A Question about Means and Ends

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!

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  • capaxdei

    The formula, “the end never justifies the means,” is problematic. It’s true in the sense intended by the Church — evil means do not become good means when done for a good end — but not true in a more general or informal sense; certain means may be evil if done for an evil end but good if done for a good end.

    The narrow sense of “justify,” according to which the formula is true, is “change an evil thing into a good thing.” The broader sense, according to which the formula is false, is “constitute a sufficient reason for something.”

    Things like destruction of property are said to be immoral “absent a just cause” or “absent a grave cause.” A baby at risk of death is a grave cause.

    • Right. Breaking a car window is not *intrinsically* evil, rather it is morally neutral. Breaking it to save a baby is good, breaking it to steal a car (or just vandalize it) is evil.

    • Andy, Bad Person

      The formula, “the end never justifies the means,” is problematic.

      Granted, but it’s understood to be shorthand for “A good end never justifies an evil means.”

    • I have occasionally rephrased it as, “the end determines the means,” insofar as a good end will be contradicted and undermined by evil means, and so will require good or neutral means to be used in achieving it.

      However, I’m afraid that, given a little deliberate misinterpretation, my formula is at least as problematic as “the end does not justify the means.” One could easily interpret it to mean, “the good end makes the means to be good, whether they’re good or bad in themselves.”

      So I offer it as an imperfect possibility, perhaps a way to start brainstorming a better phrase?

  • Caine

    In Ohio, you are specifically allowed to break into a car in that circumstance. It is not illegal.

  • Newp Ort

    Even if breaking the window is an evil act, I think double effect would apply, no? The intent is to save a life, the broken window is an unintended consequence. You know the window will break, but that part isn’t intended so much as unavoidable.

    Of course if a door is unlocked and you smash the window, get to confession!

    • Andy, Bad Person

      What if the window was the only one who knew how to deactivate The Bomb and besides he was guilty anyway because he was a terrorist?

      • Newp Ort

        Ordinarily this would be unethical, as you cannot be sure what the supposed terrorist knows or intends.

        But in the case of the window, it’s motives are transparent.

        • Andy, Bad Person

          Ugh. 6 waterboards for that pun.

          • Newp Ort

            Well excuse me. You asked the question, I was just trying to make things clear.

            • Newp Ort

              And does it cause you such pane to read a few bad puns?

              • Newp Ort

                You’re making the terrorist/bomb scenario too black and white anyway. How can you be so blind to the shades of grey involved?

                • Newp Ort

                  Since I see no further replies, Andy, should I assume you’re closing the curtain on this conversation?

                  • Nate Winchester

                    His sanity was shattered.

                  • Andy, Bad Person

                    I’ve been traveling all day, so I haven’t had a chance to respond sill now.

                    (I’m really bad at puns, which I consider a feature, not a bug.)

                    • Newp Ort

                      I’m partial to puns, but I could see how, on valance, others might feel differently.

    • Scott W.

      You are on the right track, but to quibble pedantically– if breaking a window was an evil act in and of itself, then double-effect would not apply. Double-effect is always off the table when the chosen act is evil in and of itself. But, as Beadgirl says, breaking a window is neutral and the broken window is a bad effect or consequence outweighed by the good effect of saving the baby.

      • HornOrSilk

        Scott, you got double effect wrong. Now if you said, you cannot intend an evil and justify it as double-effect, you would be correct. However, you can have an indirect relationship to an intrinsic evil, as something unintended, and double-effect would be at play. Indeed, this is what double effect is about. A classic example is a pregnant woman having an operation to save her life which leads to the death of the child in her womb: it’s still an abortion, an intrinsic evil, but if the intention was not to kill the child and it was an accident to the intention of a necessary action to save her life, it can be justified.

        • Scott W.

          I don’t think I got double-effect wrong, I merely assumed the actor is directly choosing the act rather than it indirectly happening, which jives with the scenario given. Obviously, if one did not chose an evil act, they are not culpable if it happens.

        • wineinthewater

          You don’t quite have it. The woman who has a surgical procedure that leads to the death of her child is not having an abortion. An abortion is the direct killing of a child. Abortion is an intrinsic evil, but surgery is not. In the hypothetical you give, the surgery is the means, the death is the undesired end that accompanies the intended good end of saving the mother’s life.

          Now, if the abortion were actually the means of saving the mother’s life, not even double effect would justify it. For double effect, the means can never be evil.

          • Newp Ort

            thought experiment:

            ectopic pregnancy
            scenario 1:
            Remove tube where egg implanted. intended effect to remove section of tube that isn’t functioning properly and threatens mothers life, unintended effect killing unborn life
            scenario 2:
            abortifacient drug kills unborn human, as intended, to save mothers life

            either way, result is mother will live, unborn life killed. sc1 would cause surgery, mutilation, rehab. sc2 none of those consequences.

            • wineinthewater

              You also can’t forget the other differences. SC2 treats the child as an obstacle that must be destroyed to ensure the mother’s well-being, and in doing so objectifies the child. And more importantly, SC2 requires the mother to not just take an act that leads to the death of her child, but to actually kill her child.

              Further, though the ectopic pregnancy is the classic example, moral theologians do not agree that this is a licit response. Some argue that simply removing the fallopian tube is not morally differentiable from a direct abortion. However, in the case of an ectopic pregnancy, it is possible to attempt to move the child to the womb. Success rates are low, but successes do exist.

              So, SC3: the mother saves her own life, attempts to save the life of her child, and does not kill her child directly *or* indirectly.

              • Newp Ort

                Thanks for sc3, I didn’t know that was possible.

                What I find puzzling is even if you remove the tube, it’s still the child that is the danger that has to be removed; or it might be more accurate to say the child’s placement. Either action though is taken with full knowledge that the death of the child will result. Either way you will an act that will result in ending a human life.

                To look at it one way, Sc1 seems like knowingly enabling unnecessary dangerous consequences just to try to keep yourself at a moral divide from the inevitable end of ending a human life.

                • wineinthewater

                  This is why there is disagreement from moral theologians.

                  Some say that the child is the danger and removal of the tube is really just removal of the child. If that is true, then the means are evil and it is not a licit course of action.

                  Others say that it is not the child but the rupturing tube that is the danger. Therefore removing the tube is morally distinguishable from removing the child and the means are morally neutral, therefore licit given the right intent.

                  But medical science has made it a moot point. Attempting to move the child to the womb is an option. Since there is an option available where the death of the child is not a certainty, simple removal of the tube is no longer a licit option. Double effect requires that there be no other means that can reasonably avoid the evil effect. Since there are other means available, the theological discussion is purely a matter of hypotheticals and has no practical application.

          • HornOrSilk

            An abortion is the ending of the life of the baby in the womb. It’s life is aborted. This is the objective quality of the abortion, and it is intrinsically evil. Double-effect says that this abortion is not intended, and some secondary good is intended, which is necessary, and the abortion sadly happens with it. This is still an abortion, but it is not an intentional abortion. It is still an evil being done. Again with double effect what people don’t understand is: you can’t directly intend the evil, it is still an evil, what you are after must be a proper good, and last resort. Ectopic pregnancy would be a situation where this happens. It’s still leading to the death of the baby, it’s life is aborted.

            • HornOrSilk

              http://www.catholic.com/quickquestions/whats-the-difference-between-direct-and-indirect-abortion This will point out that JPII used the terms direct vs indirect abortion in EV. This points out what I have said. It is STILL an abortion. As per JPII.

            • wineinthewater

              “An abortion is the ending of the life of the baby in the womb.”
              This is why the Catechism (and JPII’s) phrasing is so valuable. Knowing that people are going to see all pre-natal deaths as abortions, it differentiates between direct and indirect abortions. Technically, only direct abortions are intrinsic evils.

              • HornOrSilk

                You said an abortion is a direct killing. JPII said there is an indirect abortion. You don’t see what is right in front of you.

                • wineinthewater

                  You referred to an indirect abortion as an intrinsic evil in you example above (the woman having a surgery that leads to the death of her child), so I figured you weren’t making the differentiation. An indirect abortion is not an intrinsic evil. (Personally, I don’t think it should be called an abortion at all, sorry if my imprecise word choice caused confusion.)

          • Newp Ort

            And another
            scenario A: incapacitated engineer on runaway train. can switch a track that will derail train in railyard, killing engineer but endangering no one else. Do nothing and train speeds through yard but will derail on tight turn, plunge into building full of people killing engineer and undoubtedly others. ok to derail, right?

            sc B: man driving speeding train that will derail into building as above. No chance to derail but rifle headshot will kill the man and then deadman switch stops train. ok to take shot?

            • wineinthewater

              Apply the Principle of Double Effect.

              Scenario A. Changing a rail setting is a morally neutral act with two effects: one person loses his life and multiple lives are saved. Assuming those are truly the only two choices and saving lives is truly the desired effect (and not killing the engineer), a morally neutral act with a good effect that outweighs the evil effect clearly meets PDE.

              Scenario B. A private individual directly and intentionally and killing a man is an intrinsically evil act. Therefore, no matter the intended effect or whether the good effect outweighs the evil, PDE clearly is not met. An evil act can never be the means in PDE.

              It might be hard. And in our ends-obsessed culture, it might be hard to see the difference. But Catholicism takes issue with our culture when it bases its moral valuation on results alone. The means matter, the intent matters, the ends are only one part of the moral equation.

  • St. Thomas also addresses such situations, describing the virtue called “epikeia” which is usually translated “equity”:

    … since human actions, with which laws are concerned, are … innumerable in their diversity, it was not possible to lay down rules of law that would apply to every single case. Legislators in framing laws attend to what commonly happens: although if the law be applied to certain cases it will frustrate the equality of justice and be injurious to the common good, which the law has in view. Thus the law requires deposits to be restored, because in the majority of cases this is just. Yet it happens sometimes to be injurious–for instance, if a madman were to put his sword in deposit, and demand its delivery while in a state of madness, or if a man were to seek the return of his deposit in order to fight against his country. On these and like cases it is bad to follow the law, and it is good to set aside the letter of the law and to follow the dictates of justice and the common good. This is the object of “epikeia” which we call equity. Therefore it is evident that “epikeia” is a virtue.

    Source: Summa Theologiae II-II q120 a1

    His primary point is that the law is the servant of justice – and normally law is a great support to justice. However, when a human law stands in the way of justice, it is the law that bends.

  • Addressing the dilemma directly: assume that the parents have obliviously missed the millions of news reports on this topic over the last 4 decades, smash the window then call 911 on yourself. Let the investigative officer figure it out.

  • For the reasons many have discussed here, it’s fine to break the window to save the baby. However, where Catholic ethics differ from consequentialism is brought out more clearly in the following example: It is NOT okay to kill one baby to save ten others. You may not employ intrinsically evil means toward any end, no matter how good. In an alternate universe where fetal stem cells were more useful than adult stem cells–or in the present universe, where many are misinformed on the matter–a consequentialist might be eager to kill one unborn child in a quest to cure the ills of several others. But the Church cannot countenance such a thing.

  • Imp the Vladaler

    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

    I don’t see how CCC 2446 says that, but I’m aware that the entirety of the teaching of the Church is not contained within the Catechism, so I’ll take your word for it. But this does raise some questions:

    It’s easy to imagine a starving man stealing a loaf from a bakery when the baker is not looking. But does that man first have an obligation to ask for the bread first, or can he just take it? Can he take the bread by force, or threat of force? If the baker sees that man (about whom he knows nothing) absconding with his bread, may the baker grab him by the arm and wrestle him to the ground? Can he break into the bakery in the middle of the night to take the bread, causing property damage in the process? What if instead of stealing the bread from the baker, he instead decides to hold someone at knifepoint and demand money for bread?

    • Newp Ort

      Ease up man. If you’re straining so much over pinching a loaf you’re gonna give yourself an aneurysm.

    • Justice means giving to each what is due to him/her.

      In a situation where someone is starving, food is due to him/her insofar as food is available. This is what is meant by the Universal Destination of Goods (CCC 2402-2406): the resources of the earth are given to all, and can ultimately be denied to none, because there is no one to whom they do not belong, in a primordial sense. This is the background to CCC 2446.

      The baker is due just recompense and even profit for his labor and expenses, again to the extent that such recompense is available. But the purpose of work is not, primarily, profit (at least, not monetary profit); rather it is the common good.

      Therefore, the starving man is obliged to make his situation clear to the baker, that is, to beg; and the baker is obliged to provide him with sustenance. If the baker, recognizing that the man is starving and that the man has no ability to pay and no other means of gaining food, still refuses to give him any bread, then it is he who has become the thief by withholding the bread that justly belongs to the starving man.

      In this situation, if the man has no other recourse to gain food within the constraints of law and custom, and is indeed starving, he may take bread from the bakery without being guilty of theft.

      However (as in most “hard” cases), this situation is absurdly unlikely, at least in the 21st century U.S. The starving man would, in any situation where there is a bakery available, also have access to many other ways of finding food. He is likely not to actually be starving – that is, in danger of death. And this danger of death or similarly permanent and serious harm is the situation the Church envisions when describing how some priorities of justice overrule others.

      • Newp Ort

        Can’t steal any bread cuz you ain’t starving to death yet, but once you are actually starving to death you’re too weak to pull off bread theft. catch 22 innit?

        • Dying doesn’t mean dead. It just means that there is no foreseeable way to prevent death by starvation other than taking the bread. Which is, as I pointed out, an absurdly improbable situation.

          That said, I’m speaking of moral principles here. In practice, if I were Jean Valjean’s judge, I’d let him off with a warning or a slap-on-the-wrist sentence, and point him toward some place that could use his strength and wit. And have him pay the baker when he had some money to pay with.

  • Imp the Vladaler

    Given that it’s moral to break glass to save the life of a baby in a hot car, is it also moral to break the glass of an abortion clinic in the middle of the night to steal the instruments and chemicals necessary to perform abortions? Or what if no theft is required, and smashing the clinic’s storefront window during the winter would make the clinic too cold to operate? Or what if you cut the electric cables running into the clinic? No people are harmed. No violence against persons is willed. Just some property damage, and humans are saved from death.

    If it’s not moral, then under what principle? That murderers have an inviolable right to the property they use to murder? If it is moral, why aren’t you doing it? “Indeed, the real ‘doing evil that good may come of it’ would be letting the baby die in order to spare the window. “

    • Newp Ort

      In the abortion situation the mother and doctor intend the child’s death.

      The hot car or the window does not intend the child’s death, it’s accidental.

      I don’t know how to connect it to principle, but this is one way the situations are intrinsically different.

      • Imp the Vladaler

        How does the intent of the doctor change the morality of breaking glass to save a life?

        Suppose that in the car scenario, the baby was deliberately left in the car because the parent wanted to kill it, and figured that heatstroke in a car would look more like an accident and less like murder. That wouldn’t change the morality of breaking the glass, would it?

        • Newp Ort

          You see you changed the scenario, right? If they aren’t different, then how come you have to ascribe evil intent in the baby/car situation? They’re different.

          If the situation is accidental, you act to end it and it’s done.

          If someone has evil intent, you might be able to stop one attempt to kill, but the person with intent to murder would have to be policed intensely or imprisoned somehow to eliminate the chance the might try it again. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to stop them, but it is a factor you might need to weigh if you are destroying property to do it.

          And dude I wasn’t even making a moral judgement, just pointing out differences that might need to be taken into account.

          • Imp the Vladaler

            So if we’re dealing with a mother who attempts to kill her infant by locking him in a hot car, we should (pick one):

            (1) break into the car, because destroying property is not intrinsically evil, and you’ll save the child’s life.
            (2) keep walking, because even if you save the child now, his mother will probably kill him eventually.

            • Newp Ort

              Why do you keep changing the hot car scenario? It’s presented as accidental.

              I choose (1). But it’s still very different from abortion clinic.

              murderous mother – there already are things in place that would stop her from endangering the child again – like laws against murder, jails, etc.

              abortion clinic implies legal abortion. you would have to break the law and cause MAJOR property destruction to inhibit ability of person from getting a legal abortion.

              I don’t have a good answer, but I think you are making some tenuous equivalencies here.

    • This is a difficult question, and I’m not sure I have a satisfactory answer. But there are a few differences between the baby in the parking lot and the situation you describe.

      1) The baby is in immediate danger of death. If nothing is done, this baby will die. At the abortion clinic, no child is immediately in danger in the middle of the night; the object is not to save a life but to disable the means of murder.

      2) The baby in the parking lot has no one else who possibly can help. But the entire pro-life movement has been trying, by various means, to protect children and their mothers for years – with growing success on both an institutional and a personal level.

      3) The baby in the parking lot is threatened, not by a legal structure or institution, but by a practical situation which can be immediately resolved. An abortion clinic threatens children, not only immediately and medically, but with legal and institutional structures which protect its ability to kill children; these legal and institutional structures must be addressed for the practical threats to be effectively countered in the long term. And, in fact, pro-life activists are having success in addressing the structural problems.

      There may be more factors, but these are the first to pop into my head. It’s not an answer, but it’s maybe a start toward one.

    • wineinthewater

      There are a couple of fundamental differences. Market didn’t get into the principle of double effect, but that is what justifies breaking the window. The hypothetical man has already run through his alternatives and breaking the window is the only viable option he sees. The action with the double effect must only be pursued after actions with singly good effect have been eliminated. Also, the good effect – saving the baby from immanent harm – far outweighs the evil effect – depriving someone of their (whole) property.

      In the abortion clinic hypothetical, there are many other options besides breaking in and doing destruction that do not have a direct evil effect. The act of destruction is unlikely to save a life, but rather just postpone the death. And finally, the act of destruction is going to be significantly detrimental to the work of eliminating abortions. On-the-fence mothers are much less likely to find the arguments of a movement tainted by violence to be compelling. The hearts and minds work of sidewalk protesters and counselors will be threatened as the act of destruction is used as fodder for silencing them. The “squishy middle” of those who are vaguely pro-life but unwilling to take the plunge will be alienated by a movement tainted by violence.

      So, the good – postponing the death of a child – is outweighed by the logical evil – significant hindrance to the pro-life movement. That is the difference. Acts of pro-life terrorism are unlikely to actually save any individual lives, because the children don’t die at the hands of a single doctor or single clinic but a machine of death. And acts of pro-life violence are a mortal blow to the movement that is trying to dismantle that machine. It does not meet double effect. Thankfully the hypothetical of the child in the car does.

      • Imp the Vladaler

        The act of destruction is unlikely to save a life, but rather just postpone the death.

        Says you. If you don’t like the facts, feel free to change them. Suppose that disabling the clinic’s power would delay the abortion to after a date when it would not be permitted under state law.

        And finally, the act of destruction is going to be significantly
        detrimental to the work of eliminating abortions. On-the-fence mothers are much less likely to find the arguments of a movement tainted by violence to be compelling.

        You keep using that word, “violence.” I do not think it means what you think it means. I’m talking about property damage only. No one gets hurt.

        Look, if you don’t want to get your hands dirty breaking a little glass or cutting a power line – actions that involve no more “violence” than breaking a car window – and would prefer to fight abortion with prayer and fasting, fine. But you’re making distinctions without differences. A law that protects the property rights of abortionists in the tools of murder is an unjust law – they don’t have a right to that property – and thus no law at all.

        • Newp Ort

          Vlad there’s like five different questions in your post, and when people reply and you don’t like the answers all you’re going to say is “says you”?

          And you can see why it’s unlikely but not certain to save a life by temporarily shutting down one abortion clinic, right?

          If it’s moral to steal some of their equipment to save a life (or delay a murder), equipment they could probably replace easily, it’s probably even more moral to blow up the whole (empty of people) building, wreck all their shit not just break a window and steal a few things.

          And sometimes their are other clinics available, better blow them up too. Or use a bulldozer or whatever.

          The same ethical situation as breaking a window to save a baby in a hot car.

        • wineinthewater

          “Suppose that disabling the clinic’s power would delay the abortion to
          after a date when it would not be permitted under state law.”

          OK, the action saves a life, or ten lives or 50 lives. But, the action also galvanizes the opposition, moves portions of the squishy middle toward the opposition, and is used to justify the enacting of legislation that squelches pro-life free speech, especially around clinics. It may not be violence toward a person, but it will still be seen as violence and will lead to the pro-life movement becoming associated with terrorism (because in today’s society, blowing stuff up is what terrorists do).

          The action is just as likely to lead to more abortions because of a loss of pro-life witness around clinics. And it is just as likely to prolong the period that abortion is legal because of the ground the pro-life movement would lose .. just one more year is another million lives. If we are rationally looking at the likely consequences of such an action, it would most likely cost far more lives than it would save. Therefore, it would fail the double-effect test. In this hypothetical, the ends are far more the problem than the means.

          Meanwhile, no other babies are going to die in cars because you broke the window to save the one.

          • Imp the Vladaler

            Meanwhile, no other babies are going to die in cars because you broke the window to save the one.

            You save the baby in the parking lot, and then there’s no news story about the horror of the baby’s death, and other parents aren’t alerted to the danger, and aren’t as vigilant, and more babies die.

            You’re worried about downstream effects. I’m asking if you would break a pane of glass – and do no further damage – to stop an abortion, and your answer is no. You would walk by that window even if you knew that destroying a cheap piece of property would save a human life. Is that correct?

            • wineinthewater

              The hypothetical you offer is all about downstream effects. If a child is saved, it is a downstream effect because *maybe* it creates a situation where that child won’t or can’t be killed .. with a heavy emphasis on the maybe.

              While breaking the window puts an end to the danger to the child in the car, any child at danger from abortion is still in danger even if a particular abortion clinic is broken. Because the danger to those children is not a particular clinic, it is the whole apparatus of abortion and the societal devaluing of human life. Breaking abortion clinics is not going to “break” that danger, it’s just going to make the pro-life movement look like a bunch of dangerous kooks .. hardly a good way to change the heart of a country.

              So your dichotomy is a false one. If breaking an abortion clinic would actually put an end to the danger of abortion, I would do it. But it will not. Breaking that particular piece of glass is no guarantee that an abortion would be prevented. And while it may somewhat decrease the danger of a handful of particular abortions occurring, it will almost certainly increase the the danger of substantially more happening in the future. When faced with that choice, I will not break an abortion clinic, thereby causing more evil than preventing.

    • Breaking into an abortion clinic to impede the slaughter of infants is a morally evil act because it involves theft: an intrinsically evil moral object prohibited by the Decalogue. In this case, stealing isn’t an unintended yet simultaneous result of trying to save lives; it is the means used. Doing so is a consequentialist act that makes the actor guilty of sin.

      • Imp the Vladaler

        If that’s theft, then wresting the gun away from the man who’s pointing it at your child is also theft.

        The idea that murderers have an inviolable property right to the tools by which they commit murder is preposterous. It is not theft to deprive someone of that to which he is not entitled. You may deprive a murderer of those tools.

        • False analogy. Disarming a gunman when murder is imminent falls under double effect. Making off with abortionists’ tools after business hours is consequentialism. There’s also a question of proportionality (which by itself is not enough to judge the moral character of an act, but must be accounted for). A preemptive act of vandalism and theft is likely to scandalize the general public against the pro-life movement.

        • You may deprive the murderer of his tools exactly and only when he is using them – or seeking access to them – to attempt murder. Otherwise, if he is not in media actus, your responsibility is to prevent him from intending the murder at all.

  • Such dilemmas can be resolved by invoking the Principle of Double Effect. Some equate this approach with consequentialism/proportionalism, but a clear difference exists. Consequentialism is using evil means to achieve good ends. The Double Effect Principle helps to guide action in situations where a single act brings about two or more effects, good and evil.
    To apply the Principle of Double Effect, one must examine three aspects of the situation:
    1. The motive must be morally good.
    2. The means employed must be morally sound.
    3. Any concurrent evil effects must be reasonably proportionate to the good achieved and must be secondary in the order of causation (not necessarily in time).
    If all three conditions are met, the act’s moral character is good. If the act fails to meet any one condition, it is morally evil.
    Applying the Principle of Double Effect to the situation Mark’s reader described yields the following result:
    1. the moral object (saving a life) is objectively good.
    2. though destruction of property is involved, Mark shows why breaking a window is not intrinsically evil. The absolute good of life trumps the contingent good of property rights.
    3. the good of saving the baby is the act’s primary object, so it comes first causally. The evil of breaking a window pales in proportion to the good of saving a life.
    Therefore breaking a window in the process of saving an infant is a morally good act involving no guilt of sin.

    • Dave G.

      Actually, the question of whether or not we should break a window in order to save a screaming baby from certain death should never be a dilemma.

      • Newp Ort

        No one is arguing to leave the baby in the car. We are engaging in a discussion of ethics.

    • I don’t think double effect applies, because breaking the window is not evil. It only appears evil because we have, in American culture, elevated personal property to an inviolable and fundamental right. It is not. It is a derivative right based on the Universal Destination of Goods (CCC 1402ff.

      Well, double effect might apply insofar as the glass might strike the baby and scratch her cute little forehead.

      But at the very least, I think the epikeia argument is a much stronger argument.

  • Nate Winchester

    Um… according to Wikipedia consequentalism is:
    “…the class of normative ethical theories holding that the consequences
    of one’s conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the
    rightness of that conduct. Thus, from a consequentialist standpoint, a
    morally right act (or omission) is one that will produce a good outcome,
    or consequence.”

    So from your example, saving a human life – the consequence – makes the action morally right, thus you are a consequentalist.

    Or let’s put it another way:

    The philosophy/law of the Federation in Star Trek consider “interference” to be intrinsically wrong (aka the equivalent of “lying” for many Catholics). Thus ANY action taken which interferes with another species is wrong no matter the outcome. (which someone’s complained about here and here)

    The philosophy of the titular Dr Who, however seems to hold nothing intrinsically wrong save that “everybody lives”. ANYTHING else (even lying) is fair game as long as he saves lives.

    Thus, from here it would seem that Dr Who is the most consequentalist show on television, while Star Trek is the most catholic-like. Yet some seem to praise DW for encouraging this “heresy” and condemn ST.

    Or it could be that when the rubber meets the road, everyone’s a consequentalist, the only difference is the “sorting algorithm” (to use computer geek terms) by which people determine their preferred consequences. Thus the “heresy” wouldn’t be the idea itself (it’s so universal it would make as much sense as calling breathing heresy) but rather that anyone sorts their scale differently.

    So in the end we find only a shell game. It’s not the idea of consequentalism which is “wrong”, only what “means” are illicit or not. Which is why it’s a “quagmire” and will be as long as humans have any variety in their views from individual to individual. At the very least, consequentalism is useful as a sort of “moral universal language” we can use to communicate between vastly different worldviews so… toss out only when prepared to build no bridges.

    • capaxdei

      “So from your example, saving a human life – the consequence – makes the action morally right, thus you are a consequentalist.”

      No, you’re misreading Wikipedia. Where it says, “from a consequentialist standpoint, a morally right act (or omission) is one that will produce a good outcome,or consequence,” it means that, according to consequentialists, an act that will produce a good consequence is morally right.

      Consequentialism holds that it is *only* the consequences that makes an action morally right.

      ‘It’s not the idea of consequentalism which is “wrong”, only what “means” are illicit or not.’

      According to consequentialism, there’s no such thing as illicit means.

      • Nate Winchester

        No, you’re misreading Wikipedia. Where it says, “from a consequentialist standpoint, a morally right act (or omission) is one that will produce a good outcome,or consequence,” it means that, according to consequentialists, an act that will produce a good consequence is morally right.

        Hmm… thank you for the clarification. However, I’m still not getting:

        1) But how is “good consequence” sorted out? (come back to this in a minute)

        2) Which would follow from the car example, right? Or from stealing a loaf of bread. What makes “breaking a window” or “stealing bread” morally right? The consequence of them (in this case, saving a baby’s life and the starving man’s).

        Consequentialism holds that it is *only* the consequences that makes an action morally right.

        I’m trying to think of an example where that wouldn’t be the case and can’t come up with any that leads to the “I was only following orders” result. Such as the old saying, one man pushes a little old lady out of the path of a bus, a second pushes a little old lady into the path of a bus, can we say both are wicked because they pushed little old ladies? (which we all agree is bad) The only feature distinguishing the two identical acts would be their consequences. Likewise the breaking a window to steal a car vs save a baby. Identical acts, the only difference between them being the consequences of both.

        Or can we return to the worlds of ST and DW and draw examples?

        According to consequentialism, there’s no such thing as illicit means.

        Wouldn’t there be so based upon one’s definition of “good consequence”? (as mentioned above) Looking at wikipedia it looks like there’s a lot of variants to consequentialism so it seems that what a “good consequence” is up to the morality of the applicant. In other words, can illicit means ever be defined without resorting to either “I/he/they/we/whoever say so” and/or “it has a consequence i/he/they/we/whoever consider bad”? Or to return to fiction: the federation consider “interference” to be “illicit means”. Can anyone argue against it without invoking just a different set of principles (“interference isn’t a bad thing”) or consequences? (such as genocide)

        • A) I agree that The Doctor follows an outrageously consequentialist, and inconsistent from episode to episode, code of ethics. Star Trek actually does as well, but more subtly because it often pits consequentialism against a rigidly legalistic deontological system, as if these were the only two choices among moral systems.

          B) What the Church means by “illicit means” or “inherently evil acts” is essentially mortal sin. In other words, the Church teaches that no temporal good is worth submitting to eternal damnation to achieve. Or, as Plato (and many others) put it, it is better to suffer evil than to commit evil.

          So, assuming for the sake of argument that interference with a pre-warp culture was inherently evil – an act which, done deliberately, would be rebellion against the order of creation and creation’s God, and for which the fires of Hell would be the bare minimum of just punishment – then yes, it would be better to let everyone on the planet die when the star goes supernova, or when it’s knocked off its orbit, or whatever.

          If Klingons are attacking, however, there’s no problem fighting the Klingons, even though this risks the effects of interference, because the act of interference is not actually committed.

          This is because the central premise of consequentialism, that we can control perfectly the consequences of our actions, is false. We cannot control – or even foresee – our effects perfectly. Therefore, the effects or consequences are a lousy basis to judge morality by. The finis or telos of the act is what makes an act moral, because it is entirely within our control: it is what we do, not what happens as a result of what we do. A subtle distinction, but a critical one.

          • capaxdei

            ‘What the Church means by “illicit means” or “inherently evil acts” is essentially mortal sin.’

            This is an easy mistake to make, but “inherent” doesn’t mean “grave.” Lying is inherently evil, for example, but many lies are not mortal sins.

            • I know that many (even most?) people who lie are not culpable of mortal sin, but is lying not always grave matter?

              Honest question: what is the distinction between inherent evil and grave matter? I’m in the habit of thinking of both these terms as shorthand for “acts contrary to the order of nature, contrary to love, which sunder one’s relationship with God,” and thus convertible with one another.

              • chezami

                St. Thomas say not all lies are mortal sins. I would say that most are not. Lying about stealing from the cookie jar is not the same as lying about stealing $3 billion from Enron.

                • I know that St. Thomas says this. I don’t understand why he says it. The “an it harm none, it’s only a venial sin” doesn’t go very far toward convincing me.

                  But since I’m arguing with St. Thomas, the problem probably is in me, not in him.

              • capaxdei

                I’m taking “inherent evil” to mean “intrinsic evil.” So:

                ‘Reason attests that there are objects of the human act
                which are by their nature “incapable of being ordered” to God,
                because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image.
                These are the acts which, in the Church’s moral tradition, have been termed
                “intrinsically evil” (intrinsece malum): they are such always
                and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite
                apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances.’ — Veritatis Splendor 80

                A given act can be incapable of being ordered to God, without necessarily causing the sundering of one’s relationship with God that is the consequence of a mortal sin.

                On the other hand, an act that in itself is capable of being ordered to God can, depending on the intentions and circumstances, cause the sundering of one’s relationship with God.

                • Agreed: “inherent evil” and “intrinsic evil” are synonyms, at least in this context.

                  Now, as I understand it, for sin to be mortal and sunder our relationship with God, it requires three things: grave matter, full knowledge, and full freedom.

                  Setting the latter two aside for the moment, I have a difficult time understanding how an act that is intrinsically evil could be anything other than grave matter. If I understand what intrinsic evil is, then I understand that it is something opposed to God and to the order of his creation. Is it possible to freely choose such an act without setting oneself in opposition to God, thus sundering the bond of love?

                  I don’t want to hijack the blog, but I would like to continue the discussion. Feel free to contact me privately. Mark has my email.

                  • capaxdei

                    *Every* sin is opposed to God and to the order of his creation. “Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. ” [CCC 1849]

                    That doesn’t mean that every sin destroys charity in the heart of man. “One commits venial sin when, in a less serious matter, he does not observe the standard prescribed by the moral law, or when he disobeys the moral law in a grave matter, but without full knowledge or without complete consent.” [CCC 1862]
                    Not observing the standard prescribed by the moral law is intrinsically evil behavior, yet the Catechism — restating traditional Catholic moral theology — explicitly calls out the possibility of this occurring “in a less serious matter,” such that no mortal sin is committed.

                    • Nate Winchester

                      Interesting. Just wanted to say thanks to capaxdei and Roki for the clarification (especially Roki for the nerdy frame of reference). 😉

                      Star Trek actually does as well, but more subtly because it often pits consequentialism against a rigidly legalistic deontological system, as if these were the only two choices among moral systems.

                      For most people that is how the world appears. I am curious what other ones there might be which could be expressed to individuals, not moral theology nerds. (said with all affection) By chance have you seen sfDebris’ “prime directive” video essay? Seems like something you’d enjoy.

                      This is because the central premise of consequentialism, that we can control perfectly the consequences of our actions, is false. We cannot control – or even foresee – our effects perfectly. Therefore, the effects or consequences are a lousy basis to judge morality by.

                      Ah, see I had not heard this. It was my understanding that we all weighed our decisions based upon probable outcomes & consequences.

                      The finis or telos of the act is what makes an act moral, because it is entirely within our control: it is what we do, not what happens as a result of what we do. A subtle distinction, but a critical one.

                      So, to return to nerdy examples, the Enterprise episode “Dear Doctor”, you would say Archer & Pholox made a moral choice because they thought they were doing right (acting within their telos, avoiding interference), regardless of the resulting genocide?

        • capaxdei

          What makes that particular act of breaking a window a good act is the combination of:

          1) Breaking car windows is not always and everywhere evil; AND
          2) It is being done for a good end.

          Consequentialism denies the need for #1; in fact, it denies that there is such a thing as an act that is always and everywhere evil, because it hold that the *only* thing that determines whether an act is evil or good is the consequences of the act. (That’s what I was getting at by saying it says there’s no such ahing as “illicit means.”)

          You’re right that, at first glance, consequentialist moral reasoning sounds like the way everyone reasons. My guess is that’s because very few acts are always and everywhere evil. Condition #1 is almost always true, so people don’t spend a lot of time wrestling with it in their daily lives, and once #1 is met there’s little that’s necessarily inconsistent between Catholic moral theory and consequentialism in general.

  • Zeke

    That even the most militant atheist would break the car window and save the baby without reservation, while this Christian writer ponders such a needless dilemma is hard to fathom. I can’t imagine any human being even pausing to consider doing otherwise.

    • capaxdei

      It’s hard to fathom that a Christian with an incomplete grasp on a key moral principle would perceive a moral dilemma in circumstances that a militant atheist would not?

    • Newp Ort

      at the risk of feeding the troll…why can’t you imagine that? why is this choice so clear to you?

    • Zeke

      Didn’t mean to come across a trollish, but the impression I got from the reader who asked the question was that presumably there are those who would seriously weigh the “evil” of breaking an easily repaired car window against saving a life, and conclude that Catholic teaching informs them to act in any other way than breaking the window at once. Obviously this is not what the Church teaches in this hypothetical, but it’s no less alarming that someone had to ask for clarification.
      So yes, it is hard to fathom that an atheist (supposedly lacking in morals and only looking out for numero uno) would do the right thing in an instant, while at least one Catholic could have his mind clouded enough by dogma that he would seriously consider that his Church may actually prefer that he resist saving a life for the sake of breaking a car window and fail to do so.

      • Sven2547

        Offensive, stupid, and inaccurate stereotypes about atheists aside, you raise a good point. It should be a common sense decision which any person should be capable of making, yet the confusing and often-counter-intuitive nature of Catholic ethics suddenly makes a simple decision less-simple. Mark’s answer, that “Property rights are not absolute and are always subservient to the legitimate needs of persons” is completely acceptable for the purposes of this specific example, but what happens when the needs of persons are pitted against each-other?

        This is precisely why the abomination of “indirect abortion” is so troubling to me. Let’s look at two ways to address an ectopic pregnancy:

        1) Kill the embryo in a way that causes minimal harm to the woman.
        This is considered a sin of incredible magnitude by the RCC.

        2) Remove the embryo (killing it) in a way that causes permanent damage to the woman’s fertility.
        This is considered morally acceptable by the RCC.

        This absurdity is defended by the “Principle of Double Effect”. The motive (“killing an embryo” versus “removing an embryo”) and the means (an abortion pill versus a surgical procedure) trump the outcome (a dead embryo and a healthy woman versus a dead embryo and a damaged woman).

        If someone’s personal philosophy is that motives and means always trump outcomes, then that’s their call. I hope they are still held responsible for the outcome. If you damage a woman’s fertility, when that outcome was avoidable, you should be held responsible for that injury.

      • Newp Ort

        It’s not a clarification, it’s a discussion of moral philosophy. one way to probe the validity of a proposed ethical principle is to apply it to a situation where the obvious moral choice appears to run contrary to that principle.