russians let it be known that they are filling up their bombers with dozens of innocent orphans prior to their first strike on the US, your intentional attacks on the Russian planes will be murder if they destroy the plane while you know there are innocents held hostage on board. Thus the “right thing to do” would be to let them fly into our air space and pray that their equipment fails to deploy nuclear weapons on our population centers.

    I know this is an “absurd scenario.” I propose it merely as a way of saying that assuming all Americans embraced your interpretations of moral logic, how could you defend against an enemy who specifically intends to exploit this?

    Or to use the Israeli analogy, if Hamas turned newborn Palestinian babies into flack jackets, how would Israeli troops be able to morally defend themselves?

  • I know this is an “absurd scenario.” I propose it merely as a way of saying that assuming all Americans embraced your interpretations of moral logic, how could you defend against an enemy who specifically intends to exploit this?

    We discussed basically that same scenario ad nauseum in the Ectopic Airliners thread.

    Or to use the Israeli analogy, if Hamas turned newborn Palestinian babies into flack jackets, how would Israeli troops be able to morally defend themselves?

    Try for head shots. Be willing to lose rather than kill the innocent. (Basically “try for a head shot but don’t deliberately kill the hostage” summarizes the situation for any such scenario).

    Of course it is hard to say a priori how much support an army willing to do that sort of thing would get from its own people, how willing soldiers would be to go along with strapping babies onto themselves or loading hostages into their bombers, etc. I tend to think that for the most part only isolated terrorists can get away with these things. We have Auschwitz as a potential counterexample, I suppose, but even the Nazis didn’t hide offensive gun positions there. I tend to think that terrorists can get away with this sort of thing where armies cannot, because terrorists are far less dependent on the good will or at least acquiescence of the local population. But that could be wrong, in principle: maybe an army of millions would be actually willing to strap babies to their packs without being torn to pieces by their own people.

    At one level you are just asking “what is a Christian to do in the face of totally depraved evil?”

    The answer, I’m afraid, is that we still shouldn’t do evil ourselves, even though doing evil in fact in some instances does provide potentially life-saving[*] tactical advantage.

    [*] Taken either as a utilitarian net or as a “better their innocents than ours” type of calculation; and in a true doomsday scenario, possibly even an “everyone dies or only some of us die” scenario.

  • Scott W. says:

    Try for head shots. Be willing to lose rather than kill the innocent. (Basically “try for a head shot but don’t deliberately kill the hostage” summarizes the situation for any such scenario).

    Mark Bowden’s book, “Black Hawk Down” describes this exact scenario in the Battle of Mogudishu. Warlord henchmen would have kids clinging to them in the fight reasoning that Americans wouldn’t shoot. I’d need to go back and read to confirm, but to the best of my recollection, the Rangers took care to aim at the beligerent and not the children and I don’t remember any testimony that they just indifferently shot through the children. This was left out of the movie (or at least only obliquely alluded to in the scene with the AK-toting child), presumably that it was too inflammatory to portray Ethopians as willing to use children as shields.

    On the lighter side, I played the video game “L.A. Noire” in which your detective character would encounter a criminal with a gun pointed at a hostage. If you shot the hostage, you failed the mission. If you missed and the perp shot him, you failed. Funny how Rockstar Games, which gloried in criminal violence (Grand Theft Auto series) seems to have a better moral center than many of 27-ninjas scenario spinners we often have to deal with.

  • William Luse says:

    The thread comes up fine for you, Zippy, because today (yesterday by now) Todd fixed it. A lot of other unavailable threads are now ready as well. He “moved away the html.static file for each entry.” Cool, huh?

    [Go Todd!]

  • William Luse says:

    Mike T, I’m a little surprised at your resistance to Zippy’s reasoning, since you once supported me on a W4 thread (remember the one about removing the cancerous uterus of a pregnant woman, and Foxfier’s watertight doors scenario?) questioning whether these scenarios were a proper use of double effect or in fact intrinsic evils to which PDE could not apply. It is true that in the Mars and Venus thread you were a flat-out consequentialist, but based on the later thread I thought that maybe your thoughts had evolved.

  • Mike T says:

    William, the point I am trying to make isn’t in favor of shooting through kids. I think Zippy is wrong on some of his arguments where he attempts to mitigate the brutality of his nonconsequentialist ethic by making claims like “causing a direct abortion is murder, but cutting out the fallopian tube is a-ok.”

    I disagree with that. That is complete and utter bovine excrement in my opinion. You cannot take an action which you know will lead to an “unjust” death and claim no participation in it. The doctor murdered the child the moment the fallopian tubes were removed. This is the sort of philosophical parsing which drove Paul up the wall when dealing with the Athenians. Only a philosopher would get so caught up in pure logic to see that either way your intended actions lead to the death of an innocent. Adding another step to how you do it does not mitigation make.

    What I find ironic and even a bit hilarious is that it is actually the consequentialism of ordinary leaders which keeps us safe. The Russians would never load up long range bombers with kidnapped orphans because they know that even our best family men in the Air Force would not lose a wink of sleep if they had to choose between a few hundred orphans and the nuclear immolation of millions of civilians. To ordinary people, with their flawed sense of right and wrong, that isn’t even a trade off.

    I’m not saying it’s right, I’m saying that Zippy either needs to own up to just how few his options would be or formulate a credible framework for engaging such men.

  • Scott W. says:

    Actually, going back through the ectopic arlines post, I don’t see where Zippy made the argument that “causing a direct abortion is murder, but cutting out the fallopian tube is a-ok.”

    Rather Zippy’s whole point has been to refute the idea that there are only two choices in hard cases: do evil or just sit on your hands while something evil happens.

  • When referring to and characterizing my arguments, it is crucial to reference what I actually said. The most effective way is to link to or quote what I actually said.

    Arguing against a ‘generic’ position is different of course. There are times when someone has argued against a generic position and I’ve recognized myself in it, and other times when by reading a generic position I’ve learned to distance myself from it. Other times the generic position just hasn’t been applicable.

    My recollection on the salpingostomy/salpingectomy distinction is not that -extomy is definitely licit, but rather that it is closer to a borderline “head shot” case precisely because the actual physical body of the child is not attacked, because it may be possible in principle to freeze the embryo at that point or take other rescue measures, etc. But I’m far from ready to conclude tout court that it is morally licit on that basis alone. Rather, -ectomy is something which can be done upon rupture, when the baby is already dead, and the problem is that people aren’t willing to absorb the risk and pain of waiting because as consequentialists they can’t see the point.

    As far as me not adapting myself to the realpolitik of people who are determined to go to Hell, I don’t really see that as an obligation.

  • Mike T says:


    If our scenario is an ectopic pregnancy we have multiple options, not all of which are morally licit. If we simply crush the tube with the child in it, directly killing the child, then the child’s remains will wash free of the fallopian tube and the mother will be saved. An additional good result is that the fertility of the mother is fully preserved. But this would be a direct abortion – albiet one undertaken under severe duress to save the life of the mother – and would therefore be morally illicit. We are morally prohibited from taking this specific action, no matter that we foresee (though we do not choose) that an additional innocent will die if we do nothing.

    But we are not stuck with doing nothing. Indeed, there is a different procedure involving removing the tube intact which does not attack the child directly. It is different as a particular chosen behavior from the other procedure. The child will still die – that is, at this point as a technological matter we have no way of rescuing the child. (Lets stipulate this point, since I am not entirely convinced that it is true. Our obligation to attempt rescue ceases only once the child actually dies.) The overall this-worldly consequences of the salpingectomy are worse than the salpingotomy: the child is dead, and the mother loses half her fertility. But the teleological consequences are the difference between Heaven and Hell.

    If the tube in question happens to be a Boeing 757 hurtling toward a building with an innocent person in it, our moral obligations are the same. We cannot licitly directly attack and kill the child by crushing or destroying her in our immediately chosen behavior. It is always immoral to directly kill the innocent in one’s specific chosen behavior, independent of any other considerations.

    The way I read it, Zippy is saying that by removing the fallopian tubes (which is an act of severing the child’s connection to the mother’s body), he is somehow not committing an act that is abortive toward the child. I welcome Zippy to show me that I am reading him incorrectly here. However, until that point, that’s how it comes across to me, and I disagree with that.

    My chief area of disagreement is that I think God would have mercy on someone who makes the wrong decision. In fact, it is possible for someone to make the “right decision” and still end up in danger of judgment because they had a heart that was so calloused by pure logic that they felt nothing toward the party that was threatened. That is a failure of love; anyone who has been around borderline aspies (not accusing Zippy of being one by any means) knows that personality type well. I struggle with it myself.

    If it were my wife, I would take an action to save her. I would pray that God would forgive me. I would also accept His judgment if I were wrong.

  • Good, thanks for pointing out my actual words.

    Later in that same thread I became less convinced that -ectomy was licit without further qualification. I summarized my current view in my previous comment. Overall, if people can just come to realize that the particulars of the specific action (the ‘object’) matters, that is progress.

    On the issue of culpability I generally agree with you (about pressure, ambiguity, etc), and in fact that is part of the moral theology. But that isn’t a license to conclude that the act is therefore morally acceptable. In fact it results in an imperative to reason things through morally when not subject to such pressure, so that we are better equipped to choose the right thing (the thing which most manifests love of and trust in God) when the pressure of a real situation arises.

  • johnmcg says:

    My chief area of disagreement is that I think God would have mercy on someone who makes the wrong decision. In fact, it is possible for someone to make the “right decision” and still end up in danger of judgment because they had a heart that was so calloused by pure logic that they felt nothing toward the party that was threatened. That is a failure of love; anyone who has been around borderline aspies (not accusing Zippy of being one by any means) knows that personality type well. I struggle with it myself.

    If it were my wife, I would take an action to save her. I would pray that God would forgive me. I would also accept His judgment if I were wrong.

    The Anchoress once made a similar point ( — that by refusing to commit immoral acts, we are betraying a lack of faith in God’s mercy and understanding, and we should really set our hearts to doing the best to protect our loved ones and surrender ourselves to God’s mercy.

    I have two responses to that:

    1. The God we worship was crucified.

    2. It is certainly possible to do the right thing for the wrong reasons. I certainly don’t see that is what zippy is doing here.

    I can deny myself an extra piece of cake because I think I’m a bad person who is unworthy of it, or because I am vain about my appearance. My reasoning may be flawed, but that doesn’t mean I should commit the sin of gluttony so that my intentions are pure.

    3. This is an argument for having mercy on those who make the wrong decisions in the heat of the moment, which I can support. It is not an argument for endorsing the wrong decision while we’re sitting at our computers not facing a life-threatening situation. Indeed, it is hoped that getting the right answer now would

  • Scott W. says:

    The way I read it, Zippy is saying that by removing the fallopian tubes (which is an act of severing the child’s connection to the mother’s body), he is somehow not committing an act that is abortive toward the child.

    If Zippy means that if a doctor says, “Well, it’s your lucky day because the baby just happens to be in the fallopian tube. That means I can just rip that out and call it an unfortanate side-effect when the baby dies and dodge censure about aborting a child.” Then I yeah, I disagree with that too.

    But I don’t think he is saying that at all. Rather, if a doctor has a plan in place to do an ectomy AND save both mother and child (even if it is slim odds), then this is morally acceptable. The duty to save both is always there as long as there is life.

    My chief area of disagreement…

    And what follows is not a disagreement at all because no one is disputing God’s mercy. Zippy’s whole ouvre is about whether a given act is objectively right or wrong. It is most definately not disputing that God can forgive us when we do wrong. Or, as Robert Fripp once said about performing music: “Mistakes are always forgiveable, rarely excuseable, but never acceptable.” I’d say the same goes for sin.

  • Mike T says:

    From Zippy’s reply, I think I am guilty of leaving out the nuance of **license** from my thinking about his points. He is arguing a rule of transcendent logic, not a particular point about how, for example, Truman might be judged for his specific decisions on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I think some of us were arguing from one angle and he from another on that point on the Mars and Venus thread as well as the latest thread(s) on W4.


    But I don’t think he is saying that at all. Rather, if a doctor has a plan in place to do an ectomy AND save both mother and child (even if it is slim odds), then this is morally acceptable.

    Well, that would be a completely different scenario, right? Apples and oranges.


    The Anchoress once made a similar point ( — that by refusing to commit immoral acts, we are betraying a lack of faith in God’s mercy and understanding, and we should really set our hearts to doing the best to protect our loved ones and surrender ourselves to God’s mercy.

    I think she goes over the line in saying that by refusing to act on them we are betraying anyone. The first commandment points to God, not our neighbor for a reason. In fact, I think the first commandment is really the ultimate trump card on this issue among Jews and Christians; if you truly obeyed the first commandment, you would sacrifice the entire human race in order to obey God’s revealed will.

    With that said, there is truth in what she said. Almost invariably, a man who does not have to fight a terrible inner battle to do evil things to evil men sincerely threatening his family or community is one who harbors no love for them. In our sinful state, this is one way most men manifest love.

  • Mike T says:

    I would also add that part of the problem with discussions like Truman’s decision on nuclear bombing is the tendency to strike a posture that says what this man did was **evil** rather than “extremely wrong, but human.” What Truman did was very wrong, but no one except God can say that given what intelligence told him was the alternative that his intent was evil. It is possible, even probable, for a decent man who is told “sacrifice 200k civilians or conservative 4m will die horrifically in urban combat” and react like Truman did.

    As I said on W4 in defense of Mark, Truman was essentially asked to play God in that scenario. He was a normal man asked to choose between two very large sets of lives and he defaulted to the instinctive human path of “I cannot live with myself if millions of Japanese kids and teens are massacred in urban warfare.”

  • johnmcg says:

    I’m more concerned by the impact of what we say today will have on the actions we do tomorrow than on Harry Truman’s historical legacy.

    In online discussions of this issue, it is rare for me to come across personal condemnations of Harry Truman, versus this particular decision.

    In fact, given that almost every modern politician seems to at some point model himself as a modern day Truman (simple, plain-spoken, underdog, etc.), I really think this is a minor concern indeed.

  • Scott W. says:

    Well, that would be a completely different scenario, right? Apples and oranges.

    Yes. It is important to remember that the objective wrongness of an act is gate 1. Subjective intent is gate 2. The relative circumstances and ends are gate 3. When considering ethics, we gave to go through all three in that order. If an act in and of itself fails gate 1, we can stop there because no amount of good intentions or good results can make an objectively evil act good. But then, just because the act itself is good or neutral, that doesn’t mean one has carte-blanche to start perfoming tube removals in ectopic pregnancies.

    I understand that people chafe at the word evil, but I would say that I don’t think anyone on the deontological side has ever argued that Truman’s intentions were evil. But this is a gate 2 consideration. And not a very illuminating one because I don’t think even Hitler ever gave a speech and then when backstage rubbed his hands like Snidely Whiplash going, “Muahaha! Dance my puppets! Now watch me perpetrate objective evils on the world!”

  • Mike T says:

    The human mind doesn’t really have a moral instruction pipeline; it’s not a CPU processing instructions. It takes education and training to start prioritizing it along those lines.

  • Scott W. says:

    Yes. This is why the hard cases are hard cases. What of it?

  • Step2 says:

    Rationalization hamsters on steroids, I like it. There is something very testosterone hazed about all this, which I think caused offense when I wouldn’t treat it as rational. What he conveniently forgot was that the baseline changes when talking about soldiers, for obvious reasons there is a spectrum shift that makes their “risk of death” average much higher than for regular civilians which correspondingly makes their “very likely” and “morally certain” ranges narrower.

    The only point I thought was troublesome is the idea of protective self-sacrifice being a noble gift to others, but only if it is a direct intervention. The slightly less direct mother-daughter scenario didn’t register at all for me, perhaps because it is so implausible. Of course even if it does create a purely personal exception to bodily defend others, it has nothing to do with nothing related to offensive violent tactics.

  • Step2:
    The slightly less direct mother-daughter scenario didn’t register at all for me, perhaps because it is so implausible.

    I think the fact that the methodology for “clarifying” an already very clear case like Hiroshima – or the targeting of a combined group of innocents and belligerents with a bomb that has a well-known blast radius, for that matter – involves dreaming up the most wildly implausible cases as a way of creating ostensible doubt and rhetorical fog is a pretty strong indicator that functionally, whatever the mysterious and inscrutable subjective intentions of the casuist may be, the “clarifying methodology” is anything but.

    The problem for the casuist – or one problem at any rate – is that the transitivity he needs in order for his wild imaginings to apply to real world cases doesn’t exist.

  • Scott W. says:

    As an aside, I’m reading Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw by Mark Bowden. With the help of American intelligence, the Columbian authorities locate a notorious drug cartel member and decide to flatten the house with an air strike:

    “Embasy officials were taken aback. No one had anticipated that the Columbians would simply kill the people Centra Spike had helped them find.

    As it happened, the bombing sortie never forced the issue, because the lead pilot, a Columbian colonel, noticed that just beyond the finca, over the lip of the hill, was a small village. If any of the bombs overshot by even a small margin, they were certain to hit the thirty or forty smaller houses below. To avoid a tragedy, the colonel called off the bomb run at the last minute…”

    It goes on to say that the pilots were accused of selling out or being in cahoots with the cartel. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were accused of wanting the extra deaths that came from leaving the drug lord alive (/rolleyes). Anyway, the U.S. stepped in with an investigation and concluded the colonel did the right thing. How far we’ve come since 1989.

  • […] out in preparation for the later behavior. And it is possible for a moral agent to suffer from an error of knowledge: for the person making the choice to be mistaken, to think that the kid waving a toy gun is […]

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