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Anscombe on War and Double Effect

August 20, 2007

Bill Luse from What’s Wrong With the World posts an extended excerpt from Elizabeth Anscombe’s “War and Murder” in Nuclear Weapons: A Catholic Response, 1961. This is important stuff and worth repeating in full. Remember, Anscombe was the person who coined the term “consequentialism”.

“The principal wickedness which is a temptation to those engaged in warfare is the killing of the innocent, which may often be done with impunity and even to the glory of those who do it…Now it is one of the most vehement and repeated teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition that the shedding of innocent blood is forbidden by the divine law. No man may be punished except for his own crime, and those “whose feet are swift to shed innocent blood” are always represented as God’s enemies…

Catholics, however, can hardly avoid paying at least lip-service to that law. So we must ask: how is it that there has been so comparatively little conscience exercised on the subject among them? The answer is: double-think about double-effect.

The distinction between the intended, and the merely foreseen, effects of a voluntary action is indeed absolutely essential to Christian ethics. For Christianity forbids a number of things as being bad in themselves. But if I am answerable for the foreseen consequences of an action or refusal, as much as for the action itself, then these prohibitions will break down. If someone innocent will die unless I do a wicked thing, then on this view I am his murderer in refusing: so all that is left to me is to weigh up evils. Here the theologian steps in with the priniciple of double-effect and says: “No, you are no murderer, if the man’s death was neither your aim nor your chosen means, and if you had to act in the way that led to it or else do something absolutely forbidden.” Without understanding of this principle, anything can be – and is wont to be- justified, and the Christian teaching that in no circumstances may one commit murder, adultery, apostasy (to give a few examples) goes by the board. These absolute prohibitions of Christianity by no means exhaust its ethic; there is a large area where what is just is determined partly by a prudent weighing up of consequences. But the prohibitions are bedrock, and without them the Christian ethic goes to pieces. Hence the necessity of the notion of double effect.

At the same time, the principle has been repeatedly abused from the seventeenth century up till now. The causes lie in the history of philosophy. From the seventeenth century till now what may be called the Cartesian psychology has dominated the thought of philosophers and theologians. According to this psychology, an intention was an interior act of the mind which could be produced at will. Now if intention is all important – as it is – in determining the goodness or badness of an action, then, on this theory of what intention is, a marvellous way offered itself of making any action lawful. You only had to ‘direct your intention’ in a suitable way. In practice this means making a little speech to yourself: “What I mean to be doing is…”

This perverse doctrine has occasioned repeated condemnations by the Holy See from the seventeenth century to the present day. Some examples will suffice to show how the thing goes. Typical doctrines from the seventeenth century were that it is all right for a servant to hold the ladder for his criminous master so long as he is merely avoiding the sack by doing so; or that a man might wish for and rejoice at his parent’s death so long as what he had in mind was the gain to himself; or that it is not simony to offer money, not as a price for the spiritual benefit, but only as an inducement to give it. A condemned doctrine from the present day is that the practice of coitus reservatus is permissible: such a doctrine could only arise in connection with that ‘direction of intention’ which sets everything right no matter what one does. A man makes a practice of withdrawing, telling himself that he intends not to ejaculate; of course (if that is his practice) he usually does so, but then the event is accidental and praeter intentionem: it is, in short, a case of ‘double effect.’

This same doctrine is used to prevent any doubts about the obliteration bombing of a city. The devout Catholic bomber secures by ‘a direction of intention’ that any shedding of innocent blood that occurs is ‘accidental’. I know a Catholic boy who was puzzled at being told by his schoolmaster that it was an accident that the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were there to be killed; in fact, however absurd it seems, such thoughts are common among priests who know that they are forbidden by the divine law to justify the direct killing of the innocent.

It is nonsense to pretend that you do not intend to do what is the means you take to your chosen end. Otherwise there is absolutely no substance to the Pauline teaching that we may not do evil that good may come.

Some Commonly Heard Arguments

There are a number of sophistical arguments often or sometimes used on these topics, which need answering.

Where do you draw the line? As Dr. Johnson said, the fact of twilight does not mean you cannot tell day from night. There are borderline cases, where it is difficult to distinguish, in what is done, between means and what is incidental to, yet in the circumstances inseparable from, those means. The obliteration bombing of a city is not a borderline case.

The old “conditions for a just war” are irrelevant to the conditions of modern warfare, so that must be condemned out of hand: People who say this always envisage only major wars between the Great Powers, which Powers are indeed now “in blood stepp’d in so far” that it is unimaginable for there to be a war between them which is not a set of massacres of civil populations. But these are not the only wars. Why is Finland so far free? At least partly because of the “posture of military preparedness” which, considering the character of the country, would have made subjugating the Finns a difficult and unrewarding task. The offensive of the Israelis against the Egyptians in 1956 involved no plan of making civil populations the target of military attack.

In a modern war the distinction between combatants and non-combatants is meaningless, so an attack on anyone on the enemy side is justified: This is pure nonsense; even in war, a very large number of the enemy population are just engaged in maintaining the life of the country, or are sick, or aged or children.

It must be legtimate to maintain an opinion – viz. that the destruction of cities by bombing is lawful – if this is argued by competent theologians and the Holy See has not pronounced: The argument from the silence of the Holy See has itself been condemned by the Holy See (Denziger, 28th Edition, 1127). How could this be a sane doctrine in view of the endless twistiness of the human mind?

Whether a war is just or not is not for the private man to judge: he must obey his government: Sometimes, this may be; especially as far as concerns causes of war. But the individual who joins in destroying a city, like a Nazi massacring the inhabitants of a village, is too obviously marked out as an enemy of the human race, to shelter behind such a plea.

Finally, horrible as it is to have to notice this, we must notice that even the arguments about double-effect – which at least show that a man is not willing openly to justify the killing of the innocent – are now beginning to look old-fashioned. Some Catholics are not scrupling to say that anything is justified in defence of the continued existence and liberty of the Church in the West. A terrible fear of communism drives people to say this sort of thing. “Our Lord told us to fear those who can destroy body and soul, not to fear the destruction of the body” was blasphemously said to a friend of mine; meaning: “so, we must fear Russian domination more than the destruction of people’s bodies by obliteration bombing.”

But whom did Our Lord tell us to fear, when he said: “I will tell you whom you shall fear” and “Fear not them that can destroy the body, but fear him who can destroy body and soul in hell”? He told us to fear God the Father, who can and will destroy the unrepentant disobedient, body and soul, in hell.

A Catholic who is tempted to think on the lines I have described should remember that the Church is the spiritual Israel: that is to say, that Catholics are what the ancient Jews were, salt for the earth and the people of God – and that what was true of some devout Jews of ancient times can equally well be true of us now: “You compass land and sea to make a convert, and when you have done so, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” Do Catholics sometimes think that they are immune to such a possibility? That the Pharisees – who sat in the seat of Moses and who were so zealous for the true religion – were bad in ways in which we cannot be bad if we are zealous? I believe they do. But our faith teaches no such immunity, it teaches the opposite. “We are in danger all our lives long.” So we have to fear God and keep his commandments, and calculate what is best only within the limits of that obedience, knowing that the future is in God’s power and that no one can snatch away those whom the Father has given to Christ.

It is not a vague faith in the triumph of the spirit over force (there is little enough warrant for that), but a definite faith in the divine promises, that makes us believe that the Church cannot fail. Those, therefore, who think they must be prepared to wage a war with Russia involving the deliberate massacre of cities, must be prepared to say to God: “We had to break your law, lest your Church fail. We could not obey your commandments, for we did not believe your promises.”

Anscombe was writing in the midst of the Cold War, when there was genuine fear of the Soviet menace. Nonetheless, she cautioned that one could never do evil to do good. To put it in stark terms, one could not justify the murder of a single innocent person if doing so was the only way to avoid a Communist take over of the whole world. It is interesting how she sees the lure of consequentialism in the Cartesian psychology that views intention as purely subjective. And while she is writing in a different time, her message is pertinent today, as again, fear takes center stage, this time fear of Islamic terrorism. This explains this, more than any other factor, explains the victory of Bush in 2004, and the lure of Guiliani in 2008.

Today, we see the same consequentialist arguments used to justify torture, shooting down planes that may be used as weapons, the abandonment of just war principles as irrelevant in the current situation, refusing to take the nuclear option off the table, playing down the distinction between combatants and non-combatants… the list goes on. Just as Anscombe noted that some Catholics at that time felt that “anything is justified in defence of the continued existence and liberty of the Church in the West” against Soviet expansion, the same holds true today against the menace of terrorism. But it is never licit to do evil in the service of some greater good. “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Mark, 8:35-36).

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