Why the Columbine massacre was necessary

September 5, 2017 § 131 Comments

Someone inclined to take the position seriously would likely frame it as Harris and Klebold “having no choice”.

This was the only option available to them, as just two powerless high school kids against the implacable foe of constant institutionally tolerated bullying.  This was the only way to decisively accomplish their good intention of getting people to take bullying seriously. There had been lots of anti-bullying awareness-raising to no effect. There are many suicides because of bullying, so in the long run their actions saved more lives than were lost.

They didn’t intend the “deaths” of innocents and other bad “effects” — understood as premoral or merely physical occurrences in the manner JPII describes in Veritatis Splendour (his seminal condemnation of this pattern of thought)[1]. There was no other way for them to achieve the good they hoped to accomplish. They did not want anyone innocent to die as something for its own sake.  Their anti-bullying message could have gotten through even if, by a miracle, everyone had survived. And who is really “innocent,” anyway?

This is where proportionalist moral theology leads.  Proportionalism can be understood as applying the principle of double effect[2] while ignoring the fact that certain objective behaviors are always intrinsically immoral to choose apart from the intention for which the choice is made.

[1] “There thus appears to be established within human acting a clear disjunction between two levels of morality: on the one hand the order of good and evil, which is dependent on the will, and on the other hand specific kinds of behaviour, which are judged to be morally right or wrong only on the basis of a technical calculation of the proportion between the “premoral” or “physical” goods and evils which actually result from the action. This is pushed to the point where a concrete kind of behaviour, even one freely chosen, comes to be considered as a merely physical process, and not according to the criteria proper to a human act. The conclusion to which this eventually leads is that the properly moral assessment of the person is reserved to his fundamental option, prescinding in whole or in part from his choice of particular actions, of concrete kinds of behaviour.” — Veritatis Splendour

[2] At least as it is popularly understood.

Biting the logic bullet

August 11, 2017 § 124 Comments

In general there is a lot of resistance to morally evaluating the means we choose to accomplish our ends in their own right, independent of those ends. Modern people resist evaluating behaviors in themselves against objective moral criteria.

It is certainly true that, in order to be morally evil, a particular objective kind of behavior must actually be chosen by a moral agent in an act of the will.  It is also true that choices of behavior are preceded by the formation of interior subjective plans, intentions, mentalities, and dispositions, all of which are themselves subject to moral evaluation. Later behaviors are often preceded by earlier behaviors, carried 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 actually a criminal waving a real gun.

A subjective error of knowledge is of course (and obviously) entirely different from the person making the choice having a malign subjective opinion that it is morally acceptable to shoot children waving toy guns. Malign subjective opinions don’t change objective moral reality. Subjective opinions don’t in themselves change objective reality at all, although disordered preferences can certainly give rise to disordered behaviors.

Once 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. We’ve already stipulated a good end. 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.

The means we choose to achieve our ends must always, first, and foremost be evaluated morally in themselves, independent of those ends.

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

Behave yourself

March 3, 2016 § 45 Comments

Based on recent combox discussions, it is clearly time for a little refresher in basic moral theology.

We are morally responsible for:

  1. Behaviors we choose.
  2. Behaviors we intend to choose.
  3. Behaviors of other people that we intend.  (This is “formal cooperation”).
  4. Imprudent choices we make (material cooperation with evil, prudential judgment, and the principle of double effect all fall here).


A (temporarily or perpetually) continent person:

  1. Does not (while continent) choose any sexual behaviors.
  2. Does not intend to choose (while continent) any sexual behaviors.
  3. Does not intend (while continent) for anyone else to choose particular sexual behaviors or specific sexual acts.
  4. May or may not be acting prudently.


That brings us to our scenario:

Cut to Germany.  Rapefugees are raging through the streets, global media cameras are all comprehensively and studiously pointed at a couple of gun toting white guys somewhere in the remote western United States.

Helga Homemaker has a diaphragm or other barrier contraceptive that she puts in as limited protection against roaming rapefugees. She takes it out when she engages in sexual activity with her husband.

If she has done moral wrong, it must be because she:

  1. Chose a contracepted sexual behavior. (nope)
  2. Intended to choose a contracepted sexual behavior. (nope)
  3. Intended for someone else to choose an immoral behavior. (nope)
  4. Acted imprudently.

Folks who believe that Helga does wrong cannot base that judgment on the intrinsic immorality of choosing (or intending to choose) contracepted sexual behaviors.  They must argue that she acts imprudently.

And I think that argument is weak.

Raping nuns on the holodeck

February 26, 2016 § 31 Comments

By all accounts Pope Francis’ airplane interview story, about Paul VI authorizing nuns in danger of rape to use contraceptives, is false. It would almost be better if it were true, because the fact that it is false seems to be leaving everyone deceived. I’ll address one particular way in this post. (I addressed a different way in the previous post).

The interview has given rise to a discussion which is especially pernicious, because various parties are turning it into a debate over the application of the principle of double effect. So most people who read stories about the interview are likely to be presented with two sides to choose from, both of which are wrong, under a form of (selectively) relativistic moral reasoning which is disconnected from reality.

The principle of double effect cannot ever apply to contracepted sexual acts, because contracepted sexual acts are intrinsically immoral in themselves, as kinds of behavior. Choosing an intrinsically immoral kind of behavior is always morally wrong, full stop, no exceptions. The principle of double effect describes conditions under which a morally neutral behavior with both bad effects and good effects is and is not permissible. But contracepted sexual acts are not morally neutral behaviors in the first place.

Nominalists don’t believe (or make a selective pose as if not believing) in the reality of kinds of behavior. They believe that individual human acts are chosen (that individual objects exist), and that categorizing these acts (actual objects) into kinds of behavior (kinds of objects) is a matter of lumping things together in whatever way suits our purposes, giving those lumps a name (thus nominalism). Categories are merely tools of the mind which we fashion for ourselves, mere names for more or less arbitrary aggregations of bits of reality: categories are not objective features of reality-in-act, actual reality.

Nominalism is, of course, insane and self refuting; and like all incoherent views can only be applied selectively in a context of more or less heavy doping by unprincipled exceptions and other impurities of the mind. The heavily doped semiconductor is an archetype of modernity, with the will providing base-emitter current or gate-source voltage: modernity is a fabric of programmable switches over which we impose our will to construct the virtual reality in which we live, inside the padded walls of the holodeck or the vast virtual reality system of the Matrix.

Contraception is a kind of behavior: a kind of sexual behavior. A nun who wears a chastity belt is not choosing a sexual behavior; she is physically excluding certain sexual behaviors from material possibility (to the extent of the chastity belt’s security). A rapist may violate her in other ways, but the chastity belt restricts the ways in which he is materially capable of violating her. When she chooses to put on a chastity belt and give the key to her Mother Superior she is not choosing that a rapist violate her in one of those other ways: she is choosing to block the possibility of violation in a particular way.

A vowed religious woman living in a third world hellhole (or, say, in Germany) where she is likely to be raped is not choosing a particular kind of sexual violation when she wears a chastity belt. She isn’t choosing a sexual act at all. This is not a matter of applying the principle of double effect to a contracepted sexual act, because she is not choosing any kind of sexual act at all. She is merely securing her body – imperfectly, as is the case with any kind of security – from a particular kind of violation.

Now, it is entirely possible that she is unjustified in doing so under some moral analysis or other: perhaps a particular chemical chastity belt under consideration is abortifacient, for example. But the behavior she is choosing cannot be permissible on the basis that she is supposedly justified in choosing a contracepted sexual behavior under the principle of double effect. A rape victim is not choosing the sexual behavior of her rapist at all, by definition.

The point is not to justify the use of particular kinds of chemical or physical chastity belts by nuns in some particular set of conditions or other. The point is that people who are talking about it as an application (right or wrong) of the principle of double effect to contraceptive behaviors are making a basic category mistake — where categories are objective features of reality, not merely nominalist buckets into which we get to put whatever we want however we see fit.

A legitimate rape victim is not choosing a sexual behavior at all; and the category ‘non-sexual contracepted sexual acts’ is not even rationally coherent, let alone an objective feature of reality. It exists only in the Matrix.

Fertile discussion

May 9, 2014 § 78 Comments

In the comments below, CJ writes:

Also, (I’d like Zippy or someone else to correct me if I’m wrong), but even if a woman had a hysterectomy to remove, say, a cancerous uterus, the surgery itself would be licit under double effect, but subsequent intercourse would be sinful.

As with many things I think the Catholic answer is that there is no one-and-done Catholic answer: that is, there is a range of theological opinion which is consistent with doctrine.  That doesn’t mean that there is no right answer.  It just means that the Magisterium of the Church has not officially defined, as doctrine, specifically what the right answer happens to be in the detailed cases under consideration.

My own personal view encompasses a “range within the range” (with all the usual caveats: I’m just some guy who happens to be Catholic). My views are considered pretty hard core, but they are not as ‘strict’ as what CJ suggests. In my view the principle of double-effect for the most part does not enter into it, since we are working with questions of intrinsic morality.  The principle of double-effect only apples to questions of extrinsic morality, when the behaviors in question are morally neutral in themselves qua chosen behaviors.

A person can be dealing with any of three different factual situations: (1) naturally fertile organs, (2) accidentally infertile/diseased/mutilated organs, or (3) deliberately mutilated organs which were healthy prior to the deliberate mutilation. “Accidental” here refers to the choices of the person whose body it is: forced sterilization by a government or whatever is ‘accidental’ in the morally pertinent sense, as is disease and, uh, accident.  It is important to keep in mind that a purely physical description of the objective physical facts fails to encompass a moral description of the morally pertinent objective facts.

Case (2) breaks down further, because in some cases (2a) diseased organs threaten a woman’s health no matter what she does (cancer, say) and in others (2b) they do not threaten her health unless she becomes pregnant. Assume the diseased organ has been removed — an assumption to which we shall return.

Case (3) breaks down further into situations where the person has made a bona fide attempt to reverse his self-mutilation (3a) and cases where he has not (3b).

My present view is that (married, obviously) sexual relations are definitely and unquestionably licit in cases (1) and (2a) (directly contrary to CJ’s impression). I don’t have a strong view of whether relations are morally licit in cases (2b) and (3a) (the ‘hard cases’ if you will), and I am pretty certain that relations are illicit in case 3b.  (It is this latter conclusion that makes some folks consider my views “hard core” or rigorous, sometimes incorrectly characterized as rigorist or physicalist).

(2b) is a ‘hard case’ because it is pregnancy itself which is a threat to the mother’s health, not the diseased organ. The real issue is whether it is morally licit to remove the diseased organ in the first place.  It is not in fact a healthy organ, which suggests that it is licit to remove it. It is not however a threat to health in itself if left alone, which suggests that it is an illicit self-mutilation to remove it. I relate to the inclination toward the former, because removing a diseased but non-threatening organ does not strike me intuitively as ‘self-mutilation’ in the same sense as removing a healthy organ.  It bears passing similarity to the situation when nuns who are at risk of rape use contraception.   But I am uneasy with any definite, categorical conclusion in this far corner of the casuistry; possibly because different concrete cases might have to be broken down further.

And that’s OK, because we don’t have to have definite answers to every question in order to have definite answers to some questions.

The Bus Stops Here

November 2, 2012 § 28 Comments

There are a number of layers to what I think has been established when it comes to voting in mass market universal suffrage democratic elections, like our upcoming Presidential election. People tend to get off the bus at whatever stop doesn’t make them feel uncomfortably sociopathic: nobody likes to be that last lonely person on the bus, disembarking in that barren old tumbleweed town at the end of the line after a long and arduous ride. But since these conclusions have been established sequentially, the more uncomfortable conclusions don’t act as a reductio of prior conclusions: just because you don’t like the final stop or the next stop, that doesn’t invalidate the previous ones.

So welcome aboard!

What the Bishops have focused on (and what I also focused on years ago here) is the first and by far most important bus stop: avoiding mortal sin, the most pervasive form of which, in voting, is formal cooperation with evil. Once our cooperation isn’t formal (or proximate material, but we don’t discuss that much), whether or not we ought to do it becomes a prudential judgement. Avoiding formal cooperation with evil means getting our intentions right; and since most peoples’ intentions are (rightly or wrongly) focused on possible election outcomes and their implications, that is where the focus lies. The good news is that most people who are even bothering to read this can make it here.

The next stop is coming to the realization that prudential judgement isn’t code for a subjective triumph of the will, despite the fact that right liberals (who are generally called “conservatives”) like to use it that way. This mirrors the way their left-liberal cousins use “conscience” as a means to avoid subjecting their views to objective evaluation. Neither “prudential judgement” nor “primacy of conscience” is code for “my subjective assessment is above criticism and can’t be objectively wrong”. This is probably one of the longest standing themes of this blog.

Beyond that comes the realization that it is simply false to suggest that the Church has “granted permission” in some blanket sense to vote this way or that, and that contrary to what is commonly suggested, voting is not morally mandatory. The Church has given guidance in various ways and with varying degrees of Magisterial authority (or not, as the case may be) on how to avoid formal cooperation with evil; but once we have managed not to formally cooperate with evil making a sound prudential judgement based on true premises is up to us. The fact that the Church hasn’t explicitly given further guidance on how to make that prudential judgement in a way that satisfies the cravings of those who want their decisions to be made for them does not constitute evidence that one may simply do as he wills.

Further down the line comes the realization that mass market universal suffrage democratic elections are not merely a matter of choosing what outcome we prefer. They are game-theoretic contests and civic rituals with all sorts of history and implications, most of the consequences of which obtain no matter who wins or loses. Right reason requires us to take this into consideration. The Church gives no guidance on game theory, as something outside of its charism, and explicitly disclaims expertise on what constitutes a good form of governance. This is a huge barrier, and a lot of folks get off the bus before this stop. There is tremendous resistance to focusing on anything other than what outcomes people think are best, or “least evil”. This is in part because of that (essential) initial focus on avoiding formal cooperation with evil, which most definitely does require us to take outcomes into consideration.

Following that is the realization that because our personal, material influence over the outcome is literally negligible – our personal signals are well beneath the real world noise floor of the process – a genuine, objectively correct evaluation of voting under the principle of double effect (we’ve already assumed material, not formal cooperation with evil here) requires us to consider primarily the outcome-independent effects of our personal acts, since our personal acts effectively have no material outcome-dependent effects. Voting in mass-market universal suffrage elections is necessarily an idealistic act: it literally, in principle as the kind of act it is, cannot be a pragmatic act. It is literally irrational, an act which goes against right reason, to vote for President (or other national office or mass market referendum) under some pragmatic “vote to limit evil” calculus based on weighing potential bad outcomes against worse outcomes. Even more people get off the bus here.

Then by applying a concrete understanding of the nature of voting in modern mass-market universal suffrage elections to all of that, I conclude that a proportionate reason to vote in our current circumstances does not exist: not for anyone, because the outcome-independent considerations apply to everyone, and even if there were an exception or two through some loophole in some argument somewhere, the near-universality would preclude the act because of scandal. In fact I think the scandal at the very first bus stop – the fact that the great majority of people formally cooperate with grave evil when they vote – is sufficient to preclude any proportionate reason for anyone who has gotten this far to vote. Just about everyone is off the bus by now.

I do qualify the result in one way: if a person has a completely ulterior motive for voting – say a girl he wants to date won’t accept a date unless he votes or whatever – then he may (assuming it doesn’t involve doing evil in a similarly ulterior way) have a proportionate reason. It is for this reason that some radical change in voting laws – say a mandatory requirement to vote or face a fine – could easily change the prudential calculus. It is for this reason that (mass market) voting is disanalogous to paying taxes, serving in the military, jury duty, running for a local school board, or any of thousands of other possible civic acts: a prudential judgement proceeds based on the consequences of acting, and this entire analysis, once we’ve gotten past the initial step of avoiding formal cooperation with evil, is a prudential analysis. I can’t draw some bright boundary of how every possible prudential judgement of every possible civic act is going to come out: they each have to be made in their own right.

I’ve dealt with other various objections that come up. In the spirit of previous grand series of posts here at Zippy Catholic, I will list those objections with links to their refutations in this post, following the break. You may have to read the comment threads to get the full gist of the refutation. I’ll update the post and list if and as needed.

« Read the rest of this entry »

American Idol, or the material cooperation with evil two-step

October 19, 2012 § 6 Comments

Have you ever been to one of those contests where the popularity of the different contestants is measured by an applause meter?

Lets suppose we are evaluating, morally, how a particular audience member acts during the event.   If the event were a political election, most people apparently think that the primary consideration is what happens if the contestant he supports wins versus the other guy winning.  If he happens to be especially tall or have an especially loud voice – if he is a swing voter – then the outcome of the contest becomes of paramount concern in making a moral evaluation of how he acts.

I contend that this is a manifestly ridiculous way to look at the morality of individual conduct during the popularity contests we call elections.  It is literally impossible to vote pragmatically in a national contest: someone who thinks he is doing so has made an error in judgement.

The bishops have given some instruction on how to make sure that our intentions are good when we vote or abstain, by reiterating the principles involved in licit remote material cooperation with evil.   If our intentions are bad then all of the considerations I’ve been talking about are beside the point.   But that doesn’t relieve us from the requirement to continue to use our reason, even after we have made sure that our intentions are good.  Documents like Faithful Citizenship are a starting place, not a blanket permission slip to do whatever we want as long as we can check off the “good intentions” box that it tells us how to check.

Once we have gotten our intentions right as far as who we are supporting and why, we still have to evaluate our act as an objective matter.   That means applying the principle of double effect: and it means applying it to a sorites, because that is what a mass-market universal suffrage national election is.  The bishops do not pretend to have any special mathematical competence, and certainly have not asserted any doctrines with respect to game theory: it is up to us to competently discern the morally right thing to do.

It is manifest, though counterintuitive because of our political indoctrination, that our individual participation in the great liberal popularity contest has effects that are independent of the outcome of the contest.   And because we are just one small face in an inconceivably large crowd, a crowd which would not fit into any physical gathering space on earth, it is clear that appeals to being an especially tall or loud “swing voter” do not change the moral evaluation in the slightest.

To rationally evaluate an act of voting for President under the principle of double effect – as the next step after we have already satisfied the requirement not to formally cooperate with evil in our intentions, per Faithful Citizenship and other teachings on licit material cooperation with evil  – we need to focus on the outcome-independent effects of our conduct, not outcome-dependent effects.   The outcome dependent effects are crucial for verifying that our intentions are in fact good: that we are not formally cooperating with evil.  But they do not constitute a blanket permission slip to just do as we will once we’ve determined that we have good intentions; and because our personal influence over the outcome is negligible, outcome-independent effects are dispositive in this further, necessary step in moral evaluation.

Obviously our intentions in choosing Barabbas or his other brother Barabbas are crucial, as a first step in moral evaluation.  But joining the team cheering for Other Barabbas has effects whether or not Other Barabbas wins.  Our sphere of personal influence is the people immediately around us in the crowd; not the grand schemes of our contestant if he beats the other guy.   And our moral responsibility is for, yes and firstly, our intentions; but once those intentions are good we are responsible for the actual non-negligible effects of our act.

Thespians and the HHS mandate

September 24, 2012 § 23 Comments

An intrinsically immoral act is a deliberately chosen behaviour which is objectively – the behaviour – evil. In order to know what behaviour is chosen (the “object”) we need to see things from the perspective of the acting subject; because it is possible for the acting subject to be mistaken about the objective facts. If he is mistaken about the objective facts then his third-party observable behaviour isn’t what he actually chose. The object of an act is the objective behaviour actually chosen by the acting subject, so once we know what objective behaviour the acting subject actually chose – which can be different from what we observe as a third party either because there are non-material objective facts that we don’t observe or because the acting subject is himself mistaken about objective facts that we know – we can evaluate the moral species of his act.

An intrinsically immoral act is always an action performed by the person himself: it is his own deliberately chosen actions which we evaluate morally. His intentions are the subjective meaning he assigns to his act: the things he desires from his behaviour versus the things he wishes were not intrinsic to his behaviour or extrinsic effects of it. Intentions do not enter into moral evaluation of the object. (It is possible of course for non-intrinsically immoral acts to be evil because of evil intentions, or also because of circumstances).

Formal cooperation, on the other hand, is a matter of how our own intentions stand in relation to someone else’s act. A woman who procures an abortion does not (generally) actually perform the abortion herself. The actual concrete action is performed by the abortionist. However, since the woman who procures an abortion – makes the phone call, shows up at the appointment, etc. – intends the evil action performed by another person, she is guilty of formal cooperation with evil. Strictly speaking she has not performed an intrinsically immoral action herself. An actress on a “reality” show who pretends to make the call and show up to the appointment is not (necessarily) guilty of moral evil, and certainly is not guilty of moral evil as pertains to procuring an abortion. She doesn’t actually intend to procure an abortion: she is therefore not formally cooperating with an abortion. (We will set aside the complex relations between acting, joking, and lying, which is another matter entirely). However, if the person “acting” as the abortionist on the “reality” show actually performs an abortion, he obviously would be guilty of moral evil.

So the distinction between an intrinsically immoral action and formal cooperation is pretty clear, in my view. We should expect morality at bottom to be pretty clear and easy to understand, especially since St. Paul and Christ Himself have admonished us to be as little children as far as evil is concerned. It is true that at times we encounter genuinely puzzling cases “on the margins”. But the great majority of supposed moral conundrums arise, in my view, from the fact that there are just lots of clearly wrong actions that we are uncomfortable condemning as morally wrong.

This brings us to the question of compliance with the HHS mandate, and whether such compliance is formal cooperation or material cooperation with evil. Material cooperation is where we cooperate with another person’s evil act through some morally acceptable (taken in itself) action of our own, but we do not intend that other person’s evil act. A canonical example is of the commanding officer ordering his troops into the breach: this cooperates with the enemy’s action of killing his men, but the commanding officer obviously (unless it is a David-Uriah-Bathsheba situation) does not intend the killing of his own men. In fact his own act will be more successful if the enemy fails to kill any of his own men: clearly a case of material cooperation with evil with unintended bad effects.

There have been some recent articles bringing up the possibility that compliance with the HHS mandate is formal cooperation with evil, and therefore simply impermissible. See here and here, for example (hat tip Scott). I commend the authors of those articles for bringing up the point. All too often the questions of intrinsic evil and formal cooperation are simply glossed over, assumed without even a hint of an argument, so we can jump ahead to what the author wants to do: apply the principle of double-effect. Because once we’ve determined that an action is neither intrinsically evil nor formal cooperation with evil – that is, once we’ve determined that an action is material cooperation with evil – then its moral status becomes much more debatable.

Even once we arrive here I think there is a tendency to gloss over the requirements for licit material cooperation with evil: that is, the requirement that the material cooperation with evil must not be proximate and it must pass all of the criteria of the principle of double effect. The just war doctrine is one of those areas, where the fact that prudential judgement is involved in applying double effect is often treated as if it were the same as concluding that a particular decision to wage war cannot be determined to be categorically wrong based on objective, well known facts.

But here I will stop short of further discussion of justifying material cooperation with evil. The question on the table is, is compliance with the HHS mandate necessarily formal cooperation with evil? And while I strongly commend those who raise the question for raising it I think the answer is most likely that no, compliance with the HHS mandate is not necessarily formal cooperation with evil. I do have an important caveat in the closing paragraphs of this post, however.

I use the term “necessarily” because it is always possible to formally cooperate with evil, even without doing anything at all. Someone who in his own head says “good on her for getting that abortion” or “good for those people providing contraception” or “good for that judge clearing the way for Terri Shaivo to be starved to death” or “good on Bush for bombing that restaurant full of towel heads” has formally cooperated with mortally grave moral evil: he intends the evil act of another person or has shared in the evil intention of another person, and is morally condemned by that intention.

The plight of an employer faced with complying with the HHS mandate is similar to the plight of a legislator faced with a bill that restricts more abortions than are restricted now, yet still includes some exceptions – say the usual dark triad of rape, incest, and life of the mother. Evangelium Vitae tells us that not only is abortion itself intrinsically immoral; it is also morally wrong in itself to pass laws explicitly authorizing any abortion. It follows (my inference) that a legislator who specifically proposes the three exceptions in law, even if only as a means to the very laudable end of increasing legal restriction of abortion, does evil. You can’t specifically propose the three exceptions without intending the three exceptions as a means to some end: formal cooperation with evil. On the other hand, Evangelium Vitae also tells us that a legislator can licitly support such a bill, so long as his absolute rejection of all abortion – including by inference the three exceptions – is explicit and well known.

The situation with the good pro-life legislator is that he faces an omnibus choice: he does not support the three exceptions themselves and did not propose them himself, but if voting for the bill results in an overall better state of the law it is acceptable for him to vote for the bill. Similarly, the good employer does not support the provision of contraception and did not propose it himself. But he also faces an omnibus choice, where every option he chooses has bad – though unintended by him – consequences. It would be formal cooperation for him to propose and support evil provisions in the health insurance plan himself, as a means to any end; but it is not necessarily formal cooperation with evil for him to support the provision of health insurance that has many good benefits, even though it also provides, literally against his will, the material means for other people to do evil things.

There is a certain danger in this kind of thinking though. It is one thing to support a bill which increases restrictions on abortion across the board, even while retaining exceptions proposed by others (who are necessarily employing gravely evil means in so proposing, despite in some cases laudable ends). It would be another thing to support a bill which trades off restrictions: one which (say) introduced a previously closed exception for rape but closed an existing exception for incest. And it would be another thing still to trade off incommensurable evils: say, to further restrict some abortions while mandating sterilizations of certain individuals. It is far from clear that these “lesser of two incommensurable evils” calculations can avoid formal cooperation with the evil actions deemed “lesser”. I cannot therefore definitely conclude that compliance with the HHS mandate is not necessarily formal cooperation with evil (though I expected to conclude that when I started writing the post; so there you go).

If we conclude that compliance with the HHS mandate is not formal cooperation with evil, does that end the discussion? Not at all. As the cited articles point out, this is a discussion which must be had before it makes any sense to even begin analyzing compliance with the mandate as material cooperation with evil. If compliance with the mandate were necessarily formal cooperation with evil that would end the discussion right there: noncompliance would be morally obligatory.

Why "it works" means "it is torture"

February 26, 2010 § 3 Comments

In any event, the upshot of my discussion is this: if, as the double effect defense presupposes, waterboarding or some other interrogation technique is done in a way that is expected to cause harm to the suspect, then that harm is most likely intended as a means by the interrogator and double effect will not justify it. And if such techniques are performed with the intention to cause pain, but not either direct physical harm, or psychological disintegration, then they are likely to be ineffective. Either way, it is, in my view, a good thing that United States’ policy has moved (as it did in the second Bush term) beyond the grim, if understandable, policies of the first few years after 9/11. – Christopher O. Tollefsen

Courting Inanity

February 10, 2010 § 27 Comments

From Courting Disaster:

If this principle [of double-effect] applies to taking human life, it must certainly apply to coercive interrogation as well. A captured terrorist is an unjust aggressor who retains the power to kill many thousands by withholding information about planned attacks. The intent of the interrogator is not to cause harm to the detainee; rather, it is to render the aggressor unable to cause harm to society. The act of coercive interrogation can have a double effect (to protect society and to cause harm to the terrorist), but one is intended, the other is not.

Well, just where does one begin?

First, the principle of double-effect does not apply to the taking of innocent human life. Thiessen, like a newbie combox critter, is simply wrong that the fifth commandment forbids all killing, and that the principle of double-effect creates exceptions to the rule. The fifth commandment forbids killing the innocent, that is, those who are not and have not engaged in attacking behaviors. Nevertheless, the terrorist in question is not innocent, so it is true that killing the terrorist – say in a licit execution after trial and conviction – is not absolutely prohibited by the moral law. (That doesn’t make it automatically licit independent of intentions and circumstances; but it is not intrinsically evil to kill the guilty).

Second, the argument that because it is not absolutely prohibited to kill a terrorist it therefore must be licit to torture that same terrorist is nonsensical on its face. Just because it is (stipulated) morally licit to execute a particular man, it does not follow that it is morally licit to do anything to him at all. For example, I think even Thiessen might agree (though who knows?) that it is not morally licit to sodomize terrorist captives even if that is the only means available to get them to disclose information to save (say) thousands of lives.

Third, the argument that a captured terrorist is capable of launching attacks “by withholding information about planned attacks” is nonsense on stilts. A simple rule of thumb can demonstrate: if killing captured Terrorist Bob right now will not in any way prevent X, then we are not doing what we are doing to Bob because he is capable of doing X. A helpless captive, whatever information he may know, is not capable of carrying out any attacks. Indeed, the fact that we don’t kill Bob immediately to stop the putative attacks is proof that it isn’t what he is capable of doing, but rather what we want to coerce him to do, that is at issue.

I could go on. And on, and on. There is so much ignorance packed into such a tight little package here that responding to it all could take ten or a hundred times the space it took to say it in the first place. But the arguments are so bad, so manifestly ignorant, so locked into a little hermetic bubble of cluelessness, that this may be one of those cases where maximal airing of those bad arguments in public is the best response to them.

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