Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The destruction of innocent life

By way of Paul Raymont I found this article by Christopher Howse about Anthony Kenny on Anscombe. Raymont rightly recommends the comments by Allectus at the end of the article, one of which reads:
I don't think it ever makes sense to say that an act, even one which deliberately brings about the destruction of innocent life , must be always and absolutely morally wrong.

Those who insist on this principle (sometimes called "the principle of double effect") seem not to appreciate the distinction between something being always undesirable in itself and its never being justified under any circumstances. We can all envisage consequences far worse than the destruction of a single innocent life: but following this principle, it would never be permissible to sacrifice this one innocent life (if this sacrifice were, in Elizabeth Anscombe's words, both "intended and foreseen") in order to save a hundred, a thousand or even a million such lives. I find this attitude incomprehensible.

Of course, I do not deny that taking a deliberate decision to destroy an innocent life involves very real and very grave costs and risks; but as long as we are honest with ourselves about these costs and risks, such decisions (which should be taken only at the highest level, and then only in time of war or other emergency) should always come down to a pragmatic and realistic assessment of the likely costs and benefits.
I sympathize, but I also think that this doesn't really work as a criticism of Anscombe's position. She does, after all, believe in God, and that God has categorically forbidden the intentional "sacrifice" of one innocent life. This makes a huge difference to what she would consider pragmatic and realistic.

She also rejects even thinking about what one ought to do if (unrealistically) one 'had to' murder one to save millions. It is part of her faith that God is unlikely to put anyone in such a position, but this is not her main point on such matters. Her main point is that it is important for us to remain committed to refusing to commit murder, even though we could find ourselves in a situation in which it would be hard to think of a better course of action. I think she accepts that it is conceivable that there might be no better course of action (at least that an ordinary mortal would think of), but she objects to the suggestion that we ought to think about such things. They invite corruption. I find this attitude not only comprehensible but quite attractive.


  1. Chris Cowley has a new paper out that is related to this. See here (I hope to say something about it on my blog; am still digesting). It raises a question related to that concerning the "unthinkable." I, too, find something about the Anscombe position (and echoes of it in things Rai Gaita has said about torture) appealing, but as I think about the idea of the "unthinkable" there is some amount of paradox here, insofar as one might need to do some thinking to clarify what it is that is "unthinkable"...(this isn't very well-stated...but the idea, I think, is that it isn't pointless to seek to give an account of the horror of certain things, but this is going to be done by looking at very different kinds of examples--real, fleshy examples--rather than the kind of stripped-down dilemmas that reduce the discussion to thin categories like costs and benefits).

  2. Thanks, Matt. That looks like an excellent paper.

    One thing literature (and some history, psychology, etc.) does is to look carefully at unthinkable things. Crime and Punishment , Macbeth, (serious) books about serial killers, maybe the book about cannibalism (or maybe not) that you wrote about recently, for instance, might all be said to do this. And there's nothing wrong with that. But there might also be places where we shouldn't even look, just as it's (usually) wrong to dig up a grave. I doubt there's anything we can do to determine where we shouldn't look, though, and much would seem to depend on the motive or the spirit in which one looks. An open casket funeral is one thing, wanting to see a corpse is another. Clarifying the concept of the unthinkable seems worthwhile, but maybe you could do so by mapping the limits of where it is decent to tread, not by crossing over those limits. Or maybe not.

    Cowley also raises the question of politeness. I've only glanced at what he says, but he seems to question Jean Kazez's treatment of Benatar's book precisely because she is so respectful even while disagreeing. I find this admirable in her, but perhaps there is such a thing as too much courtesy. For instance, people (philosophers) now seem to talk about "torturing babies for fun" as an obviously wrong thing, out of deference (presumably) to colleagues who think that simply torturing babies is not obviously wrong. That's something that Anscombe would surely have regarded as a creeping kind of corruption. It might take rudeness to stop the creep.

  3. Good point about creeping. (But it is, after all, worse if you do it just for fun...) I'm inclined to agree about Kazez, but maybe that's compatible with what I think is Cowley's implicit question: is Benetar's book really to be seen as a work of "moral philosophy"?

    In the midst of this, I started thinking again about the chapter on evil (and Paul West) in Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello, which explores this idea (via Costello) that there are places we shouldn't go. Very good to put West in the room. I wonder what happens if we put Chris Cowley in the room with Benetar. (Would that be experimental philosophy?...)

  4. That kind of experimental philosophy could be fun.

    I haven't read Benetar's book or Cowley's article, but there does seem to be a kind of contradiction in saying that life is bad. Unless you then immediately commit suicide. Or else live a tragic life of longing to die but feeling obliged (like Ralph Walker's Kant?) to avoid suicide. Or else you are Schopenhauer or some kind of Buddhist.

    If Benetar's argument leads in that kind of direction then I guess it would have to count as moral philosophy. Likewise if it acts as a reductio of a certain type of philosophy.

    As for torturing babies, I don't know what's worse. Someone who did it for fun could be not guilty because of mental illness. People who do it for other reasons might not have that excuse. And I don't think we can just stipulate ex hypothesi that the fun-seeking baby-torturer is not insane.

  5. Wanting to discuss exactly what makes torturing babies unthinkable – the horror of which is evident beyond the need of explanation, for most of us -- might seem like an intellectual virtue. We should be prepared to discuss anything, some say. Anscombe and Gaita disagree. A society, they claim, is in part defined by what questions it finds discussable and what questions -- like public castraction of all homosexuals -- it finds morally in-discussable. So asking such questions might lead to corruption. It can be very hard to keep the sense of horror alive when one is foreced to think seriously and repetedly about the unthinkable. I believe Raimond Gaita has argued to this effect when talking about torture. Still, this doesn’t mean it would always be pointless to try to give an account of why something, torture, say, is and should remain unthinkable. But we ought to wait for a good (or bad) reason before making the effort. When the question has been asked -- and the ball is already in motion, as it were -- it might be necessary and a good idea to try our very best to explain why torture (despite all possible benifits) is horrible and why even the question should never have been raised. (But intellectuals who makes modest proposals ”just to provoke a debate”, as we sometimes hear, should perhaps be met with silence.)

  6. Yes, I'm not sure that there is any good answer or solution to the problem. If you refuse to get involved in debates about the ethics of torture, for instance, then those debates go on anyway, being pro-torture becomes a thinkable position, and torture continues (as it perhaps would anyway, of course). But if you enter the debate you can no longer really make the objection that torture is unthinkable or just obviously wrong. And that seems like a kind of victory for torture too. The best thing might be to make movies or write novels that make clear the horror of torture. But that would be hard to do, of course, and might make no difference to what people do.