In which Zippy objects yet again…

February 4, 2010 § 12 Comments

Tom quotes the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults:

Another important foundation of Christian morality is the understanding of moral acts. Every moral act consists of three parts: the objective act (what we do), the subjective goal or intention (why we do the act), and the concrete situation or circumstances in which we perform the act (where, when, how, with whom, the consequences, etc.)

For an individual act to be morally good, the object, or what we are doing, must be objectively good. Some acts, apart from the intention or reason for doing them, are always wrong because they go against a fundamental or basic human good that ought never to be compromised. Direct killing of the innocent, torture, and rape are examples of acts that are always wrong. Such acts are referred to as intrinsically evil acts, meaning that they are wrong in themselves, apart from the reason they are done or the circumstances surrounding them.

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

Notice that the object of the act is objective. When a moral theologian correctly uses the term “object” in reference to a human act, the thing he is referring to is the objective part of the act. Intentions – whether proximate, remote, or otherwise – are not objective. Intentions are subjective, and are not part of the object of a human act. Any “story” one tells about the principle of double effect or the object of an act, if that story attempts to sneak any kind of subjective intention into the act’s object, is a false and misleading story.

An issue which seems to arise again and again is that when someone says “objective”, we often hear “physical”. But objective and physical do not mean the same thing, at all.

A commenter in the Disputations thread writes:

I think we are generally agreed that the objectum (Thomas’ word) of the moral act is not merely a physical thing but the rationale (objective) of the actor.

I don’t agree with that characterization at all. I don’t think the object of the act can be accurately described as either “a physical thing” or a “rationale”. It isn’t either of those things: it is the conduct or behavior (following JPII) that the acting subject chooses. The choosing part means that it isn’t merely physical, that in order to “see” what behavior was chosen we have to “see” through the eyes and with the knowledge of the acting subject; and in any event many of the pertinent facts are non-physical facts (e.g. “she is my wife”, “that is not my gold”, etc). On the other hand, it has nothing to do with whatever subjective rationale the acting subject might give for it: paraphrasing Anscombe, it has nothing to do with little speeches we tell ourselves about what we are trying to accomplish and why.

Part of the problem may be in thinking that “physical thing” and “rationale” exhaustively describe the possibilities. The object of a human act is not either one of those things though: it isn’t a physical thing and it isn’t a rationale. It is the conduct or behavior that the acting subject chose.

Of course another possibility is that there is substantive agreement over these things but we disagree on terminology because we are all trying to head off various errors at the pass, if you will. But that is precisely why I object to the false dichotomy of “physical thing” versus “rationale”, since conduct – conduct chosen by an acting subject – is not either of those things. And the object of a human act is the conduct chosen.

The Splendour of Self-Contradiction

January 13, 2009 § 36 Comments

I think it is intrinsically immoral to deliberately blow up an indiscriminately mixed group of innocents and combatants with a bomb. Note the term ‘deliberately’: an accident is an accident, and when things do not go according to plans sometimes innocent people are hurt accidentally. It is possible for an accidental death to be the result of culpable negligence, of course, but even then it is quite a different matter from deliberate murder.

Furthermore, it is possible to act morally even knowing that the deaths of innocents will result from your act. I’ve given the example of attacking a group of terrorists knowing with moral certainty that the terrorists are going to kill some hostages: it may nevertheless, under the principle of double effect, be morally licit to attack. (It also may not be morally licit: but the moral liciety of the act falls to a double-effect analysis when the chosen behavior is not evil in itself).

Many people do not agree with me that it is intrinsically wrong to blow up an indiscriminately mixed group of combatants and innocents with a bomb, apart from a consideration of the reason why the choice to do so is made. I summarize their objections, as I understand them, as follows:

“It is impossible to qualify as morally evil the deliberate choice to blow a mixed group of combatants and noncombatants to bits with a bomb apart from a consideration of the intention for which the choice is made.”

This objection is problemmatic. Veritatis Splendour tells us:

One must therefore reject the thesis … which holds that it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species — its “object” — the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behaviour or specific acts, apart from a consideration of the intention for which the choice is made … .

My interlocutors insist that we can only figure out what the object of the act is by making reference to the intended end for which the choice is made; in this example the removal of the threat posed by the combatants in the mixed group.

But that can’t be right, because it would turn Veritatis Splendour into a self-refuting hash of circular reasoning. (If the position of my interlocutors was “Veritatis Splendour is bunk” then the objection would at least be consistent, if still wrong; but that is not generally the claim). If we cannot determine the object of the act without considering the intention for which the choice was made, then Veritatis Splendour is self-contradictory, with all that that implies — basically the encyclical is a meaningless jumble of words with enough apparent meaning that people can make it appear to say whatever they want it to say.

None of this conclusively establishes that I am right about the specific kind of case in question. That it is possible in some cases to qualify the choice of a specific behavior as morally evil apart from a consideration of the intention for which the choice was made doesn’t mean that in this case I have proven beyond doubt that the act is an intrinsically immoral act of murder. But what is true is that none of the objections raised so far by any interlocutor, assuming I’ve understood them, is internally consistent.

I leave you with this thought from VS:

Once the moral species of an action prohibited by a universal rule is concretely recognized, the only morally good act is that of obeying the moral law and of refraining from the action which it forbids.

A Parable of Lesser Evil and Charity

September 19, 2008 § 19 Comments

Suppose there are two non-profit organizations. Lets call them M and O. The M organization is dedicated to funding embryo-destructive research. The O organization is dedicated to funding embryo-destructive research, abortion, and infanticide.

There is a tradition in the community of having a competition every four years for a large grant of money. These two organizations are the only organizations with any chance to win the grant this year, largely because pro-lifers have for decades been willingly participating in similar Faustian competitions. The grant competition is rather simple: citizens are permitted to give either one or the other of these organizations a dollar (no more or less), or to refrain from giving them anything. The tradition is such that eighty million or so citizens are expected to give a dollar in the competition. The organization which receives the most will be granted a few billion dollars to pursue its mission.

Now, some people might think that I ought to give a dollar to the M organization as a way of attempting to stop the O organization from getting the big grant, under double effect. Others may think that it is a difficult choice that can go either way.

Not me. I think the choice is easy.

Double Non-Effect

September 17, 2008 § 22 Comments

A difficulty in recent discussions is that many folks are treating human acts as if they were an analog radio signal of effects and only effects which can be gradually attenuated down to nothing. They aren’t. An act either categorically is deliberate remote material cooperation with grave evil, or it is not. It takes a certain minimum movement of the will to act at all.

If an act is deliberate remote material cooperation with grave evil at all, it can only be justified in the presence of a proportionate reason. And if the act is causally negligible with respect to the very outcomes which the person is analyzing under double effect in order to justify it, then a proportionate reason does not exist.

The contemplated act might be justifiable under some other understanding, of course. But it cannot be justified by appealing to double-effect with respect to outcomes upon which it has causally negligible effect.


A Corollary Practical Recommendation

July 11, 2008 § 3 Comments

Because of the grave danger of falling into formal cooperation with evil (which is another way of saying ‘failing to meet the means-end integrity required by double effect’, which is another way of saying ‘failing to exhibit the minimal virtues required of Christians’) when voting for a pro-choice politician, I have a practical recommendation for those who are considering it.

That practical recommendation is simply to be as loud and uncompromising as possible on the specific point that abortion absolutely must be made illegal. We all have a grave duty to conscientiously object to the abortion legal regime. The temptation for a supporter of a pro-choice politician to ‘tone down’ on the absolute necessity to make abortion illegal, with that toning down as a means to the end of collaborating with pro-choicers (that is, people who, against Catholic doctrine, believe that abortion should be legal), is doubtless very strong. But doing so, in my understanding, fails double-effect, and is unqualifiedly evil.

Bloggers can formally cooperate with murder

March 10, 2008 § 36 Comments

From the Pontifical Academy for Life:

The principle of licit cooperation in evil

The first fundamental distinction to be made is that between formal and material cooperation. Formal cooperation is carried out when the moral agent cooperates with the immoral action of another person, sharing in the latter’s evil intention. On the other hand, when a moral agent cooperates with the immoral action of another person, without sharing his/her evil intention, it is a case of material cooperation.

Material cooperation can be further divided into categories of immediate (direct) and mediate (indirect), depending on whether the cooperation is in the execution of the sinful action per se, or whether the agent acts by fulfilling the conditions – either by providing instruments or products – which make it possible to commit the immoral act. Furthermore, forms of proximate cooperation and remote cooperation can be distinguished, in relation to the “distance” (be it in terms of temporal space or material connection) between the act of cooperation and the sinful act committed by someone else. Immediate material cooperation is always proximate, while mediate material cooperation can be either proximate or remote.

Formal cooperation is always morally illicit because it represents a form of direct and intentional participation in the sinful action of another person. Material cooperation can sometimes be illicit (depending on the conditions of the “double effect” or “indirect voluntary” action), but when immediate material cooperation concerns grave attacks on human life, it is always to be considered illicit, given the precious nature of the value in question.

A further distinction made in classical morality is that between active (or positive) cooperation in evil and passive (or negative) cooperation in evil, the former referring to the performance of an act of cooperation in a sinful action that is carried out by another person, while the latter refers to the omission of an act of denunciation or impediment of a sinful action carried out by another person, insomuch as there was a moral duty to do that which was omitted.

Passive cooperation can also be formal or material, immediate or mediate, proximate or remote. Obviously, every type of formal passive cooperation is to be considered illicit, but even passive material cooperation should generally be avoided, although it is admitted (by many authors) that there is not a rigorous obligation to avoid it in a case in which it would be greatly difficult to do so.

Suppose Bob wrote a blog post while the Terri Schiavo controvesy was raging. Suppose in his post he said something supporting that Terri’s feeding tube ought to be removed, that she should be ‘allowed’ to die. Assume for the sake of argument that he meant it: that he was honestly expressing his real intention.

Obviously his act of blogging has minimal effect: it contributes to the overall atmosphere of support for killing Terri, but only in a small way. Nevertheless his act of blogging does provide material support to the ‘ultimate’ act of pulling Terri’s tube and killing her. Importantly, the intention of the one who pulls her tube is shared by Bob the Blogger.

This is formal cooperation with Terri’s murder, not merely material cooperation. Suppose Fred is the person who actually removes the tube. Bob’s act of blogging not only materially cooperates with Fred’s act. Bob’s act of blogging also – assuming its veracity – formally cooperates with Terri’s murder.

"Double-effect" doesn’t mean "licensed circular reasoning"

February 17, 2008 § 150 Comments

The first criteria of the principle of double-effect is that the principle of double-effect only applies when an act is not intrinsically immoral. As the Catechism puts it,

The object of the choice can by itself vitiate an act in its entirety. There are some concrete acts – such as fornication – that it is always wrong to choose, because choosing them entails a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil.

Isn’t it odd, then, that so many Catholics, including a number of well respected theologians in their non-magisterial texts, appeal to the principle of double-effect in order to demonstrate that a proposed act is not intrinsically immoral? This is exactly backward. The principle of double effect doesn’t determine whether or not an act is intrinsically immoral: rather, the PDE applies only to acts which are not intrinsically immoral.

In order to apply the principle of double-effect, it must first be established that the act is not intrinsically immoral in itself as a specific kind of chosen behavior or concrete act. Appealing to the structures of double-effect – intended effects versus unintended, an intended end caused or not caused by the evil effect, etc – is something which takes place only after it is first established that the act is not intrinsically immoral. The cart comes after the horse.

(UPDATE: The original post which is the discussion context for this one is here.)

Cannibal Morality

October 13, 2006 § 3 Comments

The idea of “aggressive interrogation” is to make the helpless prisoner suffer and extract valuable information – “actionable intelligence” – from him in exchange for removing his suffering.

Arguments that this is licit based on the State’s just power to coerce are equivocal, as far as I can tell. That is, one voice of the argument treats the State’s infliction of suffering on the prisoner as defense of the common good from an aggressor. The other voice of the argument treats the State’s infliction of suffering on the prisoner as a part of the punishment of the prisoner for failing to do what he has a moral obligation to do.

An unstated premise of the first argument, that the State can intend suffering when it uses violent means to defend the common good, is probably wrong. Suffering surely results as an effect of the use of violence in self defense or defense of another; but it seems likely that this suffering must be an unintended effect for the violence to be licit under double effect, with the cessation of the attack being the intended effect. Even if this is not the case, the notion that making a non-combatant helpless prisoner suffer is a species of the use of violence in self-defense is obviously wrong. It seems to me that there is no good reason to see the “aggressive interrogation is self-defense” voice of the argument as anything other than obvious malarky. There isn’t anything that the prisoner is actively doing which we can stop him from doing, using violent means or otherwise. It is what he is not doing that we want to change; and when it is what a helpless prisoner is not doing that we want to change we are clearly within the realm of discipline and punishment, not defense.

So the second voice of the equivocal argument – the voice which says that what we are doing is punishing or disciplining the prisoner for failing to carry out his obligation to tell us where his friends are so we can go kill them – gives people more trouble. I’ve tried to address the dissonance in this reasoning by talking about treating prisoners as objects, cessation of suffering in a market exchange for fungible commodities, etc. I am having a hard time getting this distinction across though. There seems to be a deeply rooted assumption that because we can licitly inflict suffering as punishment, and because just punishment can sometimes involve the punished giving up a fungible commodity (think fines), that there simply can’t be anything wrong with making a prisoner suffer to make him tell us where his friends are, so we can go kill them before they kill us. It seems to me that there is a sort of vampire or cannibal mentality underlying this assumption though: that because the State can licitly draw blood in just punishment it is therefore licit to take a prisoner’s blood and use it in a transfusion for his victims, for example, if no blood of the victim’s type is otherwise available. Or stipulating the liciety of maiming flesh in just punishment means that feeding the flesh of the guilty man to the victims starving because of him is licit, if no other food is available. Or that, stipulating the liciety of inflicting suffering as punishment and that the captive deserves punishment, this means that it is licit to inflict suffering just to get him to tell us where his friends are so we can go kill them before they kill us.

But as Chesterton says, we aren’t the terrible Western white devil because we eat the flesh of our enemies. We are the terrible Western white devil because we don’t.

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