instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, November 02, 2012

Self-defense spadework

Briefly put, the doctrine on self-defense taught by St. Thomas and generally followed by Catholic theologians since is this: It is always a sin for an individual to intentionally kill an attacker, but it is not necessarily sinful for an individual to defend himself in a way that causes the death of the attacker.

If that sounds a bit squirrely, consider this: It is always a sin (says the Church) for a Catholic to intentionally miss Sunday Mass, but it is not always a sin for a Catholic to do something that causes him to miss Sunday Mass.

The general pattern, of course, is this: It is always a sin to act in order to achieve some evil effect (as either the object of the act or the intention of performing the act), but it is not always a sin to act in a way that effects some evil effect. That's the principle St. Thomas states in ST I-II 64,7 that has since been developed into the Principle of Double Effect (PDE), and its validity stems from the fact that the morality of an act depends on the will of the actor. If an effect of an act is not willed by the actor, then the goodness or evil of that effect doesn't affect the objective goodness or evil of the act (though it may affect the circumstantial goodness or evil of the act, which is why there's more to the PDE than the above statement).

I think we can all see that if, through some Rube Goldberg process, my act of telephoning my mother were to cause an orphanage to burn down, that wouldn't make my act of telephoning my mother (which is an objectively good act) morally evil. The wrinkle comes with a foreseeable evil effect. An act which causes a foreseeable evil effect is not, according to Catholic teaching, necessarily evil. If I foresee that my phoning my mother would cause an orphanage to burn down, then (absent even less plausible circumstances) it would be evil of me to phone my mother (in PDE terms, the good effect is not proportionate to the evil effect). But if I foresee that phoning my mother would cause me to overbake a batch of cookies, then it wouldn't be evil of me to phone my mother.

When the proportion of good effect to evil effect is manifestly (I'd like to say "inarguably," but I've been on the Internet for decades) huge or tiny, the PDE produces a generally uncontested result. When the proportion is tighter -- as it is in the case of self-defense, where the good effect is my life continuing and the bad effect is my attacker's life ending -- the result is more disputed. In particular, the Thomistic argument that an act of self-defense that causes the unintended death of the attacker "is not unlawful, seeing that it is natural to everything to keep itself in being, as far as possible," depends on an appeal to a natural privileging of one life over another that some Christians find incompatible with Jesus' teaching (to turn the other cheek, for example).

For my part, I think the legitimacy of self-defense is compatible with the teachings of Jesus; at the same time, I think a lot of contemporary explications of its legitimacy makes self-defense a bizarre exercise in mental gymnastics in no way justified by appeal to St. Thomas....