Test Driving my Thomism

Test Driving my Thomism May 17, 2013

In the debate on lying, one of the strongest objections raised (at least in our culture, though it appears not to have been the strongest one for St. Thomas) is the objection “If you can kill an enemy, why can’t you lie to him?”  I think that’s a very reasonable question.  Here’s what I make of Thomas.

When it comes to actions that harm others, the basic idea of the Church is “Try to limit the harm as much as possible.” So, in war, you don’t *get* to kill, you always kill because you have to and you try your best not to kill.

Just war theory is not a series of hoops you jump through and, if you do so, get a 007 and a hearty, “Kill away, my lad! You’ve earned it by passing all the Just War criteria.” Rather the idea is always that you may have to shoot somebody in order to stop them from harming somebody else, but if this can possibly be avoided, then you have to try to avoid it. Of course, on the battlefield, we are talking about chaos and mayhem as we try to live that out and the Church has nothing but pity for anybody thrust into that.

But for the sake of argument here, the basic principle can be illustrated with a more intimate example:

A thug comes into your store and pulls a gun on you. A customer in the store is packing heat and, unseen to the thug, draws a bead on him from behind the canned vegetables. The customer’s a good shot and has his choice of how he will aim at the guy. He could shoot the gun from his hand. He could fire in the air and tell him to drop it. He could do lots of things. But instead, the customer thinks, “I have always wanted to kill a man just to watch him die and this worthless piece of crap is gonna die.” So he shoots the bandit in the head.

The Church would argue that this was not a “proportional” or “ordinate” use of force. Before the civil law, your customer would undoubtedly be acquitted as “killing in self defense.” But morally, what he did was closer to murder, than self-defense, because it was unnecessary to kill the perp and he shot, not to defend himself, but because he proactively, rather than as a last resort, wanted to take human life.

So the idea is never that you “get” to kill. It is that you “have” to unfortunately kill and that, if you could possibly avoid it, you should.  If we had phasers instead of guns, the Church was say that they had to be set to “stun”.

That’s because always, the emphasis is on reluctance to harm the other, rather than proactive eagerness to harm the other, hiding behind a legal justification for doing so.

Okay. Now here’s where St. Thomas comes in with his weird, counter-intuitive logic. He raises exactly this objection and then answers it here:

Objection 4. Further, one ought to choose the lesser evil in order to avoid the greater: even so a physician cuts off a limb, lest the whole body perish. Yet less harm is done by raising a false opinion in a person’s mind, than by someone slaying or being slain. Therefore a man may lawfully lie, to save another from committing murder, or another from being killed.

Reply to Objection 4. A lie is sinful not only because it injures one’s neighbor, but also on account of its inordinateness, as stated above in this Article. Now it is not allowed to make use of anything inordinate in order to ward off injury or defects from another: as neither is it lawful to steal in order to give an alms, except perhaps in a case of necessity when all things are common. Therefore it is not lawful to tell a lie in order to deliver another from any danger whatever. Nevertheless it is lawful to hide the truth prudently, by keeping it back, as Augustine says (Contra Mend. x).

The key word here is “inordinateness”. Basically, what Thomas is saying is that you can shoot at somebody without necessarily actively trying to kill them. Like the customer in my example, you can reluctantly shoot to only frighten or injure, or you can, in trying to stop them, unintentionally kill them–or you can go full max kill mode despite the fact that it is not necessary. In short, with killing there is, weirdly enough, the possibility that you are not *trying* to kill. So Thomas grants that those who are forced to kill in battle are doing so, not because they want to kill, but because they are merely trying to stop an aggressor. This is why, once the aggressor is stopped by an injury, you don’t “get” to finish him off with a bullet to the brain and are, in fact, obligated to care for his injuries if he is, for instance, taken prisoner.  The intention is not to kill, but to stop him.

But Thomas does not see how you can lie to somebody and not mean to lie to them. So he cannot conceive of how you can be proportional or ordinate in lying as you can in killing. You mean to stop an aggressor, not kill him (though you might, sadly, end up doing so).  But you either mean to lie or you don’t.

Weird, I know. But that is Thomas’ logic, as near as I can make out and, despite the weirdness, I don’t have a good argument against him. (He’s aggravating that way.)

I would be interested to hear from an actual Thomist if I have done justice to Thomas’ argument.  I think I have, but what do I know?

Wait till I get around to trying to articulate Thomas’ speculation that angels are more or less made of whipped air when they appear in bodily form.  Fun stuff!

If you want to follow up, I’d recommend you talk to an actual Thomist.

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