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.

A more refined feast of blood

April 28, 2017 § 34 Comments

In the comments below Patrick observes:

A free and equal nation needs mass murder and micromanagement to match the mood. Blood and control are the secret ingredients. Kim Jong Un is a philistine with a pathetically unrefined recipe.

This is a good point.

Lets define a liberal regime to be a regime which explicitly professes liberal principles as its governing political doctrine.

We can roughly divide liberal regimes into two kinds.  One sort of liberal regime is – at least as seen by outsiders[1] – overtly tyrannical  and violent.

Another sort of liberal regime is – at least according to its own self-assessment[2] – a bastion of freedom and equality of rights, as long as you aren’t the wrong sort of person.

The extent to which these two sets are coextensive is left as an exercise.

Of course in carrying out the exercise it is probably only fair to observe that nations under overt existential threat are stuck drinking their blood-of-tyrants from plastic cups; whereas more fat, dumb, and happy nations can afford to drink their blood from fine crystal and scientific beakers.

[1] Wikipedia: “North Korea officially describes itself as a self-reliant socialist state and formally holds elections. Critics regard it as a totalitarian dictatorship.”

See also here.


If we don’t raise taxes that’s a “tax cut”

May 3, 2014 § 54 Comments

Folks are always trying to pretend that “opportunity costs” are real.  Opportunity costs aren’t real.  Opportunity costs are by definition an imaginary exercise in what might (or might not) have happened if we had chosen a different course of action from the one we actually did choose.

At the fork in the road before we make an actual choice, our imagination can be helpful.  We can tell stories about what might happen in the future under various scenarios, and try to make better choices after reflecting on those imaginary stories about possible futures.

But the temptation to treat these imaginary stories – and associated “opportunity costs” – as if they are actually real is very strong, and as a subtle kind of lie this temptation frequently leads unwary moderns like us astray.

Once you’ve seen this kind of rationalization in one place you’ll start to notice it everywhere.

Murdering civilians in wartime, it is thought, must not be judged apart from “opportunity cost”: the quantitative consequences of incinerating two cities filled with civilians using atomic bombs has to be compared to the “opportunity cost” of an imaginary land invasion and all of the imaginary consequences that flow, in the fictional story, from the fictional invasion.  Divorcing her husband was necessary because of the imaginary life of misery for herself (and her husband and children, because if Momma ain’t happy nobody’s happy) in the fictional story of the imaginary future in which she had actually kept her vows.  Charging profitable interest on a full-recourse loan (usury) was justified because in an imaginary alternate reality the lender could have invested in something profitable.  In the Jerry Bruckheimer film I imagine in my mind, failing to torture terrorist captives led to mass murder and destruction in Los Angeles.  Joining Team Litterbug was justified because heck, in the story I told in my head I actually won the lottery and lived happily ever after.

Our imaginations are powerful things, and when they are made unequivocally subservient to the moral law they can be a very good thing.  But we must never be fooled into thinking that something imaginary out of a fictional story we tell about something that didn’t happen – something  like “opportunity cost” – can justify choosing concretely evil actions.

So don’t play the part of the modernist chump who can’t distinguish between fiction and reality.   Always do what is upright and morally good, and let imagined realities that might come to pass if we choose evil stay in the realm of fiction, where they belong.  The future isn’t in our hands anyway; it is in the hands of Providence.

Analyst Ethics and Intrinsic Evil

August 6, 2012 § 45 Comments

A commenter below wrote:

You may wish to reflect over 2309′s use of the words “rigorous consideration”. That’s what a policy analyst does. It’s practically a two word definition of the job.

This is suggested in the context of the atomic bombing of Japan, with the following admonition (emphasis mine):

What irritates is the refusal to look ahead and to own the consequences of the choices that would have followed. If the lowest cost solution in terms of casualties in a war is intrinsically evil, it is appropriate to pick the lowest cost solution that is not intrinsically evil and the delta, the difference in casualties is established as the minimum price you’re willing to pay and inflict not to lose your soul while avoiding slavery or genocide. There is a wealth of significance there to think through but very few will go down that path unless the conversation is allowed to play out.

I’m going to set aside the qualifier “avoiding slavery” because it is not morally licit to do evil in order to avoid slavery. Given the elimination of that qualifier, let’s assume (probably wrongly) that our model of the war game reflects reality. That is, let’s assume that what the Pope assumes that everyone recognizes to be impossible is actually possible: that we can accurately project the remote consequences of our actions in war.

The suggestion, as I understand it, is that the obligation to give “rigorous consideration” to the Just War criteria themselves includes an obligation to tally up what we might accomplish if we were willing to do evil and count that as a material cost of doing the right thing.

Even assuming the accuracy of our climate models, I mean war game models, it doesn’t make sense to contemplate doing intrinsically evil acts in order to count the “cost”. The reason is that the opportunities to do evil in a way which advances our material interests has no intrinsic limit. If the obligation to engage in rigorous consideration requires us to consider annihilating civilian cities in an air bombardment, it surely also requires us to consider the effects of mass rape of civilians in a ground invasion. After all, our model might suggest that doing so will demoralize the enemy and result in an earlier surrender with fewer casualties. Or perhaps mass sterilization of enemy civilians, or even something as crude as summary executions of civilians as we march through, would have a similar effect.

Examples can be multiplied, and that is part of the problem: the job of an ethical war analyst, if I may be so bold as to prescribe for a field I am not in, is to rigorously consider the moral options. In depth analysis of immoral options are at best a waste of resources. Somewhere in the middle it creates a scandalous temptation to do evil, and at worst, it involves formal cooperation with evil.

Tearing Apart Our Intentions

January 7, 2009 § 35 Comments

Proposition 1: You cannot deliberately tear the body of an unborn child to pieces using surgical instruments without intending to kill her.

Proposition 2: You cannot deliberately blow the body of an innocent civilian to pieces with a bomb without intending to kill her.

Catholics who think that it is – in any circumstances whatsoever – morally licit to blow up civilians with a bomb, as long as the end goal is to get the bad guys, have to explain why Proposition 1 is true and at the same time Proposition 2 is false.

We know that Proposition 1 is true, because there is no “life of the mother” exception to the moral prohibition of abortion; and more specifically that procedures like salpingotomy, which crushes the body of the unborn child in the fallopian tube as a method of resolving ectopic pregnancy, are never morally acceptable procedures.

So those who think it is morally licit to drop a bomb on a known mix of innocent civilians and terrorists in order to get the terrorists need to explain why it is never morally acceptable to tear the body of a living unborn child to bits, but it is sometimes morally acceptable to tear the body of a living born child to bits.

This raises the further interesting questions:

If there are any pregnant women in the crowd does the bombing become illicit?

If we could construct a tiny bomb, insert it into the fallopian tube, and use it to blow the embryo to bits, would that be a morally licit method of treating ectopic pregnancy?

Mars and Venus, Sitting in a Tree

January 6, 2009 § 9 Comments

In wartime there will definitely be accidental deaths, as there are accidental deaths on the highway every day. We cannot have a modern transportation system without expecting accidental deaths; we can even determine how many we expect to occur. The concept ‘accidental’ seems very clear to everyone when we speak about the highways, though, and becomes muddled when it comes to war.

I think there is a perverse alliance between hawks and doves when it comes to distinguishing between accidental deaths and on-purpose deaths. Both hawks and doves would prefer to keep the distinction unclear, for different reasons. Doves want to be able to call all deaths in wartime murder; conversely, hawks want to be able to take what is really deliberate murder and categorize it as morally licit collateral damage.

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.

So the moral situation is I think tactically far more difficult and perilous than ‘realists’ would like it to be. ‘Realists’ would like to move forward unconstrained by the fairly clear moral difference between accidental and deliberate killing, because doing so would in fact make for a more effective war with fewer casualties. These ‘realists’ want to blame our deliberate murder of civilians on the other guy, because the other guy created and forced the circumstances which made us view it as necessary to murder civilians. Circumstances which make murder a very tempting option do not excuse it though; and it is better for a thousand to die by accident than it is to commit one murder.

Pacifists on the other hand want to be able to condemn violence tout court: to the pacifist every act of killing is murder, and especially even genuinely accidental civilians deaths in wartime are murder.

This results in a perverse obscurantist alliance between the hawks and the doves; which is to say, the obscurity of the term ‘accidental’ in wartime, compared to in peacetime activities like driving on the freeway, is no accident.


Ectopic Airliners

August 24, 2007 § 5 Comments

(Note: Originally published at WWWtW)

Much ado has been made about my position on the morality of shooting down civilian airliners. Some commentators seem to think that because I am a priori wrong about shooting down airliners (they suppose), therefore the Hiroshima bombing was morally licit. Some others seem to think that because I am a priori wrong about airliners I am unpatriotic. In either case I think the nonsequitur is so obvious that commenting on it makes me embarrassed for my interlocutors.

I’ve already written a lot of comments on the matter in other peoples’ posts, but I thought it might be useful to relate more succinctly (he hopes, as he begins writing the post) my position on shooting down airliners, despite the rather obvious fact that neither my patriotism nor the moral status of the Hiroshima bombing depends upon it.

Consider an innocent child, ensconced in a tube. The child is headed for certain and imminent death; a death as certain as any prediction of the future of empirical reality can be. Furthermore, if we simply allow matters to continue as they are, at least one additional person, another innocent in addition to the innocent child, will die.

The child is clearly innocent: the child is not choosing to behave in a way which attacks others. (The child is at this point likely not choosing anything at all, just as a man who is asleep isn’t choosing anything, though at least the latter is capable of having chosen some attack which remains underway).

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.

However, again, it does not follow that because we may not directly kill the child that we may not do anything at all. We might attempt to disable the plane without directly killing the child. There are numerous ways to do so. It is arguable that shooting out the engines, even though it carries a risk of explosion, is one of them. The airplane will likely crash. (Though not necessarily: a pilot of a Bonanza was rendered unconscious by exhaust fumes in one accident of my acquaintance. His airplane eventually ran out of fuel and glided to a landing in a field of its own accord. Instead of waking up dead the pilot woke up with a big headache and quite a hangar story to tell). But whether we are deciding to kill the child or not in the actual behavior we choose makes all the moral difference in, well, eternity.

Some commentators, typically those who have never engaged with moral relativism seriously, seem to think that these distinctions – without which moral absolutism cannot be preserved, and without which every moral question becomes a question of situational ethics – are hairsplitting nonsense designed to make people feel good about themselves. Others recognize them as necessary in order to preserve moral absolutes; and some of those may further recognize moral absolutes as an indispensible attribute of Christendom.

But however you slice it, struggling with ectopic pregnancy as a moral conundrum doesn’t excuse simply adverting to the idea that abortion is sometimes morally acceptable as long as someone argues that the stakes are high enough. And struggling with passenger airliners as a moral condundrum doesn’t excuse simply adverting to the idea that incinerating cities of civilians is morally licit as long as someone argues that the stakes are high enough. No matter what one may claim to be at stake, one can (I say “can” here, not may, since I am invoking literal impossibility) never claim that it is licit to violate an absolute moral imperative and at the same claim to be other than a moral relativist.

Have You Stopped Beating Your Wife Yet?

July 21, 2006 § 20 Comments

The Hiroshima bombing was immoral.

“What would you have told Truman to do?”

This supposedly devastating question is the response we so often get from consequentialists when we make the obvious observation that targeting the civilian city of Hiroshima with a nuclear bomb was immoral. (The “we didn’t target civilians” response is an example of what I call intentional wishful thinking).

It is a trick question, even though I expect that many of the consequentialists asking it do not intend it to be one. But it requires us to accept consequentialist premeses in order to answer it at all.

Getting an abortion was immoral.

“What would you have told the indigent unwed pregnant girl to do?”

These questions, while interesting, have no bearing whatsoever on the statements to which they are putative responses. That is, they have no bearing on them unless we have already agreed to be consequentialists, and are merely haggling over the price.

Sympathy for the Devil

August 11, 2005 § 2 Comments

I am often accused of refusing to provide an alternative course of action when discussing the morality of particular acts. I agree with that accusation: I do indeed refuse to discuss alternative courses of action when first evaluating the morality of a particular act, and the reason I do so is because I think it is misleading to do otherwise. Evil acts have to be taken off the table no matter what the consequences of taking them off the table may be. Only after evil acts have been eliminated can the remaining options even be considered. A moral reasoning process that has not acknowledged this at the very outset – that we may never choose evil for any reason, no matter how good a reason we may think we have – has already departed into the realm of moral falsity.

This is at the root of the accusation that pro-lifers don’t care about the plight of the woman. The perception that pro-lifers don’t care about the plight of the woman persists despite the fact that pro-lifers do more than anyone else to help women with plights.

The reason that perception persists is because there is in fact a moment and a sense in the moral evaluation where we really and truly don’t care about the plight of the woman. Here “don’t care” doesn’t mean we don’t care in general, but rather that the plight of the woman simply doesn’t enter into the moral evaluation at all. Getting an abortion is always wrong, and in making that judgement we “don’t care” – in the intellectual sense that we assign absolutely zero moral relevance to – what the consequences are of not getting an abortion. The consequences of not performing an evil act must always be accepted. No exceptions.

We also don’t care, in the same sense, when making every single moral evaluation that we make. If the act is evil in itself then a correct moral evaluation will completely disregard the consequences of not performing the act. Only if something is not evil can we choose it.

So in an initial evaluation of the moral liciety of targeting an atomic bomb at a city filled with civilians, there are all sorts of things we don’t care about. It doesn’t mean that we have no sympathy for Truman, any more than we have no sympathy for the pregnant woman’s plight. But as a moral matter those sympathies are not relevant until after we have ruled out – completely and categorically ruled out – all of the evil options we might choose.

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