Monday, August 1, 2011

Can You Do Evil To Get A Good Result?

Q - I watched a show called "The Confession", and it was about how a hit man comes to confession and unrepentantly confesses some of his sins.

One murder he confesses is about how he goes to a man's house and gives him a gun and says if he kills himself, he will let his family live. However, if he will not kill himself, the hit man will kill him and his family.

I know this situation is hypothetical, however I was curious about what Catholic Church would say is the correct path to choose for someone who knew suicide was gravely wrong. I was thinking that the man would not be held liable for killing himself because of freewill, is that correct? Thanks.

A -
Thanks for the question. Lucky for us both, the Catholic Church gives us tools to answer questions like this. The principles that guide us in complex moral decisions are clear in this situation.

It boils down to this - we can never do something that is evil in order to get a good outcome. Another way of saying it is this - good ends do not justify evil means. In this case the good end would be saving the life of others, but the evil is taking your own life. We can play out the hypothetical situation below.

Here are the two options that the hit man gives the other man, and the moral reasoning why neither are options:

  1. Kill yourself and I will not kill your family.
    --We cannot willfully kill ourselves in any situation. Our lives have an intrinsic value, but are not our own. They belong to God, who alone ought to decide the time of our death.
  2. Don't kill yourself and I will kill you and your family.
    --Here we must understand that if the man chooses not to kill himself (a good decision), then the decision is not his to make if the hit man kills anyone because of that decision.

The moral reasoning of modern man is relativistic and utilitarian. Most modern people would say the Catholic Church is too strict in the principles and needs to try and do something in such situations, because lives are going to be lost. Yet, a Christian can never be the one who decide to kill an innocent person (even themselves), because we must answer for how we lived our lives, not the choices of others and life is not our own to take.

Modern moral thinking says that morality is relative to time, people, situations, etc. and that we must do what is best in that situation to bring us the most happiness via pleasure (with the least amount of pain). This kind of moral reasoning has no anchor, but blows on the wind of human whims. This is the thinking that has brought us abortion, genocide, cloning, etc.

A good intention, the situation surrounding the act, and the relationships that are part of the situation cannot make an evil act a good one. Our first priority is to God and his moral law. This law, at it's core, is to do good and avoid evil.

BTW - based on the way you describe the show, the priest would not be able to absolve the man from his sins, because he is unrepentant.

I hope this helps.

5 comments:

Left-footer said...

In such a situation, I would kill the hit-man with the gun he had given me - legitimate self-defence.

Justin said...

Why be limited by the two options the hit man gives you?

There's lots of possible choices- like shooting him in the knee with the gun he gives you...

stceolfrithtx said...

I'm glad someone asked this, I wondered the same thing when I watched it. The miniseries (microseries?) wasn't that great. Kiefer Sutherland must really like projects with false dilemmas written into them.

BTW Justin, the victim is in no way obligated to aim to shoot nonlethally. (And it is very difficult to aim a shot like that, especially under such circumstances.) We are not a pacifist religion when it comes to justified self-defense. The gunman had his other gun and wasn't standing that far away.

What he was presented with was not a dilemma, but was at least tri-lemma (or other poly-lemma?)

I think a morally satisfying third option would include not putting your own life over the lives of your innocent family and trying to rid the world of the hitman's evil even if he shoots you at the same time. Any wounding of the hitman could potentially lead to his capture.

I think what's unsatisying about that, though, is that the family is still at risk. You might die without incapacitating the hitman. Perhaps what's more important is that you don't let a hitman dictate the laws of morality, even momentarily. God's laws are higher.

SPOILER ALERT
(iirc, the gun was not loaded, the gunman wanted to release him but was testing him to see if he had what it takes to protect his family and avoid being discovered as he flees his old life...or something. A stupid twist, it doesn't matter to this discussion whether the gun was loaded or not)

Mary Elizabeth said...

I agree with Justin. And also, what assurance do you have that the hitman will keep his word? - None whatsoever as far as I can tell - but I have not seen this show or movie or whatever it is. But in any case, something to think about for sure.

Ismael said...

<>>

Weeell......... that depends how you pose the problem.

The problem is posed as a dilemma with TWO choices alone, not multiple.

One could pose it in a different way, if you prefer, to make it more suitable:

suppose the killer captures you and puts you in a machine. On another machine he puts your wife and kids.

Think this as one of those machines in the horror movie 'Saw' (or if you prefer one of those featured in the '60s Batman series if you prefer something more 'campy')

The two machines are connected and your machine has a button.

Now if you push the button the machine you are in will kill you. If you do not push the button within a time limit (1 minute, 1 hour, 1 day...) the other machine will kill your family and your machine will set you free.

Here you cannot 'shoot the killer'. Here you ONLY have to choices.

Now one might of course consider if the killer is telling the truth or not, but suppose that he is.

So Justin and left-footer this is the moral dilemma.
No third option allowed (that's cheating).


Of course in REAL LIFE, there are often 'third options' but sometimes to properly understand the nature of morality one needs to explore these types of dilemmas.

Here we are confronted with two points:

1- Doing what is PROPERLY RIGHT

2- Protecting one's family.

The trouble is: killing yourself is wrong, but allowing your family to die, might be an act of cowardice or selfishness.


In my opinion, one might look at 'killing yourself' as chosing the lesser of two evils.

I disagree in part with the statement:
"Don't kill yourself and I will kill you and your family.
--Here we must understand that if the man chooses not to kill himself (a good decision), then the decision is not his to make if the hit man kills anyone because of that decision"


I think this statement is partially flawed because you have the power to save your family, even if it means your own demise, and allowing evil to happen when we can prevent it, is also wrong.

Now the Gospel tells us that there is no greater love 'than giving your life for your friends' (John 15:13)

Hence it seems reasonable that, sacrificing our own life in order to protect our family or friends or even an unknown innocent life, is the correct thing to do.

I agree with the blogger that:
Yet, a Christian can never be the one who decide to kill an innocent person (even themselves), because we must answer for how we lived our lives, not the choices of others and life is not our own to take.

however I think that in this moral choice charity takes precedence and sacrificing one-self for the benefit of others might be the correct thing to do.

This is hardly "utilitarian" in my opinion, since an utilitarian philosophy would rather opt for saving one's life before the life of my wife and children (since I could always get a new wife and spawn many more children)