To be ‘pro-life’ requires, I believe, acceptance of one basic moral assertion:  It is always wrong to will directly the death of an innocent human being.  This assertion might more precisely be called ‘pro-human life’, since there are non-human living beings, but that refinement is not generally made and suggests another issue for another occasion.

Moral assertions, rules, and laws are rarely absolute.  Usually a clever person can construct a case whose best resolution seems to require the bending of a rule or the granting of an exception to the rule.  The pro-life rule, however, is absolute.  The rule has two terms that enable it to avoid exceptions.  These terms exclude the need for exceptions because they grant by their very form the possible cases of legitimate killing.  Those terms are the adverb ‘directly’ and the adjective ‘innocent’.  To understand the basic rule a good starting point is to consider precisely these two terms and the refinement and formal exceptions that they embrace.

People opposed to the pro-life position – particularly people who favor permissive abortion and euthanasia laws – often do not understand that position.  Such opponents sometimes accuse pro-life folk of inconsistency or even hypocrisy.  Usually this accusation flows from confusion or fallacious reasoning, though admittedly the confusion can result from mistakes introduced by inarticulate pro-life folk themselves.  In fact, the pro-life position is itself sophisticated and flexible enough to embrace and lead to humane and sensible, though sometimes painful, outcomes.  To vindicate the pro-life position it is necessary for both its defenders and critics to understand it.  That understanding must include the two exceptional terms just noted.

The easier of the two terms is ‘innocent’.  Many religious and secular moral traditions assert the existence of justifiable or moral cases of homicide (the killing of a human).  These cases include several categories of killing in which the person killed is deemed not to be innocent.  In traditional Christian thought such categories include many, though not all, cases of self-defense, defense of innocent others from deadly threats, killing in the course of a just war, and capital punishments executed by lawful civil authority.  The assumption that unites all of these categories is that the person or persons who might be killed are not innocent but rather have qualified or forfeited their right to life by themselves threatening the lives of others.  As a result of this forfeiture:  the murderer may be executed; the man threatening to kill a baby may be prevented from doing so even with deadly force; the invading army may be violently repulsed. [[1]]

The fact that there might be sufficient or some justification for killing in such cases when innocence has been forfeited does not, of course, mean that killing is the best or even an appropriate response.  There is, however, no necessary inconsistency in asserting the legitimacy of killing in such cases while claiming to uphold the pro-life position.  Pro-life folk may and do draw the line in different places without any inconsistency concerning the basic rule they all uphold.  Consistency is maintained because of the presence of ‘innocent’ in the basic pro-life rule.

The second qualifying term in the basic rule is ‘directly’, as in ‘to will directly’.  The idea here is that moral choices and acts of will often have complex results.  If I decide to do X, often Y and Z also will result.  Consider, for example, a decision to bomb a munitions factory in Nazi Germany’s Ruhr valley.  Suppose the factory is building V-2 rockets that are in use as terror bombs against England.  The moral act under consideration is to send bombers against the factory.  Suppose, furthermore, that the bombing of the factory has several foreseeable and likely results:  one result will be to cripple the manufacture of a terror weapon; another result will be the death of some innocent civilians who live near the factory; and, finally, a third result will be a shortening of the war which is costing many lives on all sides.  Bombing the factory will likely produce both good and bad effects or results.  How do we decide such cases?

On the one hand, a reasonable and careful person should consider not only the main result of his action but also other, foreseeable, and likely results.  I am not necessarily absolved of responsibility for harmful consequences of my actions by saying, ‘But that was not what I intended’ or ‘But that was not my main goal.’  In some way, on some level, if Y and Z are likely to accompany X, then if I will X in some way I also will Y and Z.  The act of will in some way embraces all its foreseen, likely consequences.

On the other hand, an action might have an almost infinite number of consequences, as its effects ripple forward into the future.  If the idea that some of those actions might be harmful suffices to prevent moral action, then the result will be paralysis and permanent indecision.  Furthermore, some consequences are desired and intended directly, while others are not desired and would be excluded if possible.  Where do we draw the line when considering possible consequences?  How far does moral responsibility extend?  Are there different kinds of responsibility for results that are directly intended and for results that are not desired and are merely tolerated?

Cases in which a moral action has two or more effects, one (or more) of which is good and one (or more) of which is bad, are traditionally resolved with a casuistic tool called the principle of double effect.  The principle recognizes that on some level all of the foreseeable consequences of an action are included in the agent’s choice, but it distinguishes actions and results that are directly willed, desired, and intended from those that are only tolerated or regretfully accepted.  The principle assumes that the agent will seek to minimize or exclude such bad consequences to the degree possible.  The theory speaks of the agent ‘directly willing’ the ends and purposes he seeks, while ‘indirectly willing’ the likely consequences he would eliminate entirely if possible and that he will in any case at least minimize and regret.

The principle of double effect seeks to prevent the doing of evil that good may result.  It accepts that sometimes doing good will result in some evil, which is regrettable but necessarily tolerable.  The difference between these two things is important.

Let us consider the process of evaluating cases involving double effects by returning to the example of bombing the Nazi munitions factory.  The principle has a few basic steps.

            First, the effect or goal intended or willed needs to be good itself.  Therefore, the bad effect needs to be avoided or minimized if possible.  (To blow up a munitions factory which helps an odious regime kill civilians indiscriminately is a good thing.  If that good thing can be achieved without killing nearby civilians, it must be done in the less damaging way.  I will to blow up the factory for its good effect, regret civilian deaths, and would eliminate those deaths if possible.)

            Secondly, the bad effect must not cause the good effect but rather is itself caused by the good effect.  The bad effect must not precede but follow, or at worst be simultaneous with, the good effect.  (If one bombs civilian neighborhoods in order to create a fire storm that would destroy the factory, the good effect is caused by the bad effect:  the civilian deaths precede the factory’s destruction.  That is immoral.  But to destroy the factory even if some civilian deaths might result from subsequent secondary fires or explosions reverses the order of consequences:  the good effect precedes the bad effect and is not caused by it.)

            Finally, the good achieved must be proportionate to the bad that is tolerated.  (If the munitions factory is of trivial importance and the civilian deaths anticipated are vast in number, the bad effect would be disproportionate to the foreseeable good.  If the civilian deaths are relatively few, and loss of life that likely will come from continued operation of the factory is huge, then the act may well be proportionately justifiable.)

This last step in the application of the principle, the ‘judgement of proportionality’, may look like the moral system called consequentialism or utilitarianism.  In consequentialism moral choices are decided exclusively by weighing their likely outcomes or consequences in a more or less sophisticated consideration.  Such weighing of likely outcomes is, of course, present in most moral systems.  The pro-life position, however, and the principle of double effect both assume that the direct choice to do evil, both in general and particularly in choosing to kill the innocent as a direct object of will, cannot be justified by any consequence or utility.  Outcomes are important, but some acts are wrong in themselves and cannot be justified by any subsequent results.  We may not murder (that is, directly will to kill innocent) babies in order to save ten other people – or 100 other people or 1000 other people or 1,000,000 other people.  Therefore, the judgement of proportionality only properly is made after the previous steps in the double effect evaluation.  Those prior steps serve to prevent and to exclude evil as a directly willed object or consequence or sought after goal.

To be ‘pro-life’, again, is to believe that it always wrong to will directly to kill the innocent.  What is the alternative?

[1] It is true that in some times and some places capital punishment also has been imposed for lesser offenses than murder, but most people I think now would find such punishments excessive.  The matter of capital punishments for crimes other than murder is an important issue, but is secondary to the main purpose of this article.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s