Is Human Life Really Inviolable?
Moral philosophers and theologians sometimes speak of the inviolability of human life, by which they mean that human life has such a high value that to act against it in a way that harms it or destroys it constitutes a violation. Whether this violation always qualifies as unlawful or unjust has been a matter of much debate. Massive amounts of ink have been spilt to demarcate the line between lawful and unlawful killing, and the line has often been drawn between the killing of the innocent or righteous and the killing of the guilty. You won’t find many people who would call murder just, and absolute pacifists are as rare as socialist conventions in Lubbock.
Peacenik that I am, I cannot bring myself to condemn every taking of human life. On the other hand, I cannot escape the nagging thought that the violation resulting from the act of killing must always be an evil. If a just response to life means giving life what it is due, and if human life is inviolably due promotion, support, respect, and nourishment, then to violate life by taking it, for whatever reason, is to act contrary to what is due to human life and therefore to act unjustly.
St. Thomas Aquinas disagreed, arguing that man can be considered both in himself and in relation to the common good. While considering man in himself leads to the conclusion that killing any man is unlawful, considering man in relation to the common good reveals that killing can become lawful if it’s done in relation to the common good. In one sense, I understand this analysis. Different standpoints of considering the same object will often lead to different conclusions about that object. Nevertheless, I don’t see how bringing the common good into the total consideration removes the obligation of respect due to the inviolability of human life. Killing a human being for the sake of the common good is still killing a human being whose life is inviolable. The life doesn’t lose the property of inviolability just because one has good reason to take the life. In this analysis, it would appear that human life, valuable though it may be, is not really inviolable, at least not in a way of much significance. A weak inviolability, maybe?
The violability of human life is further illustrated by the demarcation between the killing of the innocent or righteous and the killing of the guilty. If the killing of the former is always wrong and the killing of the latter may be right, then it would seem that inviolability is not a property of human life itself, but rather a property of contingent aspects or qualities of human life—innocence and righteousness. No violation necessarily results from executing a serial killer or taking out a terrorist because these human beings are not worthy of the lives they live. Their lives are not inviolable. If this is the case, then human life isn’t really inviolable, not in itself, at least not in a very meaningful way.
I tend toward the view that human life itself is inviolable, and that while taking someone’s life may be justified, there remains an element of evil in every act of killing. Killing is always wrong, even when it’s right. This is an odd thing for me to say. Perhaps my thinking here is mistaken, confused, or fallacious. Or perhaps moral thought itself cannot make coherent sense of killing.