A reader writes:
The discussion on the problem of “ends justify the means” reasoning – or “consequentialism” has gotten me reflecting more on this popular philosophical quagmire, and the more I have thought about it, I can’t help but wonder – does a “good end” truly “never justify an illicit means” in 100% of all situations life could throw at us? Is the “ends never justify the means” absolute, according to Catholic teaching, with no exceptions? On the surface, I generally tend to accept “the ends don’t justify the means”. And then, one day during a thought experiment on the matter, a moral predicament crossed my mind, and it goes something like this:
Imagine it is a very hot summer day. You’ve been out running your errands and you pull into the parking lot at Walmart. As you’re stepping out of your car, about to head inside of the store, you hear what sounds uncannily like a baby’s scream coming from the minivan next to you. Startled and disturbed, you peer through the back seat window of the minivan you parked next to, and to your horror, you see that indeed, a little baby girl has been left inside of the minivan all by herself, strapped into her carseat, and the windows of the minivan are rolled up. On this late July day in Dallas, TX the outside temperature is 105 degrees, and the temperature inside of the van, with the windows rolled up is probably close to 130 degrees. The baby’s parents, of course, are nowhere in sight, and you suspect the child has been in the van for at least several minutes; meanwhile, the little girl is roasting inside of a vertible oven, screaming for her life, and if she isn’t attended to immediately and removed from the searing hot interior of that van, she will surely die. Time is of the essence, and you fear that by the time you run inside of the store and try to find the parents, it will be too late. You also think of calling 911, but fear the police or EMTs may not be able to respond fast enough; depending on how far the nearest police station or fire department is from your location, and traffic conditions on the roads, it could potentially take up to 10-15 minutes for emergency responders to arrive on the scene, and in this extreme heat, even five more minutes would likely be too late to save the child. The van, of course, is locked. At this moment, you remember that you have a device in your vehicle’s glove compartment that is capable of shattering a car window; it’s a spring-loaded pin-point pressure gun designed to break your car’s window and allow you to quickly escape from your car if it becomes submerged in water (in such a situation, you’re usually unable to open the door until the vehicle interior completely fills with water, due to the pressure difference of the water surrounding your car and the air inside of your car, so you use this device to shatter the car window for escape); using this device in your present situation would be every bit as much of a life-saver, by allowing you to break into the van and rescue the baby girl from the extreme heat.
The moral dilemma, of course, is that you would be illegally breaking into somebody’s van in order to save the baby’s life. But it appears that there is no legitimate recourse for rescuing the girl either; as noted earlier, seeking out the parents (What if they can’t be found? Or heaven forbid the van was stolen and the girl was kidnapped, and the perpetrator deliberately abandoned the girl in the hot van and left her to die), or calling 911 and waiting for emergency responders to arrive will as likely as not take longer than the child’s body is able to cope with in the extreme heat. Every human instinct in this situation tells me that saving the baby girl’s life, even by illegally breaking into the van, is a pressing objective that is infinitely more preferable to spending precious time trying to track down parents or waiting for 911 responders to show up, when by that point the baby girl will likely have already died of heat stroke. Indeed, I dare say that breaking into the van (provided one had the means to do so) is what 99% of sane, reasonable people, including the most conservative “letter of the law” Catholics I know, would ultimately do in a situation like this. Of course, as we both know, this observation doesn’t decide the morality of the act.
I am seeking an honest Catholic solution to this dilemma, because it’s one of those types of questions that seriously bothers me, and I think you would agree that a scenario like what I’ve described above is hardly beyond the realm of reality. Clearly, the Church teaches that evil means don’t justify good ends. At the same time, the Church is unequivocally clear that the dignity of human life and preserving human life is of paramount importance for us as Christians. If it is wrong, according the Catholic principles, to illegally break into the hot van to save the baby’s life – even provided that such action is realistically the only way of saving the baby’s life – are we then prepared as Catholics to accept and live with the idea that the Church would have us effectively leave the baby girl to die in the hot van while we search about (perhaps fruitlessly) for the child’s parents or wait for the 911 responders to arrive? Is this conclusion truly compatible with the spirit of Christ’s teachings about loving neighbor? What would such a conclusion say about how much priority we as Catholics give to violations against personal property over the Church’s teaching of preserving and caring for human life? On the other hand: If it is not wrong, according to Catholic principles, to illegally break into the van to save the child’s life, then how is such a stance not in conflict with the “good ends don’t justify an evil means” principle? Is it possible that there are different layers of the “good ends don’t justify an evil means” teaching that have to be taken into account, which maybe I’m missing in my analysis of the above scenario?
Thank you for taking the time to read this, and I look forward to your response.
Thanks for your kind words.
In answer to your question: Yes. The Church teaches that you may never do evil that good may come of it:
1789 Some rules apply in every case:
- One may never do evil so that good may result from it;
- the Golden Rule: “Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.”
- charity always proceeds by way of respect for one’s neighbor and his conscience: “Thus sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience . . . you sin against Christ.” Therefore “it is right not to . . . do anything that makes your brother stumble.”
That said, the answer to your dilemma is “Break the window. Get the baby.” Property rights are not absolute and are always subservient to the legitimate needs of persons. Therefore, it is not immoral to do this in the slightest. Indeed, the real “doing evil that good may come of it” would be letting the baby die in order to spare the window. The legitimate needs of persons always take precedence over things. The moment things take precedence over the legitimate needs of persons is the moment that one has chosen evil means and very possibly evil ends. For similar reasons, the Church says that if a starving man takes bread from somebody who has more than he needs, he is not committing an act of theft.
2446 St. John Chrysostom vigorously recalls this: “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.” “The demands of justice must be satisfied first of all; that which is already due in justice is not to be offered as a gift of charity”:
When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.
In short, the window was made for man, not man for the window. Smash it with abandon and save the kid. You will be a hero in the eyes of God and man.
Hope that helps!