Sunday, May 2, 2010

Tiller and Killing in Self-Defense

A little after George Tiller, the infamous late-term abortion doctor, was murdered outside of his church, I had a conversation with a middle-aged Catholic man. It was a similar conversation I’ve had in the past. The man boiled down his reaction to the entire killing the murderer incident in these words: “I would never do that, but I can’t help saying I’m happy it’s been done. I guess I wouldn’t do that because I have a family, wife, and kids; but I’m not sure I see anything wrong with it.” My disappointed reaction was similar to my past reactions to these sorts of arguments: “Come on, now. If you go down that road, you lose the dignity of life that you’re protecting by being pro-life. Your gut-emotional reaction may tell you you’re pleased with Tiller’s murder, but your reason and ethics should tell you otherwise.” I could have added: “And whenever these two aspects of our humanity – the emotional and the rational – disagree in situations such as these, it’s because our humanity is fallen. We should never be pleased with something that is immoral.”

Of course the man responded with the usual “Tiller has given up his right to life,” and “he is guilty, while babies are innocent,” and “you’re actually saving lives by killing him.” I had my preprogrammed rebuttals to each of these arguments – and I stand by them today. However, unlike other times, the topic stayed with me over the next few days. I spent a few hours in sustained thought on the subject about a week after the conversation. I didn’t necessarily reason myself to the other side of the argument; but I did run into some logical problems with any positions other than complete non-violent pacifism. I’m pretty sure there are answers to my problems, so please join in the conversation if you have anything to add.

Let me begin by stating the conclusion I came to: Perhaps there is no real way of condemning the killer of George Tiller except through the idealist’s proclamation of complete non-violence. Related, it seems we run into a lot of other issues like this outside of the clearly and simply defined parameters of complete non-violence. Let me see if I can put in a few paragraphs the general outline of my thoughts.

Murder is different than killing in the sense that murder is not done for the sake of self-defense. I may not be correct in my huge generalization, but I think all moral killing is done for the sake of self-defense. This covers the rather specific instance of you shooting a man that is running at you or your children with a broadsword and/or scimitar, with the intent to kill – as well as the general case of killing within the context of a just war.

Since George Tiller was one of a very limited number of doctors willing to do extremely late-term abortions, killing him has the very real (although I suppose it is only potential) effect of saving lives. Let’s take out societal norms and rules, and apply only the laws we know are eternal and true. Are we not saving innocent lives by killing George Tiller? And if this is wrong, how is this any different than killing in time of war? In fact, most who are killed in times of a just war are probably innocent – a Christian German family man during WWII – while George Tiller is not innocent.

As I look back on the previous two paragraphs that outline my initial thoughts, there is nothing new or complex or inventive in my thoughts. I guess my idea right now is that I don’t see a glaringly convincing response to the simple argument stated above. My secondary response is this:

When we take the ethics that allows us to call certain wars just, it seems we can apply that to other situations that we would normally be against, i.e. this George Tiller situation. For the life of me, I can’t think of another example off the top of my head at the moment. (I did before, though…) I realize this post is ending on somewhat of a weak note, but I ask for those we do see a “glaringly convincing” response to my rather simple argument above to respond to me. Thank you.


  1. Hey, one quick note: self-defense (or "innocent-defense," as I prefer, since it's more accurate) is not permission to kill - at least, not simply. As I see it, innocent-defense is a duty of love (our moral reference point); if this duty NECESSITATES killing, then it may be undertaken, but only as a last resort (i.e. blowing a man's head off when you could just as easily trip him). A small distinction perhaps, but to me important. A just war is not just because it saves lives, but because it is a duty to defend the innocent (thus atrocities are not permitted in time of just war, and the duty to go to war may not necessarily allow its continuation or unconditional victory). Tiller's murder undoubtedly saved lives, but as a fact so could the murder of an innocent person, but outside of utilitarian thinking we do not call such a course of action morally permissible [though some do]. Killing a performer of abortions is not a last resort.
    However, I do not know that this applies if I found my self witness to an abortion; could I permit it to occur when I could stop it? I do not think so - of course, I wouldn't need to kill the abortionist to stop the abortion.

  2. Basil – Your distinction is well noted, and I agree that it is important. However, I’m not sure that it completely answers my initial question. Couldn’t the killing of Tiller be considered innocent-defending? I see very unmistakably how your distinction is imperative, and how it could completely change some circumstances; in fact, without this distinction, killing in the name of self-defense could become a misused term and idea. However, I don’t see how your distinction necessarily affects this situation. Perhaps I’m missing something.

    Also, you say that the murder of an innocent life is never permissible without a utilitarian set of moral ethics. I want to agree with you, but once again War seems to disprove this – or at least Just War. In these circumstances, you very well may be killing innocent men; and we say this could be correct. I guess you could apply the injustice and evilness of the army the innocent man is fighting for and decide he is NOT innocent – i.e. a well-meaning Christian German man in WWII is not innocent in that he is fighting for Nazi Germany, which is most definitely evil – but I’m not sure I buy that. Taken on an individual level, the well-meaning Christian German man is innocent.

    I think this last avenue of thought is what makes me extremely wary of the idea of war. It’s not as if I don’t, on an emotional level, understand its need throughout history. It’s that I see the acceptance of the possibility of a just war as philosophically problematic for me as Catholic. Basil, you said it yourself: we should never condone the killing of an innocent person, even if it’s in the name of saving lives; you call this, and rightfully so, utilitarian. But how is war not like this?

    Perhaps the answering of this last question will lead to answering the Tiller problem. If we don’t approach a real answer via the blogosphere, we should have an in-person conversation over a pint.

  3. Weird. Your comment showed up 3 times.
    1. "Couldn’t the killing of Tiller be considered innocent-defending?"
    hmmm... I'll come back to this.
    2. "War seems to disprove this – or at least Just War. In these circumstances, you very well may be killing innocent men"
    I don't entirely agree with this. Although it's very difficult, I don't think soldiers can join an unjust war and remain "innocent" in the sense important to ethical considerations (He can perhaps remain personally morally innocent through ignorance, but because he is posing an unjustified threat to innocent, he must be stopped). For instance, when we talk about the permissibility of capital punishment, we don't mean that the man is innocent of any crime, but that his innate value means we cannot treat him unjustly. So I think there can be "ius ad bellum" (a just cause for war) but it must be carried out with ius in bellum (just execution of war). I think it gets tricky with extra-military stuff: munitions factories worked by civilians and the like (an arms manufacturer may be far more evil than a Conscript Joe).

    Back to 1. "Innocent-defense" is a very situation-based notion (as in the capital punishment case, innocent basically means "not posing an unjustified threat" [this definition sounds circular, but I don't know how to get around that at the moment]). HOWEVER there doesn't seem to be a clear distinction between the soldier as part of an unjust threat and a abortionist. In which case killing the doctor was perhaps akin to setting an ambush or sniping soldiers outside of a battle per se. And I'm thinking that this bears further investigation as to in which direction the implications go.

  4. I am personally opposed to killing abortionists. However, inasmuch as my personal opposition to this practice is rooted in a sectarian (Catholic) religious belief in the sanctity of human life, I am unwilling to impose it on others who may, as a matter of conscience, take a different view. Of course, I am entirely in favor of policies aimed at removing the root causes of violence against abortionists. Indeed, I would go so far as to support mandatory one-week waiting periods, and even nonjudgmental counseling, for people who are contemplating the choice of killing an abortionist. I believe in policies that reduce the urgent need some people feel to kill abortionists while, at the same time, respecting the rights of conscience of my fellow citizens who believe that the killing of abortionists is sometimes a tragic necessity-not a good, but a lesser evil. In short, I am moderately pro-choice. - Robert P. George

    I pulled that from a symposium First Things did in 94 on killing abortion doctors:

    There are a number of good responses, including those by Anne Scheidler and Cardinal O'Connor.

    RR Reno also had a good response to the Tiller shooting.

    The facts that the mother will still be able to seek an abortion from someone else, that civil society is impossible if vigilante killings are condoned, and that there are means to prevent an abortion doctor from performing abortions short of killing them are the three big points.

  5. Basil –

    Your slick slight of hand – aka, your transference of guilt from the nation to the individual – is exactly what I’m hesitant to accept. It seems like an “easy way out.” More than the logic seeming counterfeit, I feel that many examples existed, and can be conjured up, that contradict your reasoning. You don’t think there was one moral, ethic Christian German, fighting during WWII, who felt completely and morally justified in fighting for his country? If you want to say that an reasonable human should have reasoned to the indecent immorality of Nazi Germany, but let me say two things to that: 1) Let’s take a not-so-smart man – not a mentally handicapped person at all, just someone who is unused to reasoning his way to truth. I think there is distinct possibility (and reality) that this sort of person existed in the 40’s in Germany. 2) If you disagree with #1, how about an American soldier fighting now? Perhaps years later, we’ll see all societies and governments that supported abortion – a genocide in its own way – as immoral. Perhaps we’ll say that an American soldier of the 2000’s should have reasonably arrived at the conclusion that fighting for America was immoral. Even if you don’t think it will come to this, I think there’s something to be said for it, if only to point out that situations, while they are in the present, are much less defined and black-and-white. At the very least, perhaps certain Christian people in the 40’s saw the defects of Nazism in the same light as we see abortion: not everything about the government is right, but that doesn’t mean we should fight to defend it. [The more I think about this, the more I see many other parallels. Americans, I think, see great worth in fighting for America despite its support of abortion since they see America as a beacon of other great values: freedom, democracy, etc. Although 1940’s Germany may not have supported the same values, there were strong sentiments of nationalism. Citizens may have disagreed with certain important points of the government – like we disagree with the horror of abortion – but the nationalism and the goodness of the state may have outweighed the defects of the state – like we see do in America now.]

    PS After I just reread your post, I realize I may not be responding to exactly what you presented. However, I still disagree with the transference of guilt from the nation to the individual. My argumentation above may not have really responded to what you meant by this transference particularly, but I think some of it still applies.

  6. John –

    Well-done satire, my friend. Points well taken. Some of those arguments you mentioned were definitely the ones I was searching for during my original questioning.

    [Let me first admit outright that I didn’t read any of the links you posted. Hopefully I will soon. It’s not as if I don’t see the good in reading the words of brilliant, moral people that have thought deeply on the subject already; instead, I find worth, for myself, in the very act of working out the topics on my own – at least at first.]

    Here are a few thoughts, though, in response to your post:

    1. I understand that seemingly no apparent, tangible good comes killing Tiller. In other words, it doesn’t really defend life, since the mothers that were going to have him perform their abortions will go to someone else.
    a. But wasn’t some of the popularity of this case the idea that Tiller was one of a very small group of people who performed late abortions – and that perhaps people wouldn’t go to other doctors after he was killed? (This isn’t the strongest of rebuttals.)
    b. (Also a not-so strong argument.) Isn’t there a real chance that the publicity of the murder would actual make people reconsider the abortion – and isn’t the saving of one baby worth it?
    c. (Here’s the most abstract of rebuttals, but the one that strikes me the most.) So if the killing an abortionist COULD actually defend life, would that mean it’s OK? Perhaps not, but at the very least, this means that the original argument stated above is only an argument against the efficacy of the murder as a mode of defense, not an argument about the act’s inherent immorality.

    2. Civil society can’t survive if it accepts the morality of vigilantes like this killer.
    a. What I really dislike about this argument (even though I’m not saying it’s definitely flawed) is that is doesn’t find the immorality in the actual act; instead, it doesn’t like the consequences of potentially seeing the act as moral. It’s as if someone says, “I can’t tell you why it’s wrong, but we wouldn’t like a society where it was right.” First off, how civil is a society that already allows the murdering of children? What is it we’re protecting? Second, I feel as if immorality should be inherent in the ACT, not simply in the consequence, especially the long-term consequence. What you may interject is a more moral response that says, “I can’t put the reasoning in words – at least not now – but since the consequences are evil, the act MUST be evil.” I would then conclude that we SHOULD be able to find the immorality in the act in itself, if this is the case.

    All of these thoughts don’t really add up in my mind to believing the murder was moral. Instead, I find myself at a loss as to a good argument that convinces the deepest part of me. Perhaps I should now read others’ arguments.

    PS: Did you see our discussion of war? I’m having more of debate in my mind about this topic right now. Is the war the only place where we condone the possible killing of mass amounts of innocent people? I’m beginning to find the idea morally repugnant. By the way, this isn’t coming from my recent reading of a Gandhi biography. I actually found the book to take a really neat man and brilliant history and bore me to tears. I put it down.

  7. Jonas:
    Your post script perhaps suggests that my clarification here is unneeded, but I do wish to say that, although your example of American soldiers seems to complicate things, your main point about transference of guilt doesn't quite address my point.
    My example of the Death Row Capital Punishment was supposed to emphasize that "guilt" is irrelevant; We are not permitted to kill the guilty. But we are obligated to prevent the unjustified killing of a situationally innocent person (who may be guilty of other crimes). Notice that we are ever focused on defending the innocent - the fact of his situational innocence implies the injustice of the attack, not the guilt or innocence of the attacker. Consider an attacker who's been drugged or hypnotized to kill an innocent person. We would not say the attacker is culpable, for he is acting under coercion; nevertheless, we still need to stop him from harming the innocent. To me the ignorant, well-meaning German soldiers fit this category.
    As far as goes the American soldiers, I believe what we're talking about is just and unjust wars; so in a just war, a soldier is doing something good (or preventing something evil), regardless of the genocide at home. The Nazi/German military aims were not justified, and they were enslaving and ravaging the places they occupied, so it's a different story.
    P.S. with your reply to John, I see your point about the civil society argument not pin-pointing the immorality of the ACT; but isn't that sort of our whole idea of sin (what goes against communion). We look at the end of the path, rather than the single baby-step we're taking, to check the morality of something.

  8. Basil –

    Let me reiterate that my earlier post did not exactly respond to your point. That being said, I'm still not completely satisfied in saying that we can kill “innocent” people, even if they are fighting for an unjust country. I understand your point that “guilt” isn’t of primary importance – defending the innocent is, and that’s why your renaming of the subject is important. But for whatever reason, this whole idea of killing the innocent to defend the innocent feels distasteful in my soul. [Perhaps this is the feeling most pacifists have continually.] My reasons are purely emotional at the moment, so I have little to say. Perhaps I’ll find of way of putting my feelings and ideas into words at a later point in time.

    Quick note to your response to my response to John’s response to my post about Tiller, civil society, and sin: I agree with your point that our analysis of sin usually stems from looking at the consequences of it, i.e. a rotten tree produces rotten fruit. However, I think this is done on a smaller-scale, i.e. one of the consequences of adultery is to take away, on a spiritual and emotional level, from marriage – and this happens on an individual level, i.e. each single act of adultery has this effect. What I find unsettling about the argument John presented is that it argues the immorality of a SINGLE event based on the hypothetical situation of MANY people performing the act. While I think this works for law, as well as a system of civil ethics taking a non-religious or natural law approach – [I’m reminded of Kant and his approach: take the act and see if you would like it if EVERYONE did it] – I don’t like this on a Catholic level. I think we would say that, if there are potentially horrible long-term effects of everyone performing the same action, then one of two things is the case: 1) Either there really IS something individually wrong with each single act, and that is why there are horrible long-term effects; or 2) there is nothing necessarily or inherently wrong with each individual act, but it would be correct to outlaw it for the sake of society. I guess my point was/is that only pointing to the long-term effects of a multiplicity of actions is not arguing their individual immorality – it may hint at its immorality, but it isn’t a definite, nor is it a proof.