G.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.