No Intentional Killing of the Innocent: A Response to Miscamble and O’Brien


The absolute prohibition of intrinsically evil acts is the limit on one’s positive obligations.

I thank Fr. Miscamble and Matthew O’Brien for their responses to my essays on moral absolutes and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They make a number of interesting and provocative points. I’m afraid my response will be more like a Christmas stocking than the main present: several small items, rather than one neatly packaged and wrapped gift. Still, it is intended in the spirit of giving!

Fr. Miscamble notes that my critique is “hardly original.” Without a doubt: He cites as precedent the work of Anscombe, Grisez, Finnis, Boyle, and Veritatis Splendor. I had quoted Gaudium et Spes, but could have instead quoted Pius XII, or any major figure from the Catholic tradition who had considered the matter. Aquinas, for example, writes that it is “in no way lawful to slay the innocent” (ST, 2–2, q. 64, a. 6, c.). The condemnation of the intentional killing of the innocent is as firmly taught a moral precept in the Catholic tradition as any.

In fact, this utter lack of originality points to my deepest underlying worry with Fr. Miscamble’s book, at which I gestured toward the end of my review. The question I put to Fr. Miscamble is whether the demands of pro-life, and indeed Catholic, integrity should call forth more than the casual dismissal that the teaching of Veritatis Splendor receives in his essay. Because I think it renders both absolute opposition to abortion and any demand to absolute obedience to the Church incoherent, I am deeply disturbed by his willingness, also displayed by other Catholic reviewers of his book such as Fr. Michael Orsi or Michael Novak, selectively to abandon Church teaching on the ethics of killing when the good of the nation is at stake.

Miscamble rests his defense of Truman, it seems, on a willingness to accept that Truman pursued the least of the evil options available to him. Miscamble’s judgment is that the atomic bombing was “in isolation … a deeply immoral act.” Because it resulted in the least loss of life and ended a bloody war, however, Miscamble apparently believes Truman’s decision to have been justified.

At the same time, Miscamble denies that he accepts a utilitarian approach to morality, “in which good ends can justify certain immoral actions.” But either Miscamble believes that the bombing was not immoral precisely because it brought about the least bad state of affairs, in which case his reasoning is indeed utilitarian, or he thinks that Truman’s action was both immoral and somehow justified. His advertence to Machiavelli suggests the latter; but here again we have something deeply contrary both to the Catholic moral tradition and, I think, to sound reason.

The insistent voice of the New Testament is one demanding moral perfection: “as my Father in heaven is perfect.” Such demands are met with astonishment by the apostles: “if that is true, better that no man should marry.” But Christ never backs down from these demands, never softens them with the counsel to choose the “lesser” evil.

Nor does subsequent tradition embrace “lesser evil” thinking; rather, with St. Paul, it embraces the principle that evil is never to be done that good—including, surely, the good of avoiding a greater evil—come about. How that tradition can be squared with the idea that anyone, anywhere, could be “forced by necessity to enter into evil” eludes me entirely, and we are given no indication in Fr. Miscamble’s essay of how to square this circle.

Rather, we are given the red herring that my approach is too “abstract,” and the accusation that I have offered “no serious proposals regarding a viable alternative.”

The charge of “abstractness” is truly a red herring. If there are moral absolutes—principles asserting that certain kinds of acts are never to be done—they are unavoidably general, and their applicability is not changed by circumstances, so long as the kind of act in question remains the same. No amount of “getting into the head” of the adulterer or abortion-seeker, no amount of attention to the “hard circumstances” of the contraceptor, will change the moral judgment of the licitness of adultery, abortion, or contraception. Such sympathetic engagement is certainly necessary in order to avoid unwarranted judgment of the person; but that is a different matter, and I did not, I should note, ever “denounce Truman as a ‘mass-murderer.’”

Moreover, I deny the responsibility to give much consideration to viable alternatives in this case. What the best options were for Truman, once immoral options had been ruled out, was a matter of military expertise and prudence. I am doubtful that those options would have been whittled down to doing “absolutely nothing.” After all, it is something of an historical contingency that the atomic bomb was completed when it was, and Truman should have been prepared to do something, again within the bounds of the moral, without it.

I want again to reiterate my admiration for Fr. Miscamble and his pro-life witness; it is because I share with him a recognition that this most radical cause is also today’s most important moral issue that I am as “forthright” as I am in voicing disagreement with his judgment about Truman’s choice. For the reasons I have detailed above, I do suspect that the pro-life garment is in danger of unraveling, a suspicion that seems confirmed by consideration of the record for human life in the years since World War II. “Forced by necessity to enter into evil” has been a justification every bit as available to private individuals as to heads of state, with lethal consequences for the unborn.

Matthew O’Brien joins the debate over the intentional killing of the innocent to make a more general point about moral absolutes: They cannot be “justified” without belief in a divine legislator.

O’Brien holds this view while also holding that it can be known without such a belief that certain acts are intrinsically evil. I take this to mean that in themselves—apart from their consequences—such acts do nothing but damage human beings or their basic goods. One can know, according to O’Brien, that such acts are intrinsically evil, but without belief in a divine law-giver, one will not be able to know that such acts are never to be done.

Let me identify a thesis, similar to O’Brien’s, with which I agree: Without situating our practical understanding of, and adherence to, moral absolutes, within a larger theistic framework, I think it unlikely that many people, today or ever, will have the moral fortitude to maintain their allegiance to such absolutes in the face of strong temptations. Refusing to lie, though one’s life will be forfeit; refusing to kill an innocent man, though the nation will suffer; or refusing to make use of modern technologies for baby-making or baby-avoiding when great goods and evils are at stake—the price, in many people’s minds, will be felt as simply too high, and they will lose their grip on the moral absolutes. (Robert Miller makes a similar point in his response to O’Brien.) Remembering that, as Christian tradition teaches, for example, our good acts will be redeemed in the Kingdom of Heaven is, I think, essential for most, if not all, of us to keep a motivational grip on our allegiance to moral absolutes.

But recognizing that an action is intrinsically evil seems to me to involve recognition that therefore it is not to be done unless a rational justification for doing it can be provided. And this is what seems impossible. If deliberately killing tens or hundreds of thousands of innocent Japanese is itself “intrinsically evil” (quoting O’Brien) or “deeply immoral” (quoting Miscamble), then there is in it, as such, no good. So it must be justified, if at all, only because the good of its consequences promises to outweigh the evil of the act itself.

In the specific case of Hiroshima, say, as in all other cases of absolutes, I deny that such an outweighing is possible. What, for example, in the lives of Americans saved was as such a greater good than the lives of the Japanese women and children who were killed? Did the lives of those Americans leave the world with all the good of the lives of the killed Japanese and more? Surely not: Those Japanese lives were lost, never to be recovered on this earth. The idea of a “greater good” here makes no sense.

So no justification exists for asserting that something intrinsically evil may or should be done. But some will deny this; should they be convinced if they come to believe that God has commanded that such acts be avoided? I do not see, in O’Brien’s essay or elsewhere, why God’s command should suffice to justify, unless (and here again I admit to an argument that is “hardly original”) it were independently intelligible—justified—that God’s commands were not to be flouted. Otherwise, God is merely being appealed to as someone with the biggest stick, who can offer sufficient rewards and incentives to make doing something otherwise foolish become desirable and rational.

O’Brien makes a second point about the need for God: to hedge against the possibility of tragic dilemmas. I understand such dilemmas, if there are any, to be circumstances in which, whatever an agent does, he will do wrong through no previous fault of his own. Here is where it is essential that moral absolutes are always framed in terms of what is not to be done; positive obligations—to feed one’s family, to show reverence to one’s country, to care for the poor—by contrast, are not, at an abstract level, absolute, and are always limited by the need to comply with the negative absolutes. If feeding one’s family requires murder, then one may not feed them.

Can universal, negative, absolute moral norms ever conflict? O’Brien says that I do not argue for this. But I ask whether anyone has ever shown that not lying means that one will thereby intentionally kill an innocent, or that not intentionally killing an innocent means that one will forswear one’s faith, or that not committing adultery means that one will thereby contracept, and so on. It seems clear that in the limit case, refraining from willing and doing that which would violate every applicable moral absolute will always be a possibility, even if the consequences threatened by other bad men will be awful and such that, in some other set of circumstances, one might have a positive responsibility to prevent them.

There is much else to say here, but, alas, the stocking is full. Disagreement with my pro-life friends is no treat in itself, but I am grateful for their patience, and for a forum such as Public Discourse where internal differences can be aired with honesty and civility. I wish nothing but the best for Fr. Miscamble, Matthew O’Brien, and all others with whom I have had constructive and truth-seeking conversation here over this past year.

Christopher O. Tollefsen is professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina and a visiting fellow in the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. He is the author, with Robert P. George, of Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, the second edition of which recently has been released. Tollefsen sits on the editorial board of Public Discourse.


Related Reading


Web Briefings