Mirror of Justice

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Integrity and exceptionless moral norms

The recent debate among pro-lifers about legitimate and illegitimate tactics in the cause of protecting unborn babies has garnered valuable contributions from several of the pro-life movement's most dedicated, gifted, and accomplished thinkers, notably including Hadley Arkes, truly the "dean" of pro-life philosophers in the United States (here: http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2011/02/2631); Christopher Tollefsen (here: http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2011/02/2529, here: http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2011/02/2547, and here:  http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2011/02/2648); Christopher Kaczor (here: http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2011/02/2538); Francis Beckwith (here:  http://www.thecatholicthing.org/columns/2011/live-action-and-telling-falsehoods.html), and, this morning, Carson Holloway (here: http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2011/02/2658).

All of these thinkers hold (I believe) that there are certain moral absolutes, i.e., exceptionless moral norms.  But what is the nature of such norms?  Do they exclude certain acts describable in non-evaluative terms, e.g. performing sex acts on a person without her consent (what is ordinarily called rape); acting with the goal of causing one's own death (what is ordinarily called suicide); engaging in sexual relations with someone who is not one's spouse (what are ordinarily called adultery and fornication); making false assertions (what is ordinarily called lying), etc., tout court, or only when they are committed without justification?

According to one view, although lying is intrinsically (and therefore always) wrong, deliberately speaking falsely to prevent evil doers from killing innocent people is not "lying."  Someone lies, according to proponents of this view, only when he deliberately speaks falsely without justification.  Sometimes, they insist, speaking falsely is justified.  For example, asserting something one knows to be false to a Nazi to prevent him from locating a victim he intends to send to a death camp is not lying.  So, in their view, the exceptionless norm against "lying" is not a norm that forbids speaking falsely when speaking falsely is justified.

Of course, no one believes that it is morally permissible to tell the murderer at the door the truth about the whereabouts of his prospective victims.  After all, he has no right to the truth. (Indeed, telling him the truth would be far more gravely immoral than lying to him.) The question is whether it is permissible to tell him something that one knows or believes to be false---i.e., in ordinary parlance, to lie to him.  Many people seem to think that it is obviously permissible.  To ask the question is to answer it.  Since it is not obvious to lots of other people, and has been contradicted by some of history''s greatest philosophers and religious thinkers, and runs contrary to the teaching of the magisterium of the Catholic Church, I wonder why.  My guess is that it seems to some that there is simply nothing to be gained, and a great deal to be lost, by refusing to lie (i.e., to say what one knows or believes to be false) to the Nazi or other murderer.  The lie (or, if we are to define lying as unjustified false speaking, the untruth) in itself seems to do no harm, and may do enormous good (by frustrating the evil doer's efforts to find his prospective victims).

But if we shift from the issue of speaking falsely to, say, performing a sex act on someone against her will, I think we can see how complicated and unobvious things are.

Let us suppose that it is 1943 and you are sheltering seven persecuted people, mostly children, in your large home in Munich.  To protect them, and to help destroy the Nazi regime, you infiltrate a group that specializes in hunting down hidden Jews and other persecuted people and sending them to the death camps. This ensures that your own home will not be searched---it is, after all, yours, and you have persuaded the Nazi thugs that you are one of them.  You've had some success.  For example, because of your access to inside information, you were able to tip off in advance of a raid a priest who was sheltering a family in the crypt of his parish church.  He moved the family out of the church to a safe place before the raid occurred.  But it raised some suspicion within the Nazi group that there was a "traitor" in their midst.  One day, you are at the group's headquarters when a captured girl is brought in.  Suddenly the leader of the group exclaims, "she is to be raped before we kill her."  He points to you:  "rape her," he orders.  Another member of the group, an incredibly brutal Nazi named Heinrich, says, "hey, let me do it."  "No," the leader replies, "I want him [i.e., you] to do it." From the leader's manner and expression, you can tell that this is a test.  He suspects that you might be the traitor.  If you refuse to rape her, he will infer that you are indeed the traitor, or may be him, and he will immediately arrest you and search your home.  He will find the seven people you are hiding and send them to their deaths.  Now, remember, if you refuse to commit the rape you've been ordered to commit, it won't make any difference to the victim.  She is going to be raped and killed anyway. (Heinrich is chomping at the bit to commit the atrocity, and he will commit it with the greatest possible brutality.)  But it will make a huge difference to the seven people you are sheltering in your home: they, too, will be brutalized and killed.  What should you do?  Should you rape the girl or not?  Is it not really rape (and not excluded by the exceptionless norm against committing rape) because it is the rare case of the justified performing of a sex act on someone without her consent?  If you refuse to perform the rape, despite the fact that it will be performed---and performed more brutally---anyway, are you making yourself complicit in the deaths of the seven people who, as a result, will be discovered in your home?

In this case, to all outward appearances there is nothing to be gained and much to be lost by not committing the rape.  The girl is made no better off by one's refusal to commit the rape, since it will be committed (even more brutally) by someone no matter what one does, and the seven people being hidden will be made much worse off---they will be sent to their deaths.  Still, I suspect that most pro-life philosophers would agree with me that one should not commit the rape.  And most would agree that refusing to commit the rape does not render one complicit in the deaths of those who are thereby exposed.

Someone might say:  lying to a murderer and raping an innocent child are on entirely different planes.  There is absolutely no analogy between the two cases.  Well, they are indeed very different cases.  But the objection misses the point.  The argument against speaking contrary to one's mind has never been based on the claim that the murderer has a right to be told the truth  Everyone in the debate agrees that he has no such right.  Those who reject speaking falsely argue that the harm of speaking contrary to one's mind is, or at least includes, harm (which may be minor or may be grave) to one's integrity.  The harm in raping the girl is, similarly, harm to integrity.  All rapes do that harm, even a rape that leaves the victim no worse off than she would otherwise be, given that someone is going to commit the rape no matter what, and whose consequences would include preventing the murders of many potential victims.

*It might be helpful to consider a variant of the hypothetical case sketched above---one in which the issue is adultery rather than rape.  In this variant, the victim brought into Nazi headquarters is a woman with whom you have been working, along with her husband, in the underground anti-Nazi movement.  Everything else remains the same up to the point at which brutal Heinrich says, "hey, let me do it."  Even greater terror seizes the victim, for she knows Heinrich all-too-well.  When the Nazi leader says, "no, I want him [i.e., you] to commit the rape," the victim signals you with a quick facial expression pleading with you to do it, in order to spare her from Heinrich.  The Nazis will think it is a rape, because they did not pick up her subtle signaling to you.  In truth, it would be adultery, albeit adultery committed only as a way of preventing a brutal rape.  Should you do it?  Is it justified adultery? If "adultery" is the subject of an exceptionless moral norm, should this be regarded as something other than adultery on the ground that it is justified sex between a married person and someone who is not her spouse?  Or is it truly adultery, and therefore wrong even under these circumstances?  If it is indeed wrong, and as such not to be done, in what does the wrong consist?  (Let us assume that if the victim's husband knew the circumstances, he would wish you to comply with her wishes in order to spare her from Heinrich.)

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