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massacre_holy_innocentsG.K. Chesterton remarked on insanity in Orthodoxy. He said “Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination.” Chesterton explained that the insane man is not unreasonable; he is merely reasonable. I had a bizarre argument with a professor of philosophy concerning the killing of innocents. This philosophy professor was morally insane, not because he lacked reason, but because he only had reason, which he used poorly because he lacked moral imagination. Moral imagination is the cohesive mortar with which to cement the bricks of reason into an edifice of ethics. Without moral imagination the assembled bricks of reason crash down like the Tower of Babel, and all becomes irrational. Reasonable speech with such a professor is met with unintelligible and insulting babble.

Our argument concerned the prohibition against the killing of innocents. I asserted from the beginning that it is never licit to take innocent life and that this is a rule without exceptions. Professor Phil insisted that this was a rule with exceptions and he intended by his counterexample “to show that IN THIS INSTANCE the morally obligatory thing to do is other than what the rule prescribes: to kill an innocent person is the right thing to do.” With the bravado of an intellectual jihadist my interlocutor claimed, “I can propose numerous scenarios in which the taking of innocent life is not only justified, but morally required.” I disagreed. He asserted that my only justification for the absoluteness of this rule was an appeal to phantasmagoric revelation. I challenged that this moral precept was discoverable by natural reason alone, and thus one of the most absurd philosophical debates in history began.

Phil smugly put forward the scenario he claimed was a counter-example to the inviolable rule prohibiting the killing of innocents as follows:

A murderous Nazi takes one hundred people hostage, including me. He starts killing the people one at a time, and then he says that he will kill everyone unless one person volunteers to strangle one of the living hostages. Now, suppose one of the hostages volunteers to be strangled, saying they have terminal cancer and less than a month to live. Is it morally permissible to strangle this innocent volunteer to save everyone? Or should I honor that precept to not kill an innocent?

It was beyond his wildest calculations of logical certitude that I did not instantly agree with him, such was the myopic clarity of his stilted justification for killing the innocent. But of course, a moral man can never readily agree to such an evil course of action, and I told him so. I began with the first moral principle that says “always do good and avoid evil.” In this case there is no justification for killing the innocent man–though I will concede there are subtle, sophisticated, and nuanced discussions to be had concerning moral culpability and justice under such extreme circumstances when inhumane duress is such a prominent factor.

This initial shot over the bow invited ad-hominem insults and irrational accusations, and the argument began to rage. As we went back and forth, I asserted several different arguments, and though many words were exchanged, Phil only pretended to address one argument and refused to “lower himself” to dignify the others with a response. The following are some of the points I tried to get across that went unaddressed by Professor Phil, other than his trying to dismiss them via an indignant pretense conveyed by the breath of false erudition.

I asserted that a moral end can never come from an evil act. The act of killing in this case must be understood in terms of essences and accidents. If Phil decides it is right to kill the innocent because he believes the act will save lives, he is confusing essences and accidents. The essential act of killing the innocent would lead to the primary end of the death of the innocent, and by the principle of double effect, the secondary accidental effect might be to save the rest of the prisoners… maybe. It is a maybe, because it is foolish to take a murderous Nazi at his word.

Maybe he lets them live and maybe he does not: The Nazis do not have a great track record in this regard, and this Nazi has already killed a few. But Phil mistakenly thought that the act of killing the innocent constituted the power to save the other innocent lives. This is not the case. He claims his intention in killing the innocent is to save the others, but that is like intending to feed the hungry in a soup kitchen by beating and robbing a homeless person. The moral agency to cause the desired effect is nonexistent; it can only be an accidental second effect even if the confused moral agent would like to intend it as primary, and therefore it is not rational to assume the saving of the other prisoners to be a primary effect of killing an innocent.

The above argument elicited from Professor Phil protestations against religious arrogance and the rigidity of rule following and he told me to “stop babbling.” He went so far as to call me “Euthyphro,” which is ironic considering Professor Phil was expressing a rigid adherence to his untethered “reason” in the same way Euthyphro was rigidly adhering to his faulty notions of piety.

I introduced the argument concerning the common good which comes from Thomas Aquinas. St. Thomas explains that the common good is made up of virtuous acts from virtuous men, and the addition to the common good can only come by way of virtuous acts. Unvirtuous acts subtract from the common good; so too does evil for the common good does not follow morally or reasonably. Therefore to kill an innocent could not contribute to the common good. Fuming radio silence from Professor Phil.

I turned to the work of the Catholic ethicist Jay Budziszewski, who said, “The law punishing murder is based on the moral ideas that innocent blood should not be shed, that private individuals should not take the law into their own hands, and that individuals should be held responsible for their deeds. In a moral sense, the evil doer suffers guilt. Natural law and natural rights work together. I have a duty not to murder you; you have a right to your life—this right is the most basic and self-evident law, universally recognized by almost everyone.” To ignore these truths because some sociopathic Nazi is playing murderous mind games does not justify, in any meaningful sense, the killing of an innocent. The purview to pretend to assume its rightness requires omniscience not available to humans.

Professor Phil also refused to lower himself to address Mr. Budziszewski’s points, instead asserting a further reduction to convince me: “Suppose I had omniscience in the first place—let’s say I am a person who can accurately foretell the future based on how I act in the present. And I foresee with 100% accuracy that if I do nothing, all one hundred will die. And if I kill the innocent person, ninety-nine people will be saved.” He insisted that once I see the import of this that I will see that my objections hold no water. He then concluded that “you will not concede that it is ever in principle okay to kill an innocent person. Which means you are totally lacking in reasonableness. You simply want to win the argument.”

Professor Phil is right that I will not concede, but not because I lack reasonableness or that I want to win. I simply do not want to be immoral. I added that Phil’s counterexample to the fundamental moral law of taking innocent life is arrogant, presumptuous, and reductive to the point of absurdity. It calls for him to be judge, jury, and executioner of an innocent man when, if he acts on the murderous challenge, he is only an instrument of an evil sociopath. It represents an ends-justifies-the-means immorality based on utilitarian motives; it is plainly and simply consequentialism—and therefore immoral.

Professor Phil’s final statement to me was “I grow weary of trying to reason with you. My point is that you are a hypocrite.” He was referring to the point I made about omniscience. He would not allow me to suggest that the moral man can attack and kill the Nazi; in doing so he would not be killing an innocent and would in fact be justified in his action. By way of demonstrating my hypocrisy, Professor Phil irrationally said, “You cannot morally kill the murderous Nazi even to save an innocent life.” He went on to say, “You would have to take the word of a crazy person that he was really going to do what he said he was going to do. Without omniscience, you cannot know that, right? So you cannot be sure he is going to kill an innocent person just because he says so. And if you kill him and he was never going to, then you will have killed an innocent man. You have to wait till he kills an innocent.”

These words are nearly his silliest because he is claiming a false equivalence between the Nazi and the innocent victim of the Nazi. Also, in his original assertion he stated that “the Nazi started killing one at a time.” But even if he had not, the Nazi is not innocent by virtue of taking the innocents as prisoners in the first place. When the home invader breaks into your house, you do not wait for him to kill one of your children before you act. This entire argument was a prime example of a man religiously and rigidly bound to reason in the absence of the moral imagination. The aftermath is philosophical and moral babble.

Professor Phil closed by stating “you have not created a single difficulty for my counterexample. Simplistic arguments that come from Catholic Sunday school… are ridiculous and I will not address them.” Well Professor Phil surely did not address them. I will leave it to the reader to decide if they were justifiably dismissed.

I ended by quoting Catholic apologist Dr. Peter Kreeft, who said: “What utilitarians forget is that there really is such a thing as justice, and it may never be ignored if we are to be moral. We may go beyond it, to mercy, but never below it, to pure pragmatism. We also know by natural reason that we are obligated to do right things, for right motives, and in right circumstances. Legalists confine themselves to the first, subjectivists to the second, and utilitarians or situational relativists to the third.” Clearly Professor Phil is the third. It is a basic moral truth that any moral agent, when considering the right moral act, must consider all three: An act must be good and moral, the context must be rightly ordered for the good act, and the moral agent’s intention must be for the common good by the intended end of the act. By this standard, there is no possible justification for the taking of innocent life in Professor Phil’s maddening scenario or any other.

We all know by rational conscience that we are obligated never to do evil, and we also know many things that are really good or really evil. We all know, deep down, that deliberately murdering innocent people is a wrong thing to do, that the taking of innocent life is always evil, and that there are no exceptions to this basic moral principle.

Dr. Kreeft, with common sense and moral imagination, would tell us that “the good end does not by itself justify the intrinsically evil means. Once you start making exceptions for cancer patients, you let the camel’s nose under the tent and the whole camel comes through. If cancer, what about diabetes? If one, why not two? If strangling is OK, what about torturing? How much torturing? Suppose you could save a whole planet by torturing one little child? That is Ivan Karamazov’s argument, and though he uses it to try to prove atheism, he is right in his premise. What is wrong is wrong.”

Once we proclaim that there is an exception to the prohibition against taking innocent life, everything becomes permissible; and when everything becomes permissible, morality no longer exists; and by that reasoning, without the moral imagination, the common good suffers unto death. We find ourselves sliding down that slippery slope at a time when morally insane professors across the country support, justify, and even promote the legalization of the killing of innocents.

The author wishes to extend special thanks to Thomas Hardt and Drew Vincent for helping him disentangle sophistry from common sense in this debate. Please note that this essay has been edited since it was first published so as to report Prof. Phil’s words more accurately.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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Published: Feb 27, 2015
Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg
Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. A convert to Catholicism, he is a catechist, a school teacher, and a writer and speaker on matters of faith, culture, and education. He holds a degree in History from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Steven is a member of the Teacher Advisory Board and writer of curriculum at the Sophia Institute for Teachers, a contributor to the Integrated Catholic Life, Crisis Magazine, The Civilized Reader, The Standard Bearers, Catholic Exchange, and a founding member of the Brinklings Literary Club.
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8 replies to this post
  1. Why is the popular (among rational people) fallacy that the decree one cannot achieve a good end by a bad means is a “religious” argument? One or two secular philosophers have also noted this, have they not?

    Or is “religion”, the strawman symbolizing ignorance and stupidity which allows faulty “reasoning” to be let off the hook of its own contradictions?

  2. Whether any rule has an exception depends on who made the rule and what stipulations were added. If the rule is human, then, in terms of morality, it will have exceptions–that is if we accept the limitations of our finiteness. And if the source of the rule is God, then we need to know the rule precisely as well as any further stipulations. That might seem obvious to most, but the problem can lie in determining the identity of the source because of our proclivity to enjoy delusions of grandeur.

    As for the hypothetical, we should note that when one murders an innocent person for a ‘righteous’ reason, that one is still killing something vitally important inside of oneself.

    Also, the teaching about never murdering comes to a real head in times of war. For innocents on all sides are killed. And even when they are not targeted, acts of war make their deaths inevitable which violates the prohibition against murder.

    Currently, it seems that we all too easily accept the inevitable deaths of innocent people for a greater good. We often do that for the sake of a stronger economy. We also do that during war. We also potentially do that when we damage the environment. The tragedy is that these are not hypotheticals on which we have time to ponder. And all of this is what we should remember especially when we are ready to judge those who deliberately target their victims. It isn’t that such people don’t deserve judgment; it is that their deserved verdict also indicts us.

    • We Swiss have and have had a strong economy. Whom have we killed for “the sake” of that? What on earth does an economy have to do with murder? I believe you are confusing categories here.

      • Thomas,
        The issue isn’t only determined by where one’s troops are sent and what they do. The issue is also who suffers because of the injustices of the economic system. And unjust suffering can occur from labor conditions such as sweatshop, trafficked labor, or slave labor. Unjust suffering can also occur because of wealth distribution. Unjust suffering can occur because of the regimes that are used to support a particular economic system–think of Pinochet and Chile in 1973. Pollution is another killer.

        There is usually no alarm in the privileged countries when the victims of its economic system are invisible. And by invisible, that means they are out of sight living in some distant and removed location.

        For a specific example, think about chocolate and all of the ways workers who harvest cocoa beans are enlisted. Then think about their working conditions and so forth. I would hope that the Swiss are completely innocent there. I know that we Americans are not.

        • I’m not sure what your point is. The coffee I am drinking right now came from Columbia. I don’t know how much your average Columbian bean picker makes, but let’s say $1/hr. Would they be better off making $5/hr processing cocaine instead? Or making $0.25/hr working for some Marxist dictator like Castro, but guaranteed “Free” health care … provided, of course, they were compliant little sheep who never criticized the government?

          • Eric,
            So as long as we can point to actions that are more immoral than ours, what we do wrong can be swept under the rug? Does such an ethic indicate that we are embracing moral relativity?

            And can we in every case determine the lesser of all evils especially when we have a conflict of interests when judging our own sins?

  3. Dear Good Readers at The Imaginative Conservative

    This essay has hit the mark. Its central point is that there is an inviolable rule prohibiting the killing of innocents. Aquinas, Kreeft and Budziszewski speak convincingly enough for us to concur with them if we are to be morally ordered in accord with the law written on our hearts. This will not do for much of academia. Many of those who consider themselves the teaching class by subjectivism and sophistry beg to differ and make forceful cases. Abortion, euthanasia and many other forms the killing of innocents proceeding from the culture of death are what is at stake here.

    However, I have to make a public apology for careless recounting and two quotes that were found to be inaccurate. I took tens of thousands of words of an argument and tried to make a coherent narrative for an audience, but in doing so I took license to truncate two assertions from my interlocutor, I did the same with my positions and their articulations. I have since replaced Professor Phil’s two truncated quotes with accurate quotes, yet the public admission has to be made that I erred in judgment by letting word constraints minimize my opponents position in two preliminary quotes. There was no malice aforethought, for it is in everyone’s best interest if I present my opponents positions in their strongest terms. Ironically, after replacing the two minimized quotes with Professor Phil’s accurate words, his position is weakened further. Yet still, whether or not his comments make him look worse is not relevant to providing accurate statements, the error was mine and it was sloppy.

    I asked the professor to write a rebuttal essay to correct my positions and he declined claiming something like, and here I paraphrase accurately his intention, he would not because he believes he would be unable to convince this audience of the correctness of his positions. Herein lies the difference between Imaginative Conservatives and those who occupy the Ivory Tower, we write here regardless of who we may or may not convince because we write from and about principles of truth. Most in academia work from a base of calculation and this is precisely the disordered “ends justifies the means” thinking that is at the root of this disagreement. Good moral beings are not concerned with outcomes, but properly ordered means and ends.

    Rest assured that in the future, when I am quoting academics, I will be careful to quote accurately. In this particular case, the accurate quotes have little bearing on the argument and I contend that Professor Phil has swallowed the utilitarian camel while straining at the gnats. Since publication of this article the professor has buried me in a tsunami of harsh words which focus on the pedantic periphery of this discussion. Most of his words comprise personal insults of stupidity (I gladly acknowledge) dishonesty (I deny) unchristian behavior (perhaps, I will check with my priest) and several false demonstrations of my untutored naiveté (though untutored and naïve I may be, after all I went to the public schools). Surely he is not all wrong, but these are not the issues which are important to this debate, either the professor is right that his counter example constitutes an exception to the rule or it doesn’t. One can read the scenario he provided and reason through it. In the absence of a rebuttal from the effusive professor Phil, it is up to the audience to adjudicate.

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